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1968 Chevy Nova SS - 9738 COPO Chevy II - Thunder Maker

Dave and Leanne Belk's Race-Bred COPO 1968 Nova Is ALMOST Like New

By Geoff Stunkard, Photography by Geoff Stunkard

It was 1968. There was a lot happenin' in the streets, with a volatile presidential election, the growing antiwar movement, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy making headlines. Music charted new territory, as groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, and Steppenwolf became entities, joining the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles on the pop charts. And Detroit, despite increased government noise about new regulations, was selling musclecars as quick as they could get them off the assembly line.

Super Stock was a year old in 1968, having broken away from its place as the top rung of Stock Eliminator in 1967 with five distinct classes and its own eliminator. Each company had weapons for fighting in this series that year-Chrysler with its Hemi A-body Dart and Barracuda, Ford with its Cobra Jet Mustang, and GM with...well, with under-the-radar packages that didn't draw too much attention from the front office's frowns on race involvement.

While guys like Bill Jenkins, Dave Strickler, and Wally Booth were pulling the shifters in the manually shifted SS classes, it was decided after looking at the '68 cars that a new automatic package would be a good one for Chevrolet, as well. This was primarily due to the efforts of Dick "Mr. Chevrolet" Harrell and Fred Gibb. By 1968, Harrell was running a nitro-burning Camaro and had teamed up with Gibb, a performance-savvy dealer from LaHarpe, Illinois.

After discussing the possibilities with his friend in Detroit, Chevrolet Product Promotions Manager Vince Piggins, Gibb special-ordered a batch of 50 396/375-horse Chevy IIs (nicely redesigned that model year) to homologate a fresh Chevy for SS/CA competition. Piggins approved the Central Office Production Order (COPO) system to get the special cars onto the assembly line. This COPO code-9738-told the production department that this batch of Novas would receive 396-inch L78 four-barrel engines, the experimental Turbo-Hydro 400 automatic transmissions, and heavy-duty Posi differentials with 4.10 gearing. This program would also place the new automatic behind a performance solid-lifter engine for the first time; it subsequently led the way for the L72/ZL1 427 and LS-series 454 performance automatic packages found in the coming model years.

The cars would retain the Super Sport package to allow for standard dual exhaust and bucket seats; all would be radio-deleted and equipped with power drum brakes. These 50 special Novas fit into NHRA rules structure just fine (indeed, even Jenkins had one of them in the 1968-1969 era), though the stylish but heavier Camaro remained the weapon of choice for most competitors. However, the street-savvy and more liberal rules of the AHRA made a 427 conversion quite attractive, so Harrell's performance center down in Kansas City did just that to a portion of them.

The car seen here was the fourth of the COPO batch that Gibb had built, and is now in the collection of Dave and Leanne Belk of Davenport, Iowa. In fact, it was sold directly through Harrell's shop in Kansas City in January 1969 to a man from Topeka, Kansas, named Jim Mirowski.

"We had just had our '67 Camaro stolen in November of 1968," recalled Jim in a letter to Dave. "We bought this Chevy II from Dick Harrell's Performance Center in Kansas City. There were only two available to pick from. Ours came with a 375-horse 396, a B&M TurboHydro and the 4:10 rear. Other then the hood, the car was pretty plain."

Painted up in tripoli turquoise, even Harrell employee Dave Libby remembered the car when he saw it at the Forge Musclecar Show in Tennessee last year; most of them were fathom blue. The hood that Jim mentioned was the Stinger version added at Harrell's shop, but Harrell did not own the cars; he sold them as an agent for Fred Gibb, and that was how the next part of the story evolved.

"As soon as we started driving the Chevy II, we had overheating problems," Jim recalls. "The car still had the full Chevy warranty, so we took it to Van-T Chevrolet in Topeka for repair, but they couldn't find anything wrong with it. It finally got so hot it melted the bearings; it had less than 500 miles on it. When they tore it down, they found the water pump had a big restriction and wasn't circulating water."

Van-T was the performance dealership in the area, one that Harold Herrick, the shop foreman at the time, recalls Harrell visiting while on tour and where he had displayed his professional race cars. Indeed, Dick himself told Jim that Van-T would be the place that could help him with his woes. With the trashed engine laying apart on the shop floor, Herrick called Kansas City and asked Harrell what to do.

"You got any engines in stock there, big-blocks?" Dick probably asked.

"We've got an L88 short-block here," was Herrick's answer.

