It was 1969, arguably the zenith of the factory-built musclecar. I was a cub, a stripling; I was the NFG at Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine. SS&DI was an East Coast book and the bible of the door-slammer nation. It was steered by Jim McCraw, a lanky chain-smoking dude who knew everyone in The Land of NED (NHRA's Northeast Division) and then some.
Jim and I were the editorial staff. As the big cheese, he stayed in the barn most of the time schmoozing on the phone, putting the package together, and gleefully dispatching me to the field. Imagine my utter surprise when he shot me the supreme nugget: drive the first ZL1 Camaro and, oh yeah, run the snot out of it on the drag strip with AHRA Funny Car king Dick Harrell. "Here's your plane ticket. Have fun, heh, heh ... and keep it off the guardrail, huh?" In those days, aluminum cylinder heads were hot stuff, so an entire engine cased in it was moon-shot nirvana to a punk gearhead. It made for a very special assignment indeed. I've always thought of my stomach as the barometer of portent. It began to do jumping jacks. What had I stepped into?
Oh, just this: Descended from the wicked L88, the ZL1 improved on its predecessor with a steel-sleeved aluminum cylinder block, beefier connecting rods, revised timing for the solid lifter camshaft (0.560-inch intake, 0.600-inch exhaust, and 340 degrees duration), cylinder heads with round exhaust ports, and optimized combustion chambers fitted with 1.88-inch exhaust valves. Though the static compression ratio had slipped a tad from 12.5 to 12.0:1, the valvetrain, intake manifold, 850-cfm Holley carburetor, and transistorized ignition were carried over from the L88. Ready to rock, the aluminum 427 weighed as much as a cast-iron 327. Known as Performance Unit 9560AB, the ZL1 option was available in the Camaro and Corvette for an astounding $4,160.15-about a thousand bucks shy of my yearly wage!
That extra four large amounted to a ten-fold increase of the original projected cost, a product of the bean counters and a new Chevrolet edict requiring that the price of special projects be high enough to make a profit. Previously, the costs of development had always been absorbed by Chevrolet in the file marked "promotional expense." Aside from the ogre engine package, the 9560 option included the following RPOs: ZL2 hood, VO1 4-core radiator, K66 electronic ignition, and the F41 suspension (Posi-Traction, 12-bolt axle with heat-treated ring and pinion, five-leaf springs, and heavy-duty shock absorbers).
The factory rating for this engine was typically light: 425 hp at 5,600 and 460 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm. But with a sharp tune and open headers, the thing blew something like 550 hp to 575 hp, depending on the weather. Its genesis was amazingly short. Basically, the iteration first appeared in featherweight Can-Am racers and produced at least 700 hp with stack injectors. A year later, Bill Jenkins would be running one in a '70 Camaro match race car boasting a 496 cubic-inch variant. He called it a "mountain motor."
Though the ZL1 Camaro was the sleeper's sleeper, it was never meant for road use. The idea was to homologate these cars for NHRA Super Stock racing. To satisfy the rule, Chevrolet had to build and sell at least 50 of them. La Harpe, Illinois, was the home of Fred Gibb Chevrolet. Gibb requested the first batch via the Central Office Production Order (COPO), the way for dealers to obtain special equipment on Chevrolets so long as the process did not interrupt the normal flow of production cars. In short, if you (Gibb and Harrell) knew the right guys (Vince Piggins, et al), you could pretty much get whatever you wanted. In extreme haste, Fred Gibb ordered 51 of the socially unacceptable beasts and the first load was delivered on New Year's Eve, 1968. A few weeks later, while Gibb and I were looking over the Camaro's mundane appointments at Harrell's shop, he told me that he was so excited about the event that he'd left a party early to be at his store when the truck arrived with its historical cargo.
As remarkable as this option was, the envelope it was stuffed in was just as unremarkable. Until the motor fired, the dark blue Camaro fairly whispered sleepy six-cylinder. It had arrived with a column-shift Turbo 400, a 4.10:1 axle ratio, F70x14 Wide Oval rubber, manual steering, power front discs, a heater, and dog dish hubcaps. There were no emblems on the body, nor a radio, clock, or tachometer, but Harrell's crew had installed Frank Sanderson's equal-length S&S headers, a small-bore parts-store dual-exhaust system, glasspack mufflers, and screwed some 14x6 Appliance wheels on it.
