By Patrick Smith
From the get-go in 1964, Chevelle was an intermediate size superstar. It handled everything from hauling supplies as a station wagon, to showing off in convertible Malibu spec or giving the gears to competitors in SS trim. With the tried and true small block V8 and snarling big block 396, Chevelles were hot and fast. They are excellent cars to enjoy the hobby as they're so adaptable. A fantastic parts supply makes restoring and maintenance easy. If you're looking at the classic Chevy A-body, here are some valuable tips to make sure you get one that's a keeper.
Year to Year Changes: The first generation Chevelle appeared in 1964 as a mid size full chassis car available in sedan, hardtop, convertible and station wagon bodies. A large range of engines from inline six to the 327 V8 was offered. The 1964 model is distinguished by its clean egg crate grille with four headlamps. The 1965 grille has a large horizontal divider joining the headlamp assemblies with a finned grille. This was the first year for a special SS396 Chevelle package.
The 1965 Chevelle has finned grille with center divider and a short, slab sided body.
The 1966 model introduced the second generation Chevelle with a longer svelte body with 'coke bottle' rear quarter panels. For 1966, the SS model has its own grille with black out treatment and 'SS 396' identification in the center. The regular Chevelle used a chromed grille. The 1967 Chevelle grille accentuated the front with broad egg crate styling and a wide bar across the top. The SS model added a badge in the center. From the back, the 1966 Chevelle used rectangular tail lamps while SS models added SS 396 id either in the center or to one side. Cars were made both ways that year. In 1967, the tail lamps had chrome horizontal fins.
The 1967 Malibu grille is chrome while the SS feature black accents.
This 1966 SS model has the offset rear deck logo and features the prominent 'Coke bottle' quarter panels. Car has optional bumper guards.
Engines & Drivetrains: Chevelles were available with everything from a straight six to the larger corporate big block engines as they became available. The preferred engines for collectors break into two distinct groups; the venerable small block V8 for casual hobbyists interested in cruising or car shows and the hairy 396 big blocks for the racing fans and 'investment car' buyers. You will find anything from a 283 to a 350 small block used in many restorations as the original engine may have been swapped out over the years. There were special high performance small blocks made such as the L79 and they rate highly among the cognoscenti, but the majority of novice shoppers are unaware of them. The only true drawback to a 283 is the frequent pairing of the two speed Powerglide transmission which limits performance somewhat. The magazine trade focus is on the 396 engines and these are the most desired powerplants.
Original small block cars are getting tough to find in good condition. This 283 has never been opened up.
Among big blocks, the base 1966 engine was a 325 hp version called L35. The mid level engine was a 350 hp called L34.The next one up was a 360 hp option called L78. In 1965 only the Chevelle SS came with one engine, the Z16 which was rated at 375 hp. For 1967, the 396 power teams remained the same. The transmission played a vital role in performance which is why the manual four speed Muncie is strongly preferred over an automatic. GM released an excellent heavy duty automatic called the TH400 in 1966. It's consistency in drag strip duty makes it almost as desirable as the four speed. Rear differentials also figure prominently in performance. The desired set up is the 12 bolt with Positraction. The very best set up would be a 12 bolt with Positraction, a low gear ratio and a Nodular Iron carrier. These were rare and usually found on cars with a hot engine such as an L78 or L79.
The rarest big block was the L78 360 horsepower SS 396.
Desirable Options: Chevelles were available in base 300, middle 300 Deluxe , luxury Malibu and performance Malibu SS trim. The desirable models are Malibu and SS versions. Generally, the coupe bodies command less money and interest than hardtops and convertibles unless it is a rare high performance V8 powered coupe. A few of these were made. Prior to the full availability of the SS in 1966, the Malibu was the top option and a convertible was the premium model in that series. Aside from the SS package, desirable options include radios, tinted glass, padded dashes and power windows. For 1964-65 era Chevelles, good options to seek include the F40 special suspension, J56 power brakes, wood grained steering wheel, Z04 heavy-duty chassis and your choice of hot small block and four speed transmission. The 1965 SS 396 model was a special, one year only package car that came loaded with goodies including an AM/FM stereo radio and a console, tinted glass and a boxed frame as standard equipment. By 1966 you had to pay extra for the good stuff like stereos, consoles, power windows and a full boxed frame.
Before the SS package was mass produced, a Malibu convertible was top dog. This one has power steering, top, AM radio, tinted glass and automatic transmission.
