Every Goliath has its David. The Corvette took the wind out of many a Ferrari's sails. Ponycars were devised to trump exotic European touring cars and did so frequently in SCCA and FIA competition. Both instances proved that gumption and a whole lot of spirit could take down giants. But just because the Camaro was the average Joe's giant killer didn't exempt it from class hierarchy. The factory offered option packages that were beyond the budgets of most buyers. Dealers with good relationships to the central office configured cars beyond just about everybody else.
Exclusivity didn't keep people from going fast though. Just as John Henry beat the steam hammer, innumerable shade-tree tuners went head-to-head with the baddest factory hot cars. In that sense, Butch Merrill is the latest in a long, proud line; his RS is a latter-day version of those dragon slayers. So too is the other car a dragon slayer, albeit by different means. A few numbers and letters can add another figure to a car's value, proving that people don't just want pedigreed cars-they want them more than ever. Unfortunately, those cars are worth more as well. But just as exclusivity didn't keep people from going fast, it doesn't keep them from having a pedigreed car ... or at least a car that looks, feels, and acts just like one.
That car looks, feels, and acts just like COPO 9561, one of the 822 four-speed, iron-block 427 Camaros Chevrolet made in 1969. That's right, it's a clone-and a pretty damn good one, too.
"I wanted a base model car with very little options but with a big-block and four-speed," Butch explained. What he found in Chehalis, Washington, was actually pretty close to his objective: GM delivered the car as a four-speed, Hugger Orange car with a white interior ... minus the 427 and the code that would've made it precious, of course. "It was all torn apart but still rolled on all four. It needed pretty much everything, but was very solid." What unfolded over a 16-month period was more akin to a full restoration than a hot rod, with Butch digging through bins at swap meets rather than fingering through catalogs.
Upon reassembly he adorned the stock leafs with a correct 12-bolt. Being a BU-code axle like the ones that COPO 9561 got, it features 3.73:1 gears on a Positraction. Working his way up the driveline, Butch found and rebuilt a close-ratio Muncie M21 and its Hurst shifter. Like the real 9561s, Butch's car sports disc brakes and a heavy-duty antiroll bar. It also wears 15x6 disc wheels with NOS-not reproduction-Goodyear Polyglas F70-15 tires.
Butch did break with convention when he got to the engine. Instead of finding and rebuilding a 427, he bought a GM Performance Parts HO454. He topped its aluminum manifold with an 850-cfm Holley and flanked it with a set of exhaust manifolds correct for 396 and 427 Chevy Camaros.
Though the engine isn't absolutely faithful to the era, everything around it is, including the belts, hoses, fuel lines, rocker covers, stickers, stamps, and the dual-circuit master cylinder and its attendant Delco booster. He even restored a stock distributor, giving it a faster curve and a points-eliminator kit. Reliable Muffler in Longview, Washington, fabricated the exhaust from larger 21/2-inch aluminized pipes and slightly louder Flowmaster mufflers.
Rust repairs meant Butch replaced a bit of tin on the car but the car's new personality required that he replace the hood with a GM cowl-induction piece. He prepped the car and shot the trunk, interior, undercarriage, and underhood area before turning it over to Larry Barnett. He then sprayed it Hugger Orange in PPG's concept base/clear system.
Going by COPO protocol, Butch retained the stock wheel, column, dash, heater controls, white standard interior, and even the lowly (and frequently discarded) radio-delete plate. But don't think Butch chose to clone as an easy way out: in the process he had to find a 140-mph speedometer, a factory tach, and the requisite center-mount fuel gauge that accompanied tachometer cars, which didn't get the console-mounted gauges. "The hardest thing was finding some of the little things that were missing that they don't repo," he said.
Regarding the big-wheeled RS, "I wanted to build a car the way I wanted;" Butch began, "reliable but with way too much power." And over a two-year span, and with the help of friends, among them Walt McPherson, Brian Sales, and Tim Harris, he did just that. "I found the car in AutoTrader," he continued. A woman had purchased the car new in Central California and brought it with her when she moved to Washington State. "She was losing her eyesight and wanted to quit driving. It was in fair condition and had an older paintjob, but it was mostly un-restored."
For the most part he stuck to the Pro Touring theme. Rather than force the front suspension to do things it was never intended to do-handle, specifically-he replaced the entire subframe with a Chris Alston Chassisworks g-Machine assembly. Above and beyond revised pickup points to improve camber curve and roll centers, it features tubular control arms, VariShock adjustable-damping coilovers, a billet steering rack, and dropped spindles. Bolted to those are 13-inch Wilwood rotors and four-pot calipers.
