Controversy surrounds the Chevrolet Mystery Motor that Junior Johnson used to stomp the field in the first 100 mile qualifying race at the 1963 Daytona 500. Driving Ray Fox’s 1963 Chevrolet Impala Johnson displayed blistering speed in qualifying and in the race; proving the combination fast and formidable while exceeded 168 mph on some practice laps. When Johnny Rutherford dominated the second 100 mile qualifier with another mystery motor in Smokey Yunick’s car competitors nearly lost their minds. Three other mystery powered Chevrolets qualified for the race and all five cars exceeded the previous years qualifying speed by seven to ten mph. Chevrolets swept both of the100 mile qualifying races, but ultimately failed to win the 500 due to various mechanical difficulties. Still, their speed was staggering and everyone wanted to know how they did it.
Junior Johnson 1963 Daytona 500
Johnny Rutherford 1963 Daytona 500
Present day fascination with the nostalgic glory of the muscle car years has clouded our memory of events, cars and engines of that era to near epic proportions; sometimes too much. The Mystery Motor is a case in point. Legend and lore abound, particularly on the internet making it difficult to clarify the Mystery Motor’s content and performance as it relates to subsequent Mark IV production engines. So called internet forum “experts” claim that the engine was just a bored out 409 with a Z11 lower end and the newly designed “porcupine” cylinder heads. This theory completely ignores the obvious problem of deck angle and combustion chamber mismatch. Someone is always surfacing with a story about a long lost uncle who actually worked in the dyno room or the design shop and he just happened to tell his pharmacist who then told his pastor who told a friend who passed along that there were only eighteen motors and they were a special mix of W-motor specs and secret new technology. Well, maybe not.
The Mark II Mystery Motor was designed by Dick Keinath, a brilliant engineer who at one time held every job in the Chevrolet engineering group from draftsman to Chief Engineer. He worked on the original small block with Ed Cole and Ed Kelly developing an all aluminum small block V8. He did the original development work on the 348 and 409 cylinder heads and had primary responsibility for the 409 engine. As such he is factually the father of all Chevrolet big blocks. Truth be told, Dick Keinath had a hand in every modern Chevrolet engine from four cylinders to early 348 NASCAR engines to 302 Z28 engines and of course the now legendary big blocks.
With Ford sporting 427ci big blocks and Chrysler fielding 426 cubic inches Chevrolet’s 427 Mystery Motor was the logical choice to compete with them. The big mystery of course was the cylinder head design which incorporated large canted valves that moved away from the chamber walls and cylinder bores the farther they opened. This improved flow and subsequent cylinder filling by unshrouding the valves. The block was all new, adopting nothing more than the basic location of the W-motor’s main oil gallery, the same 4.84-inch bore centers and the same size main saddles.
Few people know that there were three versions of the Mystery Motor. It was originally designed, built and developed as an “all new” 409ci engine to capitalize on the existing 409’s robust reputation. Keinath explains that the only thing even closely resembling the W-motor design was the crankshaft. The mystery engine began as a 409ci engine based on the all new Mark II cylinder block and heads. It utilized a 409 crankshaft and bearings; nothing else. That means Mark II big block engines have smaller main bearings than the follow-on Mark IV versions. Keinath states that the Mark II also had a 4-5/16-inch bore (4.3125) and a 3.500-inch stroke (same as the 409). It was a NASCAR intended racing engine designed to replace the 409 and the displacement was retained to extend the benefits of the 409’s notoriety.
S = Stroked
* Development engines, pre-November 1962
** Development engines, mid-1963, tested but never raced
Note: No adequate records exist to indicate exactly how many of each displacement were built. The 427ci version was the only one ever raced.
Most of the testing and development was done with 409ci versions. Development engineers were able to generate the required power at that displacement, but in October of ‘62 negotiations with NASCAR resulted in approval to enlarge it to 427ci to gain parity with Ford and Chrysler. A mad rush ensued to design longer 3.65-inch stroke crankshafts that were similar, but subtly different to the previous 409 based cranks. This development package became known as the Mark IIS (for stroked) and the new cranks eliminated the 409 crank from the package. The engines that ran at Daytona were 427ci Mark IIS versions. Later on, 396ci versions were also developed but never raced.
