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Rare V-8 Performance History, Part 4

Musclecar Mania 1966 - 1969

By Doug Marion, Photography by Doug Marion

With the brand-new Mark IV big-block 396 replacing the veteran 409 in February 1965, what could Chevrolet Engineering possibly pull next from it superb bag of ultra-performance tricks?

The solid lifter Mark IV engine could rev as high as you wanted it to. Just add the necessary valvetrain goodies, ignition, and go. Most remember 1965 for the incredible Z16 Malibu SS 396. Official internal memos said it would easily outrun and outclass the GTO.

I saw my very first 396 in a yellow Z16 at Nickey Chevrolet's celebration weekend. All employees were asked to work for free. But we got to meet Dan Blocker, one of the big stars of the Bonanza TV show. He was a huge motorsports fan and he liked the yellow Z16 so much, he bought it on the spot. He even slept on a sofa in the Nickey showroom Saturday night so no one would mess with his Z16. In all, 201 Z16s were built (200 hardtops and one convertible), strictly for media, high-profile people, dignitaries, plus lore has it, a few GM and Chevrolet VIPs. This was a sensational machine.

The total number of 396 full-size Chevys was 55,454. Sales of the L72 425hp 396 big car totaled only 1,838. They were uncommon when new and are super rare today. The 396/425hp Corvettes totaled 2,157. In the Chevelle department, there were 13,593 L74 300hp 327s and 6,021 L79 350hp 327s. The L79 was a sweet-running engine, capable of 5,800 rpm. With its quiet factory mufflers and resonators, it was a sleeper. You could barely hear its rumpty-rumpty idle quality.

The '65 Chevy II quietly ordered 324 L30, 250 -hp 327 engines. The L74, 300hp 327s Chevy IIs totaled 319. Few knew these two 327 RPOs even existed. Both are ultra rare today. Either of these 327 engines in the Chevy II, Chevelle and big car could be had with an automatic or manual transmission-three- or four-speed.

Sales dwindled in 1965-we believe mainly because a ton of young male buyers got drafted into the Armed Forces.

By year-end, the 409 engine was missed per se, but everyone knew the Mark IV big-block was truly a superior engine. Since 1964, the W-motor 348 and 409s began their quest as good Stock Eliminator class engines.

1966
Chevrolet engineers stroked the 396 to 427 cubic inches to take full advantage of NASCAR's cubic-inch limit. The new L72 425hp 427 was available in any full-size Chevrolet and Corvette. This engine was originally rated at 450 hp, but then some smart staffer mentioned "car insurance," so the same rating given to the L78 396 was kept. (It should be noted that the Corvette's hydraulic lifter 427 was rated at 400hp when it debuted and was derated to 390hp at the same time as the 450-hp rating went down.)

How does the same engine with 31 more cubic inches retain the same "suggested horsepower rating?" No...one...said...a...word. The Chevrolet dyno cells and proving grounds were testing 427 and prototype 454 engines in every configuration imaginable. What a time to work for Chevrolet Engineering.

Also new for 1966 was the super slick "SS 396" Chevelle and the L79 350-hp 327 Nova. Chevrolet Motor Division truly had a "full house," with no powerplant or accessory weaknesses in 1966. Since 1965, all the high-performance Chevy cars came with a beefy 12-bolt differential. Many were bought new over-the-counter and put in older Chevys.

Total '66 V8 El Camino sales were 20,331. Total '66 V8 Chevelle sales were 238,371. There were 1,865 SS Chevelles and El Caminos that had the L34 350hp 396, and 3,099 had the L78, 375hp 396. The remaining 67,308 had the base 325hp 396. For sure, no one in any of the Chevrolet engine or vehicle assembly lines was standing around.

The L79 Chevy II was an immediate legend. An East Coast magazine correctly bragged how tough and quick the new '66 426 Mopar Street Hemi was. But after a few months of stoplight performance testing, they said the Street Hemi was "hot all right, but not quite as hot as the average 425hp 427 Corvette or 350hp 327 Chevy II."

Mentioned in many national stories were the L79's showroom stock 14- and 15-second quarter-mile elapsed times, lots of fairly controlled body roll in the turns, and massive, uncontrollable leaf-spring differential wrap-up under full-throttle launch. All true indeed, but this was Chevy's all-time best bang for the buck. The body was light and the styling looked great. The L79 engine was an easy-to-drive powerhouse. A 275hp 327 was also available. Year-end production numbers of each were 5,481 and 5,108, respectively. A total of 43,265 Novas had V-8 power in 1966, which was about 26 percent of total sales. Of the V-8s, 30 percent were 275hp 327s and 19 percent were 350hp 327s. The other 51 percent of the Novas were 283s.

