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.
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.
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!
Dick Harrell '68 427 Nova
"Mr. Chevrolet" Dick Harrell (as he was known) opened his first high-performance facility in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1967, then moved west to Kansas City in early 1968. He was a top Chevrolet national championship drag racer originally from New Mexico. In 1968, his business was a legal arm and representative of Fred Gibb Chevrolet. Gibb's service area wasn't set up to swap engines and build cars, but Harrell's was.
Harrell's very first new car offering was this COPO 9738 Nova SS-either super-tuned and tricked out or with the L72 425hp 427. Harrell also offered an L88 427 race engine. As few as 10 and as many as 20 out of the 50 COPO 9738 396s originally built were so modified, say those close to the fold. Harrell also offered modifications to the COPO 9738 396 such as super-tuning, tubular headers, hot ignition, traction bars, custom wheels, Stinger hood, and more. Of the 12 remaining or known COPO 9738s today, two are said to be super-tuned 396s, and two are transplanted 427s. Only one, a 427, is still an original owner car, Ray Morrison's Danube blue beauty.
Morrison was 28 in 1970. Today, he's a lad of 65. He had owned a new '66 L79 Chevy II and liked it. He did a lot of top-end blasts out in the southern Missouri countryside, but ultimately he wanted to go quicker and faster. A complete story on this car is in my Chevy II/Nova book coming out March 24, 2008, at major bookstores, Wal-Mart, Amazon.com, and other Internet book stores.
Morrison campaigned his COPO 973/Harrell 427 for its first three years. He said he won enough money the first year at the drags ($2,700) to pay off the car's bank loan. When the '74 gas crunch hit, he replaced the 427 with a stock 350 and drove it to/from work. He then stored his Nova SS from 1976 to 1989. Because everyone knew that Fred Gibb Chevrolet had the latest "scoop" as well as the fastest machines, lore has it that a few COPO 9738s were traded in on the new '69 ZL1 427 Camaro (a Gibb/Harrell creation). A SS/CA 396 big-block COPO Nova SS was certainly great, as it could run in the 11.30s, but to go even quicker and faster, an iron or aluminum 427 big-block Camaro was even better. Published reports and drag records indicated it could run in the 10.70s to 9.60s.
The Stock Eliminator '68 COPO 396 Nova SS indeed had low 12-second potential at 110-plus mph in the quarter-mile and could run much quicker and faster when prepped for Super/Stock Eliminator. The Dick Harrell 427 Novas were downright scary monsters that could do 0-60 mph in less than 4 seconds and burn rubber at virtually any road speed. We've known Ray Morrison for more than 25 years, and we distinctly remember him mentioning a time or two, or three, when his shorts were puckered up REAL good.
Folks, that's Chevy big-block, solid-lifter performance! Interestingly enough, not everyone raced at the dragstrip, not even a little. Many owners hopped up their stock-appearing '68 Novas with a hot small-block engine as well as a 396 or 427 big-block (or bigger) for street racing. But that's another story. Long live the Fred Gibb '68 COPO 9738.
RPO Four-Speed Big-Block '68-70 Nova SS
Let us not forget the '68, '69, and '70 RPO manual transmission big-block Novas. The L34 350hp 396 sales were 234, 1,947, and 1,802; L78 375hp 396 sales were 667, 5,262 and 3,765. We owned a '70 L34 for many years.
1968 Nova COPO 9738 Vehicle ID Numbers