Subscribe to the Free
Newsletter

Living with Muscle Cars in the ’60s

A look back at the golden age of Chevrolet

Doug Marion Jun 10, 2016
View Full Gallery

In previous stories we’ve given you solid data on 1966 and 1967 Chevrolet sales totals. On top of it all though, in so far as really good historical stories go, are what the majority of Chevy performance car owners doing (or thinking about doing) from 1955-1965.

New car production totals were unknown back then and, for the most part, were never really thought about. Why? We all thought these times and all the great Chevys would all stay the same forever. I have always liked stories about guys and gals who worked hard and saved their money then bought a really cool used Chevrolet. It could have been a ’55 convertible with a 3x2 348/four-speed; a drag raced ’57 Corvette; a 1961-’65 409 ground pounder; a fairly new Chevelle; or a lightweight, easy to modify and hop-up Chevy II. The same can be said for Chevy performance parts. Swap meets were not yet thought up. Neither were regional cruise-ins. Honest Charley’s Speed Shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was one of the very first mail-order outlets. Ditto for Couch’s in Des Moines, Iowa. Chicagoland had a plethora of speed shops, including Von Essers, Ray Erickson’s, Rockford Speed Shop in Rockford, Don’s Speed Shop in La Grange, and many others down on Chicago’s south side.

I distinctly remember dining at the Bob’s Big Boy drive-through restaurant on Rand Road in Des Plaines, Illinois, and hearing stories about how different guys were hopping up their 2-, 5-, 8-, or 10 year-old Chevys. The same was true at Duke’s Drive-In on North Avenue in Chicago. Guys from Nickey Chevrolet and Mr. Norms Grand Spaulding Dodge frequented there almost nightly with stories galore.

My ’66 L79 327 Nova was one of the cars that if you wanted to see how your car ran, it was recommended that you run that “red ’66 Nova.”

Serious or impromptu races were selected based on a simple formula: A car towed on a tow bar or on a trailer almost never ran an actual driven car. My ’66 L79 Nickey Nova ran 12.70s with headers, slicks, 4.88:1 gears, electric fuel pump, hoodscoop and super-tuning. This was good enough to go undefeated at the drags and on the street. I had a bunch of guys in prepped Street Hemi cars, other L79s, and a ’65 4-4-2 (modified with a Crower cam, 4.33:1 gears, and twin Carter AFB carbs) that were thrilled that they only lost by a car length. The 4-4-2 was owned and driven by the lead singer of the Shadows of Night rock band, which recorded the hit song “Gloria” in 1965.

To be honest, I seldom street raced. I used to almost beg guys to meet me at the dragstrip on the weekend. A few did (and lost). Most begged off saying they did not want their e.t. announced. I felt they didn’t want to get beat in front of people. I’ve also had other same-class competitors tell me they left and went to another dragstrip if they saw I was there.

One favorite true tale about my red ’66 L79 (350hp) 327 Nickey Nova took place at my local McDonalds. I pulled in with my friend, Jim Borecki riding shotgun. He owned a ’65 L79 Malibu SS with headers and factory chrome wheels. We were approached by an off-duty policeman who did “security” there at night. He told me that some guy in a light blue ’66 L79 Nova SS was running his mouth telling people he had the quickest car around. The policeman then told me he thought my Nova was quicker and “did I want to run him?” What? I replied that I did not street race. He then replied, “No problem, I’ll call two motorcycle patrolmen and they’ll block the four-lane road.” How could I ever wimp out to a cop if the cops were going to block traffic? I had talked to this other L79 Nova guy once before and knew three things: He had a big Isky 310 cam, he had M/T 4-tube headers, and lastly, he never went to the dragstrip. I knew he had more power but he was running through original (restrictive) mufflers. I thought I had a huge driving advantage as I had five years of dragstrip experience to his none.

I still chuckle today when I think about running this guy with the aid of local law enforcement—especially two motorcycle officers. Well, to continue, one blocked the east end of two lanes and the other blocked the west end. Luckily, traffic was next to nothing so only a few cars were inconvenienced. On the third horn beep we launched. We were even off the line and I then power-shifted into Second gear at 5,500 rpm and pulled ahead by a half-car length. He then hit Second gear (probably at 6,500 rpm). I then hit Third gear and pulled ahead another half-car length. In Third and Four gears were were even. Jim Borecki rode shotgun. His eyes were as big as saucers and he was speechless.

