CHEVROLET CHEVELLE: 64-72
THE COMMON MAN'S MUSCLE CAR
PITZER COLLEGE APRIL 21, 1999
A Brief Introduction
I never really realized the significance of where I lived while I was growing up until June 24, 1998. To me, the small house in Sunnyvale, California I shared with my parents was home-no more, no less. It took but a single day to shatter my ignorance. It was a rather unexceptional day. Average weather, average temperature, average everything as far as I could tell. Except for one minor detail. I had just purchased and towed home my first muscle car: a long- neglected 1968 El Camino Custom Deluxe. Little did I know that as soon as the ink dried on the transfer slip, I would begin my descent into the world of an American legend.
Over this past year, I've been completely sucked into the "Chevelle Mystique," as I have affectionately dubbed it. As soon as my own version of GM's "gap-filling intermediate" fell into my hands, I began researching its origins. Built in Fremont, California, my El Camino was a piece of history which, advantageously, had been built in my own backyard not thirty years before. Natural curiosity led me deeper into the mystery of the Chevelle, but to this day, there is still something I can't quite grasp about these A-body cars. They were by no means short-lived (the Chevelle ran from 1964-1977 with the El Camino and Malibu name plates spinning off as separate lines after its demise. The El Camino continued until 1987 while the Malibu survives today as but a shadow of its former self), but by the time 1977 rolled around, the Chevelle had lost all resemblance to the muscle car it had once been.
My quest for the elusive essence of the Chevelle drove me to focus on the Chevelle of 1964-1972. My motives are simple enough: they were first introduced in 1964 and by 1972, almost all "performance"-minded engineering had been stripped from the car due to rising insurance costs, safety standards, and emissions standards. What I wouldn't give to have lived through that era.
Of course, I realize what a ridiculous statement that is. I would rather live in these times of high school shootings, gang violence, economic prosperity, and technological advances than have to deal with the social strife that tore through the country in the 60s and 70s (call me crazy, but I'm not sure I could live without the Internet). However, I try to live vicariously through those times by driving my El Camino through the streets of my home town. I am driving a piece of history influenced by history. Things I've only read about in textbooks or listened to as they were wrapped in accounts of "the good ol' days," come alive in the palms of my hands every time I wrap them around the steering wheel.
What can I say? I'm a red-blooded American, and as such, I'm a sucker for nostalgia. So in my musings I'll be attempting to recreate the past in my head through an examination of the marketing and design aspects of the Chevelle as they related to the general social mind-set of the consumer from 1964-1972. Well, that's my intention. So, sit back and enjoy this little trip through history as seen from the driver's seat of one of the greatest cars ever built: the Chevrolet Chevelle.
The 50s were over. Gone were the days of simple, post-war bliss. Instead, America was experiencing their first taste of the new generation: the baby boomers. In the early 60s, the largest generation in American history was coming of age, fueled by the notions of American superiority and individualism in all things. Elvis was alive (actually living-not spotted in some trailer park in Podunk, Nebraska), rock n' roll was in full swing with The Twist, the space race was beginning in earnest, Kennedy was elected, and Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record1. But even more important comes the automotive industry's response to the new consumer market.
Who can forget the car designs of the 50s? They too reflected the American trend towards individualized transportation. The large chrome front grilles and body detailing bordered on the absurd, and who doesn't smirk and shake their head at the pinnacle of 50's design, the 1959 Cadillac. Yes, that's right, the pink one with the huge fins and bullet-shaped tail lights. However, there was an underground movement springing up. Starting in 1956, smaller-sized passenger cars from Western Europe were invading the American automotive market, the most recognizable make and model being the VW Beetle. Between 1956 and 1959, VW registrations rose from 50,000 to 120,0002. Although Chevrolet's response to the market change was sluggish (with the Corvair in 1959 and the Chevy II in 1962) it nonetheless took note of the American interest in a smaller automobile.
