Muscle Memory: Gary Heicklen’s ’69 Chevelle SS

In definition, Muscle Memory refers to the procedural ability to repeat a specific motor function with improved efficiency and accuracy, acquired through practice and repetition. When applied to our story it is the culmination of decades of yearning by the owner, to re-attain an awesome muscle car he had in high school, thus recapturing his youth.

We met Gary Heicklen before, back in our December 2018 story, “Wine and Spice”. In that piece, the focus was on his duo of Pontiac GTOs – a vintage ’69 model and late model Aussie-built ’06. Gary’s backstory, includes his early days as a mechanic and hot-rodder, driving a long-distinguished career as a sales manager for multiple GM dealerships.

Gary has been president of the Long Island GTO Club of New York for the last nine years, which stands as a supreme example of his Poncho-proficiency. The high-performance offerings from GMs excitement division have always been fuel for Gary’s soul. But he could never forget the Bow Tie that made his heart beat back in high school.

SENIOR YEAR SUPER SPORT:

1973 was a critical year for the golden-age of the muscle car. It unfortunately ushered-in the end of the high-compression, high-horsepower, big-block party, as government emissions mandates, sky-high insurance premiums, and increased pressure from our wonderful friends in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), spelled its demise. For Gary Heicklen, things were not all doom and gloom – it was his senior year in high school and he was the man with a master plan.

Gary’s master plan included acquiring a 1969 Chevy Chevelle SS for a mere $900. Gary spotted the for-sale muscle car close to home, in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, and pounced like a tiger. Dipped in gorgeous LeMans-Blue paint, it was a 396ci/350-horse, four-speed car and rolled on a set of timely chrome Cragars.

Gary loved his tough Chevelle, using it as his daily driver and wrenching on it as a young mechanic, prepping for quarter-mile time trials at New York National Speedway in Long Island, and street racing on the Connecting Highway – today, more commonly-called the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway (BQE). Gary proudly, and admittedly, states how he drove the car hard for three years, until one fateful event forced his hand.

In another crucial year, this time 1976 and the nation’s bicentennial, Gary and his then-girlfriend, embarked on a fun-seeking Manhattan excursion in the Chevelle. The weather was rainy, hot, sticky, and humid – what’s called in “New Yawk” – muggy. We should mention, Gary’s beloved SS, was an A/C delete car. Gary’s girl did not appreciate the Chevelle’s big-block power more than cruising in cool comfort. Gary states, “it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” He eventually – and reluctantly – decided to part with his too-hardcore machine. Almost immediately, and for decades after, Gary regretted giving up his iconic muscle car and yearned for the day when he could find a replacement.

A LONG TIME COMING:

Jumping far ahead to 2016, Gary was on the verge of retirement. His paternal responsibilities were satisfied, and with some much-deserved extra moola in his pocket, it came time to recapture some of that back-in-the-day mojo. Focused like a laser on finding the exact Chevelle SS, or damn close to the one he drove back in his heady days of young adulthood.

Gary looked far and wide, scanning the Internet for a suitable replacement. So intense was his heartbeat for another big-block Bow Tie, that at one point, he contemplated flying to Los Angeles, to check out a promising prospect there. As fate would have it, Gary’s nation-wide search failed to bear fruit But he soon found what he was looking for, much closer to home.

Every Friday night between late-April and early-November, hundreds of car enthusiasts and their machines cruise-to and gather at the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) parking lot on Bellmore Ave, Sunrise Highway, Long Island. On any given spring, summer, or fall night, hundreds of the hottest cars and trucks from all over the island and surrounding five-boroughs can be found displayed in all their glory. Many of them can be seen roasting rubber as they exit – hopefully without drawing the attention of Nassau county’s finest. Gary was making his regular rounds there one late-summer’s evening, when he came upon the vision ingrained in his memory since 1976.

There it was, parked among the myriad of American muscle – a mirror image of his high school steed, a LeMans blue ‘69 Chevelle SS 396. Gary was beside himself and refused to leave the Chevelle’s side until the owner showed up. Once he did, Gary wasted little time with pleasantries, quickly cutting to the chase by asking if the car was for sale.

