When it comes to high-performance, minuscule-volume muscle cars from the golden era, Bowtie fans have plenty to cheer about.
There was the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro COPO ZL1, one of the top apex predators of the era, the 1968 Chevrolet COPO Nova SS, a lightweight rocket of a muscle car, and the 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 LS6 convertible, perhaps the most iconic and desirable beast of the era.
In addition to their prodigious power and performance, none of these cars were produced in numbers that reached triple digits.
What’s more, Chevy was one of the earliest automotive firms to jump on the muscle bandwagon. While most point to its stablemate, Pontiac, as having created the world’s first, true muscle car in the form of the 1964 GTO, Chevy was hot on its heels with an offering of its own.
In this month’s iteration of Rare Rides, we’re going to take a good, long look at the firm’s first adherence to the rear-wheel drive/large, powerful V8/lightweight, two-door body/affordable price formula, and one of the scarcest vehicles Chevrolet ever produced.
The car? The 1965 Chevy Chevelle Malibu SS 396 Z16.
The 1965 Z16 story begins in 1963, with the launch of the 1964 Chevelle.
Reacting to Ford’s successful release of the mid-sized Fairlane, GM created the all-new A Platform, and Chevy introduced the Chevelle atop it. Featuring a 115-inch wheelbase and a body-on-frame construction, the Chevelle, whose name was likely a combination of the words Chevy and gazelle, was the only fresh American car model released that year.
The Chevelle filled the gap in the Chevy lineup between the compact Chevy II and the larger Impala. The car was offered as a hardtop coupe, four-door sedan, four-door station wagon, and two-door convertible, while the famous El Camino utility coupe was essentially a spin-off model. Two distinct Chevelle trim levels included the base 300 series and the upscale Malibu range.
Exterior styling of the Chevelle was in line with contemporary standards, consisting of a svelte body full of sharp creases. Horizontal quad lamps flanking a full-width grille dominated the car’s front, while simple stacked taillights were the statement in the rear. Curved side glass, scalloped rear wheel openings, and minimalist exterior trim were amongst the unique cues.
Inside, the car was conservative as well, with standard bench seats, vinyl upholstery, vinyl door panels and headliner, and a vinyl-coated rubber floor mat that was color-keyed to the rest of the interior with what Chevy referred to as “an attractive splatter design.” A fairly comprehensive gauge cluster with a bright dash bezel was a welcomed touch of luxury.
All trim levels of the Chevelle offered a wide choice of engines, transmissions, and rear axles.
An anemic, 194 cubic-inch Hi-Thrift straight-six with 120 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque was the base engine, while a 230 cubic-inch Turbo-Thrift capable of 155 horses and 215 lb-ft was the optional six.
V8 offerings started with a 283 cubic-inch Turbo-Fire capable of 195 horsepower and 285 lb-ft of twist, an upgraded version of the same engine that mustered 25 more ponies and ten more lb-ft, and a 327 cubic-inch Turbo-Fire eight capable of 250 ponies and a hearty 350 lb-ft.
Backing these powerplants was a standard three-speed manual transmission, while a three-speed with overdrive, a four-speed manual, and the two-speed Powerglide automatic were on the options list.
For putting power to the ground, two standard rear axle ratios of 3.08:1 and 3.70:1 were offered for the 10-bolt rear depending on engine/transmission combination, with a special purpose 3.36:1 set of gears optional.
Suspension on all variants consisted of unequal-length double A-arms in the front and a four-link setup supporting a live axle out back. Coil springs and telescoping shocks were at all four corners with a 7/8-inch front sway bar residing in the front.
For slowing down, manual self-adjusting drums all around were stock with power assist available, and 14 x 5 ½-inch wheels with 6 ½-inch wide tires were standard. 7-inch rubber was available as an option on some models.
Not content to sit back and watch John DeLorean’s brainchild, the Pontiac GTO, eat Chevrolet’s lunch, Chevrolet executive, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen authorized the development of a performance version of the Malibu to reside at the top of the Chevelle lineup.
Made available in two-door hardtop and convertible versions, and given the moniker Malibu Super Sport (SS), this was Chevrolet’s first true attempt at a factory hot rod.
By selecting the Malibu trim level and checking the SS Option Package on the order form, buyers could add vinyl-covered bucket seats, special instrumentation, a floor console for Powerglide-equipped cars, a deluxe steering wheel, SS badging, bright trim along the upper body line, bright rocker panel trim, and unique wheel covers. A dash-mounted tach was optional.
Unusual for such a package, these niceties could be added to any Malibu, regardless of engine and transmission choice, and many a buyer on a tight budget actually drove away from their dealer’s lot with an SS equipped with the Hi-Thrift six.
Of course, many buyers wanted to add sting to the Super Sport looks, and so Chevrolet offered a special lump to help them do so later in the model year.
That engine would be a tweaked version of the 327 cubic-inch Turbo-Fire V8. Replete with a large Rochester four-barrel carburetor, a 10.5:1 compression ratio, and hydraulic lifters, this high-revving 327 churned out an honest 300 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 360 lb.-ft. at 3,200 rpm.
Chevy hit it out of the park with the first-gen car, as an astounding 338,286 Chevelles found new owners in its initial year on the market. While the 1964 SS 327 was no match for the Pontiac GTO with its 325 or 348 horsepower 389 cubic-inch Tri-Power motor, Chevy engineers had something planned for 1965 that would significantly shift the balance.
Having found a formula for success, Chevy was wisely reticent to make wholesale changes to the appearance of their new star for 1965. As such, exterior modifications all looked evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, and were limited to a new, anodized aluminum grille with a more squared-off shape, slightly modified and lengthened front fenders and hood, restyled front and rear bumpers, new wheel covers, and revised taillamps.
