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From Little Hoss To ZL1

The Fred Gibb Story

Bob McClurg Jan 23, 2015
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In 1946, Fred Gibb Jr. and Irvin Painter opened a Kaiser-Frazier dealership in La Harpe, Illinois, a small town near the Iowa-Missouri border. In those days, Kaiser-Frazier-Nash and Studebaker-Packard were battling each other for fourth place in the new car market, and the agency prospered to the extent that local competitors began to take notice. Pop Cole, who owned the local Chevrolet dealership, approached Gibb and Painter in 1948 with a business proposition: "You guys are killing me, and I think we should join forces."

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The merger became known as North Side Motor Sales. It operated in downtown La Harpe until November 17, 1963, when a new, 20,000 square-foot building was dedicated at the west edge of town. Out front, a fancy new sign read "Fred Gibb Chevrolet."

Gibb and his staff provided bread-and-butter cars and trucks to the local citizens, but a chain of events would soon place the agency on par with other noteworthy Chevrolet dealerships of the era, such as Baldwin Chevrolet/Motion Performance, Berger Chevrolet, Cordia Chevrolet, Dana Chevrolet, Nickey Chevrolet, and Yenko Chevrolet.

In those days, General Motors was run more like a big extended family than an international conglomerate. Dealers would routinely socialize with top GM executives, and the Gibbs were personal friends of GM President Ed Cole and his wife Dolly. Being on the inside track had certain benefits. Despite GM's official moratorium on racing, in 1963, high performance—or more specifically the sales of high-performance parts that GM continued to produce—offered a fairly sizeable profit margin. Around 1965, Cole convinced Gibb, who at the time was anything but racing oriented, to stock many of those items.

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When the Camaros were introduced, Gibb decided to order a Royal Plum Z/28 to advertise his new performance center. To drive the car, Gibb chose Herb Fox, who had worked at Gibb's agency since 1961 and drag-raced a pretty mean '55 Chevrolet locally. On May 27, 1967, the new Camaro arrived and was officially listed in inventory as a "Demo 302 Camaro Racer."

That Camaro, nicknamed Little Hoss, came about as close as you can get to being a Chevrolet backdoor racing program. Gibb greatly benefitted from assistance from Pete Estes, head of Chevrolet Division, and Product Promotion Manager Vince Piggins. Records indicate that Little Hoss competed primarily in AHRA's Top Stock class, where it set a total of 14 world records from October 1967 to September 1968.

The Harrell Connection

While driving to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game in1967, Herb Fox got lost and stopped by Dick Harrell's East St. Louis shop to ask for directions. At the time, Harrell was assembling the first Yenko Super Camaro 450s. The two struck up a conversation. Acting on an invitation from Fox, Harrell visited Gibb's dealership in August 1967. Two things happened.

One, Gibb ordered two Dick Harrell–prepared Yenko 427 Super Camaros for resale. Two, by September 1967, Harrell had blueprinted the 302 small-block powering Little Hoss, fitting it with oversize JE pistons, a Howard's cam, Hooker headers, a Lakewood scattershield, and a Hays clutch. Harrell also race-prepped the car's suspension, incorporating a set of Thunderbolt-style traction bars and changing the rearend gears to 3.73s. Exterior treatments included fiberglass inner fender panels, an L88-type lift-off hood, and a set of Corvette "turbine" knock-off wheels. The car also received a bright red paintjob, lending the impression that it was a team car to Harrell's '67 Camaro match racer. Seasonal updates, made in May 1968, included a factory experimental cross-ram 2x4 intake manifold. Named AHRA's Top Chevrolet Points Leader, Little Hoss annexed the 1968 AHRA Top Stock championship, finishing Second Place in overall points running as fast as an 11.75/118.42. During the two years in which Gibb and Fox raced Little Hoss, the Z/28 boasted an enviable win/loss record of 65/3.

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While most people agree that Little Hoss put Fred Gibb Chevrolet on the high-performance map, it was the legendary COPO muscle cars Gibb created that cemented the Fred Gibb Chevrolet legacy.

Gibb noticed that GM did not have a strong presence in the upper echelon Stock and Super Stock automatic transmission classes, which were dominated by Fords or Mopars. During a pheasant hunting trip with Ed Cole and other key GM executives, Gibb's upbeat reports of his success with Little Hoss set the stage for bigger and better things. In early 1968, Gibb proposed the building of 50 Chevy IIs with 375hp L78 engines and TH400 transmissions, an engineering first for GM. These 50 cars would also be equipped with 4.10-geared 12-bolt Positraction rearends and would be assembled at GM's Ypsilanti, Michigan, plant.

