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Muscle With a Bow-Tie
Glamorous looks, flashy colors, and big engines all worked to help build performance fever in the late 1960s and early 1970's. For Chevrolet, the most powerful entries in the muscle-car wars carried the name "Chevelle", one of the best looking and most sought-after vehicles to ever carry the bow-tie logo. Over the past five years collector car fans have increasingly sought out these popular cars, and values on some models have doubled.
While the majority of Chevelles produced were sold to the public as family cars, a special breed of these are today at the pinnacle of anyone's muscle car list. These special Chevelles are the "SS" models, or the Super Sport editions. Chevelle was first produced in 1964 as Chevrolet's entry in the growing mid-size market. Adding a little flash to the base Chevelle line were the dressed-up Malibu models. These carried more bright trim and plusher interiors, but came with fairly tame power-plants including the series base six cylinder for economy. However, if money and mileage wasn't a concern, and power and looks were, the SS was just for you.
Without any reservation it can be said that the biggest and most powerful era for the Chevelle SS were the 1970 and 1971 model years. Available in two body styles, 2-door hardtop and convertible, the base version of the SS came with a big 396 cubic inch Turbo-Jet V8 sporting plenty of horsepower. In base form this engine was rated at 350 hp, while a performance option of 375 horses could also be ordered. Transferring the power to the rear wheels was a Turbo-Hydramatic 400, or the fabled "Rock-Crusher" four-speed.
Also available were several versions of the monster 454 cubic inch V8, the largest engine ever placed in a Chevrolet passenger car. In base form the 454-V8 was rated at 360 horsepower and is often referred to by its option code of LS5. Like the 396 V8s, these could come equipped with either a 4-speed manual shifter or the Turbo-Hydramatic 400. But the real king of the Chevelle SS was the 450 horsepower 454 V8, known in collector circles today by its original option code of "LS6". There were actually several versions of the LS-6 450-hp engine. By specifying aluminum heads, ported valves, and beefy crankshafts secured with four-bolt mains, performance was improved but advertised horsepower remain unaffected.
To add even more pizzazz to this already impressive package, buyers could check off the F41 suspension option and a 12-bolt 4.10:1 "Posi-traction" rear end. The F41 setup actually gave the big Chevelle decent handling for the day.
For 1971 the factory toned things down a bit. The standard powerplant for the Chevelle SS was still a 396 cid V8, but now de-tuned to just 300 horses in base form. Even the mighty 454 was de-tuned and offered in two versions, 365 hp, and 425 hp, obviously still very potent. Of the nearly 80,000 1971 Chevelle SS models produced, 19,992 of them were equipped with a 454 V8.
As for appearances, new front and rear fascias were introduced. The grille lost its horizontal body-colored divider, but kept the large "SS" emblem. Quad headlights were dropped, and the tailights went from single rectangular units to dual circular lenses. The inboard housings carried backup lights.
Almost universally, Chevelle fans prefer the look of the `70 model. For muscle car fans the end of an era was on the horizon due to a mix of new government emission and safety restrictions, plus sky-rocketing insurance premiums. In 1972, Chevrolet responded with even more power down-sizing. A new, more conservative method of determining horsepower was instituted that year, which on paper made these cars look a bit anemic by comparison to earlier models. That year the Chevelle SS came standard with a 350 cid, 175 horse V8, while a 396 V8 with 240 horses could still be ordered, as could a somewhat neutered 454 now touting a rating of just 270hp.
IDENTIFYING A REAL SS
Up to 1970, the Chevrolet ID number did little more than tell you the basic series, if you had a six-cylinder or V8 engine, the body style, the assembly plant location and the unit sequence number. For more detailed information the body number plate, sometimes referred to as a "buck tag", carried data such as original colors, soft trim, and special equipment option codes. However, the factory power-plant was not readily identifiable.
