Washington County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, might not seem a likely place for muscle car activity, and a certain, non-descript building that stands at 575 West Pike Street in the small suburban town of Cannonsburg might not appear to be significant, with its peeling walls and patina.
But 40 years ago, this building was a hub of hot car activity, littered with Corvair Corsas, early Camaros, late 1960s Chevelles, Novas and even Vegas, machines that either had already been or were about to be transformed from mere factory muscle into exclusive supercars, able to blow the doors off just about anything that came across their path.
The place in question was Yenko Chevrolet, a small GM dealership owned by Frank Yenko. As for the hot cars, that responsibility lay with Frank’s son Don, who became a legend in Camaro and muscle car circles.
Out of all the cars that the younger Yenko and his small team put together, it is arguably the Camaros that cast the longest shadow, and of them, the 1969 model stands out as the most desirable. Today, a real 1969 Yenko Camaro can trade hands for in excess of $500,000, but back in 1969 it was just another pony car; a 2+2 with indifferent workmanship and a big engine, designed to do one thing: go fast in a straight line. But although its mission in life may have been simple, Yenko Camaros and their brethren, the Baldwin-Motion, Berger, Dana, Dick Harrell and Nickey cars, carved out their own special place in muscle car history, for which they are revered to this day.
However, because the surviving cars have now been placed on pedestal, most of what we hear today about them concerns build dates, option codes, paperwork and value. Because demand for genuine Yenkos is so hot, it’s rare that you’ll actually see one turn a wheel in anger, simply because they’ve become so valuable.
In this issue of Camaro Milestones, we were presented with a rare opportunity – to get up close with one of these legendary cars and not only that but actually get to sit in it, fire it up and drive it!
By the late 1960s, the supercar wars (or muscle wars) were nearing their peak. Chrysler was going for broke and Ford, after multiple racing successes, finally had a performance car on the street worth celebrating, but GM was still trailing behind. Hobbled by a stuffy corporate edict that didn’t permit engines larger than 400 cubic inches in anything other than the Corvette or full-size sleds, it was losing ground in the factory horsepower stakes. But if you were a GM guy and wanted a bit of extra punch, you could go to a handful of select high performance dealerships located around the United States. Don Yenko got his start with high performance cars by building souped-up Corvairs in order to qualify them for SCCA road racing, but he soon turned his attention to Camaros. Although the early versions came from the factory with 396 engines, which were then swapped for Corvette 427s at the shop, by late 1967 Yenko had found that he was struggling to keep up with demand for his “Super” Camaros.
As a result, he decided to contact Chevrolet to find a more effective way of getting these cars through his shop and out to customers. One method of doing this would be to have the 427 engines installed right on the assembly line. Initially, the idea was panned, deemed irresponsible against the corporation’s public image, but conversations with GM’s Special Projects division and, in particular, engineer Vincent Piggins, yielded more fruitful results. Besides being an engineer, Piggins was also a product promotion specialist and had worked extensively on bringing the Trans Am homologated Z/28 small block Camaro to market. He felt that a 427 Camaro program would be good for publicity, but in order to side-step GM’s corporate rulings, the best way to do this would be to order these cars through Chevrolet’s Central Office Production Order, which supplied specially-packaged autos, primarily to fleets. Yenko’s request proved successful, and along with input from Missouri-based drag racer Dick Harrell, the COPO Camaro was born.
Tire Shredding Torque
For 1969, the COPO Camaro was offered with two different codes. The primary package (coded 9561) was comprised of the Corvette’s 427ci, 435hp solid lifter V-8, backed by a Muncie M22 four-speed “Rockcrusher,” gearbox or a slightly milder hydraulic lifter, 425hp 427, teamed with a TH-400 three-speed automatic. All the cars featured a heavy-duty cooling system with a four-core radiator, heavy-duty suspension with special spring and shock rates, power front disc brakes, sturdy 12-bolt rear ends and standard 4.10:1 final drive. A Sports Car Conversion package (COPO 9737) was also available, which added Goodyear E-7 – 15 tires on 15 x 7-inch Chevy Rally wheels (press steel 14-inch wheels and fleet-style hub caps were standard fitment on COPO 9561 cars), along with a beefier 13/16-inch diameter front sway bar and 140 mph speedometer. It’s believed that a total of 1015 COPO 9561 Camaros were built for 1969, 822 of which were four-speeds and just 193 equipped with the 425 horse/automatic combination.
Yenko received his first 1969 COPO 9561 cars in January of that year, and our findings indicate his shop turned out 201 examples with his own signature touches, of which this Hugger Orange example (paint code 72) is one. This particular car, like most Yenkos assembled that year, features the YSC stripe package (the stripes could be ordered in white or black and were installed in a separate building). It also boasts the 425hp, hydraulic lifter 427 V-8 engine and automatic transmission, which makes it one of just 28 such Yenko cars built for 1969. In addition, it also features the G80 front and rear spoiler package (standard on all 1969 Yenkos), Sports Car Conversion package and power steering. Unlike many surviving Yenkos, this one still has its original engine and, except for a repaint, is unrestored.
