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Factory dragster: Touring the COPO Camaro plant

Chevrolet\'s legendary factory-built drag racer is back - and we get an inside look at the way they\'re built.

What started as a finagling of General Motors' ordering system eventually evolved into a coveted nameplate synonymous with performance: COPO.

And COPO has been reborn, with the first ready-to-race Camaros rolling off of the assembly line at a special plant near Detroit. We tagged along as some of the first modern COPOs made their way into their owners' hands.

A little history

In the 1960s, Chevrolet had an ordering system so local dealers could package special options and paint for their fleet customers. A few enterprising dealers who had been cultivating the performance market, like Yenko Chevrolet in Pennsylvania and Fred Gibbs Chevrolet in Illinois, figured out that the Central Office Production Order system, or COPO, could be used to make factory built hot rods just as easily as it could be used to order a fleet of taxicabs.

That how Yenko Camaros with the L-72 427 engine and the 1969 ZL-1 with the all aluminum racing version of the same big block Chevy engine got made. There's no such thing as a Central Office Production Order anymore, but Chevy has revived the COPO name for the factory built NHRA approved drag racing Camaros that it's been building and selling for the past couple of years.

As a tribute to the original ZL-1, of which there were only 69 built, Chevy limits the production run to 69 cars a year, produced in a facility outside Detroit the GM leases. Ford has a comparable program with its Cobra Jet Mustang drag racer, which are built on a specialty assembly line at Ford's big Flat Rock plant that builds street Mustangs. Like the Cobra Jet, the COPO Camaros are not street legal.

In fact, the COPO Camaros have no VINs and if you buy one, it's sold on a bill of sale as a Chevy Performance part. It even has a part number.

If you want to buy one, though, you'll have to wait for next year because all 69 of the 2013 COPO Camaros are spoken for, but if you hurry you can still buy a COPO rolling chassis. This year Chevy started selling a limited number of COPO Camaros without engines or transmissions and I was told that if you contact Chevy Performance, there might be a couple that are still available.

The ready to race car starts at $86,000 and you can buy it with your choice of three LS family engines, a normally aspirated LS7 based 427 that puts out 425 horsepower, a supercharged LSx with 500 ponies and another LSx with a bigger supercharger that puts out 550 ferocious horsies. Chevy will sell you a COPO Camaro with all three engines as a special collector's package, with matching serial numbers, and you can pick which one you want installed at delivery.

If you want, you can even build the engine(s) yourself at GM's Wixom Performance Center. That's what Dan Sayres, of Waverly, West Virginia, did a while back and last week he was back in the Detroit area to pick up his completed COPO Camaro.

Assembly process

COPO buyers have the option of taking delivery at the assembly facility where they can watch how "bodies in white” that are shipped from the Oshawa, Ontario, plant that builds regular Camaros, are cut, welded and then built up into fully engineered 9 second drag racers. In addition to drilling out over 300 spot welds, about 150 lbs of steel is removed as the unibody is prepared to accept the NHRA certified roll cage, structural elements that tie together the front and rear subframes, and the COPO NHRA Stock Eliminator four link rear suspension that replaces the stock Camaro's IRS since drag racers prefer live axles to independent rear suspensions. It was interesting to see how many of the rear suspension components have Heim joints, which allow for some rotation. After the suspension and brakes, the chosen engine and a race ready Powerglide transmission with a Hurst shifter are installed, followed by the cooling system, the wiring harness, and then interior trim that consists of carpeting, a customized instrument panel, two racing seats and appropriately certified seat belts and racing window screen.

Finally, the lights and fascias are installed, the doors are rehung and a fiberglass hood with a humungous power bulge on the top and a Chevy bowtie and COPO logo embossed underneath is attached. After some calibration and testing, the cars are ready for delivery.

There's usually a small reveal ceremony as the owner's car is uncovered. I witnessed two deliveries and while it's not the same as seeing a father with a new child, both new owners were pretty much speechless. There were wide grins aplenty. Then it was time for a quick road test including obligatory burnouts. A section of the parking lot in the industrial park, behind the buildings, is paved with asphalt and it was covered with tire tracks from previous deliveries.

Sayres and the other owner picking up a car, Chris Feister of Wyoming (who bought the car with friends Rebecca and Rob, he asked me to say), did their best to lay down some rubber. It felt like 1969 all over again.

Words and photos by Ronnie Schreiber.

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