(Three L88s crossed the block recently, and we asked CM analyst Mark Rudnick to compare and contrast them. – CM.)

SCM Analysis


If the clanking of solid lifters is music to your ears and the lumpy sound of a long-duration cam makes your heart pound, hearing a Corvette L88 fire up is guaranteed to move you. That’s because, like the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s “Messiah” on Christmas Day (or maybe the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” at a backyard double-kegger) the sound drills deep into your soul.

Whatever your musical preferences, for those drawn to the altar of fiberglass, the 1967–69 L88s are indisputably the zenith of production Corvettes – and ownership of these highly coveted second- and third-generation cars naturally confers special status within the larger Corvette community. After all, over 1.5 million Corvettes have been built, but there were only 216 St. Louis-built L88s, and they were the most powerful, baddest machines of their day, save perhaps for a few side-oiler 427 snakes.

The L88 Corvettes were born in the heyday of America’s celebrated muscle-car era, a time when Detroit engineers where burning up their slide rules to put more horsepower under the hood to meet the growing demands of America’s horsepower-hungry youth market. Both manufacturers and buyers coveted the bragging rights associated with horsepower ratings and quarter-mile performance. This was a time, wonderfully captured in the George Lucas classic “American Graffiti,” where desolate back roads often served as the arena where social stature was sorted and pecking orders were engrained.

When too much was just enough

The L88 engine was the definitive bad boy of GM’s Mark IV engine family, and its sole mission was to develop the brute force necessary to kick ass on the track. Roughly based on the 427-cid, 435-hp L71 engine, the L88 incorporated a monstrous 850-cfm Holley carburetor perched atop a high-rise cast-aluminum intake manifold. This setup was fed by a cowl induction system delivering high-pressure air under the rear hood edge and then forward through a low-restriction air cleaner. Other L88 features included aluminum heads, an aluminum radiator with no shroud, heavy-duty forged engine components, and a burly 12.5:1 compression ratio.

Also included were K66 transistorized ignition, F41 heavy-duty suspension (consisting of special front heavy-duty coil springs, a rear heavy-duty seven-leaf rear spring, and front and rear heavy-duty shock absorbers), a J50/J56 heavy-duty power brake combination, and the heavy-duty M22 “rock crusher” close-ratio four-speed transmission. Perhaps equally telling of Chevrolet’s intent for the L88 was the list of options that were denied when RPO L88 was selected. Corvette L88s could not be ordered with air conditioning, power steering, power windows or a radio – all components which had little or no value on the racetrack and only added to the car’s weight.

This was not an engine option intended for the Corvette customer looking for a mild-mannered sports car to parade down Main Street on Friday night or to take out for a Sunday jaunt. Nor was the L88 Corvette planned for Walter Mitty types, who fantasized about racing without possessing either the skill or experience to safely handle the power delivered by this engine. In reality, the L88 was developed for qualified racing drivers, but to meet the homologation requirements of the SCCA and FIA, the engine had to be factory-built and street-legal. Thus, the L88 option code was listed without fanfare on Corvette order forms from 1967 through 1969. Chevrolet naturally did whatever it could to discourage the option’s appeal and availability to the non-racing public, including artificially listing its output as “only” 430 hp compared to 435 hp for the L71.

Three L88s Get Sold

One 1968 and two 1969 Corvette L88s have traded ownership recently at auction. First up was Lot S174 at Dana Mecum’s Original Spring Classic Auction in Indianapolis, Indiana on May 22, 2010. This 1968 four-speed coupe, s/n 194378S419533, was finished in Silverstone Silver with a black interior and sold for $159,000. Though presented without national awards, distinguished race history or an impressive provenance, this nicely restored example was still determined by the cognoscenti in attendance to be a “real deal” L88, and its all-important original tank sticker was displayed in the windshield during the pre-auction inspection period.

Unfortunately, the car was not secured, and, at some point during the weekend, the tank sticker went missing. On a 1968 L88 (one of only 80 built) this is a major problem. Strong documentation of authenticity, in which an original tank sticker is a prime element, is generally considered to be at least 25 percent of an investment-grade Corvette’s market value. So the sticker’s mysterious disappearance had a well-warranted negative impact on the bidding, undoubtedly contributing to the winning bidder’s advantage in acquiring this particular car at a very attractive price.

Awards and documentation essential

The next two L88s offered at auction were Lot 151 and Lot 163 at RM’s Classic Muscle & Modern Performance auction in San Diego, California on June 19, 2010. These two Corvettes were part of a larger group of 77 cars offered without reserve by the Glen Konkle collection. Lot 151, a 1969 Monza Red four-speed coupe, s/n 194379S736298, had it all. The car hit the block with Bloomington Gold, NCRS Top Flight, Gold Spinner and Triple Crown awards, just over 2,000 miles on a quality body-off restoration, loads of documentation including the original sales receipts and Protect-O-Plate, and limited and clear ownership history.

In a time of ongoing economic uncertainty, it says something about the enduring value of L88s that this car brought in a healthy $401,500. Admittedly this figure is more than 20 percent below the $446,250 that the same car commanded at the Mecum Fall Auction in October 2007, but that was before the economic bubble burst and collector-Corvette price escalation skidded to a halt. In any event, the most recent sale proves that there is still serious money waiting to make advantageous buys on investment-grade Corvettes.

Lot 163, a Riverside Gold coupe, s/n 194379S710256, is one of only 17 L88s built with an automatic transmission for 1969. Originally drag-raced (hence the automatic) on the East Coast by Bard Chevrolet before receiving a quality restoration by Nabers Brothers in Houston, Texas, at auction the car was presented in excellent condition, showing just 21,121 miles on the odometer. It also came with Bloomington Gold Certification and clear ownership history. The $211,750 winning bid is somewhat below the figure one would expect for a car of this quality and rarity. However, the market spoke and the car was bought well.

It’s not a stretch to call any L88 a true blue-chip collectible Corvette. All of these cars had their virutes, the red/red more than the rest, which was reflected in the price that it bought. L88s continue to bring big dollars from sophisticated buyers who know exactly what they are looking at

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