These days, with General Motors being kicked around by Japanese brands like Honda and Toyota, it is hard to remember a time when GM's share of the total U.S. automotive market stood at a whopping 60 percent. Now some 40 years have passed since those halcyon days for the biggest automobile maker on the globe -- the go-go Sixties, the decade of youth, rock music and the Vietnam War. To quote some unknown author, who is probably quite tired of being so quoted except for the fact he's dead, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
While the fact that GM once held 60 percent of the American car market is fairly well known and frequently used to bludgeon today's GM executives, a lesser-known fact is that a single GM division -- Chevrolet -- captured more than 25 percent of the market in those years. Think about that -- one in four new vehicles sold each year through most of that decade was a Chevrolet.
Many people were responsible for this long-running success, but two of the men most responsible were GM executives Ed Cole and Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen. Cole, who had earned his spurs on the GM high-compression V8 engine programs that resulted in the legendary Chevrolet small-block engine, ran the Chevrolet division until late in 1961, when his success with Chevy led to his promotion to head up all of GM's car and truck divisions. As an example of what he was able to create, Chevrolet's 1962 model-year vehicle lineup, a menu that was concocted by Cole before his promotion, set a record of 2.13 million sales, a mark that represented 31.5 percent of the American car market. For perspective, that percentage is more than General Motors' total U.S. market share today.
Knudsen took over the reins at Chevrolet from Cole after transforming Pontiac from a boring, "old-person's" car line into a youth-oriented brand during his term as general manager of that division. It was Knudsen who uttered the immortal line, "you can sell a young man's car to an old man, but you can't sell an old man's car to a young man," a motto that current GM executives might give a listen to.
By the time Knudsen reached Chevrolet, the brand already had a strong performance reputation on the strength of the Corvette, Corvair Monza, and the fuel-injected versions of the standard Chevrolet sedans, not to mention the famous "409." But Knudsen immediately set out to strengthen the brand's hot, contemporary image. He also presided over a broadening of the division's offerings that had begun under the direction of Cole. In addition to the "standard" Chevrolet line of Impala, Bel Air and Biscayne, Chevrolet also offered the Corvette, Corvair and Chevy II, plus its trucks.
That would seem to be a wide array of models, especially since many of them included four-door, two-door, station wagon and convertible variations. But Knudsen and the General Motors assembly division found room for one more. GM's A-body already supported the Oldsmobile F-85, Pontiac Tempest, and Buick Special, so it wasn't a very big stretch to come up with a Chevrolet version. Given the rather feminine Chevelle moniker, it hit the market at the beginning of the 1964 model year.
Frankly, there was nothing leading-edge about the Chevelle, but there was a simple honesty to the car that made it the basis for many a hot rodder's dreams. Slotted between the Chevy II and the full-size Chevrolet line, it rode on a 115-inch wheelbase. Its handsomely conservative body sat on a perimeter frame. As was standard practice for virtually every American car save the Corvair, the Chevelle was a front-engine/rear-drive configuration with a live axle. Suspension was equally straightforward -- independent front suspension with coil springs and tube shocks and coils and tubes, plus four links locating the axle in the rear. Like its American brethren of the era, this was a car that excelled in going straight on smooth roads. Corners and uneven surfaces were not its strong suit.
Properly optioned, however, the Chevelle could accelerate in that aforementioned straight line creditably well. Buyers wanting basic transportation could opt for two in-line six cylinder powerplants, but those wanting to get a bit more bang stepped up to the 283 cubic inch V8 engine. In top trim complete with dual exhausts, the engine delivered 220 horsepower.
Those with a sporting bent specified the 220-horsepower 283 in the Malibu Super Sport package. Along with the V8 engine, the package offered such niceties as a tachometer, front bucket seats, available Positraction limited-slip differential, sintered-metallic brake linings for the mundane drum brakes and a four-speed manual transmission. As the model year progressed, the Chevelle engine choices expanded to include two 327 cubic inch V8's with horsepower ratings of 250 and 300. If you checked the boxes for all the goodies and paid the substantial extra cost that entailed, you would have a nice little runner on your hands, but a stoplight-to-stoplight dragster that paled in comparison to the Pontiac GTO of the same year, which offered a big-block 389 stuffed under its short hood.
All that was to change beginning in the '65 model year. Spurred by his own protégé, E.M. "Pete" Estes, who had spawned the GTO as general manager of Pontiac, Knudsen authorized the Z16 Chevelle, a low-volume, nearly secret option designed to make the Chevrolet competitive with the GTO and anything else that might come along. The key to the model was the big-block "396" V8 engine. Said to offer 375 horsepower, the 396 V8 was derived from the Chevrolet racing engine that had turned up at Daytona in 1963.
The engine was dubbed "porcupine head" because of its multi-angled studs and the different stem angles for its intake and exhaust valves. Built in response to Chrysler's famous "Hemi," the 396 Mark IV used wedge-shaped combustion chambers rather than hemispherically shaped chambers, but with through-porting it breathed extremely well, creating truly awesome amounts of power and torque. In fact the few '65 Z16's that were built used a wide variety of "big" Chevy pieces to cope with the extra juice. Unlike the widely advertised GTO, however, Chevrolet kept the Z16 close to the vest.
By the dawn of the 1966 model year, though, Knudsen's politically correct stance to low-key performance went out the window. The Malibu SS models were replaced by a new sub-series dubbed Super Sports 396. These were the first genuine SS 396 cars, and their low-cost/high-performance equation and wide availability quickly made them extremely popular.
It was easy to understand why. Even the lowest level SS 396 version offered a 325-horsepower version of the 396 cubic inch V8, and the up-level "street" version with the L34 hydraulic-lifter-equipped engine put out 360 horsepower. And if you wanted to pretend you were a race driver, you could pony up the extra bucks for the 375-horsepower solid-lifter version, though few went to that extreme. With a sub-15-second quarter mile time from the L34, what more did one need to impress the chicks while cruising McDonald's?