COPO has become synonymous with monster displacement.
Rare find allows Michigan man to ‘build’ 1969 COPO 9567 ZL-1 Camaro
Al Wallace’s fascination with the legendary 1969 Chevrolet COPO 9560 ZL-1 Camaro led to the discovery of something even rarer than the car itself – one of 17 crated 9560 engines that were jettisoned after GM scrapped the project.
So, armed with actual GM specs and a head full of knowledge, the Michigan native used the all-aluminum engine – one of only seven configured for automatic transmission – to recreate an even-harder-to-find 1969 Chevrolet COPO 9567 ZL-1 Camaro prototype.
“Most people don’t really know what to make of it,” he said. “They know it’s a Camaro, but it isn’t like anything they’ve ever seen. Once they hear the story, they’re even more intrigued.”
Wallace spent years researching COPO ZL-1 Camaros, reading everything he could get his hands on, writing to anyone who might have information and interviewing those with personal knowledge of the project. ZL-1 refers to the car’s all-aluminum 427-cubic-inch Big Block engine, and COPO was an acronym for GM’s seldom-used Central Office Production Order process, which would ultimately play a critical role in the production of one version of the COPO Camaro, the 9560.
“Most Camaro fans have heard of the infamous, bare-bones COPO 9560 ZL-1 Camaro, which was a true factory race car,” Wallace said. “But few have heard of the 9567, which Chevrolet very nearly produced.”
According to Wallace, who was able to secure GM documents that he said “never should have seen the light of day,” Chevrolet executives intended for the 9567 – also known as the ZL-1 Special Camaro – to “completely dominate the street.”
“Fred wanted to race a ZL-1 Camaro in the Super Stock class, but according to NHRA/AHRA rules, in order to qualify the car the factory had to produce a minimum of 50 and make them available to the public,” Wallace said. “So, Fred and Vince came up with an idea to use the Central Office Production Order process – which was normally used for special runs like fleet vehicles and taxis – to build factory race cars.”
Wallace said Gibb and Piggins generally agreed upon every aspect of the ZL-1 Camaro except its appearance. Gibb believed it should be a bare-bones race car. Piggins thought it should be more appealing to the public, with special striping and badging. “That’s where the story of the ZL-1 Camaro became two stories – the bare-bones COPO 9560 ZL-1 Camaro and the COPO 9567 ZL-1 Special Camaro,” Wallace said.
COPO vehicles were built by following an Engineering Exception Control List, a cookbook of sorts that told assembly workers what vehicle to start with, and then, with approval from engineering, which components to delete and add. Wallace said the COPO 9560 and 9567 Camaros started out as L78 (396/375 horsepower) SS cars with power front disc brakes and either a four-speed (M21 or M22) or HD Turbo 400 (M40) three-speed automatic. In addition to swapping the drivetrain for the all-aluminum Big Block 427 ZL-1 engine (not to be confused with Don Yenko’s 9561 Iron Block 427), some heavy duty parts were added like a heat-treated 12-bolt rear-end. To allow the cars to breathe easier, they were fitted with ZL2 Cowl Induction hoods, and to keep them running cool, they were equipped with HD Harrison four-core radiators.
Gibbs’ 9560s followed those specs, but Piggins’ COPO 9567 ZL-1 Special Camaros were to be painted Tuxedo Black with Special Gold Striping and given a street detuned version of the ZL-1 engine with an 11:1 compression ratio, instead of 12:1 like the COPO 9560. Piggins and his design staff hand-built two prototypes to show executives – one a four-speed, the other an automatic. Wallace obtained a pricing sheet that suggests “GM was seriously considering producing 100 of these cars,” but the 9567 would require additional lead time for art work and badging, plus more engines needed to be built.
Meanwhile, Gibbs’ version moved forward. He ordered 50 cars with the “factory installed” 9560 ZL-1 engine for his dealership. After the first two cars were delivered, other dealers caught wind of the high-powered Camaros and wanted in. So an additional 19 were produced – 69 in all. But they didn’t sell.
“The problem was, the sticker price was astronomical,” Wallace said. “Instead of spreading the (research and development) cost across the entire fleet, GM passed it on to the car itself.”
Wallace said each 1969 COPO 9560 ZL-1 Camaro carried an MSP of $7,269 – nearly triple the $2,726 base price for a V-8 Camaro. Cost of the ZL-1 9560 engine alone was nearly $4,200.
“(Gibbs) knew that it would be difficult to sell the cars at that price, so he had GM re-invoice 37 of his 50 cars to other dealerships and had his name removed from the paperwork to avoid finance charges,” Wallace said.
The public’s reaction to the 9560’s price tag likely killed Piggins’ 9567, since the proposed price tag for the COPO 9567 ZL-1 Special Camaro was an even-steeper $8,581.60 for the four-speed version and $8,676.60 for the three-speed automatic.
Wallace said he doesn’t know what happened to Piggins’ two 9567 prototypes, but he suspects that GM has them stashed away. Realizing he’d never own one – maybe never even see one – Wallace began to dream about building a replica. But he had to find an engine first; without one, nothing else mattered. Wallace said a total of 90 aluminum ZL-1 engines were built in 1969; 69 were installed in COPO 9560 cars (47 manual, 22 automatic), two in the COPO 9567 cars and two in 1969 Corvettes. That left 17 crate engines (12 manual, seven automatic).
“Finding an actual ZL-1 engine was tough,” he said. “I’d been tracking parts for nine years before I came upon this one. I’d call on one and they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, we can get you one.’ And I’d say, ‘No, you either have one or you don’t.’ I finally found one that belonged to a racing-eccentric guy in Florida. He showed me documentation that looked legit, and I was able to verify that it was a good engine.”
Wallace already owned a solid 1969 Camaro SS that he had purchased less than two years before he found the ZL-1 engine, and he had the Engineering Exception Control List and a 1-to-1 document that allowed him to recreate the badging and stripes intended for the 9567. The recreation/restoration took less than two years, and the car made its debut in 1996.
“I try to be modest about it, but I couldn’t be more proud of it,” Wallace said. “I’ve taken it to a lot of cruises and shows. I had to make some hard decisions when I was putting it together. I didn’t want to cut any corners, but I made three exceptions: the drive shaft is made of aluminum matrix, which is 10 times stronger than steel and about one-third of the weight; I love tunes when I drive, so I have an AM-FM cassette radio in it (but I kept the factory original AM radio); and I switched from B.F. Goodrich tires to Kumho high-speed tires after I had a blowout.”
The 48-year-old Wallace, an IT project manager who formally worked on advanced weapons systems for the U.S. Air Force, has owned a number of classics. Right now he has two – the COPO and a ’69 Pontiac Grand Prix that he’s nearly finished restoring – and he doesn’t plan to part with either muscle car.
“I’m looking for a 2½-car cemetery plot,” he said. “I’m going to take them with me when I go.”
Hagerty’s employees also just recently finished a full restoration of a 1969 Camaro SS. To find out more about the restoration process or where the Camaro is now please visit our Comeback Camaro page.