Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu SS
In 1964 Chevrolet built approximately 12 Chevelles with 265 horsepower 327-cubic-inch Corvette engines. Dealers sold these cars for $900 over their sticker price, indicating a strong demand for high-powered Chevelles. In 1965 Chevrolet borrowed the 350 horsepower 327-cubic-inch V8, one of the strongest small-blocks in its stable, from the Corvette.
Regular Production Option (RPO) L79 (as the engine was known internally) used a Holley four-barrel carburetor, big-valve heads 11.0:1 compression, and, surprisingly, hydraulic lifters to produce a whopping 360 ft-lb of torque. When the power was transmitted thorugh a 3.70:1 rear end, the tires proved the limiting factor in getting good quarter-mile times.
The 6,021 Chevelles equipped with RPO L79 in 1965 made great street racers, but Pontiac's GTO had created the archetype for the muscle car; a big engine in a midsized car. To compete, Chevrolet needed a bigger power plant, something Chevy designers had been toying with for some time. As early as 1963, Vince Piggins, who headed up the development of Chevrolet's performance products, had begun working on a Chevelle with a version of the Mark II racing engine that had effectively been killed when GM banned corporate involvement in racing. When GM raised the displacement limit for the A-body cars to 400 cubic inches, Piggins' team had its design ready, and in February 1965, Chevrolet unveiled a version of the Chevelle that was a true muscle car.
The car, the Malibu SS 396, equipped with what Chevrolet coded the Z16 package, contained everything needed to make baby boomers salivate. Designed as a luxury-performance car, the Z16 Malibu featured every creature comfort on Chevrolet's option list: clock, tachometer, 160-miles-per-hour speedometer, four-speaker AM/FM stereo. But the feature that really triggered the Pavlovian responses of younger buyers lurked under the hood: a street going version of the infamous big-block Mark II mystery motors. The 396-cubic-inch engine, which pumped out a class-leading 375 horsepower, retained all the best high-performance bits of the race-only engine, right down to the high-tech "porcupine" heads, so named because of the staggered arrangement of the valves.
Unfortunately, the Z16 version of the Malibu SS 396 was expensive - the price topped $4,100 - and exclusive. Chevrolet built just 201 examples, making the model one of the rarest muscle cars of the era. Volume production of Chevelles equipped with 396-cubic-inch big-block engines would not commence until a restyled version of the car debuted for the 1966 model year.
Beginning with the ultra-low volume Z16 package of 1965. Chevy had developed a reputation for high performance that translated into sold cars. When it restyled the Chevelle for 1966, it introduced a new model: the SS396. As the name implies, the 396-cubic-inch version of the Mark IV big-block became the standard engine for the SS model. Chevrolet offered the 396 in three states of tune for 1966. The base engine for this car was the 325 horsepower L35, and an optional 360 horsepower L34 version, new for 1966, was available. The 375 horsepower L37 engine from the Z16 of 1965 didn't make the option list in 1966. The 1966 Chevelle SS396 received a stiffer suspension to cope with the added weight and power, and to help tame the A-bodied cars' tendency to understeer in corners.
In the spring of 1966 Chevrolet released another optional engine, the L78. With a bump in compression, solid lifters, and the big-valve cyclinder heads off of the Corvette's 427-cubic-inch engine, the L78 generated 375 horsepower. A good selection of engines combined with the lowest base price of any of GMs A-bodied muscle cars helped Chevrolet sell 72,272 Chevelle SS396 models for 1966. Only 3,099 of those left the factory with the L78 engine.
The only major change to the SS396 for 1967 was a decrease in the horsepower rating for the optional L34 engine, the most popular power plant in the SS396 stable. In 1966, GM had changed the 10-pounds-per-cubic-inch rule to 10-pounds-per-horsepower. Instead of messing with the engine of one of its most popular models. Chevrolet simply changed the horsepower rating of the L34 from 360 to 350, which, when mounted in the 3,500-pound Chevelle SS396, skirted under the corporate limit. The 375-horsepower L78 disappeared from the regular production list entirely.
The base engine in the 1968 Chevelle SS396 was the 325-horsepower version of the Mark IV 396. While this made the standard SS396 a fast car, it was a bit underpowered compared to the engines offered by the competition.
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