Chevrolet's Central Office Production Order (COPO) system was originally designed to enable short assembly-line production runs with equipment or paint schemes not normally available to the general public. Think police cars, taxicabs, that sort of thing. But it wasn't long after the dawn of the muscle car that enterprising Chevrolet dealers like Fred Gibb, Bill Thomas, and Don Yenko used the COPO system to build factory hot rods, stuffing big-inch motors into lightweight platforms like the Nova, Camaro, and Chevelle.
COPO cars were typically ordered to race. And race cars usually don't live long lives. They're either hacked up in search of higher speeds, wrecked in that same search, or suffer a combination of the two. That's why finding a real COPO car these days, like Grady Burch's Burnished Brown 1969 Camaro, is a big deal.
Back when these factory race cars were new, not many people outside of dealership employees had any idea what COPO meant, or that it even existed. As Cliff Craver, the Camaro's fourth owner, tells us, "At the time I bought it, which would have been 1975, I didn't know it was a COPO. Never thought it would have come from the factory like that. We just always thought it was a plain-Jane car, maybe a six-cylinder, that somebody had put a big motor in."
Regardless of its genesis, Cliff was excited at the prospect of owning the car. "It was a heck of a car, always fast, no matter what engine was in it. My friends and I knew about the car when we were growing up. Everybody knew about the brown Camaro."
That's because the Camaro spent the first 44 years of its life in central Pennsylvania. Dick Patterson, a salesman at Williams Chevrolet in Lebanon, special-ordered the car for its first owner, Ned Smith, who raced it "up and down the East Coast," says Cliff. "He trailered the car; it never saw many street miles."
The second owner, Eli Dobrinoff, also drag-raced the Camaro, almost exclusively at York US30 Dragway. It didn't see much street duty until coming into the hands of its third owner, Dick Barcellona, who lived in Harrisburg.
When Dick bought the car it was without an engine. Cliff says Dobrinoff blew up the original 427 ("a picture window in the block" is how he described it) and put a 454 in it to race, but that motor was out when he sold it. Dick replaced it with an over-the-counter L88 crate engine from Sutliff Chevrolet in Harrisburg.
"Dick mostly drove it around town, cruised in it, and kept it in a garage. Never put many miles on it," Cliff says.
He met Dick through a mutual friend, Jim Gelenser. When Dick decided it was time to part with the Camaro, he offered it to Jim first for $2,000. "But Jim didn't want that big motor, so he suggested selling it to me," Cliff recalls. "I jumped at the chance. It was a fast car and I wanted to own it." He paid Dick $2,500.
Cliff bracket-raced the Camaro throughout 1976. "I'd race Saturday nights at York, then Sundays at South Mountain, in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, about 15 to 20 miles away." His best time was 11.71 at 117 mph.
Near the end of 1976 the Camaro lost Reverse, so Cliff took the car to Winters Transmission in York, where he was told he should not bother to fix the trans but get a full competition transmission instead. "I assumed they'd use a different case," Cliff says. "At the time I didn't know what a CX transmission was. I just knew it was a Turbo 400." He says that was the "best $275 I spent back then. The transmission worked great. It was a reverse valve body with a manual shift. It would chirp the tires going into Second, and sometimes even into Third when the road was right."
But the racing, even brackets at local tracks, was hard for him to afford on his mechanic's wages. So he decided to put the Camaro on the street. "I had a really good race record on the street," he says, "but after I 'grew up' I just maintained it as best I could. I did the cruise thing in Harrisburg, took it to car shows. I'd drive it just on weekends and keep it in the garage."
That's how Cliff would use the Camaro for the next 37 years.
In fact, he might own the Camaro still were he and his wife Diane (who helped Cliff with the car's upkeep) still in Pennsylvania. But when their son took a job in Washington State, Cliff retired early and the couple followed him west. He wanted the Camaro to stay in central Pennsylvania, though.
The Camaro's fifth owner, Skip Lecates, was from York and was already friends with Cliff, Jim, and Dick through local cruises. He knew all about the car, even knew Eli Dobrinoff, the second owner. "It was a logical thing for me to sell it to him," says Cliff. "I could not figure out what it was worth without the original drivetrain, but he made me an offer and I was happy. It was a heck of a lot more than what I paid for it."
Skip bought the car in early 2013, and took it to the GM Nationals in Carlisle that June, parking it in the Solid Lifter Showroom. That's where it caught the eye of Grady Burch.
