Which Chevelle is the best?
Regardless of what year it is, how the market is doing, or which way the “trend winds” are blowing, the most common question a classic car outfit like ours gets is typically along the lines of “What’s the most popular (aka the ‘hottest’) classic car out there right now?” Whether people want to know what to purchase, what to sell off, what to restore and/or preserve for the future, or they’re just flat-out curious to see what everyone else is spending their hard-earned cash on – we have a desire for the en vogue, and a longing to see exactly what the well-to-do neighbors are in to. We yearn for “what’s hot” and decry “what’s not”, and the classic car hobby certainly isn’t immune to such “Keeping up with the Jones’s” populism. If you’ve followed us this far, we feel you’ve earned the right to gain some valuable insight, so we’d like to let you in on a little secret: In today’s market, invest in a red-hot Chevelle.
Naturally, there are several variables to consider -- most notably which Chevelle(s) we’re actually talking about. General Motors produced the Chevelle for 14 years, and within that decade-plus there were multiple versions of this championed car. Varied trim models, numerous drivetrain options, and even the somewhat separate Malibu are often lumped into what many consider a vintage “Chevelle”. And within the ‘restored and secondary’ market that we specialize, the Chevelle as we know it has progressed into such a diverse category it could almost be considered a separate make. From the pedigreed ‘SS396’ and original ‘LS’ cars, to the somewhat more restrained ‘300’ and ‘Chevelle Malibu’ models, and to the ever-expanding resto-mod and pro-touring examples, the Chevelle is incredibly varied and well-represented. Even though a new model hasn’t been built since the Carter administration, hundreds of Chevelles rejoin on the road each year, with restorations and custom builds highlighting garages and speed shops nationwide. There’s an old anecdote that’s quite apt when describing the current state of this model – there are more Chevelle SS’s on the road today than there were in 1973-74 when the model was downgraded and ultimately phased out. So yeah, it’s a healthy classic car with a very strong following to say the least (imitation is the best form of flattery), but this can make things difficult to narrow down when it’s time to buy or properly value one. Further complicating matters is that fact that within the model there are a host of submodels (300, SS, Heavy Chevy, etc.), subcategories (restored, survivor, etc.), and even subgenres (original cars, resto-mods, etc.) from which to choose the ‘hottest’ car. For the purpose of this blog, we’ll focus on the top three best-selling year-models only (2-door cars and convertibles only, I can write about my unhealthy obsession with 4-doors and wagons in another blog), but we’ll get to the results a bit later. For now, it’s important to realize why we chose the Chevelle as the response to the “hottest car question”. And the answer isn’t just buried deep in sales numbers, it’s fairly conspicuous these days as well.
Chevelles are so darn popular right now, employees at Streetside Classics don’t even have to dive into the sales/inventory data before they answer those “What’s hot right now?” questions posed to them each day. “We can’t keep Chevelles in stock, even though we’re bringing a ton of them to market” is a reply heard quite often from our nationwide staff, and similar statements have been echoing through our warehouse walls for the last calendar year. Our consignment staff salivate when they see a Chevelle rolling through our doors, knowing that that inventory will quickly be turned around. And our sales staff rejoice when they see a “fresh” Chevelle post to the site, knowing that a quick sale is likely soon to follow. The comings-and-goings of Chevelles within our showrooms are becoming so commonplace that when polled for this blog, a sample size of our partnered shippers, detailers, and regular visitors all answered “Chevelle” when asked what they thought the “hottest” car at Streetside was. All they have to is take a look around our facilities, and the answers are right there, parked in our crowded ‘SOLD’ car rows awaiting shipping. But if you want the cold, hard facts, the answer is exactly the same, as our sales data also reflects that Chevelles are selling at higher rates and at faster clips than any other model. It’s a veritable revolving door of Chevelles coming in through our consignment entrance and out of our sales exit, and because they’re so thoroughly represented throughout the years with dozens of iterations, the numbers stack quickly. When examined that way, it’s easy to see why they’ve eclipse the popularity of Mustangs, Camaros, and even Corvettes lately.
