What so often drives our passion for muscle cars is reliving a missed opportunity, attempting to revisit what might have been. Frank Graceffa’s ’69 Camaro proves this point precisely, yet also shows that retracing your steps is not as easy as some might think.
His tale of experiencing “déjà vu all over again” began back in 1974, when he had just turned 16, smack in the middle of the muscle car era. Wait a second—didn’t the muscle-car era end in 1971, when high-compression engines and leaded fuel went the way of the dinosaurs? True, but those potent performance machines built from 1963 to 1971 were basically just used cars at that time and surprisingly affordable for the average working teenager. (Makes you want to wince, doesn’t it?)
Anyway, Graceffa had been suffering behind the wheel of a $400 1964 Impala for about a year when he spotted a “For Sale” sign on a blue 1969 Camaro with the word Yenko on the white-striped quarter panels. The owner wanted $4000 (a lot of money for a used ‘69 Camaro at the time).
After test-driving the big-block pony car, Graceffa naturally had to have it, and promptly contacted his insurance agent, only to find out the company wouldn’t cover a 17-year-old male driver in a Camaro with 427 cubes under the hood. (How cruel is that?) He ended up buying an SS454 El Camino, partly because the underwriter considered it a pickup truck—go figure.
Of course, Graceffa never forgot about the Yenko that got away. Think of all those missed opportunities: cruise nights with buddies, spontaneous stoplight drags, and of course, all the chicks he could’ve picked up. Oh, well, there’s no going back, right?
Well, yes and no. Today, that same Yenko is probably worth as much as a cool half-mill or even more! For those who need a brief refresher on muscle car lore, the Yenko cars were 427 COPO Camaros (an abbreviation for Central Office Production Order). Yenko Chevrolet in Pennsylvania modified the cars for drag racers with stripes and engine tuning. It was a fairly well-kept secret that Don Yenko negotiated with Chevy execs to drop the 425hp L72 Corvette mill in a Camaro by putting production number 9561 on the order sheet. The secret soon leaked out to other performance dealers, and Chevrolet ended up building around 1000 COPO Camaros. Only a few hundred exist today.
Given COPO Camaros’ rarity and stratospheric prices, Graceffa decided to recreate one with the help of Randy Clark and the capable crew at Hot Rods and Custom Stuff. Oddly enough, while this shop has performed some remarkable feats of craftsmanship on a wide range of customs, classics and street rods, working on a vintage Camaro was a new type of project. But after touring the facility and seeing the quality of workmanship, Graceffa felt this was the right place to revisit his youthful aspirations.
Graceffa found an original SS396 4-speed car and brought it to Randy Clark with instructions to build a look-alike COPO Camaro. After all, COPO cars started their life on the assembly line as big-block SS396 cars, so how hard could it be? Well, you might be surprised how difficult it was to track down all the parts and pieces with the flavor of the authentic item. While Clark looked over the car and put together a game plan, Graceffa went hunting for a 1969 427 engine block, heads, intake, carb, radiator, and various trim items in order to reproduce the car that he drove in 1975 as accurately as possible.
The project started by totally disassembling the car, media blasting the body to bare metal, and making appropriate repairs. This it headed off to the body shop for proper alignment of all sheetmetal and a fresh coat of Hugger Orange paint (one big difference from the blue Yenko).
While the shop guys were getting their hands dirty on the yearlong assembly process, Graceffa was tapping his computer keyboard, scouring the internet for the parts he needed. Some were easier to locate than others, and he found much of what he needed from companies such as Classic Industries, Rick’s First Generation, and Heartbeat City.
A few items proved to be more of a headache, however. For instance, the simple plastic plate that covers the hole in the dash for duplicating the “radio delete” of a COPO car, set him back $250. (Oh, the price of nostalgia…)
Not only that, unearthing a set of unblemished 14 x 7, 1969-dated steel wheels was an exercise in persistence. Graceffa eventually had to buy three sets from three different sources to get the quality he required. Locating good hubcaps was even harder. Only after sorting through 15 or so, purchased from 10 different people, did he get four in the right condition.
Back at the shop, Clark and company was almost doing too good of a job on the car, giving it that pristine street-rod finish they were accustomed to. Graceffa had to step in at one point and tell them to mess up the firewall and wiring a bit, so the car looked more “factory.” He had spent countless hours scouring various references books, sorting through various discrepancies to achieve the period-correct look. “I’ll tell you,” Graceffa admits, “It’s a lot tougher building a car that way.”
Indeed. In order to get all the exact engine parts, he had to scrounge them from sources scattered all across the country. Once he had them gathered together in one big pile, he had them machined, assembled and dyno’d at JMS Racing Engines in Monrovia California. That done, he finished off the mill with the proper “MN” code painted on the block (indicating 427 4-speed). It looks like a factory-built 1969 427, but runs on today’s unleaded pump gas. Even at 10:1 compression it makes 473 horsepower and 493 lb./ft. of torque, a bit more than the factory motors turned out when put in the Camaro.
From stem to stern, he went the distance on several other authentic-style treatments as well: a curved-neck radiator, 140 mph speedo, a 3/69-dated water pump, deep-groove pulleys, “Spiral” shocks; an R-59 Battery, F-70 X 14 Goodyear Polyglass tires, and a chambered exhaust.
The only variation on the authentic period treatment was the installation of some modern gauges for monitoring engine vitals, but Graceffa cleverly inserted some quick-disconnects in the wiring so he can pull out the panel when he hits the show circuit, so nobody’s the wiser.
Why did he go to such great lengths? “The reason I built it is that people really enjoy seeing how the factory did it,” he says. “Most people comment how correct the car is, but I’m first one to say it’s a re-creation.” Except for one time, though, when he put a fake COPO sheet on dash at a show.
“It’s funny to see how many people were fooled. If you don’t run the VIN or check the trim code plate on firewall, then you can’t tell right off that it’s not original. It was all done correctly. Even casting numbers are correct, and we added date-coded glass. That’s what I wanted to achieve with the car.”
Despite all the time and hassles involved in building a COPO re-creation, Graceffa hasn’t learned his lesson. His next “back to the future” project is to build a period-correct gasser drag car from the Sixties. Some guys never give up searching for those missed opportunities.
Hot Rods & Custom Stuff
2324 Vineyard Avenue
Escondido, CA 92029