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.