Cars We Remember: 1966 Chevelle SS 396 memories good and bad
Q: Hey Greg I just read where you said that in 1966, the Chevelle SS396 was maybe the most popular boulevard cruiser of the day. I agree, and would love to hear your stories about this great muscle car. Thanks much.
— Anthony L., Canton, Ohio.
A: Anthony, I would love to reminisce a bit on this wonderful car muscle car. But before we get to the 1966 Chevelle SS396, let’s first give a tip of the hat to the 1964 Pontiac GTO, the first ever mid-size muscle car, and also the 1965 Chevelle SS, be it a 350 horse 327 or the extremely rare SS396, the latter of which only 201 were built. Both of these models deserve note and to this day are favorites of muscle car collectors.
As for the 1966 Chevelle SS396, Chevy knew it was going to be a very popular youth market car and sales boomed immediately thanks to dealers having many of them sitting on the lots. Three 396 big block engines were available that year, namely the standard 325 horsepower version along with optional 360 horse and 375 horsepower versions. The 396/375 was the exact same engine that powered the 1965 Corvette 396, notably the only year a 396 was offered in the Corvette line.
Now, on to my memories of the 1966 Chevelle, good and bad.
Where I grew up in South Jersey, Vineland to be exact, it was literally a racing and high performance playground. Every night, we lived the “American Graffiti“ movie dream, and cruised one of the longest four lane avenues in the state, namely Landis Avenue. The Delsea Drive-In Theater provided entertainment on the weekends, followed by a trip to Stewart’s Drive-In Root Beer stand. We never had to leave our cars.
It was here in Vineland that my friends had many a ’66 SS396 Chevelle, including one of my very best friends in high school. Off the top of my head, I can count six or seven close friends who had them, and a whole bunch of other high school acquaintances that owned them, too. The hot ticket was the 396/375 that year, but I’ll be honest that most of the cars my friends had were the 325 and 360 horse versions.
So, cruising the avenue was a nightly thing, summer or winter and it was huge. Be it SS396, Buick GS, Olds 442, Dodge 426 Hemi, Plymouth 440 wedge, tri-power GTO, Mustang GT, Fairlane 427 and even an altered wheelbase 1955 Chevy were part of the nightly scene.
As for the street racing, just like the “American Graffiti” movie, it was a real big deal. There were three places we would race, the most popular being Union Road which led to the shore points like Sea Isle City and Ocean City. There, after races were planned and drivers “called out” during the week, you would show up and there would be hundreds of kids and even a few bonfires lit up. There would be many drag races, but a “major feature race” was always on tap. And, thanks to the many SS396 Chevelles that were cruising right on through the 1970 years, it wasn’t a surprise when a 1966 Chevelle SS396 lined up against a foe for the big money race of the evening. Now we’re talking some serious money back then, some races featuring a collective $1,000 to win, one run only, no excuses. Everybody put their money up for these events, and the memories I have are unreal as races of this stature attracted some of the professional drivers and engine builders of the era.
Now, with all this excitement going on, I have to let you know there was tragedy, too. My friend who I mentioned earlier in this column died one night when he rolled his silver ’66 SS396 over after a tire failure. It was a shock to everyone as he was very popular and had a bright future. So I want to emphasize to my readers, and especially my younger readers who may be street racing right now to stop immediately and take your events to an area drag strip. I know from experience that street racing is deadly, so please heed my advice.
The 1966 Chevelle SS396 to this day is one of the most popular collector cars. And, even with a 327 under the hood, it was quite the street cruiser. The two door coupes offered clean looking lines, and I even know some enthusiasts who purchased the two-door coupes and post sedans with six cylinder engines and then did a rear end and engine change. For gear shifting, if you weren’t running a Muncie 4-speed back then, you were in the minority.
As for sales, the ’66 SS396 Chevelle listed for $2,776 for the coupe and $2,984 for the ragtop. Add a few options and maybe that 375 horse engine and you were in muscle car land for not too much money. Of all my friends who had these cars, one 1966 Chevelle SS396 always comes to mind. It was owned by a friend and it was butternut yellow and had the 375 horse engine. Being that my friend worked at a Chevy dealership prior to opening up his own speed shop, he had access to the new aluminum heads that came out for the engine and also utilized two four barrels and a 4:88 gear ratio. There wasn’t much around that could touch this car. He also did a lot of work for area cruisers like me, and installed my Hedman headers purchased at Sears & Roebuck where I worked when I purchased my 1968 Camaro SS/RS 396/375.
As for overall Chevelle sales, in its debut 1964 year a total of 328,400 Chevelles of all shapes and sizes were sold. Total sales in 1966 came in at 412,000 and by the end of the decade the 1969 Chevelle attracted 440,000 buyers. That’s what I call a popular car, be it 327 powered wagon, a ragtop SS396 or a two door post six banger.
In ending and not counting my friend’s street racing death, those days were some of the best ever and the 1966 Chevelle SS396 was indeed one of the most popular boulevard cruisers.
Thanks for your letter.
— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other Gatehouse Media publications. He welcomes reader input on collector cars, auto nostalgia or old-time racing at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or email at email@example.com.