From 1964 to 1977, American cars went through a golden age. This was the brief window between car manufacturers finally getting powertrain and brake issues worked out, sometime during the Kennedy years, and the soul-crushing emissions controls and down-tuned station wagons of the Carter era. Arguably the prince of this era was the Chevelle. It was a huge hound dog of Detroit iron that handled like a thoroughbred and cornered like a locomotive. During the years of its production, the Chevelle line sold millions of units. And it produced at least half a dozen spinoffs that went out under various marques. If you have a male Baby Boomer in your family, there’s a one-in-three chance this was the car he was sketching in 1966. GM is playing coy about maybe bringing this legendary prowler back. There may be a new generation of teenage boys may follow in their grandfathers’ footsteps.
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Something in the world of cars was stirring in 1964. The first Mustangs were rolling out back then, Lee Iacocca hadn’t destroyed any major car companies yet, and the first 300 Chevy Chevelles got stamped with the soon-to-be-legendary badge. The first generation of Baby Boomers was getting old enough to drive by 1964, and the poky old four-door saloons their fathers were driving in the 50s weren’t cutting it, so something new was poised to take off.
Chevy devised the Chevelle as a mid-sized A-body with a battleship engine under the hood. Built off of the Buick Sport Wagon and the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, which both came out in the same year, the Chevelle came in nine body styles – 2-door as well as 4 – and had your choice of six engines, from the tea cozy 194 cu in (3.2 L) Chevrolet I6 to the hot coffee 283 cu in (4.6 L) Small-Block V8 to the tequila worm 396 cu in (6.5 L) Big-Block V8. GM built them at 12 sites around the world, including one in South Africa for the then-new (now-past) African muscle car market.
The Chevelle charged into the muscle car market with a bang, with a series of Malibus bearing the “SS” badge on the rear quarter panel. These cars were more than just a pretty engine; they mounted a complete Super Sport package that included suped-up brakes, an oversized cooling system and a suspension package that could almost take the beating that a 3,000-pound chassis would put on it in a sharp turn at 110 mph. Sales kept up with the small initial production run, which rapidly expanded into thousands of units that hardly paused on the lot before rolling out freshly sold.
In 1965, feeling a little cocky from early sales successes, Chevy introduced the Z16 SS396. This was a Malibu SS with a four-element instrument cluster and big-block 396 Turbo-Jet Chevy V8 engine that pumped through 375 hp and squished the driver’s retinas flat in street races up and down America’s small-town main drags. Only 200 1965 Z16s were officially made – at the astronomical price of $1,501 extra – though it is said the line supervisor Semon Bunky Knudsen ordered a 201st to be specially made, this one as a convertible, for himself.
The first generation of Chevelles held their own against the Camaros, Mustangs, and Chargers well enough until 1968, when everybody seems to have spontaneously decided to take it up a notch with a second generation of competing muscle cars. This was the year the Mustangs switched to the 396, and the first General Lee was built, so naturally, the Chevelles updated with newly tapered front fenders and a nicely rounded beltline. The top-line luxury Concours – a new addition for the ’68 model year – became the first (of many) Chevelles to have the deep-set Hide-a-Way windshield wipers, which was actually a major selling point over Dodge and Ford, for some reason.
Chevy stuck with the first Gen-2 lineup for the most part from 1968 to 1971. These models offered three new big-block engines; the 402 cu in (6.6 L), the 427 cu in (7.0 L), and the even crazier 454 cu in (7.4 L) Big-Block V8. The last of these was basically a scramjet that blew over 500 hp at 5,500 rpm. Teens from the ‘60s were growing into the adults of the 70s, and the Gen-2 big blocks roared under the hood like a wounded lion.
It’s always a dicey proposition to mess with success, which made the Chevy team a little conservative when the word came down to update the Chevelles for the 1971 model year. The updated Gen-2s were given single-unit headlights, new taillights, a reworked grille, and some new emblems and badges for the front and back ends. One new option was the “Heavy Chevy,” which featured the world’s sexiest vinyl carpeting and a bench seat with no break for the shifter so you could make it in the front seat.
