One of the hottest tunes on the radio in 1962 was a little ditty by a group of surf-loving teens who extolled excitement over something called a "4-0-9." The Beach Boys weren't the only ones focused on that Chevy engine.
"My brother-in-law had a new '62 409 when I was in high school," said Arlington Heights resident Bill Collopy. "He used to drop off my girlfriend -- now my wife -- to see me. As he drove off he'd pull a tremendous holeshot! That's when I told myself, one day I'd have a '62 409!"
After saving his pennies and dimes, Collopy purchased a Roman Red 1962 Bel Air this past winter in DeKalb that indeed packs the legendary "real fine" 409-cubic-inch V-8.
The 409 was Chevrolet's top production engine from 1961 to 1965. Just like Beach Boy Brian Wilson's dream machine, Collopy's tire-smoking 409 brandishes a four-speed manual transmission, a dual-quad carburetor setup and Positraction. The reason the Beach Boys, Collopy and countless other enthusiasts love the no-frills, all business Chevrolet powerplant, is simple: its tremendous performance capabilities.
"We called these cars Day Two cars," he said. They would be purchased at the dealership bare-bones -- no radio, cheap interior and no power steering or power brakes. "But they always had the big block motor and four speed."
They were driven home where exhaust cutouts, "cheater slick" tires and a tachometer were added. The next day, or "Day Two," the 409 car would be found either at a drag strip or tearing up neighborhood streets, Collopy said.
With a vehicle packing such awesome asphalt notoriety, it didn't take long for several nicknames to emerge regarding several of its distinct characteristics.
"The look of (a car with) the black-wall tires with 'poverty' or 'dog-dish' hubcaps became known as Granny's Grocery Getter because of its simplicity." Even the style of the tires developed a name. "The cheater slicks were called 'pie crust' due to the indentations around the outside edge, which resembled the thumbprints on a pie."
The culinary theme also carried over to the engine bay. "The valve covers were so large on the 409 engines, they were referred to as 'turkey roasters.' "
Naturally, the only cooking this muscle-bound sleeper did was when it was pointed in a straight line, packing several key ingredients. "The exhausts pipes have cutouts, where openings would be welded into the existing setup below the manifolds and before the mufflers. They were capped off with a plate and three bolts. The caps were removed or opened when racing the car," Collopy said.
This early release of the exhaust would relieve backpressure and increase horsepower dramatically. They grew in popularity with young, cash-strapped racers as a cheaper alternative to authentic headers to turn the fastest times. "When they're open, they just sound plain awesome!"
It was also common for leadfoot owners to install a 7,500 rpm Sun tachometer on the steering column and a set of gauges under the dash to keep tabs on engine operations. This classic Bel Air is ready with both.
Collopy continues to relate to the lyrics in the famed 409 melody, heralding the unassuming car's performance. "As it says, 'Nothing can catch her, nothing can touch my 409,' and this certainly is the case. When you mash the gas, it just takes off and launches!"