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Author Ro McGonegal Remembers His 1967 L79 Chevelle

Just Sayin’: In the wilderness

Ro McGonegal May 20, 2016
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So, when you’re just a punk, a green kid with a real big yen to get into what you think is the hot rod game you don’t know what you’re doing so you fumble … a lot. You search for some sort of light, a beacon. You read the stuff in the car magazines but it doesn’t satisfy, it isn’t enough. It’s a tease, gives you an itch you cannot scratch. You need to go where the good stuff is. Hear how they say it. You want to learn how things are done … and the right way to do them. If you’re shy, this kind of decision unravels that security blanket and pulls you right out of the shell. And when you are alone with yourself again you feel altogether invigorated by that first big step into the unknown (who knew the joy of rebuilding three Rochester two-barrels—with no leftover parts). You realize that the Earth isn’t flat after all. You’re doing what the people on the pages of those magazines were doing. Hot tuna!

Mecca was Tim’s Twin Texaco. The Twins sat opposite, physically separated by four lanes of Route 17 in Saddle River, New Jersey. Pete Timony ran the one on the northbound side and his dad, Tim, the other. I didn’t take 17 to get there; I snaked blindly down rural roads as if pulled by a giant magnet, and came out of the woods behind the gas station. At first, I’d pedal my 312-powered 1954 Ford, then a 270/283 1955 Bel Air, a black tri-carb 350/348 Biscayne, and finally the fuel-injected 1962 Corvette.

Pete was affable but pleasantly forceful and he had all the right stuff. For the early ’60s it was exotic, a collection that included a Uni-Syn carburetor synchronizer, a P&G valve-lash adjuster, and those wavy aluminum clips that covered the oil hole in the rocker arms so he could adjust the valves with the engine running. Other than him, there were pertinent hangers-on, ones who might appear at any time during the day or evening. Chucky was one such. His new ride was a 1966 Nova post car, not the slick hardtop that Bill Jenkins was using to snipe A/S Hemi upstarts (I’d witnessed several Jenkins/Stahl gunfights at Englishtown.) Chucky’s motor was an RPO L79 (327ci, 350hp), same as the one in Jenkins’ kidney disturber. I loved his car. I wanted one. But the 350hp version was a one-year wonder in the Nova. When the following model year arrived, the hot rod engine had evaporated from the option list, subbed by one that produced but 275 hp.

But huzzah, the RPO L79 magically reappeared in the 1967 Chevelle. I liked the small-block for its weight advantage over the SS big-blocks. In the perceived pecking order, the SS was cool, the car to impress; the Malibu was not, but I loved it for its lack of shiny crap and badges and its underdog persona. The ’67 L79 was rated at 325 hp on paper but it was the same air pump as the original—a leaded-fuel 11.0:1 compression ratio, forged innards, Holley 600-cfm (or 580-cfm) carburetor, and a hot hydraulic 6,200-rpm camshaft (the first of its kind, actually).

The reason I liked this small-block was that it could easily outrun the 325 and 350hp versions of the glittery 396, but I liked the stealth aspect more than anything. I’d pull up on an SS with my little-block and guaranteed the driver a big surprise. It was better if a lady friend was there next to him. It was like snipping an inch or two from someplace sacred. In the 1967 model year, Chevrolet built 5,481 of these killer A-bodies.

About three miles from the Twins at McPeek Chevrolet in Ramsey, I gave $2,900 cash for mine. I kept the drag racer mentality close and I was struck by some sort of minimalistic myopia. I ordered the car with drum brakes (I was sure that the disc pads would drag and couldn’t be adjusted to rotate freely like ancient brake shoes), an M21 close-ratio transmission, and 3.73 gears spinning in the Posi-Traction 12-bolt. “Whaterya gonna do, climb mountains with them things?” sputtered the order-taker at McPeek’s. I didn’t consider air conditioning or even power-assisted steering or brakes. Big mistakes all, but then my 22-year-old toad brain was more or less out of control when I bought my first new car, thinking it would be all things. It certainly was not.

But it certainly was nauseatingly humid in south Florida, the place I went to finish my college “education.” Opening the car windows to a few low puffs of fetid air was not nearly as refreshing when you’re stuck on an anthill, fricasseed under the noon sun in Boca Raton with your baby son whooping his brains out. It could make you a little daft.

To counter the pabulum, I’d open the pop-off valve regularly—on the school grounds of course, which were sprawled on concrete WWII runways that handled B-17 and B-29 bombers, as well as the radar training in 1942, so they were several thousand feet long. I’d wing the motor, pop the clutch and hammer the Muncie all the way out the back door. No one ever approached me or suggested that I stop what I was doing back there in those idyllic days before the heinous scourge of political correctness.

And unlike all the other cars I’d had, I did not mess with any of the Malibu’s factory-born systems. No headers or loud exhaust, but I did get real stupid with the suspension. The trend was to jack it up three or so inches all around to mimic the gasser vibe. An enterprising chap down in Hackensack told me this: “You can get the $35 job … or the $105 job.” I went for the pricier option.

He did it by extending the original uprights. He hot-wrenched them in two and then welded an extension between the pieces. The back of the car was simply coerced: Air Lift bags filled tight inside the coil springs. Right, mate. It looked cool, I suppose, but it rode like a wobbly crate. I think it was my aversion to taking corners fast that made me do it. When I turned the wheels, the suspension changes grossly exaggerated the Ackerman angle and they nearly flopped flat. So I’d converted my modest-handling iron into something patently unsafe in an emergency flail. I drove it everywhere anyway, and with the feverish invincibility of youth.

Much later, several things occurred to me, all precipitated by my refusal to meet compromise. Instead of the close-ratio M21, I could have opted for the wide-ratio M20 box (2.54:1 Low rather than 2.20:1) and put up some 3.08s instead of the 3.73s so the thing would cruise much more relaxed. But to me, “wide-ratio” spelled wuss, and I was too much of a reptile to accept the rational decision. What a crock.

In the end, I put the suspension back to stock. It was time to buy something else, something more suited to my new station in life: college graduate, family man, and soon to be the gofer at Super Stock & Drag Illustrated. The minivan hadn’t been invented, so my new ride was the dowager of the family circle, a Country Squire wagon resplendent in synthetic wood siding, A/C, and power everything. I dolled it up with Cragar S/S hoops and black tires all around. Pete Timony wouldn’t have believed it.

Nope.

About the Author: Ro McGonegal began in this business back in 1968. He’s been editor of Car Craft, Hot Rod, and Chevy High Performance. He’s a wealth of old-school knowledge and his stories from “back in the day” are epic.

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