by Jerry Heasley
(Excerpt from Jerry Heasley's Rare Finds published in 2011)
Today, the ZL1 is restored to concours. This particular car might be the highest-optioned and best-restored ZL1 on the planet.
Certain examples of the 1969 ZL1 Camaro have brought more than a million dollars. If only Craig Jackson’s father, Russ, could be around to see his son now. When Craig bought this car in 1988, prices were quite a bit less for the ZL1 Camaro and the 1969 Camaro pretty much was, to most of the world, a clapped-out old drag racecar.
Today, we all know Craig as the president and CEO of the giant Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction, televised internationally. Craig Jackson is CEO and chairman. However, in the 1970s he was just a kid growing up around classic cars in the midst of the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction, formed by Tom Barrett and Russ Jackson. Their first classic car auction was 1971.
Russ Jackson died in 1993, followed by Tom Barrett in 2004. Craig took over in 2005,starting with the West Palm Beach sale.
Today, the muscle cars Craig bought and collected in the 1970s anad 1980s have become the modern-day Duesenbergs in terms of value. In this sense, he was a visionary. Or, perhaps just like his father before him, Craig was a car enthusiast and bought what he liked.
One car on his wish list was a 1969 Camaro ZL1. With a production run of 69, these cars are exceptionally rare. ZL1, of course, is Chevrolet’s option code for the all-aluminum 427.
Enthusiasts know the largest RPO (regular production option) engine in the 1969 Camaro was the 396. The factory installation of the 427 required a COPO (Central Office Production Order) request. COPO 9560 invoked ZL1 at an additional cost of $4,160, or more than the price of a 1969 Camaro. At about $7,200, the ZL1 Camaro of 1969 was not a fast seller on the new-car lot. Fred Gibbs Chevrolet in La Harpe, Illinois, ordered 50 and in one fell swoop the ZL1 became NHRA legal as a production car. Mission accomplished.
Gibbs Chevrolet could sell but 13 ZL1 Camaros of this large order, and Chevrolet took back the other 37 ZL1s for wider distribution. The final tally of 69 produced was an auspicious number for a 1969 model. As the legacy of the ZL1 engine spread, and collectors discovered the rarity of the car, prices escalated. Everybody wanted the king of the road image of ZL1.
Craig was one of those muscle car enthusiasts who wanted a Camaro ZL1. In 1988, he found perhaps the most highly optioned (and thus perhaps the most expensive on the new car sticker) ZL1 in existence. At the time, he was looking for another modern-day Duesenberg, a 1971 Hemi ’Cuda convertible in Kansas City.
“I came through Indiana and talked to a friend of mine,” Craig recalled. This inadvertent conversation led to the ZL1, but first Craig flew home to Phoenix, a little disgruntled he didn’t find muscle car gold on this trip.
Two days later he was flying back to the Midwest when this same friend called and asked, “If you can’t get a Hemi ’Cuda, do you want a ZL1? You won’t believe this: A friend of mine from high school still has his.”
Craig flew back home in a hurry to get the cash he needed to bring to the deal. Craig, like so many buyers, doesn’t like to reveal the sale price, but when I asked if 50K was in the ballpark he said, “I don’t want to say, but you’re not so far off.”
The year was 1988. Craig remembers because he was wearing his “Earthquake 88” shirt. 1988 was the year of the L88 Corvette in collector circles and specifically at Bloomington Gold, Corvette Mecca.
“My friend meets me in the middle of nowhere, Indiana. He lives on Route 1. I drive up a dirt road, through two sets of gates—barbed wire and not a real hospitable place. I go to meet him [the owner of the ZL1]. He doesn’t even say hi. He says, ‘Where is the money?’”
On the hood of a car, Craig opens his brief case with the cash visible. Craig relays, “He told me I was the ‘first person that brought the cash. All these guys want to come here and see the car and stroke me and this and that and the other.’ So I start looking at this car. And he says, ‘What are you doing?’ I go, ‘I’m looking at the car.’ He goes, ‘That ain’t the car, you stupid idiot.’ I hadn’t looked at the VIN number yet. I was just looking at a 1969 Camaro just sitting there.”
Craig gives me a brief history of the ZL1’s first owner. His dad died and he inherited money when he was about eighteen years old. He bought a new ZL1 Camaro. The first day he cut the rear wheel wells for drag racing. Since then, all he has raced is 1969 Camaros.
“He told me the car I wanted was in the back. So we walk around the back and go into this door gap in the barn with no light. That’s why I didn’t get any pictures in there. We had to roll the car outside. His shop was like an archeological dig. He never threw anything out from 1969 until then. He knew where everything was. And he had a memory like a steel trap. It was absolutely amazing. He had a 50-gallon drum of alternators. We’re digging through here, digging through there. Finally he hands me an alternator. I looked on my numbered sheet from the COPO Camaro book—that’s it. We’re getting down to the fine stuff. And he goes, ’Where the hell did I put that tach?’ Well, the tach was in the tow truck, so we go out to the tow truck and there’s the tach for the car on the tow truck dash. The original block had been blown up and then fixed. The car needed a lot of work, but it was all there.”
The Camaro had a cast-iron big-block under the hood. The original ZL1 427 was laying on the floor.
He knew where all the parts were—the heads, the crank, the rods. He also knew the legacy of the ZL1, including the oddities of production. The 427 in his Camaro ZL1 did not have the “curved-neck radiator” and came with a different-size flywheel than specified in Ed Cunneen’s book, COPO Connection (the standard reference source on the ZL1).
The front end was acid dipped to save weight. Craig hung the original fenders in his garage. They do not have holes drilled for badges and are unique in this respect. Chevrolet did not attach RS or SS or engine cubic -inch badges to the Camaro ZL1. The fenders were thin and full of bondo.
In the restoration, Craig kept the Camaro ZL1 as original as possible. Cortez Silver, this Camaro ZL1 is perhaps the highest-optioned ever. What was even more important in the purchase is the paperwork. Every piece of paper from the original owner was kept, as well as every piece of paper from the dealership.
The build sheet is a treasure with this Rare Find. Although a drag car from day one, Craig says the car came with options to be “more of a nice street car.” The odometer showed 195 miles.
“It has the quick-ratio steering that no other ZL1 has, and stripes, obviously the RS option, M-22 Rock Crusher [four-speed manual] transmission, console, gauges; set up more as a nice street car, but it was never a street car. It had 195 miles on the odometer when I got it, but that was a quarter mile at a time.”
Obviously, the car went through many different configurations as a drag car. In the garage its whole life, the body was rust free. Overall, however, Craig had purchased a “cut-up old drag car” in the eyes of his father, Russ Jackson. What he did not realize is his son was way ahead of the learning curve; the same as he and Tom Barrett had been in the early days of collecting classics in the 1950s.
Craig laughs when he remembers what his dad said, words to the effect, “You gave what for that cut-up old drag car? You must be out of your mind.”
Today, the ZL1 Camaro has entered muscle car Valhalla with the prices exceeding a million dollars on restored examples.
Craig went to the original selling dealer. They had a file on the car and supplied paperwork.