The back wheels turned tiny M&H 8.00/8.50x14 Super Stock tires and Harrell had installed home-made clamps right behind the spring eye to staunch spring wind-up that was inevitable under the big-block's heinous torque. Dick had run the valves (0.032-inch), removed the vacuum advance from the distributor, and had converted the Holley's secondaries to manual operation. Umm, all that grunt right out of the box and now they wanted to bring it in real quick and violent like. It occurred to the cub that the engine would blow those skinny tires clean off even without the tune-up, but he kept his yap shut. The thing was a paradox. A mousy, not-even-a-second-glance appearance underwritten by the most sinister and violently powerful engine Chevrolet (and perhaps Detroit) had ever placed in public hands. The Camaro had a bad-monkey vibe-in extremis.
Drag day dawned sunny. Ambient was in the low 40s. Maybe the strip surface would warm up a bit by the time we got on it, but air density was already right on the money. No instruments told me so; it was something I could sense and feel in the cool, slightly damp air. I drove the Camaro to Kansas City International Raceway solo. The M&H's were already on it. I can't remember how long it took to get there or much about what happened on the way, but I was flat leery of the thing. The fastest street car I'd ever driven was my '62 Fuelie Vette; it managed low-13s with open headers and recap slicks, so I knew that 200 more horsepower and just as much grunt in that bastard Camaro would probably bring me to tears. My stomach did gymnastics all the way to the drag strip. Every time I stabbed the gas, the back end felt like something was chasing it.
The odometer read only 50 miles, most of which I'd accumulated on the way to KCIR. I don't remember the preparations at the track except that the headers remained capped. I pulled up near the line and spun the tires to clean off the road gunk and then spun them again to get 'em gooey. Then it occurred to me that the track had been dormant for several months and that starting line would be junk. I didn't need to build on the brakes, the tires turned as if they were on butter under throttle alone. It would take a much-practiced touch to get this thing out of the hole without annihilating the rubber.
I was stunned with disbelief when Harrell told me to launch the Camaro by leaving the shift lever in Neutral, matting the throttle, and then yanking the poor thing into Low. This was something you did with a rent-a-wreck, not a hellion like the Camaro. Two of these Neutral starts blew the tires to kingdom come, immediately steering the car perilously close to the guardrail. I made the first two passes by putting the converter against the engine and shifting the transmission manually. I netted a smoky 12.28/118.10 and came back with a 12.11/118.35.
Cool heads then prevailed. They swapped the Holley for one with vacuum secondary holes in hopes that the tires would have time to recover from the initial shock a little bit before the rear barrels assaulted them. Their ploy almost worked. I peeled off an 11.98/118.92, 11.90/118.92, and an 11.85/119.06. Once the traction problem was overcome, though, the thing pulled so hard it felt like it wanted to turn itself inside out.
The tune-up continued. They loosened up the valves to blunt more of that brutal low end, dropped the tire pressure to 16 psi, and uncorked the headers. For me, it was a moot exercise. I couldn't get the thing out the hole without burning the tires off. After several false starts, Harrell got behind the wheel and the Camaro powered its way to an 11.78/120.84 and an 11.72/121.03. The next pass, he went up in smoke. After they cooled the motor down, Dickie laid down the best pass of the day: 11.64 seconds at 122.15 mph. Clearly, there was a ton more in the car.
About a year later, at a Chevrolet press introduction at the Black Lake test venue on the Milford, Michigan, proving grounds, some devilish product planners marched out a ZL1 Corvette equipped with 4.10s, an automatic transmission, and the key to the kingdom: 10.50x15 Racemasters. That thing ran 10.70s all day long with idiots behind the wheel, including yours truly. Ah, the vindication was sweet. Thirty-five years after the fact, all I really have is a tattered memory and a few photos to remind me of that blurry little spot in time. I made some toe-jam history, I guess, but I can no longer hear that engine ring.