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10 of the greatest dealer-special muscle car shops of all time

Scott Oldham Oct 01 2020

Photos from the Hemmings Archives unless otherwise noted.

Photos from the Hemmings Archives unless otherwise noted.

 

During the horsepower wars of the original muscle car era, it wasn’t just the car companies duking it out for supremacy on the street and strip: Many dealers also got into the ring, adding cubic inches and horsepower over and above what the factory was offering. They were building some of the quickest muscle cars to ever hit the street, and many became legends in the process.
 
High-performance dealer specials weren’t a new phenomenon. They were happening before the 1964 Pontiac GTO ignited a wave of performance cars that lasted nearly a decade, but more dealers took up the cause as the decade rolled on, with some operations lasting into the early 1970s and beyond. At their height of popularity, there were dealerships across America performing engine swaps, offering bigger big blocks and long lists of other modifications. In many cases, the only limits were a buyer’s budget and common sense. Narrowing this list down to the top-10 dealer specials wasn’t easy. Did your favorite make the cut?
 
 
Yenko Chevrolet
 
 
 
 
 
This small Chevy dealership in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, was run by race car driver and astute business man, Don Yenko. After making some news with his Corvair Stingers, Yenko partnered with drag racer Dick Harrell and started swapping 427 big-blocks into the new Camaro in 1967, often beginning with small-block cars. He called it the Yenko Super Camaro 450 and sold 54 that first year. The following year, he ordered the cars with the 396 big-blocks, which made the conversions easier, and sold 64.
 
 
 
 

In 1969 Yenko realized Chevy would do the heavy lifting for him and ordered about 200 L-72 powered 427 Camaros through Chevy’s Central Office Production Order (COPO) system. He rebranded them Yenko SuperCars and sold them through 36 Chevy dealers all around the country. Then he did the same thing with about 100 COPO Chevelles. Engine swaps continued, however. In 1969, he also built 38 427-powered Novas, pulling their factory installed 396s. The dealership's advertising called the trio “The Mean Ones.” About 175 LT-1 small-block Yenko Deuce Novas followed in 1970, and later, Yenko turbocharged Vegas.
 
Yenko sold hundreds of hot rods, far more than any other dealer special operation at the time. That volume, as well as savvy branding and its signature stripes and graphics, have also made it the best known.
 
 
Dana Chevrolet
 
 
Yenko may have sold the most 427-powered Camaros, but Dana Chevrolet in California and Nickey Chevrolet in Illinois built the first two. Located south of downtown Los Angeles in South Gate, Dana was newly owned by Payton Cramer, former general manager of Shelby American, and named for the side street next to the facility. Cramer knew the power of a performance image so he quickly opened the Dana Performance Center and hired legendary Corvette racer and builder Dick Guldstrand to run the joint.
 
 
Car Life image via the Automotive History Preservation Society.
Car Life image via the Automotive History Preservation Society.
 
 
Its first 427 Camaro was built by drag racer and mechanic Don McCain, another Shelby alumnus, for the Bardahl Oil Co, which planned to use it for promotion and the testing of its lubricants. The white RS/SS started life with a 350 small-block. With the L-72 swapped in with headers, a four-speed and 3.55 gears, it was tested in the April 1967 issue of Car Life running from 0-60 mph in 6.3 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds at 102 mph on its tiny F70-14 Goodyears. Plus, it wasn’t equipped with a Positraction rear end. “Acceleration times were very good, in spite of the lack of traction, but really only indicate the 427 Camaro’s potential.” says the story.
 
 
Car Life image via the Automotive History Preservation Society.
Car Life image via the Automotive History Preservation Society.
 
 
 
The only exterior modifications were a set of hood pins, Cragar S/S wheels and a small Dana badge on each fender. In July, Motor Trend also tested the car with slicks, a posi rear, and open headers, running 12.75 at over 110 mph. More 427 Camaros followed, but unfortunately the operation only lasted 18 months, at which point the dealership was sold.
 