With Chevelle SS models, the phrase "numbers matching" plays an important role in regards to authenticity and values. For the 1970 model alone, there were 13 different varieties of the 454 V8, depending on such factors as the head materials, the transmission installed, and the compression ratio. (In addition to this were another 11 different versions of the 396 V8).
To make matters more confusing, Chevrolet offered the 454 V8 in other series in its lineup, including trucks. Each of these engines carried a very unique identifying number that revealed its horsepower and original application. Stamped on a pad at the front-right portion of the engine is the engine identification number. It consists of the assembly plant code, the month and day the engine was assembled, and a very important three letter code that indicates the displacement, horsepower rating, type of transmission originally used, and what model it was originally installed in.
In 1972, Chevrolet changed its vehicle identification number, or VIN, composition and for the first time the engine size and type was encoded in the serial number, significantly improving your chances of knowing if you have an original or original type engine. However, the LS-6 was not around that year, with the biggest engine available in the Chevelle SS being the LS5 featuring 454 cubic inches with a net horsepower rating of 270. While the Chevelle SS lived on in name for several years after 1972, it lost much of its allure, and performance.
THE MARKET TODAY
With the enthusiasm of collectors and restorers of particularly the 1970 Chevelle SS models, the reproduction market is fairly well stocked. This has lead to a fair supply of rather handsome, albeit expensive, restored examples. Not the norm but indicative of the desirablity of this model, recent prices of nice, documented "SS LS-6" equipped Chevelles have been surging, especially the convertibles, which have been in the $65,000-$75,000+ range for the past year. If the economy holds, these will probably continue upward. A potential holdback -- these cars are not too difficult to fake, so we'll see a surging supply, too!
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Standard "SS" models have seen prices rise by 50% or more in certain cases over the past five years. . Today, nice hardtops can hit $20k, with convertibles approaching $30k.
As mentioned, those models with the LS-6 option are the most costly, but before jumping into one of these power houses, look before you leap. Make sure you know the proper codes for the engine and transmission that you are looking for. There are several guides to these numbers, and one of the ones we have found most useful is the Chevrolet SS Muscle Car Red Book for Camaro, Chevelle, Impala, and Monte Carlo, 1961-1973, by Peter C. Sessler. As the title implies, this book gives detailed information for all of the "SS" models produced by Chevrolet for the years noted. However, the area covering Chevelle is quite extensive and one of the most complete sources available.
In addition to the engines, there are some plus and minus points to watch for. Obviously a non numbers-matching engine installation is the biggest value-buster. A clean restoration should make it easy to spot the engine numbers. The number is stamped on a pad on the front of the block on the right side (when facing the engine). Power options and air conditioning are pluses for the person looking to use their car on a regular basis, although true performance fans will want to pass on the horsepower robbing options such as power steering, brakes, a/c, etc.
THOSE "ORIGINAL" MOTORS
As a youth, I hung with a crowd that loved these big-block Chevys. I also know that a not too uncommon event was the disintegration of a 454 "Rat" while racing. Factory rebuilt blocks and new crate engines were often installed in these cars. It's always amazing to find that almost all these cars now listed for sale have their original motor!
Don't dismiss a non-original motor (NOM), but remember that the original block is a major draw. In addition to the trim features of the SS (special badges, the bulged hood, and some body-side trim deletions), several key options add to the value of these cars. Bucket seats, the five-spoke Rally wheels, Comfort-Tilt steering wheel, AM-FM radio, center console, and gauge packages are most desirable.
Driven more by speculation than collector or enthusiast interest, muscle car values reached an all-time high in the late eighties/early nineties. When the bubble burst a number of those who loved these cars, but couldn't afford them at the market's peak were able to latch on to some pretty decent cars at reduced prices.
Since late 1997, the muscle car market has warmed up considerably, and while not to the point they were a decade ago, Chevelle values have made a strong comeback. An why not? They look good, perform well, and with disc brakes, air, and power steering are quite enjoyable as an everyday car.
Note: This article was written in May, 2000. For latest market information and values, subscribe today!
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