Car of the Week: 1970 Chevelle LS-6 convertible

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By Angelo Van Bogart

A wire fence separates the Iola Old Car Show’s 4,430 swap spaces from its 2,000-some show cars, and rarely do they mix. This year, parts and show cars will meet under and around the hood of one particularly noteworthy Chevrolet: an LS-6 Chevelle SS 454 convertible recently restored by Darren Larson, its Marshfield, Wis., owner.

“My family and friends have been selling parts at Iola for over 20 years to help offset the extensive costs of the restoration, with many of the rare parts needed actually coming from other Iola vendors,” Larson said of his LS-6 Chevelle. “In a strange way, it’s kind of a return ‘home’ to Iola now that the car is complete.”

From a larger perspective, the state of Wisconsin is home to this hot Chevelle. After it was built the second week of February at Chevrolet’s Baltimore, Md., plant, Larson’s LS-6 convertible was delivered to Hults Chevrolet in Madison, Wis., where it entered dealer stock. The name of the original owner and his intent with the LS-6 have been lost to time, but Larson knows the car never strayed far from the selling dealership.

“I believe that our car is even more unique because it has lived its entire life right here in Wisconsin,” Larson said. “[It] remained right here in Wisconsin until we adopted her in 1998. We then took over the challenge of bringing the car back to its former glory that another caretaker started in 1989.”

Not surprisingly, the path that connected Larson and his LS-6 convertible is lined with other Chevelles, beginning with a first-year Super Sport he bought when he was 14 years old.

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“My first car was a 1964 Chevelle SS that I literally dragged home with a tractor and a chain,” Larson said. “My dad, who’s a car collector himself, saw us coming and couldn’t believe his eyes. It was a basket case, and my dad knew the car well because he remembered the car when it was brand new and he knew the original owner. He wanted to know what I paid for it and what I was thinking. I can’t even tell you how many hours I spent working on that car. I finally got it done when I was 16.”

One Chevelle led to another, and in 1990 Larson bought his dream machine — an LS-6 1970 Chevelle SS 454 hardtop, which he still owns.

“That was my ultimate dream car — an LS-6,” he said. “When you are into Chevelles, that is the car. That is the one in magazines where you envy the guy who has one.”

Even though that envy ended for Larson in 1990 with the purchase of his first LS-6, he had no choice but to make room for the convertible in 1998 — he just didn’t know it.

“I had taken my LS-6 coupe to a local car show in Wisconsin Rapids and was approached by a guy who liked the car and asked if I restored old Chevelles,” Larson said. “He said, ‘I have one I think is worthy of restoration,’ and he gave me some basic information and it was hard to believe. He thought it was an L78 car, and it was all apart. It was that old proverbial story when someone starts a project they can’t finish and they’re trying to find someone to take up the cause.

“I was pretty excited and I looked at it the next day,” Larson said. “It didn’t take long to figure out this was a pretty unique car. I knew enough about LS-6 cars that I strongly suspected that it was a super-rare, high-performance [LS-6] car. I bought it that day. I have never bought a car that quickly.”

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Years in the “rust belt” were evident on the convertible’s sheet metal, and the original engine and transmission were gone, but Larson saw through it all to the Cranberry Red beauty it could be again. It’s not a heavily optioned car, but it does have the most important options of all to a muscle Chevelle enthusiast: the LS-6 454 engine, the M-22 Rock Crusher four-speed transmission and a Posi-Traction rear end.

“It’s rather starkly optioned, but that’s another reason that the car is so unique today,” he said. “It does have the gauge package, so it has the complete tach and cluster — that is an option. It’s a bench seat car, and it has a manual convertible top, not a power top. Probably one of the more elaborate creature comforts that it has is power steering, which my other LS-6 car is a manual steering car. A lot of those LS-6s were bought by owners who were looking to drive real fast in a quarter mile, so they ordered them very bare bones, and this one is really no exception to that.

“The car was originally built without the ZL2 cowl-inducted hood, so it has the domed SS hood without the D88 dual stripes and the hood pins that are often associated with a Super Sport Chevelle,” he added.

If Larson were able to turn back the clock, he could have ordered his Chevelle thousands of different ways. However, he’s happy with exactly what he has and remains in awe of the LS-6’s 450 hp.

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“You could walk in to a dealer and order the LS-6 or pick it up on the showroom floor — that’s just incredible to me,” Larson said. “I can only imagine what it was like to do that, to check those boxes.”

There were many boxes that could be checked when building a Chevelle/Malibu for 1970, which probably helped its popularity — a head-spinning 442,046 Malibu/Chevelle models were built in the United States and Canada for the model year.

For 1970, the base mid-size Chevrolet was simply called the Chevelle, and on top was the Malibu. Engines offered on Malibus and Chevelles started with the base 250-cid, 155-hp inline six. Optional engines included the 307-, 350-, and 400-cid V-8s.

The Super Sport package was merchandised as the SS option and returned for 1970 again in SS 396 form, or buyers could opt for a new SS 454 version. The base engine for the sporty SS was a 396-cid job (actually 402 cubic inches) with an increased 350 hp, or a factory-rated 375 hp in L78 or L89 form. SS 454 cars came with either the LS-5 454 good for an advertised 360 hp and 500 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,200 rpm, or the conservatively rated 450-hp LS-6 four-bolt 454 with 500 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,600 rpm.

