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Living with Muscle Cars in the ’60s

HOT ROD logo HOT ROD 6/10/2016 Doug Marion

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.

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.
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Research

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.

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