As he did with the front, Butch replaced the entire rear suspension, this time with a triangulated four-bar crafted by Brian Sales of Redline Race Cars in Longview. He similarly dispensed with the 10-bolt in favor of a Dutchman 9-inch that, like the COPO clone, spins a 3.73:1 cog on a limited-slip differential. That axle also sports Wilwood discs, albeit 12-inchers. Unlike the front, the rear rides on Aldan Eagle coilovers.
Cornering performance may take precedent over straight-line acceleration nowadays, but one thing remains the same: big power still rules. The GM Performance Parts ZZ572 delivers it too; even though it's the low-compression pump-gas variety, GM reports that it produces 620 hp (and at that, some say it's underrated).
Butch left the engine alone but adorned it with a Barry Grant 850-cfm Speed Demon carburetor and Chassisworks 13/4-inch headers. Those, in turn, feed 3-inch aluminized pipes that Tim Harris built with an X-pipe and Spintech mufflers.
The front of the engine drives a Billet Specialties Tru-Trac accessory drive system. Ahead of that is a BeCool aluminum radiator and electric fan. The back of the engine drives a 700-R4 prepped by Bow Tie Overdrives in Hesperia, California. Butch controls it with a stock horseshoe shifter that he updated with a new detent plate and lens to match the overdrive's pattern.
Just because the car was solid to begin with and basically looks stock doesn't mean Butch didn't invest a lot of effort into its body. In anticipation of wider tread, Butch opened the rear wells with Detroit Speed mini-tubs. He replaced the hood with a 4-inch cowl-induction unit, and to give the engine a bit more presence he shaved the firewall.
Though seemingly more intense, Butch says those mods paled in comparison to the work that the Rally Sport package took. "I spent a lot of time trying to line up hidden headlight parts to make them look straight and aligned with the opening," he said. He replaced the vacuum-operated headlight actuators with electric motors, and hid the A/C hoses. Longview's Larry Barnett painted the car Hugger Orange using PPG Concept-series urethane base/clear.
The shaved firewall eliminated the factory climate control unit, a problem that Butch happily replaced with a Vintage Air system. Butch and his pal Walt McPherson modified the OEM wiring loom to accommodate the climate system and an Alpine head unit. It, in turn, drives Infinity component sets. The bulk of the interior remains stock, including the seats that Butch and nearby Jim's Upholstery trimmed in black comfort weave. Even the seat belts are the ones that came with the car.
Butch shoed the car with Coddington Timeless-series wheels. The fronts measure 18x7, and the rears, a whopping 18x12. "When I had the wheels made, they had to weld two hoops together because the offset was so deep," Butch said. Speaking of offset, all wheels feature 4-inch backspace. They also wear ZR-rated Michelin Pilot Sports, 225/40 and 335/35, respectively.
Butch took a few liberties with the interior. He scotched the stock gauge cluster in favor of a Detroit Speed dash and outfitted that with Autometer Pro-Comp Ultra-Lite gauges. He replaced the fixed column with an ididit tilt column and topped it with a Comfort Grip steering wheel and upgraded the wipers with the optional delay function.
The remote mirror, tinted glass, and deluxe interior weren't his doing though; they were all there from day one, factors that Butch said weighed heavily during the car's build. Though at first glance the car appears highly modified, it is, in fact, quite intact. "All the changes that were made were done without sacrificing the style of a '69 Camaro," Butch said. "That way it would be possible if someone ever wanted to go back."
By our comparison, to pedigreed cars it might sound as if we're making the case that clones and hot rods like Butch's are somehow lesser. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Truth be told, pedigreed cars are too precious anymore. About the only extreme thing a true COPO car endures today is a good throttling as it crosses the auction block. From there they might get a cautious lap around the block before they go back in their trailer and ultimately back into a climate-controlled garage.
But as anyone who's ever fallen in love with a car will tell you, a muscle car earns its keep when pitched sideways and held a tick shy of its redline. Honestly, hardly a pedigreed car-certainly not one in the hands of a half-sane owner-will ever approach that sort of glory anymore. What a pity. Like a happy puppy at the end of a short leash, a muscle car begs to play. What misfortune to deny one that pleasure. We'll stick to our mongrels, thank you.