As 1962 and 1963 flash by, social movements became more radical. James Meredith becomes the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives his "I Have a Dream" speech, Betty Friedan sparks the women's liberation movement with The Feminine Mystique, and Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas3. The Chevy II and similar makes by other manufacturers recaptured the markets, but VW's registration hit 193,000 units in 19624. The simple design and affordability of the VW Beetle appealed to the masses in a way that reflected the true meaning of "the people's car." The American consumer craved something different, but wasn't sure exactly what it was. It certainly wasn't a reversion back to the sweeping land barge-esque styles of the late 50s, but neither was it the utilitarian styling of the Chevy II (even though it was quite popular).
As the full-sized Chevys were getting refined, but staying true full-sized cars, and the compacts slowly shrinking (or in the case of the Corvair, on their way out), the gap between the two levels of Chevy was ever widening. Clearly an "intermediate" was needed. After all, this was the 60s: heaven forbid one should separate the rich from the not-so-rich by offering a choice between a big car or a small car with nothing in between. Admittedly, GM's logic followed more of a corporate attitude (more cars sold = more money for the company), nonetheless, it was a subconscious response to the people's need for a compromise to be reached in society reflected by the marketplace.
Enter the Chevelle. Simple, elegant, clean. There was no excessive use of chrome, no fins, no excessive badging, just straight lines and a few chrome accents. The original advertisement released in December of 1963 reflected the same attitudes. Three photos of the car as it's driving by show off the simple front grill, sleek profile, and elegant tail while the text reads, "Chevelle is the car...that's made by the people... who make the Corvair and Corvette." Gone was Harley Earl's philosophy of "go as far as you can, then pull back,"5 replaced by the new generation of "intermediates." As one critic puts it, "Chevy designers had put their collective finger directly on the pulse."
However, due to negative publicity regarding newly budding safety standards and corporate machinations, the most powerful engine offered in the 1964 Chevelle was a 327 cubic inch "small block" V-8. In 1963, GM, heretofore involved in performance development for race engines, announced that it would "keep a lid on performance."6 But with the Pontiac GTO sneaking a 389 into their engine bays, Chevelle designers were forced to throw in something a little beefier than the 194 C.I. 120 horsepower six-cylinder motor that was their base engine if they wanted to maintain a stance in the "intermediate" market. After all it is 1964: The Beatles had invaded. Surely that calls for something a bit more fun than a straight-six? And with front seatbelts now standard in all GM cars7, you might as well cram something in the engine bay that makes them necessary. In its first year, the Chevelle sold 338,286 units, 196,252 of which were V-8s.
1965 brought a few cosmetic changes to the Chevelle. A revised front grill and some revised rear end styling were the only major changes to the overall design of the car. The ad campaign mirrored this sentiment as well, calling the 1965 Chevelle, "The Beautiful In-Betweener,"8 declaring this particular model year a rest period. A more radical 327 was introduced as "The Perfect Squelch" for those people bragging about lions and tigers (the press nicknames for the other performance models of the time). This also gave the Chevelle designers a bit of time to refine their 327, but the changes were minor. However, there was one major change that was produced in an extremely limited number for 1965. Mid-year, an option showed up on dealer lists by the name of RPO Z16 (an object of envy among Chevelle buffs). 1965 marked the first year the SS 396 cu. in. "big block" motor was offered in the Chevelle. Only 201 of these beefed-up Chevelles were made (it is rumored that only one of them was lucky enough to find its way into a convertible-though it has yet to be proved). The first iteration of the Chevelle as a true muscle car, it featured a cammed- and carbed-up 11:1 compression ratio motor and M-20 transmission as well as a 3.31:1 12 bolt rear end, 11-inch power drum brakes, a larger than normal front stabilizer bar, stiffer springs, and larger wheels all fighting to prevent the car from taking flight. However, with the price reaching a whopping $4101.05, it never truly reached full production. A critic states that despite the low production numbers and large price tag, "Chevrolet's first 396 Chevelle was an exclusive preview built with one specific purpose-promoting future big-block Chevelle production. Affordability, customer preference and mass market appeal weren't factors."9 They may not have been factors, but the big block appeal fit right in with the social tension of the times. A large, snarling, huffing motor squeezed into a relatively staid car (in terms of body design) was just the right combination of rebellion and conformity that the common man was looking for. And with so many people coming of driving age, it's little wonder the Chevelle appealed to everyone.
