The History of the American Muscle Car Era - 1969

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1969 American Muscle Cars


American Muscle Cars of 1968

1969 Dodge R/T

COPO - Central Office Production Order cars

1969 was a year when American Brute horsepower ruled, and the backlash created by burgeoning insurance rates and increased federal emissions and safety regulations hadn't yet begun to make its mark in the engineering divisions. The front office people certainly saw the handwriting on the wall, but horsepower junkies had a few years of reprieve before it was time for the party to end. In the meantime there were the COPO Chevelles and Camaros.

These Central Office Production Order cars were produced in very limited numbers. These engine/body combos were built in small batches to meet special needs - such as the NHRA 50-unit minimum rule to make a car eligible for Super Stock drag racing classes. The impetus behind the whole program, of course, was the CM corporate policy banning the use of engines over 400 cubes in intermediate-size cars.

Although there has been much disagreement among musclecar historians as to just how many of each COPO model were produced, it appears that about 350 Camaros were made with the 427-cubic-inch L72 engine for dealers like Yenko, Dana, Berger and Motion, who wanted to convert them into special SS street racers. There were also some 120 L72 Chevelles sold in factory form, and two runs totalling 69 Camaros were built with the all-aluminium Corvette ZL1 competition engines. There were bought in the crate. So it's possible that some 500 or so 1969 Camaros with 42 7 engines were roaming the streets back then.

Muscle-cars were not the least bit happy in crowded conditions such as these, particularly the highest-horsepower versions, but one development in the GM « camp made things easier on the ol' clutch leg. GM introduced a highly beefed version of the Turbo Hydramatic 400 automatic transmission, offered in all the wildest performance models. Internals were up to the task of the torquiest motors and shift points were high—6200 rpm! It was more than welcomed by many GM street racers, who were tired of getting hole-shotted by Dodge and Plymouth big-blocks with the heavy duty TorqueFlite trans, famous for its great launches. You could even order the new Turbo Hydro in the ultimate Corvette—the L88! Only 116 of the '69 models got the 427 in this form - basically a competition-use, $1032 extra-cost package. Yet there was one more rung up on the Corvette horsepower ladder, the all-aluminium ZL1. This $3000 option was installed in just two cars, making it one of the rarest of Vette combos.

Full-sized Chevys were restyled for 1969 and available with the SS 427 package. But it was more likely for a street enthusiast to opt for a smaller chassis, such as the Chevelle or Nova—the latter available with up to a 375-horse 396. The Chevy - Ford rivalry was bigger than ever, though the Mopar contingent was certainly getting in its licks. Not resting on the success of the prior year's Road Runner, Chrysler engineers came back with the fabled Six-Pack option, which nearly matched Street Hemi performance for half the price—$458. The 440 engines running the three big Holley 2-barrels on the aluminium hi-riser manifold proved to be smooth and flexible, as well as quick.

1969 Dodge Charger R/T
1969 Dodge Charger R/T.

1969 Ford Boss 429 V8
1969 Ford Boss 429 as fitted to the Mustang for homologation for NASCAR competition.

Mopar's famous Six-Pack induction system with 3 Holley 2 barrels
Mopar's famous Six-Pack induction system with 3 Holley 2 barrels.

The Judge

Mopar foes kept an eye out for GTXs, Dodge R/Ts and Road Runners so equipped. They were strong machines, but not the sleepers that the 440 Darts and Barracudas were! Switching from the 383 to the 440 was a bolt-in situation for Chrysler engineers, and there was little in the way of external identification to tell the Chevy and Ford drivers what was beating under the hood of those awesome A-bodies. The hit show "Laugh-In" coined a popular phrase, "Here comes de judge." Pontiac's marketing people saw a great opportunity here, with the slogan fresh on everybody's lips. So along came "The Judge," a GTO with bold graphics, wild colours and an available Ram Air IV, 400-cube engine, re-engineered with all the internal goodies. It was an all-MM out street racing engine from the word go, right down to its 4-bolt main bearing caps.

