If the rusty Keystones on this clapped-out SS396 could talk, they could tell us about the early '70s, when boys in small-town Virginia guerilla-raced hot American iron on public roads to insane levels that would make 200-mph NASCAR racing on a track today feel like a Sunday drive.
Yes, this 1966 model Chevrolet Chevelle is a real SS396, but the car's local history is what elevated the blood pressure of a certain local enthusiast named Jonathan Large.
He was one of many amused by the sight of this Chevelle off Dobyns Road outside the little mountain town of Claudville, Virginia.
"Yeah, everybody saw it. The car had been sitting on a back road under that hay shed since 1980," Jonathan recalls.
"The dad wouldn't sell it. Then, four years ago, he gave it to his son, Mark."
Every time Jonathan would run into Mark Heath, he would ask, "What's going on with that car? Are you going to sell it?"
Mark's father, David—Blue Ridge High School class of 1968—bought the Chevelle in 1973, several years after he came back from Vietnam.
"I gave it to my son. He was going to restore it, but he was just starting a family and building a house, and he wasn't able to put the money in it," David tells us.
Jonathan recalls vividly the night in 2015 when Mark Heath called about selling the Chevelle.
"My words were, ‘I'm out of town. Do I need to come home tonight?'"
Mark knew Jonathan wanted the car in a major way. There was no need to rush home.
David was glad Jonathan bought the car to "restore and put back in good shape."
What excites Jonathan most about this Chevy is the car's history as a local legend, a legend from street racing in the 1970s.
"When I came out of the service, I bought a 1971 SS Chevelle with a 454. I ordered a 425, and for whatever reason I could only get a 365hp Super Sport," David recalls.
David bought this car from his uncle's dealership, Stanley Chevrolet, in the little town of Stuart, Virginia. Before he crashed this Chevelle, his insurer, Lloyd's of London, had already sent David a cancelation notice.
David went back to his uncle's dealership and found a 1966 Chevelle SS396, hotter than any new car off the showroom floor. In those days, insurance was a major problem for a 25-year-old male, especially after totaling a muscle car.
David had to title the Chevelle in his mother's name and paid for liability insurance only. Then, he immediately began street racing.
"On Saturday night we would take our dates home about 11 o'clock, and we'd all meet at the old post office."
Highway 103, also known as the Claudville Highway, accommodated a quarter-mile straight (rare on mountain roads) that ended before entering a two-lane iron bridge spanning the Dan River.
"Where we started was a big old poplar tree. And we'd have a little line there. A quarter-mile was up before the bridge. But, we'd actually road race. We'd run about five miles starting from that tree and going on past the bridge."
To compete with the "heavy's" driving Hemis and 428 Cobra Jet big-blocks, David highly modified the 325-horse 396.
"I run it stock for a while, and actually worked for my uncle down there. He done some racing on the side. He changed cams and intakes and carburetion and headers, and done all the head work on it. I run that engine for, I don't know, a year or two, and then blew it up and went and ordered a 427 to put in it."
David blew up the 396 racing a 1970 Mustang with a 428 Cobra Jet.
"I was turning about 6,000 in Fourth gear and hit that bridge. It was rough. The car came off the ground and over-revved, and with those solid lifters in it popped a rod. Luckily, it didn't lock up with me."
With the 427, Heath would build an even more radical Chevelle, modified for "straight-out speed," with the high compression 103-octane 427 timed by a cam that didn't smooth out until 3,000 rpm.
"That was back in the day when we never thought anything about muscle cars being rare. We grew up on speed, especially in our neck of the woods. We grew up on bootlegging and hauling liquor and fast cars. That's what the country was for."
On the other side of the bridge, two-lane racing continued with top-end speed for five miles.
David recalls how a set of 3.73s in the Posi rearend worked really well for a top-end race.
"That thing, you could kick it like at 60 mph in Fourth gear, and didn't have to change gears [anymore]. It was all hot rod brakes and no power steering."
Power steering was a no-no. Guys like David would power slide through curves. That was their power steering.
On the other side of the bridge, the two-lane road was mostly curves. David recalls a "couple more straights" for passing opportunities.
"We called it top-end racing. It was pretty crazy, to tell you the truth about it."
Was traffic a worry on this two-lane road and ancient bridge?
"After about 11 o'clock or midnight there was very little traffic. Back in those days, we might have 25-30 guys in a little pull-off place watching them drag races."
Jonathan Large graduated high school in 1987, but he has a feel for what the '70s were like, as lived through David Heath and his Chevelle. More than buying a muscle car, Jonathan felt he could capture something of this mystique with the purchase of the SS396.
"I like buying a car, finding the story, and then tracing back the history," he explained.
Part of that history could have been tragic. David Heath's brother destroyed another 1966 Chevelle, a white coupe that hit the side of the Dan River Bridge. Parts ended up in the water on both sides of the bridge.
Ultimately, is capturing lightning in a bottle possible with a muscle car? Should Jonathan go back with a 325-horse 396 in his restoration? If so, should he keep the 396 stock? Or, would he serve history and all of us better to put the car back to its "killer machine" status of the '70s? Can he get the high compression 427 that David ordered from Chevrolet?
If so, an eight-track tape of Deep Purple's 1972 Machine Head album with the lead song, "Killer Machine," was obviously a tune that rattled through this car's sound system back then.
The Chevelle came from the factory with the knee-knocker tachometer. The four-speed Muncie was intact.
"My son has the 427," David Heath said. Should this car be restored with the 427 that he ordered new from Chevrolet in 1977? Current owner Jonathan Large talked to the mechanic who originally installed the 427 in the Chevelle. He said this Chevelle was the second-fastest car he had ever driven, the first being a 1967 Corvette with a 435-horse 427 with Tri-power.
The body has been repainted black, but the original color was Marina Blue with a blue interior. The Chevelle has "a little rust in the frame," surface rust on the driver's side fender, the trunk is rusted out, but the floor pans are solid, and the body is "arrow straight," says Jonathan.
The trunk hid parts from long ago.
If these old Keystones could talk…. The Chevelle sat under a hay shed from 1980 until four years ago, when David Heath gave the car to his son. Jonathan had taken these photos long before he got the chance to buy the car.