In 1969, the former Corvette race car driver Don Yenko, who had retired from racing and opened a Chevy dealership in Pittsburgh, got one of those really cool ideas that people get from time to time. Working with a handful of Novas, Camaros and 106 Chevelles, he devised the Yenko Super Car line. These were the first Chevelles to run on the L72 427 cu in (7.0 L) V8, complete with the legendary Holley carburetor. The 425 hp these threw off torqued the vehicles at 4,000 rpm that would induce a good, hard Tokyo drift in sharp turns, especially with Chevy’s gargantuan drum brakes all locked up and screaming in pain on a hairpin turn.
Chevy went back to the drawing board for the 1973 model year when it came out with the new Generation 3s. These were designed in the spirit of their age, much like shag carpet and avocado-colored Formica countertops. The federal government was under pressure at the time to do something about rollover hazards, and serious legislation was being threatened, so Chevy fell on its sword and discontinued the convertibles and 2-door hardtops. The thinking seems to have been that young men were enjoying their lives a little too much, and so their cars had to be taken away and replaced with the automotive equivalent of false teeth and divorces.
The Generation-3 Chevelles were going through a transitional period from 1973 to ’78. Administratively, some nameplates were moving around, as the SS models were discontinued as part of the general worldwide trend of making the world gradually worse for everybody. To replace them, Chevy introduced the Laguna Coupe, which eventually gained fame as “that car that gangsters used to dump bodies in all the movies.” The Malibus remained in the Chevelle line, though they were demoted to second-tier, after the Lagunas.
Though nobody knew it at the time, the Laguna was the high-water mark of the Chevelles. Between 1973 and 1978, it was the top of the line in Chevy’s mid-sized offerings. Designed for both power and luxury, the Lagunas had three Chevy small block options, ranging between 305 and 400 CID, with a 454 big block offered from ’73 to ’75. The interior appointments had the misfortune of being designed in the 1970s, with lots of deep-twist carpet and nasty vinyl-and-cloth fabrics. Cale Yarborough used a modified Laguna to win two out of his three Winston Cups, and the editor of Speed and Supercar actually went out of his way to tell readers that he liked it enough to buy one during a review in which he called the Lagunas “right on” and – not kidding – “groovy.”
Throughout its run, the Chevelle had an identity crisis, as if Chevy could never decide what kind of car they were selling. Variations kept appearing, and not just sporty coupes and convertibles, but luxury editions like the Lagunas and even light trucks like the El Camino, which was just a Chevelle with its backside shaved down. Chevrolet also introduced a station wagon variant of the Chevelles in 1973 and put an SS marque on it, but it’s probably best not to dwell on the mistakes of the past too much, out of respect for the dead.
Malibu had always been a trim package in the Chevelle lineup, and until the Lagunas came out it was the top option, but in 1978 the student overthrew the master and Malibu killed off the Chevelles for good. This was actually a long time coming. Chevy had spent the 60s and 70s accumulating the most complicated model lineups and supply chains in the auto industry, and by 1977 it was necessary to trim somewhere. Given the gas crisis and new federal emissions standards, keeping the Chevelle churning out was judged to be more trouble than it was worth, and the nameplate was dropped completely, leaving only the Malibu to serve as a deeply unsatisfying four-door saloon.
History hasn’t forgotten the Chevelle. For 14 years, this line was a little bit of everything to everybody, and it neatly plugged the gap between sporty little hooligans like the Camaro and grand old dames like the Coupe DeVille. Between the Beatles first appearance on Sullivan and the release of Saturday Night Fever, the Chevelle owned some of the most iconic cars of the era, like the 69 with a 396 small block and the 68 El Camino SS. To this day, Chevelles with matching serial numbers are some of the most sought-after relics on the muscle car market.
Not to get your hopes up, but it’s possible they’re bringing the Chevelle back from the dead for 2020. At a time when Ford is killing off everything except the Mustang and its SUVs, Chevy executives are apparently shotgunning their beers and dreaming about the good old days. Nothing is confirmed yet since they teach you how to build suspense in marketing school, but in 2019 Chevrolet renewed the trademarks on several names, including “Chevelle” and “El Camino.” There wasn’t necessarily a legal reason to do this. Unless they’re planning to use those names again. And then there are rumors about some re-tooling being done at Chevy’s Australian plant to handle a variant on their 2012 concept car – you know, the mid-sized sedan with rear-wheel drive? If anything comes from this, here’s hoping it will be as groovy as the good old days once were.