Classic Car Buyer's Guide: 1968-1972 Chevelles
By Patrick Smith
General Motor's most popular A-body hit the ionosphere in 1968 with a dazzling restyle that emphasized Coke bottle quarter panels, power domed hoods, and rocket ship speed with their potent V8 engines. Chevelle rode the crest all the way to the end in 1972 with smart updates of the shell. Today it ranks as a bona fide classic with serious collectors and casual enthusiasts alike seeking one to add to the garage. The market deflated in 2008 and remained flat until 2011. There's no better time to pick up a Chevelle before prices rise again. We present the guide you need to score a hot Chevy without getting burned.
Chevelle Year by Year
1968 was the first year of the restyled Chevelle series. The car was available in coupe, hardtop, convertible and station wagon bodies including four doors. The range started at the 300 base model coupe, Malibu took mid level while Super Sport became the top trim with its own series enshrined that year with a code within the vehicle identification number. The grille was fine egg crate mesh in silver for the Malibu while the SS model was blacked out and featured the SS emblem in the center. For 1969, the Chevelle was merely cleaned up by removing the vent windows on all models except the stripper 300 and station wagons. The grille was given a large horizontal center bar with Chevrolet emblem in the middle. The SS grille was blacked out except for the center bar while an SS emblem took center stage. 1969 tail lamps were squared off and remained at the end of the deck lid. 1970 was a major revision of the body with brand new grille, deck lid, fenders and roof line. A fine horizontal finned grille was split in two layers with a Chevrolet emblem in the middle. The grille was blacked out for the SS and given an SS badge in the center. The rear bumper featured square finned tail lamps and a special black rubber strip with the SS logo was added for Super Sport models.
The 68 Chevelle SS is favored for its vent windows and emission control free power.
The 69 Chevelle is similar but has no vent windows and different tail lamps.
By 1970 the grille is split in two and the roofline is different.
The 1971 Chevelle had a simpler one piece finned grille and went back to two headlamps. The bumper was new with twin circular tail lamps. For 1972, the front parking lamp lenses were the major clue to the car's identity. 1972 Chevelles had solid signal lenses while 1971 lenses were one split lenses. Otherwise they looked identical to the 1971 model at first glance.
The only visible difference between 71 and this 72 are the solid turn signal housings.
Engines and Drive trains
The 1968 cars offered V8s in 307, 327, 350 and 396 cubic inch displacements. The inline six engines were available in 230 and 250cubic inch displacements. The transmissions included the Powerglide two speed automatic, a TH350 automatic and TH400 automatic were offered for the big 396 engine. The manual transmissions included a three speed, with four speeds by Muncie or Saginaw optional. Starting in 1970, the 396 engine was increased to 402 inches but the decals remained as 396 to keep the image intact. A new big bore V8 engine debuted with 454 cubic inches and became the top engine.
The 454 debuted in 1970 in hydraulic and solid LS-6 cam models.
When it comes to rear axles, GM offered a ten bolt 8.5 inch carrier and for heavy duty performance mills, a 12-bolt Chevrolet made carrier was supplied. Both were more than adequate for stock performance at the time.
Desirable Options & Trim
In every model year, the Super Sport trim is highly favored among muscle car fans. The Malibu trim is also a strong contender especially in V8 form. Certain packages were made only a few years and are getting a lot of attention nowadays. This includes the "Heavy Chevy" package in 1972 which was an insurance beater Chevelle minus the SS emblems. These are getting serious attention since by 1972, the SS package included the 350 V8 engine for the first time, diluting the raw power image of the SS. Heavy Chevy is very similar to the SS yet sells for less and is rarer. Any convertible Chevelle is a desirable car and certain ones are scarce such as 1969 and 1972 SS models.