When you walk up to it, there’s a feeling of awe that’s difficult to describe. Physically, the car isn’t that big, but in this case it’s under the hood that counts. Grab the chrome door handle, push the button and take a seat. Compared to modern cars, the cabin is quaint, yet somehow airy. One thing you do notice is the very high dash and cowl, tiny windshield wipers and flat front seats, which have about as much lumbar support as a wooden deck chair. Even though this is the hydraulic lifter engine, it’s obvious that it’s a gnarly beast. Give it a bit of throttle and it shakes the whole car – you can even feel the glass rattling.
With your foot on the brake pedal, pull the gear select into drive. You have to release the brake slowly, because the Yenko just wants to jump forward. The skinny steering wheel delivers barely any feel. Even at low speeds, it’s glacially slow. As you head out from the parking lot and onto the open road, you’ve got to take care with that throttle, but when you give it a little juice, the engine sounds its wake up call, and the force literally pins you back in the seat. The sound is deafening, and even though the speedometer says 50, you feel like you’re doing 150. Even though this car is equipped with the Sports Car Conversion package, the E70-15 bias ply tires follow their own path on the road, and trying to keep the Yenko steering straight requires tremendous concentration. What’s most surprising is how smooth the TH400 is at swapping gears once the car is in motion – the second to third shift transition is almost seamless, in contrast to that thug of an engine up front. A sweeping S-curve approaches. You’re at 65 mph now, and it’s time to set the car up, bleed off the speed a little and enter the corner. You can feel the car beginning to understeer; the tires are squealing, so back off the gas a little more. The steering is basically redundant at this point; all you can do is use the gas to power through the turn. The back end wants to come around, but in a car of this stature, we’re not about to let it loose. Halfway through the corner, you can feel yourself sliding on the seat, first right then left – sports car package or not, this is one Camaro that’s clearly at home in a straight line. Although it has power front disc brakes, they’re only a little more helpful than the steering. With so much weigh on the front end, brake dive is very pronounced – push any harder and that front chin spoiler would hit the ground. Even after a couple of stops, you can feel the brakes beginning to fade. Truly hard stops in a car like this would be accompanied by locking rear anchors and tire dragging, but we’re not going to try that, at least not today.
An Experience Bar None
As we pull back into the parking lot after our drive, we can feel the heat resonating from the big 427. Shutting the engine off causes it to diesel for a few minutes and then go quiet after a puff a smoke, a side effect of today’s crummy low-grade fuel.
It’s very easy to get lost in the academics and talk about how many cars, especially today, can out-accelerate, out-brake and out-handle this piece of rolling Detroit history, but that would be missing the point. When it comes down to it, piloting a Yenko Super Camaro is like nothing else, and in terms of raw power and thunder, wrapped up in a quasi-factory package, it’s very hard to beat. Even 15 minutes after parking the thing, our hands were still shaking, proof that both then and now, it’s one of the baddest cars ever to hit the tarmac – period.
Special thanks to Legendary Motorcar Company for letting us sample this magnificent Yenko Camaro (www.legendarymotorcar.com).
1969 Chevrolet Yenko “Super” Camaro
Length: 188.0 in.
Width: 74.0 in.
Wheelbase: 108.1 in.
Track (front): 59.1 in.
Track (rear): 58.2 in.
Weight: 3650 lbs.
Construction: Cast-iron block and heads
Valvetrain: OHV, single camshaft, two valves per cylinder
Fuel system: GM Rochester four-barrel carburetor
Bore & Stroke: 4.25 x 3.75-in
Compression ratio: 11.0:1
Displacement: 427 ci (7.0-liters)
Ignition system: GM Delco
Max Power: 425 hp @ 5600 rpm
Max Torque: 460 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
GM Turbo Hydramatic TH400 three-speed automatic
Separate front subframe with steel unitized coupe body
Front: Independent short/long arm with coil springs, performance shocks and stabilizer bar
Rear: Live axle with semi-elliptical leaf springs, performance shocks and stabilizer bar
15 x 7-in steel Chevrolet Rally
F70 x 15
0-60 mph: 5.4 sec
Quarter-mile: 13.5 @ 105 mph (11.94 sec @ 114 mph with headers and slicks)
*(Muscle Car Chronicle, Publications International, 1993)
Don Yenko was born in May 1927. After attending high school in Bentleyville, Pennsylvania, he went on to Penn State University and joined the US Air Force, becoming a meteorologist. When dad Frank moved his Chevy franchise from Bentleyville to Cannonsburg, Don left the USAF and returned to work at the dealership. In the late 1950s, having developed a love affair with Chevy’s Corvette sports car, he began servicing and modifying them in an effort to fund racing activities. By the mid 1960s, it had become a successful business, so in late 1965 Yenko went a step further and offered a super-tuned version of the beautiful but highly unconventional Corvair Corsa as a high performance package through Yenko Chevrolet, which he called the “Stinger.”
