The Chevy Chevelle is an all-time great from the golden era of Detroit muscle cars, thanks to great lines and huge motors. Let’s look back at what made it so great.
If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at the phrase “There’s no replacement for displacement”, may I recommend a wide-open-throttle freeway on-ramp ride in a ’69 Chevelle with the 396 cubic inch (ci) motor? A friend of mine used to have one and the first time we did just that, I immediately understood this muscle car rallying cry. There’s a visceral sensation to having your back sucked into the seat of an old Chevy Chevelle while the nose rises, the motor thunders, and un-combusted gas wafts by in a torque-filled roar to extra-legal speeds (not that I recommend that).
So, it’s no surprise that the Chevelle, though only produced for 13 years in the 60’s and 70’s, remains in the automotive lexicon. There were three distinct generations starting in 1964 and ending in 1977. This was peak muscle car season amongst the Big Three and Chevrolet stepped up to the plate in a big way. What began as a necessary mid-size vehicle quickly became a platform for huge displacement V8’s that ultimately faded away during the 70’s gas-guzzler crackdown.
In the early 1960s, Ford was selling their mid-size Fairlane with success. At the time, Chevrolet was producing the compact Chevy II and full-size Impala. They needed a mid-pack option and thus, in 1964 the Chevelle was born. While there’s no clear history on where the name came from, I like the story suggesting it’s a combination of Chevrolet and gazelle. This first generation ran until 1967 utilizing a squared off design on all models – of which there were many.
Chevy’s Chevelle was part of the General Motors (GM) family of A-body vehicles, which included at the time, Pontiac’s Tempest, the Oldsmobile Cutlass, and Buick Skylark. In the Chevrolet division, the Chevelle was available in loads of body styles. 2-door options were a hardtop, coupe, convertible, sedan, station wagon or “coupe utility”; otherwise known as an El Camino. The 4-door varieties were a sedan, hardtop and station wagon. The main difference between 4-door hardtops and 4-door sedans is the lack of a B-pillar on hardtops; the same applies for 2-door varieties.
In 1964, as in all Chevelle generations, the drivetrain was front-engine and rear-wheel drive. Along with the dizzying array of body styles, there were no less than seven transmission options: two 3-speed manuals, two 4-speed manuals, an overdrive 3-speed, AND two automatics. But perhaps the most acclaimed part of Chevelle history are the engines.
This first year of production was right at the beginning of what we now recognize as the golden era of muscle cars and the Chevelle was intended to appeal to a variety of audiences. Along with all the body and transmission options, there were initially two inline-6 and two V8 engines available, with the biggest 283 ci 8-cylinder putting out 220 horsepower. But before the year was out, a larger 327 cubic inch V8 was offered on top-of-the-line Malibu SS models making 300 horses. And the muscle car wars were on…
This trend of more power continued throughout the next three years of first-gen Chevy Chevelles. In 1965, the 327 ci V8 was putting out 350 hp on Malibu SS models, but in 1966, this top-line model was replaced by the stand-alone SS 396 series. With displacement bumped to 396 cubes, there were three output options of 325, 360, and 375 horsepower, respectively. Available in sport coupe or convertible bodies, SS 396 models had reinforced frames, revised front suspension, and special exterior trim including simulated hood scoops.
1966 also brought smoother contours to the Chevelle, a new front-end treatment, and a “flying buttress” style roofline. The 283 and 327 ci V8’s continued and the 4-door hardtop sedan joined the Malibu series. At this point, Chevelles were sold in three tiers with a base 300, mid-pack 300 Deluxe, and top-level Malibu. The final year of first-generation Chevelles, 1967, were facelifted with large wraparound taillights, offered 14-inch wheels, and had a collapsible steering column to improve safety. In the SS 396 lineup, new options like Superlift adjustable air shock absorbers and special instrumentation were available.
The second-generation of Chevy Chevelles ran from 1968 to 1972 and was marked by an all-new design with tapered front fenders and a rounded beltline. While the overall length on coupes stayed the same compared to 1967, the wheelbase shrank by 3 inches. This, combined with the high, kicked up rear quarter section, introduced the “Coke bottle” look that was popular in 1960’s America. ‘68 was also the only year the El Camino body style had its own SS 396 series designation. The optional Turbo-Jet big block used hydraulic, instead of solid, lifters and offered as much as 375 horsepower.
