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Vintage Road Test: How Tough Was the 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle SS396?

Drew Hardin Jul 22, 2016
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Steve Magnante's buildup and dyno test of a factory-spec L78 396 in this issue www.hotrod.cominspired us to go back into Hot Rod magazine's archive for a vintage road test of a car with SS396 badges. What we found was Eric Dahlquist's review of a 1966 big-block Chevelle in the February 1966 issue.

"Chevy has been kind of out of it for the last couple of years, as far as having their own hottest hot dog," he wrote. But the faithful still remembered "when she was real fine, that 409, and how Dyno Don Nicholson and Frank Sanders put 'em back on their heels at the drags in '61 with their first demonstrations of what a stocker could do." Also fresh in their memory was the "Mystery 427" and how "those '63s set the track on fire."

That 1963 Daytona 500 Mystery Motor was the forebear of the production engine in Dahlquist's Chevy, "the semi-hemi, porcupine top, 4.094x3.76-inch 396 . . . plunked into a 115-inch wheelbase Chevelle with a black vinyl top and a lower body color known as Aztec Bronze."

Unlike Magnante's 375hp dyno motor, the engine in Dahlquist's tester was the midrange L34, rated at 360 hp due to lower compression, a different (cast iron) intake manifold, smaller ports in the heads, and a hydraulic valvetrain with a milder cam. It was joined to a Muncie wide-ratio four-speed manual and 3.73 gears.

For most of the car's loan period it was raining in Los Angeles, so Dahlquist talks about the effectiveness of the windshield wipers, how tightly the car sealed against the wet weather, and how sketchy the drum brakes were when wet. The sky cleared eventually, and that's when he took the car to San Fernando for some dragstrip testing.

"Of all the things the SS396 should be, it is competitive at the drags," he wrote. He put the car on the track without the magazine's typical strip tune-up, save for a tweak to the Holley four-barrel—disassembly of the vacuum diaphragm housing—to get the secondaries to open sooner.

The day was cool and the car faced a 30-mph headwind. The Uniroyal Tiger Paws didn't get much bite, and the car initially ran 16.30 at 86 mph. "Since traction seemed the major problem, we thought a few of the match racer tricks might be of some help," he said. "So the tires were burned through puddles of bleach for super cleaning, and some liquid traction compound painted on. This done, the machine recorded a better 15.70 e.t. at 92 mph. We realized that without the benefit of adequate dragging skins and a proper collector system, you can't expect miracles, but the wind and cold track had something to do with it, too."

The "without adequate dragging skins" comment is interesting because we found an outtake (seen here) of the Chevelle's trunk full of the aforementioned bleach, traction compound, and a pair of Casler slicks. Maybe they didn't fit. Maybe Dahlquist ran out of time. Not sure.

But he also noted that at the track that day was "a '65 Chevelle SS with 375 hp, NASCAR Holley, slicks, and who knows what else, that wasn't going more than a second quicker." So conditions were definitely an issue.

He summed up the Chevelle by calling it "the type of vehicle we hated to part with. It has just the right measures of ride-handling and acceleration that would make it the nuts for all kinds of driving, especially long trips. It's a fun car for today's dull traffic, and if it helps relieve the tedium of travel, you can't ask much more."

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Hot Rod staffers Eric Dahlquist (left) and Jim McFarland check out the redesigned 1966 Chevelle at what is probably a local movie studio's Old West set.

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"Our 360hp version with optional cam (322-degree duration and 0.3983-inch lift compared to 340 and 0.4614) and Muncie four-speed was a totally pleasant vehicle, just the ticket for a quiet Sunday drive or drag," wrote Dahlquist.

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The Caslers were in the trunk, along with the bleach and traction compound, but for some reason the drag testing was done on the stock 7.75x14 U.S. Royal Tiger Paw nylon tires.

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