When Chevrolet decided to reprise the ZL1 moniker for the fastest, most powerful Camaro ever, on one hand it made a lot of sense. The 1969 Camaro with the all-aluminum ZL1 motor, formerly the fastest factory Camaro ever, has achieved somewhat mythical status among Camaro fans and other knowledgeable gearheads. On the other hand, ZL1 is a bit of an inside baseball name. Brand names like Z/28, Mach 1, RS and Boss undoubtedly have more recognition among car enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts than ZL1.
Still, the new ZL1 has indeed sparked interest. The question that I have is whether or not the new ZL1 is true to its namesake. The question arose after seeing both ZL1s in quick succession. First, an original 1969 Camaro ZL1 was at the recent Eyes On Design show, held annually at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford estate. Then, this past weekend I attended the Camaro Superfest, one of the largest annual gatherings of Camaros with over 400 cars. While there was nary a mullet nor wifebeater in sight, there was a 2012ZL1 on display from a dealer.
In 1969, ZL1 wasn’t quite a brand name for Camaro. ZL1 was the name of the aluminum block version of the L88 big block 427 Chevy engine. That engine was never meant to be run anyplace except on a race track and it was developed for use in competition by Jim Hall’s Chaparrals and Bruce McLaren’s racers. That notwithstanding, in the 1960s, “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was taken as a matter of faith and with the NHRA Super Stock class allowing cars/drivetrains to be homologated with very small production runs of only 50 cars, factory hot rods with fairly ridiculous levels of power were not entirely unknown in Detroit.
The ZL1 came about because of a La Harpe, Illinois Chevy dealer named Fred Gibb. Around the country certain dealers had made names for themselves by catering to the performance crowd. Gibbs sold a lot of cars to drag racers and he lobbied Chevy performance manager Vince Piggins to homologate 50 Camaros with the ZL1 installed, promising to buy the entire production run.
Piggins managed to get the all-alloy engine approved as an actual option package under GM’s Central Office Production Order (COPO) procedure. COPO was how other legendary Chevys, like Don Yenko’s cars, got built by performance oriented dealers. To help customers get insurance, the ZL1 was rated at the L88′s 430 horsepower but like Chrysler’s similarly underrated 426 Hemi, the ZL1 put out over 500 HP – at about the same weight as a much less powerful small block 327. The ZL1 cars started out as 396 CI Super Sports models equipped with a functional cowl induction hood, disc brakes up front, and a 4.10 Positraction rear end. The engine and all SS trim were deleted. Steel wheels with “dog dish” hubcaps, and a stock six-cylinder style grille give the car a stripper look. Not only were all the SS badges and trim deleted, but you cannot find “ZL1″ visible anywhere on the car. The car’s stance and the raised induction hood are the only tells that this isn’t an economy Camaro.
The ZL1 engine was an expensive option, $4,160, which more than doubled the cost of the $3,040 SS Camaro upon which it was based. That high premium, though, got you the quickest Chevy ever sold until today’s horsepower wars. Out of the box factory stock it could do the 1/4 mile in the low 13 second range. With racing slicks, headers and some tuning it could do 11.6 seconds at 122 mph – and it came with a factory warranty and was fully street legal. A total of 69 ZL1 Camaros were built for the 1969 model year. Gibbs ended up selling only 13, and GM tried selling them through other dealers who did well with performance cars. In all, about 20 pro racers bought ZL1s and in competition they were able to get close to 10 seconds in the quarter mile. Another dozen ZL1 Camaros lost their engines when their dealers decided to sell them separately. The rest were a hard sell because of the high price. A handful of wealthy enthusiasts and collectors bought some, and about 30 ended up getting shipped back to GM from their dealers. It was well into the 1970s before Chevy sold all 69.
So while the new ZL1′s 580 HP is worthy of the legendary name, and while that name may be the stuff of legends, those legends aren’t very well known. This time around, though, the ZL1 is not going to be subtle. Whereas the original ZL1 had all of it’s SS trim deleted and was almost indistinguishable from a minimally optioned Camaro, the new ZL1 has fenders, hood, and front and rear treatments that set it apart from even SS trimmed Camaros. The original ZL1′s raised, cowl induction hood was about the only “styling” touch that said the car was special. The new ZL1′s hood goes a few steps further, mimicking the original’s power bulge while adding 8 carbon fiber vents. I’m not a fan of tacked-on non-functional vents on cars, so it’s nice to see that those hood vents do have an aero function in letting air vent out of the engine compartment and reduce lift, but they’re nowhere near as subtle as the original’s hood.
The original ZL1 took subtlety to an extreme. This green ’69 ZL1 is so subtle it’s almost malevolent looking. Apparently, though, Ed Welburn and his team at GM design didn’t think that unique body panels were enough to let you know that the new ZL1 isn’t just an everyday Camaro, so it’s impossible to look at the car from any angle without seeing a ZL1 logo. The original ZL1 had exactly zero ZL1 logos. The new ZL1 has at least 10 ZL1 logos that I could find: one on each side of the hood, one on the front grille, one on the back of the car, one on each of the four brake calipers where you would normally read “Brembo”, and one embroidered on each front seat. If you look closely, there are three ZL1 logos in just the one photo at the top of this post.
Putting aside collectors’ appreciation in value, it’s possible that while it isn’t as understated, the new ZL1 is a better bargain than the original was, relatively speaking. It’s true that at $62,540 MSRP, the new ZL1′s price is higher than the original’s inflation adjusted $45K, but a new SS Camaro is now in the $40-$42K range. The new ZL1 has about a 50% price premium over a comparable SS level Camaro, which compares favorably to the original’s 137% premium over the 1969 Camaro SS.
A stock 2012 ZL1 is more powerful than the original, it’s faster (11.93 in the quarter mile, stock), and with independent rear suspension and rack & pinion steering, it undoubtedly handles better than the original’s Hotchkiss axle and worm & roller steering. At the new ZL1′s introduction, Ed Welburn referenced suede panels in the dashboard so we can be sure that the new ZL1 is also more luxurious and more comfortable than the original, made long before soft touch points became an issue in the industry.
The original ZL1 was undoubtedly part of an overall marketing effort that involved drag racing, so it’s not like it wasn’t tainted with commerce. It was, after all, a piece of factory goods, manufactured and sold. Still, watching the ZL1 brand go from one of the ultimate sleeper cars to not being able to walk a step around the car without seeing yet another ZL1 logo, watching the ZL1 go from from a relatively trim and plain vanilla Camaro to something endomorphically cartoonish, makes me think the new ZL1 is far more of brand burnisher with a nice profit margin than a tribute to a mythical performance Camaro. Not that there’s anything wrong with making a profit – the ZL1 brand is Chevy’s to exploit how they see fit.
As long as it took to sell them, GM probably lost money on the original ZL1 Camaros. The cost of producing the new ZL1′s LSA over a standard issue LSx has to be small compared to the percentage difference in cost between a L88 and a ZL1 engine and I’m sure that with a $20K bump in price over a more mundane Camaro the new ZL1 project will be more profitable than its namesake. Faster, better handling, more luxurious and more profitable. What’s not to like? By most objective measures the new ZL1 is a superior car to the original… but is it a real ZL1?
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS