During the muscle car era, drivers wanted to use their new high power cars, and that meant an explosion in the popularity of drag racing. NHRA was becoming a big series, prompting both Chevy and Plymouth to build cars that could be classified as production vehicles to give racers a good start for building race winners. Which car is better?
1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Dealer Fred Gibb had asked for a big block engine to compete in NHRA drag racing, prompting the construction of 69 cars using a Central Office Production Order, usually reserved for ordering commercial fleet vehicles, to get around GM’s 400 cubic inch engine size limit. These “COPO” cars had a full factory warranty despite using the best GM tech available.
The 1969 Chevy Camaro ZL1 engine was a lightly modified version of the one used in the Can-Am Chaparral racecar. Features included an aluminum head and block, wet sump lubrication, and a Holley four-barrel carburetor. Output was around 500 horsepower, making it one of the most powerful motors GM sold to the public in a production vehicle. Combine that with a 396 SS body, heavy-duty suspension and a four-speed manual, and the car could run mid-13s at the drag strip straight from the factory. However, with a price more than double that of a standard V8 Camaro, there were few takers, forcing Gibb to trade cars to other dealers in an attempt to sell them off.
1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda
The Hemi is famous, but real world buyers usually opted for the Commando, which could idle smoothly and had low end performance that made it useful on the street. Only 652 ’70 ‘Cudas had the elephant motor, but those that did were built for pure performance. Anything that wasn’t necessary was left off, leaving a sparse and surprisingly lightweight car that had at least 125 more horsepower than Chrysler’s claimed 425 hp output. With a drag racing-friendly automatic sending power to a limited slip differential, the 1/4 mile was in the high 13s.
Look past the performance numbers, and the Plymouth is the clear winner. The Camaro is slightly faster, but it had to use exotic racing components to trump the Mopar. Production parts let Plymouth sell the ‘Cuda for half the price of the Z71, putting it within reach of normal buyers. In the end, Chrysler had no trouble selling ten times as many Hemi ‘Cudas as there were Z71 Camaros.
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