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Is the 2021 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE the best Camaro ever?

By Streetside Classics September 22, 2021

After an almost decade-long hiatus, the Chevrolet Camaro came roaring back to the forefront of the motoring world with their popular line of retro-designed cars, planting Chevrolet firmly back into the muscle car business where it rightfully belongs -- fighting the good fight in the renewed muscle car wars. Competition breeds ingenuity, and Chevy has thrown down the gauntlet with every subsequent facelift, power increase, and technological advance ushered in their recent Camaro models. Having had their fill battling with beefed-up specialty Mustangs and the aggressive Mopars of the world, Chevrolet decided to kick things up a notch with their own legendary pony car. The result was their boldest production Camaro of all time: the ZL1.

A veritable record scratch in the race to the top-of-the-heap of American performance cars, the Camaro ZL1 was introduced as a genuine production car for the first time in 2012 and it’s improved every year since, with the currently redesigned 6th generation ZL1 1LE playing the part of a genuine super car.

With the ZL1’s grand reputation beginning to reach mythical proportions in the motoring world, we’ve been asked the same question dozens of times: “Is the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE the best Camaro ever?”

Answering that bold of a question is not an easy feat, and we must unpack it further by examining a few qualifiers and setting some parameters if we are to truly give an informative opinion that the reader can respect.

First, we’ve chosen the newest and best ZL1 that’s currently available for sale: the 2021 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE.  Second, we think it’s only fair if we briefly examine the history and evolution of the ZL-1/ZL1.  Third, we understand that most people do not consider the modern ZL1 a true “muscle car” but rather a “new-muscle” car, and quite frankly we agree. That makes finding an answer to the question very difficult, and in some people’s eyes completely impossible, to compare the two eras and find a “Best Camaro Ever” winner. But subjectivity is exactly the fun of these kinds of exercises, is it not? Our clients regularly toil over the “classic muscle car vs. modern muscle car” question, so we hope this entry will be of some assistance. In this space, we’d like to examine both “muscle car” worlds in a way that helps us find an answer to the original query, and we’ve chosen to do so by comparing the new ZL1 Camaro to the classic 1969 Camaro. With that being said, there are obviously several variants and sub models of the ’69 Camaro, so in the interest of time we’ll pick the consensus ’69 Camaros based on our sales data and see how they stack up against the new ZL1.

Let’s begin with a bit of history.

Evolution of the Camaro ZL-1 and ZL1

Ironically enough, we begin our history in the exact year that produced the biggest challengers for the modern ZL1’s shot at the crown: 1969. In 1968-69, an enterprising Chevy dealer named Fred Gibb cleverly exploited Chevrolet’s COPO special-order system (initially put in place for dealers to order things like special paint packages for fleet vehicles) to give birth to the Camaro ZL-1.  Gibb already had experience in the somewhat controversial process, so when an all-aluminum 427 block (code named the ZL-1) was developed by Chevy for Can-Am racing and other Corvette track use, he set his sights on ordering one for the 1969 Camaro. Although he was the first to do so, he wasn’t the only forward-thinking dealer to order one of these ZL-1 optioned COPO Camaros, with soon-to-be-legends like Berger Chevrolet, Baldwin-Motion, and Yenko Performance all getting in on the action – eventually accounting for a total of 69 original 1969 ZL-1 Camaros slipping out of the GM factory.

These cars weren’t exactly a success for these dealers, far from it actually. ZL-1 COPOs were very expensive, with the all-aluminum 427 ZL-1 cars carried a $4,200 premium for the engine package alone, meaning the first two ZL-1s were sent to Gibb Chevrolet with prices of $7,200 each – nearly double that of the already expensive iron-block 427 COPO Camaro. Gibb received 50 of the first 52 ordered, but the Illinois dealer ultimately only sold 13 and sent the rest back to GM. In fact, the last one they sold sat on the lot until ‘72, and a year later it was even repossessed and returned. Some of the other dealers around the country had so much trouble moving these all-aluminum 427 cars that they wound up pulling the motors and replacing them with lesser engines, just so they could move the stale inventory off the lot. If only hindsight were 20/20.

In fact, these cars were simply too fast and too track-ready, and as far as most Americans were concerned the unbridled power was overwhelming in a Camaro. We’re talking about an engine that was factory-rated at 435HP, yet it only weighed about the same as a 327, a compression ratio of 12.25:1, and reported ¼-mile times in the mid-10s. And this was right out of the crate, we can only imagine the real-world performance after someone like Don Yenko got his hands on one and started bolting-on goodies and tuning it up.    