Straight out of the box, a Fred Gibb COPO 9738 Chevy II could cover the quarter-mile in 14.26 seconds at 101.46 mph. Dick Harrell's tuning prowess and a set of drag slicks brought the time slips down to 13.64 seconds at 102.38. Harrell also "street & strip"–prepared roughly 15-20 of these cars with 427 engines. In those days, a Fred Gibb/Dick Harrell 427 Chevy II could eclipse the quarter-mile in just 12.05 seconds at 115.78 mph!


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Whether at the dealership or at the track, Fred and Helen Gibb made a good team. They were married for 51 years.

Ultimate Camaro

The Gibb/Harrell-inspired '69 COPO 9560 Camaro ZL1 program would prove to be the ultimate Camaro muscle project of all time, and it received the full support of Ed Cole and Vince Piggins. On street tires, a stock Gibb ZL1 Super Camaro was capable of covering the quarter-mile in 13.16 seconds at 110.21 mph. With a Harrell super tune, headers, and a pair of slicks, those times dropped to 12.11 seconds at 118.35 mph.

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The first two Fred Gibb Super Camaros were painted Dusk Blue and were delivered to the dealership on December 31, 1968. Car number one was immediately turned over to Dick Harrell and was prepared to compete in AHRA's Super Stock class, initially with Harrell and Fox driving, and later with Dick Harrell protégée Ray Sullins driving. In Super Stock trim Gibb's ZL1 recorded a 10.33/133.00. ZL1 number two was briefly used as a demonstrator and then sold.

Gibb also sponsored Harrell's '69 Camaro AA/Fuel Funny Car to promote the project. Both Gibb's ZL1 and Harrell's Funny Car were painted psychedelic Candy Apple Red by John "Oop" Fensom and made the rounds riding on a pair of identical white '69 Chevrolet ramp trucks. Gibb proudly forwarded race reports and photographs of both teams to Cole, Piggins, and newly appointed Chevrolet Division General Manager John Z. DeLorean weekly to keep them in the loop.

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Unfortunately, the ZL1 project was a huge flop financially. Mind you, it wasn't the car's fault. Like the steel-block COPO 9561 Camaro sport coupes, Gibb's ZL1 cars featured the best of everything. Well, perhaps too much of the best of everything. The ZL1 aluminum long-block alone was priced at a whopping $4,965, driving the cost for a manual transmission ZL1 to $7,269.35, while a TH400 car cost $7,364.70. Those prices were nearly double Gibb's projected price of $4,900! Fortunately, Gibb was able to convince the General to take back 37 of these ZL1s and redistribute them throughout the Chevrolet dealer network.

Gibb also proposed a plan to build 50 LS7-powered '70½ Super Camaros, but the project was never approved. In all fairness, we doubt that the outcome of Gibb's ZL1 program had anything to do with it. "Extenuating circumstances" might be more apropos, as a UAW strike severely crippled production, delaying the new Camaro's public debut. We're also quite sure that GM had not developed sufficient engineering data to produce a big-block F-Body car, even if it had wanted to, although Dick Harrell and Motion Performance's Joel Rosen built a few of these cars.

When the NHRA and AHRA instituted the Pro Stock Eliminator class in the '70s, the first Fred Gibb Super Camaro was converted to compete in this "ultimate door slammer class." Now the '69 sported a Holley-carbureted, tunnel-ram, dual four-barrel intake, a fiberglass hood, and (later) a set of fiberglass Camaro RS/SS front fenders. In October 1971, driver Jim Hayter won the 1971 AHRA Pro Stock Championship. Unfortunately, the win would be bittersweet for Gibb, as Harrell had lost his life a month earlier while match racing in Ontario, Canada. Over a span of four years, it is estimated that the Fred Gibb/Dick Harrell alliance was responsible for producing between 150 and 200 supercars, Chevy II and ZL1 Super Camaro projects included.

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Larry Shepard went on to campaign a '70½ big-block Camaro in AHRA Super Stock and Pro Stock at Gibb's request, but on a limited basis. The fact of the matter was that with Harrell's passing, Gibb's heart was no longer in it. Fred Gibb passed away July 13, 1993, after a lengthy battle with emphysema. It was truly the end of an era. MCR


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Gibb’s order of 50 COPO Camaros, powered by the 427-inch, all-aluminum ZL1 engine, created what are now considered the most collectible Camaros ever built, despite their commercial failure when new. Shown is car number one, prepared by Dick Harrell and initially raced by Herb Fox. Retired Oldsmobile engineer Bill Porterfield acquired the ZL1 in 1988 and restored it. In 2007, he sold the ZL1 to collector Joe Zrostlik.

