“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue;” that’s the tradition for a new bride, but it applies just as well to the marriage of a killer GM Performance Parts crate engine and 4th generation Camaro chassis we’re looking at here. The old is, of course, the 1999 Camaro Z/28, which has spent its entire life in the hands of GM’s engineers. The new and the borrowed are one and the same: the world-beating Corvette ZR-1’s LS9 powerplant. The blue is the factory ZR-1 hue the Camaro is shot with, the same color worn by the serial number one 2009 ZR-1 that sold at Barrett-Jackson for a cool million bucks. The end result is a 4th generation Camaro you can’t buy for any price, but with a little fabrication and mechanical skill and enough room on the American Express Black card for the LS9, you can build one for yourself.
For more photos, don’t miss the LS9 Camaro gallery page.
This isn’t the first mixed marriage for this particular Camaro, either. You may have seen it before, murdered-out in satin black paint and powered by an LS7 crate engine, the same powerplant that motivates the C6 Z06 Corvette. They say that second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, and while the first union of Camaro and LS7 went smoothly, the conventional wisdom was that trying to shoehorn in the ZR-1 powerplant was an experiment doomed to fail. “A lot of people had said over and over again that it was impossible to put a LS9 in a fourth-gen because of the height of the supercharger,” says Mike Copeland, the leader of the GM skunkworks that did the swap. “My team and I took it as a challenge and said, ‘I think we can do that.’”
Step 1: Finding Wiggle Room
Anybody who’s ever peeked under the hood of a 4th gen F-Body can anticipate where the problem might lie – even the stock engine presents access issues. The LS9 is topped with a twin-screw supercharger and intercooler, right where the base of the windshield wants to be. “The top of
the intake is 47mm through the cowl – basically you need to find a way to lose two inches of height,” Copeland explains.
“There’s really no way to cut the intercooler and change it since it’s already as small as it can get. So what we did is cut an opening in the cowl and see how tall we could get there, and it wasn’t anywhere near enough. Then we took the wiper arms and actually machined the bottom off to raise it and get more clearance. We were able to get about 30mm in the top just by cutting the cowl and modifying the wiper arm. Then we machined the engine mount and lowered it by 5mm. We made 15mm spacers and put them between the cradle mounts and the body to lower it down, and lowered the transmission the same amount to get the driveline angles right.”
Step 2: Getting Down to the Wire(s)
Once the hurdle of physically getting the engine into the car was cleared, hooking it up so that it could do useful things was next. Electrical connections were relatively straightforward – thanks to easy access to all the bits and pieces GM has in inventory, a bespoke wiring harness was crafted and a custom ECU programmed. Getting the driveline sorted took a bit of Tony-Stark-in-a-cave ingenuity, though.
Per Copeland, “The clutch was a challenge because the LS9 uses a 9-bolt crankshaft, and it’s the only thing [in the GM lineup] that uses a 9-bolt crankshaft. The LSA uses eight, and all other LS production engines use six. I looked at taking the stock LS9 dual disc and putting it in, but even with the shortest throwout bearing the stack-up is 25.4mm too tall. I actually worked with SPEC, and they built a dual disc and 9-bolt flywheel.”
The clutch transmits those 638 horsepower to a Tremec T-6060 6-speed transmission, and out back a Strange S60 axle with 3.54 gears and a TrueTrac limited slip do their best to get the power to the pavement.
Step 3: Keeping Our Cool
Of course, anyone spending Corvette crate motor money on a swap like this is going to want little creature comforts like A/C and a working charging system, so Copeland and company had to make that right, too. “The alternator won’t fit in the production location so we moved it – we ended up taking the production alternator and building brackets and idlers to mount it down low on the left side. We used the Corvette AC compressor and made lines to get all that to work.” A second idler pulley aids belt wrap on the supercharger pulley, and the stock ZR-1 intercooler circulating pump, heat exchanger, and coolant tank all found new homes in the nose and fenders. “It actually packaged really well,” Copeland admits. “You wouldn’t think it would go in that easy, but all those parts did, and look ‘production.’”
Step 4: Now, The Easy Stuff
The rest of the car is much as it was in its former incarnation – The Kooks long-tube headers bolt to the LS9 just like they did to the LS7, and a Magnaflow exhaust handles it from there. Suspension is by BMR with a tubular K-member up front and torque arm in back, as well as Bilstein shocks and struts all the way around. The stock radiator was ditched in favor of a Griffin 3 core aluminum unit, and fueling is accomplished by an Aeromotive pump and regulator. Inside the car, a 4-point roll bar helps stiffen the chassis, and Chevy-licensed gauges by Auto Meter fill the dash. Michelin Pilot Sport 285/30ZR19 tires wrap stock ZR-1 19×10 front rims on all four corners. Dr. Jamie Meyer, Product Integration Manager for GMPP, says, “I’ve had a bunch of guys come up and say, ‘oh my God, that bolts right on!”
Meyer drove the car on the 2010 Hot Rod Power Tour, and knows both sides of this unique Camaro’s bipolar personality. “It’s very raw, very visceral,” he explains. “It wants to eat anything in front of it. It’s an older chassis so you really feel everything. I can feel the headers bounce around underneath me every once in a while. But it’s a very solid car – the bar helps a little bit. It’s scary, scary fast when you hit the boost.”
Speaking of which, you’d think that a car originally engineered for 350 or so horsepower would be, shall we say, ‘squirelly’ with almost double that, but the good doctor says, “I can’t believe how well the car hooks up. It just plants you – I can feel the seat bending around the crossbar on the 4-point – that’s how hard it slams you in the back.” They haven’t had the chance to take the car to the dragstrip and quantify performance yet, but to give you a baseline, with the LS7 (and about 100 fewer horsepower) the car ran 12.43-seconds at 115mph.
“The way it sits, it’s an easy mid to low 11-second car,” Meyer surmises. “With slicks, and somebody driving it who really knows the car, it should easily run 10’s. Top speed, I’m guessing, will be 180-190 mph. We’ve had it on the military straight at Milford, so these numbers are obviously not on public highways, but on a closed track I’ve seen 145-150 in 4th gear with ease.”
The Camaro suffers a bit compared to the ZR-1 across the scales; “It’s probably around 3500 pounds, perhaps 300 pounds more than the ZR-1,” Meyer admits. Still, it’s got the heart of that King of the Hill Corvette, and it shows. “I got to ride with the development engineer who was developing the launch control on the ZR-1, and I wish I could share that with everyone who’s into cars,” Meyer says. “You know how you accumulate experience on these things – that ZR-1 makes you readjust everything you think about cars. Your perception gets changed.”
The LS9 crate motor will also change your perceptions on what a turnkey engine swap will cost. “It’s obviously not an inexpensive engine,” Copeland admits. “They’re about $24k, which kind of limits the kinds of people who would want to purchase it. It requires a number of exclusive components to make it work – the accessory drive and all the stuff on the front of the motor are specific to that blower and the way that whole package works. By the time you’re done buying the engine and accessory drive, you’re probably somewhere in the $27,000 range. But it comes with a two year/20k warranty.”
So other than the crazy guys at GMPP who have the resources to show a swap like this can be done, who is it that’s out there getting the half-dozen or so LS9 engines a week hand built in Wixom, Michigan that aren’t finding their way into the ZR-1 production line? “The people we’ve seen buying them to this point are people who want the best,” Copeland says. “They want the most exclusive, most technologically sophisticated piece that General Motors builds, whether they want to put it in a ground-up new ’57 Chevy that they’re building, or a ’69 Camaro, or swapping it into an earlier Corvette. Those are the people who want it.”
Mike, we want it too…