What's a Wisconsin dad to do when his son loses his license street racing? Cosign a loan for a faster car. Obviously, cheese and Harley-Davidson motorcycles are not the only bright spots in America's Dairyland. There are some serious muscle car brethren in the Badger State who live muscle cars like they mean it.
When Gordon Rohde of Wausau, Wisconsin, was 18 years old he lost his license street racing his father's 1965 Oldsmobile. Gordon's father, Reuben, wisely concluded that his young son needed to own a car that would get him off the streets and to the dragstrip, where he could race safely.
The year 1965 was a time of growing fervor for high-performance automobiles. Gordon's passion for muscle cars was fueled by his employment at Bob Johnson Chevrolet in Wausau. With funding available, Gordon studied his options and decided on a Chevelle 300 post car. Chevrolet salesman Ted Pauls helped him work through the order sheet. Gordon insisted that the car be equipped with the most powerful engine offered in a Chevelle (at the time), a 327ci, 350hp L79. Since drag racing was his priority and frugality was his practice, he avoided extra-cost options to keep the car light and cheap. Gordon recalls, "If it didn't make the car go, I didn't want it."
The completion of the order sheet put together by Ted Pauls called for Chevrolet Motor Division to build Gordon a bare-bones Chevelle 300 with the L79, in-dash tach, wide-ratio M20 four-speed Muncie, 12-bolt 3.31 Posi rear, heavy-duty battery, and nothing else. The car listed at $2,480. Fully informed that the 1965 L79 Chevelle was a strong runner, Reuben still cosigned the loan that left his son with a $75 monthly car payment. The car was delivered to the dealership in March 1965. When Gordon got the car home, he immediately ripped off those dumb dog dish hubcaps and began prowling the streets of Wausau.
Driving the shiny, new, Tuxedo Black L79 Chevelle 300 was almost as fun as cow tipping. But Gordon quickly learned that the ladies were shocked that his car did not have a radio. Cool car, but no Beatles. To remedy the crisis, Gordon initially stepped up with a Zenith transistor radio that he left on the back seat to supply the tunes, but eventually installed a state-of-the-art factory AM radio with the slick rear antenna.
Gordon admits to a few street contests in Wausau with his new Chevelle. But he quickly shifted his attention to racing at dragstrips around Wisconsin and Illinois, including KK Sports Arena in Kaukauna, Wisconsin (now named Wisconsin International Raceway), Byron Dragway in Byron, Illinois, and Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wisconsin. Though the Chevelle 300 was his daily driver, he made a few modifications to make the car run better at the strip: a bigger carburetor, wilder cam, headers, and slicks. Racers of that day believed that a nose-up stance aided weight transfer for traction, so Gordon jacked up the front with some homemade spacers made of pipe. A homemade driveshaft loop was installed for safety. Perhaps the most radical modification to his street/strip car was the swap to 5.13 gears. That much gear made driving to the dragstrip just about impossible. Young Gordon welded on tow tabs so the car could be flat-towed to the dragstrip. The tow tabs and driveshaft loop are still on the car to this day.
In 1968, Gordon sold his prized L79 Chevelle 300 to a buddy in order to fund a work truck purchase. That buddy recognized the car's drag racing prowess and engaged in some street outlaw escapades. Fortunately, Gordon was able to buy it back from that same gentleman in 1970. Only a few custom lace paint accents had been added to the car. It then sat outside for many years while Gordon contemplated a course of direction for the Chevelle.
The car was moved to inside storage, but Gordon delayed any restoration work. He knew that the smarter way to invest money in muscle cars was to purchase completed cars. He wrestled with the wisdom of restoring his small-block car. Fortunately, Gordon's son Seth was demonstrating exceptional mechanical acumen. Seth was seriously motivated to restore that L79 Chevelle 300, largely because of his dad's history with the car. Gordon saw Seth's interest and was excited about the opportunity to work with him, and the restoration on the plain old black Chevelle 300 began in 2010.
The metal had fared surprisingly well considering it had been sitting outside in the elements. All body panels are original to the car. The trunk suffered from leaky seals, requiring repair. Though the original L79 engine and M20 transmission had led a rough life, the car had only accumulated 38,000 miles. For that reason the entire original drivetrain had survived. Gordon and Seth performed an engine rebuild and most of the mechanical restoration. Machine work was handled locally. Paint and body work was accomplished by Premier Auto Body and Paint.
When it comes to originality and OE correctness, Gordon and Seth are as fussy and exacting as any father-son team in the hobby. The final product is highly detailed, correct, and magnificent. Gordon credits Seth's inspiration for the 2011 completion of the restoration. Neither will ever sell this rolling time machine of family history.
At a Glance
1965 Chevelle 300
Owned by: Gordon Rohde, Wausau, WI
Restored by: Gordon & Seth Rohde; Premier Body and Paint
Engine: 327ci/350hp L79 V-8
Transmission: Muncie M20 wide ratio 4-speed
Rearend: 12-bolt with 5.13 gears and Positraction
Interior: Red vinyl bench seat
Wheels: 14x5 OE steel
Tires: 7.35x14 BFGoodrich Silvertown bias-ply
The Chevelle 300 was the lightest and cheapest Chevelle offered in 1965. Rocker panel moldings and quarter-panel Chevelle 300 emblems were the only adornment.
The two-door post body was used for both the Chevelle 300 and the Chevelle 300 Deluxe. A Deluxe would lose the rocker trim moldings but gain side moldings, drip rail moldings, and rear cove surround moldings.
The 327/350hp L79 V-8 features 11:1-compression forged pistons, a forged-steel crank with small-journal rods, an aluminum high-rise intake manifold, a 585-cfm Holley four-barrel carburetor, a high-performance hydraulic lifter camshaft, and "camel hump" cylinder heads equipped with 2.02 intake and 1.60 exhaust valves.
The 1965 L79 engine had this air cleaner with dual snorkels at 4 and 8 o'clock. In 1966, the L79 dual-snorkel air cleaner had the inlets at 3 and 9 o'clock. Exhaust manifolds were standard Chevelle 327 pieces.
The original L79 water pump can be spotted with this inlet fitting without a thread reducer. The genuine L79 water pump is similar to those used on some trucks, but that top hole is larger. If an L79 water pump cannot be found, some restorers will use the truck water pump and add a thread reducer fitting.
The alternator bracket is unique for the L79 engine. It attaches to the engine via the top bolt that holds the water pump as pictured. On the 250hp and 300hp 327 motors, the bracket attaches at the intake manifold.
The Chevelle’s Tuxedo Black paint and red interior are exactly as ordered new by Gordon at Bob Johnson Chevrolet. The factory four-speed shifter controls the Muncie M20 wide-ratio transmission. New seat material was sourced from SMS Auto Fabrics in Oregon.
The tassel hanging from the mirror is the same one worn by Gordon during his graduation ceremonies from D.C. Everest High School in Schofield, Wisconsin.
Gordon has a number of timeslips from drag racing back in the 1960s. One is from KK Sports Arena (now called Wisconsin International Raceway) recording a 14.09 e.t. at 96.774 mph. Gordon also raced the car at Byron Dragway and Great Lakes Dragaway.
Gordon was inspired by his son Seth, seen behind the wheel, to restore the rare L79 Chevelle 300. Gordon has a set of dog dish caps in the trunk. He immediately removed them in 1965 for the street racer look, so it made little sense to reinstall them after the restoration.