Provenance. It’s a big word, but very important in any type of collectible antique. It’s the attribution that shows the origin and background of an artifact. Sure, you can claim Washington slept here, but can you prove it? As big-block Camaros, especially modified Supercar examples, have come to the forefront of the collector’s market, having hard proof that it was actually upgraded back in the day and not some clone chasing fast money has become very critical these days.
This blue Camaro, VIN 124379N580930, is very special. In January of 1969 it was shipped from GM to Bill Allen Chevrolet in Kansas City, MO. In February of the same year, it was subsequently transferred to the Dick Harrell Performance Center (DHPC). Dick and his guys performed one of their standard conversions on the car, which included upgrading the engine to a reworked 427 and also adding their unique variety of high performance options specifically suited to making this Camaro a force to be reckoned on the street, and the strip.
Unfortunately, most of the folks purchasing new muscle cars back in 1969 were not too keen on worrying about the paperwork. As those cars passed from one owner to the next, any existing papers and documents that may have been kept with the cars, suffered a very high casualty rate. Today it is very unusual to see a special car that is accompanied by real proof of its heritage. Given today’s scanning and printing technology, anyone with a little bit of Photoshop skills can produce accurate looking, age-enhanced documents. Needless to say, the source of documentation needs to be considered.
So, what makes this story interesting? There is solid documentation certifying this Camaro as a genuine Dick Harrell conversion and the entire owner history is known. Until recently, the Blue Car was rumored to be a Dick Harrell car. The case was a combination of decades-old memories of the original owner, John Penso, and the guys who worked on the cars in Dick’s shop back in the day: Dave Libby, Buddy Rice and James Zeleny. Recently, Valerie Harrell, Dick’s daughter and the driving force behind the present day DHPC, started going through stacks and boxes of papers that were salvaged from her dad’s shop on Hickman Drive back in 1971. As she began sorting and organizing the paperwork, she came across some documents regarding this particular car, including the original Chevrolet Motor Division invoice showing the car as being shipped to Bill Allen Chevrolet on 01/21/69 and the Bill Allen New Car Sales Invoice stating the car was transferred to Harrell’s shop on February 2, 1969. Now the rumors and remembrances can be put to rest−the Blue Car is indeed a Dick Harrell car!
Of course, there is a great story behind how the Blue Car came to be. While helping the crew of the Flying Dutchman funny car at the drag strip, John Penso had a chance to talk to Dick Harrell, who was pitted nearby. He told Dick he was looking for a fast street car and had yet to find one that he thought was fast enough. Dick replied that he could provide a car that would be fast enough. Dick then described some of his conversion options, including upgrading the short-block to increase displacement, or replacing the entire engine along with a variety of aftermarket performance options, including “Harrell’s special touches.” He also said he had a modified ZL1 Camaro ready to go at the shop in Kansas City. John took Dick’s business card and told him he would think about it.
A couple of weeks later, John called Harrell in Kansas City and ordered a Camaro conversion with a 427 engine. He told Dick that he wanted to drive the car back to his home in California with the intent of doing some street racing. So, he asked if Dick would put a set of 4.56 gears, Lakewood slapper bars, and a ZL1 camshaft in the trunk that he could install after he got the car home. He also asked for the special DH badges to be placed in the glove box because he wanted the car to look like a sleeper. Dick said he could use Dana Chevrolet in Southgate, California, as the official point of sale. When the car was ready for pickup at Dick’s shop, John purchased an airline ticket and flew to Kansas City.
However, when John arrived at the airport in Kansas City, Dick was not there to pick him up as planned. He called the shop and was told that Dick was on his way. When Dick arrived, he stated, “Sorry I’m late, I got a speeding ticket on the way over.”
John asked Dick about his car, and was told it was being finished up right at that moment. Meanwhile, Dick once again offered to sell John the hot ZL1 Camaro that he had driven to the airport. John passed on the deal, as he wasn’t sold on the ZL1s because of the aluminum engines. He was concerned that the water jackets would crack and cause leaks.
The car you see is not exactly what John picked that day. After the original cold air hood blew off at speed, he installed a stinger hood as seen on the car today. Bill Porterfield confirmed that John also flared the wheel openings, moved the gas tank filler neck and battery to the trunk, and eventually painted the car a shade of Candy Blue. He also he swapped the rear gears, installed the ZL1 cam and Lakewood slapper bars Harrell had provided, as well as Cal-Custom valve covers and air cleaner, and a set of Stewart Warner gauges. For the first time, the car is proudly wearing its Built by Dick Harrell badges, which were added when the paperwork finally came to light.
The Blue Car and several other certified Dick Harrell cars, along with Valerie Harrell and associate Dale Pulde, were seen at Tim Lopata’s Forge Muscle Car Show in September of 2008. This invitational event features some of the finest high performance muscle cars and vintage race cars on the planet. There was also a very special banquet held in Dick Harrell’s honor.
