The Chevrolet Chevelle was born during a tumultuous time in the history of American cars. Debuting in 1964, the initial plans for the car were reasonable and sensible. It was to take on the Ford Fairlane and take on the roll of the old ’55-’57 Bel Air as a fairly inexpensive way to have a modest amount of fun. But, 1964 would later see the introduction of the Ford Mustang and the Pontiac GTO, cars that changed the whole American automotive industry and put an emphasis on performance in such a way that it had never been before.

Chevrolet reacted by first offering the option of a 327 engine in the Chevelle, one just barely allowed under GM guidelines at the time that restricted cars in this segment to engines under 330 cubic inches. But, Pontiac had a 389 in the GTO, and it soon became clear to Chevrolet that playing by the rules wasn’t going to get them anywhere. So in 1965, Chevy made a special 200-unit limited run of “unlisted” Chevelle Malibus with the new 396 engine. Thus was born the Z16 SS396, easily one of the hottest of the early muscle cars, and a rare object of desire still to this day.

Continue reading to learn more about the Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16.

  • 1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16
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1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16
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Mid-sized cars like the Chevelle tend to be pretty versatile platforms, and in this case it was a model of versatility. The car was offered as a sedan, a coupe, a convertible, several different forms of wagon, and even the El Camino was derived from the Chevelle. The SS performance versions were available for a few different body styles, but the Z16 SS396 was only available as a hardtop coupe.

The exterior appearance of the Z16 SS396 is just subtly different from that of other Chevelle SS coupes.

Although there was a one-off convertible version made for GM’s Executive Vice President Bunkie Knudsen, it has since been destroyed in a crash. It was available in just three colors, red, black and yellow, which for a production run like this from Chevrolet in 1965 was really a pretty wide selection. The exterior appearance of the Z16 SS396 is just subtly different from that of other Chevelle SS coupes. This basically amounted to special black and chrome trim, mag-look wheel covers and small 396 badges.

The car was meant to have a certain mystique, derived partly from its very limited production run and partly from the fact that only those who knew what to look for would even notice it was different at all.


1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16
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The Z16 SS396 came with just about every option as standard. This top trim level was at the time known as the Malibu, something that later evolved into its own model, but at that the time was attached to the Chevelle. You will sometimes see Z16 SS396s referred to as Malibus, and this is not a misidentification.

This fully loaded interior doesn’t quite compare favorably to the materials used in European sports cars at the time, but it also doesn’t cost nearly as much, and is a much better value for money. It featured bucket seats, a padded dash with dash-mounted clock and power steering and brakes. But, the most important feature was the car’s unique speedometer, which topped out at a tantalizing 160mph.


1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16
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The 396 cubic inch V-8 in the Z16 is the car’s entire reason for existing. Chevy wanted to create a buzz around the then-new 396, and the Z16 was how it was done. It wasn’t advertised, existed only in small numbers, wasn’t listed on dealer order forms, but was sold to celebrities and the sorts of people who would make sure it would be seen. It was a car that literally broke the rules of the segment, in this case GM’s rules about engine displacement, a sort of secret weapon with an exciting new engine.

Of course, the GTO broke the rules too, but with its 375 horsepower, the Z16 SS396 was the more powerful of the two. It was available only with a 4-speed manual transmission, and it had a shortened rear axle. Since the Chevelle had body-on-frame construction, it was easy for Chevrolet to use the reinforced frame of a convertible coupe with a hardtop body over top. The brakes and suspension from the bigger Impala were also used.


1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16
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When new, the Z16 SS396 sold for $4,586, assuming you were lucky enough to be able to buy one. That price placed it well inside Corvette territory, so it was never a cheap car, but scarcity now drives the price even higher. It is a sad indictment of those who were lucky enough to get a Z16 SS396 that of the 200 (plus one prototype) units originally produced, just 72 are known to remain.

Today these go for an average of around $150,000. Particularly well preserved examples and recent restorations regularly go for in excess of $200,000, and the prototype car once went for $412,500, although that is obviously going to be more than any other example will go for.


Ford Fairlane GT

1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16
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Just like the Chevelle, the Fairlane was produced in a number of different varieties over a long period of time. In 1964, a number of track-only versions of the car were built for drag racing, with stripped-out interiors and massive 657-horsepower engines. When the next generation of the car debuted in 1966, the regular top performance trim was the GT, with a 335-horsepower 390 engine. This was good, but 57 examples were built with 425-horsepower 427 engines, making them even more rare and even more powerful than the previous year’s Z16 SS396.

Dodge Coronet A990

1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16
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The Dodge Coronet started off as a full-sized car in 1949, but by the ’60s the nameplate had been moved to a mid-sized range of cars that competed with the Chevelle. Dodge wasn’t as strict about engine displacements as GM was, so bigger engines were made available for the Coronet before they were available in GM products. But, the 426 Hemi racing engine wasn’t available to much of the public in 1965. Dodge made a small run of 101 Coronets with the engine that year, giving a select few the option of 425 horsepower. It would become available to all as a very expensive option for the R/T the next year, but the 101 A990 cars were something special.


1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z-16
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The really strange thing about the ’65 Z16 SS396 is that it never should have existed in the first place. It only came about because Chevrolet needed to find a work around for GM’s outdated engine hierarchy rules. Had the brand been given free reign of engines, the 396 would have just been used as an option for the regular SS, and that is exactly what did happen the following year.

GM really shot itself in the foot in the early days of muscle cars by maintaining these kinds of arbitrary displacement limits even as the public so clearly wanted bigger engines in smaller cars. Fortunately, the rave reviews that came in for the Z16 helped to bring about an end to those limits, and GM would end up building some really spectacular muscle cars.

  • Leave it
    • Awfully expensive considering it became a regular production model the following year
    • Most of its competitors offered more power
    • There are a lot of counterfeits out there, extreme caution is required when buying

Source: Mecum

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