By 1969, the tumultuous ’60s were in full rage mode. Riots were tearing major cities apart and there was political and social unrest. Crime was up and auto theft was not exempt for the trouble.
The baby boomers generation was raised on rock and roll. They loved their cars and aftermarket underdash FM converters and eight-track players were becoming popular accessories. And if the car owners liked them, well, so did thieves.
At the same time, air conditioning—once reserved for more expensive vehicles—was becoming increasingly more commonplace on low- and mid-priced models.
This one-two-punch doomed the convertible as the ’60s turned to the ’70s. While once upon a time all cars had folding tops, by the latter part of the ’60s, they were becoming far less attractive to prospective buyers. They were easier to break into, and vandals found slicing tops with a knife to be amusing. By 1970, Corvette coupe sales outpaced those of the roadster for the first time.
By 1976, only the Cadillac Eldorado and a couple of Jeeps remained with canvas roofs. Those looking to get their open-air fix were more inclined to order sunroofs, which were expensive but considered a rather trick compromise. Once Smokey and the Bandit hit the big screen in ’77, T-tops were all the rage, and no one seemed to care if anyone ever made a legit drop-top again.
When Michael Merlo’s ’69 Chevelle SS396 was built, the muscle car era was reaching its zenith. Convertibles and high-performance typically didn’t go well together. The beefier convertible frames added weight, and NHRA rules frowned upon soft-top vehicles making sub-15-second passes without rollbars. Still, if you wanted the sun in your face, the wind in your hair and unsurpassed style, you’d be hard pressed to improve upon a LeMans blue A-body convertible with Rat power.
Michael bought this car off the floor at RK Motors in Charlotte, North Carolina, right around Christmas 2011. It was a five-year-old restoration and just what he’d been looking for. He had a ’69 Chevelle convertible with factory air after high school and really loved it, but sold it about 15 years earlier to help finance his new business venture. Though the car was gone, it was never far from his heart.
With the success of his business providing the means, he started looking for just the right Chevelle convertible to replace his lost love. RK Motors Charlotte had this beauty listed on its website (and in its showroom). The SS396 had been the recipient of a $125,000 restoration and pretty much had every option available: Power windows, top and door locks, Four Season air conditioning, center console, power disc brakes, F40 heavy-duty suspension, 3.55 Posi, tilt (wood simulated) steering wheel, chambered exhaust and the light group.
From a luxury standpoint, the only thing really missing is an automatic transmission. For many, this is not an option that would be missed. Michael’s Chevelle boasts the wide-ratio M20 four-speed manual gearbox.
“After convincing my wife that I really was interested in the car, she agreed to let me fly up to Charlotte to see it in person,” Michael, tells us. “I bought a plane ticket the same day and went up and was quite pleased with what I saw. The car was 90-percent the perfect Chevelle, and I knew going in that I would need to do a little more work to make this Chevelle my perfect car.”
By Christmas ’11, the 325-horse Chevelle was his. An old friend, Frank Tetro of Harbor Auto Resotations inspected the car after he took delivery and agreed it was a solid, matching-number, and date-coded-correct vehicle. With the help of Frank’s brother Billy and son, Frank Jr., the engine compartment, undercarriage and drivetrain were returned to showroom condition. A new convertible top was, figuratively, the icing on the cake.
I knew going in that I would need to do a little more work to make this Chevelle my perfect car.
We have to admit, it was the color combo that really knocked our editorial socks off. Does it get any better than LeMans blue with Parchment interior and a white roof? The power locks and tilt wheel are the icing on the cake. A factory AM-FM provides the tunes. It’s won numerous awards, including an Editor’s Choice Pick at Super Chevy Palm Beach last year and the Best Chevy award at National Parts Depot’s Oktoberfest the same year.
“My plans are to enjoy my dream car with my wife, Cathy, my son, Sonny, win a few trophies, turn some heads, then drive this near 1,000-point car down to about 700,” Michael says.
That’s a plan we can certainly endorse.