Under the skin, the 1970 Chevelle body actually dated to the 1968 redesign of Chevrolet’s version of the mid-size A-body. In 1968 and ’69, the Chevelle/Malibu had a front grille and headlamp arrangement that aggressively leaned forward, then masterfully flowed to a fastback roof line. For 1970, the fastback coupe roof line ditched the C-shape of the side rear window in favor of a vertical rear edge, but the real personality change was seen in the grille and the sculpted fenders. The dual headlamps were now placed in separate chrome housings set into blunter, body-color panels that flanked a split grille with a painted panel between the two horizontal openings. New bulging quarter panels and matching front fenders looked like the rippled biceps on a ripped “gym rat.” Even without the big-block engine and SS call-outs, a 1970 Chevelle/Malibu looked like a brutish machine that packed punch.

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At the rear, an angular, body-integrated bumper ran high across the back and housed a large rectangular tail lamp at each end. Coupes and convertibles again featured a 112-inchwheelbase, while sedans and station wagons had a 4-inch-longer stance.

Super Sports were offered only as hardtop coupes, convertibles and El Caminos for 1970, with the SS 396 version selling a whopping 49,826 cars in both body styles. Meanwhile, the SS 454 numbers remained impressive for such a powerhouse car at the cusp of rising gas and insurance prices: 4,475 LS-6 and 4,298 LS-5 cars were sold with no break-out of coupe, convertible or El Camino body styles available. Of those LS-6 versions, Larson suspects less than 100 may have been LS-6 convertibles like his. Most of those were raced, making survivors rare commodities.

“The 1970 Chevelle LS-6 — with its factory 450-horsepower rating — was the high water mark for Chevrolet and [it’s] still revered as one of the fastest factory muscle cars ever produced,” Larson said. “A fact that helps support that claim is that an LS-6-equipped 1970 Chevelle SS 454 convertible driven by Ray Allen was the NHRA Stock Division Champion in 1970.”

Larson doesn’t know if his Chevelle was destined for the drag strip or mall strip, but its missing engine and transmission is an indication of a past that went by fast. Fortunately, some of the LS-6-specific engine components remained, which helped him restore the car to the build sheet he found under the back seat.

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“It had its original radiator, alternator, intake manifold, engine pulleys and instrument gauges with its 6,500 rpm tach — all of those [LS-6 parts] were there and it’s a good thing, because those original parts are now very expensive and hard to track down,” he said.

Still, his “need” list took him beyond the fields of Iola and across the country.

“It didn’t have its original motor, so I started early on in the process trying to find an engine with a build date that would be correct, and I ultimately found an engine in Washington state,” he said. “I bought it shortly after buying the car and was lucky enough to get it at a time when, in a way, a normal guy like me could afford it.”

Among the most difficult LS-6 parts Larson had to find was the dual-snorkel air cleaner, which went under the hood of cars without the Cowl Induction set up. Larson estimates less than 100 cars had the dual-snorkel air cleaner, and the unit he eventually found had to be metal-worked back into shape. An LS-6 “437” distributor also had to be located. As an example of the lofty prices LS-6-only parts fetch, Larson said the distributors can cost up to $4,000, if you are lucky enough to find a real one.

Parts sourced by Larson at the Iola Old Car Show include NOS sheet metal and the correct, “ultra-rare” deep grove LS-6 power steering pulley.

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“It shouldn’t surprise anybody, but Iola has always been an eclectic group of vendors if you are willing to look and talk to other vendors. The resources are truly unlimited. If it’s an LS-6 Chevelle or a Studebaker, you can find anything at Iola.”

Other parts came from Madison Classics’ Jefferson, Wis., spring and fall meets, where Larson also vended in order to fund LS-6 part purchases.

“There is a reason why it took 15 years to restore the car,” he said.

As the parts came together, Larson and his friends and family worked on the car, replacing the inner and outer quarter panels, rockers and sections of the floor. Whenever possible, the work was completed in Larson’s garage, or done locally, such as the engine machine work. Larson has added about 500 miles to the odometer since completing the car in 2012, and he’s very pleased with the outcome. Even during the post-restoration break-in, he hasn’t had any gremlins surface.

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“I’ve seen this car sit in the garage for so long, so to take it out and drive it is just a thrill,” Larson said. “I knew this was a rare car, but I knew I was going to drive it. I can’t imagine owning a car like this and not driving it. It rides and drives like new.”

Given the value of LS-6 Chevelles, would he sell his one-year-only treasure?

“My dad has always told me that everything has a price, but sometimes that price is pretty high. How do you find another one? They are just not out there. There is no way a guy like me can buy another LS-6 convertible.”

Visitors to this year’s Iola Old Car Show will find Larson’s LS-6 convertible under the Teamed to Learn tent of Iola ’13. As for Larson, he’ll be in his usual hangout — swap meet spaces AY 26-28.

“I am still going to Iola, selling one piece at a time.”

If you have any additional history on this Chevelle, e-mail Larson at als6fan@live.com.

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