The muscle car era, for most enthusiasts, dawned in 1964 when Pontiac introduced the $295 GTO package for the midsized Tempest. It featured a 389ci V-8 with 325 hp. Pontiac Division Sales Manager Frank Bridge, in an effort to get the package past senior GM management (whose edict limited A-Body intermediates to engines no bigger than 330 inches), predicted sales of just 5,000 units. Bridge underestimated demand by just a bit! Pontiac sold 32,450 GTOs for 1964. Given the GTO's initial success, other GM divisions scrambled to react. Oldsmobile was the first with the 4-4-2 package for the Cutlass, introduced later in the 1964 model year.
Chevrolet's response came in 1965 with the Z-16 package for the Chevelle. The package featured the 396ci Mark IV big-block engine, which used big-port heads for better breathing. With a Holley four-barrel carb on an aluminum intake and a high-lift hydraulic cam, it produced 375 hp. Just 201 were produced, including this Regal Red model, owned by Frank and Laura Rodrigues of St. Helena, California.
Like many owners of classic muscle cars, Frank caught the car bug very young. "I remember going to the dealer with my dad when the new models would come out," he tells us. "Back then it was a big deal. The searchlights, champagne, food, and all the giveaways. We would move from one dealership to another to see all the new models."
The story of this Z-16 Chevelle SS is best told in Frank's own words. He says, "In high school I used to walk by a 1965 Chevelle SS every day. One day it had a for-sale sign on it, and I asked my dad if I could buy it. He answered, 'No way,' as it was for sale for $1,600 and he added, 'What, are you crazy?' I loved that car. So I guess that's when the Chevelle thing started. I figured if I'm going to get one, I might as well try to find the best one made. I got connected with Chris Daniels and started searching. We looked at few and really didn't like what we were seeing. They all needed something, and they were a lot of money."
Eventually Frank zeroed in on a candidate. "I'd been talking to [then-owner] Jerry Huffman for about two years prior to purchasing the car. It needed a total restoration, and I wasn't sure I was up for that at the time. So I called Chris Daniels and my body and paint guy Chip Strnad, to see if they were up for a road trip to Farmington, Illinois."
The three of them rendezvoused in Denver before finishing the trip to Farmington. "I had never met Chris in person until Denver that day," Frank recalls. "Talked for years on the phone but not in person."
There were only 201 Chevelles built with the RPO Z-16 option, Frank explains. "All in Kansas, and all were built in a three-month period between February and April 1965. They were made in in three colors: Tuxedo Black, Regal Red, and Crocus Yellow."
Further research told Frank this car's story. "It was sold new from Yingling Chevrolet in Wichita, Kansas," he says. "We think it might have been a dealer car because it had an underdash Frigidaire air conditioning unit in it. The owner history dates go back to the early 1970s. First known owner was a lady who drove it back and forth to the dry cleaners where she worked. Her son also drove it for a while, and that's when automotive author and historian Terry Boyce purchased it. It changed hands a few more times in the Z-16 circle of owners, then Jerry Huffman purchased it in the mid 1980s. It sat in his shop in the corner while he started putting together a lot of N.O.S. and correct parts needed to restore the car."
To Frank, you can always gauge a car purchase "by the expression on your wife's face the first time she sees it." And with the Z-16? "Well to put it mildly, I knew our work was cut out for us."
Now the fun begins. Sorting, labeling, boxing, and trying to figure who to send what to. "Laura and I did most of the disassembly. The body was put on a rotisserie and delivered to Chip Strnad's shop to start body and paint. One of the hardest parts of the paint process was color match since all the products had changed so much. We were lucky to be able to use the underside of the cowl, which still had the original paint, and it worked out perfectly. Chip certainly lived up to the challenge."
The chassis was taken completely apart, stripped, powdercoated, and delivered to Chris Daniels, where all the assembly was going to take place. All the chrome was done by New Age Metal Finishing in Fresno, California. All the aluminum and stainless trim was sent to Shilling Metal Polishing in Santa Ana, California. Brake booster and anodizing were sent to Steve Gregori in Sanger, California. "There are so many more that it would take days to list them all," Frank says, "but they all lived up to our expectations."
The day of our photo shoot was essentially the car's maiden voyage. Frank relates what it was like to drive the car for the first time: "Lots of excitement, pride, and a lot of anxiety. I was lucky enough to have my daughter at the house the day we did the photo shoot for moral support, because Laura was working out of town. The car only had six very short test miles on it. I just wasn't sure what to expect, but all went well. We put 50 miles on it that day, and it performed well."
Our first encounter with Frank's car was at the 2017 San Marino Motor Classic ("Huge Muscle Car Turnout", Nov. 2017), where it won First in Class in an ultracompetitive field. Prior to that appearance, the car received Best in Class and Overall Best Restoration awards at the Sacramento Autorama.
When we asked Frank what he thought was the car's best attribute, he said, "It's hard to say one thing. A lot of people don't realize that the big-block 396 is just the tip of the iceberg in the RPO Z-16 option. So many components make up the package. It starts with a boxed convertible chassis, a 3.31:1 open rearend with large, 11-inch brakes, large sway bars, quick-ratio steering, special front spindles, a larger radiator, a dual-snorkel air cleaner, a 160-mph speedometer, and the list goes on."
As for the car's restoration, what impressed Frank most was the time spent on the smallest of details. He says, "That's Chris's strong point, making sure we had all the little things even if you couldn't see them. It wasn't just about being pretty. It had to be right. I spent endless hours chasing parts all over the country to make it right. In the process I talked to many people that I eventually met at the Z-16 reunion at the 2015 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals in Chicago. We showed the car there without the front clip, with the restoration in progress. "
Next stop for the Z-16 is at the 2018 Grand National Roadster Show, part of the American Muscle Car Gathering. After that, Frank and Laura will try to take time to enjoy what they have been able to accomplish.
Frank wants to thank three very special people: his wife Laura, who encouraged him to pursue his automotive passions; and Chris Daniels and Chip Strnad, who Frank feels worked as hard as they could to make this project turn out the best it could be.
At a Glance
1965 Chevelle Z-16
Restored by: Chris Daniels and Chip Strnad
Engine: 396ci/375hp L37 V-8
Transmission: Muncie M20 wide-ratio 4-speed manual
Rearend: Open differential with 3.31 gears
Interior: 2-tone red vinyl Strato-back bucket seat
Wheels: 14x6 factory steel with Kelsey-Hayes simulated mag-style covers
Tires: 7.75 x 14 Firestone Deluxe Champion nylon gold stripe