Back in the ’60s, dealers bulked up factory muscle to create street-racing monsters
Eric M. Schiffer has been grooming the same mustache for four decades. He’s a doctor now—a chiropractor with a sizable practice in Farmington Hills, Michigan. At 68 years old, he’s been married to his wife, Janis, for 43 years. They have two grown children, both attorneys, and four grandchildren.
In 1967, long before the family and the caterpillar and the diploma, and even before the mustache, Schiffer was a Woodward Avenue street racer. He walks over to his 1968 GTO convertible, past the Royal Bobcat badge affixed to its door, and starts telling tales as he opens the Pontiac’s long, scooped hood. “The first car I raced on Woodward was my first car, a 1961 348 Impala convertible I inherited from my mother. I put 4.11 gears in it and thought I was a big deal. Then I went out and got my ass kicked by a hi-po Mustang.”
That Royal Bobcat badge on the door tells the world that the good doctor’s Poncho is no ordinary GTO. It’s a rare dealer special, tuned with high-performance parts back in the day by Milt Schornack and the other go-fast technicians at Ace Wilson’s Royal Pontiac, a dealership once up the road in Royal Oak with deep factory connections. Royal Pontiac ran ads in the enthusiast mags that read, “GTO DON’T GO??? They do if equipped by Royal.”
In the 1960s, if you wanted more muscle than the factories offered, there were many dealerships that would sell you an even more extreme machine. These shops would go where the factories wouldn’t, and their dealer specials were some of the heaviest heavy hitters to ever hit the street. We gathered three just a few miles from where Schiffer’s first speed contest, and millions of others like it, took place during the heyday of the American muscle car. Parked next to Schiffer’s Goat are Phil Smith’s 1969 427 Yenko Chevrolet Camaro and Bill Sefton’s 1968 Mr. Norm’s 440-powered Dodge Dart GSS. In the day, these are the muscle cars that would have cleaned house on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
Only they weren’t called muscle cars back then. That term didn’t take hold until the 1980s. Dig through a stack of old car magazines, and you won’t find the term “muscle car” even once. When new, Motown’s monster-motor machines—GTOs, 442s, SS Chevelles, Hemi ’Cudas—were called “supercars” by the media and the street rats like Schiffer who bought and raced them. In 1967, Car and Driver called Woodward the street-racing capital of the world. Most of the action was light to light, and most races started from a roll to keep the cops away and the clutches and tires alive.
There were many hot spots, including Ted’s drive-in at the corner of Square Lake Road and Woodward in Bloomfield Hills, Dan’s Big Town north of 13 Mile Road, the Totem Pole above 10 Mile, and a couple of Big Boys scattered along the strip. Schiffer was a regular. “The heavy hitters were at Dan’s. We would stand around and wait all night for the big run to get set up. Usually, it never happened,” he says with a laugh.
Those heavy hitters wouldn’t be driving a run-of-the-mill SS396 Chevy Chevelle or a 390 Ford Fairlane. Although those machines could lay down strips of flambéed bias-ply for several city blocks, they were no match for the dealer-built and -tuned muscle cars of the time. The names are now legendary. In addition to Royal, there was Myrtle Motors in New York City, a Pontiac dealership that built a few 12-second Ram Air 428 H.O.-powered 1968 Firebirds. And Tasca Ford in Cranston, Rhode Island, which put a 428 Cobra Jet in a 1967 Mustang. And Grand Spaulding Dodge, at the corner of Grand and Spaulding in Chicago, the heart of Mopar performance and owned by a young Norman Krause, who opened it in 1962.
Chevys with 427 cubic inches and more were also being pumped out by Baldwin-Motion on New York’s Long Island; Dana Chevrolet in Los Angeles; Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Fred Gibb Chevrolet in tiny La Harpe, Illinois; Dick Harrell’s Performance Centers in St. Louis; Nickey Chevrolet, also in Chicago; and perhaps most famously, Yenko Chevrolet in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.
Smith’s Daytona Yellow Yenko, which has been meticulously restored by his mechanic, Mike Burroughs, and Mike’s son, Eric, idles with the tick of solid lifters and the thunder of 11:1 compression. It’s a high-option example with power steering, a Turbo 400 automatic, a 4.10 rear end, a vinyl roof, an Endura front bumper, console gauges, and the X11 trim group. Smith opens its cowl-induction hood to reveal the date-coded L72 427. It’s all correct down to the air-injection emissions controls, Holley 4346 carburetor, and NOS cowl-induction air-cleaner assembly that seals the 780-cfm carb to the hood.
