This ’68 Chevelle Proves Not All Cars Need Restoration

Do you remember what you were doing in 1986? I do – for the most part. Although there are memories that selectively escape memory, I remember that was the year I graduated from high school, left my mom and dad’s house, and drove in my ’72 Monte Carlo. I miss this car.

For many enthusiasts, the memories are just as vivid as when they happened. For example, Mathew Koops and how he acquired his first car – this 1968 Chevelle SS396. While I was shooting the footage for this feature film, he enthusiastically expressed how much this car still meant to him. As he recalled each memory, he had a smile on his face that didn’t go away.

Matt’s first day of ownership.

With the confidence of knowing for sure, he mentioned every detail of the car. I could tell he was actually reliving every moment in time; when it was dented, repaired and improved. It is because of his vivid memory of the events that I could not in good conscience write this article. You must hear it directly from the horse’s mouth. The notes Matt sent me about the car’s history are a deep memory that just needs to be relayed. So here it is, the story of his car, in his words.

It all started when…

“It was 1986. I was staying with my dad in New Britain, Connecticut for the summer and working at Gallagher Buick. I was the boy of the lot, checking out new cars, moving them around the lot, delivering parts and, of course, cleaning cars in the lot. About a week into my job, one of the salespeople drove this shiny 1968 Chevelle past the dealership sign. I rushed over and asked if it was for sale. He commented that it did and said the asking price was $7,800. The salesman then asked me if I was the new kid on the block, the new employee, I said yes. He took me to see what Frank, the sales manager, and my new boss would do for me as an employee.

Chevelle

The overbored .030-inch big-block still wears the same gear as it did in the heyday of its street-racing days.

Amazingly, Frank was willing to sell me the Chevelle for $3,800. I immediately told her it was sold and I would return with the money. At the time, I had $500 to my name. After begging my father for the money, he finally gave in. He thought it would be a good opportunity for me to learn how a loan works and understand debt.

While I was getting the money raised, the Chevelle was making a terrible whining noise and needed fixing. I remember being at work one day and seeing a salesman pull the car out of the parking lot. I was scared to death that someone would buy it and I lost it forever. Panicked, I ran to Frank’s office. He explained that a local shop replaced the torque converter because all the bays were full at our dealership. I went to this repair shop that afternoon to make sure the Chevelle was fine and they were doing a good job. The car came back in a few days, the deal was done and I was able to drive my new Chevelle home.

Looking back, the story of how the Chevelle got to our dealership is quite an interesting one. The dealership owner’s son wanted a muscle car, so his dad found this Chevelle in Florida. He had it shipped and gave it to his son. After driving it for a week, son decided he didn’t like it because it wasn’t getting good gas mileage. He returned it to his father in exchange for a new Grand National.

The Chevelle faces all the challengers

Once I got it, the son told me he put the spare radio in the Chevelle and wanted it back. During the discussion, the mechanics all huddled together and started chanting “race him for the radio”. The son laughed and said he would beat me easily. However, I knew differently and reached out to lock the race.

We have set the race for next weekend. In the meantime, the mechanics helped me tune the Chevelle. When race time arrived, we lined up near the local asphalt plant. The Chevelle easily brushed aside the new Buick, keeping the SparkOmatic radio. I spent this summer doing all sorts of stupid things with the car: burnouts, races, and basically showing off to my friends. A friend of mine’s dad once said the engine had porcupine heads. I had to think for a second but I nodded yes.

Chevelle

When Matt was younger, he saved his money to buy new carpet for the Chevelle. An incorrect recommendation from a supplier earned him this gold flooring. He does not like it, but in principle, he does not plan to change it.

Soon it was time to leave New Britain and return to my mother in Roanoke, Virginia. The first day of school was exciting because of my new car. My mother had enrolled me in a private school where most of the children came from very wealthy parents. They all drove BMWs, Mercedes and Volvos. In the parking lot, my Chevelle was literally the elephant in the room.

At first the other students turned their noses at me, but after a few days they asked what kind of car it was. I didn’t care about them, because my real friends were located at the local cruise track where we raced, sailed and tried to meet girls. My mom and I didn’t have a lot of money, so I had to race and hustle to make money on gas and save for the engine upgrade.

