The Best It Can Be

Gary Licko’s determination to return this 396 coupe to as-new condition paid off in extraordinary fashion

Photo: The Best It Can Be 1
December 22, 2022

Chevrolet’s bold foray into sports-car production almost came to an unceremonious end less than a year after it began. The excitement generated by the unveiling of Chevy’s sleek, little two-seater at the New York Motorama in January 1953 was quickly tempered after the car went into production in July of that year, chiefly as a result of poor build quality, uninspiring performance, a lack of creature comforts, and a relatively high price. At the beginning of 1955 nearly one-third of the 3,640 Corvettes manufactured remained unsold.

Thankfully a handful of visionaries at GM who believed deeply in Corvette’s potential wouldn’t let it go and worked diligently to improve the car in every way. Their efforts yielded tangible results every year, and by 1965, when this beautiful Silver Pearl coupe was produced, Corvette was arguably the best all-around production sports car in the world.

More than 30 available options empowered buyers to tailor their ’65 Corvette for any purpose, from long-distance touring in the lap of luxury to competitive production-class racing on a road course or drag strip. For the former, power steering, brakes, and windows; leather upholstery; a telescopic steering column; an AM/FM radio; air conditioning; and an automatic transmission were popular options. For all-out performance, a 365-horsepower carbureted or 375-hp fuel-injected small-block, or a stomping 425-horsepower big-block, could be combined with a close-ratio four-speed, Positraction axle, heavy-duty suspension, transistor ignition, cast-aluminum knock-off wheels, and even a 36-gallon fuel tank.

Regardless of how a 1965 Corvette was optioned, it came standard with the highly capable four-wheel independent suspension system introduced in 1963, as well as a new-for-’65 four-wheel disc-brake setup. The car also came with a level of reliability, serviceability, and value that few, if any, other sports cars made anywhere could offer.

Going Big

While the adoption of disc brakes at each corner was arguably the most important advancement for Corvette that year (in part because it finally addressed the car’s biggest weakness in competition), it was the availability of the fire-breathing big-block engine that got the most attention. The 396-cube mill was a direct descendant of the fabled 427 Mark IIS “Mystery Motor” that scorched a path to NASCAR victory circles in 1963 in the hands of Johnny Rutherford, Junior Johnson, Rex White, and others. Like the small-block V-8 Chevy introduced in 1955, it set the racing world on fire and upended the auto industry with an unbeatable combination of high power and torque, low mass, excellent reliability, and a low cost of manufacture.

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Both the 427 Mystery Motor and the production 396 it spawned can be traced back to Chevrolet’s first large-displacement V-8, which was introduced in 1958. Called the W-series or Mark I engine, it initially boasted a displacement of 348 cubic inches but was later enlarged to 409 ci. The “W” engines were commercially successful, most notably in Impala Super Sports, as immortalized by the Beach Boys in their 1962 hit “409.” They were also quite successful in competition, beginning with Junior Johnson’s 1960 Daytona 500 victory in a 348-powered ’59 Chevy.

Though winners on and off the track, the W-series powerplants did have some weaknesses and limitations that ultimately led to their demise. They were relatively heavy, tended to run hot, couldn’t be enlarged beyond about 7 liters, and had exterior dimensions that made them impractical to install them into Corvettes or the small and intermediate cars coming down the pipeline, such as Chevy IIs and Camaros.

The way around these inherent shortcomings was a new, clean-sheet design. In mid-1962, shortly after Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen moved from Pontiac to take the helm as general manager of Chevrolet, he gave Chevy chief engineer Harry Barr the go-ahead to design a replacement for the 409 race engine. The team working under Barr, led by brilliant engineer Dick Keinath, went to work in July of that year to create an all-new engine, which would be called the Mark II.

The Mark IIS, a 427-ci, stroked version of the 409 Mark II, made its debut at Daytona in 1963. Unknown to most people, however, the engine’s first appearance was not in the Chevy stock cars contesting the Daytona 500. Rather, it was at Daytona’s American Challenge Cup, a 250-mile event that included GT cars. Two of Mickey Thompson’s Z06 Corvettes entered in that race had been retrofitted with Mark IIS 427 engines by maverick engineer Smokey Yunick. They were the fastest cars in the field, with Junior Johnson driving one to first and Rex White driving the other to second in the event’s qualifying race. Sadly, poor handling and heavy rain relegated them to Third and 13th in the 250-miler.

Six days after the American Challenge Cup, Mark IIS-powered Impalas swept the Daytona 500 qualifying races. Johnson won the first 100-mile qualifier in a Ray Fox–entered car at a record-setting average speed of 164.083 mph, and Johnny Rutherford won the second qualifier with an average speed of 162.969 mph. The Mark IIS Impalas were the fastest cars in the Daytona 500, with three of the four leading at some point, but all suffered mechanical problems and rotten luck that put them well back at the end.

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After Daytona, a reassertion of GM’s publicly stated policy of not racing—tracing back to June 6, 1957, when the company agreed to the Automobile Manufacturers Association ban on motorsports of any type—led to the end of the Mark IIS program.

The cessation of Mark IIS production did not, however, mean the end of the big-block engine at Chevrolet. In fact, termination of the race program allowed Keinath and some of the other engineers responsible for the Mark IIS to devote all of their attention to designing and developing a street rendition of the engine.

They began experimenting with a different bore center to allow for a greater bore-to-stroke ratio. The resulting mill, dubbed the Mark III, proved infeasible for a number of reasons, so they went back to the proven 4.84-inch spacing and came up with a revised version called the Mark IV. This was the engine that would ultimately go into regular production in the Corvette and other Chevy models.

