When Chevrolet launched the new Camaro in September 1966, it wanted to tackle Ford’s groundbreaking Mustang at every level, including on the track. General Motors engineer and all-round racing enthusiast Vince Piggins was already assembling a racing variant to tackle GM’s rival in the important SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Trans-Am series when the Camaro first went to market in 1967. Piggins ordered a Camaro fitted with a four-speed Muncie M-21 transmission, Corvette front disc brakes, larger rear drums, beefed up RPO (Regular Production Order) R-41 heavy duty suspension package, 15-inch diameter wheels, special hood with functioning air intake, fibreglass rear spoiler, and the three-inch crankshaft from Chevrolet’s 283ci V8 installed in the 327 engine block to give a capacity of 302.4ci.
His pet project Camaro race package was listed as RPO Z-28, which led on sequentially from RPO Z-27, the Camaro Super Sport (SS) package. Rather than invent a fancy marketing name for the Trans-Am focused Camaro, it simply went by its RPO listing; Z-28. Chevrolet didn’t promote or market the Z-28. Only key race teams and only Chevrolet dealerships were privy to its existence. Because General Motors was officially out of racing, and had been since 1963, it couldn’t be seen to be actively involved in the sport. Instead, it had to quietly produce a homologation special, providing the very best tools so that race teams could build their own cars. Trans-Am regulations had a 5000cc (305ci) maximum engine size. However, while engines under 5000cc could be bored to get closer to the maximum size, larger engines couldn’t be reduced in size.
The Z-28’s ace card was its brilliant 302 engine, which in stock form was actually just a smidgen shy of 305ci, whereas rival Fords smaller 289 fell well short. Chevrolet also worked closely with Roger Penske’s team, headed by the brilliant driver/engineer Mark Donohue and this all aided in the development of the Camaro into a race winner and, ultimately, a championship winner. This would benefit all teams campaigning the little Chevy pony car. Naturally, the Camaro’s racing success in the United States prompted teams elsewhere to adopt the new model. American Trans-Am racer Tom Lynch took his Camaro to England, making its debut in the 1967 British Saloon Car Championship (BSCC) on April 29. This was the first Camaro to race in Britain. The same month Chris Tuerlinx debuted another example in the Belgian Touring Car Championship, while Bo Kasby did likewise in the Swedish Touring Car Championship a couple of months later.
In July 1967 in the saloon car support race for the British Grand Prix, the brilliant all-rounder Hugh Dibley added a second Camaro to the BSCC grid, while three Camaros, including that of Lynch (co-driven by Australian racer Bryan Thomson) were entered in the epic Spa 24-Hours touring car race, Round 8 of the 1967 European Touring Car Championship. Although the SCCA Trans-Am series had a 5000cc maximum engine size, no such limitations were placed on British and European championships, and the same was true in Australia, where Melbourne racer Terry Allan had Bill Thomas Race Cars (famous for building the incredible Chevrolet-powered Cheetah sports cars) build him a Camaro which was sent to Australia where it was fitted with a monster 396ci big block, breathing through a quartet of two-barrel Weber carburettors mounted on a cross-ram side-draft intake manifold. And with that, the Camaro very quickly became a world car, tackling the Mustang in sedan competitions across the globe. And New Zealand race fans didn’t have to wait long to witness the very first Camaro to be campaigned here.
The New Zealand Saloon Car Championship switched from its unruly Allcomer regulations to FIA Group 5 for the 1967/1968 encounter. And while there was no maximum engine size in the 1968 championship, a 5500cc ceiling was introduced for 1969. Mustangs dominated the 1968 series, but the 5.5-litre limit lent itself perfectly to Chevrolet’s 327ci smallblock V8.
Adding to the mystique of New Zealand’s very first racing Camaro, which made its debut in late 1968, was its owner/driver, Spencer ‘Spinner’ Black. Auckland businessman Black attacked his racing with gusto, and while the Camaro lacked the manners of the well-sorted Mustangs in its early outings, its extra grunt and Spinner’s press-on driving style thrust it up among the best and fastest.