The Chevelle gets a fan club

The kids at school finally warmed up to me and a few of them finally asked to be taken home. They wondered why my car was so loud and asked if it was fast. I told them it was faster than anything in school. After a lot of laughs, they lined me up with a new Mercedes and a BMW 318I. I quickly dismissed these two vehicles. From that day on, I was charged with having an illegally fast vehicle.

Chevelle

Matt probably had the coolest ride to his 1988 prom.

My senior year at this school, the kids were going out of their way to find cars and try to beat my Chevelle. For the last race, one of the kids went to a foreign car importer and told them the story of my Chevelle. The importer pulled out a European-spec 911 and gave us radar detectors so we wouldn’t get caught. We rode the Blue Ridge Parkway where the Chevelle beat the Porsche in a 1/4 mile drag race. We then continued on the twisty roads where the Porsche couldn’t get away from me, or lose the German sports car. By the end of that day, the kids were respecting the Chevelle and bragging about it to their friends, still calling it illegal.

Things are getting serious

I met my first “real” girlfriend while cruising in the Chevelle. We dated all through high school. She gave me a stuffed toy – Rodney the Reindeer – for Christmas in 1987. It’s still on the rear view mirror. When I bought the car, there was a 50 cent coin on the console. He’s still there too.

In the summer of 1988, I had a new girlfriend. As she and I were carelessly cruising one day, I hit a motorcycle in Virginia Beach. The guy riding the motorcycle was the tallest human I’ve ever seen. It was either his wife or his sister who quickly rushed up to me yelling at me that I was going down for this one. The guy was fine but kept saying, “I’m fine, let’s go, let’s go.” I soon discovered that he was illegally in the United States and had no insurance or registration. Unfortunately, the Chevelle was a bit dented. I destroyed the grille and the top panel.

The Chevelle is hibernating

I moved back to Connecticut after high school. Once there I drove the Chevelle into the garage, covered it up and that was the last time I drove it until 2021. I was able to find a grille and a panel of NOS head while the car was parked, and the guys at Gallagher Buick painted for me. They didn’t have the car to do a paint match, hence the different color of the header panel, fender and hood.

During this time I also had the stock valve covers and air cleaner cover rechromed by a friend. The Chevelle stayed covered until 2003. That’s when I bought a house in Florida and moved south. I towed the car to my new home and fired the engine to freshen it up. This was 2004 or 2005. The engine received new rings, bearings, tappets, timing chain, gaskets, brass freeze plugs, etc. Fortunately, no machine work was required. I had the carburetor, water pump and alternator rebuilt before assembling the engine as I had done in 1987.

When I bought the Chevelle in 1986, I had no concept of matching numbers or originality. When I removed the engine in 2004, I checked the numbers, verifying that the engine and transmission are both stock on the car. During the first few years that I owned the car, I removed several items that weren’t necessary to make it fast. I still have most of the original parts except for the exhaust manifolds and the AM/FM radio. In fact, I still have the original alternator, water pump, intake, carburetor, heads, radiator, master cylinder, brake booster and power steering pump. Many of these parts are still on the car.

Revisiting an old friend

Fast forward to 2021 and I’m moving other projects into my garage. I looked at the covered Chevelle and decided it was time to show it some love and get it going again. I took it out, cleaned it thoroughly, and started reassembling my high school carousel.

The car has received new tyres, dual exhaust, correct belts and pipes. I made sure to use the correct 1987 era gear parts just like I had them back then. The Blackjack AK5000 headers are still in excellent condition, the chrome water pump and Holley 780 vacuum secondary carburettor have both been reinstalled. I was even able to find the correct Blue Black Max spark plug wires, and after reinstalling the stock starter I was ready to restart the engine.

Chevelle

It started right away and I got a little emotional hearing my Chevelle racing again. It sounded the same, it smelled the same, and as soon as I drove down the street, it was 1987 all over again. Looking around the car, I was reminded how much I hated the gold carpeting. I replaced it in 1987. While that’s not correct, that’s what the part supplier told me to be correct.

Over the past 35 years, many people have tried to buy me the Chevelle – some actually showing me cash in hand. All I can say is I’m so glad the Chevelle is still with me and will be until I die.

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