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1969 Chevy Camaro COPO Yenko - Solid Gold

Cliff Ernst's Prototype Olympic Gold '69 Yenko Camaro

By Geoff Stunkard, Photography by Geoff Stunkard

Rock crooner Bryan Adams sings about the summer of '69. But what was really going on back then? Vietnam, Woodstock, Chappaquiddick, Apollo 11, and AM radios playing acid rock. If that sounds like turmoil, musclecar fans were at peace because Detroit was busy turning out all sorts of diversions from the pop culture noise. NASCAR-derived specials from Dodge and Ford had you covered. How about upscale? There were Buicks and Oldsmobiles with plush trim galore. On a budget? Plymouth's Road Runner and Pontiac's new Judge were there for you. Then there was something really special that not everybody and their brother knew about. If you could hook up with a knowledgeable Chevrolet dealer for a Camaro or Chevelle built under the special COPO codes, you were hot!

The COPO, or Central Office Production Order, was a group of "insider trading" numbers that allowed dealerships in the know to order special combinations from Chevrolet. Factory-employed product specialists, like the late Vince Piggins, were smart enough to figure that some non-authorized packages could get put together without drawing the attention of the front office or the insurance gurus. One of the best insiders was former sports car racer Don Yenko, whose little dealership in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, had been using COPO codes since the Stinger Corvair days of 1966 to get special stuff built on the assembly line.

After the Stinger program, Yenko had built short runs of 427-inch Camaros for retail sale in both 1967 and 1968. This required a crate-delivered L72 427 to be installed after the car was delivered. Due to the network of dealers that had been established during the Stinger program, Yenko had market access beyond his own environs, so selling the cars was no problem. With demand for muscle growing, Piggins authorized a special COPO code to do the 427-inch installs on the assembly line for 1969.

Yenko was not the only one to take advantage of COPO 9561 during 1969; at least 500 Camaros were built this way. However, the Yenko operation did handle approximately 200 of those cars plus an additional batch of 427-inch Chevelles built that model year, making it the largest COPO supplier by far in 1969. That fact brings us to the car seen here.

Like virtually all Yenko Camaros, this one received a stripe and decor package, but it was the first of only 10 painted in Olympic Gold, the very one that drag racer Ed Hedrick thrashed for an article in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine back in the summer of 1969.

Because it was a prototype, the car features special emblems that did not end up on the regular examples. It is also the only one of the gold cars known to have white graphics, as opposed to the black versions, and the only gold one documented as having been optioned with Atlas wheels by the dealership prior to sale. This car was used as a dealership demo, and was in a solid, hot state of tune when it was pressed into duty as a magazine test car in the early summer.

"At the time, I was driving the Yenko Super Stock race car," recalls Hedrick. "We were in the NHRA points chase, we were at York, and an associate of the Don Yenko organization named Dick Williams, who lived near Pittsburgh, drove the car from the dealership to the track. He also helped arrange to do the test. I don't recall whose idea it was to start with."

Stahl made a batch of spring clamps that were put on the car that day to prevent wheelhop, and had also built some custom-length 6-inch collectors for the already-installed Doug Thorley headers to help with exhaust-cycle cylinder scavenging. Though the stock clutch was retained, a Lakewood blow-proof housing had been installed in the name of safety, and an 8,000-rpm Stewart-Warner tach was mounted inside.

"One of the magazine guys took the car out and made a couple of passes, mashing the throttle and sort of beating on it. I told Dick that the stock clutch on the car was never going to last with that going on, and he got the car back over to our pit area. Otherwise, there might not have been a road test."

The story was recalled in the July 1969 issue of SS&DI as Hedrick drove the car through six passes, cranking off a best of 11.94 with set of slicks, and the headers uncorked. It turned better times than the $7,000-plus ZL-1 version that the magazine had tested months earlier, and they rightfully sang its praises as a less-expensive alternative.

"Personally, I know we were all astonished at the level of performance we got out of that thing, which was basically a streetcar. By the third run, which was on stock tires and mufflers, it was down in the 12s, a 12.59 at 108 mph. The skinny tires were a real problem because you really had to baby the car to get off the line. You couldn't powershift it, either, since Dick had to drive back to Canonsburg, so I had to lift off the gas between shifts. I guess I was pretty good at it, because it went pretty darn quick!"

