The Chevrolet Chevelle, though unimaginatively named, was the ultimate working stiff’s muscle car. It featured no gaudy graphics, superfluous spoilers or cartoon character mascots. What it did have was conservative styling and an abundance of simple no-nonsense horsepower.
The Chevelle’s 10-year production run perfectly mirrors the rise, pinnacle and fall of the muscle car era. Beginning in 1964 with a modest but respectable package, the Chevelle consistently improved right up to the era’s crescendo in 1970, with the most powerful (rated) factory muscle car to date. After that: the slow fade. The nameplate’s final year of production, 1973, is best left a footnote in muscle car history.
While there were plenty of tuners such as Yenko, Nickey and Baldwin-Motion turning out downright obnoxious (in a good way) examples of the Chevelle, the factory offerings were hardly limp-wristed. Here are my picks for the 5 most desirable of the lot…
5 – 1964 Malibu SS 327 L76
Chevy wasted no time throwing its hat into the burgeoning muscle car fray with its hot new intermediate and the popular SS package. Far and away the best of the new Super Sports was powered by the 365-horse, 327-ci L76 engine from the Corvette. Though the option was officially cancelled prior to the ramp-up of production, a small handful of cars did escape to the wild. The high-winding small block in the lightweight chassis was a rocket ride for the fortunate few.
4 – 1966 Chevelle SS 396 L78
After torturing enthusiasts for a year with the unobtanium Z16, 1966 was the year the big-block Chevelle went mainstream. In fact, starting in ’66, the only engine available in the Super Sport was a Mark IV big-block. If you desired the fuel economy of a small block in your Chevelle, the SS was definitely not for you. Top dog for 1966 was the L78 396-ci mill. Again rated at 375 horsepower, but much more available than the Z16, this is the Chevelle that firmly entrenched the Chevelle in muscle car yore.
3 – 1965 Malibu SS 396 Z16
Chevelle fans didn’t have to wait long for the new Mark IV big-block to arrive. Known to enthusiasts by its Regular Production Option (RPO) code of Z16, the first big-block Chevelle was an ultra-desirable combination that was ultra-difficult to acquire. Just 200 hardtops and a single convertible were produced. The vast majority of these were pre-allocated to handpicked journalists and celebrities, while the real die-hards were left swinging. The Z16’s L37 “Mystery Motor” fairly bristled with 375 horsepower while leaving the public clamoring for more.
2 – 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS6
At long last, GM finally dropped the silly displacement cap on their intermediates for the 1970 model year. With the floodgates suddenly thrown wide open, Chevy engineers must have been rubbing their hands together in equal parts glee and anticipation. They quickly dropped their brand-new 454 cubic inch engine between the 1970 Chevelle’s freshly redesigned fenders. With a chuckle, they underrated the LS6 at a mere 450 horsepower. In doing so, they created a legend.
1 – 1969 Chevelle COPO 9562
The COPO Chevelle is likely the most powerful, most sought-after Chevelle that most people have never heard of. COPO is the acronym for Central Office Production Order. In short, it was a way for knowledgeable dealers to sidestep the 400-cube limit and build a 425-horse (wink, wink) 427 cubic inch Chevelle. While approximately a third of those produced were destined for modification at Yenko, the remainder were turned loose as-is. Devoid of SS badging, this street sweeper would clean the clock of the guy in the cartoon car before he knew what hit him.
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