Total L72 427 big-car sales in '66 was 1,856. That's two-door, four-door, convertible and station wagon. The market had changed. Another 3,287 had the L36, 390hp, oval-port-head 427. You could also get an L35, 325hp 396 in any big car. A whopping 105,844 were so ordered.

Lots of owners began tinkering with the oval port 396 and 427 engines and found them to be equally as powerful hopped-up as the big brother L72 rectangle port engines. Year by year, the solid lifter 427 and 396 engines began to be "indexed" by sanctioning bodies into higher and higher classes. Ultimately, they were no longer competitive. Luckily, bracket racing took off in the 1970s and it didn't matter what engine you had. Put an ET dial-in on the windshield and rear window and have at it.

1967
Everyone barely absorbed everything offered in 1966 when 1967's flock of Chevrolet powerhouse engines arrived. The big-block, solid lifter, 425hp Corvette got 10 more horsepower via tri-power induction. Chevrolet also wowed everyone with its own rendition of a Mark IV 427 race engine-the unbelievable L88. It had 12.5:1 compression, a huge solid lifter camshaft and an 850 cfm double-pumper Holley carburetor. It was underrated at 430 hp. Guys were putting L88 cams and 4.88:1 gears in their L78 396 Chevelles, then kicking everyone's butt.

Gone after production Day One was the L79 Nova. Six were built that day, and then the plug was pulled. Life was still good-we had the sharp big car, the Corvette, Chevelle and of course, Chevy II. But then.

On September 26, 1966, Chevrolet pulled yet another small-block powered maxo-winner (my new term) out of its bag-the engineering coded "F-Car" Camaro. Chevrolet had really done the impossible in 1965 and 1966. If those years were the performance cake, then the Camaro was indeed the icing. Think back for a minute at what Chevrolet Engineering had accomplished year by year over the previous decade. Its high-performance "family tree" was indeed growing mightily and historically.

The big noise in 1967 was indeed the sporty Camaro. Even with no L79 327 option, by year-end, 220,906 were sold. Just over 25,000 had the 275hp 327 and 29,270 were SS 350s (new) with 295 hp. The RPO L35 396 SS totaled 4,003. Almost 48,000 Camaros were four-speed equipped. The RPO L78, 375hp 396 totaled a scant 1,178, but boy did they run! The only hot small-block was RPO Z28 with a 290hp 302. Its advertising was almost nil. Sales totaled a mere 602.

The '67 Chevelle SS sport coupe and convertible sales continued strong. In all, 59,685 and 3,321 were built, respectively. A total of 17,176 had the 396/350hp. The L78 totals dipped to a scant 612. The total Chevelle and El Camino sales with all engines were a whopping 403,963. A total of 4,048 Plain Jane, nondescript, L79, 350hp 327 Malibus were also special-ordered and sold. This car flew under the high-cost insurance radar. Also, the '67 L30 327 Chevy II had 6,175 orders. Small- and big-block V-8 El Caminos totaled 30,769.

The highest-priced RPO in 1967 was the "L88" Corvette 430hp 427 engine at $947.90. Buyers were essentially getting an ultra heavy-duty driveline and suspension behind the 12.5:1 compression racing engine. Exactly 20 were sold. Countless L88 engines, cams, heads and more were sold over dealership parts department counters to be installed in other enthusiasts' Chevys.

The only weak link in 1967 was the lack of an RPO L72 427 in the big car. Guys learned early on that the L36 oval port 427 was capable of great torque and horsepower increases with five aftermarket parts: camshaft, intake manifold, carburetor, ignition and headers. These engines actually ended up making better mid-range power than the L72. Oval port Chevy big-blocks would soon be frontrunners in Stock and Super Stock Eliminator drag racing classes.

1968
The new rebodied Malibu sport coupe had 4,082 L79, 350hp 327s. Only 1,274 Chevy IIs were L79 powered. The SS Chevelles and El Caminos had a whopping 4,751 L78, 375hp 396s. Wow! The big-block L78 outsold the small-block L79 in the Chevelle.