 
Nickey Chevrolet
 
 
Originally a Bolero Red SS350 with a four-speed, Nickey’s first 427 Camaro was built in partnership with the legendary Bill Thomas Race Cars, in Anaheim, California. Equipped with headers, traction bars, 4:88 gears, and two Carter AFB carburetors, it was tested by Car CraftSpeed and Supercar, and Car and Driver. On 8-inch M&H slicks, Car Craft ran the quarter mile in 11.4 seconds at 126 mph. “It’s almost impossible to convey the feeling of driving a car such as our Nickey/Thomas test car,” says the Speed and Supercar review. “It’s almost unreal! The car will go to 60 mph from a standing start in 5.4 seconds and negotiate the quarter-mile in the mid-11s.” It would go on to say that the 427 Camaro was the quickest and fastest supercar on the market.
 
 
Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.
Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.
 
 

The only other modifications were a set of 14-inch Cragar S/S wheels and a small Nickey badge on each fender. Thomas had also painted the engine yellow. Later Nickey creations usually got a 1967 big-block Corvette-style hood scoop, and some got triple carburetion. Nickey, which always branded itself with a backward “k”, would go one to build more 427 Camaros and Chevelles in 1968 and 1969, and two 454 Camaro conversions in 1970. The operation also offered L88 427 and LS6 454 conversions of Camaros, Novas, and Chevelles, until the dealership closed in 1973.
 
 
Baldwin-Motion
 
 
Chevys with 427 cubic inches were also being churned out by Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Fred Gibb Chevrolet in the small town of La Harpe, Illinois, Scuncio Chevrolet in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and by Baldwin-Motion on New York’s Long Island. Little Baldwin Chevrolet in Baldwin, New York, partnered with Joel Rosen and his Motion Performance, a nearby speed shop with a chassis dyno and a lust for the drag strip. Rosen upped the ante by building the first L88 powered 1967 Camaro with aluminum heads and over 12:1 compression. The June 1967 issue of Hi-Performance Cars said Rosen designed the package, then teamed up with Baldwin’s owners Dave Bean and Ed Simonin and its racing-oriented parts manager, John Mahler.
 
 
 
 
Like the others, the dark blue Camaro started life as an SS small-block with a wide-ratio four-speed. Now it was packing “500-plus hp”, 4.56 gears, traction bars, mag wheels, and Goodyear Blue Streaks. “That’s right, 427 big ones in Chevy’s compact street sportster,” reads the test. “And the best part of it all is that it comes warrantied, dyno-tuned and ready to win at less that $3,700.” On cheater slicks it ran 11.5 at 125 mph. That year, Baldwin would go on to sell many more Motion-built SS 427 Camaros and a few SS 427 Chevelles. The following year, the partnership offered the “Fantastic Five”: SS-427 Camaro, Chevelle, full-size models, Corvette, and Chevy II, with as much as 500 hp.
 
 
 
 
 

While Yenko, Gibb, Berger, and others took advantage of the COPO program, Baldwin-Motion did not. “We knew about the '69 ZL1 Camaros Chevy built, but nothing about the iron-block 427 engined cars,” says author Martyn L. Schorr, who was the editor of Hi-Performance Cars at the time and cofounder of the Baldwin-Motion brand with Rosen, "It is possible that Baldwin Chevrolet ordered one or two but never mentioned it to Rosen or me. They knew Rosen would have been pissed.”
 
At BM each car was custom ordered, from its paint to speed parts, and they were some of the wildest dealer specials ever put on the street. After driving Rosen’s SS427 Camaro in 1968, Joe Oldham wrote, “You fire it up, and it runs like unleashed hell.” Then he ordered his own, a triple-black 1969 with a lifted suspension and L72 power. Financing was available, and Rosen’s widest creations, the Phase III models, came with a money back guarantee to run 11.50s at 120 mph. In 1970 the operation moved largely to 454 swaps. Baldwin Chevrolet was sold in 1973, and the last Baldwin-Motion car was a 1974 Phase III Corvette with an L-88.
 
 
Dick Harrell Performance Centers

 
His nickname was "Mr. Chevrolet," but Dick Harrell didn’t own a Chevy dealership. His business was speed. Pure speed. And he had a hand in making more than just one dealership 427-conversion happen. Not long after building the first 427 Camaro ever for Dana Chevrolet, the well-known drag racer and race car constructor became Nickey's performance advisor and oversaw its Chicago-based engine swap operation. He also performed many engine swaps for Yenko at his East St. Louis, Illinois, shop, where he also built 427-powered 1968 Novas for Fred Gibb Chevrolet.
 
