Cruising Jersey in a Surprise Find COPO Camaro
Scotty Lachenauer - June 05, 2014 09:30 AM
“COPO” gets attention. These rare Chevy “under the table” race machines have stayed a pretty hot commodity on the auction blocks throughout the past two decades.
There are owners who search for a nice driveable Camaro, finding a small block car with a small block car price, and purchasing it, only to find out later that it was originally a true COPO car. It happens. It happened here.
Rob Meleo’s first love was a sleek blue ’67 Camaro convertible, built with a straight six-banger and a three-speed between the buckets. That ride set him back $500 as a purchase price back in the ’70s, and it’s one of two cars he wished he had never let leave his grasp. The other potent ride that Rob tossed to the side was a 350 motivated posi-rear Nova SS.
It was a long parade of fast Chevys in and out of his garage. Rob was hooked on speed, and Bowties were his thing; actually, a family thing, having been raised around the GM brand his whole life. His first memories revolved around his parents’ sweet pink and gray ’55 Bel Air. He still remembers the day that it was sold, and thinking, “Boy, 75 bucks doesn’t seem a lot of cash for that car”.
The years passed, family duty called and time was limited. The need to remember that joyous feeling of being “tail nailed to the seat” as he puts it, gave Rob the itch to once again start looking for a new ride. It was time.
Two decades ago, while heading to work, something caught the corner of Rob’s eye. On a deep back road, he could make out what looked like a first generation Camaro parked in the driveway. On closer inspection, the white Chevy had a single “for sale” sign on it. For weeks, he passed by, checking out the ride. It was in reasonably good shape, pretty rust free (by New Jersey standards), clean interior and only 52K on the odometer. Most importantly, it was a four-speed. Rob got the nerve up to ring the bell. A guy answered, and interestingly enough, he wasn’t thrilled that Rob was there.
You see, the guy really did not want to sell the Camaro. To appease his wife, he reluctantly put one small “for sale” sign on the car. Their property was pretty much off the grid. He was hoping that no one would ever come calling.
They started the 350 up and it ran smooth. The transmission was responsive as well, and overall the car performed properly. It had Z/28 badging on it, which wasn’t accurate. But still, it was a clean ride with a four-speed and a strong motor. Rob was definitely interested.
The asking price was $4,000. Rob countered with a respectable $3,500. The owner hesitated, shrugged his shoulders and then asked, “Is it going to a good home?” Of course Rob told him he was going to take care of it. The owner agreed to the terms and the deal was set.
Rob drove the car for several years as is. It was reliable fun. He could get on it and it would respond to his right foot’s call. It was not a show car by any means, as the last owner put a cheap white paint job over some so-so body work. The new owner did have plans for it, but since it was an excellent driver, just minor tweaking of the drivetrain was as far as he went.
One day, the car had headlight issues when one light just dimmed on him. He tried and tried, but he just couldn’t figure it out. Being an able mechanic since he was in his mid-teens, it drove him to the brink. He threw his hands up and said “I’m tearing the whole thing down” and he did just that, a complete restoration from the ground up.
In early 2004, Rob started the teardown and immediately he found some interesting tidbits. First, he noticed the heater core plumbing exited close to the wheel well side rather than closer to the engine block, as in most small blocks. He wondered if the car was an original big block ride.
Next, he looked at the VIN. He did some research, and found his identification number was within the range of several known COPO Camaros. The rear certainly gave another clue, as it is original to the car. It’s a 12-bolt posi BE rear, only used in COPO cars due to the differential’s hardened 4.11 gears. These racers were built to handle the punishment laid out by the big rat motor.
Up front, Rob’s Camaro came with factory disc brakes, standard on SS and big block cars. The original brake plumbing was present with the residual pressure/proportion valve on the frame rail under the driver’s seat and the single fuel line…more evidence for an original big block.
On the firewall data plate, the X-44 denotes that Rob’s ride was built as a plain Jane Camaro. This code was one of two common codes used to build COPO cars, the other being X-11. The original cowl hood on Rob’s ride was never used on basic, plain Jane cars unless it was a COPO. The original cowl hood wiring and cowl flapper relay are still on the firewall in their original place. Adding to the evidence of this being an original COPO, the original factory dual exhaust hangers were still on the car along with the rare exhaust plate hanger on the rear frame … only available on … you guessed it … COPO cars!
Original big block motor mounts, five-leaf springs, and super rare original spare “XT” steel wheel (only used on SS and COPO cars) with its original “Wide Oval F-70-14” tire in the trunk were just the icing on the cake. Throw in the fact that the car was originally sold out of Baldwin Chevrolet, the premier east coast Chevy performance dealer, and you’ve hit a grand slam! This ride’s for real!
There are a few matters that make this a rarer ride than most. It was born with a full deluxe interior, which includes “comfort weave” bucket and rear seats, molded door panels, and woodgrain glove box and dash inserts. It came with a TH400 automatic transmission, a pricy upgrade at the time. Since most of these rides went right to the track, the four-speed with a standard interior was favored.
Tri-state Camaro guy Kevin Wright, with assistance from www.Camaros.net
members, helped Rob dissect the Camaro and investigate its past. His knowledge was crucial to unlocking the secrets of the Chevy. Rob then tackled the full-blown restoration of the car, bringing it back to original as close as possible. A correct date-coded 427 was found, along with the correct transmission. The white paint was removed to lay down the correct Cortez Silver paint job.
Today, Rob runs the powerful ride whenever possible. He thanks the good people on www.Camaros.org, and friends on www.Camaros.net for their support. Another shout goes to good friend Roger Dean, who helped with his wisdom and parts for the restoration and Kurt Sonen of the Camaro Research Group, for helping unravel the mystery of the Camaro.
Nowadays, Rob’s often seen putting the COPO through the paces around his home in central Jersey. It’s a ride that he cherishes, and he swears it will never be an “Auction Block Hero”. Keep searching.