There were only 568 L72 425hp 427s and 4,071 385hp 427s in all 1968 big cars. Super Sport 427s totaled 1,788. Big car four-speed transmissions totaled 6,596 wide-ratio and 1,052 close-ratio. The heavy-duty M22 four-speed transmission numbered 124.

Camaro Z/28s totaled 7,199. Camaro 325hp 396s totaled 2,579 while the 350hp version sold 10,773. The L78, 375hp 396 was ordered in a whopping 4,575 Camaros SS models. Also, 272 had L89 aluminum heads. We estimate that five of the 272 Camaro L89s were convertibles. Two of them have been documented. The best of the two is Roger Sortino's recent SC cover car.

The L48 350 was bolted into 12,496 SS Camaros. The same engine went into 4,670 Nova SS cars. The now big-block Nova saw 667 L78 396s and 234 L35 396s. There were also some COPO L72 Chevelles built for specific class drag racing. Numbers/totals have never been documented or determined.

La Harpe, Illinois, Chevrolet dealer Fred Gibb, like many of us, wondered why Chevrolet had few winners in the automatic transmission classes. He convinced Chevrolet Product Promotion's Vince Piggins that a '69 L78 396 Chevy II was winnable with a Turbo 400 automatic transmission. Gibb ordered 50 and sold them all. Some customers then had Dick Harrell Performance Center in Kansas City install an L72 427 in place of the L78 396. We wonder if any owners insisted on keeping their original L78 396 engine? Probably not. No one thought about "matching" engine numbers back then. Life was good. These Chevys were going to be around forever. Not!

Again, the highest-priced RPO was the $947.90 L88 427 Corvette engine with accompanying ultra heavy-duty driveline and chassis. The new Mako Shark-inspired Corvette saw 80 ordered with the L88 427 race engine.

1969
Chevelle and El Camino sales included 87,307 RPO Z25 Super Sport 396s, 9,486 L78 375hp, and 17,358 L34 350hp 396s. Exactly 400 of the Chevelle L78 powerhouses were ordered with high-dollar L89 aluminum cylinder heads. The L35 base 325hp 396 was in 59,786 Chevelles and El Caminos. Musclecar drag racing was at a fever pitch, so we know why they were ordered and where a lot of them went.

Nova performance engine highlights were also unbelievable. There were 1,947 350hp 396s, 5,262 L78 375hp 396s, and 10,356 L48 300hp 350s. L78 Novas outsold L78 Camaros, 5,262 to 4,889. Note our production sidebars.

Camaro had a grand total of 17,564 Super Sports. The SS 396s totaled 13,659 and 311 of the 4,889 Camaro L78s had L89 aluminum heads. The L34 350hp 396 was in 2,018 Camaros. The RPO L35 base 396 was in 6,752 Camaros. The Z/28 totaled 20,302. You can bet a bunch of Z/28s were sold to ex-GIs just back from Vietnam. The Z/28 offered a lot of bang for the buck. So did the Novas.

Besides all this, there were also 700 COPO 9560 iron 427 Camaros sold and 69 9561 aluminum ZL-1 427 big-block Camaros, plus all the special dealership cars being sold. This includes Yenko, Baldwin-Motion, Nickey, Fred Gibb, Dana and others. This was indeed one wild year.

For the record, 1969 was the last year of four-speed manual transmission in big cars. Due most likely to the popularity of the Chevelle, Nova and Camaro, only 4,494 four-speed big cars were ordered. Model year 1969 was also the last year of the big car "Super Sport" option. Only 2,455 were ordered. This was also the last year for the RPO L72 425hp 427 big car. Only 546 were ordered. The two hydraulic lifter, smooth-idle 427 engines were 18,308 and 5,582. Total: 23,890.

Sales of the '69 RPO L88 Corvettes were 116. The package cost jumped to $1,032.15. They say that two '69 Corvettes were equipped with the aluminum ZL1 427 engine. Chevrolet's Vince Piggins told me in his office in the mid-1980s that both of these cars were engineering studies, and as far as he knew were never originally intended to be sold. Quote-unquote.

Some 10 years ago, a third 1969 ZL1 Corvette appeared. The owner, now deceased, told me he wanted to build the car, saying that the GI who bought it went to Vietnam, never to return. I know this because I sold him virtually every engine part except the block. He lived in Ventura, California. The heads were a much later issue.

Next up: The Rare V-8 Performance History finale: 1970 - 1972.

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By Doug Marion
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