 
 
 
 
Early in 1968, he opened Dick Harrell Performance Center in Kansas City and began converting Novas, Camaros, and Chevelles to 427 power under his own brand. The cars wore "Dick Harrell" badges and were sold through Chevy dealers around the country. Some customers would buy a 396 car at a dealership and then send it to KC for conversion. Options included tri-power carburetion from the Corvette, dual quads, L-88 heads with 12.5:1 compression, traction bars, and gauges. Some cars - but not all - got a stinger hoodscoop, which was also popular with Yenko, Nickey, and Baldwin-Motion. Harrell also dealt in COPO Camaros, helping Chevrolet develop the ZL-1 and prepping many for drag racers.
 
 
Royal Pontiac
 
 
Most famous for its Royal Bobcat kits, Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak, Michigan made hot Pontiacs hotter for most of the decade. The first Royal Bobcat “tuneup package” was installed on a 1961 Catalina hardtop and was offered until Ace Wilson Sr. sold his dealership around 1970. Basically the factory’s own speed shop, Royal Bobcat kits were also installed on the majority of its magazine test cars, so they would perform better and impress the editors.
 
 
 Royal Pontiac in mid-1960s when performance was king
Royal Pontiac in mid-1960s when performance was king
 
 
But engine swaps were also a big part of Royal’s speed business. The local Woodward street racers would send in their Pontiacs for 421 and 428 swaps, usually after they grenaded their 389 or 400. In 1968, Royal also built an unknown number of 428-powered Firebirds and GTOs. “Yes, friends, for a mere $650, exchange, Royal will snake out that overworked little engine in your GTO and slide in the 428, all prepared for action,” said Car and Driver when it road tested one of the GTOs. The mag went on to say the muscle car “sounded a lot like King Kong gargling in a cave”.
 
 
 
 

Rated at 390 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque, the 428 HO was pared with a three-speed automatic and 3.55 gears. Royal also converted the GTO’s fake hood scoops to a real ram air system. On street tires, the combination was good for a 13.8-second quarter-mile at 104 mph.
 
 
Myrtle Motors Pontiac
 
 
Knaffel Pontiac in Akron Ohio was another performance hub and in 1970 it built 50 Magnum 400 Tempests. Insurance industry beaters, the cars cost just $3,200 but were packing 350-hp GTO 400s and wore Judge stripes. In New York City, Myrtle Motors in Queens kept the Pontiac street racers happy. It got into the speed business around 1968, selling parts and its Tiger supertune kits. It also started building 428-powered GTOs and Firebirds like Royal.
 
 
 Popular Hot Rodding's test of the Myrtle Motors Firebird.
Popular Hot Rodding's test of the Myrtle Motors Firebird.
 
 

With the help of Myrtle’s “top wrench” Harry Wesch, Oldham tested one for Popular Hot Rodding that year, a red 428 HO Firebird with a Ram Air cam, cylinder heads and induction kit. Wesch also installed Myrtle’s Stage 1 Tiger kit, raising compression from 10.75:1 to 11.5. With a 3.90 gear, Turbo 400, and the F70-14 Goodyear Speedway Wide Treads, it ran 13.9 at the dragstrip. Traction was problem. “We couldn’t really get into it until we were more than 100 feet out,” he wrote. On M&H cheater slicks, times improved to 12.55 at 110 mph. Oldham called it one of the wildest Pontiac road cars ever built. With the conversion, the car cost $5,149.74.
 
 
Grand Spaulding Dodge
 
 
If you wanted your fast Mopar to be faster you went to Mr. Norm. Young Norm Kraus was the owner and face of Grand Spaulding Dodge in Chicago. Located at the corner of West Grand and North Spaulding, it opened in the spring of 1963 and quickly got into racing, which let to a speed equipment business and eventually building supercars the factory wouldn’t.
 
 
 
Photography Courtesy of Norm Kraus.
Photography Courtesy of Norm Kraus.
 
 
When the factory sent Norm a 1967 Dart with a 273, claiming the 383 wouldn’t fit, he had his shop install the bigger engine and drove it to Detroit. It didn’t take Dodge long to put it into production and the Dart 383 GTS was born. Then the factory said the 440 wouldn’t fit. Wrong. Norm’s techs got busy and squeezed the raised-deck block into the tiny A-body using 383 exhaust manifolds and some angle iron welded to the driver’s side engine mount. He paired it with 727 Torqueflite three-speed automatic and an 8¾–inch rear end. Fitting a four-speed needed a stronger Dana 60, but it was too wide for the Dart’s stock rear wheelwells.
 