For more information on the show, check out www.ForgeMuscleCarShow.com.
As Valerie continues to get the mounds of documents organized at the DHPC, they will be able to authenticate other existing Dick Harrell cars and any other cars that may be uncovered in the future. Obviously, a documented certification from the DHPC will significantly add to the value of a legitimate Dick Harrell car. For more information contact the DHPC at www.DickHarrellPerformanceCenter.com.
We’d like to thank the car’s caretaker Bill Porterfield who went above and beyond to give us access to this car and the story behind it.
The Blue Car - It’s All Real
Unlike many supercars now coming to light in the hobby, all major powertrain components are original to the car and/or its conversion:
Block casting 3935439 – Used in late 435HP & L88 1968 Corvettes (block casting date D-11-8 – April 11, 1968) installed by DHPC. Note: deck stamp CE950807 designates a service short block from Chevrolet, not a bolt-together piece.
Head castings 3919840: L-4-8 and L-12-8 (cast on December 4 & 12, 1968) - cast iron with rectangular ports used from late’67 through ’69 on 375HP 396 engines, 425hp & 435hp 427s. 2.19 intake valves, 1.72 exhaust valves
Holley carb. 3959164-CE List 4346 – used on 375hp 396 engines. 8A3 date code, assembled third week of November, 1968
THM400 transmission code CX-69-1678 – High performance calibration assembled on 167th day of 1968
Rear axle code BT 0113 2GE G2E– 3.55:1 ratio with PosiTraction. Replaced with 4.56 gears by original owner.
Joe Zrostlik ended up with the car after it was discovered in Hawaii a few years ago by Tim Lopata and commissioned Larry Byers’ Prime Auto in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to perform a state-of-the-art restoration. The car had racked up a total of only 24,000 miles from new, but bore the scars of a street racer and required a total redo to bring it up to today’s restoration standards. Bill Porterfield, who campaigned the 1969 Gibb/Harrell ZL1 Camaro from 1989 to 2007, became the current keeper of the Blue Car as part of the deal when Zrostlik purchased the ZL1 from him. Bill has built and piloted a variety of innovative cars over the years and always said, “Cars were made to be driven.” He now says, “This Blue Car is almost too nice to drive.” He does admit, however, that he still misses those quick trips down the strip in the ZL1. So Bill, does this mean the Blue Car may yet again be used for which it was built?
The original 396/375hp short block was replaced by a high-performance 427 CE 950807 short-block dated D-11-8. Former DHPC mechanic Dave Libby says this short-block substitution was one of the standard Dick Harrell conversion procedures. He also remembers sending cars out with the original factory valve covers. John Penso, the original owner, added the Cal-Custom air cleaner and valve covers. Those are the original headers.
SLAPPER BARS AND BLUE STREET TIRES
The car is still outfitted with slapper bars and GM air shocks that were part of the Dick Harrell conversion as well. Larry Byers got the color code for the Lakewood bars and refurbished them to a better-than-new appearance. Note the set of ultra-rare Goodyear Blue Streak slicks, the last of which were made in 1970! Word is they came out of Tim Lopata’s large warehouse of vintage speed goodies and muscle car parts.
Penso says he asked Dick Harrell to put the DH badges in the glove box because he wanted the car to look like a stocker, but these chrome 427 monikers were mounted to the front fenders.
DICK HARRELL TAG
Libby says every car that received an engine conversion had to have the badges on it because the DHPC was classified as a “Small Manufacturing Company.” That classification allowed them to remove the AIR system and install a variety of aftermarket high-performance options. Zrostlik and Byers say they could not find any traces of holes being filled where the badges would have been. They were looking for traces of the Bow Tie and shield badges that had two pins on the back and held in place with PAL nuts. In conversations with Libby, Porterfield learned that that particular badge style was not used until mid-year when the COPO cars started to arrive from Chevrolet. The early cars had two rectangular emblems that read “Built by Dick Harrell” as shown. Libby tracked down the original supplier and had a pair of new emblems made for the car. The Blue Car finally has the proper emblems on the deck lid and front panel.
The original black interior is still in excellent condition and the Stewart Warner gauges were added by Penso. Note the tach mounted up next to the rear view mirror. It lines up pretty well with the tree if the car is staged in the left lane.
DICK HARRELL CREW AUTOGRAPHS ON THE HOOD
Zrostlik displayed the finished car at Lopata’s 2005 Forge Muscle Car Show. John Penso was there with Joe and he recalled enough detail of the DHPC shop and the guys working on his car that he pretty well convinced the Harrell family and crew that the car was the real deal. Valerie said she would feel better if there was documented proof, but the gang was still willing to sign the hood.