Nineteen sixty-eight was a great year to be a Chevy fan. The Camaro had just experienced a successful inaugural model year and was due for more refinements. The Chevy II was all-new, now with room for a big block. The Corvette also had been completely redesigned and was totally bitchin’. The Chevelle made it a troika – a new semi-fastback design with more-pronounced coke-bottle styling looked like it was carved from one piece. In engine news, the 350 from the Camaro lost its exclusive status when it was made standard for the Nova SS (with the 396 as an option for the first time), and the L78 396 received an available L89 aluminum head option for the Camaro and Chevelle.
But hidden in that mix was a small block that once gave Grumpy Jenkins the firepower to beat Chrysler’s King Kong HEMI. That motor was the L79 327. However, by 1968, the muscle car landscape had evolved such that big blocks were ruling the roost. For example, the ever-popular GTO made do with 400 cid, and Plymouth and Dodge had a massive 440 that they introduced the year before. Prospective buyers were clamoring for torque and image, and the L79 had neither because it wasn’t a 396 and it wasn’t available in either the Chevelle or Nova Super Sports.
Impressive stats for a little 327, right? They appear even more impressive when you learn that the motor used to be rated at 350 horsepower, although that number continued for the Corvette. Why the advertised horsepower change? One guess is that the base 396’s horsepower rating was 325 and having a small block rated higher would have cannibalized sales.
The original raison d’être for the L79 was to give solid performance without a solid lifter bumpstick. In 1964, the Corvette’s engine roster started with the 327 putting out 250 horsepower, then continued to the L75 300. From there, it jumped 65 horsepower to the L76, and topped out with the L84 375 with fuel injection.
The latter two motors had the “30-30” solid lifter cam (later used on the 302 for the 1967-69 Camaro Z/28), but Chevrolet General Manager Ed Cole wanted a motor that gave impressive performance yet was easy to live with.
The motor that met those specifications was given the L79 sales code and put out an impressive 350 horsepower. Basically an L76 with a milder cam, the L79 had the distinction of possessing the first-ever high performance hydraulic camshaft (#3863151).
According to former Nickey Chevrolet employee Doug Marlon in the May, 2008 issue of Super Chevy magazine, the cam gave the L79 good throttle response, a great power curve, decent power brake vacuum and a lumpy, performance, 800-rpm idle. A smallish Holley 585 four-barrel may have appeared mild, but there was enough overlap with the cam that an automatic was not available with the L79.
It debuted as an option on the Corvette and Chevelle for 1965; in 1966, it also appeared on the Chevy II, giving it a power:weight ratio that rivaled the Corvette’s. A respectable 5,481 Chevy IIs were built with the L79, but more Corvettes were built with the same engine.
Sales fell to 1,274 by 1968 for the Chevy II, and another 4,082 for the Chevelle. Compare the latter to over 57,500 Chevelle SS 396s and it’s quite obvious that the car-buying public was more interested in torque and image. Even so, an L79-equipped Chevy II or Chevelle was a gratifying vehicle.
Car Life magazine called the Chevy II Nova “an extremely satisfying automobile, a car with enough interior room and luggage space for the family, but enough room to give the drive a true sense of command,” and even were reminded them of the Volvo 144, BMW 1600-1800, and Rover 2000.
Like the imports, it was the perfect size for two adults and three kids. The driver sat high in the buckets with a steering wheel “angled sharply forward at the top,” which didn’t lend itself to sporty driving but enhanced comfort and visibility. However, steering response, overall agility, and cornering attitude were on par with some of those foreign sport sedans.
And performance? Car Life was disappointed with their L79 Nova, even though it put out more peak horsepower than the standard 350/295 in the Nova Super Sport. At the time, it was not unusual for professional drag racers to be turning consistent 12s with L79s, so the magazine knew there was potential. They attributed their 16.47 ET to lean settings due to emissions, narrow tires, poor shift linkage, and an exhaust system that couldn’t breathe, among other things. Hot Rod magazine also was disappointed, but managed a better 15.7 at 89 mph in showroom-stock condition.
They also griped about many missed shifts from the linkage. Noted Chevy tuner Bill Thomas installed some plugs, increased the carb jettings, reworked the distributor, adjusted the lifters, and smoothed out the shift linkage. Best time with those changes was 15.10 at 95.33. Adding slicks brought it down to 14.60 at a slower 94.33. These times were really not much different than a 396/325 Chevelle SS, but Hot Rod also tested a Nova SS with the L78 396/375 that got them into the 13s.
A 1968 L79 Chevelle or Chevy II is not on most people’s radar. They offer sprightly performance, good looks, and rarity – in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find one at a Chevy-only show. Certain collectors already have been sniffing out L79 Chevelle 300 and 300 Deluxe models equipped with this motor due to the bare-bones approach that was missing from the SS 396, which was trimmed more like an upmarket Malibu. And if you prefer the Chevy II, you can think of the L79 as a poor man’s version of a Yenko Deuce because they both had high-winding small blocks that could put the hurt on their bigger brethren. Certainly a sleeper in the market but, with proper documentation, they’re valuable cars.
CHECK OUT OTHER MUSCLE CARS YOU SHOULD KNOW
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