"Well, why don't you just put that engine in it and send the 396 back to Chevy."The price difference between the 396-inch and 427-inch short-block was only $120.00, an expense that Jim quickly agreed to. So Harold and his crew took all of the 396 components, bolted them to the L88, and put it back in the car. That didn't cost anything additional since the car was serviced as a warranty repair. Back on the street, Jim admits that, accept for occasional forays to the AHRA track in Manhattan, Kansas, the car was used to scourge other outlaws on the public roads of Topeka.

It looked the part, too. Soon after, the Stinger hood was traded to an acquaintance for a tunnel ram and a pair of Holleys, and Jim admitted his first midnight run with that setup "scared the hell out of me!" The lack of a 'cage kept him off the track by then, but it was a true 10-second streetcar. In fact, once it was equipped with Hooker headers and glasspacks, an unfriendly neighbor would call the cops every time he fired it up. Finally, as his family responsibilities increased by the end of 1970, Jim had no choice but to be practical. Van-T took the modified COPO beast in on trade, and Jim left with a new Vega. He concluded, "we don't know who bought it and we never saw it again."

It looked the part, too. Soon after, the Stinger hood was traded to an acquaintance for a tunnel ram and a pair of Holleys, and Jim admitted his first midnight run with that setup "scared the hell out of me!" The lack of a 'cage kept him off the track by then, but it was a true 10-second streetcar. In fact, once it was equipped with Hooker headers and glasspacks, an unfriendly neighbor would call the cops every time he fired it up. Finally, as his family responsibilities increased by the end of 1970, Jim had no choice but to be practical. Van-T took the modified COPO beast in on trade, and Jim left with a new Vega. He concluded, "we don't know who bought it and we never saw it again."

And it did disappear for decades-literally. When it resurfaced on eBay in the late 1990s, the original replacement engine was also gone, though the body was still solid. It had not been tubbed, and had been upgraded only with a bolt-in rollbar. So, Ed Cunneen of the COPO Connection began asking the seller the right questions and, armed with his background information, decided that this was indeed a car worth buying.

Ed has been around a long time, and his own extensive research into this machine began to show that this was a pretty unique car. It was one of the 50 COPO Novas built, it sold for Gibb through Dick Harrell, and it set up with a full-tilt L88 427 while under warranty. So Cunneen began a meticulous restoration of the car, locating a date-coded L88 motor and trans, finding all the right pieces to go under the hood and in the interior, and replacing the long-gone Stinger hood with the prototype version from a batch of Stinger replicas that the COPO Connection had created several years ago. But, like in Jim's case, family responsibilities called on Ed and his wife Patricia, and when Dave Belk found out that this rare piece of Chevy history might be for sale in 2003, he jumped at the chance to buy it.

"This car is an awesome piece," he says. "Heck, a lot of people don't know who Dick Harrell was, and they are pretty excited when they begin to see just what this car is. Ed did most of the research and restoration, and I'm just happy that I'm now able to own it."

Indeed, since it was almost done when Dave brought it back to Iowa, only minor things have been changed. Using a vintage photo he got from Jim Mirowski for reference, Dave has mounted a set of cheater Casler slicks on black steel rims, and added some AHRA decals to the vent windows, as well as the plates that Dick Harrell normally added to the cars he modified. It looks like it did right after the L88 replacement motor was installed.

The year 1968 was memorable for a lot of reasons. Thanks to Ed and Dave, one of the most potent COPO cars Chevrolet unleashed that year has been brought back to ALMOST like new. We don't think Dick Harrell would have minded a bit...

Interested in Dick Harrell? His daughter Valerie and Funny Car racer Dale Pulde operate a Web site in his memory: www.dickharrell.com, complete with vintage photos, an online store, and an active forum.

Technical Information

1968 COPO 9738 Chevy II Super Sport

Owner: Dave & Leanne Belk

Restored by: Ed Cunneen / COPO Connection

Condition: Vintage Race Detailed

Body: Original

Color: Tripoli Turquoise

Painted by: Brislawn Auto Body, Marion, IA

Engine: as built 396/375-horse, warranty L88 427 replacement

Machine Work: Engine Rebuilders & Supply, Stone Park, IL

Engine Built by: Ed Cunneen

Modifications: Hooker headers,

Transmission: Experimental Turbo 400

Differential: 12-bolt type Chevrolet

Gearing: 4.10:1 PosiTraction

Interior: black vinyl,

Wheels: 14x6 factory steel, Casler cheater slicks

Use: Minor, shows

Cost new: 3,592.00 MSRP

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By Geoff Stunkard
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