Both Novas slowed, turned around and raced a second time in the other two lanes. I won again by a car length. We then headed back to McDonalds. The cops were pleased that I had beaten the guy. We never saw him again—ever. The off-duty cop who set this race up had a walkie-talkie and had pulled over at a commercial service entrance at about the halfway point. All he could say for months was “Don’t mess with that red ’66 Nova.” He also liked the sound of the L79 327 as it only had two 1-foot-long glasspack mufflers.

The other Nova guy was in the Air Force and was based at a nearby Nike missile site. Word was he soon thereafter put in for a transfer. Evidently, so he could say he had the fastest car in town except, someplace else.

1 Joe Johnson Garage 2/24

South Lebanon, Ohio’s Joe Johnson was a well-known drag racer in the ’60s who then took to building and showing Chevys. From 1981-1995, he was the Super Chevy Show’s top modified truck winner (red ’69 396). Shown is one of Joe’s two inside garage walls and his many awards. “Car Show Joe” is a great example of what all was going on in the mid-to-late ’60s.

2 1955 Chevrolet Nomad 3/24

In early 1967, I bought an original ’56 Nomad wagon in Hawthorne, California, then drove it back to Palatine, Illinois, and created what you see here. It paralleled what “Project X” ’57 210 project car was doing in Popular Hot Rodding magazine. With a 283 and 4.88s, my Nomad ran 13.80 at 100 mph. With its original 3.36 gear ratio it averaged 18 mpg on my one-way trip back to California in 1970.

3 S And S Panamerican 4/24

Before heading back to Illinois in the Nomad I went to Tijuana, Mexico, and got a complete “tuck & roll” interior at S&S Pan American for $150. This included carpets, door panels, headliner, padded dash, kick panels, side panels, tailgate - the works. It took seven guys 10 hours to complete. Each was then paid for the specific work each one did. Five years later the interior was still absolutely pristine. To have a Tijuana tuck & roll interior in your Chevy back then was the hot deal, then again so was having California license plates while driving around in Illinois.

4 Two Barrel Carbs 5/24

Owners of 1958-’61 348s and 1961-’65 409s were second to none in hop-ups and modifications. This street machine was “wowsville” with its six two-barrel carbs, a chrome oil filler tube and cap and polished brass fittings on the fuel lines. Adjusting the fuel/air screws on each carb was fairly easy—if you had a vacuum gauge.

5 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Bill Thomas 6/24

Odessa, Texas’ Del and Jane McAfee worked hard in the ’60s and loved most of the new Chevys, including the 1967 Nickey Chevrolet / Bill Thomas SS 427 Camaro. Today, they have a collection of Chevys—numbering over 140—including this legit Nickey Camaro SS 427, original and unrestored.

6 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Red 1966 Nova 7/24

A few of the McAfee’s other superb mid-to-late ’60s Chevys include a silver ’69 Camaro Z/28, a modified red ’66 Nova, and a primo Marina Blue ’67 L79 (325hp 327/four-speed) Malibu. I spent over three days photographing their Chevys, a few rare 4-4-2s and a Hemi Dart—plus Jane’s fantastic Barbie collection.

7 1967 Chevrolet Malibu Interior 8/24

Ever seen an original ’67 Malibu interior with L79, 5,500 to 6,000 rpm redline tach? A friend of mine had an identical dark green ’67 L79 that was a real sleeper.

8 Open Element Air Cleaner Chevy 9/24

Except for the Corvette-style, open element air cleaner and chrome valve covers, the engine looks (and is) the same as those produced in 1966 and 1965. Try 11.0:1 compression, #3863151 performance hydraulic camshaft, 2.02/1.60 valve heads, hirise aluminum intake manifold, and 585 (600) cfm single inlet Holley carburetor. Engine had great 3,000-6,000 rpm torque and horsepower and was the performance leader in its class. With headers and slicks, an L79 Malibu was also as quick as my ’62 SS 409 with slicks and 4.56s.

9 Chicago Sun Times Car Ad 10/24

An ad in the Chicago Sun Times newspaper was the best way to sell your car in Chicagoland. After getting my Draft Notice from Uncle Sam in October 1965 (age 21) I sold my ’62 white SS 409 (now silver) thinking I would be going to Vietnam to become a “statistic.” There were hundreds of great cars for sale cheap—all in the Chicago Sun Times Want Ads.

10 Hendricks Chevrolet Dealership 11/24

For the record, there were both large and small Chevy dealerships all over the USA. Hendricks Chevrolet was in central Illinois. We imagine it sold its share of trucks and vans throughout its working history. Now it’s a storage warehouse.

