With the excitement building for the Factory Stock Showdown class along with our lead story in the May 2018 print issue of Drag Racing Edge on first generation racer, 20-year old Pete Gasko, we thought we’d republish a story from the pages of the old Drag Racing Action magazine from 2014 on just what it takes to build a COPO Camaro.
There’s A Lot More To Building A Factory Race Car Than You Think
Words/Photos John DiBartolomeo.
The concept and actual production was really sort of simple.
As a vehicle begins its life on the production line, all of the equipment and options slated for eventual install are keyed to the vehicle’s serial number. As the car moves down the line, the equipment is installed at the specified time. All of which means that before even one steel panel is punched and bent into shape, that particular vehicle’s DNA is already established.
That exact theory has been in effect for decades. But it was also the reasoning as to how some enterprising dealer found what appeared to be a loophole in the system allowing 427-cubic inch engines to be installed in 1969 Camaros. The actual acronym was COPO (Central Office Production Order). It was a way for dealers to special order things such as taxis and other specialized vehicles. But it worked its magic for Chevrolet in a time when performance cars were in their heyday.
The COPO designation left us in the very early ‘70s but today is alive and well simply designating the new performance vehicle from Chevrolet Performance. By now though we think you already know the story. In 2012, Chevrolet offered specially built Camaros designated strictly for drag racing. Now in their third year of production, the product is every bit as popular as ever.
Dr. Jamie Meyer, Performance Marketing Manager for Chevrolet Performance said, “When we began this program, we looked at what else was available in terms of drag racing cars built by Ford and Chrysler. What we wanted was a race-ready vehicle that met all the sanctioning body criteria and one which could be driven right off our ‘showroom floor,’ taken to the track and raced.”
However, the “showroom floor” he mentions is merely the Chevrolet Performance Parts Catalog. These new COPO Camaros carry no Vehicle Identification Number making them illegal for street use, instead simply ordered direct from Chevrolet Performance under the part number 20149562.
Want one? Not that easy to obtain. First of all, only 69 cars are built as a way to honor the 69 ZL1 COPO Camaros built in 1969. Meyer reports, “Each year we have about 3,000 requests for a car. By the end of each year, our sales department has begun at request number one, making phone calls to each person to verify their information and such. We typically get to about number 500 before we have sold all of the cars at which time the list is purged and begins all over again the following year.”
Because of the demand, this is the second year a new CRC (Camaro Rolling Chassis) program began where a complete Camaro is offered minus an engine and driveline. The car is built at the same build facility on the same assembly line but without any COPO branding.
Meyer said, “We had such a demand for the COPO product and as a way to offer our customers a complete Chevrolet-built race car, we began the CRC program with great success. However, as a way to keep the COPO cars special, these CRC cars carry no COPO branding. But make no mistake about it, it is a complete drag race Camaro.”
So what does it take to build a COPO? First of all, these cars are built on a special assembly line in Oxford, Michigan. Production line Camaros are presently built in Canada but a “body in white” is delivered to Oxford where it begins by cutting, grinding and welding more than you would ever think. These cars are certainly not just production Camaros, but a “real” race car built in the same manner as any other racer.
While we were amazed at the COPO Build Facility, we were even more blown away at the GM Wixom Powertrain Facility where horsepower is the order of the day, each and every day. It almost seems like there’s enough technology under that roof to launch the Space Shuttle. Look for a behind the scenes look in a future issue of DRA.
For 2014, a body in white is delivered to the COPO Build Facility in a variety of colors to meet the customer’s needs. The actual body is an export unit which was slated for delivery outside of the United States having a number of optional equipment deleted such as the hole in the roof for the OnStar satellite antenna.
The first step in the assembly line procedure is to remove the fenders, doors and other components followed by the wrapping of the body with 3M Welding and Spark Deflection Paper to protect the paint finish of the car. The chassis moves along through several stations on a wheeled cart while it’s poked, prodded and ground on before final assembly.
The removal of several spot-welded sheet metal components are completed in order to make way for some of the new hardware to be installed as well as remove unwanted weight.
The installation of the roll cage and chassis components is next in the process to complete the buildup.
Much like any other race car, the roll cage assembly not only protects the driver but also ties into the four-link rear suspension.
A construction punch list is kept and updated at every step along the way. The list then becomes part of the owner’s paperwork.
A number of stock components need to be modified to work with the race accessories. The brake pedal assembly must be reworked to fit and operate the non-power brake aftermarket master cylinder with the correct pedal ratio.
Once all the race components are installed, the body is wheeled into the facility’s spray booth and the cage, front frame and underneath is painted with a black epoxy paint. The day we visited, wheelie bars were the order of the day in the spray booth.
A rack of carbon fiber hoods sit waiting for their turn in the spray booth to match the body color they’re to be installed on. Anyone who has painted cars knows how hard it is to match colors shades on different body panels but the COPO Build Facility has that down pat.
With all of the chassis mods completed, the car is moved to the assembly station on a wheeled cart and on to a lift where the final assembly procedures will take place.
Prior to installing the Strange Engineering rear end assembly into the car, it’s filled with Lucas Gear Oil. When the car leaves this facility it’s race-ready and a number of customers have picked up their car and gone directly to the track to race.
Production Camaros utilize an independent rear suspension, but the COPOs use a pretty standard race four-link and solid Strange Engineering rear end assembly.
The engine and transmission is bolted to the production front cradle while the car is lowered onto the cradle/engine assembly.
At this point, all of the various components are installed such as the Aeromotive fuel system, battery, wiring and other necessary components.
Several special COPO headliners sit ready for finish installation. A number of COPO components had to be engineered different than their production counterparts. The headliners needed to be void of any insulation and padding so as to make them thin to keep the roll cage as high as possible and still allow for headliner installation.
Special COPO carpeting also had to be obtained minus any of the standard cutouts for use in a production Camaro. The carpeting is then trimmed to fit around the roll cage. Witnessing the car built on this assembly line reiterates just how much special engineering work was required before these vehicles could be built.
For 2014, a G-Force stick shift transmission, Hyatt Racing/McLeod clutch and Long shifter are an option which required even more engineering to eliminate the production hydraulic clutch pedal and install a linkage-style clutch actuation assembly.
A project of this magnitude requires a whole warehouse dedicated to just maintaining a stock of components both from the Chevrolet Performance catalog as well as from a number of vendors.
And finally, in the background of this photo sits several completed COPO Camaros awaiting pick-up from their owners.