Inside, new options were available, but stock equipment changes amounted to freshened door panels, carpets, and seat coverings for the now standard bucket seats.
The engine roster for the ’65 Chevelle 300 (which now also had a 300 DeLuxe trim level) and Malibu models had some changes to it as well. Sticking around for another model year were the 194 Hi-Thrift and 230 Turbo-Thrift sixes, as well as the two 283 Turbo-Fire variants and twin 327s. Added to the roster though was a new, hot 327, the L79, with 350 ponies courtesy of a four-barrel 585 Holley carb and hydraulic camshaft.
Determined to offer a dyed-in-the-wool muscle car, Chevy reserved the big changes for the Super Sport trim.
Starting with aesthetics, Chevrolet blacked out the aluminum grille and added a black band surrounding the redesigned taillamps (on black cars, the band was painted silver.) The rear cove molding was new, and the rear SS emblem was moved to the inner portion of the tail panel, to the right of a fresh Chevrolet logo. The classic cross-flag emblem with engine callout made its first appearance on the leading edge of the front fenders, and the new style wheel covers received a diecast SS badge located in the centers.
Inside, a center console was standard when equipped with a Powerglide or four-speed manual transmission. Pleated vinyl bucket seats with bright inner and outer backrest moldings were part of the SS seat trim. The door panels wore embossed vinyl with an SS emblem on a bright plate. A small “SS” badge was also located above the glove box door. Deep twist carpet covered the floor.
A color-keyed steering wheel was standard, with a wood model optional. Full instrumentation came with oil and water temperature gauges, an ammeter, and an electric clock.
While once again, A Malibu SS could be had with any of the aforementioned engines, ranging from the 194 cubic-inch six to the L79 V8, Chevy had something special in store for those who craved real performance.
They called it the Z16 Package, and unusually chose not to publicize it, instead relying on dealers to tip off special customers to its existence.
An internal Chevrolet memo declared, “Since the car is not advertised, etc., making it an ‘unlisted’ car, it could with good exposure become the most wanted car in the country, especially in view of the fact that only 200 (all coupes) are to be built… The car will get special distribution in that it will be directly offered to people who a) have demonstrated their enthusiasm for ‘special’ performance products by Chevrolet; b) have means and potential for maximum exposure of the car.”
At the heart of this enigma was a fire-breathing powerplant, the legendary L37 396 cubic-inch big-block V8. Marking the first time a 396 was shoehorned into any GM car smaller than a full-size vehicle (before this, there was a GM edict forbidding it), the combination of massive power and torque in a lightweight mid-size promised a true performance car.
The L37 produced 375 horsepower and a stump-pulling 420 lb-ft of torque by virtue of 11:1 compression, a hydraulic-lifter camshaft, forged pistons and crankshaft, four-bolt mains, ported closed-chamber cylinder heads, dual-snorkel air cleaner and an aluminum intake with a Holley 3310 four-barrel carburetor.
A Muncie M20 wide-ratio four-speed floor-shifter with a 2.56:1 low gear and an 11-inch clutch was the only available transmission, and it sent power to a sturdy, 12-bolt rear containing a 3.31:1 diff. Oddly, Z16-spec cars were not available with Positraction.
But the Z16 Package was comprised of much more than this brutish drivetrain.
Suspension consisted of heavy-duty components and included a 1.06-inch front anti-sway bar, a stabilizer bar between the rear lower control arms, and stiffer springs than the standard SS models.
Brakes were borrowed from the Impala and were 11-inch hydraulic drums with an integral power assist unit. Wheels were six-inch steelies, an inch wider than standard SS’s and were shod with 7.75 x 14-inch gold stripe rubber. Steering was afforded by a hydraulic Saginaw unit with a semi-reversible power boost gear and a 15.0:1 ratio.
To handle all this power, Chevy borrowed the stiffer, reinforced, boxed frame rails from the Malibu convertible model, and included two additional body mounts.
The Z16 wasn’t a stripped-down drag special. Instead, the package automatically loaded a car with luxury items, including such niceties as a tachometer, a 160 mph speedometer, a four-speaker AM-FM Multiplex stereo, a dash-mounted clock, rear seat belts, an instrument panel pad, and a remote control outside mirror.
Understated in terms of trim, Z16s could be most easily identified by the Malibu SS badging aft of the front wheel arches, “396 Turbo-Jet” badges on the front fenders, a die-cast crossed flag badge on the air cleaner housing, “matchbox-car” style wheel covers, and a unique black and chrome trim panel which framed the Chevelle 300-style taillights. Colors were limited to just three: Regal Red, Tuxedo Black and Crocus Yellow.
A period hot rod publication tested a Z16, and proved what Chevy had intended to do: take on the GTO. The quarter mile was tripped in 14.6 seconds, prompting the magazine to declare, “Performance figures in our spec panel are extremely impressive, but they’re inadequate inasmuch as they don’t tell the story of how this car will accelerate over 100 mph. The needle doesn’t hang there, but goes on wiping the face of the 160-mph speedometer until the engine redlines. It’s the hottest of the hot intermediates.”
While indeed only 200 Z16 hardtops were produced, contrary to what the Chevy internal memorandum stated, one factory Z16 convertible was actually built for Bunkie Knudsen, although its whereabouts were lost after he sold it to a friend.
Today, 72 Malibu SS Z16s are known to still exist, and when they infrequently hit the auction block, command stratospheric prices. The record to date was an example that sold at Russo & Steele’s 2006 Scottsdale event for a whopping $412,500.
Understandable money though for one of Chevrolet’s great Rare Rides.