Car of the Week: 1969 Camaro RS/SS 396 Indy 500 Pace Car

By Brian Earnest

If Mike Naddif’s 1969 Camaro Indy Pace car didn’t come equipped with an amazing “yard find” background, the car would still be pretty awesome and Naddif would probably love it just as much.

But the fact that the rare big-block ’69 Camaro pacer has a remarkable reincarnation tale to tell makes a cool car even cooler.

“It’s hard to imagine that this car sat outside for 15, 17 years, and it’s in this kind of condition!,” says Naddif, a resident of Andover, Mass. “And it’s a convertible! … The car has got an incredible history.”

According to the story Naddif got, the original owner bought the car for his wife in Washington state back in 1970. “He wanted a ‘70 [Camaro] with the new body style, but those were in short supply,” Naddif says. “So the sales person showed him a ’69 sitting in the back lot and nobody wanted it because it was considered an ugly car. It had sat at the dealership for nine months. So the fellow walked in with his wife looking for a ‘70 and wound up buying the ‘69 … His wife drove it for a while and then realized a big-block was more temperamental than she wanted to deal with. The guy took it out in the back yard and just parked it. He didn’t want it anymore. That was probably 1985 or ’86. The car only had 15- or 16,000 miles on it.”

Fast-forward to the early 2000s and a Camaro lover named Tim Ciri caught wind of the idle Camaro, although he apparently was very skeptical. Eventually he showed up at the rural location where the Camaro was said to be parked, and sure enough, he found the car buried to its belly in the Washington dirt. He wound up striking a deal with the owner of the car, who had simply ignored it for a decade and a half, seemingly only noticing it when he ran into it with his lawn mower.

Amazingly, the car turned over and ran the same day it was dragged out of the yard. It was amazingly complete, had not rusted out, and still carried its numbers-matching drive train. It is believed only 34 — or possibly fewer — 396-equipped ’69 Pace Cars were built, making them among the most collected Camaros on the globe.

Ciri couldn’t believe his luck, and originally planned to keep the car in “barn find” condition, with the exception of the car’s ratty interior. One thing led to another, however, and the Camaro wound up getting a complete restoration.

“He started to just do a body-on restoration and realized that the integrity of the car was so great and the platform was so solid he continued on and did a total rotisserie restoration on it,” Naddif said. “It took him 3 years. All he did and all I did was send original components out to be rebuilt …The car was so original, it didn’t need anything. It still has it’s original spare in the trunk!”

 

A Star is born at Indy

After making a hit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the 1967 Indy 500 race, Chevy was invited to bring the ’69 Camaro back for a repeat performance. This time the company decided to take better advantage of sales promotion opportunities by releasing the Z11 pace car replica option package for the model 12467 ragtop.

The genuine Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars were 375-hp SS 396 convertibles with “Hugger” orange racing stripes, rear spoilers and black and orange hound’s-tooth upholstery. About 100 were built to pace the race and transport dignitaries and members of the press around Indianapolis.

Chevrolet then released the Indy Pace Car replica option and sold 3,674 copycat cars to the general public. The Z11 was actually just a $37 striping package for convertibles only. But other extras, such as the $296 Super Sport option and the special interior, were also required. Buyers could order the pace car treatment on either RS/SS 350 or RS/SS 396 ragtops. The 350-powered versions are much more common. They had 300 hp.

To qualify as a collectible muscle car, a pace car replica has to have the big-block, which came in four variations. These were the L35 ($63) with 325 hp, the L34 ($184) with 350 hp, the L78 ($316) with 375 hp and the L89 ($711) with aluminum heads and 375 hp. It isn’t hard to guess which is rarest and most valuable.

The 375-hp ragtops were good for 7-second 0-to-60 acceleration and could do the quarter-mile in just about 15 seconds, so they have some real muscle to go with their good looks.

Camaro club members have also documented the availability of a Z10 Indy Sport Coupe package in 1969. This car was offered only in Chevrolet’s Southwest Sales Zone, which included the states of Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas and (for some reason) Wisconsin.

