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.