By The Numbers

The story--and VINs--of the Fred Gibb Chevrolet COPO Novas

Take a moment to soak in the history of the story you're about to read. In addition to the history of the Fred Gibb Chevrolet COPO Novas, SUPER CHEVY is simultaneously publishing the vehicle identification numbers (VIN) of all 50 vehicles.

The VINs have never been publicly released and we obtained them directly from Helen Gibb, Fred's widow and the current keeper of "the book." It is a detailed log of every vehicle that was ordered and delivered during Fred Gibb's running of the rural La Harpe, Illinois, Chevy store--noting every mundane, four-door Biscaynes to each of the 50 original '69 ZL-1 Camaros (69 were built, but the first 50 went to Gibb Chevrolet).

Helen Gibb has held onto the book all these years and gave us an exclusive look at the numbers for the rare--and often misunderstood--'68 COPO Chevy IIs processed through the dealership. Although flattered and excited, we couldn't help but ask why, after all this time, she was interested in having the numbers published. Cynically, we would assume that, with the value of muscle cars soaring to stratospheric heights, this list of identification numbers is worth serious money, so there has to be a buck in it for somebody.

We were surprised and delighted to learn that Helen Gibb is motivated by just the opposite--she believes the numbers shouldn't be owned by anyone, particularly speculators who would otherwise hold the numbers for ransom. And with a little modesty on our part, we should point out that SUPER CHEVY has previously published the VINs for the Fred Gibb ZL-1 Camaros, too. So, there was an historical precedent to build on, and we're proud to serve as the disseminator of important reference information.

The back-story of the Gibb-ordered COPO Chevy IIs is similar to ones you've heard about the Camaros; dealer-ordered performance vehicles intended to be bought and used as drag racing vehicles.

Fred Gibb's interest in drag racing went from passive to active when one of his salespeople started winning at the track in a '67 Z/28. According to Helen Gibb, Fred started going to racetracks "all the time," studying all the cars and racers.

"He was bitten by the racing bug," she says.

It was during this time that Fred Gibb noticed that Chevrolets were at a distinct disadvantage in the automatic classes. In fact, there were no Nova automatics competing in NHRA racing--mainly because the top-dog L-78 396/375 engine wasn't available with an auto in 1968. So, Gibb started a dialog with Chevrolet's Vince Piggins with the idea of ordering some auto-equipped Deuces.

As was the case with the later COPO Camaros, the intention was to get enough vehicles built to qualify them as production vehicles and, therefore, make them eligible for stock-class competition at the strip. With Piggins' help, Fred Gibb ordered 50 Nova SS models--the minimum number to qualify for NHRA--with the L-78 engine and the TH-400 three-speed automatic. The COPO order code was 9738.

The heavy-duty Turbo 400 was introduced in 1964, but didn't make it to Chevy vehicles until a year later. With a torque capacity of more than 400 lb-ft, it was really the only option for backing the 396 with an automatic. Besides the engine/transmission combination, Gibb Chevrolet ordered the cars with other heavy-duty and performance-oriented components, including a heavy-duty radiator, 4.10-geared Posi-traction rearend and floor-mounted shifter (with center console). And since the cars were intended strictly as racecars, they were ordered with just steel wheels, drum brakes (power-assisted), and no radio. A pair of bucket seats also distinguished the COPO cars.

Fred Gibb ordered the cars in just four colors: Fathom Blue, Grecian Green, Matador Red, and Tripoli Turquoise; with the interior colors in either blue or black. In all, it was a simple package designed for the racer who knew exactly what he was buying.

"They were really plain-jane cars," says Helen Gibb. "Fred believed that racecars should be sleepers, because he figured they would be used on the highway as well as the drag strip."

According to Helen Gibb, the car's sticker price was $3,592.12. They were sold to customers not only in the western Illinois/eastern Iowa area immediately surrounding La Harpe, but also in California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, and other states. Some were picked up by dealers, while others were bought by in-the-know individuals.

Not surprisingly, the cars that trickled down to racers were very quick and competitive. Adding a twist to the history and authenticity of some, however, were the cars prepared by Gibb's Kansas City associate, Dick Harrell. Harrell's shop prepped numerous Novas for racing, but it also transplanted 427 engines into several of the COPO cars. We don't have the exact number, but some super car watchers place the total at approximately 20. These cars often were outfitted with aftermarket goodies such as a Sun tachometer and even a Corvette-style "stinger" fiberglass hood, as well as being performance-tweaked under the hood.