Remembering When: Bob Lionberger

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Bob Lionberger was not only Fred Gibb Chevrolet's parts manager (a position he reached in 1972), but was also Fred and Helen Gibb's son-in-law.

I met Fred Gibb when I was 15 years old. I used to go to the dealership with my dad and look at the new Chevrolets. One evening, Fred asked me if I would like to go to the drag races. The next weekend he called and told me to be at the dealership at 5 a.m.

At the time, he and Herb Fox were campaigning Little Hoss, and we actually towed the car to the track. Fred drove the wrecker, youngest daughter Nancy sat in the middle, and I was riding shotgun. To sit there and root for a car that you were confident was going to win was the greatest feeling in the world.

Fred never had any sons, and he and I became fairly close. He was a firm believer in starting at the bottom and working your way up. I started washing cars and cleaning up in the shop. Eventually I began working in the parts room.

Before Fred got into racing, things were very quiet at the parts window. You would see people in there buying truck mirrors and things like that. After Fred got into racing, the parts window was always busy, and the telephone rang nonstop. People would come from all over to buy carburetors, headers, camshafts, wheels. We sold everything from bare short-blocks to complete L88 engines. It was just a complete and total transformation! Occasionally Fred and Dick Harrell would also hold a high-performance clinic at the dealership, which was always well received.

Historically, the COPO 9738 Chevy II program was a rousing success. That was the first time GM ever installed a Turbo-Hydramatic transmission behind a high-performance big-block Chevrolet engine, and Fred sold all 50 of them. With the Chevy IIs, our sales demographics changed overnight from customers in their 40s and 50s to teenagers and people in their early 20s.

I remember Thanksgiving Day 1968. Fred and Helen were busy preparing dinner and there was a Fathom Blue COPO Chevy II parked in the driveway when I got there. Helen said, "Somebody has to go pick up my dad," who lived about 30 miles away in Macomb, Illinois. Fred said, "Why don't you take that blue car out there and go get him?" It began snowing and never let up! Trying to drive one of those high-horsepower cars in that kind of weather, especially with the kind of tires they had back in those days, was quite an interesting experience. A couple of years ago we were looking through some old paperwork and discovered that the 50th COPO Chevy II produced, which Helen owns, was the very same car that was sitting in Fred's driveway that snowy Thanksgiving Day. Occasionally, I still get to drive it whenever Helen takes it to a show.

I remember Fred made several trips to Detroit to convince Chevrolet Division to install the aluminum 427 ZL1 engine in the Camaro. He was particularly keen on the horsepower–per–cubic-inch ratio and the weight advantages that it would offer, and felt that combination would be ideal for drag racing At the time, he knew that Chevrolet fully intended on installing that engine in the Corvette but had no other plans for it. Fred was close friends with Chevrolet's Vince Piggins, and since the Chevy II program had gone over so well, he thought that it would be a cinch to sell 50 of those too.

Unfortunately, Chevrolet Division changed its financial policy in regards to building COPO cars and wasn't willing to absorb the engineering costs. So the costs were passed on to Fred. That $8,000-plus window sticker made the ZL1 a hard sell, even to racers.

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With more than 40 ZL1s on hand, theft was a problem. In April 1969 we had our first incident. All of the ZL1s were stored outside at the west end of the building. I'm not sure what the exact number was, but I think we had six or seven carburetors stolen off the cars as well as parts stolen out of the building. That was when Fred decided that we needed a fence. It was about 10 feet high with angled barbed wire posts at the top and had a huge gate in the front. However, until the fence was completed, we had to park all 40 cars inside the shop every night and pull them back out again the next morning.

I remember Fred was very particular about who he sold those ZL1s to. Money wasn't as much of an issue as what the car was actually going to be used for. He didn't want to see people tearing up and down the public streets with one of his cars. He wanted them to be drag-raced.

Fred had one of the few Chevrolet dealerships in the area that had a nice, long strip of asphalt at the back of the lot running from one end to the other. I remember Jim Hayter used to occasionally test the ZL1 back there. When you walked out the back door of the shop, you had to pay close attention. Occasionally things could get a little hairy around there! —BL

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