1967 Yenko Super Camaro
Don continued to modify Corvairs well into the late-1960s, building a total of approximately 185 Stingers, by which time he’d also turned his attention to Camaros. While General Motors had insisted for a time that the 1965 vintage Corvair was a Mustang fighter, the Camaro was the real deal. Smart coke bottle styling and a huge range of options, including a variety of engines, took aim directly at its Ford rival from across town. However, due to corporate rulings, the largest engine installed by GM in any Camaro was the L34 coded, 396ci Mark IV big-block V-8, rated at 325 horsepower. For some, that simply wasn’t enough, and even before the car was launched, Yenko already had plans to offer his own version. When the cars arrived at the dealership on West Pike as L34-optioned Camaros, Yenko and his small team began the transformation. Out came the 396 engines, and in went a Corvette 427ci L72 V-8, rated at 435 hp. Depending on what the customer wanted, these engines could be equipped with a variety of speed equipment, including exhaust headers and specific carburetors, though Z/28 four-barrel Holleys seemed to be a popular choice. One of the biggest issues concerning the 1967 Camaro was the rear suspension, so in an effort to reduce axle hop, Don’s team fitted traction bars and modified the stock leaf springs. The Yenko cars were fitted with fiberglass hoods that featured a 1967 Corvette-like center section, and some (but not all) got a specific Yenko stripe package. Several wheel options were available, though it is believed all of the cars were equipped with Firestone Wide-Oval tires. According to Warren Dernoshek, a mechanic who worked at the shop back then, approximately 53 of the 1967 Yenko “Super” Camaros were built in various different states of tune and trim. Today, 12 real 1967 Yenko Camaros are known to exist, with only one listed as being in factory fresh condition (the others either being race cars or in rough shape).
1968 Yenko Super Camaro
For 1968, the “Super” Camaro was back, though there’s much controversy surrounding these cars, especially the engines. Several sources state that the cars were ordered from GM with the new (and hotter) 375hp L78 396 engines, M21 four-speed transmissions, heavy-duty 12-bolt rears and heavy-duty suspension, which thankfully now included stouter multi-leaf springs at the back. Once they arrived at Yenko Chevrolet, the 396 engines were taken out and Corvette 427 short blocks put in.
However, there are other indicators to suggest that the 427 engines were actually installed at the Norwood factory under the COPO program for 1968. This would make sense, as there are accounts of this from former GM engineering staff members for both the Camaro and another car (the 455-engined 1968 Hurst/Olds) having bigger, non-standard motors fitted at the plant, even though this went against GM corporate policy of the time. Either way, there’s no question that the 1968 Yenko Camaros were some of the meanest cars in their day.
Besides the 427 short blocks, the 1968 cars were fitted with L78 396 aluminum intakes and heads, along with a Z/28 Holley carburetor. Customers had their choice of factory manifolds or headers and optional rear gearing in the differential, including 4.10, 4.56 and even 4.88:1 final drive. Replacement 140 mph speedometers were installed, and the cars were given a unique fiberglass hood (different from the 1967 version), along with exterior striping and Yenko logos on the seats. Many of the cars were also equipped with Pontiac Rally II wheels (perhaps not surprising, considering there was a Pontiac dealer just down the street from Yenko), though standard steel Chevy rally rims and even Atlas mag wheels were available. Just 64 cars were built for 1968, and it is believed a number of them were ultimately fitted with L88 Corvette engines instead of the “standard” L72. What halcyon days for car lovers!
1981 Yenko Turbo Z
After 1972, with mounting government regulations for emissions and rising insurance rates, Yenko took a break from building hot cars to concentrate on his over-the-counter parts business. In 1980, he decided to have a go again, building what would be the last of his signature cars: the Yenko Turbo Z. Based on the then-current Camaro Z28 equipped with the 350 engine/TH350 automatic and 3.08 rear end, the Turbo Z came in two flavors, Stage 1 base and Stage II. The Stage I package added a Turbo International turbocharger and water injection setup, which boosted horsepower from 175 to almost 300. From the outset, the car was designed to maximize driveability and performance, while being able to run on low-grade fuel. Outwardly, The Turbo Z featured a unique graphics package and IMSA-style front air dam. The Stage II package added upgraded suspension with Koni shocks, thicker sway bars and specific spring rates, plus Modular aluminum wheels, special Goodyear Wingfoot tires and an upgraded interior with Kamp adjustable front bucket seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel. Just 19 examples were built before Yenko closed the doors to his dealership for the last time in 1982.
Recently, Yenko Camaros have begun to resurface. A company called Classic Automotive Restoration Specialists was able to secure the rights to produce continuation cars, using brand new 427 engines sourced from GM and reproduction Dynacorn bodies, with original options and paint codes, as offered back in 1969. In many respects, these cars are essentially brand-new 1969 Yenko Camaros with brand-new parts, and can be had for considerably less than the originals. The first one built was appropriately serialed 202. At the SEMA show in 2009, there was a Yenko-liveried car based on the current 2010 Camaro SS. At the time of going to press, there were rumors that it might see limited production in Phase I, Phase II and Phase III guises.