For 1966-67 era Chevelles, look for power disc brakes, power windows, and F41 suspension. For engines, the hottest big block to get is the L78 360 horsepower job. They are very rare and you'll encounter more backyard conversions than the real deal. It wasn't a regular production option and few were made. Certain colors are very desirable over others. You'll pay a bit more for a factory Black, Lemonwood Yellow, Regal Red or Marina Blue car. Other popular options include the "knee knocker" console mounted tach, pedal dress up, teakwood steering wheel and wheel well trim. Though you see few cars with them today, the simulated mag wheel hubcaps were factory options. Most have been substituted with 1968 or later era Rally Wheels.
Many SS cars were basic, this '67 has pedal dress up, console and clock.
Things to Watch For: Chevelles were another early muscle car favorite and many were restored over twenty years ago. You want to pay attention to the frame on these cars because unless it's a 1965 SS model, the frame will be open channel ladder construction, making the SS cars too flexible for the amount of power available. On four speed big block cars, frame twist damage is possible, especially if drag raced with slicks and no reinforcements added.
The lower control arms are open channel on original cars which allows some flexing under severe loads. Fully boxed lower control arms are a worthwhile upgrade on manual transmission cars. Check for out of round bushings on control arms and rear axle mounts. When it comes to rust damage, the Chevelle has a couple of weak spots. The rear window area joining the trunk lid and sill is known for rust out from water leaks. If the car has a vinyl roof, this area could be in very poor shape underneath. Check the entire parcel tray area from inside the trunk for rust stains and eroded metal. A quickie fix could just mean a spray of primer and paint over a thin layer of bondo. Check it with a magnet and include the speaker and blower motor holes as well.
This is a good time to check for replacement quarter panels as well. A full panel is welded high on the body, the new seam will meet at rear quarter fender tops. You'll have to feel it with your fingers if the trunk splatter paint has been applied because it'll hide a decent welding job. Modern restorations may have complete panels that include the lower B pillar section up to the lead seam area. These can be difficult to detect when installed well. A good check is to slip some envelope stock between the wheel well housing and inner quarter panel. A factory original panel will jam the envelope. Replacement panels often are too loose to do this. Properly done quarter panels aren't cause for concern unless the car is advertised as factory original sheet metal with the price to match.
This desirable black SS's new quarter panels were expertly installed. Check the trunk area carefully for work.
The windshield pillars are of concern on these cars, particularly the bottom corners where they meet the cowl. Rust is very common and so are quickie fixes. You don't want body filler hiding in the corners so check it with a magnet and go underneath the dash with a lamp as well. On convertible cars, the entire windshield frame is weak for rust. Check under the stainless steel header bar on a high dollar car. Replacing the A-pillars is possible, but it's a headache and a lot of money. Open the doors on a convertible car with the top lowered half way down. Both should open and close, no exceptions. You're checking for rocker panel integrity. If the doors give you trouble here, the body has rust in the rocker rail area and is flexing enough to change door alignment.
With the engines, the small block V8 is super reliable and a good one will give years of trouble free service. The 396 is also stout but much rarer. You'll likely encounter a 427 or 454 as a replacement engine on many cars. The main thing you'll be checking is how well it runs and was maintained. If the engine isn't running, have a mechanically inclined friend check it for problems.
The Chevelle four speeds and parts supplies are very good. Be aware that most of the Muncie's you'll see are M20 or M21 variety. Very few M22s were released during the 1966-67 era on Chevelles. You'll likely see Borg Warner T-10s and Saginaw transmissions as well.
Verification: If you're buying a big dollar car such as a convertible, an L78 or L79 model, dig deep as you can into the vehicle. An original car with bill of sale and build sheet is the best kind of verification around but few of them exist. You'll have to compare the cowl tag, VIN number and several engine, transmission and rear axle stampings to determine if it is factory original. Your best bet for partial VIN numbers is on 1967 Chevelles. Prior to that, you'll only have an engine date code to check. The date code is stamped on the top front of the block near the water pump mating surface. The suffix code is below the passenger side cylinder head on a machined pad. It may be missing if the engine was rebuilt.
Serious collectors favor the '67 for styling and better chance of documenting original parts.
The transmissions have several part numbers that determine approximate age of the tail shaft, case and shifter lever cover. Sometimes a partial VIN is found on the mating surfaces of the case and tail shaft. One last place a partial VIN is found is on the firewall at the heater motor inlet. The motor has to be removed along with insulation in most cases. It's of no use on an air conditioned car unless it is stripped.
The rear axles have date codes stamped on the differential housing and application codes on the driver side axle tube facing the floor pans. You can also check the frame for proper date code and some even have partial VINs as well. The driver rear frame rail is stamped on top between the trunk floor and frame. You'll need luck and a dental mirror to find it. This should cover most of the big worries on a rare car and will help you grab that rare Super Sport.