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1965-'68 RPO L79 327 Engine - Performance Nostalgia

The 1965-'68 RPO L79 327

Doug Marion Mar 26, 2007
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As one of a gazillion Chevy high-performance guys who grew up in the late '50s and '60s, the 1965-1968 L79 327 (rated at both 350 hp and 325 hp) was for many the "Best Overall Chevy Small-Block of the '60s." Yes, it only had a single inlet, 585 Holley four-barrel carb (also rated at 600 cfm), but everything else was right on. Even though it had the first-ever high-performance hydraulic camshaft, if Grandma could handle a manual transmission, she could drive an L79 anywhere-and with a smile, too.

We always thought the carb was smallish. A 750 Quadrajet would have been perfect. The 0.447-inch valve lift did not make for record-setting top-end 4th-gear power like the 1965 RPO L76 (365 hp) and L84 (375 hp) 327s had with their "30-30" solid lifter cam. No matter. The L79 was a rocket from 2,400 rpm right on up to 5,800 rpm.

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All 1967 and 1968 Chevelle and Chevy II L79 engines had an open element air cleaner just like the Corvette. This is Frank and Mae Garrison's 1967 Chevelle as seen in 1988.

The average 1965-1968 L79 Corvette, 1966-68 Chevy II and even the 1965, 1967 and 1968 Chevelle Malibu surprised virtually all of the renowned big-block machines of all makes by out-running many while keeping up with most of the rest. How so? For starters, the power-to-weight ratio of the L79 was almost always better than similar machines. Few today remember or were ever even told that the "advertised horsepower" of many engines in the '60s were often stretching the truth.

L79, The Underdog
For other highly touted, super fast "muscle cars" and the like, those that could out-run an L79 generally didn't win by more than a few car lengths. We're here to tell you that most of them wondered what the heck was under the hood of that stock-looking Chevy.

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Plainfield, Indiana's Frank and Mae Garrison owned and restored this 1967 L79 Malibu 20 years ago. It's the nicest one you will ever see, and is maroon with a black vinyl top. It also has optional bucket seats, a Muncie four-speed and a 3.55:1 12-bolt rearend.

All of the L79 Chevelles and Chevy IIs could be had brand new for under $3,000 if so-ordered properly. That was a heck of a big bang for the buck. Also, take a minute and think back to the late '60s and all of the '70s when these L79 Chevys were on used car lots. Super good deals galore! Had we only known!

The L79 camshaft itself became so popular that from 1965 through 1980, more 1957-1974 stock Chevy V-8 small-blocks were owner-fitted with the L79 factory # 3863151 camshaft than any other grind. The good guy price was $39. Prior to the L79s introduction, the Duntov 1957-62, 098, Corvette solid lifter cam was the hot ticket.

In all, the L79 camshaft gave good throttle response, a great power curve, decent power brake vacuum and a lumpy, performance, 800-rpm idle to boot. Due to its overlap, the only thing it could not do was idle properly with an automatic transmission's stock stall-speed torque converter. A 2,500-rpm stall-speed torque converter was a must.

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The 1965 L79 Chevelle and El Camino had a chrome air cleaner with oval air inlets positioned at 8 o'clock and 4 o'clock. The '66 L79 Chevy II air cleaner had its inlets at 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock. All Corvette L79s and all 1967-68 Chevelle, El Camino and Chevy II L79s had exposed filter / open-element air cleaners with a chrome lid.

The L79's Ancestry
From 1962 to 1968 (and to a lesser extent well into the late '70s) General Motors Parts Division made a fortune selling the many similar-yet-different 327 special high-performance "short-blocks" over the counter at dealership parts departments. The good-guy price back in the day was $239 plus tax. A long-block (with big valve heads and oil pan) was around $400. The only difference in any of these various year special high-performance 327 short-blocks was the block's casting number, its camshaft and the oil pan. All had 11.0:1 compression with forged aluminum, domed pistons and a forged steel, small-journal crankshaft. The 1962-63 Corvette 340hp and 360hp 327 had the 0.390-inch lift, Duntov 098 solid lifter cam. In 1964 and 1965, a potent 0.480-inch lift, "30-30" solid lifter cam was used with brand-new 2.02 heads, L76 (Holley 4 bbl 365hp) and L84 (F.I. 375hp) heads. In 1967 through 1969, this "30-30" cam went in the torrid, high-revving Z28 302 Camaro.

The L79 engine was parts-wise, identical to the RPO L76, 365hp Corvette 327 except for the camshaft.

1965 L79 Production & History
So, it was in 1965 that the hot hydraulic cam, L79 327 engine first appeared in the Corvette and the Chevelle. For the record, the L76, 365hp 327 outsold the 350hp L79 in the Corvette, 5011 to 4716. There were also 771 1965 Corvettes with the L84, 375hp fuel-injected 327. (It was cancelled in February 1965 when the Mark IV 396 engine was introduced.) Total L79 Chevelle and El Camino sales were a whopping 6,021.

