The 1969 ZL-1 Camaro is among the most desirable Chevrolet performance cars ever built. It combines the one-year-only sheetmetal of the 1969 Camaro with the rare, all-aluminum, 427-cubic-inch ZL-1 big-block that was designed with racing in mind. Only 69 ZL-1 Camaros were built, so when one goes up for sale, it’s an event. When a ’69 ZL-1 sold for $1,094,500, as did this Hugger Orange beauty that just changed hands at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale sale, it’s worth taking a closer look.
First, let’s look at what makes the ZL-1 engine so special. With a rectangular-port, open-chamber aluminum heads, and a forged crank, connecting rods, and pistons, the 427-cubic-inch ZL-1 big-block V-8 has a lot in common with the potent L88 427, but it used a solid-lifter camshaft that had slightly more lift and a bit less duration on the intake that the cam found on the L88. Both were laughably underrated at 430 horsepower. The main difference was the engine block, and that’s a story all its own.
Vince Piggins was the man at Chevrolet in charge of racing performance at a time when Chevrolet wasn’t supposed to be involved in racing at all. In an attempt to alleviate government scrutiny over high-performance production cars, GM had pulled the plug on factory-backed racing in early 1963, leaving Pontiac Super Duty 421s and Corvette Grand Sports in the lurch. Rather than give up completely, Piggins headed up a team that would continue to support high-performance Chevrolet racing engines through other means. Piggins helped develop an aluminum 327 small-block and, eventually, a 427 big-block casting for use in Can-Am, where it was used by McLarens. That Can-Am racing development led to the ZL-1 engines, which were cast by GM at its Tonawanda plant, making them Chevrolet’s first production aluminum block.
While the weight advantage of an aluminum block was a big help in Can-Am, taking about 100 pounds off the nose is also a major improvement in a drag car, and Piggins allowed dealers to order the powerhouse big-block in Camaros via Central Office Production Order. Drag racers noticed. ZL-1 Camaros had a field day in the NHRA’s Super Stock class with the likes of Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, and thus the legend of the COPO Camaro ZL-1 was born.
Being rare, powerful, and beautiful helped this same car sell for $770,000 in 2018 at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale sale. So why the big jump in price just two years later? Collector car dealer and Hagerty marketplace expert Colin Comer told us that this car had sold yet again since that 2018 sale, and that the current owner made an addition that significantly impacted the car’s value—he located the car’s original, numbers-matching engine block and put it back where it belonged. “The location of this block had been known for some time,” Comer explained. “Rumor states it was replaced under warranty when the car was nearly new and had been owned by a former GM warranty administrator since that time. It supposedly had powered a ski boat and had also held other less glamorous positions since 1971 or so.”
While the engine’s location was no mystery, it had never been scooped up because, as Comer noted, “no previous owners cared to cough up the reported $100,000 it took to purchase it from this former GM employee that it ‘followed home’ decades ago.” Keep in mind that not only were ZL-1 engines built to race, but owners actually did put them to the test on the dragstrip; we’re not talking about Buick GNXs that lived in a bubble.
The proper engine would place this Camaro into a different category. When the block was reunited with ZL-1 #59, it took an already great car and elevated it into the elite fraternity of original 1969 ZL1s that have their original engines. Comer was at the auction to bid on behalf of a friend who was interested in buying the Camaro. “I stood next to another friend who declared I’d have to fight him for the car because he was going to pay more. But neither one of us could even get a bid in! The bids quickly exceeded $800,000 between an internet bidder and somebody in the room. The internet bidder won out, and the result is a new record price for a ZL-1 at auction.”
The now-former record sale was back in 2005, when ZL-1 #18 changed hands for $840,000; but that same car failed to sell at $600,000 in 2016. Many seasoned collectors thought #59 would sell for much less, but its condition and specifications added up to make it one of the best available. “When a car has the right options—in this case color, chambered exhaust, and four-speed—and is in exceptional condition with known provenance and factory documentation, a world record result can result,” Comer added.
We’ll have to wait and see what this means for the rest of the ZL-1 market and whether it will persuade more owners to offer them for sale in an attempt to cash in. Until then, this 1969 ZL-1 remains the only Camaro to sell at auction for seven figures.
Like this article? Check out Hagerty Insider, our e-magazine devoted to tracking trends in the collector car market.