Editor's note: The Chevelle you are going to read about has some unusual paperwork and a controversial background, with the owner and the estate of Dick Harrell arguing over exactly what it is. We are an enthusiast publication, not a court of law, so we present it solely for your reading enjoyment and education.--Jim Campisano
One puff is all it takes, and bam, you're an addict. Just ask Roger Day. In 1969, after logging 105,000 glorious miles on his '66 SS396 Chevelle, the trusty Rat motor started showing signs of fatigue. While the old girl had never let him down, the blue smoke it puffed between shifts gave Roger a bad case of wandering-eye syndrome.
"I stopped by the parts department at Bill Allen Chevrolet, my local dealership, to price out a new 427 crate motor. I had recently paid off the Chevelle, so an upgrade made perfect sense to me," he recalls. However, once the counterman suggested a few supporting mods, like a heavy-duty four-speed, clutch, etc., reality scrapped his budget-busting plan. No worries, because within a month, Roger traded in this '66 SS396 for a new '69 COPO 427 Chevelle. As great as all this sounds, the story was just getting started, and it would take 42 long years before reaching a happy ending.
The series of events that ensued during those 42 years is just cuckoo. Without question, Roger put the super-rare L72 big-block Chevelle to good use. "I never got left behind at a stoplight, and the Chevelle was unbeaten. Two races that stand out the most are beating my friend John Carter's 396ci Nova, and on another occasion, smoking a 440 Six-Pack Challenger very badly," he reminisces.
Street scuffles aside, Roger's fondest memory involving the '69 Chevelle is the night he met his wife. "On Memorial Day weekend in 1970, I stopped by my buddy Jim Fancher's house for a get together and met a pretty girl named Karen Boulton through some mutual friends. I took her home in my Chevelle afterwards, and we talked until 4:30 the next morning. We got engaged two weeks later, and we recently celebrated our 40th anniversary. We think it's going to work out."
At the time, few people realized what a rare machine this particular Chevelle would prove to be. "I figured out that the Chevelle was a factory 427 car shortly after I bought it new, but I wasn't aware of the COPO process. To my knowledge, this is the only '69 COPO 427 Chevelle built at GM Kansas City production line with the original documents and the original owner," Roger explains. Notable factory equipment includes a heavy duty F41 suspension, power disc front brakes, a 12-bolt Posi rearend, and 14x7 SS-style wheels. Furthermore, Roger has some very unique documents indicating that the hood stripes, column tach, AM radio, and hood locks were added as dealer-installed options. Unaware of what a truly extraordinary piece of muscle car history his Chevelle would come to represent in the subsequent decades, he traded it in for a '70 Camaro RS after just 15 months of ownership.
Although it seems crazy looking back at the situation today, Roger had good reason for getting rid of the Chevelle. After yet another street racing victory, the 427 began emitting some ominous signs of rod knock. He took car into the dealership for inspection, and GM replaced the 12,000-mile L72 under warranty. To get the work approved, the GM zone manager came down to the dealership to meet with Roger and the service manager. "He said ‘GM should have never put these 427 motors in production cars. They're race motors, and people are just going to blow them up,'" Roger recalls.
Unfortunately, those words would be validated once again, when Roger took his Chevelle on a test run not long after the repair. "I got on the gas, the oil light came on, and the new motor started knocking again. The pickup tube fell off, and it turned out that the mechanic forgot to weld it in place. This time, GM authorized repairing the motor, but not a complete replacement. I figured that two incidents in such a short period of time was one time too many, so I traded it in for a small-block '70 Camaro. My future father-in-law cringed every time I picked his daughter up for a date in a big-block Chevelle, so he was elated when I replaced it with something more practical."
In the decades that followed, Roger and his wife Karen often reminisced about their chance meeting in the summer of '70, the whirlwind romance that followed, and the '69 Chevelle that starred center stage in it all. Consequently, he embarked on a mission to track down the car in the mid-'90s, but without much success. Then in 2008, Roger tapped into a new wave of self-motivation determined to find that old Chevelle once and for all. He located the person who owned the car in the mid-'80s, who revealed that he sold it at auction. Disappointed but not defeated, Roger turned to the online community for help, posting inquiries on message boards like www.chevelles.net. That led to tracking down another one of the car's former owners, who indicated that the COPO sat on a farm for several years before getting crushed for scrap. "That news was devastating, but something inside me wouldn't let go, and I just couldn't quit," he says.
Although Roger didn't know it at the time, the crushed and scrapped orange Chevelle wasn't the car in question. His old Chevelle had been painted white, and was actually sitting on the same farm as the orange A-body that got crushed. A few months went by without much progress until Roger received an intriguing e-mail out of the blue for someone who'd been tracking the progress of his search online. The person on the other end had the correct VIN number off the old Chevelle, and said he saw it posted for sale online. "He said he saw an ad with the correct VIN on eBay, craigslist, or Racingjunk.com, but he couldn't remember the exact site. After that, I got up at 4:30 a.m. everyday to scour the Internet for clues," Roger explains. "I expanded my search to include several major metro areas, and I found an expired craigslist ad in the Chicago area that had the correct VIN. Fortunately, the owner relisted the ad, I called him up, and we agreed to meet the next morning. When I finally saw the car in person, my heart began to race, as I spotted an old Missouri inspection sticker on the windshield. I asked the owner for any documents he may have, and he pulled out an old DMV title application from the car's same mid-‘80s owner I had tracked down a few years ago. Everything matched, so two days later, I came back with a trailer and hauled the car back home to North Texas."
After 40 years of separation, and more than a decade of searching, Roger and Karen finally found their old Chevelle. It had peeling white paint, a 396 and a 10-bolt rearend, so Roger had his work cut out for him to restore back to its original glory. Considering how rare the Chevelle was, keeping it as original as possible was a top priority. The replacement fenders, quarter-panels, fenderwells, and decklid are all NOS items. The skilled craftsmen at Premier Body and Paint (www.premierbodyandpaintlc.com) in Buffalo, Missouri get credit restoring the super-rare A-body's exterior back the concours-quality condition. All the interior and trim pieces are either OEM or high-quality stock replacement hardware as well.
Similarly, since the original 427 was long gone, Roger replaced it with the next best thing by rebuilding an OEM "512" block back to stock L72 specs. It has been fitted with a stock GM steel crank, and NOS rods, pistons, rings, rod bolts, and bearings. The solid-lifter camshaft and valvetrain are Comp Cams pieces built to stock specifications.
"Everything on this motor--from the block, cylinder heads, carb, exhaust manifolds, alternator, water pump, and cooling fan--are date coded to early 1969 when the car was originally built," Roger explains. "The same applies to the TH400 trans, 12-bolt rearend, and 14x7 wheels as well. The goal was to restore the car exactly like it was when it first rolled off the GM assembly line in Kansas City in 1969."
Not surprisingly, Roger's COPO Chevelle has been a huge hit on the show circuit, racking up trophies and awards by the boatload under the scrutinizing microscope of the most authoritative Chevelle experts in the business. After the Super Chevy Show in Ennis, Texas, it won the Chevelle category in our AMSOIL Best of the Best competition, presented by Danchuk and Classic Muscle.
Even so, the most profound and captivating element of this Chevelle isn't its rareness or the unique documents that confirm its identity (and Roger saved every single piece of paperwork he got with the car when he purchased it). The real story is how a decades-long saga has finally concluded with a husband and wife duo that can now re-live their first date from 42 years prior in the exact same car. The difference is that this time around, they can bring haul their grandchildren with them in the backseat.