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If Chevys could only talk! Here we are in Jerry Huffman's secret garage. He's known as "Mr. Z16" as he ordered the very first 1965 SS 396 Chevelle. Seen here is his 1965 Evening Orchid L79 Malibu SS pretty much restored and being reassembled very nicely.

Thanks to the L79 camshaft's hydraulic lifters, the engine stayed in tune just about forever. Spark plugs never carbon-fouled, either. Besides summer drag racing, my forte was engine super-tuning. I made as much money in one day of engine tuning as I did in one week of my summer job. Another 10 hp could be unleashed by quickening the distributor timing's rate-of-advance. The Holley carb's secondary diaphragm was almost always too strong. This meant the secondaries did not open until around 4,000-4,400 rpm. We either replaced the stock secondary spring with the weakest Holley spring available, or we just over-rode the system by installing a screw in the secondary linkage. Right in the middle of the linkage row was perfect for 3,000 rpm. This really made the L79 come to life. If tube headers were added, carb jetting was always necessary. I've known a lot of guys over the years who got away from high-performance because they installed go-fast goodies, but their car was not much quicker. Why not? They did not super-tune the engine (richen the carb jetting or install a larger carb, quicken the distributor advance curve, lower the coolant temperature, etc).

A friend from back in the mid-'60s, the late Jim Borecki, special-ordered a brand-new silver-blue Malibu SS with an L79 327, a Muncie close-ratio four-speed transmission, a 3.31:1 Positraction 12-bolt differential, factory chrome wheels and tubular headers (they came in the trunk). He installed the headers but left the engine in factory-tune (no super-tune). At Great Lakes Dragaway, Union Grove, Wisconsin, Jim waded through the D/Stock class competition one weekend running 13.80s at 102 mph. He crossed the finish line in third-gear! In the class final, he snoozed on the starting line and lost to a 13.90 e.t. '65 442 Olds. Ironically, a high school classmate's '64 3x2, 389 GTO with 4.33s also ran 13.90. Borecki's street machine clearly had 13.50 e.t. potential with simple engine and chassis tuning.

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We kiddingly asked Jerry Huffman if his orange spark plug wires were an option. (The only factory plug wire in 1965 was black.) He installed these aftermarket plug wires just to start the engine, not knowing that Doug Marion was going to show up soon.

1966 L79 Production & History
A total of 7,591 Corvettes were ordered with the L79 327 out of 27,720 total production. The engine offered great overall driveability with zero tuning woes, and depending on the gear ratio, offered pretty fair, 15-18 mpg fuel economy too. The big noise and best bang for the buck for 1966 was the newly styled Chevy II with an L79 engine and the new SS 396 Chevelle. L79 Chevy II sales were 5,481. Car number 116376W162834 was my personal red-on-red sport coupe, which I special-ordered in late February at my place of employment, Nickey Chevrolet, in Chicago, Illinois. The car is still around today, but not as an L79.

The weak link on a '66 L79 Chevy II was the rear mono-leaf springs. They caused the standard 6.95-15 tires to wheel-hop on launch. As tire size increased, so did the wheelhop. A pair of new S&S traction bars and some Air Lift Air Bags from Nickey's speed shop run by Dick Harrell and managed by Al Gartzman cured the problem. My car ran 13.40 at 104 mph with the S&S traction bars, S&S tri-Y headers, 3.73:1 gears and M&H 9.00-15 slicks. It ran 12.70s at 107 mph with the addition of an electric fuel pump, hood scoop and a bunch of super-tuning. It was undefeated in class C-4 (C/Stock, four-barrel carb and hydraulic cam). Most weekends there were 10 to 20 1966 327 Chevy IIs in the class. The bulk of them were stock L79s. There were also a few 383 Mopars and 389 GTOs. The L79 Chevy II power-to-weight ratio was right at the top of the class.

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This 1965 L79 Malibu SS convertible was the highest priced RPO Chevelle offered in 1965. The Z16 SS 396 was actually a factory COPO-first created by the factory, then ordered by the factory and by dealers using an RPO code (Z16).

I was in good standing with some of the Grand Spaulding Dodge guys via bench racing at Skip's Drive-In on North Avenue in Chicago and from the Sunday drags. Try as they may, no Street Hemi could get past my Chevy II or an L79 sedan owned by Al Gartzman. Mr. Norm's Grand Spaulding Dodge heard about it and an L79 versus Street Hemi contest was set up for Skokie, Illinois. Al and his L79 won three in a row. Both cars were brand-new and untouched. Mr. Norm's brother Lenny, drove the Coronet. Lenny had wanted to bet big bucks, but none of us had any money. The Grand Spaulding Mopar guys were always a hoot.

The only Chevelle that could challenge an L79 Chevy II was the RPO L78, 375hp 396. The 396 engine was a few hundred pounds heavier and the car was also heavier too. But the L78 396 engine revved to 6,500 rpm and its four-link rear coil spring suspension did not wheelhop. It was a runner. A total of 3,099 were sold.