1965 also saw the publishing of Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed and as a direct result, Congress' eyes were opened to the dangers of high speed travel. Increased safety standards for American automobiles was a result, and with a new concern for air quality, California mandated strict emissions equipment to be placed on all cars sold within the state. So as 1966 blossoms, performance-choking legislation begins to twitch its tail. Nonetheless, the 1966 Chevelle still managed to produce a dominating image that screamed rebellion to the masses.
Even with the addition of rear seatbelts and the "air pump" (the new emissions control device), the Chevelle still managed to turn a few heads. With its aggressive (but completely aesthetic) hood louvers and initial ad campaign of, "Now that you mention it, yes, it does look lean and hungry,"10 it appealed to the new generation of car buyers. Not pure muscle, but not the underachiever, the Chevelle was attractive to the "middle-roaders," those who were rebellious enough to engage in the sprit of the 60s, but weren't radical enough to engage in riots. With the addition of the "air pump" emissions control device (which robbed the motors of their last 1500-1000 rpm of their power bands), Hot Rod's Eric Dahlquist stated that the new Chevelles, "had just the right measures of ride-handling and acceleration that would make it the nuts for all kinds of driving, especially long trips. It's a fun car for today's dull traffic, and if it helps relieve the tedium of travel, you can't ask much more."11 A lukewarm assessment to be sure (especially when compared to the reviews of the previous year's SS 396), but taking a look at a sales brochure printed in April of 1966, Chevrolet's admen were taking a more aggressive approach regarding Chevelle's big block. A picture of a lion and tiger in a cage with a '66 Chevelle in the background was supplemented with the words, "It's also got the wildest name I ever heard. They call it a Chevelle SS 396. I'm glad there's a cage between us."12 This beast of a car represented 17% of Chevelle production in 1966, clearly demanding that the "intermediate" needed to be more than just a gap-filler.
1967 was an interesting year. The Green Bay Packers beat Kansas City in the first Super Bowl (not that anyone was paying attention), three U.S. astronauts die in a fire at the launch pad, race riots in Detroit result in lives lost, and Viet Nam troop strength is raised to 475,000. It seemed that someone had an ear to the ground listening to the hoof beats of social discontent. The Mercury Cougar, Chevrolet Camaro, and the Pontiac Firebird joined the Ford Mustang as "pony cars." However, GM, worried about new safety legislation, toned down its performance image as well as its advertising campaigns. Gone were the associations with lions and tigers, gone were the images of the car as a beast. Instead, new safety features and a lukewarm sales brochure stating, "What you'll see inside will probably bring on a severe compulsion to go driving ( If so, consider yourself a healthy, discriminating motorist)"13 were Chevelle's new image. The design was relatively unchanged from the previous year (not necessarily a good marketing strategy considering the market for muscle was as volatile as the social scene) and early press releases indicated that horsepower ratings would be capped at a mere 350 (although the rumors later proved relatively untrue-a few 375 hp motors slipped through the cracks). Sales literature marketed new styling as "attractive and functional." Although the hood louvers were still present, interior styling left a lot to be desired when it came to performance options like the tachometer and shifter for the manual four-speed. The tachometer was thrown in as an afterthought, constantly in the way of the driver's left hand, and the shifter had an annoying habit of slamming the driver's thumb into the bench seat when shifting into second.14 What was happening?! Chevelle designers had lost sight of the market. While "pony" cars were being snatched up, Chevelle sales dropped. Was this the end of the road? As 1967 came to a close with protesters screaming at the nation's capital in protest of Viet Nam involvement, it seemed that the Chevelle might go the way of the horse and carriage.
