Big Al's Featured Car's
Ronnie Sox's Other Chevy Z-11
Owned by Hank Gabbart
Pictures & Story by John Carollo

Mr. Four Speed Drove This Historic Chevy
We dig the stories behind the stories. A case in point is the little known fact that Ronnie Sox, Mr. Four Speed and mainstay of Mopar Super Stock racing, drove one of the rarest of rare Chevys, a Z-11, in the early ‘60s. What is even more obscure is he drove another Chevy Z-11, the ‘Good Ole Mr. Wilson’ Z-11 owned by Jack May and also driven by Larry Wilson. The car was a scourge on the east and southern coasts, acting as an agent of punishment in numerous match races where the boxy white Impala proved to be the winner more often than not. The connection came via the Sox Sinclair Service gas station in Burlington, NC. The well respected owner was Willard ‘Nub’ Sox, father of Ronnie Sox. Ronnie not only drove the car but did race prep and built the engine. At the time, Ronnie campaigned his own Z-11 Chevy, an early Sox and Martin racer, under NHRA rules. The group decided to use Jack May’s Z-11 as a match racer, running it strictly for money. The car did fine on the North Carolina, Washington DC and Virginia circuits in 1964 and set an A/MP track record of 11.26 with speeds in the 125 mph range. Later, that same month, the car would grind the SS record down to an incredible 10.80 @ 132 at Piedmont and Pocono Drag Lodge in Bear Creek, Pa. Not bad for a big ‘ol Impala.

But Chevy’s Z-11 was anything but a big ‘ol Impala. The oh-so-limited run of Chevy’s answer to Super Stock and Factory Modified Production in 1962/63 had an almost endless list of tricks to help it kill Fords and Mopars. One of the top two leading elements was the 409 ‘W’ motor now stroked to a healthy 427 inches. The other one was the aluminum fenders, hood and bumpers. From there, the list went on. The ‘W’ Series motor started life as the 348 before quickly moving on to the 409 where it pretty much capped out for the street. The 50 some odd 427 ‘W’ motors that were made for the Z’s included a new crankshaft, rods and pistons. Going the distance with this motor, Chevy also made a new set of redesigned ‘W’ heads with large, oval shaped intake ports that were taller than the hi-po 409 heads. As they likely knew they were pushing the envelope with those heads, they installed push rod guide plates and that required new valve covers with distinctive corners for stud girdle clearance. That, of course, opened the door for a new cam and two piece, aluminum high rise intake manifold for two AFB Carter 4 bbl carbs. The carbs were already in use on dual quad 409s. Elsewhere in Chevy’s racing programs, the Chevy NASCAR guys developed the distinctive new style of ram air induction air cleaners. Air coming down the base of the windshield traveled into the cowl, then to the oval duct on the firewall. From there, it moved through a rubber sealing boot on the air cleaner duct then on to the center of the oversize air cleaner and into the gulping four barrels. It, too, was added to the Z-11 package. Even the engine was lightened with an aluminum water pump. One more piece that clearly illustrates how ounces add up to pounds was the hollow fuel pump push rod.

The aluminum fenders, hood and bumpers that most people know about were joined by aluminum bumper and grille brackets, front splash shield, fan shroud and its brackets to help lighten up the car. The Z’s were also void of radio, heater and even sound deadener. But Chevy may have gone too far with the aluminum. The first batch of the Z’s were made with a thinner gauge of aluminum than later batches. Looking at old photos of early Z’s reveal bent bumpers and fenders as the slightest pressure was enough to make a lasting impression. Taking it one step farther on the inside of the car, the front seat went on a diet when workers deleted every other wire spring during assembly. And that brings around the amazing numbers of Z-11s that were created then and still exist now. There were three runs of the Z’s built and delivered to racers for a total not much over 50 – records are sketchy at best. Then, in early 1963, Chevy suddenly shut down the program. The leading reason was GM’s market share and how the government was eyeing them as a monopoly. That could have led to a breakup of all the GM brands so GM immediately killed off its racing programs. Those programs included the drag Z-11 and what we’ve come to know as the Pontiac Swiss Cheese cars. GM also killed their highly successful Chevy and Pontiac NASCAR programs. That one hurt as Pontiac was THE car in NASCAR in 1962. (The Chevy NASCAR program had a parallel to the Z-11 with the famous ‘Mystery Motor’ Impala that would be the forerunner to the Chevy Big Block.) Today, the number of surviving Z-11s is not much more than a dozen.

