Nothing is more highly regarded by Chevrolet purists than the 1969 ZL-1 427 all-aluminum big-block engine that appeared briefly in the Camaro and Corvette. This engine is considered by many as the Holy Grail of all Chevrolet engines from the muscle-car era. Stumbling upon one of these engines in any form is a very thrilling and rewarding experience.
In an unbelievable discovery, an NOS (New Old Stock) version of the bare engine block was discovered while answering a Craigslist ad for Chevelle parts. It was found inside the original plywood crate, exactly how it was purchased from Chevrolet and stored in a small garage closet in rural middle Tennessee in the early 1970s. Even the plywood crate was still in mint condition and still bearing the original Chevrolet Heavy-Duty Parts 3952318 ink stamp.
The Winters Foundry, based in Canton, Ohio, and known for its trademark "snowflake" logo, handled the casting of every ZL-1 engine for Chevrolet during its initial production run. The ZL-1 blocks intended for production cars had all the provisions drilled for a fuel pump and starter, and used the 3946053 and 3946052 casting numbers. It is estimated that only 300 of these blocks were cast for Chevrolet by the Winters Foundry from approximately mid-1968 through1974. The approximately 229 remaining were produced for Chevrolet until the mid-1970s and were sold over the counter at various Chevrolet dealer's parts departments.
In mid-1968, the ZL-1 engine was intended for Can-Am road racing, not for production vehicles. But the forward thinking of a Illinois-based Chevrolet dealer named Fred Gibb leveraged the COPO (Central Office Production Order) system to convince Chevrolet to produce fifty 1969 Camaros with the ZL-1 engine. Gibb intended the ZL-1 powered Camaros for NHRA Super Stock drag racing competition because the all-aluminum engine was roughly 100 pounds lighter than a standard iron big-block.
Gibb understood that a minimum of 50 units must be produced to be legal in NHRA competition. The ZL-1 engine was very exotic in 1969 and nearly doubled the price of the Camaro. This made them very hard to sell and Fred Gibb Chevrolet eventually had to send back 37 units. Chevrolet redistributed the 37 units to various Chevrolet dealers throughout the country.
Chevrolet's approval to assemble 50 units for Fred Gibb Chevrolet opened the door for other dealers to use the COPO system to order ZL-1 powered 1969 Camaros. A total of 19 units were ordered by various other dealers with the ZL-1 powerplant. This brought total production of the 1969 ZL-1 COPO Camaro to 69 units and two 1969 Corvettes.
In the 1990s, General Motors released a rebirth of the ZL-1 engine block under part number 12370850. These blocks were cast using the original tooling and casting number of 3946053, and featured some improvements compared to the first ZL-1s. These improvements included splayed billet-steel main caps, a lifter-valley modified to accept Gen-VI roller lifters, and O-ringed screw-in freeze plugs. The new ZL-1 engine block weighed a paltry 110 pounds, but was still 12 pounds heavier than the original version.
Chevrolet's ZL-1 moniker has been synonymous with high-performance Camaros since its debut in 1969. Chevrolet reintroduced the new ZL1 (less the hyphen) high-performance variant with the fifth-generation Camaro in 2012. Unlike its drag racing single-purposed predecessor, the reintroduced ZL1 Camaro was a multi-threat muscle car; equipped to perform on the road course and the dragstrip. The sixth-generation Camaro ZL1 was introduced in late 2016 with a supercharged, 640hp engine and a host of driver-controlled technologies that place it on par with the world's most exotic sport coupes. Today, the legendary status and mythology of the 1969 ZL-1 makes it one of the most valuable of all Detroit supercars from the muscle-car era. These Camaros exceed $500K and approach the seven-figure mark at auction.
Could this ZL-1 engine block be the last one in its original Chevrolet packaging? What is the value of this super-rare, iconic piece of Chevrolet racing history? We'll let you decide.