By on July 11, 2012

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - Photo courtesy of CarsInDepth.com

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.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - Photo courtesy of CarsInDepth.com

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.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - Photo courtesy of CarsInDepth.com

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.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - Photo courtesy of CarsInDepth.com

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.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - Photo courtesy of CarsInDepth.com

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.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - Photo courtesy of CarsInDepth.com

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.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - Photo courtesy of CarsInDepth.com

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.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - Photo courtesy of CarsInDepth.com

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?

More pics of the 1969 ZL1 here, and the 2012 ZL1 here.

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

 

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32 Comments on “One of These Things is Not Like the Other
1969 & 2012 Camaro ZL1s...”


  • avatar
    tjh8402

    To answer your final question…no it isn’t. It should be LS7 powered (both because of the significance of the 427 and the LS7’s legit race heritage). Strip it of weight and unecessary luxuries, but instead of going the road racing route like a Boss 302 (that’s for a z/28 to go chase), make it the ultimate OEM dragster (go for a super short rear end, manual transmission only, massively staggered super sticky rear tires etc). Chevy is engaging in the same sort of brand dilution that BMW has with the M badge.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      And it would never sell. Stripped down pseudo race cars only sell to a select crowd of people. The ZL1’s mission is not unlike the GT500’s. Its a magazine queen and big margin car that is designed to appeal the deep pockets of camaro and mustang nutswingers ( aka brand loyalist).

      Limiting the ZL1 to the LS7’s 500 or so HP with only a slight reduction in weight ( don’t forget those 6/4 pot brakes and heroic tire/ wheel sizes plus all the coolers with fluid add weight) would have made this car easy pickings for the cars chief rival in Boss and GT500 guise ( Ford has said the Boss cars performance was just as much a driving force in the new GT500 as was the ZL1).

      Also its no secret due to the expensive nature of the LS7 that its/on the way out, GM has said as much.

      • 0 avatar
        tjh8402

        Not saying my answer would be profitable or the most intelligent from a business standpoint, just answering the author’s original question of whether the new car is a “true” ZL1. This car wouldn’t be a GT500 competitor, but a more old fashioned dedicated quarter mile destroyer.

        I’m not a GM fan at all…would never give most of their cars a second look or recommendation but I LOVE the LS7. I don’t care how expensive it is, I think that is one of the most spectacular engines in any car right now and it’s a shame its only in the one car and even more depressing that we’ll probably never see another motor (big displacement, high revving, normally aspirated high performance, pushrod) like it again, not just because of environmental concerns, but there are no longer any motorsports series which would demand it be built for homologation.

      • 0 avatar
        fredtal

        Manufacturers don’t really care anymore about the club racer. It was only the homoligation rules that provided these sort of cars.

  • avatar
    Thinkin...

    Hit the nail on the head – these days it’s more about looking the part than anything else. While living in europe for a few years in the 90s, I noticed an interesting trend: It seemed as though a huge percentage of M3 owners had their cars debadged for anonymity. I always liked that – and it took a genuine enthusiast to tell an e36 M car from a non-M equivalent. Over here in the states, it seemed the opposite; people were (and are) tacking ///M badges on everything to look cool. Heck, it was so popular, even BMW themselves do it now.

    I’m no Camaro man, but I’d like to think that there’s someone out there who will buy a ZL1 and invest the effort to debadge it. I think the menacing subtlty of the 2008 Bullitt worked out brilliantly. Pity GM didn’t go the same way with the ZL1.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      Interesting timing as I just drove a SS Camaro last week and the dealer had the red/black ZL! on the floor. Of course there is a 5K ADM on it. Don’t know if he will get it as the car was only there for 2 weeks. The dash had soft material over much of the dash, eliminating that horrid plastic that overwhelmed the passenger side of the dash. I think that Chevy did the right thing; Thinkin’ above is correct that looking the part is crucial and at least with this car, and Camaros in general, you do get the performance as well, so fair enough. I would never debadge it though…this car in pristine condition will likely recoup all of the original outlay at Barrett-Jackson in twenty years.

      Lets put mullets aside folks…drive one of these and you will be surprised. It was a bit too big for my tastes, but it performed way beyond what a car this size should be able to do. The car I drove had some of the ZL1 upgrades that were put into all SS cars. I expected a sledge hammer and it is just that, but it is a hammer that is also remarkably precise. Yeah, that seems at odds, but that is the way it felt. I’d much prefer a better overall dash layout and 500 pounds less mass, but even as it the car is a bargain.

      • 0 avatar
        hubcap

        “It was a bit too big for my tastes…”

        Let not your heart be troubled. The next gen Camaro is moving to the Alpha platform. So imagine the ZL1 powertrain in a 3300 pound package with…dare I say it…a well thought out interior…(gasp, I know)…made with materials that don’t come from the bargain bin.

