The fabrication of racecars in drag racing has progressed to a near NASA-level science that’s still mixed with a certain degree of art. When Chevrolet decided to bring back the COPO Camaro as a factory-built racecar, they also introduced an interesting marriage of traditional auto manufacturing and chassis shop fabrication. We were lucky enough to be invited again to the COPO Build Center in Oxford, Michigan, for a chance see what goes on behind the scenes in the production of the latest sixth-generation COPO racecar.
The original COPO Camaro was the result of GM’s initiative to get a very high performance engine shoehorned into a smaller car. The Central Office Production Order (COPO) was their program for getting around the GM red tape to get the best motors in cars like the Nova and Camaro. Now, the COPO is a pure-bred racecar from the factory designed for Stock and Super Stock competition that uses the best parts and engineering GM has to offer.
The New COPO Program And How It Works
Unveiled in late 2011 and launched back into operation in 2012, the modern COPO Camaro is part of a specialty order program, with a limited production run each model year made available to interested buyers.
Curt Collins, Associate Marketing Manager for Chevrolet Performance, sheds just a little bit of light on the current COPO program. “The COPO was brought to the SEMA show in 2011 as a proof of concept, and it was well received. GM management gave the green light for 2012 production. We build 69 per year, because in 1969, when the COPOs were being built through Central Office Production Orders, there were 69 of the ZL1 big block COPOs built. We do a registration for possible buyers each year that begins at the SEMA Show and closes around the Scottsdale Barrett-Jackson Auction in January. This year, we had over 5,000 people register to buy one of the 69 cars,” Collins says.
Getting to be one of the lucky 69 individuals who have the opportunity to purchase a COPO is no easy task. After the potential buyers register online for the chance to pick up one of cars, the list is randomized to be fair to all. When the list is ready, the team at Chevrolet Performance begins the selection process to let the lucky parties know they can purchase a part of GM racing history.
People from all walks of life will and have purchased a COPO, and Collins has seen some interesting things happen in the transaction process. “Two years ago, we had a couple fly in who purchased a brand new Sierra Heavy Duty truck, purchased a brand new trailer, picked up their brand new COPO, and drove it all to Alaska to race. Another customer purchased a car and shipped it to Puerto Rico to race. We even had one flown from here in the United States to its new home in Munich, Germany,” Collins explains.
For 2016, Chevrolet offered the COPO in five different colors, including hyper-blue, which was new for this particular model year. The cars had three engine options: the 350 cubic-inch supercharged model, a 427 cubic-inch naturally aspirated engine, and a new 6.2 liter LT-based mill. All of these motors could only be backed by an automatic transmission, and there was a good reason for this.
New Engine For 2016
The COPO comes with only a handful of engine options, and there’s a brand new one for 2016. “For 2016, we offered the three different motors for the COPO. The LT offering is based on our new generation LT engine that goes in the Corvette and Camaro. The LT motor we offer is for customers who want to race in a niche specific class Factory Stock/D in the NHRA. It’s an opportunity to get into a different class than what our motors typically run in. This year we had one customer who selected that motor and wants to run in the class,” Collins explains.
The COPO also has the option of being ordered with a Racers Package that’s geared more toward the buyer who’s going to hit the track with the car. This unique extra package comes with a dual battery system, weight box, carbon fiber air inlet, and depending on the engine package, it can also get an intercooler quick disconnect for the blower car.
Not Your Average Race Car
Make no mistake, the COPO Camaro is a purpose-built racecar that can compete at the highest levels of drag racing right from the factory. The process these cars go through as they’re designed and built is much different than what you see at most chassis shops. “If you go to a chassis shop and ask them to build you a racecar, they’re going to have to go out and measure virtually every dimension on the car to put in the cage, suspension, and so on. All of that is going to be one-off parts that have to be hand built to match that one car,” Collins explains.
The COPO’s fabrication process might start out the same, but changes drastically after the first car is built. “We did all of that hand measuring when we began the 2016 program. All of that was done at the start when we built the first car, and once it was finished, we had all of that data documented and stored so we could then make 68 identical sets of parts to fit every car exactly the same. Thus, the COPOs aren’t one-off builds each and every time; they’re all the same. Since the process is repeatable at that point, it allows us the flexibility to get the cars done in two and a half weeks each time,” Collins explains.
“This process is not your typical automotive manufacturing process. It’s a hybrid between how a production car is built, and how a chassis shop would fabricate a car.” – Curt Collins
“The biggest thing that we can do different is build the car with production-type quality control, and a production-type methodology from an engineering and manufacturing standpoint. When you look at these cars, they’re so nice you would think they were a mass production type car. All the parts from one car will fit another car, so you can service them pretty much like a production car. If you get a car from a standard chassis shop, the parts are all one-off, won’t interchange, and have a higher cost. We’re able to produce the COPO economically because of our process,” Allen explains.