1968 saw a revitalization of the Chevelle's image. With designers once again in tune with the nation's wants and needs, the Chevelle had become an attractive coupe. Gone were the long, boxy lines replaced now by a more aggressive stance (now a full inch wider), a long hood, and a short deck.15 The slight overhang of the nose and the small-mesh front grill lent to the Chevelle the appearance of a snarling bulldog. Critics called the resulting impression, "pure pony car, even though the new Chevelle was certainly a horse of a different color." Ad campaigns proclaimed, "It'd be a big mover on looks alone" and two-door coupes were called, "quick size performers."16 Lee Kelley of Popular Hot Rodding said of the newly revamped Chevelle, "Although it's not the fastest machine right off the showroom floor, it does possess much more potential than any other car in its field. With a minimum of cash outlay and a lot of elbow grease, this car can be [a] street eliminator any night of the week. Chevy may not be in racing, but its cars sure are!"17
With the country going through the turmoil of two assassinations, the Democratic National Convention fiasco and "Tricky Dick" now in office, the Chevelle appealed to the rebellion-minded younger generations at a price that didn't break daddy's pocketbook. Chevelle designers seemed to have their finger on the pulse of the American driver once again. However, with new front shoulder harnesses as standard equipment and the addition of mandated side-marker lights, the legislation beast was slowly awakening. A huge list of safety features appeared at the end of a listing of technical specifications including "padded instrument panel" and "laminated windshield". Coupled with GM's policy of "non-performance", even the '68's most potent power plant produced a quarter-mile time of only 14.8, much to the dismay of the automotive press. Although the Chevelle had redeemed itself in the eyes of GM, congress, and for the most part, the American public, it was still a long way from being the snarling, huffing beasts Americans had come to identify as muscle cars.
Although 1969 saw the first man on the moon, Woodstock, and 250,000 students in the nation's capital screaming for the violence in Viet Nam to stop, the 1969 Chevelle saw a few cosmetic changes from 1968 (they included a revised front grille and standard headrests as well as some new badging), but not much else. It was as if Chevrolet was waiting for just the right moment to produce something really big. Letting the social climate stay in the background, the performance Chevelle was what it had been since production started: a well-built, mildly-muscled intermediate. However, the ad slogans proclaimed things like, "If the competition had one like this one, we'd have a lot more competition" and "Putting you first keeps us first."18 By 1969, the Chevelle SS was Detroit's most popular muscle car.19 One rebellious brochure sported the phrase, "No more 'Mr. Nice Guy'" transposed over a picture of Chevrolet's 1969 line-up on a testing track. All this despite GM's well known displacement limitations and caps on promoting performance.
Due to a back-door ordering technique, the '69 did see a radical change, but only in very limited numbers. Much like the elusive Z16 motor, a Chevelle SS could be equipped with an enormous 427 C.I. engine (no small feat considering GM's 400 C.I. limit imposed on intermediates in 1965). A few lucky dealers and independent purchasers figured out the ordering technique (which didn't require the consent of upper management) and were able to sneak a total of about 323 out of the factory in both Camaros and Chevelles (an exact number isn't known due to the difficulty of tracking the engines)20. Although the press never got their hands on them, the lucky drivers who did were able to keep them a relative secret due to the lack of SS badging inside and out of the car. Something about the 427 appealed to Americans (although not many knew about it). Maybe it was the feeling that the order was a direct bite at "the man." Or perhaps it was just the feeling of 1969 as being the end of an era which drove people to buy the 427s. Whatever it was, Chevrolet sat up and took notice and responded in 1970 with what some call the pinnacle of muscle car performance.
Although 1970 was still victim to social strife in the form of strikes, high unemployment, protests, and the end of The Beatles, 1970 was the year for performance Chevelles. The ad campaign featured a newly re-designed Chevelle SS with a bold, new nose, standard hood pins, huge stripes and a large cowl hood, being held down by gigantic ropes boldly proclaiming, "Other cars wish we would keep it this way."21 Another ad proclaims, "The performance starts as soon as you're seated."22 Gone were the lukewarm campaigns of "attractive and functional," replaced by the impressive image of the car being held down like some sort of rampaging animal. Apparently the admen liked the campaign so much, "they blew [the photographs] up every where they got the chance. The photos ran in magazine ads. They appeared in new model brochures. They hung on dealership walls." Campaigns for the non-SS models ran the slogan, "By now it should be a matter of which, not whether."23 Chevrolet's intermediate had turned into something a bit more than the intermediate vehicle class suggested. One reviewer actually said of the new Chevelle, "The best selling Supercar isn't the quickest. But it looks tough. And it's kind to women and children."24 Had the Chevelle finally blended looks, performance and functionality to its best advantage?