That blistering performance, the incredible scarcity, the backhanded history of how they were ordered, and the incredulous way of how unpopular they first were, all make the original 1969 ZL-1 a top competitor for the “Best Camaro Ever” title.

The continued history of the ZL-1 moves on with less excitement and fanfare, but certainly with continued performance and rarity. Bill Mitchell built an early 2nd generation Camaro prototype ZL-1 that ultimately served as nothing more than a design study for future cars, with several of its appearance cues later incorporated into the Firebird Trans AM. Later, the late 2nd generation ZL-1 was employed as a marketing piece for GM, previewing the soon-to-be styling of the ’78-’81 Camaros that ultimately regained the model’s sales footing.

The ZL-1 hibernated for a generation, and then reemerged in the 4th generation as a concept car, and then ultimately as a low-production special edition vehicle that coincided with Camaro’s final hurrah in 2002. Jon Moss, Chevy’s “Toy Box” chief behind the Impala SS concept, also built a special “Catfish Camaro” prototype, and like the original ZL-1 it had an all-aluminum Donovan block, albeit with a huge 572 displacement.

Camaro returned to the market in 2010, and two years later the Camaro ZL1 became an official production car, dropping the hyphen altogether. The new retro-design of the Camaro marked a perfect time to reintroduce big horsepower via an aluminum engine, however it now came via a small block 6.2L LSA with an Eaton supercharger attached. Unlike its predecessor, these ZL1s could be enjoyed on the road or winding racetrack, and they were still dragstrip-ready with a 580HP rating and 3.8-second 0-60MPH time. Goodies like Magnetic Ride Control, both automatic and manual transmissions, modern amenities, and even a convertible ZL1 model (introduced in 2013) meant that these cars actually sold, unlike their forefathers.

That brings us to our current ZL1, the 6th generation.  Redesigned so dynamically it hardly looks American, this is a super-muscle-car. In 2016-2017, the car was downright amazing with a supercharged 6.2L V8 estimated at 640 HP, an optional 10-speed automatic, a stiff yet lightweight body, Magnetic Ride Suspension, electronic limited-slip, and massive brakes that all work with its Driver Mode Selector technology for an incredible road experience. This was the first time we heard people saying that the Camaro was just as good, if not better than the Corvette, something we never heard before. But in 2018, the car went to an even higher plane with the introduction of the 1LE Extreme Track Performance Package. That package continues today in the 2021 ZL1, as a road-track focused dream car with aggressive styling hell-bent on maximizing downforce and state-of-the-art aerodynamics that shave off seconds at the track. It features an insanely long list of performance parts, which include everything mentioned above, plus even more horsepower, an improved suspension, Brembo brakes, and a finely tuned 6-speed manual transmission with Active Rev Match. The Camaro is on team #savethemanual all the way! It’s also a very comfortable four-seater with every major amenity you could think of inside. Frankly, I’m doing it no justice in this limited-space, plug “2021 Camaro ZL1 1LE” into YouTube and you’ll see countless videos praising this car.

Now that we’ve espoused the virtues of the 1969 ZL-1 vis-à-vis the 2021 LT1 1LE, let us cover a couple other potential candidates in the running for “Best Camaro Ever”.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28:  Another icon that started off with racing in mind, the Z/28 took time to popularize in the American psyche. Chevrolet’s Vince Piggins was thrust into the middle of the late-‘60s horsepower wars, tasked to bring the manufacturer into the thick competition of the SCCA Trans-Am racing series, where cars like the Mustang, Dart, and Barracuda were winning races, and thusly selling cars on the backs of their achievements. Piggins needed to certify an engine that met the displacement limit of the series, and thusly the legendary 302 V8 DZ motor was born. With a short stroke (like in the 283) and oversquare bore (like in the 327), the 302 could run at higher RPMs for longer periods of time, and instantly became a race favorite that dominated both on and off the track. The high-revving motor generated north of 375HP (well over the blatantly underrated listing of 295HP) at high RPMs and could perform at redline speeds for long periods. It was dependable, lightweight, and an amazing runner with mandatory options like power front disc brakes, quick steering, a 4-speed Muncie M21 close-ration gearbox, special springs and shocks, and a 3.73 rear axle all leading the list. By 1969, the secret of the great-driving Z/28 was out, and American’s loved the color options, the wide-stripe package, and the 15x6 wheels on nylon red-stripe tires. A grand performer with even better curb appeal, the car is loved by millions of fans today, with numbers-matching units selling for big money all over the world. In my opinion, an ideal 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 to compete with the ’21 ZL1 1LE would be numbers-matching and come equipped with every standard option of course, but in addition have an optional cross-ram dual-carb package, Heavy-Duty Service fiberglass hood, four-wheel disc brakes, and a Heavy-Duty rear end. Some of these options were technically over-the-counter add-ons in 1969, and there are certainly other options like the Shinoda Super Scoop hood that particular buyers may prefer, but the fact remains that the Z/28 can be configured into a killer specimen anyway you slice it. The 1969 Z/28 is an icon, a legend, and finding one with loads of pedigree and provenance could easily put it at the top of the list of ‘Best Camaro Ever’.

