It was January 1965 when Chevrolet introduced what was to become a legend … the first big-block Corvette (and the Chevelle). The L78 engine produced 425 horsepower with 396 cubic-inches, well above the mythical 1 horsepower per cubic inch standard of the day. It was introduced mid-model year of 1965 and produced more horsepower than any of the other 396 engines manufactured from mid-1965 until the 396 production ended. (The “lion” of the big-block Chevy family would be the L88 introduced in 1967 and produced in sparse quantities through 1969.)
It wasn’t until February—Sunday, Feb. 14, to be exact, at Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington, California; a few days before my 17th birthday (and to me that was one heck of a birthday present)—that I was properly introduced to the big-block Corvette. At that time I was fully involved in drag racing with our ’57 Corvette and in a few weeks we would win our first of three consecutive CM/S AHRA Winternationals Championships (1965-’67). Every Sunday we towed to the “Beach” and would drag race all day. By now we had a 327 topped with a Bill Thomas dual air meter prepped mechanical Rochester fuel injection unit, Engle cam, and the latest rubber from Goodyear, the now fabled “wrinkle wall” Blue Streak (and stripe) slicks (10.00x15). For the day it was a badass Corvette and it would launch and get down those 1,320 feet in respectable times … mid-to low 11s at 117 mph.
On this particular Sunday I remember seeing a Cypress Green coupe (my favorite color of the day was British Racing Green). It was a brand-new 1965 Corvette but it had something that I had never seen before resting under the hood, which was also different. The dark-green Sting Ray coupe was powered by a 396 big-block Chevy with an unmistakable “bump” on its hood and the newly minted fender badges yielding a clue as to what resided within. The black interior, as it should be on all performance cars, had the telltale sign of a four-speed and there was no doubting that this land-based rocket was placed here by the “Gods of Speed.” I was absolutely taken aback as I stood there with my eyes wide open, along with my mouth, while my hands and arms drooped downward. I had never seen anything like this in my young life and I wasn’t about to miss a thing. Talk about “eye candy.” The “Rat motor,” as it would soon become known, was massive, sitting and filling every available open spot in the engine bay. The air cleaner was off and all that I could remember really focusing on were the cavernous quadruple throat openings that made up that massive dual-feed Holley.
I absorbed as much as I could from this 1965 big-block coupe. As it would turn out, this was 1 of 2,157 L78 Corvettes (coupes and convertibles) that were produced. Little did I know that the L78 would never surface in the Corvette again. In my own way on that cool and clear Sunday I realized it would only be a matter of time before those Rat-infested Corvettes would be ruling the pavement.
I see all kinds of Corvettes nowadays … some with mythological history, some showing off the latest in technology and some just good looking cars worthy of my attention and automotive respect. But I will always remember several life altering and memory searing moments. They were (or still are) as becoming hopelessly hooked on the television series Route 66, my first Corvette: a ’57, the one that got away: my ’62 and the first big-block that I saw and heard. The sound was something that I have dreamt about ever since. Life’s truly memorable moments are few and far between but I can tell you in all honesty that one of my very first memorable moments occurred at Lions Drag Strip and it was on a beautiful Sunday morning in February. Vette
Illustration by K. Scott Teeters