1968 COPO 9738 396/TH400 Nova SS

50 Built, 12 Left

Doug Marion Mar 13, 2008 0 Comment(s)
Sucs_0827_01_z 1968_yenko_nova_SS Front_view 2/12

After COPO legend Dennis Hartweg's untimely passing some years ago, his wife, Ann, brought their Grecian green COPO 9738 Nova (#15) to the annual Fred Gibb Memorial Car Show in LaHarpe, IL, and to the Monmouth, IL, Cruise-In the night before. Dennis' father was the service manager at Fred Gibb Chevrolet during its high-performance glory years. Iowa COPO legend Kim Howie uncovered it in 1989 and eventually sold it to the Hartwegs.

Heading into Chevrolet model year 1968, the overall high-performance world was pegging its collective rev limiter, so to speak. Chevrolet drag racing records were by and far number one, as were the huge amount of enthusiastic Chevrolet fans and followers. How so? Think back to all the great models and engines produced since late 1954. To be sure, for all those who were there, this was the greatest 15 years of Chevrolet performance cars. It was evident the Bow Tie brigade wasn't about to slow down any time soon.

In studying both market and customer needs, Chevrolet knew the Chevy II had to head in a slightly new direction. Hence, a totally new car was created. Some called it "bigger, bolder, and macho." An accurate description, as the '68 edition had a superior chassis and suspension than previous models. It also had four powerful engine options, the L30 and L79 327 small-blocks, plus the L34 and L78 big-blocks. In my eight prior years of drag racing, about the only thing Chevrolet didn't offer or seem to care about was record-setting fast models equipped with a viable automatic transmission. But that was about to change come July.

In early 1968, Fred Gibb, owner of Fred Gibb Chevrolet in LaHarpe, Illinois, asked Chevrolet's Product Promotion Manager, Vince Piggins, if it would be possible to build a '68 Nova SS L78 396 with a GM TH400 automatic transmission via the Central Office Production Order (COPO) program. Changing the stall speed in the torque converter was a recently known given, and Gibb thought the 375hp 396 Nova SS could be a winner in Stock and Super Stock Automatic transmission classes. Piggins and company readily agreed. To be legal in either eliminator, a total of at least 50 would have to be built. Gibb said his dealership would take all of them. They would be built in early July at the Willow Run Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The program was given COPO number 9738. According to Gibb/Chevrolet published records, the suggested retail price, less document fees and taxes, was $3,592.12. This was a very good price, as other big-block SS 396 Novas with a fair amount of options listed for $4,500 or more.

Sucs_0827_02_z 1968_yenko_nova_SS Engine 3/12

Ann Hartweg's L78 375hp 396 looks 100-point perfect. Note the factory air injection pump. COPO owner and historian Kim Howie first tracked the Nova down-then its engine! It was in Donnie Melton's work-in-progress '57 post. Howie bought it carb-to-pan and reinstalled it where it should be.

Gibb and representatives therein quickly chose but a few options: the base Super Sport package, Turbo 400 automatic transmission with a slightly higher torque converter stall speed, a black or blue interior with bucket seats, center console with floor shifter, power-assisted drum brakes, heavy-duty 2.70-inch-thick cross-flow radiator, 14x6 steel wheels, and a 4.10:1 Posi-traction differential. A total of five body colors were asked for, but only four were available: Fathom blue (20), Grecian green (10), Matador red (10), and Tripoli turquoise (10). Beige was the unavailable color, say those in the know. The factory warranty coverage was "limited 90 day."

The COPO 9738 Nova SS marked the very first factory Chevrolet car that linked a mechanical-lifter big-block V-8 to an automatic transmission. In no time at all, they were known as "Mystery Novas." Not too many knew anything about them. The competition even protested when they saw one-they didn't know about the Nova TH400, either. It was well into August before the first cars were seen in competition. The very next month (September) the new '69 models came out.

Sucs_0827_03_z 1968_yenko_nova_SS Front_view 4/12

Missouri's Ray Morrison never knew about the Fred Gibb COPO 9738 Nova in 1968. He read Dick Harrell's ad for a 427, then contacted his local dealer, who placed his order. Nova #37 was shipped from Fred Gibb Chevrolet to Harrell's shop, and in less than two weeks Ray Morrison bought the fastest, most potentially lethal car on the road.

Most COPO 9738s didn't become known or even win major races and set records until the '69 season. By this time most eyes and minds were focused on other '69 competition. The COPO 9738s dominated their classes for many years to come, but-like so many other potent Chevy engines-they were indexed by the sanctioning bodies until they were no longer competitive.

Gibb did a great thing in creating the COPO 9738, but there was so much else going on in late 1968 through 1969 and 1970 that the COPO 9738 got swallowed up into performance lore and history. No one to our knowledge knows who bought each of these Novas, much less where they ended up. On the next page you'll find a list of all 50 Novas by identification number. You might want to photocopy it for use when you spot an unsuspecting '68 Nova SS. You never know!

What does the COPO 9738 Nova SS represent today? All 12 currently known examples are an extremely valid piece of torrid Chevrolet drag racing history, one that will never be repeated. Plus, each of the remaining L78 396/TH400 Novas began life documented as "1 of 50." Tracking efforts by the late Dennis Hartweg, original owner Ray Morrison, veteran enthusiast and COPO Nova owner Kim Howie, and others all believe there are more to be uncovered. Wait, there's more!




Connect With Us

Get Latest News and Articles. Newsletter Sign Up

subscribe to the magazine

get digital get print