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."
Meanwhile, back in Tennessee, what do you do with a garage full of horsepower that is accelerating in value? All the cars are rebuilt to factory specs ("hook up the battery, turn the key, and it'll run"), and all are very capable of being driven. The collection still gets most of its exercise indoors; once a quarter-or about four times a year-every car goes into the shop area that is attached to the showroom, gets strapped down to the dyno rollers, and turns a few miles without moving out into the sunshine (or the rain, or truck traffic, etc.). Everything is well-lubricated, and any mechanical needs are addressed. This work is done by operations manager, Dave Cron, and his assistant, Troy Cummins.
"These cars are more than just museum pieces. I want them to be fully functional," says Cliff. "While the collection may not be getting much bigger at this time, vehicle quality is becoming more important in today's market. The goal I currently have for my cars is to improve the quality. Some of that improvement would be considered major, like the full frame-off restoration that was recently done on my gold Camaro. I was so pleased with the way that car turned out that we are going to focus more on upgrading other cars in the collection."
That Olympic Gold car, which was the prototype and dealer demonstrator used in the July 1969 Super Stock magazine road test with Ed Hedrick driving, is one of only 10 built in that color. Chuck Huber and Paul Cupp of CPRx Restorations in Monaca, Pennsylvania, performed a flawless restoration on the car.
"The cars that are really done well look great," Cliff continues, "and they ought to be around for decades, perhaps centuries to come. I just don't believe in the term 'over-restored'; I really don't think you can make a restored car 'too nice.' That being said, a museum level of restoration does make the car impractical to drive, which is an unfortunate side of it. I have some cars that I will improve to the highest levels, and others that will be kept as drivers, completely redone but not to the level of my gold car. Since I have multiple cars, I have the benefit of both worlds-drivers and show cars.
"Being basically satisfied with the collection, my focus sometimes changes, but not a lot. For example, I would still like to have a '55 Chevy if one turns up in the right condition and at the right price. I currently have a '56 and '57, so the '55 would be a good addition. I would also like to find a nice '67 Chevelle Super Sport convertible one of these days. It doesn't need to be numbers-matching, because I would make it into a fun driver with a 427/435-horse Corvette engine in it. I've seen a couple of these at car shows, and I think it would have been a great combination if Chevrolet could have offered it."
Though the prices of the cars may have made them out of reach for many buyers, Cliff ends with some sage advice for those who want to follow his footsteps toward the top of the musclecar pyramid.
"Buy what you like and keep it; that's what I did. I didn't begin with some grand plan; I just thought the '69 Camaro was one of the best-looking musclecars ever built. I like them all-the Z28s, the COPOs, the convertibles, and I was very fortunate to get into Yenko collecting when it was still somewhat affordable. I know it would be very difficult to start from scratch now. I've always been a car guy, and I am glad that I am able to own the cars in this collection."
A Tribute to "Mr. Chevrolet"
The name Dick Harrell is synonymous with Chevrolet drag racing history. Harrell spearheaded numerous projects back in the day, including the first of Don Yenko's Camaro conversions in 1967, development on the ZL1 factory experimental engine for drag racing, dealer Fred Gibb's decision to offer the ZL1 for sale in a production car, the 427 Nova package cars, and more. He was fatally injured while funny car racing in 1971.
In 2005, almost 35 years later, his daughter Valerie, together with her friend Dale Pulde, her mother Elaine, and supercar locator Tim Lopata, invited everyone associated with the original racing team to be part of the Third Annual Forge Musclecar Show, which Lopata organizes and promotes. With the event being hosted at the Opryland Convention Center in Nashville, Cliff Ernst graciously opened up his showroom on Saturday evening for a special tribute party attended by collectors and team members from across America. Despite a legal battle between the surviving Harrell family and a group of collectors, the group came together for a night of enjoyment, highlighted by some old racing footage Tim Lopata had found and personalized awards presented by the family.
At this event, the announcement was made that when the Fourth Annual Forge Show is held (it will be in Chattanooga October 19-20), there will be a new event devoted solely to Chevrolet factory and dealership modified musclecars, as well. Known as "Supercar Fest," and organized by noted collector Gary Holub and COPO expert Ed Cunneen, the 60-plus-vehicle event is already almost sold out. Literally a two-day-only museum, it will be open to the public for a small admission fee. See you there.