The Chevrolet Chevelle represented one of GM’s most versatile nameplates when it was first introduced in the mid-1960s. By the time the second generation rolled around, the Chevelle’s A-body platform had birthed sedans, coupes, wagons, the El Camino trucklet, and convertibles onto the market, and would go on to provide the underpinnings for the personal luxury Monte Carlo coupe a few short years later.
From a performance perspective, the 1968–72 contingent was the most appealing sequence of Chevelles ever built. It included not just the famed SS 396 model but the legendary LS6 SS 454, a car that would close out GM’s big-block era with a thunderous exclamation mark. Part of the Chevrolet’s enduring popularity, however, is just how easy it is to work on and how many examples were built; it’s a great candidate for a street rod, an inexpensive cruiser, or a dedicated drag platform.
There exists a wide panoply of Chevelle models, and as such pricing for the second generation car is all over the map. A 1968 model in 300 trim with a V-8 still checks in at under $25,000 for a concours-level car (and half that if you’re looking at six-cylinder car), while a 1972 SS 454 convertible is over six figures for both concours-quality restorations and excellent condition show cars alike. It’s the SS cars—which are generally found in the $50,000-and-up range for a solid, original driver—that are the focus of this guide.
How can you choose the right Chevelle at the right price and not get burned in the process? We spoke to Roger Ausley of Ausley’s Chevelle and Jeff Lilly of Jeff Lilly Restorations, two prominent players in the A-body world, to get their advice.
VIN probably won’t help you
To say that the Chevrolet Chevelle was a bread and butter car for General Motors is a bit of an understatement. During its 1968–72 run, a whopping 2.4 million examples were built, spread across two-door sedans, coupes, hardtops, convertibles, and wagons, as well as four-door sedans and wagons.
That’s a startling number of vehicles, and unsurprisingly there are a bewildering array of trim levels to go with each. We’re interested in the SS, which restricts body styles to two-door coupes, hardtops, and convertibles. The El Camino and Monte Carlo, which are bundled in with the Chevelle family, were also available in SS trim.
There were just under 192,000 SS examples produced, or roughly eight percent of the final build count. Those cars can be further broken down along the following lines: 44,239 Z15 package cars (1971–72), 23,568 SS 454s (1970–72, of which 4475 were LS6 models), 53,599 SS 396s (1970), 86,307 Z25 SS cars (1969), and 62,785 Super Sport editions (1968, also known as the SS 396). It’s important to note that ordering the SS option on a Chevelle from 1969–72 required the Malibu trim level (or the Custom trim El Camino), with ’68 models opening up availability to 300 Deluxe and sport coupe cars, and ’67 sold as its own Super Sport line.
Other notable Chevelles include the Yenko (a roughly 358-car run of big-blocks sold by Don Yenko’s Pennsylvania dealership in 1969), which is outside the scope of this guide.
It’s not typically possible to identify an SS model by its VIN tag alone, which for ’68–71 is found on the driver’s side of the dashboard, viewable through the windshield. The 13-character code is led off by a 1 indicating Chevrolet, followed by two numbers denoting the vehicle’s series, two more for its body style, a sixth character for the year of production (either an 8, 9, 0, 1, or 2), a seventh character for the plant that built it, and then a six-digit serial number.
Why the issue? Although 1968 Super Sport models had their own line (represented by a 38 in the VIN), the rest of SS production from 1969–71 was added in the form of a package that isn’t represented in the VIN number.
For 1972, there are a number of changes to the VIN layout, including one that’s helpful to SS hunters. The first character remains a 1, the series is denoted by a single letter (C, D, or H for SS-eligible models) in the second character space, and the next two numbers count for body style. The fifth character—engine—is where things get interesting: a W represents the 454-cubic-inch engine, which was unavailable without the also ordering the SS option package. The rest of the VIN follows the previous model years in terms of format.
How then to document a true SS car from 1969–71? It’s not simple, and it starts with cross-referencing the equipment, features, and appearance of the vehicle you are looking at with the Fisher Body Plate number (also known as the trim plate or the cowl plate), which is located at the back of the engine bay on the driver’s side of the firewall.
