1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge
By Bill Vance
In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, with the maturation of our automobile industry, the various Big Three (Ford, GM and Chrysler) makes had sorted themselves into a pretty well-established market hierarchy. A Ford sold to Ford people and a Chevrolet to Chevy folks. A Plymouth didn’t aspire to be a DeSoto or a Chrysler. Nor did Oldsmobile or Cadillac try to compete in Chevrolet’s market segment.
Although it had been occasionally disturbed, this orderly pattern really began to disintegrate in the early 1960s. It started with the introduction of the import-fighting 1960 compacts from the Big Three: the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and the Valiant from Chrysler.
When the rear-engined Corvair was outsold by Ford’s conventional Falcon, Chevrolet switched the Corvair’s emphasis to the sporty segment with its dressed up Monza. It countered the Falcon in 1962 with a conventional front-engine, rear drive car called the Chevy II.
But Ford stayed a jump ahead, this time with its new 1962 Ford Fairlane, slotted between the full size Ford and the Falcon. It was a little bigger and fancier than the Falcon. This was called the intermediate segment, and Chevrolet’s response, the Chevelle, came in 1964. There was a Canadian corporate clone version called the Pontiac Acadian.
1964 Chevrolet Chevelle. Photo: Bill Vance. Click image to enlarge
The Chevelle was based on what was called the GM A-body that was also used for the Pontiac Tempest, Oldsmobile F-85 and Buick Special.
With a wheelbase of 2,921 mm (115 in.) and an over-all length of 4,925 mm (193.9 in.), the Chevelle was almost the same size as the mid-50s Chevrolet, demonstrating how quickly car sizes were increasing in those days.
Power for the Chevelle was standard Chevrolet fare: inline pushrod sixes of 3.2 or 3.8 litres (194 or 230 cu. in.), or a 283 (4.6 L) pushrod V8 from the full-size Chevrolet, available in 195 or 220 horsepower versions.
Transmissions were equally varied, with the availability of a three-speed manual, with optional overdrive, a four-speed manual or a two-speed Powerglide automatic.
In addition to a wide range of powertrain options, the Chevelle line included two-and four-door wagons, a hardtop and a convertible. There were two series, the 300 and the luxury Malibu, as well as a special Super Sport (SS) version of the Malibu.
The Chevelle even came as a truck – the station wagon-based El Camino sedan-pickup. The original El Camino, on the full-size Chevrolet chassis, had arrived in 1959 in response to Ford’s popular Ranchero sedan-pickup introduced in 1957. The big El Camino was discontinued after only two years, and reappeared in 1964 as the Chevelle derivative. It was an attractive conveyance for urban cowboys and the horsey set.
The Chevelle tapped into a market that was ready for this size car. Despite what could be called somewhat plain, squared-off styling, first model year sales nudged close to 340,000, well ahead of the 278,000 Fairlanes sold by Ford.
For 1965 the Chevelle was facelifted, and received new colours and trim. Sales for 1965 remained strong, more than 340,000, again well ahead of the Fairlane. The Malibu SS option proved popular, selling more than 80,000.
The arrival of the 1964 Pontiac GTO had launched the muscle car era, intermediate sedans with big V8 engines. Chevrolet’s response was a Chevelle with a 5.4 litre (327 cu in.) V8, or a 6.5 litre (396 cu in.) in the SS396. It would ultimately offer a 7.4 L (454 cu in.). The Malibu SS396 and SS454 were among the hottest of the muscle cars.
The Chevelle was restyled for 1966, and the inevitable growth set in. The lines of the ’66 were softer and more attractive, with the two-door hardtop featuring C-pillars that extended back past the rear window in what was called “flying buttress” styling.
The buying public was well pleased with the ’66 Chevelle. It bought more than 400,000 of them, making it the Chevelle’s best year ever.
A new grille and other small styling changes marked the ’67 Chevelle. Then for ’68 the car received a completely new body with the increasingly popular long hood, short deck theme.
Grille and minor styling changes occurred in 1973, when the Chevelle emerged with “colonnade” hardtop styling featuring wide side pillars suggesting a limousine theme. Recognizing that the muscle car era was about over, Chevrolet dropped the SS model.
The Chevelle soldiered on to 1977 in a decade marked by more and more model overlap as the Chevrolet Nova (formerly the Chevy II) and Chevelle jostled for almost the same market. And when downsizing began in 1977, the full size Chevy became virtually the same size as the Chevelle. For 1978 the Chevelle name was discontinued; the Chevrolet intermediate was now the all-new Malibu.
When the Chevelle came on the scene in 1964, it had been the right-size car for the times. It would prove to be the best selling of all the intermediates, and was considered by many as the size of car the full-size Chevrolet should have been all along.