Although it was restored two years ago, the Camaro has been driven only two miles. Time to shake the cobwebs out on Woodward among the minivans and SUVs. The Yenko can roast its E70-15 bias-plies right off idle, at quarter-throttle, but that 427, rated 425 horsepower at 5600 rpm, is the screamer of this bunch. It comes on hard at about 3000 rpm and really starts making power above four grand, which is when its torque peaks at 460 pound-feet. With solid lifters, it revs faster and higher than the GTO and Dart, which both run heavier hydraulic lifters, but the Pontiac and the Dodge have more bottom-end torque.
Operated by engine vacuum, a flap at the base of the hood scoop opens and closes in time with the throttle, and you can see it do its dance from the driver’s seat. Introduce the throttle to the carpet, and the flap clunks wide open with the Holley’s secondaries, unleashing an intake moan that can be heard over the scream of the Chevy’s tortured Goodyears. The gear changes are firm, and the Yenko gets serious rubber on the one-two shift.
The ride is surprisingly smooth, however, and aside from the squirm of the old-fashioned rubber, the car is easy to drive. The Camaro’s power steering provides plenty of assist, and its standard power front disc brakes have enough bite to be reassuring. There’s little body roll. First-gen Camaros don’t feel as small as Mustangs from the time, but they don’t feel big, either.
The redline is 6000 rpm, but owner Smith, who bought his first 1969 Camaro in 1975, insists I push the big-block harder. “Wing it higher,” he says from the passenger seat. “At 6500, it’s still making a lot of snort.” And then the engine shuts off. The battery is dead. Seems the alternator has taken a dump. Schiffer produces jumper cables from the trunk of his GTO. That’s when I notice the Jack Douglass sticker between the Camaro’s taillights.
Jack Douglass Chevrolet was located outside Chicago in Hinsdale, Illinois, Smith’s hometown. “My father bought normal cars there,” Schiffer says. But Douglass was one of the 36 dealers across the country selling 427 Yenko Camaros. “In 1969, I remember ordering two loads of cars from Don directly. They came five to seven cars per carrier,” Douglass told Muscle Car Review in the 1980s. “While my employees were prepping one of these cars, they found the original Central Office Production Order (COPO) paperwork inside. A close examination indicated that about the only thing Don Yenko had done was put 3M vinyl tape graphics on them, along with a few badges.”
It was true. By 1969, Yenko wasn’t performing the engine swaps, as his company had the previous two years. Why? Through Chevy’s COPO system, set up for unusual fleet builds like taxicabs and police cars, Yenko figured out how to get GM to do the swaps for him, installing 427 engines in Camaros and Chevelles on the assembly line. Don Yenko’s father, Frank, who opened Yenko Chevrolet in the 1930s, raised no fool. It was a savvy move, and it allowed Yenko to badge and distribute far more 427-powered machines than his rivals— more than 350 in 1969 alone.
Jack Douglass realized he didn’t need Yenko; he could do the same thing. So he ordered 22 Camaros from Chevy under COPO 9561, which was the option code for the 427, and a stack of stripe kits from Yenko, only installing the graphics at the buyer’s request. Another dealer, Fred Gibb, also took advantage of the COPO program, but most of the dealers mentioned did not. Most dealers never figured out that factory-built 427 Camaros were even possible.
Fueled by the introduction of the Camaro in 1967, Nickey Chevrolet and Dana Chevrolet were the first dealerships to shove a 427 from a Corvette into Chevy’s new Mustang fighter. Those two cars were tested by several magazines that year, including Speed and Supercar, which declared, “The 427 Camaro is the quickest and fastest supercar on the market!” It ran the quarter-mile in 11.4 seconds at 120 mph.
Other dealers followed quickly, upping the ante. Baldwin Chevrolet in Baldwin, New York, partnered with nearby speed merchant Joel Rosen and his Motion Performance to build an L88-powered 1967 Camaro with aluminum heads. By the end of the year, Baldwin had delivered more than 25 of the 427 Camaros and a few 427 Chevelles, all built by Motion. For 1968, Baldwin-Motion had a complete SS427 program called the “Fantastic Five” for the SS427 Camaro, Chevelle, Impala, Corvette, and Chevy II, with engines ranging from 425 horsepower to more than 500. Financing was available, and Rosen’s Phase III cars came with a money-back guarantee to run 11.5s at 120 mph.
