The old adage in drag racing is “there is no replacement for displacement.” That certainly rang true for many Sportsman racers in the 1960s who wanted more out of life than Stock or Super Stock runner-up accolades. Why runner-up? Because the factories were funneling the latest parts and info to select drivers, meaning you were at a disadvantage on race day if you were not among the chosen few. This was enough of a problem that NHRA created several classes to try and solve it.
One of the first classes was Modified Production, which started off as a dumping point for previous years’ hottest factory model no longer competitive in Super Stock or A/Factory Experimental. Often, cars like this were built into fairly radical street/strip or match race machines after their factory owners sold them, and NHRA decided to follow the lead the more open AHRA sanction by offering this new division in 1964 (AHRA’s versions were divided among their large number of Formula Stock divisions).
There were six classes in 1964, A/MP through F/MP, broken down by pound per cubic inches. While engines could be reworked to almost any level, no forced induction was allowed, and much of the street equipment needed to be retained to stay in the Production class and not end up racing the gassers. Modified cars would race in the larger events in what NHRA called Street Eliminator; the Modified division was established in 1970, the same year that Pro Stock and Funny Car joined NHRA’s official groups.
The car seen here is one of those Modified Production monsters, and it has a terrific story behind it. It was bought new as an L79 four-speed, was converted to L88 big-block status shortly thereafter, and is now back with its original owner, Don Fezell, who has restored it back to the form of its glory days.
While some may argue it should have gone back to being an L79 327/350hp package, Don remembered well why he had made the change; As a young man in southwestern Pennsylvania, he had been very active in both street cars and drag racing, as well as a budding career in the grocery business (he was managing entire stores by the time he was 18 years old).
“I was busy, but we ran Indy every year,” he recalls. “Then, in 1966, I moved to A/Stock with a new Chevy II—the L79/four-speed combination. Sahli Motors in Beaver Falls (north of Pittsburgh) sold me the car and backed me, and we took the engine apart and blueprinted and had the new car on the dragstrip in about two weeks. Well, the third week I raced it, I went up against Bill Jenkins at Pittsburgh International Dragway and he beat me by about three car lengths. We decided ‘why fight this?’ since we were both in Division 1, and we converted the car to A/Modified Production.”
The L79’s 327 mill went into his brother’s Corvette and Sahli ordered a fat L88 race engine to replace it. The L88 was the absolute nastiest engine available from Chevrolet in a crate, and the car caused quite a stir. Very few Sportsman racers swapped big-blocks into the Chevy II body, and Don’s homebuilt effort even warranted an eventual story in the defunct East Coast Speed & Supercar magazine the following year. He ran it from 1966 to 1969, posting a runner-up finish at the NHRA Springnationals in 1968 (held at Englishtown, New Jersey, that year only) and a hard-fought A/MP class runner-up at Indy later that same year.
The car is now believed to have been the first Sportsman Chevy II to get an L88 transplant. Don ran it until about 1970, and sold it when he turned his attention to Super Stock. However, he did pick up a bug for car restoration, and began to search for his old MP beast. Finally, 20 years later, the car turned up in Butler, Pennsylvania, not far from his home in Dubois.
When the chance arrived to return it to the fold, Don knew it needed to not just be another nice restoration. No, this one was destined to be not only a very faithful echo of the past, but something that Don could take down the racetrack should the mood suit him. To that end, the 102-inch wheelbase machine was taken apart and stealthily updated.
The frontend’s 1960’s technology was replaced with an Auto Fab coilover conversion kit and QA1 shocks; using a smaller diameter coil allowed the inner fenders to be modified for more header clearance (have you ever squeezed a Rat into a Deuce?). The rollcage is ingeniously bolted together through the firewall so the whole thing can be removed. Paul Swartzlander (Swartzlander Classic Repair) spent over three weeks creating a set of equal-length 2.5-inch custom headers for the car. Out back, CalTracs bars and Moroso air shocks keep the ride tight.
The engine is a factory 427 casting built to modern Super Pro specs. The 13.5:1-compression pistons are fed fuel via a Crower roller cam, with heads and intake by Edelbrock topped off with an 850-cfm Holley. Concessions to the modern age include an MSD 6AL box and Pro Billet distributor, twin electric fuel pumps, a Moroso electric water pump, and twin PermaCool 2,300-cfm fans. Behind this is an M22 Rock Crusher four-speed and a 4.88 spool inside of a 12-bolt differential.
The outside, however, is a 1966 flashback—all steel, with a Mopar Max Wedge steel scoop for good measure (replacement body parts were not allowed in MP at that time). The color is Aztec Bronze—a one-year-only 1966 color laid on by Fred Siegrist; the vintage lettering was re-created by Terry Emler of Altoona using old photographs. The topper is 15-inch steel wheels, with 9-inch wide rear rubber that lets Don remember the past much better than a set of fat modern tires might.
Don graciously pulled out two of his other cars for our shoot at his shop: a real 1961 409 Impala and a 9,000-mile 427 R-code Fairlane. The action was shot at Beaver Springs Dragway during the annual York Musclecar Madness and U.S Reunion held each July in central Pennsylvania.
|Owners:||Don and Mary Lee Fezell|
|Vehicle:||1966 Chevy II (original L79, converted L88 in 1966)|
|Rotating Assembly:||Factory steel crank, Venolia 13.5:1 forged pistons|
|Cylinder Heads:||Edelbrock rectangular port, massaged|
|Valvetrain:||Crower hardware, Edelbrock valves|
|Induction:||Holley 850-cfm double-pumper|
|Intake Manifold:||Edelbrock Performer RPM dual-plane|
|Fuel Pump:||S-W twin electric, rear mounted|
|Ignition:||MSD 6AL, Blaster SS coil, 8.8mm wires, Pro Billet distributor, Autolite plugs|
|Exhaust:||Hand-fabricated 2.5-inch equal length by Paul’s Headers / Swartzlander Classic Repair|
|Built by:||Don Fezell|
|Machine Work:||Fred Siegrist (Bridgeville, PA)|
|Rear axle:||Chevrolet 12-bolt, 4.88:1 gears with spool|
|Steering:||Stock with steering stops on lower control arms for header clearance|
|Front Suspension:||Stock upper and lower control arms, Auto Fab coilover shock conversion, QA1 adjustable shocks, 12-325 coil springs, all factory seams welded and powdercoated|
|Rear Suspension:||Minitubs for 30x9x15 slicks, stock monoleaf rear springs, Monroe adjustable air shocks, subframe connectors, CalTracs bars|
|Brakes:||Factory 1967 front disc, rear drum|
|Wheels & Tires|
|Wheels:||Steel 15x4 front, 15x7 rear|
|Tires:||Moroso Drag 7.10x15 front, Goodyear 30x9x15 rear|
|Seats:||1964 Dodge Hemi seats as installed in 1966|
|Upholstery:||Stock retrofit by Casagrande Upholstery|