Don Yenko was an extremely talented race car driver. His driving skills earned him the 1962 and 1963 SCCA B-Production National Championships and soon people were coming to the dealership, looking to tap his knowledge for their cars. Yenko quickly understood that selling cars and parts that attracted the road racing enthusiasts could make more money.
Ford Mustang wasn’t a decent performing car until Shelby modified it to handle well while packed with a generous amount of horsepower for quick acceleration. Studying the Shelby Mustang dominance on the racetracks, Yenko knew that only the Chevrolet Corvair had a chance of beating the Mustang.
Due to his racing background, he was familiar with the COPO system, allowing him to order a factory-built vehicle for a specific task according to his specifications. He ordered 100 1966 Corvair Corsa cars with heavy-duty suspensions, four-speed M 21 manual transmission system, special steering unit. He further installed 3.89:1 Positraction differentials along with dual master brake cylinders that he ordered over the counter.
These Corvair Corsa cars were called Stingers. These cars competed in D-Production. In 1967, Jerry Thompson behind the wheels of a Stinger ended up winning the D-Production national championship.
Yenko continued to race while the dealership was specializing in street high-performance cars. In 1967, Yenko and David Morgan won first place in the GT category and 10th overall position at the 12 hours of Sebring race. The Camaro was unveiled in the same year.
Yenko Chevrolet Camaro
General Motors enforced a new rule on all of its divisions to not equip engines bigger than 400 cubic inches or more on its mid-size cars. Dana Chevrolet had worked with Bill Thomas to install a 427 cubic inch 425 horsepower V8 into a 1967 Camaro. This 427 V8 engine was originally intended for a 1966 Corvette.
Don Yenko got to know all the knowledge that went to the creation of that car by using Thomas as a consultant of performance equipment, such as headers and traction bars.
Stock 350 cubic inch V8 powered Camaro cars would be shipped to Yenko’s dealership where the 350 small block engine would be replaced by the big block 427 cubic inch V8 engine.
Yenko built a total of 54 Super Camaros in 1967 and all of these were equipped with a four-speed manual transmission system and a dealer-installed 427 cubic-inch V8 engines.
Dick Harrell, a famed race car driver, picked the components that were used to build the Yenko Super Camaros, including end ratios, transmission system, exhaust systems, and clutches.
To maximize sales, Yenko concentrated considerable wealth and resources to create a nationwide distribution system. He had salesman visit dealerships with demonstrator Yenko vehicles. Most of the demonstrator cars were the Camaros. Yenko salesman used to give rides to the dealership owners to convince them to become a part of the distribution system. Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago and Dana Chevrolet in Los Angeles were Yenko outlets.
In 1968, to reduce the costs, Yenko ordered the 1968 cars with high performance 396 cubic-inch V8 engines. Once these cars were received at the dealership, Yeko and his crew would replace the 396 with a 427 short block. The difference was that he would change out the block, pistons, crankshaft, and the connecting rod. On top of these new parts, the original heads, carburetors, and intake manifolds were installed. Since this process required fewer parts to be replaced, costs were also reduced. The mechanics were paid $140 per each car they could complete.
Sixty-eight 1968 Yenko Camaro cars were built.
Yenko started to get the benefits of the COPO system in 1969. He ordered Camaros as L78 396 cars. These cars were fitted with heavy-duty suspension components, bigger carburetors, and a 140 mph speedometer. These cars were fitted with 427 cubic inch engines at the factory. This Rat power-train could be mated with an M-22 four-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission. With the introduction of the COPO cars for 1969, the factory warranty was still intact. This saved Yenko a considerable amount of money.
Now that he had streamlined the process of having Camaros equipped with 427 engines built by the factory, he could move more cars. 198 Yenko Camaros were built in 1969.
Due to the success of the COPO system, Yenko turned his attention to several other vehicles in the Chevrolet lineup. The Chevelle was ordered with L072 big blocks installed at the factory. Only 99 Chevelle cars were built for 1969.
Yenko Chevrolet Nova
Don Yenko could not get the Chevrolet to install the L-72 engines in the Nova due to liability issues. So, he had to swap the stock engines of Nova cars with Corvette derived power-trains. In an interview with the April 1967 issue of the Muscle Car Review magazine, he recalled the car as a beast that is not suitable for amateurs.
With 1969 came to an end, Don Yenko, like many others in the business, saw that the upcoming strict emission control regulations and tougher safety measurements along with ever-increasing insurance rates would destroy the performance car market. To address these issues, he didn’t include Camaro and Chevelle in the 1970 Yenko line up. For the 1970 line up, only the Nova was offered.
The 1970 Nova was ordered through the COPO program with a solid lifter LT-1 engine installed instead of the stock 350 engine. These cars also came with the Sports Car Conversion package. The final Yenko Nova combined a lightweight platform with a capable and flexible engine. This car cost $3993 per car. 175 were sold eventually, making it the best-selling Yenko built supercar. Since this car came with a factory warranty and a 350 engine, it was insurable as a Nova 350.
With the 1970 wound to a close, it was evident that Chevrolet was out of the performance business, so Yenko had to change his business approach. By the mid-1980s, he was running a Subaru dealership and a Honda dealership. He was in negotiations with Hyundai and Jaguar on opening new dealerships in Pittsburgh when he was killed while landing his Cessna at Charleston airport, West Virginia.
Yenko left an everlasting impression on the American performance car field.