Racers like Jim Wangers could set one up to run in the 12s at around 108 mph at the strip, but off the showroom floor, low 14s were the norm. Neat car. And highly prized today. Oldsmobile stuck with the proven 4-4-2 and Hurst formulas for its performance line-up, known as the W machines. The W-30 4-4-2 ran a 360-hp, 400-cubic-inch V8, topped with a Quadrajet hooked to the "vacuum cleaner" induction system. The W-31 was a new option and you could get it in the F-85. This less expensive alternative was based on the 350 mill, with new "small port" heads and a mild cam with lightweight valves and stiff valve springs. This meant a redline of 6500rpm - with hydraulic lifters! The 325-hp rating was possible because Olds threw in the W-30 induction system. It was a great junior supercar for the go-fast crowd.

The Buick GS

But Oldsmobiles were too pricy for the younger set, as were Buicks - one reason why the hot Buick GS models were usually driven by folks in their late thirties and seldom seen cruising with the street racers. Outrageous was the only way to describe the Dodge Daytona Chargers and Plymouth Superbirds - the long nose and high rear wing went perfectly with the character of the 440 and Hemi engines available. If one was seen at the local drive-in, you could've sold tickets—they stopped traffic for sure. While they were very successful on the high-banked tracks in NASCAR, they were dead fish in dealer's showrooms. Today they're among the most sought-after Mopar collector cars. Ford's attempts to combat the "winged warriors" from Mopar were the Talladega and Cyclone Spoiler—with streamlined nose sections and very limited production.

But Ford's big news on the NASCAR front didn't involve a car - it involved a driver. The racing world was knocked back on its heels when the news leaked out that Richard Petty had signed with Ford. It had about the same effect as if Mantle had suddenly signed with the Dodgers. It was the first time Petty had driven anything but a Plymouth since 1959. It was ironic that the Ford people were pretty much forced to build the models that proved to be their most popular muscle-cars of the 1960s.

The Boss 302 and Boss 429 have quite a history. The Boss 429, or shotgun, motor was all-new, with huge hemispherical-type cylinder heads, though not a true Hemi. The combustion chambers were crescent-shaped and the motor was so massive that the cars couldn't be assembled in the normal way on the production line. So Kar Kraft in Brighton, Michigan, got the contract to complete the cars by hand. In the 302's case, it was a matter of having to build at least 1000 units of the hi-po Mustang with less than 305 cubes to be eligible to race in the popular SCCA Trans-Am road racing series that Camaro Z/28s had dominated in 1968. Ford engineers cleverly made a racer out of the wimpy 302 by adapting new big-port Cleveland 4V cylinder heads, adding a forged crank, special rods, better oiling and a solid-lifter cam with 6500 rpm valvetrain, topped with a new hi-riser manifold and 780 cfm Holley. With all the chassis goodies, it was a definite match for the Z/28, though Chevy had Mark Donohue as a driver, which was a decided edge.

The cars from American Motors were sort of outcasts in their own right. Car freaks were not that anxious to have a parent who drove a Rambler—no bragging rights went with the territory. But old AMC came through with a very unusual (for them) performance version known as the Hurst S/C Rambler, using the big 390-cube 4-barrel. With a Warner T-10 4-speed and heavy duty suspension, these little red, white and blue monsters would run low 14s at 100 mph. They weighed in at around 3000 pounds and could deliver 20 mpg. The cars were assembled by the Hurst specialty people in their Detroit shop. On all fronts, 1969 was hard to top. Woodstock was the ultimate happening. And even Rambler got into the musclecar act. From then on, things would start a subtle spiral downward. The dog days lay just a few years off.

In Motorsport few were surprised to see Mario Andretti make it to the Indianapolis 500 winner's circle. His Ford-powered Hawk averaged 156.867 mph in a year when he also won the USAC driving championship. Jackie Stewart took his first world driving title and Lee Roy Yarborough swept the Daytona 500 in a Ford. Dearborn fared well overall in the 1969 competition wars. Trans-Am racing that year had the fury of a hurricane, with standouts like Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, George Follmer, Jerry Titus and Donohue battling it out for the title, which the Penske team won.
1969 Chev Camaro
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