‘Good Ole Mr. Wilson’ came back to life through the will of Hank Gabbert of Michigan. Hank is an expert on ‘63s having done numerous restorations, almost all with ‘W’ Series 409 motors. Early on, he learned about the Holy Grail of ‘63s, the Z-11. But he knew the odds and while always watching for one to snag and restore, he was realistic. But his Z-11 has a different twist. Hank likes to say, “I didn’t find this car, it found me!” and it’s a cool story. Hank was working on a 425 HP 409 Bel Air when he got the idea to finish it for the next Cobo Hall car show in Detroit a few months away. This was all new to Hank as he didn’t really build for car shows or work such rigid time frames. That’s not to say Hank’s car were not of show quality. His meticulous restoration of ‘Good Ole Mr. Wilson went on to be displayed at a high end Concours show winning a Blue Ribbon Lions award and is typical of Hank’s work. But the idea of getting this one done for that show was all new to him and his family. To this day, Hank still has no idea why he was so driven.
Hank got the Bel Air done and at the show, still pondering the reasons for this obsession, took a walk around to check out the other cars. When he came back to his car, his son, Jason, said he had missed a visitor. A man stopped by to compliment the work on the ’63 and mention his son had bought a ’63 Impala. But the son’s ’63 was different as it had several aluminum parts on it and, better yet, he was interested in selling the car. Jason, knowing just what the man was talking about took the man’s phone number and gave to his dad. Needless to say, the hair on the back of Hank’s neck stood up. A few more phone calls took place before Hank and son John took a trailer to Rochester, NY. There, Hank was in almost constant contact with his network of ’63 Chevy friends even while underneath, inspecting the car. They helped to confirm the car was indeed the ‘Good Ole Mr. Wilson’ Z-11. There were some sticky points as the owner wanted to keep the rear end and the four speed; both integral Z-11 components. Those were settled (the parts stayed) and Hank brought home what he calls, “The Big Z.” When Hank unloaded the car in his driveway, it was ugly green with the original interior painted black. (Hank would later confirm the original red interior code when it showed up red under the painted armrests.) Proud of his newest acquisition, Hank brought his wife, Diane, out to see it. He didn’t expect her reaction of “You paid how much for that piece of Junk? Get that piece of crap out of my driveway!” And that was the PG- rated version of what she said.

Hank talked with most of the principals of the car while he restored it. Foremost was Ronnie Sox, who would spent the rest of his life looking for his own Z-11 he raced at that same time. Among the many stories Ronnie Sox and Larry Wilson told Hank was one about Sox bringing the Sox and Martin Z-11 to the track with Good Old Mr. Wilson. They would race each other and then trade cars and race again. It was quite a show for the lucky fans. Another story centered around the dominance of the car. After beating Jake King and his Ford Thunderbolt and later Ron Pelligrini and his 427 Mustang, the track owner offered Larry $100 to let the Fords win one round to, as the owner said, ‘keep the Ford fans happy.’ Larry told Hank, “That was a lot of money back then and I took it. Hank also learned the rest of the story with Sox, Jack May and this Z-11. May gave the car to Sox around mid 1963 and the car continued to race thru 1963 and most of 1964 when it was then raced by Sox and Larry Wilson. While GM made their Z-11s with as much weight savings as they could, the racers of ‘Good Ole Mr. Wilson’ kept shaving off pounds using such tricks as taking every other spring out of the back seat, taking off all the window mechanism that didn’t actually hold or move the window such as stops and replacing the side glass with Plexiglas. Hank promised Ronnie Sox the car would be finished for the York Muscle Car reunion in July. Sadly, Sox died in April and never saw the finished racer. Hank spent countless hours restoring the Z and credits his sons for all the help, particularly Jason who did all the paint. With the finishing touches of the period correct hand lettering by the equally legendary Brush by Bock of Clinton Township, MI, the car was restored to 1963 racing condition. Hank did indeed finish his ‘Big Z’ and we shot these photos two days later. At the York event, a big time collector offered Hank what would have been the right money for the car but Hank wanted to enjoy the car after taking the time to restore it and turned the generous offer down.

While the car runs, Hank doesn’t actually race it, preferring to keep the historic and very hard to find parts safe from damage. When he does take it downtrack, it’s usually a 75% run. There was one time when he let Larry Wilson drive his former ride, giving him very explicit instruction about how to just drive it like he would on the street. No dropping the hammer. After all, the car was now a very delicate 45 year old factory modified that had undergone a hand restoration. Larry made the turn from the staging lane and ignoring Hank’s hand signals, started backing into the bleach box. By this time, Hank was waving more franticly, almost leaving the ground. Larry nailed it, turning the loosely set up rear gears into a stinky pulp. That prompted Hank to institute a “Check has to be in my hands” before anyone else drives his Z-11 policy. Oh well, that kills our chances for a test drive with history…