Our final submission for ‘Best Camaro Ever’ is a bit broader in scope. It may feel like a cop-out, but I think it’s only fair to lump several cars under the umbrella of the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro RS/SS, or risk writing an entire encyclopedia by not doing so. And although the reader may find it unfair, I’m including both convertibles and coupes, and both big block and small block cars as well. Along with pretty much every option and color combination under the roof, because quite frankly, you could get a ’69 Camaro almost any way you wanted it. The truth is, the ’69 Camaro holds such a special place in so many people’s hearts, and so many variations of this particular year hold great merit, that it’s hard to single out a favorite from these more ‘common’ cars. I particularly love a Raven Black 396 RS/SS Coupe with a Houndstooth interior and 4-speed manual. But I also love the ’69 Pace Car Convertible. And every tribute, restomod, pro-touring, and numbers-matching example in between has plenty of redeeming qualities. Whether it’s nostalgia, driving experience, or just plain old curb appeal, any number of these will show up on a fans all-time list. There needn’t be an exact answer all the time, especially when you have such a wide selection, and with that argument I submit the broader range of the 1969 Camaro RS/SS as a potential “Best Camaro Ever”. It might be cheating a bit, but it’s the only way to include these top contenders in a short space.

With these arguments made, we won’t completely disappoint the reader hoping for a clear answer, because there can be some borderline objectivity when it comes to identifying the “Best Camaro Ever”. Frankly, they’re all worthy of an award:

Best Investment Grade Camaro: 1969 Camaro COPO ZL-1

The ’69 COPO ZL-1 is by far the best if you’re a collector that wants rarity and return on investment. But you better have deep pockets, COPO #59 just sold at auction for $1,094,500 in 2020.

Best Hybrid (Investment/Driver) Camaro: 1969 Camaro Z/28

The ’69 Z/28 is a great blend of rarity, performance, pedigree, and curb appeal. A real numbers-matching Z/28 can easily bring six-figures, so this example may not be everyone’s particular choice either. But then again, depending on options and condition they can certainly be found cheaper, and they’re not all so rare that you’ll be terrified to drive one. And that’s a good thing, because a 302DZ not feathering the redline is like a lion without claws. The fact that this is a highly collectable car that can still be enjoyed on the road puts the Z/28 as one of the very best.                 

Best All-Around Muscle Car Camaro: 1969 Camaro RS/SS  

By our sales data alone, this would be the “Best Camaro Ever” for the widest range of people. That’s partially the case because we used the heading as a catch-all for several submodels, but the fact remains that people love the ’69 Camaro RS/SS almost universally. Whether that’s because of a strong nostalgic attachment, or the fact that they’ve actually driven one (whereas the other submissions are quite rare and don’t afford the opportunity), seen a killer resto-mod they loved out on the street, or just clicked on so many affordable examples on sites like ours that they’ve persisted in the mind.

Best Modern Camaro: 2021 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

A marvel of modern ingenuity, it’s a car that’s so fast and handles so well it can dominate the Nürburgring and still be the best-looking vehicle at the valet stand. Plus, it has all the creature comforts of a luxury car, without the neediness of a classic. A car that made me angry because I loved it so much after I drove it, I had to completely rethink my ‘classics are the best no matter what’ position.

The answer to the initial question, “Is the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE the best Camaro ever?”, for me is YES for performance alone, but NO for Sunday windows down, weekend warrior joy ride cruising. Nothing beats classic American muscle when it comes to a leisurely weekend cruise, plus you simply can’t beat the investment returns and value retention of a classic car—you almost get paid to drive them!

Whatever your answer may be, the fact that there are so many potential candidates is exactly why so many of us love the Chevrolet Camaro.