Spinner’s Camaro was a 1967 Super Sport with the desirable Rally Sport option with hide-away headlights. It was a road car that had been converted to Group 5 regulations once it arrived in New Zealand. The Camaro made its debut at the opening round of the 1969 New Zealand Saloon Car Championship, held at Pukekohe on October 19, 1968. It was resplendent in its factory Butternut Yellow paint and rolled on a set of handsome magnesium American Racing Torq Thrust wheels wrapped in Firestone Indy tyres.
As standard, the Super Sport Camaro was fitted with a 350ci engine; too large for New Zealand 5.5-litre regulations. But engine capacity was brought back to 327ci by simply fitting a 327 crankshaft, as both motors used the same block. The small block Chevy was topped with a Moon intake manifold and four twin-choke Webers. Backing it was a Muncie M-22 close-ratio four-speed transmission. The Camaro was notable for its extensive (for 1968) six-point roll-cage, when most local racing sedans had, at best, a basic B-pillar hoop, or nothing at all. It also sported a homologated fibreglass rear spoiler.
On debut, following various new-car gremlins, Black qualified on the second to last row in the combined race, putting him down with the 1000cc class Minis, while Paul Fahey (Mustang) and Dave Simpson (Escort Twin-Cam) shared the front row on the big grid. However, by lap three, Black had muscled his way to fourth position overall, and the 327 Chevy was winding out impressive top speeds down the back straight, comfortably eclipsing what leader Fahey was able to achieve. Fast in a straight line the Camaro certainly was, but its ability to stop was proving more elusive.
With his sights set on Simpson and thirdplaced Rod Coppins (Mustang), Black was getting increasingly lairy through the highspeed bends, and ultimately lost control and spun wildly through the infield, thankfully coming to rest without doing any harm. And with that, Spinner’s race was done. It had been an inauspicious start, if typically spectacular. But more-so, Black had just made history. Of the hundreds, if not thousands of Camaros that have graced New Zealand racetracks since October 19, 1968, it all started here. Round 2 of the championship was held on the tiny Levin circuit, and Black took an encouraging third position behind winner Fahey, and Red Dawson’s recently acquired ex-Frank Bryan Shelby Mustang.
Following a couple of non-championship events, Spinner arrived at Bay Park for Round 3 of the championship, held on December 28. It was here the Camaro sported its new colour scheme for the first time with the striking livery of Lexington cigarettes. The late December Bay Park contest was fast becoming one of the season highlights, and the 1968 epic didn’t disappoint. The organisers had arranged for Australian touring car icon Norm Beechey to attend with his hugely popular and charismatic Chevy II Nova.
Bay Park would prove a success for Black, as he scored his first championship victory, heading home the previously dominant Fahey in the process, while Coppins was third. The Camaro was fast proving itself a genuine contender, and after three rounds, Black lay second to Fahey in the Over 2000cc championship battle, and ahead of Red Dawson and Coppins. Moving on to Wigram for Round 4, and Black was surely savouring the prospect of opening up the big Chevy on the long straights and fast corners. But it was here disaster struck. In Heat 1, he was leading, with Dawson giving chase, and with two laps to run, the Camaro pilot spun at Club Corner. He bundled straight into the hay bales lining the temporary circuit, taking Dawson with him, and after gyrating a couple of times, finally came to rest on top of a bale, which was promptly set alight by the hot exhaust. Although fire marshals quickly halted the flames, Black and the Camaro weren’t seen again that weekend, and nor did they attend any of the South Island races that followed.
When the Camaro did finally reappear, it was in Round 8 of the championship at Levin, but it wasn’t Black at the wheel. Rather, his business partner Terry Scott (father of Kayne Scott) took the helm, and confidently guided the Chevy home in third, behind winner Dawson, and Fahey. Spinner was back for the final round of the championship (Round 9) at Pukekohe, qualifying second to Fahey (and just 0.4s behind the flying Mustang). After chasing his rival through the opening corners, he powered past down the back straight, only to brake too late for the hairpin. Having slipped back to third behind Dawson, he soon demoted the blue Mustang, and went off after Fahey once more, but the gap was too large to bridge.
The Pukekohe finale also hosted the 30 Minute Dunlop feature race; again, another furious battle ensued between Black and Fahey. Having surged ahead once more, the Camaro pilot looked to have things under control, until he spun wildly at Champion Curve on lap 16. Having finally slithered to a halt, he set off after Fahey, who by now was well up the road, and was headed for certain victory until he clipped a lapped car that forced his retirement. And in front of 11,000 cheering fans, Spinner took a popular victory to close the season.