The Z10 option was similar to the Z11 package, but there were some differences such as black or ivory interior choices (standard, custom or houndstooth), an optional wood grained steering wheel or ComforTilt steering wheel and a vinyl top. Pace car door decals that read “Chevrolet Camaro OFFICIAL PACE CAR, 53rd ANNUAL INDIANAPOLIS 500 MILE RACE MAY 30, 1969” were available with the Z11 option, but not mandatory. The decals were shipped inside the trunk of the cars for installation at the dealership level, if the customer desired the lettering. Pace cars were produced at both the Norwood, Ohio and Van Nuys, Calif., assembly plants. The cars built in Ohio had “Z11” stamped on the Fisher Body cowl tag and the California built cars did not. The Indy coupes were all built at Norwood and about 200-300 may have been put together.

 

Finding treasure in the desert

Naddif is one of those horsepower junkies that would be a lot of fun to hang around with. He’s had a lot of pretty sweet cars over the years, and today bombs around in his Dodge Hellcat or Prowler when the spirit moves him. In 2015, he was in the market for a 1967 Corvette with 427 power when he headed to Barrett-Jackson’s annual Scottsale auction. He didn’t wind up with the Corvette that day — although he has bought one since! — but he did happen across the ’69 Camaro that Ciri had decided to part with.

“It was snooping around for a Corvette and this came around and just fell in love and had to have it … I had heard of the car and knew about it. Friends of mine, Camaro friends, had told me about it. I found out it was a complete numbers-matching car 98 percent date coded … Jerry MacNeish — he’s the consummate Camaro that everybody goes to — he certified the car as being date coded and matching numbers and authentic. Well, I had intentions of buying the ‘427 Corvette, but this came along I said, ‘I gotta have it.’”

Nadfif was able to watch a bunch of Youtube.com videos chronicling the revival of the “yard find” Camaro, and was able to speak with the original owner, who verified the car’s unlikely back story. “The car was buried up to the floor pans and buried in about a foot of mud — and they are still original floor pans. It doesn’t seem possible. It’s still the same original front unibody frame. You can see where the car was pitted and blasted and then painted, but it all looks good. I just can’t believe that it spent that much time sitting outdoors … I probably have about 200 pictures of the car from before it was restored and during the restoration. I talked to the original fellow that had it in the field that it had been in field so many years … He said he hit it so many times with his lawn mower that he put about a 4-foot crease in the side of the car … He just didn’t care; a big-block, 20,000-mile, numbers-matching pace car that he just didn’t care about [laughs].”

Though it had been re-done once, the car was still in need of some TLC after he picked it up at auction, according to Naddif. He wound up doing some interior work and rebuilding the 396 V-8. “The Interior needed some updating. We were kind of faced with a decision, so a friend of mine and I tackled it and we wound up putting NOS components in the interior. We pulled the engine and had it restored. It was running a little warm, and it turns out one of the cooling ports had never been clear when they cast the block originally at the factory. We [drilled] out one of the ports so it would cool itself a little more.

“It [also] had a bent wheel and I was lucky to pick up another one date-coded for that manufacturing date… The Camaro Doc [Dan O’Carroll] Did a lot of good work for me. The ‘69s Camaros are kind of his specialty. He’s the ’69 Camaro guru.”

One of the final touches that Naddif added was getting a signature on the glove box door from the winner of the ’69 Indy 500. “I sent the door out to Mario Andretti, and he signed it,” Naddif notes. “So that’s pretty cool.”

It’s no surprise that Naddif treats the sparkling white Camaro gently these days. He keeps it in Vermont and drives it regularly for exercise on warm summer days. It shows up occasionally at shows and cruise nights, where Naddif says it is always a center of attention. “I like it a lot, it’s something that I don’t need to sell so I’ll just tuck it away and drive it occasionally,” he says. “It’s such a nice car. You slam the doors on and they are still so tight. You just can’t believe spent it spent so much time out doors in a field and the integrity of the car didn’t fail at all.

“It’s the favorite of the cars that I own. It’s just gorgeous and a great car to drive.”

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