Social discontent had spawned a Chevelle of a different breed. Almost nonexistent was the straight-six motor which had provided the first Chevelle with its go power. Instead, a long line of V-8s were offered for the Chevelle. Cowl Induction meant an extra burst of cold air when the engine demanded it. At higher rpms a small induction flange opened up, feeding the engine a burst of cold air meant to increase horsepower at the high end. It provided drivers with a sense of instant gratification. Road Test was a little skeptical of the whole deal saying, "There's no question [it] works. The driver can see [it] operate. But does it do any good?" It turns out a similarly equipped car without the Cowl Induction hood performed exactly the same. They then went on to say, "It's a gimmick, but sometimes people need fun little gimmicks." Car Life testers agreed saying, "It probably adds some power, and kids love it."25
Another one of Chevrolet's "gimmicks" was the most radical engine ever to sit in the engine bay of the Chevelle: the 450 horse power 454 LS6 motor. It was big, it was powerful, and when compared with other muscle cars, it held its own. In a test done by Car and Driver in February of 1970, the Chevelle SS 454 went up against a Shelby AC Cobra, a Mustang Boss 302, and a Plymouth Valiant Duster 340. It ran the quarter mile in 13.81 seconds (it was beaten only by .08 seconds by the Shelby) and its mile-per-hour was the best of the four at 103.8026. Not bad for a production car with no modifications. Bigger, faster, angrier. This was what the American youth wanted, and it's what they got. Super Stock claimed of the new LS6 Chevelle, "Driving a 450hp Chevelle is like being the guy who's in charge of triggering atom bomb tests. You have the power, you know you have the power, and you know if you use the power, bad things may happen. Things like arrest, prosecution, loss of license. broken pieces, shredded tires, etc."27 It was precisely this reason that federal legislation cracked down, effectively ending the muscle car era.
"Almost overnight, federal agencies effectively pulled the plug on horsepower, primarily through escalating emissions standards. Once only a hassle for hot-car buyers in environmentally conscious California, specialized smog equipment found its way under the hoods of cars sold in all states. The worst, however, was still to come...Late in 1969, Washington had proposed that even stricter limits be put in place by 1975, limits engineers could only meet through the use of catalytic converter exhaust systems. And since leaded gasoline and catalytic converters don't mix, the switch to unleaded fuel was a foregone conclusion."
--Mike Mueller, Chevelle: 1964-1972.
Almost overnight everything died down. The baby boomers were given the right to vote and poof! No more protests, no more riots, no more hullabaloo. Although Chevelle designers were looking at the emissions laws as opposed to the society's pulse, the 1971 Chevelle was modified to fit the new toned down baby boomer generation. Gone was the image of the rampaging beast held down by ropes. It had been replaced by slogans like, "And now a little something for the faithful." or a rather alarming slogan which pushed several buttons (in that those who wanted their cars to be a reflection of their personal rebellion were afraid that the government was taking away yet another freedom), "Don't panic. There's still an SS 454."28
Nonetheless, it still packed a punch. Compared to the 1970 model, admittedly it was more of a tap rather than a punch, but at least performance minded people could get their hands on a relatively good performance car. However, most people couldn't afford to look at one, let alone put their hands on one. Insurance rates changed to factor in power-to-weight ratios and even reduced, the SS 454 was still more performance than the common man could afford. Even mildly beefy small blocks proved out of the price range for many a Chevelle buyer. The mid-year introduction of the Heavy Chevy was an attempt to make the Chevelle more affordable by being all show and no go, but even that didn't spark the market.
As 1972 rolled in, everyone knew that the muscle car was on its way out. California buyers couldn't even get their hands on a big block Chevelle and even some small block motors were taboo as well. Performance wasn't even mentioned in most ads. "'72 Chevelle. Fits more families, more budgets, more garages."29 Low sticker prices were meant to make the Chevelle more attractive to the more family minded baby boomer, but instead, they only served to remind the people of "the good 'ol days." Heavy Chevy options did well, but only because of the pageantry, not for the actual performance. The 1972 Chevelle was the last of the supercars, and even its image was fading. It was still considered, "well executed and well conceived" by writers at Motor Trend30, but gone was the enthusiasm of the Chevelle as "The World's Greatest Supercar."