Identifying an original COPO Chevy II becomes murky if the original 396 was chucked more than 35 years ago. And that's where the numbers from Helen Gibb's log book become essential. It doesn't take long to find only a partial list of numbers on the Internet, with the information based on known and documented cars. The accompanying VIN breakdown, however, is the definitive reference--the numbers are straight out of the Gibb dealership book and were recorded, as each car was unloaded from the transporter.

The two cars seen here on our pages represent the standard and Harrell-ized versions of COPO 9738. The Fathom Blue example is car number 50--the last of the COPOs built--and still has its original 396 engine. It also shows just more than 16,000 miles on the odometer. The turquoise Nova has the full-on Harrell 427 treatment, including the hood, tach, and a period set of Cragars.

Until recently, the turquoise car was owned by Jude Hattick, but the blue Nova was purchased by Matt Murphy a few years ago (the same enthusiast who runs GMMG and produced the Camaro ZL-1 Super Car a couple years back, as well as the current "Wide Body" Dick Harrell Edition Camaros--see SUPER CHEVY's Camaro Performers, Fall 2004). Although the blue Nova was a low-mile car when Murphy bought it, it wasn't in the shape depicted in our photos.

"It was a little rusty here and there," Murphy tells us. "But the window sticker was still on the rear quarter window and it was so original, I couldn't pass it up."

Gibb Chevrolet originally sold the car to a Kansas City-area customer, the car "disappeared" for years before turning up a few years ago on the back of a truck just prior to LaHarpe's annual Fred Gibb Memorial Car Show. The unrestored car returned to Kansas City for a comparatively brief period, but ended up in Atlanta and under Murphy's care.

Murphy had the car disassembled and freshened up; performing what he calls a "semi-frame-off" restoration. It included a thorough detailing of the frame, trunk, and engine compartment. There was a large, racing-style electric fuel pump in the trunk when he bought the car and he's left it in place, along with a set of "slapper" traction bars on the rear suspension. There also was a set of period slicks on the car when he bought it--tires that were on the car since the late '60s--but they were replaced with more modern rubber.

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"The old slicks looked cool," says Murphy. "But driving on them for even a short distance was scary, so we replaced them."

After enjoying the restored car for a while, Murphy sold it to Helen Gibb. It shares her garage with a one-off GMMG-built prototype ZL-1 Camaro, but the Nova is her time machine.

"It's a wonderful car," she told SUPER CHEVY. "I love the seats. Just sitting in it [the Nova] brings back all those memories of the racing days."

The turquoise car also has been restored, but still wears numerous authentic cues from its early days, including a firewall-mounted "Dick Harrell Performance Inc." identification plaque and valve cover stickers. The "396" fender badges were replaced with "427" badges, too, and there's a big Sun tach lashed to the steering column.

During the time of our photos, however, the car was still undergoing a few finishing touches, so the interior shows the standard center console is missing. Hattick also has sold the car since our photo shoot was completed.

Helen Gibb points to the research of the late enthusiast Dennis Hartweg, who verified several original COPO Novas prior to his death. Enthusiasts Ray Morrison and Kim Howie also have located some of the cars, the total of which, at the time this story was written, stood at 14. That leaves 36 others out there, each waiting to be found and returned to the spotlight. The list of VINs that has been graciously provided by Gibb is certainly the Holy Grail for those hoping to verify a barn-find muscle car.

As much as Fred Gibb should be remembered for his foresight and tenacity in his role as the instigator of the COPO muscle cars, Helen Gibb must be commended for her continuing enthusiasm and genuine affection for those involved in the hobby. Her VIN list is a gift to the Chevy world as much as those original COPO Novas were godsends to Chevy racers in their day. SUPER CHEVY thanks her for the contribution.

Editor's note: If you've got an original COPO Nova--or any COPO car or Chevy super car--the place to bring it is the annual Fred Gibb Memorial Car Show in La Harpe, Ill. This year's event takes place Aug. 6 and 7. Helen Gibb will be glad to see your car.

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