Matching paint codes and model years can sometimes be a useful indicator. The top left corner of the Fisher tag shows the year of production, and the paint code can be found under the six-digit unit number. The left two-digit number is the lower body color, and the right one is the upper body color. For 1969, the SS was available with unique paint codes 72 (Monaco Orange) and 73 (Daytona Yellow), and seeing these on the tag can indicates you’re looking at an authentic car.
From 1970 onwards, unfortunately, that all falls apart. There’s no definitive link between the Fisher tag, the VIN number, and the SS model, with one exception: cars assembled in Oshawa, Ontario, featured the RPO code (Z15, Z25, etc) associated with the SS package on the Fisher tag.
“You could order a ’70 Malibu with a big-block, bucket seats, a 12-bolt rear end, F41 suspension, everything that screams out SS, but it wasn’t an actual SS unless you also ticked the box for the SS396 RPO code,” Roger Ausley explains. “If someone goes to the trouble to take a Malibu that has all of the gear and adds the right hood and emblems on it, you can’t tell unless you find where they filled the side trim and holes. Paperwork is a very important thing. Without the original motor, you could be looking at a Malibu—and even with a matching-numbers big-block, it could still be a clone.”
If you think you might be looking at a facsimile, and you’re about to drop serious cash, this is when it pays to tag in a Chevrolet expert to confirm the car’s identity, or ask for a paper trail from the seller.
“There’s a big gap between a clone’s value and the value of an original car,” Ausley says. “To command the big money, you absolutely need the paperwork, even though it’s gotten to the point that people are even cloning paperwork.”
What’s the difference between SS models?
The Chevelle SS was the fastest mid-size Chevrolet available each year, and it was a formula that evolved as time went on.
For 1968, the Super Sport (SS 396) line delivered one of three possible 396-cu-in engines: the 325-hp L35, the 350-hp L34, and the 375-hp L78. Trim included unique badging, two air induction inlets on the hood, and a blacked-out grille, and every car featured a black lower body. Standard equipment included a three-speed manual gearbox, an open rear diff, and a bench seat, but the Super Sport could be decked out with all manner of options including buckets, gauge packages, D96 stripes, disc brakes, positraction, a four-speed transmission, and a three-speed automatic transmission.
A new horizontal bar in the grille (rather than the previous mesh) arrived in 1969, as well as square taillights in place of the long above-bumper version and a new ordering process at Chevrolet. You now had to ask for the Z25 SS 396 package required to transform your Chevelle or Malibu into a muscular street machine. Engine choices match those available in ’68, as does interior equipment, but on the outside the black lower body was no longer to be found, and there was bright chrome trim around the parking lights up front. New was the availability of an optional rear sway bar and boxed rear control arms.
In 1970 designation was a little muddied; although the SS 396 nomenclature remained in use, the base L34 engine had been bored out to 402 cubic inches. It still delivered 350 horsepower, with 375 horses from the L78.
An additional SS wrinkle was added by introducing the Z15 order code on top of the Z25. Choosing the lesser number got your more engine—454 cubic inches, in fact, which was good for 360 hp and came mated to either a four-speed Muncie manual or a three-speed automatic (added cost options on top of the Z15 package). You could also opt for the LS6, which was a 450-hp edition of the 454 that also generated 500 lb-ft of torque. It cost half-again what the Z15 package set you back (roughly $750 in total).
In addition to the radical styling changes introduced for 1971 (with the entire Chevelle family adopting a much more square look), Chevrolet would also shake up what the SS badge meant for the car. The Z15 option remained—renamed Z15 SS Equipment—but it didn’t come with its own drivetrain attached, as the 396 and 454 LS6 were banished from the order sheet. Instead, it was used as an appearance package that could be combined with any of the V-8 engines offered with the Malibu trim level, save the base 307-cu-in unit. These included a 300-hp, 402-cu-in engine, two 350 V-8s (245 and 270 hp), and a 365-hp LS5 454. The latter was SS-only and couldn’t be purchased without the Z15 package. The trend would continue in ’72, marking the end of the Chevelle’s second generation.