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To represent L79 El Caminos, we present you with Mike Ingalsbee's blue '67 from La Habra, California. He has actually updated it with a hot 383 and a 700R4 AOD transmission. Rust-free '67 El Caminos are very scarce. Nice machine, eh?

1967 L79 Production & History
Sadly, the L79 was dropped from the Chevy II option list during day one of production and transferred back over to the Chevelle. A total of 4,048 Chevelles were so-ordered. From 1966 on, there were SS 396 Chevelles everywhere. Most guys I knew then weren't like me. Few drag raced. Most cruised around and enjoyed their social life. The majority competed in stoplight acceleration contests.

The 1967 L79 Malibu was non-descript-looking which helped keep it under the insurance radar. Chevrolet also lowered its horsepower rating to 325 in 1967. But the engine remained exactly the same. A friend special-ordered a dark green L79 Malibu with a four-speed and 3.31 12-bolt rearend. Another friend bought a Butternut yellow 1967 RS/SS 350, four-speed Camaro. Even though it was lighter, it was no match for the L79 Malibu. This was because the L48 350 ran out of power at 5,000 rpm. It also did not have the mid-range torque the L79 had. So we installed a nice 280 degree duration, 0.480-inch lift hydraulic camshaft on a Saturday. But the Malibu still reigned supreme. The Camaro's 3.31:1 gears, 10.0:1 compression and smaller heads/valves were the culprit. We then put a 750 Holley and an Edelbrock C4B intake manifold on it and it came very close to out-performing the Malibu.

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If lore has it correctly, you could order an L79 327 in a Corvette, Chevy II or Chevelle with a heavy-duty three-speed transmission-but very few were. Who would order a three-speed? Old-timers and farmers. Really. For the rest of us, a Muncie four-speed transmission with the beefy factory shifter was the only way to go.

1968 L79 Production & History
For model year 1968, Chevrolet finally got it right. The L79 was offered not only in the Corvette but the Chevy II AND the Chevelle too. While the performance and styling world was still "gah-gah" over the SS 396 Chevelle and Camaro, the L79 had a record year. In all, 14,479 L79 cars were sold. This included 9,440 Corvettes, 4,082 Chevelles and 1,274 Chevy IIs.

We really liked the looks of the all-new Chevy II. It also could be had with one of two different big-block 396s. We think an L79 could out-run the 350hp oval port 396 and run right with the L78 rectangle port 396. How so? The factory seemingly did not spend any time engineering a free-flowing exhaust system. This was either not in their developmental budget, or they felt that owners would change their exhaust system to-suit. This was very true.

Chevrolet did not highly advertise the L79 Chevy II in 1968. Due to the Vietnam conflict, not all that many high-performance customers were around to take advantage of this great little Chevy. Total sales were a scant 1,274. Very few remain today. It had multi-leaf spring rear suspension, did not wheelhop and had no weaknesses other than a gimpy four-speed shifter. So few of these 1968 L79 Chevy IIs were sold that others did not know they even existed. Like the 1966 L79 Chevy II, car for car, they surprised many muscle cars on the street and at the drag strip.

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Feature Editor Steve Kelly and Photo Editor Eric Rickman at Hot Rod magazine presented a great story in its May 1968 issue on a 1968 L79 Chevy II. It ran 14.60 at 95 mph brand-new with Casler cheater.

The total number of L79-powered Chevelles, Chevy IIs and Corvettes from 1965-1968 was 49,034. Few Chevelles and Chevy IIs remain today, but many Corvettes are still around. The L79's hydraulic lifter profile was a first for Chevy performance cams. There was an old wives' tale that a hydraulic lifter would bleed down over 5,200 rpm. Many did. But smart engineers back then (just like today) figured out the remedy. Hydraulic lifters were redesigned internally and could now attain as much as 6,200 rpm before bleed-down. The end result was a high-performance street cam that did not have to have its valve lash adjusted every few weeks. Chevrolet also engineered new rocker arm nuts, which gripped the stud firmer. They didn't back off hardly at all during high-rpm actuation.

The quickest L79 we know of was the great Bill Jenkins' '66 Chevy II. A top national event winner with 409s and Z11s, he ran C/Stock in NHRA championship drag racing in 1966 and the car got down to the low 11s. The only often-quicker machine was a dual quad 426 Street Hemi owned and driven by multi Chevy record-holder, Jere Stahl of Stahl Headers fame. While building his fabled "Totally Tuned" headers for some Mopar customers, he penciled out some numbers on the brand new '66 Street Hemi and thought since his nearby pal, Jenkins, was running a Chevy II, he ought to run a Street Hemi. Stahl won most of his C/Stock final rounds, but Jenkins won the hearts of millions with his "Grumpy's Toy" Chevy II. From 1966 until now, Bill Jenkins and his Jenkins Competition facility in Malvern, Pennsylvania, have been living legends in the Chevrolet camp. Long live the L79.



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