Thirty-five years after the first Chevelle was introduced, it's popularity hasn't diminished in the least bit. A particularly zealous Chevelle-lover said of the car, "The Chevelle gave the average American the opportunity to share in the performance experience in a mid-size car that was only before known to people who could afford Corvettes." It's that nostalgia that has allowed the Chevelle to live on in the hearts and minds of many a car lover. Although my own Chevelle is a long way from being the supercar it once was, it's easy to imagine what it was like when it first rolled off the line in Fremont thirty years ago. Chevelle designers created something totally new when they created the Chevelle. Not too big, not too small, not too beefy, not too under-powered. It was the everyman's car. More importantly it was the everyman's muscle car. And although the Chevelle has been gone for twenty-two years, it remains, if not at the top of the American classic muscle hierarchy, then surely no more than one step down.
Clarke, R.M. Chevelle & SS Muscle Portfolio: 1964-1972. Surrey: Brookland Books, LTD.
Mueller, Mike. Chevelle: 1964-1972. Osceola:MBI Publishing, 1993.
Yates, Brock. The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry. New York: Empire Books, 1983.
General Motors Corporation. Competition and the Motor Vehicle Industry : a Study by General Motors Corporation Submitted to the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly of the Committee of the United States Senate and Included in the Record of the Subcommittee's Hearings on April 10, 1974.
Finch Christopher. Highways to Heaven: The Autobiography of America. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
1 "What Happened in the Sixties?" www.bbhq.com/sixties2.htm
2 "Competition and the Motor Vehicle Industry," p. 28. General Motors Corporation.
4 "Competition and the Motor Vehicle Industry," p. 29.
5 The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile," p. 192.
6 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 25.
7 "Automotive History: Decade of 1960," motorcraft.autoHistory/1960/index.shtml
8 "Chevelle for '65" chevelles.com/years/65/index.shtml
9 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 50.
10 "Chevelle for '66" chevelles.com/years/66/index.shtml
11 "Chevelle:1964-1972," p. 54.
12 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 53.
13 "Chevelle for '67" chevelles.com/years/67/index.shtml
14 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 59.
15 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 63.
16 "Chevelle for '68" chevelles.com/years/68/index.shtml
17 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 63.
18 "Chevelle for '69" chevelles.com/years/69/index.shtml
19 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 70.
20 "Chevelles:1964-1972," p. 78.
21 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 89.
22 "Chevelle for 1970," chevelles.com/years/70/index.shtml
23 "Chevelle for 1970," chevelles.com/years/70/index.shtml
24 "Chevelle & SS Muscle Portfolio: 1965-1972," p. 76.
25 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 94-95.
26 "Chevelle & SS Muscle Portfolio: 1965-1972," p. 73.
27 "Chevelle: 1964-1972," p. 89.
28 "Chevelle for 1971," chevelles.com/years/71/index.shtml
29 "Chevelle for 1972," chevelles.com/years/72/index.shtml
30 "Chevelle & SS Muscle Portfolio: 1965-1972," p. 113.
Amanda Babb wrote this as a student at Claremont McKenna College, one of the five Claremont Colleges located in Claremont, California and the proud owner of a 1968 El Camino Custom Deluxe equipped with a 350 ci small block. In the summers she resides in Sunnyvale, California, situated about an hour south of San Francisco. Her interest in Chevelles was purely coincidental and began in June of 1998. Looking for any old car to bring back to life for the purpose of learning more about them, she decided on an El Camino for strictly practical reasons which the car/truck combination fit perfectly (although her reasons for keeping it are much less rational).
The paper was written for a class entitled, "Cars and Culture" which is only offered at Pitzer College, one of the other five Claremont Colleges. The course is an examination of the automobile and its influences on American culture as a whole, and Southern California culture in particular. The topic was left to the discretion of the students.
Tom Wilson - Team Chevelle
Amanda is a popular and welcome member of our Tech Forum with well over 100 postings to her credit. Her tech username, appropiately enough is: CA Elky