Chevrolet Chevelle SS396
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 5
The Chevelle SS396 became a series of its own in 1966
with series/style numbers 13817 and 13867. SS396 sport coupes and convertibles used the same Malibu sport coupe and convertible bodies with reinforced frames and revised front suspension: higher-rate springs
, recalibrated shocks, and thicker front stabilizer bar, but with different exterior trim. They also had simulated hood scoops, red-stripe tires, and bright trim moldings.
At the time, the Chevelle's lead in intermediate sales was 36% ahead of the No. 2 finisher (tabulated to end of '67 mode run). The SS 396 percentage was large making it the biggest selling American muscle car. Three body styles were offered for '68: a 2-door hardtop coupe, a convertible and new to the range, the El Camino pickup.
The performance engines available included three, 396 CID V8s – the standard, rated at 325 hp (242 kW), an optional 360 hp (270 kW), and an optional 375 hp (280 kW), respectively (the mid-horsepower 396 was rated at 360 hp (270 kW) for 1966 only and 350 hp (260 kW) thereafter). The SS396 series lasted from 1966
before being relegated to an option package in 1969
. The 1966
model years were the only two years of the 'strut back' 2-door sport coupe with its own style number, 17.
In Canada, sporty Chevelles continued to wear "Malibu SS" badges for the 1966
and early 1967
model years. These Chevelles were available with the same equipment as non-SS Malibu models in the U.S., and did not get the domed hood or the blackout front and rear treatment. Redline tires were not available on Canadian Chevelles in 1966. A 1966 Malibu SS factory photo shows wheel covers on the car from the 1965 Impala
The Canadian Malibu SS got its "SS" name from the "Sports Option" package under RPO A51 and was primarily a trim option. This A51 option came with bucket seats, a center console (except when the three-speed manual transmission
was ordered), standard full wheel covers, and the ribbed rocker panel moldings. The "Malibu SS" emblems were carried over from the 1965
Malibu SS series. This Canadian option could be ordered with any six-cylinder or V8 engine available at the time. Starting in January 1967
, the Chevelle SS396 took over and became its own 138xx series, the same as in the U.S.
Powertrain & Performance
Just two engines were offered in 1968
. Both were based on the highly successful, "semi-hemi" porcupine head, 396-cu.-in. design which was a powerplant envied by Chevy's competitors. The base engine was a 325-hp V8, using a single Rochester Quadrajet carb and hydraulic lifters. It had the same compression ratio of 10.25:1 that the optional 350-hp V8 had, but differed mainly in its much tamer camshaft. Valve lift, opening duration, and opening and closing events were considerably less than the 350's.
It ran quietly, and - quite surprisingly - very economically, returning consumption figures of around 17 mpg around town, while others dipped no lower than 13.5. They 325’s were considerably slower than cars with the optional 350 engine, in like circumstances. But the 350 had a poorer front to rear weight distribution, and the 325 was only a fraction off the pace. The standard gear for the manual gearbox Chevelles was 3.31:1. The selection of axle ratios from standard went from 2.56 on to 4.10:1. Ratios of 4.56 and 4.88 were listed in the spec book, but others were not shown but were available – you apparently needed to speak with a dealer to find out what these were.
The 350-hp optional V8 received its big boost from the factory installation of a hotter cam. This really made a deference in this V8, as it turned into a threatening performer. A point in its favour was the fact that mileage wasn't hurt terribly by comparison to the 325 engine. This engine turned out five more lbs. ft. of torque at a reading 200 rpm beyond that of the 325, but high gear pulling was so much better, it felt like 500. Perhaps not direct from the factory, but only a little tweaking would put it solidly in the low 15s for the quarter. Further performance preparation made it easy to get it in the 13s.
Manually shifted 350s carried 3.55:1 rear gears as standard equipment. Powerglide-equipped cars got 3.31, and Turbo Hydra-Matic and all air conditioned models had 3.07:1. The range of optional ratios went from 2.73 on up to 4.10:1, with many stops along the way. The 4.56 and 4.88 gears were also dealer available for this engine. All 396 engines required H.D. 3-speed gearboxes, which were extra cost items, ruling out any standard transmission
for this size motor. A wide ratio 4-speed was optional for both 325 and 350, and a close ratio (2.20:1 low) was optional only on the 350. Powerglide and Turbo Hydra-Matic automatics could be bolted behind either V8. Many preferred the Turbo Hydro for its versatility and wide range of uses.
Wheel-spin was a significant problem on both size engines, and short of keeping slicks in the trunk for such purposes, the only way to get away quick was to feather the accelerator while leaving the line, then floor it. No wheel hop was encountered if you drove it this way, and once brought out smoothly, the big 396 really pulled.