How the COPO is built is also vastly different than your typical car that rolls off a GM assembly line. Whereas Chevrolet is pumping out anywhere from 20 to 60 road cars per hour at a plant, the COPO facility takes about two and a half weeks to build a car start to finish, and completes three per week.
“If you had a car like this built in a normal race shop, it could take six months for it to be finished, and everything would be a one-off part. The fact that we’re building 69 cars, and can take the tooling across all the cars definitely makes it quicker. We have things like custom bent brake lines, hoses, tubing, and the whole fuel system that are all custom made to the car. That allows us to build these cars quick and repeatably, one after another for all 69 cars, so they all come off exactly the same,” Collins says.
The COPO Manufacturing Process
All COPOs begin life as a body-in-white that arrives from the Lansing Grand River assembly plant. When the body arrives, the fenders, doors, and trunk lid are all removed. Those parts are numbered and put in storage so they can be put back on the corresponding car when it’s finished. Next, the team begins removing unnecessary (for racing) things like sound deadening, climate controls, or excess metal that’s not needed for weight savings.
After the car has been gutted, a special step must be completed on the new generation COPO to get the rear suspension to fit correctly. “Using our pre-made templates and jigs, we start making cuts in the car to be able to modify the rear suspension pockets. Metal is removed from the rear trunk area where we actually have to put a new dome in that spot. With an independent rear suspension, you don’t have the trunk clearance problem, but with the solid axle, when it squats on launch, it would hit the trunk, so that’s why we modify that section,” Collins explains.
When the trunk modifications are complete, the rest of the cuts are made in the rear to add in the upper and lower 4-link mounts for the car. While this is being done, the custom made roll cage is also added to the car. After the roll cage is installed, a representative from the NHRA visits the facility to certify the cage and chassis to its 8.50 E.T. certification.
Once the chassis has been certified and the fabrication shop has completed their work, the car is sent off to paint. According to Collins, this is another thing that separates the COPO from your ordinary Camaro. “Paint is where the roll cage, trunk, under-body, and engine compartment all get covered. The under-body of the COPO compared to a production Camaro looks different because a production car is just in primer, where the COPO has a layer of paint to give it a show-quality appearance and finish.”
After the paint is dry on the car, it heads off to the general assembly area of the facility. In general assembly, the COPO receives its rear suspension. In this first stage of final assembly, the car also is plumbed for brakes and had various other items added. Then, the car has the headliner added along with some of the wiring.
The next step is one of the most critical in the process: the engine marriage station.
“At the engine marriage station, we have a cradle with the engine ready and placed on it. This package includes the radiator, headers, the wiring, and steering gear, which is all ready to go. All of this is moved under the car, and the car is then lowered onto it to complete the process,” Collins shares.
From the engine marriage station, the COPO travels to the next area of the facility where the interior is installed. Here, the final wiring is installed, along with the seats and carpet, and closeout to the trunk is added. Even the carpet in the COPO is unique to the car.
“The carpet in the car is custom cut. We don’t use the production carpet that has all the additional cuts for things that aren’t used in the car. We just use the blank perimeter cut so we can put our own cuts in it,” Collins says.
When the interior installation is finished, the powertrain group arrives to test the COPO. They will start the car, go through the gears, and finally verify the calibration on the ECU. If everything checks out, they sign off on the car as ready to go. After the car goes through its final checks, any optioned graphics are applied and the customer is notified that their brand new COPO is ready to be picked up.
The Future For The COPO Program
When you look at the COPO program as a whole, its success is undeniable. Since the first cars became available in 2012, they’ve sold out each year with hundreds and even thousands more on waiting lists. From a performance standpoint, the COPO has made a huge mark in the NHRA sportsman racing world, racking up wins across the country in the NHRA, NMCA, NMRA, and elsewhere. And in the future, they may also carry a certain degree of collector value.
“Support has been very strong for the COPO, for sure, in the market.” -Roger Allen
“The COPO has been a great program for Chevrolet Performance. It’s a great halo to demonstrate our commitment to performance parts and racing. The commitment is so strong, in fact, we were thrilled to introduce the 2017 COPO at SEMA this year. We’re looking forward to another great program in 2017 to fulfill the dreams of 69 more people.”
This bright outlook is reiterated by Allen as well. “Support has been very strong for the COPO, for sure, in the market. We’re very excited about the 2017 program. From the racer’s perspective, we want to keep the program going as long as we can.”
Allen goes on to drop a small hint about some possible changes in the COPO program’s future. “With the current rules, there aren’t any huge changes coming for the COPO. The only thing that might be on the horizon are possibly different engine combinations to expand what classes the cars can compete in, but that’s not set in stone,” he explains.
When GM brought the idea of the COPO to the public, they had no idea the level of excitement and success it would generate. They had to think outside of the box to be able to create a process to manufacture such a high level racecar affordably and in a timeframe far shorter than a chassis shop. By using a mixture of the standard automobile construction concepts they’ve mastered ove the decades, and artisanal racecar assembly, GM has created a nearly perfect process for producing the COPO Camaro.