It’s still mind blowing that Pontiac jumped in front of Chevrolet and invented the muscle car (according popular opinion, at least). The 1964 GTO, created by Pontiac Chief Engineer John DeLorean and two of his senior assistants, Bill Collins and Russ Gee, basically caught their rivals at Chevrolet and the rest of the industry asleep in their product planning meetings. Those guys realized the 389-cubic-inch engine from Pontiac’s full-size model would fit in the new smaller and lighter 1964 Tempest. Then they added a name stolen from Ferrari and combined that performance with image.
Chevy, of course, had the Corvette, but it took some time for the Bowtie Boys to catch up in the muscle car wars, first with the big-block Chevelle and then with the Camaro, which didn’t arrive until 1967. For many, the Camaro is considered the quintessential American muscle car. Heck, it’s probably the most popular muscle car of all time, so popular that it overshadows Chevy’s many other muscle machines.
Truth is, Chevy created some of the greatest muscle cars of the era well beyond the Camaro’s legendary models like the Z/28, SS 396, and 427-powered COPO. And we celebrate them here today. These are our picks for the five best Chevy muscle cars that aren’t Camaros:
1965 Chevy Chevelle Z16
A year after the GTO debuted, Chevy still didn’t have a serious mid-size muscle car, although its new Mark IV big-block engine was about to change that. It first appeared on the option sheet of the Corvette. For $292.70 (about $2313 today), option code L78 got you a 396-cu-in engine with a solid cam, an aluminum intake manifold, and big port heads, rated at 425 horsepower. The engine was also available in the full-size Impala SS.
And then, late in the model year, Chevy put it in the Chevelle. Option code RPO Z16 included a stronger boxed frame from the Chevelle convertible and a slightly detuned version of the 396, given the code L37. Its 11:1 compression ratio was retained, but it got a milder hydraulic cam that dropped its peak power to 375 hp at 5600 rpm and 420 lb-ft torque at 3600 rpm. That’s still 15 hp more than a tri-power 1965 GTO.
Only 201 of them were built, mostly in red. Except for a single convertible, all were hardtops with four-speeds. It was Chevrolet’s first true big-block muscle car, and it was a signal to the world that Chevy was ready for war.
1968 Chevy Impala SS427 L72
By 1967, mid-size muscle cars were everywhere. Every American manufacturer short of Cadillac and Lincoln were now betting on street performance. There were Pontiac GTOs, Oldsmobile 442s, Buick’s Skylark GS-400, 440-powered Dodge R/Ts, and Plymouth GTXs, and Chevy was selling a ton of big-block SS Chevelles. But full-size muscle was still a thing. In ’67, the Impala SS 427 was RPO Z24 and included the L36 big-block with a hydraulic cam rated at 385 hp, five horsepower less than it was rated in the Corvette. Chevy sold 2124 that year.
Then, in 1968, Chevy cranked it up, dropping the 425-hp, solid-lifter, iron-block L-72 427 into the Impala. It was the same engine that powered the hottest 1966 Corvette and it’s the same engine that would go on to power COPO Camaros in 1969. In the Impala, the engine cost an extra $542.45 ($3945 today), and it was available with the Turbo-Hydramatic 400 three-speed automatic or a Muncie four-speed. The 1968 Impala hardtop was a fastback stunner, to which Chevy also added bright red 427 badges to each fender and red and white SS 427 badges to its grille and its decklid.
According to Hemmings, Chevy built almost 711,000 Impalas in 1968. Only 1778 were SS427s, and of those, only 568 got the L72.
1969 Chevy Chevelle COPO 9562
In 1969, if you wanted the hottest big-block Chevelle you bought an L78 powered Chevelle SS 396 with 375 hp. Right? Wrong. Chevy would also sell you a 427-powered Chevelle. You just had to know it existed. Most Chevy dealers didn’t.
COPO stands for Central Office Production Order, and it was created so Chevrolet could build specially equipped cars and trucks for fleets like police, fire, and taxi services. But the program was prostituted during the muscle car era and allowed Chevrolet to build 427-powered Camaros and Chevelles, despite GM’s self-imposed ban on engines larger than 400 cubic inches in mid-size or smaller cars. The Corvette was the exception, of course. Basically, COPO became Chevy’s back door.
These 427 Chevelles are rare, and like COPO Camaros they don’t wear SS badging. They are plain Jane, with just a blue Chevy Bowtie in the center of their grille. According to hemmings.com, Chevy built 323 of them, with 99 going to Don Yenko’s Pennsylvania dealership for Yenko S/C badging.
1968 Chevy Nova SS396 L78
The 1967 L79 Chevy II was a hot little car. With the 350-hp 327 small-block from the Corvette, it was drag raced by Bill Grumpy Jenkins and became known as a giant killer on the street and strip. It remains popular with collectors today. But Chevy had more serious performance plans for its inexpensive economy car, and Chevy debuted the redesigned Nova in 1968. It was larger and shared its front clip with the Camaro. And that meant Chevy’s mean ol’ big-block engine would fit.
The Nova SS 396 was born, and it remains one of the greatest high-performance bargains of all time. The Nova wasn’t as sexy as the Camaro, but it was cheaper, lighter and less expensive to insure. And it was available with the same 375-hp solid-lifter L78 396 as the Camaro and the Chevelle, with either a Turbo 400 automatic or a Muncie four-speed. (Chevy also offered the 350-hp L34 396.)
Although the L79 remained available for one more year, L78 Nova’s were street beasts—sleepers that could sneak up on unsuspecting 440 Mopars and 428-powered Fords. And they are rare. Chevy only built 667 in 1968, although production jumped to nearly 5000 in 1969 and more than 3700 in 1970, according to novaresourse.org.
1970 Chevy Chevelle SS 454 LS6
In 1970, GM lifted its internal ban on installing engines larger than 400 cubic inches in mid-size models. That same year, Chevy’s big-block grew from 427 cubic inches to 454, and the Chevelle model got a complete redesign that included more muscular lines. The SS model now featured two wide racing stripes across its hood and decklid, and cowl induction was offered for the first time. The planets aligned and the sexy, new 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS 454 LS6, packing 450 hp, became the most powerful muscle machine of the era and one of the most desirable muscle cars of all time.
Author Martyn L. Schorr was an automotive journalist in 1970. In his new book, Day One: An Automotive Journalist’s Muscle-Car Memoir, he writes, “The Chevelle SS 454 championed the assault with an optional 454/450, giving the LS6 Chevelle pavement-pounding power. Few cars, other than Mopar Street Hemis and Buick Stage I Skylarks, could hold their own against the popular Chevelle SS. All three cars, especially when tuned and fitted with headers, were capable of delivering low-to-mid-thirteens at 105–107 mph terminal speeds.”
Chevy actually offered four different big-blocks in the 1970 Chevelle SS, including the 375-hp L78, as well as the 365-hp LS5 454, which had less compression and a hydraulic camshaft. But the LS6 454, which also cranked out 500 lb-ft of torque, was a radical as it got. The engine featured four-bolt mains, an 11.5:1 compression ratio, rectangle port heads, an aluminum intake manifold, and a big Holley carburetor. And the car was downright common compared to many other exotic muscle cars. According to americancarcollector.com, Chevy built 4475 LS6 Chevelles in 1970.