This generation included new Luxury Councours trim options like special sound insulation and simulated wood grain accents. A new, 200 horse Turbo-Fire V8 was added to the mix as was GM’s new Air Injection Reactor smog pump on manual transmission Chevelles. Federal oversight starts to creep into the picture here with mandated side marker lights and shoulder belts for outboard front seat occupants, on vehicles built after December 1, 1967.
1969 Chevelles had their front vent windows replaced with Astro Ventilation, otherwise known as fresh air via dashboard vents. This year, the separate SS 396 series is no longer, converted to an option package but available on any 2-door model. A small number of the now famous Central Office Production Order (COPO) Chevelles find their way to savvy dealers with a massive 7.0-liter, 427 ci V8 making 435 horses and 460 lb-ft of twist. Retired Chevy racer Don Yenko developed his own, special line of COPO variants that are highly sought after today.
Sheet metal revisions, trim level shuffling, and options like a stalk-mounted windshield wiper control ushered in the 1970 Chevelle along with an upscale Concours Estate station wagon. The SS 396 option upped the ante with an optional Cowl Induction powered motor. Producing 375 hp, it used an adjustable front flap to increase air intake under hard acceleration. However, it was overshadowed by the RPO Z15 option for a 454 ci, 7.4-liter brute of a motor. In LS5 form, this 454 made 360 hp, but the LS6 variety with solid lifters and a 4-barrel, 800 CFM carb put down 450 horses and a pavement-shaking 500 lb-ft of torque.
By 1971, insurance companies were up to speed on SS model Chevelles, so Chevrolet introduced the “Heavy Chevy” which was a base Chevelle with few amenities BUT any V8 engine – except the 454. The following year, Chevy’s Chevelle was America’s second-best selling car with a revised twin-bar grille design and a 4-model lineup of wagons. It’s here that GM decrees all engines are to be rated using “net” horsepower versus “gross” ratings. So the top-level SS 396 engine, while still a big block, was only rated at 270 horsepower.
The final Chevelle generation, 1973 to 1977, was marked by a greater degree of federal oversight and the OPEC Oil Embargo. In its most extensive redesign yet, ‘73 Chevelles gained overall length while maintaining the gen-two wheelbase. Much of this was due to the 5-mph front bumper impact mandate from the federal government, which added length front and rear. Federal rollover crash standards also led to the demise of convertible and 4-door hardtop Chevelles. As well, the 2-door hardtop was replaced by the “Colonnade Hardtop” using fixed B-pillars for the required structural integrity.
Upsides to this new generation included 3 ½ more inches of rear seat legroom and a 1 ½” inch increase in shoulder room for sedans. New options included swiveling front bucket seats, a power moonroof and a counterbalanced rear liftgate for easier entry on wagons. Mechanical upgrades like a larger rear axle, revised suspension tuning and standard front disc brakes improved driving dynamics across the Chevelle model lineup.
With the oil embargo wreaking havoc on auto manufacturers, engines in this era of Chevelles weren’t putting out the power they once did. The Super Sport is at this point limited to a trim option on mid-level Malibu’s, however there was an option to drop the 454 ci V8 into a station wagon. Though it was only making 245 hp at this point, that would certainly qualify for Unicorn Status today.
Improvements in vehicle systems continued through the third generation. Unitized 3-point seatbelts, power steering, and catalytic converters were implemented between 1974 and 1977. The Laguna Type S-3 becomes the face of performance for this generation with special trim, firmer suspension, and the optional 7.4-liter, 454 V8. Styling cues like opera windows, spring-loaded hood ornaments, and NASCAR-inspired front ends all come on the scene until the Chevelle finished its storied production in 1977.
While the Malibu nameplate lives on today in the Chevrolet sedan lineup, it has strayed far from its fire-breathing forebears. Fortunately, the real-deal Chevy Chevelle is easily remembered thanks to its regular appearance in movies like Jack Reacher (Fun fact: one of the wild and wooly, red 1970 Chevelles in that movie was fitted with a 540 cubic inch motor!). There is plenty of debate over which generation is best, but thanks to great proportions and huge power, the Chevy Chevelle will always have a place in automotive history.