There are many legendary automobiles that live up to the mythology that has been created by those who were there “back in the day.” Take for instance the 1969 ZL1 Camaro. For starters, not many will argue that this once-unplanned model is the most saught after of all Camaros. Sure, there were other big-block Camaros available, but this one was special.
The aluminum engine under the hood was actually the creation of Chevrolet product manager Vince Piggins, and was developed for the Can Am racing series in a collaborative effort involving Jim Hall and his Chaparral team. This lightweight engine used all aluminum parts save for critical moving items like the crankshaft, connecting rods, pushrods, and camshaft.
At the time, it was the most extreme engine Chevrolet had ever built, and weighed just slightly more than a cast-iron small-block. Although the factory rated it at a paltry 430 horsepower, it is accepted knowledge that this sleeping giant actually delivered closer to 550 of those horses. But, if the engine was destined for Can Am racing, how did it end up under the hood of a street legal Camaro?
ZL1, Meet F-Body
After looking at it, I knew I had to have it. – Mark Hassett
Savvy dealership owner Fred Gibb was well versed in using the COPO process to produce rare musclecars. Gibb Chevrolet was the go-to dealership for those wanting a high-performance Chevrolet, and Chevrolet racer Dick Harrell was tuning cars at Gibb’s shop for several years. Harrell knew about the ZL1 engine, and ultimately encouraged Gibb to submit COPO order number 9560 to put the engine in a Camaro.
Biting Off More Than He Could Chew
Gibb reached out to Vince Piggins in the summer of 1968. Piggins was the person that could approve or deny the order, and Piggins told Gibb, that in order for the request to be approved, he needed to order at least 50 cars. As history shows, the agreement was made. When the first two cars arrived at Gibb Chevrolet, neither of them would start because of the cold Illinois, weather. But that was not as much of a surprise as was the $7,200 sticker price for each car.
Even though all 50 of the ZL1 Camaros eventually arrived at Gibb Chevrolet, the exorbitant sticker price resulted in only 13 of them being sold from the dealership. By adding the ZL1 engine to the Camaro, Gibb also added $4,160 to the price of the car. This financial upgrade raised the sticker price of these cars to as much as a new Corvette.
Not surprisingly, Gibb Chevrolet was unable to sell the remaining 37 cars, and he struck a deal with Chevy corporate, and they were eventually returned to the Norwood assembly plant. Chevrolet did finally find homes for the remaining 37 cars, and that is where this Fathom Green example comes into the picture.
Becoming An Orphan
This car was one of the 37 cars that Gibb Chevrolet no longer wanted, and was returned to Chevrolet. From there, it ended up at Sutliff Chevrolet in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Much like when it was in Gibb’s possession, the sticker price meant that the car was nearly impossible to sell. On one occassion, the Sutliff folks even coerced Bruce Larsen to take it to the track and stretch its legs, hoping that having the car run at the track would secure a buyer.
Alas, it didn’t work. Eventually, the dealership added a rear decklid spoiler and a set of Rallye wheels, and in February of 1971, it finally found a new home. Not much information is available from that period in the car’s life, but it is known that the second owner was a man by the name of Rusty Symmes.
We came across the car while taking in the sights at the GM Nationals in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and current owner Mark Hassett told us, “Rusty was the gentleman that actually restored the car.” Since the car had never seen the racetrack – other than the few Larson passes – it never had a rollbar installed, the interior gutted, or the engine overly modified. Because of that, and the fact that it never had a lick of rust, means the restoration was somewhat simple – relatively speaking. That was way back in 1985.
This fabled, tire-shredding piece of history then sat in Mr. Symmes’ collection until 1998, when Mark realized his dream of owning a ZL1. Mark smiled as he told us, “I had just recently bought a ’69 Yenko Camaro, and was attending the second Yenko reunion. At one point during the weekend, I heard two guys talking about a ZL1 Camaro that was for sale, and they mentioned the owner’s name was Rusty Symmes.”
It took some time to track down Mr. Symmes, but after Mark had, he made arrangements to go look at this rare monster. Mark reported, “When I got home from the reunion, I made some phone calls and eventually tracked him down. After I called him, Phil Boris and myself made the trip to his place to check out the car. After looking at it, I knew I had to have it.”
Sacrifices Had To Be Made
But buying a car of this caliber takes some serious financial planning. So in order to seal the deal, Mark had to relinquish ownership of two of his other cars (a 1957 and a 1967 Corvette). No one likes selling their car(s), but we’re sure that the prospect of owning a ZL1 Camaro was a sure-fire way to soften the blow of selling two classic Corvettes.
Mark finished by telling us, “This was the first ZL1 Camaro I had ever seen, let alone try to buy. Little did I know at the time, but this car turned out to be one of the best 1969 ZL1 Camaros known to exist. This car was never used as a racecar, still has all of the original body metal and interior, and shows a mere 8,184 original miles on the odometer.” For those reasons, this is probably the rarest and most well-preserved ’69 ZL1 Camaro in existence.
When the dust finally settled in early 1970, a total of only 69 ZL1 Camaros were built. Although they could legally be licensed for use on the streets of America, they were in fact barely a street car. What many might not understand is that since the intent of the COPO ordering system was to allow special options for fleet and commercial vehicles, the inclusion of number 9560 did nothing to affect the Chevrolet new car warranty. That’s correct, these cars came from the dealer with a factory-backed warranty.
It is rumored that Chevrolet actually considered building a regular production option ZL1 at one time in 1969, but came to the conclusion it was not a good idea – apparently, they noticed the cars that Mr. Gibb returned. Although dealers had a hard time selling the cars when they were new, they certainly do very well now – if you can find one for sale.