So, there you have it. The straight dope. If you want a classic car that’s on a meteoric rise, with no signs of slowing down, then catch the Chevelle train. Or if you just want an anecdote to have for a cocktail party, feel free to confidently state that Chevelles are the hottest classic cars on the market, and know that the stats will back you up. But even though we’ve established the premise, we still have a bit to go before the final conclusion. We know the Chevelle is the car to buy, restore, preserve etc., but which exact cars are we talking about? Well as we mentioned before, we’re focusing on the top three sales years based on our gathered evidence, and to avoid writing a lengthy dissertation we’re going to have to take some license and combine the many iterations (submodels, trim levels, drivetrains, etc.) together under the broad year headings. The three years we picked are listed sequentially, not by popularity, and we feel they’re all so close in popularity that they can arranged in just about any order. But first, a brief history of the Chevelle before we get to the winners.
Within the 1st generation, every one of the early Chevelle models have incredible merit, making it difficult to single out one particular year. Bunkie Knudsen came out of the gate hot with the introduction of the boxy, shoebox style 1964 model that he hoped would catch on the same way the Tri-5s had a decade prior (in fact, the wheelbase was the exact same length). The Chevelle, in all of its possible iterations and body styles, was instantly popular as a mid-sized vehicle on the all-new A-Body platform (over 350K sold in Year 1), a perfect medium between the compact Nova and the enlarging Impala. We’ll focus mostly on the production of SS cars in this space, as they were the most notable at the time and are certainly the most popular cars today, with real and “clone” SS cars found throughout the classic car landscape. By mid-’64 the Chevelle shed its connections to the Tri-5 by offering a high-powered 327CI/300HP V8, giving birth to America’s love affair with Super Sport trim line (these early Chevelle SS cars actually had Malibu SS badges embossed on the rear quarters) and kicking off the muscle car era. 1965 took the ‘standard-sized’ Chevelle SS to greater heights by bringing the “SS” badge up to the front fender, and featuring an RPO 327/350HP L79 standard SS car along with a very rare Z16 option that offered an 396CI/375HP engine. Even though only 201 Z16s were made in ‘65, the word was out: the big block Chevelle SS was the most powerful performance car in the US and everyone wanted in. GM smartly saw the desire for these cars, and by 1966 the SS became its own model -- no longer just a rare package to be ordered with a baseline Chevelle. 1966 brought a complete redesign of the body, closer to the ‘Coke-bottle’ shape most of us picture in our minds when we think of a Chevelle. The 283 and 327 engines were dropped for the SS model, and the SS396 series was born with horsepower rating ranging from 325-375HP. Again, all of these cars have merit, value, and sell very well, and we could easily discuss them ad nauseum. Nevertheless, there can only be three, and with that brief history behind us, we introduce the first “hot” Chevelle:
The final year of the 1st generation took all that was great about the 1965/66 models and improved them further with a legendary facelift. The iconic grille, wide bumpers, wrap-around headlights, and protruding fenders are key design features up front, while the broad quarters and “flying buttress” roofline of the hardtop models in particular make-up one of the most beautiful American cars ever made. The interiors were not forsaken either, as Chevy made it a point to no longer have Chevelles just be bare-bones, performance-only inside. Instead, things now looked and felt more upscale inside the cabins, and depending on your fancy, one could order a wide range of submodels with a host of options. Varying from a stripped-down 300 model, to a rather posh loaded Malibu, or the powerful standalone Chevelle SS396 -- the iterations were plentiful and suited a wide array of fans. The muscle car era was in full swing in ‘67, and the line of engines available ranged from an economical 230CI/140HP six-cylinder all the way to the powerful RPO L34 and L35 396CI big-block V8s in the SS. The 1967 Chevelle is often referred to as an “old man’s favorite” because of the 1st generation design elements, but it is also beloved by millions today. Between “clone” cars, preserved originals, and the countless resto-mods, the 1967 Chevelle is and will always be a fan favorite.
