We’ve all read or heard about a person who purchased a vintage muscle car well before it was vintage, and he, or she, still has that prized possession in their garage. But how many of those car guys (or gals) have the exact same car they purchased brand new off the dealer lot in 1967? Not many. Now, cut that amount down to the number of those cars that are still running. That amount would be a very small fraction of “not many.”
Consider Gary Gerstner one of those rare guys who was able to keep his ’67 Chevelle (yes, the car he bought new off the Jack O’ Donnell Chevrolet lot in Midlothian, Illinois) for over 40 years. Now, before we get ahead of ourselves and assume Gary’s ride has been running that whole time, that would be a bit of a stretch. And the fact that it was apart for a good many years could be the reason it’s still in his possession. Besides, it makes for a better story than if the car had quietly survived all these years with no drama.
Gary ordered his Chevelle in March 1967. Although he was eying a ride decked out with an L78 375hp engine, his parents, who were fronting a then 20-year-old Gary the cash, decided the 325hp version was plenty enough engine for their son. “The car I ordered wasn’t a ‘stripper,’ but I was conscious enough to keep power-robbing extras like air conditioning and power steering off the car,” tells Gary. “I had a four-speed in my 1958 Impala and kept breaking rearends and going through clutches on a fairly regular basis so I ordered my Chevelle with an automatic. The three-speed Turbo Hydro was new for the ’67 model so I figured it would save me some money [and headaches] on broken parts.”
The car had other nice extras like disc brakes, bucket seats with the floor console, vinyl top, and, of course, a posi rearend. “Many guys think I had the radio antenna moved to the rear, but the order sheet shows it as an option too,” says Gary.
It didn’t take long for the young hot rodder to get crackin’ on the modifications though. In the summer of 1968 he had raised the car 5 inches and added Hooker Headers and 4.10 gears. “With the lower gearing, open headers, and slicks the car ran high 13s at just over 100 mph in the quarter-mile. But that wasn’t fast enough for me,” quips Gary.
CT Engineering just so happened to be right around the corner from Gary’s high school. They had a deal going with the local Chevy dealership and sold engines over the counter. “I really wanted a 427, and Chic Thatcher, CT’s owner, had a new L88 short block with 12.5:1 compression for sale,” remembers Gary. “So in the summer of 1969, I put together a combo consisting of iron heads, aluminum intake manifold, and Holley 850 vacuum-secondary carburetor. We raced the car as a 396 (most everyone lied about what was under their hood back then) and did really well. I never ran it on an official dragstrip because I didn’t want anyone to know how fast the car really was,” admits Gary.
By 1978 the octane rating of gas had dropped so much that Gary’s L88 could only feed on race gas—not good for a young hot rodder who liked to drive around town and raise a little hell on occasion. Unfortunately, Gary had no choice but to lower the compression ratio. This meant he’d have to pull the engine to do so. Well, one thing led to another and Gary’s car remained idle for 30 years.
Now that’s a very long time, even in project car terms, so the once-dominating Chevelle was now in need of a full restoration. “My cousin Kenny Staniewski had a body shop in Wisconsin and offered to do a body-off restoration in return for some favors I did for him years earlier. With the work being done as ‘time permitted,’ the ‘Kenny resto job’ ended up taking about 14 years. With the car being in restoration mode, my brother Lenny, who is a member of the National Corvette Restorer’s Society, thought it would be a good idea if we use this time to put the motor back together with factory aluminum heads and make it a ‘true L88,’” says Gary. “So I gathered up a bare set of aluminum, open chamber heads and began collecting the parts necessary to make the motor look like a factory-made L88.”
There were only 20 ’67 Corvettes built with the landmark L88 option including the cold-air induction and Stinger hood. Gary thought it would be cool to have the Chevelle hood function just as it did on the Corvettes. After about a year of taking the hood to VFN in order to mold everything in the correct location, Todd Griese of American Muscle Car Restoration in South Elgin, Illinois, prepped the hood and got it to look like it was stamped in steel. According to Gary, it’s just perfect.
With Chic (yep, the same guy who sold Gary the big-block in 1968) back in the mix in 2003, he recommended bringing the 427 down to a pump-gas-friendly 9.2:1 compression. Chic also led Gary to Greg Santry of GNS in Homer Glen, Illinois, for final assembly and break-in of the motor in his dyno.
In the fall of 2006, Gary’s big-block was finally assembled and ready for action. Greg strapped the raucous mill up to his dyno, fired it up, and pushed the throttle. To the surprise of Greg, Gary’s freshly built L88 belted out a surprising 518 hp at 6,100 rpm and 485 lb-ft at 4,800 rpm. “It’s been 30 years since I drove the car,” says Gary. “But I have to say, even at just 9.2:1 compression, this thing is more explosive than I remember, even when it was rated at 12.5:1.”
The Comp Cams XR294HR hydraulic roller (duration: 242-degrees intake, 248-degrees exhaust at 0.050-inch lift and 110-degree LSA. Lift: 0.540/0.560-inch intake/exhaust), plus extensive headwork by Mike Hally of High Flow Heads in Alsip, Illinois, are a huge contribution to the excessive power. In fact, Gary is quick to mention this is the most horsepower Greg has seen from a 427 on his dyno.
The big story on this remarkable Chevelle is of course, the engine, but big horsepower is only as useful as its ability to get that power to the ground. Don Stanley of TSI in Aurora, Illinois, rebuilt the TH400 in order to withstand the newly exposed horsepower available in the Chevelle. Gary, wanting to have a good sense of reliability with the car, had Bruce Kain of TASC in Aurora, Illinois, rebuild the rearend and swap out the 4.88s for a set of “more street friendly” 4.10 cogs.
Keeping with the classic muscle car theme, Gary went with a set of Wheel Vintiques steel rally wheels (15x6 front, 15x7 rear) including trim rings and center caps from D&R Classic. BFGoodrich Radial T/As provide the grip, while H-O springs and Edelbrock Performer IAS shocks smooth out the ride. Keeping body roll in check is an H-O sway bar stuffed with Energy Suspension polyurethane bushings.
As with most long-term projects, you can never have enough help, and Gary made it a point to thank his brother Lenny; Chic Thatcher and the crew at CT Engineering; and his wife, Sandi, for putting up with the late nights in the garage. Oh, and also for forgiving him for running up a “small” credit card debt in order to get the Chevelle where it is today.
After all is said and done, we gotta hand it to a guy who never even thought of giving up on his 30-year project. That’s a very long time, but Gary Gerstner is just one of those guys: a true hot rodder.