Car of the Week: 1969 Corvette L88

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Story and photos by Al Rogers

Tom Marcucci recalls the stargazed effect of seeing his uncle’s brand-new, yellow 1968 Corvette coupe. Just 12 years old at the time, Marcucci dreamed of one day getting behind the wheel of his own Corvette sports car. Forty years later, he’s the proud owner of the last L88 1969 Corvette produced.

Marcucci and his wife, Cindy, reside in Wixom, Mich., a suburb 30 minutes west of the Motor City. As his uncle’s Corvette purchase indicates, Marcucci grew up in a car family. His father retired from Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., after 40 years of service. When he wasn’t in the plant, Marcucci’s father was raising his family on a small farm where he worked on cars, tractors, boats and motorcycles, even when he wasn’t on the clock. To this day, Marcucci’s father still loves to work on his cars. Seeing his father work his magic on motorized vehicles inspired Marcucci, who also learned the importance of maintenance to keep them running strong.

On the day his uncle drove up in that new 1968 Corvette coupe, Marcucci was mesmerized. Without hesitation, he looked over at his dad and said, “One day I’m going to have a Corvette of my own.”
Marcucci bought his first car at the age of 16, a 1965 Dodge Polara with a 383 V-8. He spent many hours cleaning it, and it was his pride and joy. However, his dream was to own a late-’60s Corvette. That dream came true in the summer of 2008 when Marcucci purchased the Corvette of his dreams: an unrestored, 50,000-mile Monza Red 1969 L88 roadster. It was not an ordinary 69 L88 roadster — it is documented as the last L88 built by General Motors.

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Marcucci’s Corvette has received National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS) Top Flight and Bloomington Gold Survivor certification. The L88 has also participated in the General Motors 100-year celebration.

The complete history of Marcucci’s L88 is documented back to the original owner. The car’s four subsequent owners have left the car untouched for the most part, right down to leaving the original build sheet on the top of the fuel tank.

What makes the L88 great
The L88 is often credited to Chevrolet engineer Zora Arkus-Dontov, patron saint of all Corvettes built during his time at Chevrolet. His goal was to make the Corvette the finest sports car in the world, and he viewed the Corvette as an automobile with purpose; a well-balanced American sports car. It’s no secret Zora Arkus-Duntov was a great proponent of small-displacement, high-revving engines. Looking back, it would seem logical in the mid to late ’60s to push manufacturing for a smaller, lighter Corvette powered by a zippy, exciting, 302-cubic-inch Z/28 engine. Instead, Duntov oversaw construction of a Corvette from 1967 to 1969 with a big, powerful engine intended for the track.

Under Duntov’s watchful eye and engineering wizardry, the L88 Corvette was a factory race car for all practical purposes. Under the L88’s hood was a 427-cubic-inch V-8 with a reported 430 hp. The M22 manual four-speed “Rock Crusher” transmission was mated to a 3:70 positive traction rear axle. In January 1969, Car and Driver magazine road-tested the big-block 427 Corvette and reported a quarter-mile time of 13.8 seconds at 106.8 mph.

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Corvette expert Werner Meier, a retired General Motors engineer, provided us with some additional little-known facts about the 1969 L88 Corvette. Werner obtained these facts from his contacts within the Corvette program, which offer insight into the makings of the legendary L88 beast.

The L88 story could, arguably, be traced back to 1963 when the 427 “Mystery Motor” was developed with hopes of homologation for racing purposes. By redesigning the heads of the 409 W-Series engine, huge power increases were realized in the “Mystery Motor.” Eliminating the Siamese center exhaust ports by alternating intake and exhaust valves across the entire head of the “Mystery Motor” resulted in more consistent combustion chamber temperatures and significant power increases. The staggered valve “porcupine” cylinder heads made their production debut on the 396 V-8 in the 1965 model year. In 1966, the bore size of the 396 was increased to 4.250 inches, increasing the displacement of the big-block to 427 cubic inches.

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Development work occurred simultaneously on “heavy duty” (racing) components during the 1966 model year with the L88 code being assigned to the engine. While identified in the engineering release system, the option was never released to production until the 1967 model year. Those with insider knowledge could now order this option package, with 20 Corvettes having been built with this equipment. The first of this series was sold to Tony DeLorenzo, son of GM’s Vice President of Public Relations, who promptly disassembled the car to go SCCA A-production racing.

It is interesting to note that the L88’s horsepower was advertised as 430 at 5200 rpm. Unlike most advertised power ratings, the L88 was not rated at its peak power level, which was attained at 6,500 rpm. According to people working at the Tonawanda Engine Plant at that time, these closed-chambered engines indeed produced about 560 hp at the flywheel. The open-chambered engines (such as the engine in Tom Mariucci’s car) were released midway through the 1969 model year, and were producing just over 600 hp. It should be understood that these impressive power levels were attained under the most ideal (SAE Test 20) conditions, with the engines running with unrestricted exhaust and without air filters or accessories. What isn’t commonly know about these engines is that their “as installed” horsepower was actually less than that of the “special high performance” 435-hp 427 V-8s that were advertised for street use. Indeed, the L88 cam worked very poorly with closed exhaust, explaining why the early magazine road test results for these cars were so unimpressive. The 425 and 435 hp cars were faster in street trim.

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This was of little consequence to most of those who selected this option. The engineers had to include an exhaust system on the car to ship it, and knowing that the manifolds and pipes would likely be discarded, installed the least worthy exhaust system on the L88s. While the balance of the 1969 big-blocks used a 2-1/2-inch-diameter exhaust system, the L88s were fitted with a very restrictive 2-inch-diameter system. Replacing the exhaust system with an open set of headers would shave seconds off of the quarter-mile elapsed times.

Living with an L88
This L88’s original owner ordered the car from Guaranty Chevrolet in San Diego, and then sold it in 1977. The second owner kept it for 10 years and said he did not liking driving the L88 because of its loud exhaust, road noise, hard start, rough idle, rough ride and radio delete — all traits of a race car, not a daily driver. He mentioned pegging the speedometer at 140 mph on Highway I-210 in California a time or two.

Today, Marcucci’s 1969 L88 is maintained and serviced by Werner Meier and the team at Masterworks Automotive Service in Madison Heights, Mich. (www.mwauto.com). The team there specializes in award-winning restorations, with Corvette a specialty.

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