 
 
 
The engine was rated for 375 hp at 4,600 rpm and 480 lb-ft of torque at just 3,200 rpm, and the street-racer special only weighed about 3,600 lbs. He called it the GSS for Grand Spaulding Special and again, the factory followed. It had Hurst-Campbell in Detroit build 47 more for Grand Spaulding to sell exclusively, and a year later the 440 Dart was in regular production. Dodge built 640. Other performance packages from Norm included six-pack 340 Darts and in 1972, along with Rockville Center Dodge in in Rockville Center, New York, he offered supercharged 340 Demons with a Paxton centrifugal blower. Oldham tested one with a Torqueflite and 3.55 gears for Hi-Performance Cars, running 13.92 at 116 mph on F70-14s. Grand Spaulding closed in 1975.
 
 
Tasca Ford
 
 
Another dealership that showed the factory how to build a serious street car was Tasca Ford in Providence, Rhode Island. Owned by Bob Tasca, it was heavily into racing and street performance, and the dealership wanted a hotter Mustang to provide its customers than Ford was willing to build. “We sold a lot of 390 Mustangs last fall and into the winter, but by March they dropped off to practically nothing. That’s when the snow melted off the asphalt,” Performance Manager Dean Gregson told Hot Rod in 1967. “In fact, we found the car so non-competitive for the super-car field, in a sense we began to feel we were cheating the consumer. He was paying for what he saw advertised in all the magazines as a fast car but that’s not what he was getting. So we did something about it.”
 
 
 
 

When Bob Tasca realized Ford wasn’t planning to improve the Mustang’s specs and performance for 1968, he had his boys build the baddest street Mustang the world had ever seen with a 428 fortified with a cam, deep sump oil pan, and cold air package feeding a Le Mans-type Holley four-barrel with four separate throttle bores. Its battery was moved to the trunk to help traction and its C6 automatic was beefed up. Tasca called it the KR-8 Package and it ran the quarter in 13.39 seconds at 105.05 mph, far quicker than anything Ford was producing.
 
He would duplicate the car for any customer, but he really wanted a production version to sell in greater numbers. After showing the fastback to Ford and meeting resistance, Hot Rod's Eric Dahlquist asked its readers to write Henry Ford II and make it happen. And they did. The 1968 428 Cobra Jet Mustang was born and the rest, as they say, is history.
 
 
Mecham Motors
 
 
We saved this one for last because it happened about a decade after the others, deep in the smog motor era. Mecham Motors in Phoenix, Arizona, was a family-run Pontiac dealer and its owner had two young car-crazy sons, Dennis and Kyle Mecham, who wanted to build hopped-up Trans Ams. They started DKM (their initials) Design and got rolling in 1977, calling their creations Macho T/As.
 
 
 
 
“At the time, macho was the 'in' word in the Southwest," Dennis told Hemmings Muscle Machines in 2008. “Everything was macho. In desperation, I said, 'Why not call it Macho T/A?' It was almost tongue-in-cheek. It may not be the best name, but how can you forget it?” To get around federal regulations preventing dealers from selling modified new cars, DKM would buy the Trans Ams from Mecham Motors, convert them to Macho T/As and then sell them back to be marketed as used cars. Upgrades cost an additional $3,188.
 
 
 
 
Aside from the wild graphics, which included oversized Macho T/A graphics on each door, DKM enriched the carburetor, recurved the distributor, opened the seal on the shaker hood scoop, installed headers, and fitted a 2.5-inch exhaust system with two catalytic converters but no mufflers. They also lowered the front end 1.5 inches, fitted Koni shocks, and swapped on 60-series tires. Mecham sold 26 in 1977 and 204 the following year. In 1978, Hot Rod tested one in California, running a 14.29-second quarter-mile at nearly 99 mph, much quicker than stock. Production continued through 1979, when another 95 were sold. When Pontiac discontinued its 400 and Oldsmobile the 403 in 1980, DKM pulled the plug.
 
 
SOURCE: HEMMINGS 
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