Skipping over 1968 and 1969 was no easy task, (and many people will be upset that we’re omitting the ’69 Yenko), especially when you consider the changes that took place at the beginning of this 2nd generation. The Chevelle’s wheelbase was shortened and made slightly wider, and the long-hood and rear-quarter, “kick-up” fastback design was introduced. The only reason we skip over the 1968 and 1969 cars -- which are standalone designs with differing front/rear fascia that are often lumped together nonetheless – is because the 1970 Chevelle is just so darn impressive. If you polled most people to pick a favorite Chevelle, it would most often be the ’70, and it’s no coincidence that these cars are featured in so many movies and TV. It’s the ultimate Chevelle, an icon of the American muscle car, and consistently outsells every other model year by a wide margin. By 1970 the Chevelle was “America’s most popular mid-sized car”, reaching incredible heights with over 650,000 units reportedly sold. GM gave the model sheetmetal revisions that completely embraced “Coke-bottle” styling and swooping roofline, and coupled with the double headlights, wide-grille (blacked-out in the SS), and single taillights, the quintessential muscle car was created. The introduction of optional wide “Stereo Stripes”, a scooped cowl-induction hood complete with hood pins, and SS mag wheels adorned the sexiest examples from this year, and even the federally mandated bumpers actually looked sporty thanks to complementing “SS” badges at the end caps. 1970 was also the year of the most powerful Chevelles ever made, with SS454 cars flexing powerful big blocks like the 360HP LS5 and 450HP LS6 – two respective engines that were the top dogs in the game. The 1970 Chevelle continues its dominance and popularity in the market today, with countless examples ranging from faithful, original restorations to full blown, custom resto-mods and pro-touring performance cars.
Please note that that 1971 and 1972 Chevelle are often lumped together (they are practically the same car save for slight differences in the side marker lights and front grilles), but for the purposes of this space we have molded both cars into 1972. It’s truly the ‘last great Chevelle’, employed as one of Chevy’s final haymakers into the performance car world shortly before the Feds choked out the muscle car era completely a short while later. The ‘71/’72 cars retained the same body as the ’70, but a major switch to single headlights highlighted a revised front fascia that featured a wider grille, and for the first time round taillights were integrated into the rear bumper. Once again, the Chevelle was able to pull off the look of federally-mandated bumpers (usually they were an albatross on cars from the era) with the help of shiny chrome and big badges in the SS models. All the same “tough” add-ons from 1970 were offered in the single-headlight cars (wide stripes, cowl induction hood), the interiors were comfortable and luxurious, and you could even get a real SS with a small block in ’71 -- something that hadn’t been offered since 1965. Insurance companies wanted to spoil all the fun just like the Feds did, and because of their exploding rates we got the “Heavy Chevy” for those that wanted a V8 but didn’t want to pay SS premiums. Much like the other years we’ve listed here, these Chevelles offered a litany of motors from a wheezing “Turbo-Thrift” six-cylinder to the 454V8, although the horsepower party was winding down due to the prevalence of unleaded gas – with numbers topping out at 270HP “advertised rating” for the top dog big block, although pre-SAE ratings would’ve put those numbers much higher. The 402 V8 was also introduced to distance itself away from some of the poor emissions and MPG ratings of the 396 (they were virtually the same motor, short of an .030 overbore), and also so people wouldn’t think that the 400 small block was more powerful. These “final-year” muscle cars were some of America’s best sellers in ‘71/’72, and a big reason for that was because families started buying up the 4-door and wagon submodels. GM sensed the changing winds, and the very next year the high-performance Chevelle was pretty much dead. Thankfully, the ‘71/’72 Chevelles are incredibly popular today (especially among younger demographics), with gorgeous examples popping up on the market each day for very strong money.
There you have it, the Chevelle frenzy boiled down to the three “hottest” years money can buy. For those of you looking to buy or restore one of these icons, the time is still right, and you can still join the party. And for those of you looking to sell theirs, the iron is officially hot. Let this blog be a blueprint, and now go join the fray!