The Chevelle Story as Told by Classic GM Muscle
The Chevelle Story started in August 1963, at a press conference in Chicago. It was that historic day when Chevrolet’s General Manager, S. E. “Bunkie” Knudsen, unveiled the all-new Chevrolet needed to fill the gap between its full-size Impala and its compact Nova models. And fill the gap they did with sales of 338,286 Chevelles the first year. The Chevelle SS became an instant hit with sales of 76,860 units, which accounted for nearly 23 percent of all Chevelle sales.
Chevrolet engineers had created a model to fit nearly everyone’s taste and budget, from the oh-so mundane 300 series to the sporty Malibu SS. The Chevelle line-up for 1964 included a variety of two-doors, four-doors, station wagons, and convertibles. An all-new El Camino model was also introduced based on the Chevelle platform. The El Camino, which was formerly based on the full-size Impala, had been discontinued after just two years at the end of the 1960 model year. However, the Chevrolet division still did not have a car that could compete on an even plane with Pontiac’s GTO, Oldsmobile’s 442, or Buick’s Grand Sport.
Enter, the Z16 Malibu SS. Option RPO Z16 was introduced mid-year, 1965. It gave the public a preview of what was to come the following year. Adding RPO Z16 to the Malibu SS was the logical choice in which to introduce the new Mk IV big-block 396 V8. This special Malibu SS included a host of performance and comfort options, all packaged in a sporty two-door hardtop or convertible. Chevrolet had finally played their ace in the hole.
Chevrolet produced just 201 Malibus with the rare Z16 option; 200 hardtops and just one convertible. Most of the Malibu Z16’s went to top GM executives and famous personalities, such as the late Dan Blocker of TV’s Bonanza fame. A small number were shipped to dealerships and made their way into the hands of the general public. With RPO Z16, Chevrolet had laid the groundwork for the introduction of the 1966 Chevelle SS 396 as a stand-alone model.
Enter, the Chevelle SS
The Chevelle SS 396 made its long-awaited debut with many features that would become its signature for years to come. The heart of the Super Sport was the Mk IV big-block 396, which was introduced the year before. The 396 was available in three configurations. The 325hp version was the standard power plant for 1966, as it would be through the 1969 model year. For a little extra money, customers could upgrade to the 360 or 375 horsepower version.
Externally, the Chevelle SS 396 was treated to a Super Sport only twin bulge hood with chrome inserts. A “blacked out” grille was added, as were SS 396 badges on the grille and rear cove panel. A few early Super Sports came with a “blacked out” rear cove panel as well, but, was soon discontinued. To let the competition know what they were up against, 396 Turbo-Jet cross flags were added to both front fenders just ahead of the wheel openings. To complete the package, Super Sport script was applied to both rear quarter panels.
Through the end of the decade, the Chevelle Super Sport was tweaked and massaged by the engineers at Chevrolet. Body lines were refined each year to keep the appearance of the Chevelle new and exciting. New comfort and performance options were added to the sales brochure and the dealer’s order sheet every year.
Some options did not appear on order sheets at all. The 375 horsepower 396 is one case in point. The potent L78 was not listed as an option until 1968 when it finally appeared on the back side of the dealer’s order sheet. Another case in point is the central office production order (C.O.P.O). In 1969, a 427 equipped Chevelle could be ordered “out the back door” of the factory by any dealer who knew which boxes to check.
The sixties decade was coming to a close, and soon even the powerful L78 was not enough to satisfy the customer’s hunger for horsepower. The COPO. 427 Chevelle was an alternative for those customers wanting more power, but, was not readily available to the general public. Once again, the engineers at Chevrolet had an opportunity to fill another gap.
454 Mk IV Big-Block
With the introduction of the Chevelle SS for 1970, Chevrolet unleashed its most potent power plant ever, the infamous 454 Mk IV big-block. It came in two forms, the LS5 with 360 horsepower, and the LS6 rated at 450 horsepower! Quarter mile times of less than fourteen-seconds were easily achieved by the LS6 right off the showroom floor. Zero to sixty mph times were reported to be in the mid five-second range. It’s believed by many that the horsepower of this monster was probably closer to 500. Whatever the actual output, the engineers at Chevrolet had definitely outdone themselves this time.
What better way to introduce a new high-performance engine than with a new body style? A new fourth generation body was introduced for the 1970 model year. This would also be the last design change for the Chevelle in the muscle car era.
1971 marked the beginning of the end for the performance era. Horsepower had been reduced due to lower compression, restricted exhausts, and the addition of smog devices mandated by the federal government. Higher insurance costs associated with high performance vehicles were also driving the trend for car manufacturers to build vehicles with lower horsepower.
As a sign of the times, Chevrolet introduced the Heavy Chevy. The Heavy Chevy was intended to be a budget-oriented alternative for those seeking the look of performance without the high insurance costs associated with big-block Super Sports.
End of an Era
For all practical purposes, 1972 was the final year for the muscle car era. Chevrolet was still producing a Chevelle SS that could be ordered with a 454 cubic inch engine, but in stock form, it was no match for its predecessors. Although, with a little tweaking, it could still produce some respectable quarter mile times.
To this day, the Chevelle SS still maintains its popularity and is highly sought after. And why not, there are countless numbers of suppliers of original and after-market parts available for the Chevelle. There are also a number of salvage yards specializing in only used Chevelle parts.
The Chevelle’s popularity doesn’t end with the Super Sport. With some four million plus Chevelles built between 1964 and 1972, there are still a large number of non-Super Sport models available, all of which have potential.
About the Author:
Jeffrey Steffes is an authority on all things Chevelle and has even written a book for Chevelle and El Camino owners and those contemplating the restoration or purchase of one. In his book he provides a quick overview of each year of the Chevelle from 1964-1972. The book then goes on to thoroughly document each year of the Chevelle. Using copies of important documentation, Steffes describes what each piece is and what it can – and perhaps more importantly – what it cannot tell you about a particular car.
Although this book is based on the Chevelle Super Sport, it will help the reader to authenticate any 1964-1972 Chevelle or El Camino. Highlights include: decoding VIN plates and trim tags, options and color codes, engine and transmission identification, technical details, production data, historical facts, factory documents, and more. You can learn more about this informative book here.
Tags: chevelle, Chevrolet, Classic GM Muscle, Jeffrey Steffes
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