Though designed to displace 427 cubic inches, the Mark IV was introduced as a 396 because of GM’s self-inflicted prohibition against selling intermediate or smaller cars with engines larger than 400 ci. To achieve the 396 number, Chevy used a 4.094-inch bore and 3.76-inch stroke, and for Corvette the engine was stuffed full of high-performance parts. These included 11:1-compression aluminum pistons, a forged crankshaft and connecting rods, four-bolt main bearing caps, an aggressive solid-lifter camshaft, a high-rise aluminum intake, square-port cylinder heads, and a 750-cfm Holley four-barrel carburetor. All of this competition-spec hardware added up to 425 hp at 6,400 rpm and 415 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.

Rare Beast

Despite its careful design the 396 did have some weaknesses in the valvetrain and bottom end that could lead to catastrophic failures at or near the big mill’s redline. Like a majority of the 2,157 owners of ’65 396 Corvettes, an early steward of our feature car found this out firsthand. Late in 1966 or early in ’67 the car’s original engine blew up in pretty spectacular fashion. The fix for this was the installation of a complete, over-the-counter 1967 L88.

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When current caretaker Gary Licko first saw the car, in the swap meet at the 1982 Bloomington Gold show, it was still equipped with the swapped-in L88. Aside from the engine it was extremely original, not surprising given that it had accumulated only about 17,000 miles. Though the high level of originality and striking silver-on-silver color combination were tempting, Licko didn’t seriously contemplate purchasing the car because he had recently purchased a very original ’65 fuel-injected Corvette.

He ultimately changed his mind at the urging of a friend who wanted the L88. The friend would trade a completely correct 396 engine for the L88, and the idea was for the two of them to work on the car together to make the swap. Things went according to plan at first, but not long after Licko got the car home to Florida, pulled the 427, and purchased a correct 396, the project stalled. Months turned into years, and years turned into decades, with the car and both engines going virtually untouched.

That changed in 2010, following Licko’s retirement and move from southern to northern Florida. Retirement provided time, the move provided space, and a renewed enthusiasm for the car provided the final ingredient needed to get the project going again.

“I thought long and hard about whether to reinstall the L88 or the correct 396,” reflects Licko, “and decided that I wanted to make it as close as I could to how it was when it rolled off the assembly line. The original engine is gone and I can’t change that, but I made up my mind to go to any extreme required to make this car the best that it could possibly be.”

To that end, he went on a relentless quest to find and acquire original, rather than reproduction, parts for anything that was not still with the car. After minimal use in the early years, and then three decades of storage, the odometer still registered fewer than 18,000 miles. Consequently, most of the car was still original, but given the rarity of 1965 396-only parts, the challenge was formidable.

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“I had a correctly dated and numbered block and cylinder heads, internal parts, and a few other things,” Licko explains, “and a very talented engine builder named Byron Corey was able to do all the needed machine work and assembly to get the engine back together and running. But I still needed most of the correct external components.”

Just about any original 1965 396 engine accessory is a challenge to find because so few were built to begin with, and more than half a century later even fewer survive. Licko notes that, out of everything needed, a correctly numbered and dated starter motor and carburetor were the most difficult to locate, but he eventually managed to track down both.

“The quest for parts was both intensely frustrating and incredibly satisfying,” he says. “Looking back, it’s amazing how I found some of the things, how twists and turns led me from one person to the next and ultimately to success.”

Of course, an important part of the process was Licko’s willingness to pay fair market value for extremely rare parts when he found them. “I know how rare the 396-only parts are, [but] it was so important to me to get this car as perfect as it could be that I made up my mind to pay whatever was necessary. I’m very fortunate to have had the support and help of my wife, Carol, every step of the way.”

That support was put to the test numerous times, but neither of the Lickos ever flinched. “We were both tested when it came to certain things,” Gary Licko recalls. “For example, the thermostat housing for the 396 was different from all the other ’65 Corvette engines, and it used a spacer that required longer bolts. I found a guy with an ultra-rare original bolt, and he wanted $200 for it—for a single bolt! I knew I’d likely never find another one, so Carol and I agreed we’d pay the price.”

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At the same he was searching the world for rare parts, Gary was continuously researching the things that distinguish 396 Corvettes, and he ultimately wound up with a library of photos and data from the roughly 25 examples he was able to study. That ad hoc database proved extraordinarily helpful as work progressed on the car, he notes.

As with the parts search, there was no limit to what the Lickos were willing to do when it came to the actual work. “When the original engine blew up, the car’s fuel line was damaged,” Gary explains, “and the only way to properly install a new line—which runs from the back of the car to the front, partially through the chassis—is to lift the body, so that’s what we did.

“This also allowed us to completely remove a heavy layer of undercoating that was applied to the underside of the body when the car was new,” he continues. “We did that entirely by hand, taking great care to not damage the original finishes and surfaces underneath, and that was probably the most miserable part of the whole project. [B]ecause of the undercoating, the underside of the car was perfectly preserved.”

While the Lickos did a great deal of the restoration work themselves, they are quick to credit the assistance of friends Steve Frontauria and Michael Foy. Both are skilled and experienced restorers who provided not only their expertise and labor, but also the encouragement and support the Lickos needed to keep going.

“After…the car sat dormant for almost 30 years, Steve and Michael’s help and encouragement mean more to me than I can explain,” Gary says. “I love the car, and take great pride in fulfilling my quest to make it as good as it possibly could be. Working alongside Steve, Michael, and my wife to accomplish that is the most satisfying part of the whole thing.”

Also from Issue 159

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