Intermediate-sized cars were the poor cousins of the automotive market in the mid 1960s. They merely filled the void left between compacts (Falcon, Corvair, Valiant) and full-sized cars like Galaxie, Impala, and the rest. The Big Three had reasonably good offerings in the mid-size segment but performance was a back-burner phenomenon.
All that changed with the introduction of the GTO, of course, and Ford and Chrysler struggled to get out competitors to the Pontiac supercar as quickly as they could. The Fairlanes got bigger engine options and Chrysler worked hard to finish the Charger. Meanwhile, at GM's other divisions things were heating up.
Oldsmobile cranked out some 442's and even stodgy Buick tricked up some Specials, but Chevrolet was still building thousands of Chevelles with modest engine choices of a base six or optional 283 V8 with 220 horsepower. Those in the know could buy aftermarket goodies, of course, and a number of 327/350+ engines were stuffed into Chevelles by their owners. This didn't go unnoticed by Chevrolet executives.
They wanted to offer something equivalent to — or better than — the GTO but it wasn't as easy as it looked. They only had two choices: a Corvette-tuned 327 or the now long-in-the-tooth 409 from the big sedans. Neither was a workable solution, so the marketers had to wait until Chevrolet's new big-block engine was ready.
The 1965 model year proved to be the one that would show off the new 396 cubic-inch MarkIV engine for Chevrolet. It could easily pump out 375 horsepower and well over 400 lb-ft of torque, the perfect solution for the newly-offered Chevelle Malibu SS 396 models. It could blow the doors off a GTO.
Very few people initially purchased the SS 396 option in 1965. The reason was poor marketing. That is, the option added over $1500 to the base price of $2650, which was a heck of a lot of money in those days. What happened next was that buyers would simply go over to the Pontiac dealer and get a GTO for less money. Only 201 SS 396 cars were produced.
The 1966 model year saw a drastic reduction in the option price for the SS 396 and lots of buyers flocked to dealerships to get behind the wheel of the sedan equivalent of a Corvette. Of course, the car had drum brakes borrowed from the Impala and a live rear axle, so handling wasn't the strong suit. However, in a straight line the car could rocket to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds and do a standing quarter mile in 15.2 seconds at 96 mph.
Top speeds were recorded at 135 mph, although design engineers said that with proper gearing and suspension mods the car could hit 160. No thanks. Fuel mileage was about as expected for big engines of the day, with city mpg of 10 and highway 15. Gas was only about 31 cents per gallon, though.
Since so few 1965 SS 396 Chevelles were made, prices for them are astounding. Fully-restored 4-speed models go for $100,000 and even a basket case original will cost you over $25,000. 1966 versions go for half those amounts in show condition and restorable examples can be had for a few thousand dollars.
My, how times have changed.