      • 0 avatar
        joeveto3

        I would love to see a smaller, lighter Camaro.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    I recall the original ZL1s very well. While at the BX (base exchange) picking up a few necessary items during basic training in the air force in October 1969, the ZL1 engine was on the cover of HOT ROD magazine. I bought a copy immediately and had to save it ’til later to actually read it. I finally was able to read it a couple of weeks later about 2 am, November 5th on dorm guard duty my last night before coming home later that day (some dates you never forget)

    Upon arriving home and meeting my buddy up the street, our conversation once we got past all the jokes about my bald head and dress blues and he in his normal clothes and hair, we excitedly discussed this amazing engine which would only exist in our 17- and 18-year-old dreams for we knew we most likely would never see one, let alone even owning a 6 cyliner Camaro at that time, which I would have almost killed for!

    Pleasant memories, for sure.

    Chevy will sell every single one of these modern-day ZL1s, but it will still remain only in my dreams!

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    I really wish the Camaro came with a factory “delete all the tacky crap” option. Stripes, hood bulge, intake slot, gills, the whole works. I like the car in principle (even if it’s kind of overwrought) and I’m big on supporting locally-made products, but the details are cringeworthy.

    • 0 avatar
      Thinkin...

      Locally-made, eh? I suppose that’s the case if you’re from Canada, though don’t mention its hometown too loudly around the Camaro’s target market.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        If you consider who the Camaro’s target market is _in Canada_ then stating that is completely acceptable, again, _in Canada_.

        You don’t get a whole lot more urban-redneck than Oshawa (kidding, Mikey, kidding).

      • 0 avatar

        Thinkin,

        TTAC has an international audience and Psar is one of our Canadian regulars.

        I’m pretty sure that most Camaro fans know the car is currently built in Oshawa and many know it’s based on what originally was a Holden platform from Australia. Canada is a special case when it comes to “imported” cars in the US. The Detroit automakers have been building cars in Canada since the early 20th century so names like Oshawa and Windsor (as in Ford’s small block “Windsor” engine) are familiar to American car buffs. I don’t know which plant has built more minivans, Chrysler’s St Louis or Windsor operations. Between Oakville, Oshawa, Bramford and Windsor, Canadians working for all three US domestic automakers (well, their subsidiaries) build cars for the US market in Canada. It’s been standard procedure by US automakers since before I was born and the only people who make a big deal about it are the ones trying to make a big deal about it.

        Windsor is one of Detroit’s suburbs. Detroiters think of it as just another Ypsilanti only in a different country.

        But then the relationship between the US and Canada is pretty unique.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        “Between Oakville, Oshawa, Bramford and Windsor, Canadians working for all three US domestic automakers (well, their subsidiaries) build cars for the US market in Canada.”

        Not bad. It’s “Brampton”, mind you, where the other 300/Challenger/Charger & minivans are made. You’re also missing CAMI (joint with Suzuki, makes the Equinox and Terrain) in Ingersoll. And I’m sure we’ll forgive the absence of now-defunct St. Thomas, of Panther fame (or ignominy, depends…)

        I’d also mention the likes of GM’s Glendale Avenue Powertrain plant (in St. Catharines, Ontario, where I was born) that makes some of the better engines in GM’s stable, including the high-feature V6s and (I believe) the LS7 V8.

        http://www.gm.ca/inm/gmcanada/english/about/Overview/operations_ste_cath_Glendale.htm

      • 0 avatar
        Thinkin...

        I meant no offense by pointing out that the car’s origin in Canada – and pardon my ignorance for not knowing Psar’s a canuck. (It occurred to me, but it’s hard to tell through the haze of anonymity on the internet and without context I mistook his “local” comment for a patriotic American one. My bad. I spend much of my time in a border town as well…) And I agree that the car’s fans will know where it’s built, but I would contend that much of it’s target market doesn’t. (GM will sell most of its Camaros in the USofA – hence ‘mericans being its primary target market.) You know… The whole “V8 American-muscle car” thing.

        My thrust is that many of the folks who buy these – not those of us who just talk about them – do so under the impression that it’s American through-and-through. When in reality dealing with cars’ nationality these days gets absurd pretty fast… There are still a lot of people who believe the Fords and Chevys are built in the USA, and that VWs and BMWs are built in Germany. Just not true at all anymore, and that’s not even to consider where the parts content is coming from!