On the Road
The SS 396 was shod with F70 x 14 wide-pattern tyres
as standard on all but El Caminos which used 7.75 x 14 2-ply rated tyres, and these big rubbers contributed much to handling
stability. A front stabilizer bar of .937-inch diameter controlled front end sway, and did a good job of keeping the rear end from dictating the direction of the front. The 4-coil springs
carried rates of 320 pounds per inch in front, and 130 in back. Under-steer wasn't hard to come by, but fairly easy to get rid of. You could feel it coming, so with the proper driving technique, there was nothing to worry about.
was a bit of a chore, given the fat 16.5-inch wheel was hooked to the 24.1-geared manual box. The 17.5:1 ratio on the power assist was a vast improvement, being quick to react, and not prone to steer past the mark and returning easily after a turn. You could also option a tilt-away steering
column - brilliant. All Chevelles were equipped with drum brakes. There was a big change for 1968 in that they all had finned front drums to aid cooling. Two optional braking systems were offered plus power assist on the drums.
Sintered iron metallic lining drum brakes
were available, and they had many small changes other than lining to separate them from the standard units. A special master cylinder with a smaller bore was used, as was a special set of stronger return springs
. Effective brake area was smaller, but in the metal-lie's case, effective and swept areas were the same. The brake lining was welded, not bonded or riveted to the shoe, and three primary segments and five secondary segments were on each wheel lining. This differed from the ordinary one segment per lining, and the separation between segments assisted cooling.
Chevrolet was one of the few makers back then offering metallics, but unless you had them before, you would have been in for a bit of a shock. They were noisy in the morning (or when cold), and hardly operated at all until warmed up. After that, they hung on like an unemployed relative. The front disc/rear drum power brakes
were the best thing that had happened to muscle cars. Just the right amount of braking was fed to each wheel to bring the car quickly to rest. Actually, less braking effort was done by the front wheels on disc brake equipped cars than on drums, but that was just a part of the good balance. Of course the disc braked cars stopped quicker too, pulling the SS396 from 60 mph to 0 in around 121 feet, equalling the best stopping distance then available on an American car. Better still, it all happened in a nice straight, controllable pattern, too.
Behind the Wheel
Hours of cruising weren't likely to make anyone tired of the SS 396. If your posterior got sore, it's more the fault of nature than the car seat. The front seats really were excellent – and would not have been out of place on much more expensive European cars. The dash was really well laid out. Two square instrument faces were angled toward the driver, making it very easy to catch gauge readings. The clusters were on each side of the steering
column; and directly above it, room was left for the tacho. Chevy had put SS 396 tachometers just about everywhere, and in 1968 it finally found a new home. It took a bit of getting used to though, as it was a vertical dial meter. Apart from the fact that it was not the preferred round face, it was also recessed quite a ways into the dash and some distance from the cover. Shadows played upon it quite badly, and when the sun reflected off the cover, you couldn’t see anything. But it was perfect at night.
More total glass area was used in the '68 than '67, but the hindered rearward vision negated all this good. Automatics with floor consoles used the same type "horse-shoe" shift handle as the Buick Gran Sport. And than meant you had to bend your wrist too much to grasp the "straight on" bar. The convenience of the console storage bin was a good feature for a 1960s car. The somewhat stiff ride exhibited by the SS 396 wasn't given a second thought after you had covered the first few miles. There was no "reliving" high bumps and deep holes for a block afterwards, and passengers weren't rolled around on corners. Acceleration and braking squat was unnoticed, and the firm suspension took chop and small road seams and absorbed them prior to entering the car's interior. The control established by the H.D. components was near perfect - and can only say that Chevy's SS 396 had the ride it took to make it a true muscle car – bordering on super car status.
One of the better options was the light monitoring system. This used small pods connected via fibre-optics to indicate which lamps were burning and which were not. Outside front lights had their pods mounted on fender tops, and the rear light monitor was on the package tray, visible through the rear view mirror. Light from the source was actually piped through the fibres to light the individual globe monitors. The CM "A" body vent window crank handle feature was also brilliant.
Chevelle Z16 SS396
Only 200 regular production 1965
Z16 Chevelles were built at the Kansas City plant. The Z16 option included the convertible boxed frame, a narrowed rear axle and brake assemblies from the contemporary Impala, heavy-duty suspension, plus virtually all Chevelle comfort and convenience options. The Z16 standard big-block 396 Turbo-Jet V8 came only with the Muncie wide-ratio four-speed manual transmission
. The rear panel of the Z16 had unique black and chrome trim which framed untrimmed Chevelle 300-style taillights (Malibu and Malibu SS models had bright metal lens trim). The prototype Z16 Chevelle was built at the Baltimore plant.
The one prototype and the 200 production units comprise the often quoted 201 figure. One convertible was reportedly special built for Chevy General Manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, but is understood to have been destroyed. This Z16 convertible supposedly surfaced in Art Astor's famous auto collection has been proven to be a fake. In any case, extremely low production and ferocious performance for Z16-equipped Chevelles means this is one of the rarest, most coveted Chevrolets ever produced. Of the few that remain, prices run in six figures. Although some regular 1965 Chevelle owners have attempted to fake the Z16, this is a most difficult task due to the unavailability of the unique Z16 equipment and trim, although much of the external trim pieces are now being reproduced in the aftermarket.