“Mechanically, I can’t think of anything that was really wrong with any of these drivetrains, other than the fact that all old cars leak oil,” Ausley says with a laugh. “Gaskets and engine sealing weren’t an exact science in that particular era. Unless the car you are looking at was raced or run hard, you’re good to go.”
Where do they rust?
As with any car nearing its sixth decade in a world filled with rain and road salt, rust is an issue for the A-body.
“Most of these cars, especially the vinyl top models, tend to hold moisture and then rust,” Jeff Lilly says. “The back window rusts at the bottom and leaks down into the trunk, rotting out the speaker deck in the process. Sometimes people see water in the trunk and think it came in from the lid, but no, it’s the back window. You have to take the quarter panels off to replace that, and it’s quite an ordeal. Some folks just patch it up, and you can’t tell when you buy the car.”
“You’ll also want to look at the bottoms of fenders, door corners, behind the rear wheel,” Ausley adds. “If it’s a northern car that was driven in salt, the bottoms of the vehicle, including the floors, go bad all around.”
Keep in mind that rust in one area—as with the rear glass issue mentioned above—can sometimes require a more involved repair process than its location might first suggest.
“Especially if it’s a convertible, pay particular attention to the inner rockers,” Lilly says. “The backside of those is where the floor braces are attached, and where the frame is. To replace the inner rocker you have to take all the braces off and redo the entire floor.”
Fortunately, almost every single component for the Chevelle SS is currently being reproduced, including the sheet metal. Dynacorn, for example, builds an entire 1970 body now, which means parts for 1970–72 are readily available. Not all replacement panels are cut from the same stock, however; Lilly cautions that good repro steel can be tough to find. A lot of imported panels do not fit properly out of the box, requiring cutting to make them work.
“We’re selling a lot more sheet metal these days because people are restoring rougher cars than they used to,” Ausley explains. “All the good cars are running out. It’s not unusual for a customer to place a $7000 order with us just to get started on a restoration now.”
Which SS is best?
There’s no shortage of Chevelle SS examples out there for sale, but when trying to decide which year and engine combo is right for you there are a couple of things to keep in mind. The first? Very few of these vehicles are original anymore. Most have been tinkered with, improved upon, and modified over nearly 50 years of existence.
“Almost none of these cars are stock at this point,” Lilly says. “Even the 396/375 car that I bought from the original owner back in 1991 had gone through a lot of changes over the years. You have to wade through the stuff that’s been done to them to see what’s been handled right, and what’s been botched. Far too many people skip a pre-purchase inspection that will catch not only these kinds of issues but also the corrosion problems common to the cars. You need as much information as possible before deciding if you want to get involved with a particular vehicle or not.”
Next up is the popularity of certain model years. According to Ausley, 1970 models are far and away the most desirable Chevelles to target, a fact that’s reflected in their pricing and how often this year shows up in pop culture.
“The 363 or 454 cars from 1970 are the best to buy in terms of value,” he says. “In the second generation, the ’69 and ’71 years are the next most sought after. The ’72s are probably at the bottom of the list, along with ’68, which makes those the ones to target if you’re on a tighter budget.”
Although some combinations of features, engines, and body style are rare—Ausley touts the LS6 and the 375-hp 402 cars as prime examples—don’t get too sucked into chasing down unicorns.
“Chevy had no way of keeping up with all of the different option combos—there’s no official count on the variants, and even some of the body style counts are hard to verify,” he says. “Be wary of anyone who tries to tell you their vehicle is ‘1 of X,’ because time and again I run into similar claims that don’t match what we’ve registered in the Chevelle SS clubs I’m a part of.”
You’ve been warned—and hopefully educated.
There are many fine examples of these historic GM A-bodies out there and a large supporting community before and after you make the final decision. Happy hunting for the Chevelle of your dreams.