Chevy's Forgotten Race Car

A Look at RPO 1LE

Wayne Scraba - January 19, 2012 10:00 AM


LE Camaro began life as a more pedestrian Z/28, and then the add/delete process began. This low mileage (8,900) 1995 model looks all the part of a six-cylinder car with the no-charge (optional) body color roof. What most folks don’t know when they first lay eyes on one of these factory race cars is how quick and fast they really are. It’s amazing how serious weight reduction and less sound deadener coupled with stiffer suspension can transform a car. If you ever have a chance to drive one, you’ll understand why.


Once inside, it looks more or less like any other Camaro, but you’ll soon be struck by the wind-up windows, manual door locks, lack of a power adjustable seat, manually-adjusted mirrors along with a generally less opulent office. 


The car has no air conditioning, just a simple heater/defroster control along with a bare bones AM/FM/Cassette radio. Once you hit the ignition key, there’s really little need for tunes anyway.


Don’t expect anything exotic out back either. The 1LE came equipped with the bare bones luggage compartment you’d find in any Camaro of the era. 


Pop the hood open and you’ll find a bone stock LT1 small block. 


there is the most important: There is no cruise control cluttering up the engine bay and you’ll note there is no air conditioning either; 1995 was the last year of non-A/C 1LE’s. By 1996, the option was becoming less “committed”. What you can’t see is the series of baffles used to direct air to the radiator. They’re taken from an air-conditioned Camaro to improve cooling. Additionally, an auxiliary oil cooler was fitted to the car, along with a dual converter exhaust system


The front suspension on the 1LE packaged cars included specific rate springs along with revised shock absorbers; 1995 and earlier fourth-generation 1LE cars used a twin-tube DeCarbon shock along with harder durometer suspension bushings.


Here’s a better look at the DeCarbon twin tube gas shock. GM used this set-up until 1996. At that point, Koni shocks were introduced. The front anti-roll (sway) bar is a monster. Yes, these cars ride rough. And that’s definitely part of their charm.


The front brakes were revised on the first 1LE models, but with the introduction of much improved braking on the fourth-generation Camaros and Firebirds (along with the new ABS system), brake changes weren’t necessary. Brake performance was excellent.


Out back, the cars incorporated much of the same: Revised hard durometer bushings, specific (stiff) springs and DeCarbon gas shocks. Naturally, the anti-roll bar was included in the mix. You’ll note the cars all had a light undercoating in the respective wheel wells (more or less necessary to keep rock damage to the quarters to a minimum), but that’s the extent of the sound deadener.


 Like the front, the rear brakes are stock Z/28 fare – four-wheel ABS disc brakes. These are truly hard-stopping cars.


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Naturally, racing tends to improve the breed. The Player’s Challenge series found weaknesses in those first F-bodies in short order.

Spin the clock back to 1984. Chevrolet’s C4 Corvette wins the newly-popular big-bore SCCA Showroom Stock Championship against formidable foes such as Porsche 944 and Nissan 300ZX Turbo.

The next year, Chevy’s Corvette sweeps the series, winning all six endurance events (3-, 6-, 12- and 24-hour races). Corvettes followed suit once again in 1986. By 1987, Porsche upped the ante with a hot rod 944-turbo race car package. Chevy didn’t relent and countered their German competitor (introducing their ZF six-speed ahead of the production line schedule and fitting the cars with upgraded disc brakes, along with other hardware).

Corvette won the championship again, but by 1988, the Corvette was punted from the series (obviously, some folks weren’t real happy with the regular Chevy parade). That meant the only GM cars that were now “legal” for use in Showroom Stock racing were Camaro Z/28s and Firebird Trans Ams. And those GM cars were having fits keeping up with the lighter Mustangs.

Meanwhile, in the mid-’80s, GM of Canada was promoting their own race series, using third-generation Camaros and Firebirds in a more or less showroom stock environment. The Player’s Challenge was essentially a one-marque event, but it proved popular with both fans and racers. Unlike the SCCA events, the Player’s Challenge was more of an all-out sprint with no pit stops. It was an economical way to go racing and, from a fan perspective, these guys were racing cars almost exactly like the ones they had in the parking lot.

Naturally, racing tends to improve the breed. The Player’s Challenge series found weaknesses in those first F-bodies in short order. Front brakes proved to be the biggest hurdle – the stock binders simply couldn’t take the abuse. Mixed with the Player’s Challenge were independent folks campaigning Camaros and Firebirds in others series (for example, Autocross, Pro Solo, etc.). They, too, were discovering the challenges of stopping the stock third-gen Camaro and Firebird. Between GM of Canada and a GM engineer who specialized in brake systems, a method of adapting a big 12-inch Caprice rotor to the Camaro spindle, coupled with a Corvette PBR two-piston caliper, was developed. These improvements, along with revisions in the cooling system and suspension calibration, became the foundation for a new option tucked away in Chevy and Pontiac Dealer Albums. It was simply named “1LE”.

Translated, ticking off the 1LE option box provided nothing less than a full-fledged factory race car, albeit one that you could legally register, insure and drive on the street. Certainly the big brakes, along with the cooling and suspension upgrades, were major changes, but there were other factors that made the RPO significant: One of the biggest was the fact that air conditioning and other creature comforts could not be specified.

Over the years, the 1LE package morphed with both the times and racing regulations and, of course, the option was coupled with realities of mass production (these cars were all constructed on the assembly line with regular Camaros). Initially, the package was “triggered” by ticking off specific RPOs on the option list. For example, in 1989, if you ordered a performance axle ratio (RPO G92) along with a limited-slip rear axle (RPO G80) in conjunction with the IROC Z coupe, several extra-cost options were mandatory: It meant you had to order an optional engine oil cooler, dual converter exhaust, four-disc brakes and P245-50ZR16 tires. If you did not order air conditioning (RPO C60), then the 1LE option was triggered.

For these cars, it meant the big brake package, a set of additional fuel tank baffles, specific spring rates, different shock absorbers, revised suspension bushings and an aluminum driveshaft were added, along with a five speed gearbox that incorporated a steeper 0.74:1 fifth gear. Fog lamps were deleted (in order to improve airflow through the radiator) and you could not order other equipment.

This approach continued more or less unchanged until the new Camaro made its debut in 1993. Since brakes were already upgraded to a rather stout (and new) ABS arrangement, revised stoppers weren’t required. The new 1LE package did, however, include larger diameter 32mm front and 21mm rear stabilizer bars, stiffer DeCarbon twin tube shock absorbers, revised hard durometer suspension bushings and radiator baffles for added engine cooling. Air conditioning, power windows and other equipment were not available with 1LE option, and fog lamps were again deleted. Note too, that fourth generation Z/28s came equipped with black painted roof panels. But on 1LE models, you could specify a body-colored roof.

In 1996, Koni shock absorbers replaced the DeCarbon models, and air conditioning finally became available. The option was officially discontinued in 1999, however it re-appeared on certain SLP SS Camaros and Firehawks, circa 2001. Here’s how the Chevrolet production broke down:

Production Numbers

1988: The first year of “real” 1LE mass production. Four cars were constructed.

1989: 111

1990: 62

1991: 478

1992: 705

1993: 19

1994: 135

1995: 106

1996: 55

1997: 48

1998: 99

1999: 92