“Two for the road and one more for the load” is how Motor Trend’s Robert Schilling characterized the two Chevelle SS hardtops and an El Camino—all 396-powered—he tested for the magazine’s July 1967 issue. Judging by the car’s specs alone, this looked like it would be a pretty clear good-better-best comparison, but his comments seemed to point in another direction.
Not all three cars were in his hands at the same time. In March, he drove the first Chevelle, which was equipped with a 325hp engine, column-shifted two-speed Powerglide automatic, and 3.07 rearend gears. A month later the Elco and second Chevelle arrived. The Camino was also L35 powered, but it had a floor-shifted three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic automatic and 2.73 gears. The hot rod of the bunch was the second Chevelle, with a 375hp L78 V-8, four-speed manual, 3.73 gears, and a factory tach mounted on the left side of the dash. The two Chevelles rolled on F70-14 Goodyear Wide Ovals, while the non-SS El Camino was shod with standard-issue 7.75x14 bias-plies.
As you’d expect, the acceleration tests favored the L78. Its 6.5-second 0-60 time was a full second faster than the other Chevelle, and nine-tenths faster than the El Camino. Likewise, the L78 car ran the quarter in 14.9 seconds at 96.5 mph, compared to 15.9 at 89.5 for the L35 and 15.7 at 90 for the Camino. The differences between the Chevelles might have been even greater had the weather cooperated; while he had a totally dry track for the first car’s test, Schilling ran the second pair after a full week of April showers. “The strip was reasonably clear (meaning none of the puddles was deep enough to drown in), but there was still some moisture to cause wheelspin,” he wrote.
Dragstrip performance, though, is just one aspect of a car’s behavior. As Schilling ticked off other benchmarks of the comparison test, he seemed to favor the El Camino over the Chevelles. Its fuel economy was the best of the three, likely due in part to its tall rear gear. Its ride and handling, even with an empty bed, were “excellent,” making the El Camino “as satisfactory a transportation vehicle as any of the three and in some ways better than the SS 396s”—a lack of rear seats notwithstanding. He definitely preferred the Turbo-Hydro trans over even the four-speed, calling it “the most impressive transmission with a very reassuring kickdown for passing that could be timed so that it had the car really moving just in the instant we had to commit ourselves to the other side of the road.”
Schilling did admit, “We’d have probably enjoyed the four-speed more if the stick hadn’t jammed our thumb against the edge of the seat every time we grabbed 2nd. We finally learned to hold the chrome shift knob differently; however, that shouldn’t be necessary.”
He also hated the placement of the tach in that car. It was hidden by his hand when he was holding the wheel in the “quarter-to-three position.” And it obscured the gas gauge, “which nearly resulted in a very embarrassing moment on the expressway during rush hour.”
Despite liking so much about it, Schilling did have a big issue with the El Camino: Its brakes. During stopping tests from 60 mph, “we thought we’d bought the whole ranch as the light rear end kept trying to pass the heavy front end. Some tip-toeing, worthy of Fred Astaire, kept us from spinning, but each time we tried the brakes again, the back-end locked up and tried to go one way or the other, but not straight.” He had no trouble with the Camino’s brakes on the trip home from the dragstrip, “but we were more than usually alert for perilous situations before we got close to them.”
In the end, Schilling did not name the El Camino as the best of the three, though we didn’t have to read too closely between the lines to guess as much. Instead, he praised all three for their gutsy powerplants: “Power, or the lack of it, is usually the most obvious feature of a car outside of looks, and these Chevelles were no exception. In all of them, something really happens when the loud pedal is applied.” And in the end, he left the choice to the readers: “If you dig power along with posh you can pay your money and take your choice of the 396 Chevelles.”
Photos by Randy Holt, Gerry Stiles, Al Swett, and courtesy of the Petersen Publishing Archives