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Un-Fathomable: '69 L89 Camaro

Built to chew up and spit out Fords and Mopars, this L89 Camaro stillgets the tough love it was built for

Patrick Hill Sep 18, 2006
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The massive torque of the L89 would boil the tires with ease. The oneAchilles heel of the L78/89 Camaros was a bad tendency to wheel hopbecause of the massive amount of power the motor produced. Usually thiswas solved with a good set of traction bars to keep the leaf springs from twisitng around.

Too often today, you see high horsepower musclecars wearing diapers.What do I mean? Back in the '60s and '70s, musclecars were built to takepunishment and dish out asphalt assaults to unsuspecting victims on thestreets and drag strips of America. The motors had four-bolt mains,forged internals, and upgraded valvetrains. The trannys were eithertough-as-bricks automatics or rock-crushing four-speeds, and the rearshad big diameter ring gears and beefy axles to put every horsepower ontothe pavement.

Now, more often than not, these same musclecars are treated likefighters with glass jaws, owners afraid to stand on the throttle or pulla good powershift for fear their precious investment might break. Butthere are a few still out there who ride their musclecars hard and putthem away wet when the time's right.

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Recently that time was at New Jersey's Raceway Park. The new Godfatherof Super Chevy, Jim Campisano, called on a group of owners to bringtheir Bow-Tie bruisers out for some drag strip action (see the COPOshootout in our last issue). While the COPO face-off didn't leave uswith the same feeling we get watching chick flicks with our girlfriends,we thanked the drag racing Gods that John Larue had accepted our invite,bringing his all original '69 L89 Camaro out for some fun in the heat.John owns an auto service center in the Garden State and loves to punishhis ponycar thw way it was meant to be.

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The L89 option first appeared in the Camaro in 1968. Basically, it was astock L78 (rated at 375 hp) with aluminum copies of the L78/L72high-performance rectangular port big-block heads. These heads, bothaluminum and cast iron, featured dual valve springs from the factory forhigher revving, and were well known for their excellent flowcharacteristics. The L78s/89s came equipped with high-lift, solid liftercams, heavy duty 3/8-inch diameter pushrods, high rise aluminum intakes,and a Holley R4346 vacuum-secondary carb.

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The L89

The L78 had been rated at 375 horsepower since 1966 due to GM mandate ofhow much horsepower a passenger car could have. This rating wasextremely conservative, since it was the same motor that made 425 HP in1965 without any changes. While the L89 option didn't bring any morehorsepower, it did offer a weight savings of at least 50 pounds. Thealuminum heads were exact copies of the high-performance rectangularport heads that the L78s and L72s came equipped with. With some simplecarb tuning, tubular exhaust headers and a re-curve on the distributor,these cars could be running mid 13s easily. Because of the high-revvingnature of the solid-lifter big-blocks, you couldn't order power steeringor air conditioning with any of these engines.

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The order sheet for the Camaro from F.J. Chevrolet in Whitehouse, N.J.

On the bottom end they had four-bolt mains, forged steel crank and rods,and forged aluminum pistons with an 11:1 compression ratio. The aluminumheads shaved at least 50 pounds off the total weight of the 396. For1969, total Camaro L78 production was 4,889, while only 311 buyerschecked off on the pricey L89 option, which cost $710.95--more thandoubling the price of an L78 at $316.00.

This Camaro was delivered to F.J. Chevrolet in Whitehouse, New Jersey,in the middle of 1969. The original owner specified few options for hisnew car. To start, exterior color Fathom Green with black interior, analuminum-headed 375-horse 396 with the Z27 SS option, G80 posi-traction,U63 radio, M20 four-speed, F41 H.D. suspension, undercoating, and theN34 sport steering wheel. After a cash down payment of $300, the grandtotal for this nightmare-inducing Camaro--$3,409.

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John's best time of the day was a 14.164 at 101.13 mph. This wascomparable to the numbers the L78/L89 cars would run back when they werenew. The number was even more impressive because the car still has thestock GM "Hurst" factory shifter installed. The factory Hurst shifterwas known for difficult shifting and a tendency to keep the driver formfinding the right gear.

In 1984, John saw an ad in the local newspaper, leading him to find anun-restored, near-perfect Camaro hiding in a garage in Whitehouse. Thismeant the car had spent its whole life in that one town. John had wanteda Camaro just like that one, so a deal was struck, and the '69 went homewith its new owner. After buying the car, John most did some thoroughcleaning and detailing. The original Fathom Green paint was in excellentshape and just needed some minor attention to bring back its luster.John suspects the flat-black rear valence (standard with the SS option)might have been touched up at some point. But starting at the paint andgoing all the way down to the lower control arms, this F-body is alloriginal.

And when we say original, we mean original. John's '69 still has thefactory installed "Hurst" shifter! Why's this important? See, back in'69, GM struck a licensing deal with Hurst to put shifters in GM carsfrom the factory. Only catch was these factory shifters were notoriouslyproblematic. Most of the time owners took their new cars home, andwithin a short time replaced the factory shifter with a genuine Hurstunit. So seeing a car with this shifter is pretty unusual.

With less than 30,000 miles on the clock, the L89 is totally unmolested,right down to the factory iron exhaust manifolds and A.I.R. emissionssystem. Another oddity: Since most owners promptly removed thehorsepower robbing smog pump after they brought the car home, oneunusual option on John's car is the M20 wide-ratio four-speed. Usuallymost high-horse cars came equipped with the M21 or fabled M22 rockcrusher tranny to send power to the 12-bolt rear. But the order sheetfor the car shows the M20 option.

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This badge on the front of any '69 Camaro enticed many a would-be racerinto a match of vehicular Russian Roulette. The 396 was available in '69in three horsepower ratings, 325, 350 and 375. With no way to tell fromthe outside, brave challengers could only hope they would be runningagainst one of the Quadrajet equipped, hydraulic cammed big-blocks andnot the solid-lifter equipped L78/L89.

On the drag strip, with the Camaro wearing its original steel wheelswith dog-dish caps and Polyglas tires, John's first pass was a 14.28 at99 mph. Not bad on skinny rubber and a slick track. Next time throughthe Englishtown lights, John clocked a 14.16 at 101.13 (this would endup being his best pass of the day). After that, the car ran a 14.57, a14.18, a 14.55, and on the final pass of the day a 14.21 at 99.6 mph.

Considering the car was on skinny factory-style tires, these were goodnumbers, right on par with how these cars ran back in the day. A littlemore pressure in the Polyglas tires, some distributor advance, carbtuning, and some tubular exhaust headers, and this car would be runningin the mid-13s without breaking a sweat.

Thanks to John Larue for coming out and showing us how a vintagemusclecar should be driven.



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