"I looked at it for almost a day while sitting with the car I brought, and the more I looked at it the more I liked it," Grady says. "It really started to impress me with its originality and zero corrosion. The only problem was I was told it didn't have its original drivetrain."
Grady talked up the car with his buddy, restorer Mike Angelo, "who thought I was nuts," Grady says. "I think his exact words were, 'It's a brown turd. Why would you want that?'"
But want it he did. Skip told him it was available, so Grady worked a deal. He owned a 31,000-mile, 396/375hp 1969 Nova, "all original drivetrain, mostly original paint, almost all the original paperwork, and an Ammon R. Smith car to boot." Grady wanted to trade the Nova for the Camaro, but Skip wasn't interested in the Nova. As the two talked, Grady mentioned that the Nova's original owner, Chick Renn, had shown an interest in the car. Skip knew Chick, knew he was at the show, called him, and shortly thereafter "we worked out a deal between the three of us that left all happy," Grady says.
After the Carlisle show ended, Grady took the Camaro to Brian Henderson and Joe Swezey at the Super Car Workshop to inspect it on a lift. Knowing the car had race history he was concerned that there was damage underneath, but was pleasantly surprised to find very little bent metal. Even the rear fender lips, which had been rolled to clear slicks years ago, had been bent back into shape by Cliff.
While the car was in the air, Swezey, looking closely at the transmission, spotted the factory's CX tag on the case. Closer inspection revealed the Camaro's VIN stamped on the transmission flange. "That made the trade even better," recalls Grady. All those years ago Winters Transmission put new guts in the Camaro's original case, unbeknownst to Cliff Craver.
Since the car eyeballed so well, Grady's original plan was to put the car on a rotisserie, repair what little floor pan damage there was, and let it go at that. But he and Mike realized more than half of the car had been repainted over the years, "much of it was flaking off, and it was too dark," says Grady. They decided to completely restore the car (Inside the Award-Winning Restoration of a Day-Two 1969 COPO Camaro).
The restoration was just the start. A photo of the Camaro, taken while Cliff was racing at York in 1976, inspired Grady to delve deep in his stash of day-two parts to return the car to competition trim. Gary says, "I have been collecting parts forever. A lot of it comes from eBay, believe it or not. When I see something I want I go after it, whether I need it right away or might need it down the road."
Just 11 months after Mike began the restoration, the brown Camaro debuted at the 2016 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals. Six months later Grady brought it to the Solid Lifter Showroom in Carlisle, where Dick Patterson, who had originally ordered the car, plus owners four through six, posed for a photo.
"Grady and Mike did a remarkable job on the car," says Cliff. "It looks basically like when I had it, except it's all one color brown! There were things touched up when I owned it, so it's nice to see it freshly painted. I was real happy to see the car again."
At a Glance
1969 COPO Camaro
Owned by: Grady Burch
Restored by: Mike Angelo; owner; Joe Zeoli, A-1 Automotive Machine Shop, Greensburg, PA
Engine: 489ci/600hp (est.) 1969 L88 V-8
Transmission: TH400 3-speed automatic
Rearend: BE-code 12-bolt with 4.10 gears and Posi
Interior: Black vinyl bucket seat
Wheels: 15x6 front, 15x8.5 rear Torq-Thrust
Tires: F70-15 Goodyear Speedway reproduction front, 10.00-15 Penneys Foremost A F/X slicks rear
Special parts: Numerous N.O.S. and date-code-correct restoration and day two components; original interior; original CX-code transmission case
Racing in 1976
We could not have found a better location to photograph Grady's Camaro than the all-new Dragway 42 in West Salem, Ohio. How is a 60-year-old dragstrip "all new"? Ron Matcham, himself a drag racer, spearheaded a multiyear renovation of the facility that literally rebuilt it from the ground up—including changing the direction of the strip from south-north to north-south. The first 750 feet of the track is concrete, the rest is asphalt. In addition to bleachers at the start line (which came from Daytona International Speedway), Ron had grassy berms built on both sides of the track for casual "amphitheater" seating and clear views of the entire quarter-mile. We want to thank the folks at Dragway 42 for their hospitality, and we invite MCR readers to check out this beautiful new facility. Learn more at dragway42.com.
Photography by Richard Prince, Cliff Craver, Grady Burch