1969 Chevy Camaro ZL1 - Frozen In Time

An Original-Owner ZL-1 Camaro That's A Rolling Example Of Drag Racing's Past

Barry Kluczyk Apr 1, 2004 0 Comment(s)
Sucp_0404_11_z 1969_chevy_camaro_zl1 Racing_wheels 2/9

From its '70s-style graphics, Cragar racing wheels, and Stahl tachometer on the dash, this Hugger Orange '69 Camaro ZL-1 is all original-including the owner.

Ken Barnhart bought the super-rare super car in April 1969 and has been behind the wheel ever since. Number 16 of just 69 Camaros built with an all-aluminum version of Chevy's 427ci big-block, Barnhart's ZL-1 is one of the original 50 ordered and sold through Fred Gibb's Illinois Chevy dealership. (A handful of other dealers heard about the special package and ordered a few, too, pushing the final production to 69 units.)

"I heard about the ZL-1, but couldn't find one," says Barnhart. "The local dealers didn't know anything about them and I was about to buy a 396 car and build my own ZL-1, but then I saw Fred Gibb's ad in a racing magazine and called the dealership. They still had several to choose from, so I was able to pick the color I wanted."

Barnhart selected a Hugger Orange Camaro with a black interior and Muncie 4-speed transmission. He trailered the car back to his Elgin, Illinois, home with a single intent: Super Stock competition.

Sucp_0404_04_z 1969_chevy_camaro_zl1 Rear_view 3/9

No stranger to the quarter-mile, Barnhart had been racing since the '50s. He almost won the 1959 Nationals at Detroit Dragway, but his none-too-featherweight '39 Cadillac was edged by a fleeter Studebaker. He took the G/Stock trophy at Indy in 1961, however, in a quick '55 Chevy. The ZL-1 brought him back from a short retirement.

Curiously, as soon as the Camaro was in Barnhart's garage, the original aluminum 427 was removed. It was replaced with the duplicate, over-the-counter ZL-1 engine that is still found under the hood today. Except for an old-school Edelbrock Torker intake manifold and replacement 850-cfm carb, the engine is faithful to the original ZL-1.

But, why did Barnhart yank the original big-block?

"I don't really know," he says. "It certainly wasn't because we thought it would be valuable someday."

Sucp_0404_03_z 1969_chevy_camaro_zl1 Engine 4/9

Being the car's one and only owner, Barnhart still has the original zero-mile ZL-1 aluminum engine.

"Well, there are a couple of miles on it," he chuckles. "I think the odometer read 1.7 miles when we pulled the engine."

As for the overall mileage accumulation of this quarter-mile-at-a-time Camaro, it's unknown.

"We never hooked up the speedometer after putting in the replacement engine," says Barnhart. "It's been like that for 33 years."

More than 3 decades' worth of hard launches have affected the odometer, however. It has been shaken and jolted enough to currently read 9.3 miles.

The non-functional odometer seems appropriate for a car that, from outward appearances, seems frozen in time. The graphics and lettering that adorn the Camaro's bodywork were done in 1969 and haven't been touched since. The only paintwork that's been applied to the car's flanks occurred when the rear fender openings were slightly stretched to accommodate larger rubber.

Sucp_0404_05_z 1969_chevy_camaro_zl1 Gauge 5/9

"We just touched up the paint after the fenders were opened up," says Barnhart. "Overall, the car has never been painted."

In fact, not much has been done to the car in last 20 years-the last time Barnhart actively competed with it. The Cragar racing wheels are vintage '70s pieces, while other components, such as the underhood cool can, were installed in 1969 as Barnhart prepped the car for the track.

One of the more interesting items is a mechanical tachometer built by Stahl, a company better known for headers. It's been mounted on the Camaro's dash since 1969.

Sucp_0404_09_z 1969_chevy_camaro_zl1 Interior 6/9

"It's all been very reliable for us," Barnhart says. "Besides a bunch of transmissions and gear sets, not much has ever changed with the car; even the engine hasn't been torn down."

Barnhart's reliable and potent combination made his Camaro the scourge of Super Stock racing for a couple of years. He captured the SS/B title at Indy in 1970, and was runner-up at the Nationals in 1971. It was a Hemi-powered Mopar that took the trophy in 1971, and it proved to be a turning point for the class.

"A rules change brought the Hemis back into the class and everything changed after that," says Barnhart. "Most of the time, we were the only non-Hemi car in the class, but we beat more than our fair share of 'em."

Barnhart slogged it out in Super Stock through the mid-'70s-recording a best e.t. of 9.92 at 134 mph-when three blown transmissions and other personal tribulations changed his priorities. The car had just received its narrowed Dana rearend (as it maintains today, along with 5.38 gears), but Barnhart took a break from driving. By the time he decided to return to active racing, the rules had changed yet again.

"We just weren't in a position to change the car to meet the newest Super Stock requirements," Barnhart says. "So, we just went bracket racing instead."

And after a few years of that pastime, the Camaro became a less frequent visitor to the staging lanes. Now, the car is a virtual time machine, providing a glimpse of the style, engineering and equipment that epitomized grassroots, heads-up racing in the '70s.

The narrowed rear, for example, wasn't "back-halved"-it was constructed by cutting the factory framerails and moving them inboard. The rear axle is held up with a pair of leaf springs, and simple ladder bars help plant the rearend, too.

Other 33-year-old touches include a clutch pedal pad that was riveted to the pedal, "so it would never slip off," says the owner. Barnhart also describes the car's ignition system as a "hodgepodge of stuff we had lying around," but it has worked faithfully for the past 3 decades.

The rest of the car is original, including things like the front brakes, the radiator and even the upholstery. Those who track these rare musclecars speculate that Barnhart may be the only original owner of a ZL-1 Camaro to still possess his car-and he doesn't intend to change that status anytime soon.

Barnhart has not only campaigned his Camaro for 33 years, he's been the proprietor of a gas station located on the same Elgin, Illinois, corner since 1959. This is a man not affected by time or change.

Lucky for vintage drag racing fans, the same can be said of his rare and wonderful ZL-1 Camaro.

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Ken Barnhart bought the super-rare super car in April 1969 and has been behind the wheel of his '69 Camaro ZL1 ever since, but ...
Barry Kluczyk Apr 1, 2004

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