Exercising more than just style

Old News - Will ZL-1 be revived in 78At a 1977 new car preview in Michigan, the press was shown not only upcoming models but also a Camaro styling exercise. It bore visual tweaks that some reported previewed Camaro’s update for ’78, but it seems there was something else about the car that was more noteworthy at the time.

Though the concept didn’t have an official name, it bore ZL-1 badging… and had the engine to match. [updated]

That’s ZL-1, with a hyphen
The ZL-1 was an option available for 1969 on Camaro, of which only 69 were built. They were powered by a 427-cubic-inch V8 but instead of an iron block and heads, both were aluminum, the latter coming from the L88. In factory form, ZL-1’s were rated up to 435 horsepower but several sources reported 500 was more accurate.

The ZL-1 was made possible through GM’s dealer special order process, COPO (Central Office Production Order), and conceived partially with NHRA aspirations. Qualification regulations required a minimum 50 production run, they made 69. It would seem the model year is why they increased production.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1The car obviously had the goods but it wasn’t cheap. The cost of the engine alone was roughly $4,000 (a whole Corvette ran about $4,500), which brought the ZL-1 total to $7,200. One of my books reported that 30 of them went unsold and were sent by the dealers back to Chevy where they sat until the early ’70s when the last was sold. Worth mentioning, one of them was bought at auction in 2006 for a cool $486,000.

After 1969, the ZL-1 was a moth-balled model.

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1That is until 2012 when Chevy introduced the ZL1 (no hyphen). It’s currently Camaro’s top-dog model. I’m not certain why the hyphen was removed from the name but, since the ’69 wasn’t an official model and the current one is, I wonder if it was to designate that difference. Then again, for all I know someone simply thought it looked better unhyphenated.

Between the more than 40 year hiatus, Chevy seems to have at least toyed with the designation… more than once, as you’ll see.

As I had already mentioned, this ’77 Camaro styling exercise was reportedly nameless but there was a ZL-1 badge on the hood. I also noticed Berlinetta badging on the sail panels which was a designation that would replace the LT in ’79.

(Click on the following pictures to see larger versions; not the greatest quality.)

1977 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1 concept

The 1974 model is the one that adopted the large federally-approved bumpers. For the 1978 update, the front and rear would lose the chrome guard rails and gain body-color Endura bumper covers which eliminated the gaps and need for bumper car-like rub strips. That update was largely previewed in this concept.

1977 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1 concept headlightThe most obvious break from contemporary Camaros, however, was the use of rectangular headlights. The lamps were reportedly French-made Cibie units that, in my opinion, sort of cheapened the front end.

It’s hard to believe that Camaro stuck with round headlights until ’81 but I personally feel they were integral to the second-generation design. This concept also has clear lens covers. While they were aerodynamically friendly, they were not federally friendly.

1977 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1 concept engine bayAnother change is that the parking and signal lights were moved below the headlights, underneath the bumper. The ’78 update were somewhat squared but remained nestled between the headlights and the grille. That grille also foreshadowed the next generation’s.

To the right is a shot of what was under the hood. One reporter speculated the ZL-1 engine was from a prior concept rather than representing something new. While reporters were not allowed to drive the car, they were allowed to ride in it and the comments assured it was the real deal.


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