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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Known Yenko VIN Numbers
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.