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"Mr. Chevrolet" Dick Harrell and the 427 Camaro

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Dick Harrell was a drag racing pioneer, mechanic, and Chevrolet enthusiast who made profound contributions to muscle car culture. Today, many classic car fans know him from his involvement with the early development of the 427 Camaro. These modified vehicles were powered by an engine that wasn't available in the standard Camaro at the time, Chevy's legendary 427ci big-block V8 engine. Read on as we take a look back at Dick Harrell's life, his impact on the automotive world, and one of the original 427 Camaros he built, which is currently owned and preserved by Classic Industries.
 

Dick Harrell: The Man Behind the Legend

Dick Harrell was born in 1932 in Phoenix, Arizona, and grew up in New Mexico. While he was still a young teenager, Harrell began successfully racing sprint cars across the Southwest. At age 18, he began three years of service as an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Army. This helped him become more proficient at working on vehicles, a skill that would pair well with his talent for driving them.

By the early 1960s, Dick Harrell was a racing champion, setting records left and right behind the wheel of Chevrolet cars that he had substantially modified. When General Motors discontinued its racing support in the mid-1960s, many racers abandoned Chevrolet in favor of alternatives from Ford and Chrysler, but Harrell continued undaunted. He had already earned many nicknames, but this commitment earned Harrell the moniker that would stick with him: "Mr. Chevrolet."

Harrell's Funny Car in Action
Above: Dick Harrell's 427 Camaro funny car in its natural habitat. "Mr. Reflexes" was a popular nickname, but "Mr. Chevrolet" was the name that would last.

Dick Harrell and the 427 Camaro

When the Camaro was introduced as a 1967 model, Harrell teamed up with dealers such as Yenko Chevrolet and used the Central Office Production Order (COPO) process to have the largest V8 engines available installed in the nimble Camaro. These COPO 427 Camaro models became some of the most sought-after vehicles from the original muscle car era. According to DickHarrell.com, "It is believed Harrell was the first to install a 427 into a Camaro for a dealer, Nickey Chevrolet, to be sold to the public as a dealer-installed new car."

Harrell used his reputation to convince the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) to create a special Pro-Stock racing class for these COPO 427 Camaro models.

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Above: This 1969 Camaro left the factory with a 396ci V8, but the Harrell Performance Center immediately replaced that engine with a 427ci big-block before it was sold to the public.

By 1969, Chevrolet had taken notice and enlisted Harrell's help for the development of their ZL1 427 aluminum big block V8 for Can Am racing. The ZL1 would find its way under the hood of select Chevrolet cars. The 1969 ZL1 Camaro would prove to be the quickest production Camaro models that would leave the factory for decades to come.

Dick Harrell Performance Center - KC MO

Above: The Dick Harrell Performance Center - Kansas City, Missouri
 
Harrell built upon his reputation in the business world, but his passion for racing would never subside. As he continued his affair with drag racing, he never hesitated to share his love and knowledge of Chevrolet and drag racing to anyone and everyone who was interested. Harrell was both highly-successful and well-liked.
 

A Tragic End

Dick Harrell 1932-1971

Dick Harrell 1932-1971
 
Unfortunately, Harrell's passion for racing cut his life short. In 1971, Harrell lost his life in a drag race in Toronto, Canada when a front tire explosion at high speed sent him into a light pole.
 
In the aftermath of the tragic crash. It became clear that the tires being used for the front axle of funny cars were not suited for the extreme stresses of drag racing. Special tires were specifically developed to prevent similar accidents in the future.
 
Even in death, Harrell was able to advance the frontier of drag racing.
 

Harrell 427 Camaro: A Piece of History

Harrell 427 Camaro Showroom

This 427 Camaro is a piece of Harrell's legacy and the crown jewel of the Classic Industries collection

Classic Industries recently added a very special 1969 Camaro that was built by "Mr. Chevrolet" to the collection of display cars.

"When I first came across this rare 1-of-10 427 Camaro at Barrett Jackson, I knew it was a unique opportunity,”

- Jeff Leonard, Classic Industries CEO.

This Camaro started life as an SS 396 car and was immediately sent to the Dick Harrell Performance Center to be upgraded with the best components of the day, including an iron-block 427ci with a ZL1 camshaft, 4.56 gears, and Lakewood traction bars.

This video tribute is dedicated to the man who put together such remarkable vehicles:

The Enduring Legacy

Dick Harrell, the loving husband and father, remains in the private memories of his family and friends. "Mr. Chevrolet," the legend behind some of the innovations that made Chevy the force that we know today, will live on in the hearts and minds of enthusiasts forever.

Valerie Harrell's 427 Tribute Camaro

Above: Valerie Harrell worked with GMMG of Marietta, GA on a limited run of 427-powered Dick Harrell tribute cars.
 
His daughter, Valerie Harrell, keeps the incredible legacy of his career alive by acting as custodian of his records, operating a website and forum dedicated to his achievements, and working with projects that match the spirit of his efforts, including officially licensed gift and apparel items.
 
Visit Dick Harrell online for more information on "Mr. Chevrolet."
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