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1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Protype - The First Shot Fired

This ’69 was the progenitor of all the SYC-badged ’69 Camaros to follow.

Patrick Hill May 1, 2011
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Yenko. In all the golden age of muscle cars, that one word/name creates more excitement, intrigue, and interest. Out of his father's dealership in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, Don Yenko managed to start what is arguably the greatest, and best year in the muscle car era.

Sucp 1105 01 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype Front View 2/32

While Fred Gibb was putting together the deal with Vince Piggins and Pete Estes to bring the all aluminum 427 powered ZL-1 Camaro (known as COPO 9560), Yenko was working with Piggins to create COPO 9561, factory built L-72 powered Camaros. Yenko had been transplanting the L-72 into Camaros at the Canonsburg dealership since the car came out in '67. Yenko would order L78 powered cars, then swap in the L72 engine, add special Yenko badges, different wheels, and other items to make the cars into something special.

But the process was time consuming and expensive. If the factory handled the install of the engine and other necessary/related components, all Yenko would have to do is badge the car, add special accessories, and he'd have a new Yenko Super Camaro (SYC) ready for any eager buyer to purchase.

Sucp 1105 28 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype Syc Stich 3/32

It didn't take much convincing to get the Chevrolet performance gurus on board, and using the Central Office Production Order system to bypass a lot of the GM internal red tape (remember, at the time, GM edict was no engine over 400 HP could be installed in a passenger car, the Corvette excluded) to get the 425 HP 427 (considered by many to be underrated by the factory) in between the fenders of Chevrolet's pony car.

And with that, COPO 9561 was born.

Aside from the L72, COPO 9561 also included the ZL2 special ducted hood, V01 heavy duty radiator, and heavy duty "BE" coded 12-bolt rear with 4.10 gears. Engine blocks were either coded MO (TH400) or MN (M-21/M-22) for which transmission they were built with. While the ZL-1 9560 option came in with a whopping $4160.50 option price, the iron block 9561 option was $489.75, a little over a tenth of the 9560 price.

Sucp 1105 20 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype 427 Engine 4/32

Once the order code was created, Yenko negotiated to purchase the first 100 9560 option equipped cars produced (it was believed that all COPO Camaros were built in Norwood, but recently a body broadcast sheet has come to light for a 427 car built at Van Nuys). In addition to the 427 option, Yenko also ordered all of his Camaros with the COPO 9737 option. This consisted of the 140 mph speedometer, one-inch front sway bar, and 15-inch wheels/tires, either standard steel or rally design. All of Yenko's Camaros were ordered with the 15-inch rally wheels from the factory, with the five-spoke Atlas wheels being installed at the dealership if a customer wanted them, along with Doug Thorley headers.

After Yenko received the first 100 cars built, the doors were opened for other dealers like Berger, Baldwin, and Fred Gibb to order their own 9561 equipped Camaros. Final production numbers show 1,015 L72 Camaros being built, 193 TH400 equipped and 822 four-speed equipped cars.

Sucp 1105 27 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype Green Gauges 5/32

Our feature car, owned by John Miller, was one of the first COPOs built. The date code shows the car being assembled during the fourth week of November when the first preproduction/pilot/prototype cars would have been rolling off the assembly line after being ordered by the Central Production Office in September/October of 1968.

The car's history becomes a little vague in this period, as no one is sure what happened with the car between the time it rolled off the Norwood assembly line and ended up with Yenko. What is known for sure is that there is no record of an MSO anywhere in the various tracking systems, which means it was never sold to a dealership. The first time the car shows up in any database as being titled was in 1993, when the previous owner registered it in Tennessee. The best anyone can figure, the car was "loaned" from sales or engineering (no doubt at Piggins' request or order) to Yenko so the special SYC stripes, badging, interior parts, and other accessories could be designed by Yenko.

Sucp 1105 26 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype Stock Interior 6/32

After being used for design work, the car remained with Yenko apparently as a demonstrator for customers at the Canonsburg dealership, and Yenko's dealer network. During this period, Don himself is said to have taken the car to Tennessee, presumably to show off to his dealers in Memphis (Union Chevrolet) and Nashville (E.B. Smith Chevrolet). During this trip, with Yenko rumored to have been behind the wheel, the car was wrecked, taking a hard hit to the passenger side A-pillar and rear of the front fender. The impact also kinked the front subframe.

The car would languish and rot away until discovered by Jimmy Owens, a racetrack owner in Hartsville, Tennessee, who recognized the markings and purchased the Camaro to restore. This was around 1992, before the muscle car craze and Barrett-Jackson auction mania would descend upon the hobby like a hurricane. The car's odometer showed 49,000 miles.

Sucp 1105 23 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype Holley Carb 19/32

In 1993, Owens titled the car in Tennessee, which current owner John Miller has a copy of. On the title it says "Camaro SYC" pointing to its Yenko heritage. For those who've forgotten or might be unaware, there were no reproduction badges, stickers, nothing that someone could get to make a "fake" Yenko at this time.