        I was at a hilarious family gathering a while ago, when my father-in-law and I noticed a curious facet of the dozen or so cars parked in the driveway and yard. The “foreign” cars (Honda, Subaru, BMW, Toyota, Hyundai) were all made in the States, while every “domestic” car in the driveway was made either in Canada or Mexico. We found this hilarious and amazing, and certainly worth another beer, and then we announced our genius discovery to the rest of the folks there. They weren’t car people, and could’ve cared less. Such is life.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      @psarhjinian, +1

      I know back in the early part of the previous decade the Mustang GT had a “GT delete package” that would remove the spoiler and some of the other tip offs that the car was more than a V6 ‘stang. I would love those options on the current crop of performance vehicles. You don’t always have to advertise performance to the world.

      • 0 avatar
        Thinkin...

        Yes – it seems to me that Ford is much better with this. You can still get a GT500 with the stripe delete package, and with the previous generation I believe you could delete the spoiler as well. The car will never be a sleeper, but is at least somewhat sneakier without the massive racing stripes and GT500 badging on the sides. No dice getting a Boss without a wild color scheme though…

    • 0 avatar
      philadlj

      100% agreed. I’d like to see a Camaro ZL1 buyer modify his ride to hew more closely to the original’s sleeper spirit: no stripes or badges or flashy calipers and an RS grille and wheels. Losing the hood vents might be tough, however, as they’re functional.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        But you see, the hood vents are subtle and functional, most noobs won’t notice them. Most of the rest of it is IN YOUR FACE.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        That tiny little slot in the grille is functional? Really? They couldn’t come up with another way to get air from the grille? And does it really need to be part of the bulge in the hood?

        If (big if) I ever get a Camaro, it’ll be in black so that all this stuff is disguised.

        ETA: I’m talking about the normal Camaro, not the ZL1. I get that those vents are functional in this car, though I’d still like to see them a little subtler.

  • avatar
    1998redwagon

    i am not a fan of the ’69 body style but i do appreciate a good sleeper and that is as good as it gets. if i had a ’12 zl1 i would properly debadge it in keeping with the spirit of the original. but i must admit i would keep the hardware in case the next owner wanted ’em.

    • 0 avatar

      I generally don’t take photos of ’69 Camaros and ’57 Chevys when I go to car shows because you can see them at just about any car show, but now and then you come across a special ’69 Camaro. I may have my obsessions but I’m not stupid. This was a special ’69 Camaro (one of 69). Eyes On Design always has special cars. Last year there was a real Yenko.

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    Totally don’t care, about either.
    P.S. Dodge called. They want their red stripes back.

    • 0 avatar

      Dodge has been using them lately but I’m pretty sure that Chevy’s use of two red stripes on the left fender dates to the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport racer. They’ve used them on special edition ‘Vettes over the years. First time I’ve seen them on a Camaro, though. They might be a dealer addition because this dealer added their own badging on the fender.

      http://www.corvetteactioncenter.com/specs/c2/1963/grandsport/index.html

      • 0 avatar
        Detroit-X

        Native Americans have been using two red stripes on their war-ponies for years, too.
        I wonder if the dealer-added cupholders on the doors have the matching red stripes… not that’s a comprehensive sport package!!

      • 0 avatar
        camarokatie

        As the owner of this car I can answer this question. Yes the dealer did the stripe as part of the package, however we requested it specifically and yes it is based on the Grand Sport stripe. You took some lovely pictures Ronnie, I wouldn’t mind having a few of them LOL.

  • avatar
    zbnutcase

    Tell me again why the original ZL1 engine was a 4K option, this comming from a company that MASS PRODUCED aluminum V8’s for COMPACT cars????????????? WTF?

    • 0 avatar
      gearslammer

      The ZL1 engine was built at a time when Aluminum Heads and Intakes were new technology and compact cars were Novas with a strait six……

      • 0 avatar
        wmba

        Yup, new technology like the 1961 to 1963 Chrysler aluminum slant six, the 1961 to 1964 Rambler aluminum six, the 1961 to 1963 Olds/Buick 215 aluminum V8, not to mention the Allison V1710 aluminum V12 from World War 2.

        We got to the moon in 1969, so an aluminum block was just barely within Chevrolet’s advanced capability at their secret foundry.

        Nah, Chevy just charged through the nose for some one-off cylinder blocks/engine, that’s all.

    • 0 avatar

      Since you asked, you provided the answer already: “mass produced”. The Buick aluminum V8 was mass produced. The ZL1’s aluminum block, on the other hand, was made in very small numbers. I don’t even know if they can use the same tooling to cast aluminum as used with the iron blocks.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    I respect the engineering of the new ZL1. Buddy of mine has a new SS, you can’t see out of the damn thing. I’d also get rid of all the “hey officer” stuff if I bought one.

  • avatar
    punkybrewstershubby

    I have just one thing to tell all new Camaro owners. Make sure you have AAA and/or some extra cash in your pocket whenever you drive, lest you have an un-re-inflateable tire incident. I have had two new Camaro owners not realize that their “spare tire” was a can of GM compressed air in the boot. They had both come in on a hook.

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