Eventually, the dealership sold this car in the Pittsburgh region, and though its new owner raced it hard, it was never tubbed nor had the frame subconnected. He had kept all the original pieces he had taken out when he converted it to a race car, and stored them away. In 1987, Cliff Ernst had a chance to become the second owner of the car, which he frankly states had been "raced hard and put away wet."

The first owner wanted to keep the L88 engine that was in the car, but his neighbor had the original L72 engine from this Camaro in his Chevelle. A deal was made and the gold Yenko, plus its original engine and components, were shipped to Tennessee. After treating the car to a body-off restoration the following year, it became a treasured part of his spectacular collection of muscle. Longtime enthusiasts may remember this from the Oct. 1993 issue of Super Chevy.

"I own, or have owned, 21 Yenkos over the years," says Cliff with a trademark grin. "Without question this gold one is my all-time favorite."

Fast forward into the new century. Chuck Huber and Paul Cupp at Musclecar CPRx Restorations in Monoca, Pennsylvania, had already done one of the cars in Cliff's collection, and he knew that the amount of detail and authenticity on modern restorations was greater than ever. So in late 2004, the gold Yenko was on its way back to Pennsylvania for a full makeover.

"When we got it, the car had a nice older restoration on it, but it was not quite up to today's standards," says Huber. "The car itself is numbers-matching, it still has the original interior in it, and the engine, rebuilt in the 1980s, and only has a few miles on it. We did rebuild the transmission, blueprinted the differential, and made sure all the details were correct. We put an N.O.S. gas tank in it, replaced the rear quarters since the lips had been rolled for race-tire clearance, and found all the right date-coded parts for the engine and accessories. We also located a set of N.O.S. Doug Thorley headers like they had used in the road test, a correct Lakewood bellhousing, and a reconditioned the Hurst shifter and linkage."

Like everything Musclecar CPRx does, details like paint and assembly marks were carefully added back to the car. The carb was sent out and recolored to look new, and every tab, paper strip, and notation that would have been on it when it rolled off the assembly line at Norwood during the second week of January 1969 is back on it. The crowning achievement on any Olympic Gold car is good paint, and CPRx had spray gun artist Ken Zekeli do that. Chuck admits that painting the car correctly was tough.

The Forge Invitational Musclecar Show was hosted in Nashville for 2005 (it will be in Chattanooga this year, go to www.detroithorsepower.com/theforge.htm for more info), and Huber and Cupp personally delivered the car to Cliff after 10 months of work. Indeed, the hour that our photos were shot was the first time that Ed Hedrick (who had come out to the Music City for the car's debut), or anyone but the CPRx crew and Cliff himself had seen it.

"I was really pleased with the way it was restored to current high standards," says Cliff. "All the correct date-coded parts are in place, the details are perfect on the components, and the overall parts fitment is very impressive. I am extremely happy with it."

"I had seen Cliff's car with its older restoration earlier," agrees Hedrick, "and I thought it was great then. So, when I saw it this time, I just couldn't believe it; this thing is like a crown jewel. Every seam, every piece of molding, every inch of it is literally perfect. The job that Chuck and Paul did was just unbelievable."

Now complete again, this newest gold standard will continue to shine in the midst of the Ernst collection, and maintain a special place in recalling just what was hot back in the summer of '69...

Tech Specs

Vehicle: 1969 COPO Yenko Camaro
Owner: Cliff Ernst, Nashville, TN
Color: Olympic Gold
Engine: COPO 9561 L72 427" with NOS Doug Thorley headers
Transmission: M21 with dealer-installed Lakewood bellhousing
Differential: 12-bolt Posi-Traction with 4:10 gearing
Interior: Black vinyl with SYC graphics
Wheels: 15x7 Atlas cast mags
Tires: F70x15 Goodyear Wide Tread GT
Dealer options: headers, bellhousing, graphics, tach, wheels, tires
Best ET: 11:94 (by Ed Hedrick, SS&DI 7/69)
Restored by: Musclecar CPRX, Monoca, PA

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By Geoff Stunkard
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