For the 1969/1970 season, the Camaro appeared sporting a new paint scheme, this time in the colours of Cambridge cigarettes at the behest of sponsor Phillip Morris. With the Camaro proving itself a genuine contender, Black decided to expand to a two-car team and had an HK Holden Monaro built and also painted in Cambridge colours. The Monaro shared the same running gear as the Camaro. The big Aussie coupé would be leased and driven by Rod Coppins.
But while the Camaro was now a wellsorted package, the same couldn’t be said for the Monaro. It missed the opening round of the championship in October 1969, and Coppins was then frustrated by various newcar gremlins that ensured it didn’t venture beyond practice in both Rounds 2 and 3. Round 4 was held at Pukekohe on December 8, and it was here, following further issues with the Monaro that Black agreed to let Coppins race the Camaro instead. And the new pairing immediately clicked.
Coppins was again aboard the Camaro at Bay Park on December 28, while Black, now driving the Monaro, blew an engine in practice. Coppins qualified on the front row, between the Mustangs of Dawson and John Riley (now driving the ex-Fahey machine). The Camaro quickly established a lead and looked to be heading to victory when Coppins clunked a barrier on the final lap, dropping down to third. In the second heat, he recovered from a slow start that pushed him to seventh. From there, however, he picked off car after car, eventually catching leader Dawson, with whom he swapped the lead several times, and was ahead when it mattered, scoring his maiden saloon car championship race win. With Fahey having switched to an Alan Mann Racing Escort FVA, it was Dawson who established himself as top dog, and it was Dawson who’d built a healthy points lead by the time the championship moved to its next event, at Levin. However, Levin would prove the turning point in the series. Dawson was absent, having suffered a mechanical issue, while Coppins broke the lap record in qualifying and won the nonchampionship race, then recovered from a slow start in the championship encounter to finish second to Riley.
Pukekohe was next, and again Coppins broke the lap record in qualifying, and went on to lead the championship race from start to finish. Dawson returned, but his engine expired during the race while chasing the Camaro. The 1970 season was a peculiar one in that the entire national championship was contested in the North Island, while a group of South Island racers established the coveted Mercury $1000 Series. The NZ championship took a break while the first four rounds of the seven-round Mercury series was fought, and naturally, was heavily supported by North Island teams, including Coppins. After finishing third in the opening three rounds, Coppins asserted himself from Round 2 at Teretonga, taking the win. He then backed this up by doing likewise at Levels and Ruapuna. Then it was back to the North Island for the next NZ championship event, with Coppins winning both heats, while Dawson suffered more mechanical mayhem with the clutch exploding in practice, followed by differential failure in the first heat, which put him on the trailer.
Bay Park hosted the non-championship spectacle in late March, which was boosted with the addition of Australian racer Terry Allan’s monster big-block Camaro. Coppins and Riley (Dawson was absent repairing the Mustang) put on an epic display in both heats. Pukekohe hosted the penultimate championship race, which Coppins won again, while Dawson placed third behind Jim Richards’ Escort Twin-Cam.
The championship decider was held at Levin on April 18 with Dawson and Coppins almost tied on points. When Dawson lunched his engine in practice, it looked as though Coppins would take the title, but Riley very generously loaned Dawson his ex-Fahey machine. Fahey took pole in the little Escort, followed by Coppins and Dawson. From the start, Dawson bolted out of the gates and took the lead, with Coppins giving chase. But it was Fahey who was on the move, first getting by the Camaro, and then the Mustang two laps later. He sped away to a comfortable victory while Dawson went on to finish second, and Coppins third. Following the race, however, Dawson was deemed to have jumped the start, and was penalised 10 seconds, which promoted Coppins to second in the race, and thus, the championship was his!
However, Dawson protested successfully, and the results were thus restored. When the points were tallied, both Dawson and Coppins finished up on 34 apiece. And when second and third place finishes were accounted, the result was also a tie. With that, there was no other option but to declare both drivers joint-1970 New Zealand Saloon Car Champions.
With the drama of Levin behind him, and the championship in the bag, Coppins took the Camaro South once more where he won two of the three remaining events, to be crowned inaugural 1970 Mercury $1000 Champion. It had been quite the season.
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