According to Keinath, the W-motor was designed from the get go as a big truck engine that evolved to a racing engine because there was nothing else available. Designers saw what was wrong with it and switched strategies. Mark II series engines were designed from the outset as racing engines (the Mark II Mystery Motor) and were subsequently revised to accommodate truck and passenger car service. The difference was considerable as the new Mark series was designed for much higher efficiency than the W-motors which they easily out-powered. Keinath further remarks that the Mark II and later Mark IV series engine are externally almost identical, but that nothing really interchanges between them primarily because of revised port locations; head bolt locations, smaller mains and other revisions necessary to a production environment.
The cylinder heads carried 2.19/1.72-inch valves residing in closed style chambers and operated by 1.65:1 rockers. They had round exhaust ports with a bump on the upper side to provide additional material for adjacent head bolts. Unique cast iron pushrod guide plates were mounted with short bolts above the intake ports (see photos). Cast iron exhaust manifolds featured 2-inch unequal length primaries. Four different 180° hi-rise intake manifolds were designed each with subtle revisions to accommodate the different displacement versions of the Mark II engine.
From his testing experience Smokey Yunick believed that the best one was casting number 0-233239, but it is unknown which engine this one worked best on. Speculation suggests the 427, but its power was subsequently matched by the 396ci version so it’s anybody’s guess until someone who has one of the remaining engines decides to pull a head to check stroke length and match up the casting numbers. Smokey was also dissatisfied with the2-bolt mains that came on all Mark II engines. There were no 4-bolt versions, but Smokey devised his own main cap brace that bolted onto the 2-bolt caps and was secured to the main webs by two additional bolts to form sort of semi-4-bolt man caps. Mark II camshafts also had the grooved rear cam journal characteristic of early (1965-66) Mark IV engines and they still incorporated a canister type oil filter.
Retired Mystery Motor test and development engineer Bill Howell has stated that subsequent developments saw the 427ci engine destroked to 396 cubic inches because NASCAR planned to limit displacement. The 396 version was tested by Smokey Yunick in the fall of 1963 at the Ft. Stockton, Texas test track with initial plans to run the 1964 Daytona 500 under the table without corporate endorsement. According to Howell, this version was the best performing engine of the bunch even with the reduction in displacement.
In his book, “Best Damn Garage in Town ”Smokey Yunick offers high praise for Dick Keinath and his engine design talents. According to Smokey, 44 sets of parts were produced for these engines, but Tonawanda engine plant records indicate that a total of 60 engines were manufactured for the Mark II program. All of them had a 4.3125-inch bore and 2.5-inch main journals. By the end of the program 3 distinct stroke lengths had been used to achieve 3 different displacements as shown in the accompanying chart.
Production Mark IV 396 V8s (1965) required a reduction in bore size to accommodate foundry based casting issues attributed to relocated head bolts and coolant passages. And it required a stroke increase to 3.76-inches to match the revised 4.094-inch bore. Main journals were also enlarged to 2.75-inch to ensure the desired durability in truck applications. Keinath also confirms that the 396 displacement originally came about because of NASCAR limiting displacement to 6.5L about then and because there was unofficial corporate pressure to stay below 400ci. Despite this engineers eventually matched the 427’s power level with both the Mark II 396 and the production Mark IV 396.
See Part II of the Mystery Motor Development story with Billy Howell, lead development engineer and get the real facts from the horses mouth. Click Here: Mystery Motor Part II
The accompanying photos have circulated freely on the internet with no specific credit or indicated source. They were initially found on the Jalopy Journal under the H.A. M. B. section. Thanks to wrench409 for posting them. Anyone with confirming or contact information is urged to click here to contact us regarding source of these photos and contact information. We are seeking more information from all owners of mystery motors or parts for hi-resolution press quality photos for a new book. THANKS!