11 Mounting Tachometer 12/24

It was in the mid-to-late ’60s when mounting your tachometer on your hood first took hold. In many cases this was the only area to clearly read your tach (in this case a Sun Electric 8,500 rpm, 270-degree version).

12 Tom Migut 1966 Chevrolet Nova 13/24

Des Plaines, Illinois’ Tom Migut was a bona fide Chevrolet mechanic for decades. Out of high school, he first worked at Nickey Chevrolet when I worked there. He went on to become the nation’s number 1 expert of L79 Novas and owned something like 39 of them total—many in the late ’60s. He’s seen here with his ’66 SS as it won the Stock Nova car show class at Super Chevy Sunday, Indianapolis Raceway Park, 33 years ago in 1983.

13 1959 Chevrolet Convertible 14/24

Late ’50s customs were still going strong in the late ’60s and on up to the early ’80s! This ’59 Peppermint Stick II convertible was owned and built by Jim Carlson Auto Center USA, Holmen, Wisconsin. How do you spell s-l-i-c-k?

14 1959 348 Chevrolet 15/24

Del and Jane McAfee dated and married in a black ’59 348 Chevy so one would assume that he would like 1965-up Mark IV 396s and 427s. If I told you their black Biscayne is the quickest Chevy I’ve ever been around since 1960 — (with their son, Buddy, at the controls) believe me. I believe it runs 8.80s in the quarter-mile.

15 Great Lakes Dragway 16/24

Great Lakes Dragaway, Union Grove, Wisconsin, was founded and owned by “Broadway Bob” Metzler. He was in the USMC and saved his money. Upon discharge in the mid-’50s, he bought some farm land and with the aid of a car club in nearby Racine (many Chevys), they created a track that is still going strong today. I was undefeated there in 1963, 1965, and 1966. It drew entries every weekend from Milwaukee, south 100 miles to Chicago, plus cars from rural towns all over.

16 1955 Chevrolet Nomad 17/24

Who bought what in 1967? Well, Shirley and Ernie Mason bought their ’55 Nomad in 1967 for … $475. It served as their basic, fun transportation for the next six years then was mothballed for about 25 years until 1998.

17 1955 1957 Chevrolets 18/24

Back in the day, Hindsboro, Illinois, (population 337/close to Champaign) native Brad Smith dreamed about owning 1955-’57 Chevys. Then he quietly set forth a business game plan to have a 1955-’57 cars and parts retail facility. If you have been looking for a roller, parts, or anything else 1955-’60, etc., call 217/346-2813.

18 1955 1957 Chevrolets Selection 19/24

Check this out: Brad Smith has at least three huge buildings full of 1955-’57s and some newer ’60s Chevys. Overall, we’d say he has the world’s largest selection of original 1955-’57 Chevy rollers, etc., we’ve ever seen.

19 1957 Chevrolet Flames 20/24

Brad Smith’s flamed ’57 caught our eye. If cars could only talk this one would have a great tale or two.

20 348 1955 Chevrolet 21/24

Minnesota’s Jimmy Gaboury lays claim of probably being the first-ever to drop a hot 3x2 348 into a ’55 Chevy. It was then driven and raced for years before it was stored away. Here’s the engine just out of mothballs. Note the massive inner fender and firewall pinstripping.

21 Nhra Junior Stock Drag Racing Chevrolets 22/24

NHRA Junior Stock drag racing was full of 1955-’57 Chevys thanks in large part to Chevy’s Vince Piggins approving a Borg-Warner four-speed transmission as a dealer-installed option late in the ’57 model year. But T/S was a class for six-cylinder-powered ’57s we believe. Actually, we’ve never seen one before. Something else from the mid-late ’60s!

22 Carboard Entitled Wheels 23/24

In the mid-’60s, Revell created then sold a thin plastic record on cardboard entitled “Wheels” - The Story of the Chevy Nomad. Naturally, we bought one and yes, we’ve never played it. As I remember, it cost $1.00.

23 Drag News Newspaper For Sale Ad 24/24

This “For Sale” ad was in Drag News newspaper. It depicts what could be had for a mere $800 in the mid-to-late ’60s. A ’57 Corvette less engine and transmission that included: 5.13:1 Posi rearend, traction bars, Halibrand mag wheels, rolled and pleated interior, S-W gauges, and more. Don’t you wonder where this Vette is today?

MORE PHOTOS

VIEW FULL GALLERY
X

Connect With Us

Get Latest News and Articles. Newsletter Sign Up

sponsored links

subscribe to the magazine

get digital get print
CLOSE X
BUYER'S GUIDE
SEE THE ALL NEW
NEWS, REVIEWS & SPECS
TO TOP