This Yenko Camaro’s Attitude Rubs Off On You
Photography by Andrew Golseth
When was the last time you came across a Yenko Camaro? I’m not talking about some run-of-the-mill F-Body with a 427-swap and slapped-on stickers for the sake of tribute. I mean the real deal. Most of us don’t see these all that often, if ever. After 27 years of petrolhead life, weekly Cars and Coffee support, and annual auto show attendance, this is the only legit Yenko Super Camaro I’ve ever seen, and, for whatever reason, the smirking owner threw me the keys with the dangerously understated forewarning, “Careful, it’s torquey.”
One of just 201 made in 1969, this Fathom Green 7.0-liter quarter miler belongs to Jeff Phillips, a man with a seriously diverse taste in classics that leans toward the domestic V8 type. Jeff is a towering figure, but don’t let the goatee and shaved head fool you, he’s one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know.
Jeff has been incredibly generous in letting me make my rounds through his stable, and what a collection it is. But above all others in Jeff’s garage—which ranges from a landyacht ’64 Cadillac droptop to a Ferrari 365 GT—his COPO special 427-powered Yenko Camaro is my irrefutable favorite, which you’d find strange if you knew me 20 years ago.
The younger me hated green cars and found vinyl roofs revolting. Anything metallic on a vintage car, to me, was downright wrong. Hell, I didn’t even like Camaros, probably because it was what my older brother wanted to drive—relentless sibling rivalry, I suppose. Graphics? No thank you. “So tacky,” I’d say in my all-knowing amateur opinion. I honestly didn’t care for many American cars in general when I was a kid.
Considering all of that nonsense, it’s a good thing that our sense of taste changes with age. Today I’m declaring that this metallic green, vinyl-roofed, white-graphic-wearing, 1969 Chevrolet Camaro is not only my ideal muscle car, but one that might make the podium of my all-time favorite automobiles competition that runs in my head daily. From any country, from any era, from any price bracket, I’d have this car over almost any other for one elementary reason: the way it makes me feel from behind the wheel.
It’s no secret that old analog vehicles offer an inexplicably intimate connection between man and machine, but this particular car gave me a totally different attitude while driving it which no other has delivered so far. The Yenko makes me feel… like a badass, which anyone who knows me will certainly attest is not the case. There’s just something about the noise it makes going down the road, the engine protesting cooperation with any attempt at restrained, responsible driving. It’s immature, but I just sort of want to drive like an asshole in this car, and for some reason I think that’s acceptable. I don’t mean behavior like not using my turn signals, cutting people off, or revving at Mustangs, not those things. What I’m implying is that this car moves most comfortably at a far more rapid rate than I regularly drive. So, what’s it like?
Well, first you’ve got to take in the brutish looks of the thing: the etched vinyl graphics, the lightly dulled 30-year-old respray, and the badging that’s just as much bragging rights as it is fair warning that this car will slide its ass into the nearest ditch if not respected. After that, it’s like any other 1969 Camaro… I guess? I should mention that this is the first Camaro I’ve driven of any type, so I don’t really have those rules-of-thumb or reference points to go off of. Who the hell’s first Camaro experience is a Yenko?
Once inside the cabin, which vaguely smells of sunbaked vinyl despite its remarkably clean condition, I grasp the four-speed’s lever, give it the ol’ neutral check wobble, pull the foot-applied handbrake release, crank the key, and the L-72 V8 grumbles to life as if awoken from deep hibernation. It fires quickly and violently, but idles at a relatively quiet pitch with a deceivingly civil metallic rumble underneath. After an easy notch into first, I release the clutch with minimal throttle application and the car lurches forward like most other pony cars I’ve driven—so far, it all seems pretty standard.
Steering, like most Detroit cars from the era, is laughable. From center, the hefty helm has about 10 degrees of play left to right. Sure, go ahead, turn it slightly in either direction and maybe the tires will twist, but corrective inputs are more suggestions than commands answered with precision. With no power steering, you definitely feel some weight at low speeds, but with enough coercion it can be wrangled in. Surprisingly, the Camaro stops rather well thanks to its power disc brakes, which came in handy during this next bit.
This car is fast. I know what you’re thinking, “No shit, Sherlock.” But dismiss your preconceived notions, throw out all of the myths, hype, any praise that surrounds Yenkos, and consider it for what it is on its own, devoid of tacked-on pundit blurbs. Yes, it is a brute, but it’s not unwieldy. It’s not something unapproachable or terrifyingly intimidating to drive in everyday situations, but with a 4.10-ratio’d Positraction stuffed pumpkin and around 425-carbureted-horsepower churning through nearly two-gallons of displacement, it can become a handful in a hurry.
It’s at pedestrian speeds when this car can turn grumpy. Trying to drive a Yenko Camaro in stop-and-go traffic is like trying to leash a grizzly bear through a dog park—you can try to muster it along, pretending it’s something that it’s not, but all it really wants to do is rip your arms off and stick your retinas to the back of your skull.
I roll into the throttle from a dig—I’m not about to launch it hard on public roads I’m connected to with period-correct/borderline useless Goodyear oxymoronic “Wide Tread GT” tires. I wrap out first, clumsily shift into second, and I’m back onto the accelerator. By the middle of revving-out third, I look down and realize I’m breaking the average California Highway Patrol Officer’s “speeding acceptability tolerance” while cruising down the Solana Beach coastline stretch of HWY 101.
This car is deceptively fast. If ever the earth’s rotation needed accelerating, I’m convinced a pair of drag slicks channeling the Yenko’s torque could do the job. There’s so much chug-a-lug thumping away under hood and bellowing out of the boastful exhaust that the needle sprinting ’round the mph counter caught me off guard. My conscious was too focused on trying to keep the inhaling egg-crate beak pointed forward to worry about pedantic irrelevancies such as posted speed limits. “50 mph speed limit? For who, plebs mindlessly steering their way to and from work in their leased BMW i3? Clearly, that ‘limit’ doesn’t apply to a Yenko Camaro.” (See what I mean about the attitude? I can’t help myself in this car.)
I let off after topping third, leaving it in gear to engine-brake my way down from felony to misdemeanor speeds. Sitting at a stoplight, some guy in a beigemobile next to me yells, “Is that real?” At this point, I’m shaking like I had four cups of coffee for breakfast. “Yeah, it’s real,” I proudly respond with a cocky grin as if it’s my own machine. Then the somber realization sets in: 1) this isn’t my car, and 2) I have to return it. Shit.
Sure, the steering can be “selective” in response to directional changes, the gearbox isn’t the most fluid thing to operate, and let’s not pretend this car cares to tear through switchback canyon roads. It was built to haul ass down smooth stretches of tarmac as quickly as possible and/or lay thick parallel—and not necessarily straight—strips of melted rubber between stoplights. It’s really not great at doing anything else, but who cares? I’d normally interpret a single-use car as flawed, but in my lusting, watery eyes, this intrinsically compromised Chevy is somehow perfect. There’s really only one problem with this car: I don’t get to park it in my garage.
The beauty of taking someone else’s car for a spin is getting to wheel something different and, in many cases, gaining a memory I’d otherwise never be able to affordably experience. I normally humbly walk away with, “That was great, another bucket list item checked off,” but with the Yenko it was different. This is sincerely, from the bottom of my petrol-pumping heart, the first post-drive that’s left me with a deep yearning. I now need a Yenko. So until I hit the lottery or score some unknown relative’s trust fund bestowment, I’m happy to take Jeff’s out whenever he’s willing to let me have a go.