It should be mentioned that the entry level 300 Deluxe cars are popular among retro drag racing fans for their light weight and favorable class ratings in NHRA events. It was possible to get a 396 engine built for a limited time, the 1969 model is a notable example of this. If the 300 series in question is just an inline six car, the price will be cheap. It's the factory V8 powered ones that are commanding higher prices. The 300 series are notable for their post body construction and taxi cab economy interiors. They are the only 1969 Chevelles made with vent panes other than the station wagons. The two door station wagons are popular with fans who haul a lot of gear. Even the four door wagons are getting attention. So many have been gutted for parts over the last 20 years that finding one nicely equipped in restorable shape is difficult. The days of parting one out for their 12-bolt axle, heavy duty transmission and V8 engine are gone unless it has terminal rust.
When it comes to desirable options, the obvious ones include air conditioning, power disc brakes, variable ratio power steering, custom interior with bucket seats and full rally gauge instrumentation. The top performance engine was the L78 375 hp 396 which was available in limited quantities until the end of 1970. The top 454 engine was the LS-6 450 hp, which was available for 1970 only. From 1971 onwards, only LS-5 was available and is the most desirable big block. The Muncie M22 Rock Crusher transmission is the most desirable performance 4 speed. The TH400 is usually paired to high performance engines like the 454 or 1968 396. Otherwise a TH350 or Powerglide was used. In order of preference, automatic transmission choices are TH400, TH350, then Powerglide. Rare options included K66 transistorized ignition, L89 aluminum heads, rear window defroster, AM/FM stereo, 8 track player, cowl induction hood, heavy duty boxed frame (for non convertible cars), limited slip differential.
The hottest 396 was the solid cam L78 available from 1968-1970.
What to Watch For
Chevelles have been hot rodding favorites ever since they were new. It's safe to assume half the V8 Malibu cars you'll encounter will be modified. The SS models have been heavily saturated by media coverage as valuable icons of Detroit's muscle car era. Plenty of those models have been restored the last twenty years. There are a few things to look out for when eying a potential buy. From the 1968 to 1972 era, Chevelles used open channel frames with swaged side rails for extra rigidity. These cars were a bit too flexible when a big bore manual transmission V8 was installed. Frame twisting is common with drag raced examples especially if unreinforced. Check the rear control arm to frame mounts and control arm to rear axle mounts for worn out or stretched bushings, broken collars, out of round eyelets. They're signs the car led a hard life and will need work, if not chassis alignment.
The front frame horns will display accident damage repairs from front end collisions. It's possible to line up sheet metal to fit properly and still have bent frame horns. Look at the first few feet near the steering box and front sway bar mounting areas. Check it with a magnet if you suspect putty was used to smooth out a repaired frame. Check the inner side rails for rust out or crumbling metal. These rails hold moisture easily. If the frame looks good, turn your attention to the body mounts next to the toe boards on the lower firewall. Rust often forms there due to water retention. The boxed structure for the frame mounts may be rusty and cause flexing under acceleration. Really poor examples are missing the rubber frame separators leaving the frame to chassis bolts unprotected. These faults are repairable, but should be considered when negotiating a price.
Floor pans can rust but the model isn't known for weaknesses in that area. The entire trunk floor is a rot spot however, due to water leaks from poor sealing rear windows. Check the underside of the trunk lid hinge area for rust and water stains. If the car has a vinyl top option, you are almost guaranteed rust formation under the vinyl between the rear window and the trunk. The filler panel is notorious for disappearing. Replacement panels are available but the labor involved is going to cost if you can't repair it yourself. The trunk floor is commonly rusted out. The worst spots are the inner rear wheel wells and lower quarter panels.
The rear window filler panel to trunk floor area is rust prone especially on a vinyl roof car.
Vinyl roofs can also cause windshield pillar rust. While repairable, it may be more sensible to consider a different car if the rust is bad. A true SS model is worth grafting new pillars on. You should check the metal part of the dash board carefully as well. Rust tends to form in the corners of the windshield. Visible, flaking rust usually winds up requiring patch panels at the very least and the windshield has to come out to do it right. While we're on the subject, checking the entire windshield frame on a convertible is important as the header bar is a cap concealing metal underneath. If you see bumps and lumps under the header panel of a convertible, take time to unscrew the stainless steel trim and look under it. Some cars don't have a stainless steel cap, instead it'll be black or coated metal. Severe rust in this area is structural damage and will cost plenty to repair. It will eliminate most non SS cars for restoration due to expenses.
