The Big Block Mystique

All Corvettes have a special aura about them;a Mid-Year roadster with a big-block has it in spades!

Bob Wallace Sep 4, 2002 0 Comment(s)

1965 It was something of a watershed year for American performance car enthusiasts. The nascent musclecar movement, begun the year before with Pontiac's GTO variant of the lowly Tempest, was blossoming. Ford revolutionized the domestic market with the introduction in April 1964 of the '65 Mustang, a sporty coupe or convertible that was based on the platform of the humble Falcon. And 1965 was a year of firsts and lasts for the Corvette.

The Corvette, now in its 13th year of production, had already become an American icon and the flagship of GM's Chevrolet Division.

The three-model-year-old Sting Ray was proving to be both a critical and market success, with the new Corvette achieving the model's first two years of 20,000-plus sales.

More significantly, the Corvette moved to the forefront of the world's sports and performance cars with its new four-wheel disc brakes, ridding itself of one of the last vestiges of '30s, '40s and '50s era technology--the relatively inefficient internal-expanding drum brakes that were still common on most American cars. Front discs were finding their way as standard equipment on a few higher end brands, and were optional on the majority of American '65 models, but the new Sting Ray's disc brakes at all four corners was a first for a massed-produced U.S. automobile.

That year also marked the swan song for the marvelous but temperamental (and already fabled) "fuelie," the Rochester mechanically fuel-injected and very high-output small-blocks of 283 and, later, 327 cubic-inch displacement. In its final year, a mere 771 Corvettes were ordered with the 375-horsepower screamer.

But, as the fuelie slid away from regular production to the stuff of legends, in March of '65 the Corvette marked another first, the introduction of an all-new, big displacement big-block V-8. This cast-iron behemoth was initially offered as a 396-incher that produced 425 horsepower as well as thunderous and tire-shredding mountains of torque. With the new big-block planted in a Sting Ray's engine bay, America's only true sports car also became America's baddest, most brutal muscle machine! RPO L78, the "Turbo-Jet," was ordered by nearly 10 percent of '65 Corvette buyers, 2,157 out of a total of 23,562.

Ten years after the first big-block Corvette rolled off the line in the old St. Louis assembly plant, the last of the breed was built. The so-called rat-motor had appeared in a number of guises--three displacements (396, 427, and 454 cubic-inches) and horsepower ratings that ranged from 270 net (i.e. with accessories, air cleaner, and exhaust system in place) to 450, and real world outputs that were staggering higher, especially for the L88s and ZL1s.

That same 10 year period was one of social turmoil, the escalation and ultimate cessation of the war in Vietnam, an embargo of crude oil by Middle Eastern oil producing nations,and a rapid change in the automotive arena from laissez faire (the manufacturers built whatever they felt they could sell) to a tightly regulated market with federally mandated emissions, safety, and fuel economy standards. The death of the big-block was inevitable. The fact that the Corvette actually survived and prospered is nothing short of miraculous.

Big-block Sting Rays, with the sole exceptions of the '67 L88s and L89s, aren't particularly rare--including the 20 L88s and 16 L89s built in 1967, there were 22,254 '65-67 Corvettes produced with 396 and 427 cubic-inch mountain motors. But, each and every surviving example is a highly prized, exceptionally valuable car today.

Tucson, Arizona, residents Jeff and Nancy Leach are among the multitudes who admire the svelte yet menacing lines of the big-block Sting Rays. Both are gearheads who like almost anything motorized, on two or four wheels, that's fast and flashy. They'd done the motorcycle routine, with British and Japanese bikes before graduating to a couple of Harleys.

Then, about five years ago, Jeff and Nancy decided that a classic sports car would be "great fun." Jeff was highly partial to '58-60 vintage Corvettes ("I was attracted to the quad headlight arrangement and two-tone cove design"). Nancy found mid-year roadsters most appealing--and both of them were enraptured with the '65-66 style big-block hood ("There's just something menacing and sexy about it," says Jeff).

Ultimately, they found their dream car, while web surfing, at a used Corvette dealer in Ohio. It was already restored (by D & A Restoration in Illinois) to "2-plus condition," Tuxedo Black with Saddle leather inside, and the requisite big-block, a numbers-matching 396 Turbo-Jet, factory-rated at 425 horsepower. It was also equipped with a four-speed gearbox, 3.70:1 Posi rearend, F40 suspension, power assist for the disc brakes, side mount exhaust, repop knock-off wheels, and an auxiliary hardtop. The tan interior was enhanced with the optional teakwood steering wheel and factory AM/FM radio.

Even though the car was pretty well restored, there were still a few minor problems that Jeff and Nancy had to track down and overcome before they could reliably use and enjoy the Tuxedo Black beast on the highways and byways of southern Arizona.

And now? Jeff says, "The best way to describe how this car drives and handles is that it's a RUSH!!! Those factory side pipes are the nastiest thing I've ever heard, it sounds so healthy. It's awesome at any speed! This car is a ticket waiting to happen. I'm quite surprised at the comfort of the car. Even with the F40 suspension, the ride is quite smooth except over the roughest of roads. I have a Corvette, which I had wanted for a long time. I knew I would be happy with almost any year Corvette. It's the mystique of the cars that drew me to wanting to own a Corvette."

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Luxury, 1965-style-Saddle leather, teakwood steering wheel, an AM/FM radio, heater, and Soft Ray tinted glass all around. When you have a 425-horse big-block up front and the Muncie four-speed's shifter "falling readily to hand" as some of the old sporty car magazines would say, who needs anything else?

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Until 1965, the Corvette had depended on high-revving small-blocks for propulsion. The thunderous, torque-monster big-blocks were something entirely new, and turned America's only sports car into a true musclecar.

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