In 2004, Owens needed money to make some improvements at his racetrack. Using the car as collateral, the bank gave him a loan for 200,000 dollars, since by this time the Yenko's value was much higher, with the potential restoration, than what Owens originally paid for it.

Sucp 1105 24 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype Doug Thorley Headers 20/32

Fate decided to play an ugly part, with Owens passing away not too long after taking out the loan. In the end, the bank ended up repossessing the car, which was in pieces, along with other parts and things from Owens' garage.

At this point, John Miller enters the story. Miller had known about the car, and knew it was going to be auctioned off by the bank to cover the loan debt. Hot footing it to Hartsville, he discovered the car was in pieces, and those various pieces were in different lots of the auction.

Sucp 1105 17 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype Yenko SC Graphics 21/32

Because other bidders also wanted the car, Miller played smart, and bought the key lots that had the most important/Yenko specific pieces of the car that made it valuable. Once the other bidders couldn't get the good stuff, purchasing the rest of the parts through the auction was easy.

Once he had everything together, John contacted Jim Barber at Classic Automotive Restoration Specialists (CARS) about restoring the wrecked Camaro, and verifying that it was indeed a Yenko. Initially Barber was able to verify the car was indeed an original COPO 9561 car, and the engine and trans matched the body's VIN tag. But the early build date on the car was throwing off the verification of whether it was a real Yenko, along with the lack of an "X code" on the car's body data plate.

Sucp 1105 18 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype Side View 22/32

After more exhaustive research by Barber that covered six months, VIN searches, title investigation, and discussions with Yenko enthusiasts and experts, it was finally confirmed that the Camaro in John Miller's possession was indeed the first '69 Yenko Camaro ever built, and one of the very first L72 Camaros assembled at Norwood.

From January 2009 to April 2010, the crew at CARS worked to restore what was probably the Holy Grail of Yenko Camaros. The original subframe, badly pinched in the accident, had to be pitched and a replacement found. Thanks to Classic Industries and Mark Vogt, obtaining replacement Yenko specific pieces for the car's restoration was a snap. The original Stewart Warner "green line" gauges were sent out for restoration (new reproductions are available, but CARS wanted to save the originals for extra value and authenticity), and the numbers matching 427 and M-21 trans were treated to full, factory spec rebuilds. The BE code 12-bolt also received its fair share of attention, along with the rest of the car's mechanicals.

Outside, the body was fully repaired/restored, and resprayed in Hugger Orange, and a new black vinyl top installed before fresh Yenko SYC white stripes were applied, and Yenko badges reinstalled.

Overall, Yenko ordered at least 201 cars for conversion into SYC Camaros. We say at least because of the photo in John Hooper's book "The Camaro Reference Book from A to Z" which shows Don Yenko himself in front of an SYC car at Colonial Chevrolet, with a sign behind him proclaiming "350th Yenko Built."

Adding to the conjecture about how many '69 Yenko Camaros built was the VIN list published a few years ago. The list, confirmed by Yenko experts, shows 179 different VIN numbers. This leaves 22 VINs/cars unknown, if the accepted total production number of Camaros is 201. Another wrinkle, Jack Douglass Chevrolet in Hinsdale, Illinois, started building Yenko Camaros with Yenko's permission. After some legal discussions, Douglass Chevy worked a deal with Yenko to be an official dealer. No one seems to know where the Jack Douglass' cars fit into the mix, how many were built, and if they're true Yenkos.

Sucp 1105 30 O 1969 Chevy Yenko Camaro Prototype Yenko Ad 32/32

Known Yenko VIN Numbers

576444 578308 578703 578713 578743 578752
578804 578812 578835 578842 578856 578860
578866 578878 578884 578923 578989 579281
579306 579385 579401 579432 579434 579452
579462 579474 579482 579518 579562 579568
579570 579576 579586 579647 579653 579729
579776 579779 579783 579785 579789 587026
587056 613347 613759 613784 613853 613929
613935 614033 614047 614075 614163 614328
614347 614415 614479 614557 614579 614594
614648 614732 614804 614847 614866 614880
614906 614924 614992 614997 614999 615012
615016 615020 615034 615043 615046 615058
615068 615076 615079 615126 615142 615166
615204 615219 615226 615272 615275 615286
615292 615299 615313 615331 615336 615338
615352 615356 615358 615366 615382 615396
615433 615446 615452 615454 615497 615498
615516 615554 615612 615618 615646 615664
615667 615694 615704 615708 615794 615798
615842 615844 615866 615894 615904 615916
615931 615934 615954 615970 616006 616047
616062 616082 616096 616108 616119 616126
616132 616148 616184 616186 616267 616294
616323 616346 616374 616388 616412 616414
616431 616477 616494 616508 616608 616609
616665 616702 616724 616783 616814 616828
616904 616929 663482 663664 663794 663819
664077 664141 668616 668839 677104 677111
677285 677385 677396

While some of this particular Yenko Camaro's history remains out in limbo, the important facts proving its authenticity have been verified that it was indeed the first, the progenitor, of what is probably the most popular and well know series of dealer super cars in Chevrolet history.



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