An SS convertible is worth saving from A-pillar rust but you'd be wise to seek another car if it's just an ordinary Malibu.
Documenting & Verification
Documenting a Chevelle is more work than a Mopar or Pontiac. In an ideal world, you'd find a car with the original sales contract and Protect-0-Plate still with the vehicle and a build sheet tucked away in the back seat. During the 1968-1971 era, the SS was a separate series and had its own interior. The dashboard had gauges instead of a strip speedometer and warning lights and SS badging on the door panels. Many cars have been swapped over using Monte Carlo dashboards so don't rely on this alone. Most cars won't have these primary documents of authenticity. If the car has been through a lot of owners, you'll have to check the drive train and cowl tag for matching numbers. Starting in 1969, partial VINs were recorded on the engine and transmissions of GM cars for police usage in theft recovery programs. Even a few 1968 cars have partial VINs on both units. The body was stamped as well. With the engine block, look for a machined pad below the passenger side cylinder head near the water pump. A stamped letter/number combination reveals the engine plant, date of assembly and a suffix code indicating intended usage of that engine. A six digit partial VIN will appear on the same pad near the engine assembly date. At the rear of the block beside the distributor access hole will be a cast two digit year code and day/month casting. This gives you the year, month and date the block was actually cast. Machining and final usage assembly occurred later and is marked on the front pad.
True SS cars had the performance gauges and SS door badges but don't rely on them for identification. It's easy to swap a Monte Carlo gauge set and door panels are reproduced.
The TH400 transmission has a metal tag code which listed the application and underneath a stamping indicating date of assembly. A partial VIN appears on the oil pan rail on driver side of transmission case. The Muncie four speed has a partial VIN stamped vertically on the gear case on the right side of the transmission. Sometimes the VIN is on the rear driveshaft case right along the parting edge between gear case and rear driveshaft housing. If you have one of the rare heavy-duty three speed transmissions, the partial VIN is on a raised pad at the top of the case.
The body can be confirmed by checking for a partial VIN stamping on the firewall under the heater blower motor housing. A quick and dirty check for in the field use is pulling the cowl shield grating out and inspecting the underside of the metal dashboard area for tampered with rivet mounts where the VIN tag is. Useful for 1970 and later cars only. A 1968 serial number is on the inside of the driver door A-pillar. The rear axle has no partial VIN but it can be checked for proper usage code and gear ratio. On some models like an LS-6 454, it helps confirm authenticity because certain pieces have to be present. 12-bolt Chevrolet built rear axles with upper and lower control arms were used on that model only.
Starting in 1972, Chevelle SS was no longer a separate model and could be ordered with a 350 small block if desired. Fortunately, 1972 was the year you could check what engine the car had by using the VIN. The fifth digit gave you the engine displacement code. Prior to 1972, the cowl tag only told you if the body was coded as a Malibu 6 or 8 cylinder and the VIN told you nothing about the engine. Another sign of big block option was the use of frame stiffeners in the front frame horns. Sadly, these and many other parts are readily available as reproduction pieces. Barring original documentation, your only line of defence from fraud is complete chassis and drive train inspection.
Speaking of which, there is a serial number on the frame of Chevelles. This number appears in a couple of places depending on the year but most often they're located on the driver side rail on the top just beneath the door or on the rear frame rail stamped on top or on the side facing the quarter panel. A dental mirror and some degreaser is necessary to see them. Most often you'll have no luck reading them unless the frame cleans up very well. This number is most often documented during restorations with a photograph. Following the guide will help you pick the Super Sport from a Super Swindle.