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Yenko Camaro Car Collection - Return to the Temple of Zoom

Where Chevy Muscle Really Lives

By Geoff Stunkard, Photography by Geoff Stunkard

It was over a dozen years ago that the fearless members of Super Chevy's editorial staff made an expedition to the nether regions of middle Tennessee in search of an amazing Yenko collection. Housed in a gorgeous showroom, this "hall of horsepower" featured perhaps the world's largest-ever assemblage of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-originated horsepower, as well as other very nice high-quality iron from both Chevrolet and other manufacturers. We called this mechanical mecca the "Temple of Zoom," and longtime readers got a firsthand look at the discovery in our Oct. 1993 issue.

Assembled by Nashville-area businessman Cliff Ernst, the collection has gone through some changes in recent years. But Cliff remains passionate about his cars and their authenticity more than ever. He opened his collection during the Third Annual Forge Musclecar Show to the show's participants, plus a special team assembled to honor the late Dick Harrell. Soon afterward, we had a chance to sit down and talk with Cliff about Yenkos, musclecar prices, and the focus of his efforts since the story first ran.

At the time of the original article, Cliff had accumulated 18 '69 Yenko Camaros. His stated plan had been to own and display one of each color and driveline combination made that year under the SYC banner. The cars came in only six colors, and the 10 Olympic Gold examples built that year were all four-speed equipped. While attempting to reach his goal, Cliff had acquired extra cars in several Yenko colors, as he believed some could be required to make a trade for a missing combination. His plan has changed somewhat in the ensuing decade.

"When the magazine was here last, I was missing only the LeMans Blue/automatic in my quest for a complete set of '69 Yenkos Camaros. Before I located that version, I began to question if I really wanted that many similar cars. I also had several people actively trying to buy some of them, so I decided to adjust my focus to be open to some other vehicles, even other makes. I subsequently sold some of my 'over-abundant' Yenkos. Although I abandoned my earlier goal, I did keep one of each color, plus a couple of 'duplicates.' Looking back, from an investment standpoint, I probably should have kept them all, but it's good that some other enthusiasts have had the opportunity to enjoy owning a real Yenko."

Today, Cliff's open-room museum plays host to many of the Yenkos that Cliff held onto, as well as an eclectic mix of other cars, including a few prewar classics (ever heard of a '30 Ruxton?) and Harley Earle-styled 1950s-era cars. Indeed, a few non-Chevrolets have crept in, but it is still Bow-Tie country for the most part. A series of streetlights now grace the centerpiece Yenko/COPO/Camaro pace car collection, and Cliff has also added some colorful, rare early gasoline pumps and service station island displays from throughout the 20th Century for dcor. Collecting musclecars is hot again, and since Cliff, who was an early part of the first movement to preserve the supercar heritage and has seen it all, we got his thoughts on the present marketplace.

"Right now, the market is surprisingly strong for the right cars and seems to be continuing in a growth mode. I typically use three basic rules when selecting a car. I prefer to purchase those that are: (a) visually appealing, (b) have some rare, desirable features, and (c) come with strong documentation. I never violate rule 'a'-if I don't enjoy looking at it, I don't want it. The keyword in rule 'b' is 'desirable.' As an example, a column shift may be rarer than a floor shift, but most musclecar enthusiasts feel it is not as desirable. I think cars that meet all three rules will continue to increase in value.

"There [is] a growing number of baby boomers out there who now have the discretionary income to buy the cars they wanted in their youth, and they are actively involved in what the current car market is doing. Some analysts are reporting that the values on '55-'57 Chevys are near their peak, because those who desired them in their youth have reached an age where their interest in car collecting is diminishing. If their theory is correct, then the musclecars from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s should have another 10 to 15 years before they approach their maximum values."

Where would Cliff be hedging his bets for the present trend?

"I think that the ZL-1 Camaro, with its all-aluminum 427 engine, hits it out of the park on all of the three basic rules for collecting, and will continue to be a leader. The '69 Camaros are so popular anyway, especially the Z/28s and the Yenkos, but the ZL-1 is the rarest and the easiest to authenticate. Thanks to the great work done by noted COPO historian Ed Cunneen, the pedigree on every ZL-1 is a matter of record. He has researched all 69 of these monsters, and all of the important details are available, including color, transmission type, interior color, spoiler optioning, etc. In my opinion, the ZL1 is the package that will go to the top of the hill for Chevrolet collectors for decades. In the next tier, my expectation for the Yenkos is obvious."

One car now present in the collection looks somewhat like the race car that Ed Hedrick drove for the Yenko team back in the COPO heyday. It brought up the issue of clones, one of the hottest topics in today's collectors market. "As for clones, what do I think of them? First, the obvious point is, they're everywhere: Hemis, '67/435-horse Vettes, Yenkos, etc. Perhaps I'm not a fan of Yenko clones because I'm fortunate to have the real thing. So trying to look at it more objectively, I really would like to have a nice Hemi 'Cuda, but I feel they are too expensive, and I won't even consider a clone. If I were into diamonds, I would rather have a 1/4-carot real diamond than a 5-carot imitation. My point is, why not have a nice real SS or Z28 instead of a fake Yenko?"

The clone issue is a big one in today's collectors market, and opinions vary widely about their impact on the marketplace for rare Chevy iron. Cliff recounts an episode during the Woodward Dream Cruise a few years ago that sums up both the challenge and benefits of having the real thing.

"The first question everybody asks when you have a Yenko out in public is 'Is it real?' We had the orange Yenko up on the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise, where you spend hours in 'stop-and-go' traffic, with thousands of people standing along the edge of the road. We must have been asked 200 times if the car was real. The neat part was that when you told them it was a documented real Yenko, they really got interested in the car. It's awesome to own the real McCoy."

By Geoff Stunkard
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