Tuesday, July 5, 2011

1966 Chevelle SS396

Time Capsule
Text and Photos by David W. Temple
In 1966, Lyndon Johnson was president of the United States; that year the U.S. was in a race to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth” within the decade – a goal set by the previous president, John F. Kennedy, in 1961; the Berlin Wall was just five years old; by early March approximately 215,000 U.S. soldiers were in Vietnam; Head coach Vince Lombardi led the Green Bay Packers to victory over the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship game; pitcher Sandy Koufax led the LA Dodgers to their third pennant of the decade though the team lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles; Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia 76ers was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player; top-rated TV programs included Green Acres, Hogan’s Heroes, I Dream of Jeannie, Perry Mason, and The Ed Sullivan Show; among the most popular songs heard on the radio and 8-track cassettes that year were The Ballad of the Green Berets (SSgt Barry Sadler), Cherish (The Association), Good Vibrations (Beach Boys), Summer in the City (Lovin' Spoonful), Wild Thing (Troggs), 96 Tears (Question Mark & the Mysterians), California Dreamin' (Mama's & Papa's), We Can Work it Out (Beatles), and Last Train to Clarksville (The Monkees); the population of the United States was under 200-million; a General Motors’ automobile won Motor Trend magazine’s coveted “Car of the Year Award” for the second consecutive year (for the new Toronado) and GM was number one in auto sales. The company also produced its 100-millionth car on March 16th of that year. A lot has changed since 1966, but not quite everything.
In 1966, the car shown here was new in more ways than one. The styling was fresh, the SS396 was a separate model, and the 375 hp 396 became a regular production option. The Chevelle SS396 seen here is equipped with the 375 hp 396 and mandatory four-speed and is still practically new having traveled a mere 13,300 miles since it left the Fremont, California assembly line. It is more than just a low-mileage car; it is a virtual time capsule of “bowtie” muscle from the height of the musclecar era. Our feature car still retains its original engine, transmission, paint, upholstery, spare tire, brake pads, undercarriage paint daubs, and even the paper tags on the brake drums. When the current owner bought this car from the second owner, three of the four original tires were in the trunk. However, they were too worn to use so a set of reproduction red lines is now installed. The L78 Chevelle Super Sport is something of a Holy Grail to Chevy musclecar enthusiasts, but to find one this well preserved is almost the equal of finding life on another planet! Let’s take a look at why the L78 was so special in 1966 and why it remains so desirable today.
The high-performance 396 V-8 evolved from Chevrolet’s 427 Mk. II “Daytona Mystery Motor” (the Mk. I being the 348-409), an engine which became quite controversial by the time it debuted in the Daytona 500. During qualifying runs a Mk. II powered Impala driven by Johnny Rutherford set a closed-course speed record of over 165 mph. The controversy stemmed from the fact the engine was not a production engine (which it was supposed to be for NASCAR competition) and GM had pulled its factory support for racing just a few weeks before the big race. Only five of the engines were delivered to customers – all NASCAR racers – before production of the engine ceased. However, much of the 427 Mk. II’s design led directly to the 396 Mk. IV engine which first appeared in the limited production Chevelle SS396 Z16 in mid-1965. (The Mk. III was a canceled project.) It was a near duplicate of the 425 hp 396 used in the ’65 Corvette. At the midpoint of the following model year the engine, cataloged as option code L78 and adding $237 to the base price, became available. It differed somewhat from the one used in the Z16 by having solid lifters and new exhaust manifolds. Other features of the L78 engine included a high-rise aluminum intake manifold, 800-cfm Holley carburetor, 427-type valve heads, .520-inch lift cam, low-restriction air cleaner, four-bolt mains, and an 11.0:1 compression ratio. It could propel a Chevelle SS396 from 0-60mph in just six seconds flat and blaze through the standing quarter-mile in 14.4 seconds with an end speed of 100mph.
Lower output 396 V-8s were offered as well. Optional was the 360hp L34 offered from the start of the model year. Standard issue for the SS396, though, was a 325 hp version. Other standard equipment included on this model were 7.75x14 nylon redline tires on six-inch rims, all-vinyl upholstery in a choice of seven standard colors, twin simulated hood air intakes, special color-accented body sills and quarter panel moldings, hub caps, a black-accented grille with series identification, and a blacked-out rear panel (though some did not get the black-out treatment). Among the options offered were bucket seats (with or without power-adjustment), headrests, console with electric clock, air conditioning (even with L78 option), mag-style wheel covers, two-tone paint (rarely ordered), black or beige vinyl covered top, and a gauge package consisting of a tachometer, parking brake warning lamp, and temperature-oil-amp gauges replaced the standard warning lights if the owner wanted this option.
The featured Aztec Bronze SS396, one of 3,099 built with the L78 option, was purchased new at a Roseville, California dealership by an elderly gentleman who drove it only sparingly. Optional equipment on it includes tinted windshield, deluxe front and rear seat belts, “Astro” bucket seats, center console, special suspension equipment, 3.55:1 axle ratio, close-ratio four-speed, simulated mag wheel covers, special instrumentation, AM push-button radio, rear speaker, heavy-duty radiator, and front and rear bumper guards. Along with the 375 hp engine, these extra-cost items added $790.20 to the base price of $2,776.00. The destination charge added another $134.75 bringing the total amount paid to $3,700.95.

Original color codes and tags used by assembly line personnel are still present on this low-mileage car.
The original owner maintained this car very well – even to the point of washing the undercarriage periodically. After several years of ownership this Chevelle was sold to its second owner who also drove it very little over a period of many years. Owner number three, the current one, has continued the practice of little driving and careful maintenance. A private collector in the Dallas, Texas area added this prized Chevelle to his collection of low-mileage unrestored cars a few years ago. Among the other cars he owns are a pair of L78 Camaros – a ’67 convertible with just 1,495 miles and a ’68 hardtop.
With cars so original – time capsules actually – one could almost expect to turn the radio on in any one of them and here an old broadcast… “♫ Monday, Monday, so good to me, Monday, Monday, it was all I hoped it would be
Oh Monday morning, Monday morning couldn't guarantee…
 We interrupt this program to bring to you live coverage of the launch of Gemini 8. Reporting live from Cape Kennedy, Florida here is Walter Cronkite… We are in the final minutes of the countdown for Gemini 8. The crew, Neil Armstrong and David Scott, are strapped inside their spacecraft and report all systems are ‘go.' With this mission NASA is hoping to do what has never before been attempted…”


  1. This is a beautiful automobile!

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