According to Gary, the owner wasn’t sure if he wanted to part with it. If he were even going to entertain the idea, he would have to get his price. For three weeks Gary and the Chevelle’s owner went back-and-forth, with Gary continuously inquiring about what it would take to buy the Chevelle. Finally, around mid-September, the owner cracked and set a price, which Gary agreed to pay – victory was his, and so was the Chevelle.

PRETTY MUCH DONE AND READY FOR FUN:

For his ‘69 Chevelle SS-2.0, Gary found a car that was ready to roll. Not only was its original Daytona Yellow paint changed to a gorgeous gleaming coat of LeMans blue, but it had been treated to a full frame-off restoration and wore a set of day-two chrome Cragars, just like his did back in high school. Starting under the hood, the term big block is exemplified by the replacement of the original 396ci motor for a period-correct, early-‘70s 454ci mill. Hold your horses – before you applaud – it’s been bored/stroked to the tune of 468ci/500hp and is fit with numerous upgraded components.

The new goodies include a mild cam for stout-yet-livable street performance, hydraulic lifters, and oval-port GM cylinder heads. All of which allow for gobs of low-end torque, with a rather sedate 9.5:1 compression ratio. Air and fuel is gulped by a Holley 750 double-pumper carburetor, and is exhaled through ceramic-coated long-tube headers, and an aluminized 2 ½-inch exhaust, flowing from an H-pipe to a pair of Flowmaster Super 44 mufflers. The melodic lope emitted by the camshaft and deep rumble of the Flowmasters emanating from the classic oval tips, definitely harkens back to the year this Chevelle was born.

Unlike Gary’s first ’69, his new torque monster is shifted via a modern 700R4 four-speed automatic transmission. All is mated to a 12-bolt positraction rearend, with performance-oriented, yet highway-friendly 3.42 gears – a chrome diff cover is the icing on the cake.

Wielding the power, is a stock-looking horseshoe shifter. We say stock-looking, because at a closer glance, you can see Fourth-gear marked (OD) on the clever aftermarket shift plate. The rest of the interior was factory, down to the AM/FM radio, 8-track tape player and A/C delete. Gary learned a hard lesson and wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, so he immediately had an ice-cold-air-blowing, VintageAir A/C unit installed.

Underneath, Gary had to put things back to spec, since the previous owner had the big A-body slammed to the ground with lowering springs. OEM-style coils went back in, as did KYB monotube gas shocks at all four corners, along with Hotchkis sway bars front and rear. The heavy Chevy slows down by way of stock power-front-disc binders and rear drums. Wrapped around the 15×7 and 15×8 Cragars, is a grippy quartet of modern BFG T/A radial tires – P215/70/R15 fronts, and P275/60/R15s back.

Lastly, hinting to the past and adding a little personalization to the Chevelle’s muscular exterior, Gary applied some old-school racing stickers to the drivers-side rear window and had the front and rear lights upgraded to super cool LEDs.

CONCLUSION:

Gary’s Chevelle SS now shows 89,000-miles on the clock. He adds to that total throughout the year, going to car shows and gatherings – mostly when the roads are clean and dry. Gary might be a Pontiac guy and Chief of the Long Island GTO Club, but loves showing up in his big, beautiful, blue Bow Tie, just to change things up a bit and embrace his rebellious side.

Gary plans to attend Musclepalooza this summer to display his classic and run down the quarter-mile, to see what she can really do. It’s apparent by the wide smile on Gary’s face every time he looks at or refers to his Chevelle SS – the second time around is truly a charm. If you ask him what he loves most about his ‘69 Chevelle SS, he’ll say he definitely recaptured a bit of his youth and all those muscle memories that go along with it. Well done and well-deserved. Thanks Gary.

About the author

Andrew Nussbaum

Pontiac possessed by Smokey and the Bandit at 6 years old, and cultivated through the '80s by GTAs, IROCS and Grand Nationals, Andrew hails from Queens NY and has been writing freelance for ten years.
Read My Articles

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