Fifty years later, the significant volume of Yenkos and the brand’s signature stripes, which also dressed its Novas, make it the best known of all the dealer special brands. Drive an original Nickey, Berger, or Baldwin-Motion Camaro, and some guy at a gas station is sure to ask you if it’s like a Yenko.
With the Camaro’s battery juicing up, we walk over to Bill Sefton’s triple-black Mopar, which has a leaking sending-unit seal. Most of the contents from its gas tank are on the ground. It’s one of 48 440-powered GSS (Grand Spaulding Special) Dodge Darts created by Mr. Norm in 1968, and it’s been restored to perfection by Jim Rhinehart, a well-known expert on Grand Spaulding Dodge and its exploits. It wears the best black paint I’ve ever seen. Despite the leak, Rhinehart hands me the key. “Just don’t light a cigarette,” he says with a grin.
Mr. Norm understood the street performance market better than had the factory, which wouldn’t come up with the Road Runner until 1968. A year earlier, Grand Spaulding dropped a 383 big-block into a Dart, convincing the factory to put it into production as the 383 GTS, an affordable street brawler. Then Norm asked his people if the taller-deck 440 would fit. It did, as long as you used 383 exhaust manifolds and only after some angle iron was welded to the driver’s side engine mount and bolted to the bosses for the oil pump mount. There was no room for power steering or power brakes, and Norm used the 727 TorqueFlite three-speed automatic, which Dodge paired with its eight-and-three-quarter-inch rear end. A four-speed manual would have required a stronger Dana 60, which was too wide for a Dart with stock rear wheel wells. Again, Dodge jumped onboard, contracting Hurst-Campbell in Detroit to build 47 more to be sold by Grand Spaulding exclusively. A year later, Dodge took the 440 Dart in-house, building 640 copies.
Only 14 of these Darts are known to survive today, “because these cars were built for drag racing and they were beaten to death,” says restorer Rhinehart, as I ease the black hardtop onto Woodward.
With 10.1:1 compression, the 440 puts out 375 horsepower at 4600 rpm and 480 pound-feet of torque at 3200 rpm. The Dart weighs about 3400 pounds, or 100 more than a Dart with a 340 small-block, and the additional mass on the torsion-bar front suspension is felt from behind the wheel. With more than 60 percent of its weight over the front tires, this isn’t a car you hustle around, although the steering is quick enough at 16:1, and it’s easy to navigate on tiny 14-inch bias-ply rubber.
Even with its mild 3.55 gears (a 3.91 was optional), the Dart’s Redline tires go up in smoke at part throttle. It’s entertaining, but there’s no tachometer, so it’s also a bit stressful as the big-block begins to wind out. Norm would have installed an aftermarket tach, but it was optional. Otherwise, the Dart is well dressed with extras, including a vinyl top, bumblebee stripes, and the rare mag-style wheel covers. Unlike the Camaro’s 427, the larger 440 hits hard right off idle and carries its torque with a relaxed gate from firm gear change to firm gear change. Everything else happens slower in the Dart than in the Camaro. The Dodge feels heavier, and aside from the Godlike pull of its big-block, lazier. “You didn’t buy one of these cars to go around corners,” says Rhinehart. “They were only meant to go in a straight line.”
You have to plan your steering and braking well in advance. The Mopar’s 10-inch drum brakes require quite a bit of leg, but they work well until the exhaust manifold heats up the brake proportioning valve and boils the fluid. Then they begin to fade. “That was the biggest issue with these,” says Rhinehart. “You lose the brakes.”
There’s a heat shield, but there’s no room under the Dart’s hood, and heat is a serious issue. A misconception is that Norm installed fender-well headers on these cars. He did not. Drag racers like Dick Landy ran them on the track, and a few guys did modify their street Darts with the enormous pipes, but they interfere with the front tires at full lock and exacerbate the braking issue by quickly heating up the master cylinder.
Although the Dart has been driven only 100 miles since it was restored in 2006, it’s running perfectly. Traffic is light. After a few miles and a few hard launches, we settle into a comfortable cruise, enjoying the big-block’s rumble and the shine of a perfect summer day. We get a thumbs-up from a young guy in a late-model Dodge Challenger Hellcat. And then the underhood heat begins to boil the 440. These cars were known to overheat when new, and the factory temperature gauge needle has almost pegged itself on the H. “We’d better head back before we start hearing the lifters hack away,” says Rhinehart.
