When baby boomers born in the 1950s got their driver's licenses, many of them wanted a 1957 Chevy. Nothing represented "cool" better than a '57, regardless if it was a top of the line Bel Air, a Nomad or a humble 210. They were cheap, easy to work on, and there was nothing to dropping a 327 in place of a tired Stovebolt or an anemic 283. Add a Duntov cam and lifters, bolt on a four-barrel carb and intake, and a set of headers to make that '57 would howl. Ripping the bolt action three-speed off the column in favor of a Hurst floor shifter, adding a set of Cragars and a radio, and cruising Main Street on Saturday night looking for some stop light action was as good as it got.
Those born 10 years later found their own version of the '57 Chevy. It also wore a bow tie, but came in a more potent package. It was the 1966 SS396 Chevelle, and over the years it has become America's favorite musclecar. After all, wasn't it all about "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet"?
Like the '57 Chevy, a used '66 SS396 was inexpensive (the base price for a new SS396 was just $2,276 for the coupe). They were plentiful; Chevrolet built 66,843 SS396 hardtops and 5,429 convertibles (which base priced at $2,964). And they were powerful. The standard engine was the L35 325hp 396-cid engine. Two other 396s were offered that year, the L34 396 that produced 360 hp and the iron-head L78, rated at 375 hp and a bargain at just $236.
Countless numbers of Chevy gear heads cut their teeth on a second-hand '66 SS396. By the time these cars were hitting used car lots, many had been unmercifully beat on by their first owners. That didn't matter to a 16 year old with enough bread to buy a tired SS396. To him, it was a diamond in the rough, and he had already planned a hundred different ways to build it. The big-block was a ready-made powerhouse that lent itself to modification. The fact it had lousy gas mileage wasn't important; at 24.9 cents a gallon, you could cruise all night on $5 of gas.
Since most SS396s were equipped with the 325hp base engine, the first thing that went in the trash was the black single snorkel air cleaner in favor of an open element with chrome lid. The Rochester Q-Jet also went south, replaced by a huge Holley jug. When the budget allowed, a set of headers and pipes were next. Crane cut a lot of different cam grinds, and your choice wasn't determined as much technically as you just liked the "rumpity rump" sound of a high-lift cam.
Finally, a set of wide Mickey Thompsons on the rear with chrome reverse wheels all around were essential for street racing. To clear the big M/T meats, a set of air shocks was required. That gave your SS396 a mean rake. It wasn't very sophisticated, and you took a serious bounce over speed bumps, but the Mickeys could really hook up.
The 396 engine had been released in mid-1965 to replace the old "W" head 409. The bottom end was beefy, and, with a bore and stroke of 4.094x3.76, it had gobs of torque way past its peak of 410 lb-ft at 3200 rpm. The base L35 had drop-forged steel rods and a cast nodular crankshaft. The heads sported 2.06-inch intake and 1.715-inch exhaust valves with 1.70 rockers and a hydraulic camshaft ground with 322* of intake and exhaust and an overlap of 95*. Because of the valve's splayed position in the head, the 396 was nicknamed the "Porcupine." That unusual valve arrangement positioned the intake valves at a 26* angle to the bore, while the exhaust angle was 17*. This provided better gas flow, since the ports benefited from a larger radius turn and were not siamesed. Either a Holley four-barrel or the new Rochester Quadra-Jet was mounted on a cast-iron intake manifold.
The introduction of the 396 placed Chevrolet right in the thick of the growing musclecar wars, however it was only available in the big Chevy and the Corvette. Chevelle fans eager to get their hands on a 396 to go GTO hunting would have to wait. To showcase what was coming for 1966, Chevrolet dropped the 396 into a specially equipped 1965 Chevelle and named it the Z16. Officially designated the "Chevelle Special Equipment Option," the Z16 was powered by a 375hp version of the 396. Unmodified, the Z16 could run the quarter in the high 14 seconds zone at 98 mph. And, as Popular Hot Rodding magazine noted, "This car will turn 105 with low 13 second e.t.'s by incorporating some of the standard drag strip tuning tricks such as slicks, jetting, headers and lower rearend gears."
The Z16 was more than just an engine transplant. It was a complete supercar package, with chassis upgrades, bigger brakes and beefier suspension. Inside, an AM/FM with stereo multiplex was included, along with a special 160-mph speedometer and upgraded interior. The Z16 wasn't cheap. It added $1,501 to the Malibu's base price of $2,590, but it demonstrated that Chevrolet could engineer the ultimate musclecar that could accelerate, handle, corner and stop better than any car short of the Corvette. Chevrolet built only 201 Z16s, and most of these cars found their way into the hands of celebrities and VIPs. It set the stage for the 1966 SS396.
When the 1966 SS396 hit the showrooms with its new styling and handsome bucket seat interior, buyers also found a long list of options to choose from. Street freaks opted for the 360hp version, matched to a Muncie M21 close ratio four-speed transmission and 4.11:1 Posi rear. Right out of the box, the 360hp SS396 ran in the mid 14s. Popular Hot Rodding magazine coaxed 14.42/100.22 mph out of a L34 four-speed SS396 in their June 1966 issue. In C/Stock racing, SS396s would clean house at drag strips all across the country.
Some buyers chose to go the other direction, and build a luxury sport sedan with plenty of muscle. That's how Rick Treworgy's Madeira Maroon SS396 is dressed. Starting with the L35 396, it's equipped with a four-speed transmission, air conditioning, gauge package, "knee-knocker" tachometer, console, wood wheel, power windows, power steering, power brakes, four-way hazard flasher and AM/FM radio (the rally wheels were added later and were not offered in 1966). For less than $3,500 sticker price, this combination made for an outstanding sport touring sedan that could reduce GTOs to rubble.
Regardless of how it was equipped, the 1966 SS396 was the first big-block Chevelle that would launch a legacy of affordable performance. From street racer to luxury cruiser, the SS396 could be custom tailored to just about anyone's desires. And when original owners finally traded in their well-worn '66 SS396s, there was a long line of young hot shoes ready to shell out money for a chance to own America's musclecar.