Dickie Harrell’s Camaro is a Classic Classic

RJ17 Dick Harrell Camaro 04_FotorFeature

It’s always gratifying when a collector car parts supplier is an enthusiast, too. At last year’s SEMA Show in Las Vegas, we ran into Jeff Leonard of Classic Industries  who was displaying a unique Camaro in the booth.

For enthusiasts like Leonard, owning a car is one thing. Owning a car with a documented drag racing history is something else. “A car with a unique history becomes more than mere transportation,” he said. “It becomes the main character in its own story.”

The 1969 COPO Camaro is the latest addition to the Classic Industries collection, and it does indeed come with quiet a pedigree. The story begins with John Penso, part of the Flying Dutchman funny car crew and a close friend of drag racing legend Dickie Harrell, who was known as “Mr. Chevrolet” back in 1969.

Penso wanted a fast car for the street, but couldn’t find anything fast enough, He knew that Harrell was the man to see. Penso made arrangements to fly to the Dick Harrell Performance Center in Kansas City, Mo. and drive a 427-powered 1969 Camaro back to his home in California.

In addition to Dick Harrell’s signature tweaks, this Camaro contained a handful of parts in the trunk for Penso to install after his trip back to California. The extras included a set of 4.56 gears, slapper bars and a camshaft from the legendary ZL1 that Harrell had a hand in co-developing with GM. Penso placed the Dick Harrell badges in the glove box to prevent other racers from figuring out what might be under the hood.

After changing hands a few times, which included a brief stay in Hawaii, the Camaro’s documentation had been lost and its pedigree questioned. That was the situation until Harrell’s daughter, Valerie, came into the picture.

As architect of the modern Dick Harrell Performance Center, Valerie had painstakingly organized her late father’s original records and was able to provide proof that this Camaro with VIN No. 124379N580930 was indeed the car that was built by her father for John Penso.

Eventually, the car was treated to a full restoration that included a variety of reproduction parts from Jeff Leonard’s own catalog. When it later crossed the block at Barrett-Jackson, Leonard started bidding on the car and went on to win this example of muscle car history.

Leonard—who currently owns a variety of rare classic vehicles—isn’t one to be impressed easily. “When I first came across this rare 1-of-10 Dick Harrell 427 Camaro at Barrett-Jackson, I knew it was a rare offering,” Leonard said of the car. “This Camaro is one of the most recognizable and sought after vehicles from the golden era of muscle cars.”

Leonard is proud to own a car built by one of the foremost innovators of the muscle car era. It has become one of the most distinctive vehicles within the Classic Industries collection. “We’re going to keep this car on display until further notice,” Leonard told us. “If you’re in the Southern California area, stop by and see this 427 Camaro at the Classic Industries showroom located at 18460 Gothard St. in Huntington Beach, Calif.”

RJ17 Dick Harrell Camaro 02

The Car: 1969 Camaro built by drag racing pioneer “Mr. Chevrolet” Dick Harrell for The Flying Dutchman funny car crewmember John Penso and recently added to the Classic Industries collection.

The Engine: After leaving the factory as a SS 396 car, Camaro VIN No.  124379N580930 was sent to the Dick Harrell Performance Center in Kansas City, Mo. to have an iron-block 427 installed. Penso wasn’t convinced that the aluminum ZL1 427 engine’s water jackets would stand up to the type of racing he had in mind.

The Upgrades: In addition to Mr. Chevrolet’s signature tweaks, this Camaro was delivered with a handful of parts in the trunk and the battery was relocated to the trunk.

The Exterior: The emblems that proudly declared “Built By Dick Harrell” were left in the glove box to avoid tipping off other racers. The stinger hood was added after the original hood blew off at speed. The wheel openings were flared, the fuel filler neck was moved to the trunk, and the car was painted candy blue.

RJ17 Dick Harrell Camaro 03


About John Gunnell 131 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.

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