With the sun setting and the GTO’s top folded away, I settle in and then lay into the throttle, spinning the modern BFGoodrich Radial T/As onto Woodward. Ted’s drive-in was a few blocks up. There’s a strip mall there now. “After I graduated from high school, I bought my first Pontiac in 1969,” says Eric Schiffer from the passenger seat of his Bobcat. “I really wanted a new Indy pace car Camaro, but I couldn’t afford it. So I bought a 1965 GTO convertible and blew up the 389 the first week. We put in a 421, which didn’t last long, either. We were doing a lot of street racing back then.”
The first Royal Bobcat was a 1961 Catalina hardtop with the same Tri-Power 389 used in the 1964 GTO. The dealership installed “super thin” head gaskets for more compression, a progressive linkage for the three carburetors, larger carburetor jets, a new advance curve for the distributor, intake manifold gaskets that blocked the heat risers, and special locknuts so the valves could be adjusted more precisely. Cylinder-head work was optional. That basic formula lasted through 1962, and the fundamentals of the “tuneup package” remained the same throughout the decade, ending when Ace Wilson, Sr., sold his dealership around 1970.
Pontiac’s marketing maven Jim Wangers was also a regular on Woodward. He was the mastermind behind the program, selling the concept to Bunkie Knudsen, Pontiac’s general manager, and Ace Wilson, Jr., the son of the dealership’s principal. At Wangers’s insistence, Bobcat kits were installed on many of the factory’s press-fleet cars to ensure peak performance when they were tested by the magazines.
Schiffer has owned his GTO since 1986. He was shopping for an LS6 Chevelle convertible and came across the GTO locally. “It was basically a wreck,” he says. “It had gone through several kids. I figured I’d buy it for $1000, flip it, and get an LS6.” Then he found the Royal Bobcat decal in the glovebox, and when he tore down the numbers-matching 400, he found all the Royal parts. He went back to the seller, who confirmed the supercar’s Royal history.
During its two-year restoration, Schiffer stashed the 350-horse 400 and installed a 428 H.O. with 11:1 compression and a 2.5-inch exhaust, emulating his friend Les Goodman’s car in high school. Goodman’s father had bought him a new GTO in 1968. When he blew up its 400 in early 1969, Royal installed a 428 with Ram Air IV heads. It’s an easy swap. In fact, Royal built a few 428-powered GTOs in 1968. Car and Driver tested one with a Turbo 400 back then, just like Schiffer’s. Rated at 390 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 465 pound-feet at 3400, it ran the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds at 104 mph.
The good doctor’s car is well optioned, with power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, an eight-track tape player, Rally II wheels, and a power top. In Verdoro Green, it’s a doppelgänger for the hardtop Wangers used in the GTO’s famous Woodward ad that ran in all the mags. As in the Camaro, the power steering is tight but light. The Goat’s throttle action is stiff, however, and the brake pedal requires a surprising amount of leg, although there’s plenty of bite from the front discs. Unlike the Mopar, the Pontiac has full instrumentation and luxurious touches such as faux wood on the dash and a Hurst Dual Gate shifter. Compared with the Dodge, the larger and smoother-riding Pontiac is more like a Cadillac. Its seats are also the most comfortable of the three.
“Feel free to lay into it,” Schiffer says. More wheel spin. The GTO’s rear suspension has airbags, which were available from Royal, and there isn’t any wheel hop. I breathe off the throttle, and the GTO hooks up, launching forward, its front end climbing for the sky. But the big Pontiac is out of breath at 5500 rpm. The transmission snatches second gear, barking the tires, and the 428 delivers another rush.
Red light. Enjoying the Hurst’s heavy, positive action, I push it into its right gate, which allows for hard manual upshifts with a ratchet-type action. Green. More wheelspin. The 428 doesn’t seem to rev as slowly as the Mopar’s 440, but it doesn’t feel like a high-strung race motor like the Camaro’s 427. I wind it out a few more times, grabbing gears with a heavy hand.
Soon traffic is picking up across Woodward’s six lanes, so we settle into cruise mode. The GTO isn’t as extreme as the two others, and it would probably finish third if we went for it—from a roll, of course. But it’s the one to have when it’s time to take the grandkids out for ice cream. I point to the Pontiac’s eight-track tape player. “Does this work?” Glad I asked; Schiffer reaches into the glovebox, finds a tape, and pops it in. Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley. Perfect.