Do you remember what you were doing in 1986? I do — for the most part. While there are some memories that selectively elude recollection, I do remember that was the year I graduated high school, moved out of my mom and dad’s house, and was driving around in my ’72 Monte Carlo. I miss that car.
For many enthusiasts, the memories are just as vivid as when they occurred. Case in point, Mathew Koops and how he acquired his first car — this 1968 SS396 Chevelle. While I was shooting the images for this feature, he was excitedly vocal about how much this car still means to him. As he recalled each memory, he had a grin across his face that wouldn’t go away.
With the confidence of knowing for certain, he mentioned every detail about the car. I could tell he was actually reliving each moment in time; when it was dented, fixed, and upgraded. It is because of his vivid recall of events that I couldn’t in good conscience write this article. You guys need to hear it right from the horse’s mouth. The notes Matt sent to me about the car’s history are a thorough recollection that needs to simply be relayed. So here it is, his car’s story, in his words.
It All Started When…
“The year was 1986. I was staying with my dad in New Britain, Connecticut, for the summer and working at Gallagher Buick. I was the lot boy, checking in new cars, moving them around the lot, delivering parts, and of course, cleaning the cars on the lot. About a week into my employment, one of the salesmen drove this shiny, 1968 Chevelle out front under the dealership sign. I rushed over and asked if it was for sale. He commented that it was and said the asking price was $7,800. The salesman then asked if I was the new kid, the new employee, I responded yes. He took me to see what Frank the sales manager, and my new boss would do for me as an employee.
Surprisingly, Frank was willing to sell me the Chevelle for $3,800. I immediately told him it was sold, and I would be back with the money. At the time, I had $500 to my name. After pleading with my father for the money, he finally gave in. He thought this would be a good opportunity for me to learn how a loan works and to understand debt.
While I was getting the money gathered, the Chevelle was making a terrible whining noise and needed repair. I remember being at work one day and watching a salesman drive the car off the lot. I was scared to death someone bought it and I had lost it forever. In a panic, I sprinted to Frank’s office. He explained that a local shop was replacing the torque convertor because all the bays were full at our dealership. I drove over to that repair shop that afternoon to make sure the Chevelle was okay and that they were doing a good job. The car came back in a few days, the deal was struck, and I was able to drive home my new-to-me Chevelle.
Looking back, the story of how the Chevelle made it to our dealership is quite interesting. The dealership owner’s son wanted a muscle car, so his father found this Chevelle in Florida. He had it shipped up and gave it to his son. After driving it for a week, the son decided he didn’t like it because it didn’t get good gas mileage. He gave it back to his father in exchange for a new Grand National.
The Chevelle Takes On All Challengers
Once I took ownership, the son told me he put the aftermarket radio in the Chevelle and wanted it back. During the discussion, the mechanics all gathered around and started chanting, “race him for the radio.” The son laughed and said he would beat me easily. However, I knew differently and put out my hand to lock in the race.
We set the race for the upcoming weekend. In the meantime, the mechanics helped me tune the Chevelle. When race time arrived, we lined up down by the local asphalt plant. The Chevelle easily gapped the new Buick, keeping the SparkOmatic radio. I spent that summer doing all sorts of stupid things with the car: burnouts, racing, and basically showing off to my friends. One time, the father of one of my friends commented that the engine had porcupine heads. I had to think for a second but nodded my head yes.
Soon, it was time to leave New Britain and return to my mom’s house 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 kids came from very rich parents. They all drove BMWs, Mercedes’ and Volvos. In the parking lot, my Chevelle was literal the elephant in the room.
At first, the other students turned their noses up at me, but after a few days, they asked what kind of car it was. I didn’t care about them, as my real friends were located on the local cruising strip where we raced, cruised, and tried to meet girls. My mom and I didn’t have much money, so I had to race and hustle to make gas money and save for engine improvements.
The Chevelle Gets A Fan Club
The kids at school finally warmed up to me and a few of them eventually asked for rides home. They wondered why my car was so loud and asked if it was fast. I told them it was faster than anything at school. After a crowd of laughter, they lined me up with a new Mercedes and a BMW 318I. I quickly gapped those two vehicles. From that day on, I was accused of having an illegally fast vehicle.
In my last year at that school, the kids would go out of their way to find cars to try and 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 both radar detectors so we would not get caught. We went up to the Blue Ridge Parkway where the Chevelle beat the Porsche in a 1/4-mile drag race. We then chased each other through the winding roads where the Porsche couldn’t pull away from me, nor could I lose the German sports car. At the end of that day, the kids respected the Chevelle and bragged about it to their friends, still calling it illegal.
Things Get 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 is still on the rearview mirror. When I bought the car, there was a 50-cent piece on the console. It is still there as well.
During the summer of 1988, I had a new girlfriend. While she and I were cruising one day and not paying attention, I rear-ended a motorcycle in Virginia Beach. The guy riding the motorcycle was the biggest human I had ever seen. It was either his wife or sister who quickly ran over, yelling at me that I was going down for this one. The guy was ok but kept saying, “I’m ok, we go, we go.” I soon found out he was in the U.S. illegally and had no insurance or registration. Unfortunately, the Chevelle was a little battered. I destroyed the grille and header panel.
The Chevelle Hibernates
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 NOS grille and header panel 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 header panel, fender, and hood.
During this time, I also had the original valve covers and air cleaner lid re-chromed by a friend. The Chevelle stayed covered up until 2003. That’s when I bought a home in Florida and moved south. I trailered the car to my new home and pulled the engine to freshen it up. This was 2004 or 2005. The engine got new rings, bearings, lifters, timing chain, gaskets, brass freeze plugs, etc. Luckily, no machine work was necessary. I had the carburetor, water pump, and alternator rebuilt before assembling the engine just as I had it back in 1987.
When I bought the Chevelle in 1986, I had no concept of matching numbers or originality. When I pulled the engine in 2004, I checked the numbers, verifying the engine and transmission are both original to the car. During the first years I owned the car, I removed several items that were not needed to make it fast. I still have most of the original parts except the exhaust manifolds and 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 am moving some other projects around in my garage. I looked at the covered Chevelle and decided it was time to show it some love and get it going again. I pulled it out, thoroughly cleaned it, and embarked on reassembling my high school ride.
The car received new tires, dual exhaust, belts, and correct hoses. I made sure I used the 1987-era correct speed parts, just as I had them back in the day. The Blackjack AK5000 headers are still in great shape, the chrome water pump and Holley 780 vacuum-secondary carburetor were both reinstalled. I was even able to find the correct Blue Black Max spark plug wires, and after reinstalling the original starter, I was ready to start the engine once again.
It started right up and I actually got a little emotional hearing my Chevelle run again. It sounded the same, smelled the same, and as soon as I was driving up the street, it was 1987 again. As I looked around the car, I remembered how much I hated the gold carpeting. I replaced it in 1987. Although it is not correct, it was what the part’s supplier told me was correct.
Over the last 35 years, many people have tried to buy the Chevelle from me — some actually showing me cash in hand. All I can say is I am so glad the Chevelle is still with me and will be until I die.”