Muscle Car Milestones, "Then & Now: Recreating a COPO Camaro".

Then & Now: Recreating a COPO Camaro
By Steve Temple, Photos by Steve Temple and Daniel Ingham

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 "déja 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?).

Interior, 1969 C.O.P.O. Camaro

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 Yenko on the white-striped quarter panels. The owner wanted $4,000 (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 a 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?

425hp L72 Corvette mill in a Camaro

Well, yes and no. Today, that same Yenko is probably worth as much as a cool half-mil 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 the other performance dealers, and Chevrolet ended up building around 1000 COPO Camaros. Only a few hundred exist today.

Chambered exhaust.

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 place to revisit his youthful aspirations.

A 3/69-dated water pump and deep-groove pulleys.

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.

Vintage R-59 Delco battery.

The project started by totally disassembling the car, media blasting the body to bare metal, and them making appropriate repairs. Thus 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 and Rick's First Generation.

Coil shocks and springs.

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 14x7, 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.

Rear view of COPO Camaro.

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 wiring a bit, so the car looked more "factory." He had spent countless hours scouring various reference 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."

marks for P (paint), T (trim) and B (body). "MN" code painted on the block (indicating 427 4-speed).

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.

F-70 X 14 Goodyear Polyglass tires.

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 the first one to say it's a re-creation." Except for one time, though, when he put a fake COPO sheet on the 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 the 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.

Depending on the Goals of its owner, a muscle-car project can be anything from a straight restoration job for exact originality, to a customized classic, often called a restomod or rectification. Graceffa's car doesn't really fall into either category, since be both restored and transformed it into an exact duplicate of another type of Camaro. Achieving that required 12 months of meticulous, exhaustive (and exhausting) craftsmanship. These shots show a few highlights along the way, compressing the project into a fast-forward time-lapse photography.

When the '69 SS396 rolled into the shop, the first thing was to begin disassembly by removing the doors and front clip.

Rust and other sheetmetal damage was discovered as the disassembly proceeded: The entire floor, including the trunk had to be replaced. The original engine didn't look all that bad, but it's no 427 big-block.

The front subframe, with drivetrain still attached, was then removed. The remaining body shell would require months of bodywork to repair rust damage.

Once stripped down to bare metal by media blasting, bodywork repairs could begin.  The body itself became the jig as sections were replaced one at a time.  These included inner and outer fenders (front and rear), passenger compartment and trunk floors, trunk lid, hood, rear seat mount panel, both rocker panels, grill, rear valence panel, dash panel, transmission crossmember, and much more.

The rear fenders were cut off to fix the subframe. Once the subframe was reworked, a new rear clip could be welded on.

Then the rear fenders went on.  Note the Butt-seam ine on the rear quarter panel.

The doors, hood and fenders required filling and reshaping as well. At the gray primer stage, the bodywork was now starting to look pretty good.

Putting the body on a rotisserie was done for some final prep and cleaning work, prior to painting. The view from the inside is now looking better as well.

Once all the prep work is complete, several coats of PPG Hugger Orange and clearcoat were applied. After the body paint cured, the reconditioned suspension pieces went back into the chassis.  In addition to re-installing refurbished original parts, many were replacements from Original Equipment Reproduction.  Even though the new front disc brakes are from McLeod Industries, the original COPO Camaro came with front disc brakes and these were chosen to match the originals.

Now getting to the heart of the matter, the 427 mill, ("MN" code painted on the block to indicated the 427 4-speed), was gingerly lowered into place.  Assembling the COPO motor required a long search for authentic 1969 427 Corvette parts.  Frank Graceffa found the "512" casting number block in Chicago.  The "291" 435 hp Vette heads were from Ohio.  The "163" Winters intake came from Iowa.  The tranny is a 4-speed Muncie, of course. Even the windshield was replaced with properly date-coded 1969 glass.

Re-creating a COPO required extensive research into various manuals and reference books to achieve the correct period treatment, both inside and out.  Brake lines, fuel lines, wiring, spark plug wire, everything, was routed correctly as well. With the engine in place, the fenders and trim could be re-attached.

Carpeting and seats were just about the last items to go in.  Original Equipment Reproduction makes a complete interior kit for the '69 Camaro that makes it easy to restore the upholstery.  It comes with the original vinyl seat and panel coverings and trim. Identifying marks of a COPO include factory inspection stickers in hidden areas.  Nobody can accuse Graceffa of not being detail oriented.  He even found a stamp for the alternator.

A simple rubber stamp and trim paint is used to create the inspection marks for P (paint), T (trim) and B (body).  (the other two letters were added later.) Frank Graceffa looked a bit overwhelmed when his COPO re-creation was finally completed.

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