When discussing all things automotive and hearing the words, muscle, and power, the mind surely starts to think about Chevrolet’s Chevelle. It’s inevitable. There is a simple reason for this inclusion, and it’s because this classic Chevy embodies the term American muscle car like no other.
The mid-sized model was introduced on the 26th of September 1963. This “everyman” car was available with a plethora of options and a variety of body styles, including a two-door sports coupe and a four-door wagon. A major selling point of the Chevelle was that it offered the largest range of trim options — from basic to swanky. According to a 1966 sales brochure, “Chevelle for ’66 is marked by a pleasing mid-size, overall excellence, and value. Exclusive look for the new SS396 series.”
James Stewart of Haines City, Florida, is a diehard fan of all things Chevrolet muscle. In his garage, you’ll find a couple of first-gen Camaros (one is a COPO car), multiple C10 trucks, various other hot rods, and this ’66 Chevelle SS396. In fact, we previously featured one of his Camaros, and you can read that feature by clicking here.
“A friend of mine owned this car before I did,” says James. When I bought it from him, it didn’t have very much rust, but it was just a rolling shell.” James began the rebuild process by fixing the sheetmetal that needed attention and then covering it all with a custom blending of a PPG blue and silver.
James wanted to retain the basic look of the ’66’s exterior, and that was simple. However, he wanted to “modernize” the interior to give it an updated look and add a little comfort that a stock ’66 interior. To accomplish that, he started by adding a set of late-model seats to the mix. “The seats are power-adjustable units from a Chrysler 300,” says James. The custom dash frame began life as the factory piece, but James took the time to smooth and modify the styling to create a one-off creation. The custom dash face is created with sheetmetal, and once fitted to the car, he then filled the new platform with a bevy of Auto Meter gauges. If you like the console, the hand-built unit houses the manual-gear actuator and a Pioneer sound system.
In James’ own words, “this car was not destined to spend most of its life in the garage or on a trailer.” No sir, from day one, James planned to drive the Chevelle as much as he could. To make sure the mid-sized muscle car handled better than when new and still ride comfortably, the stock front suspension was ceremoniously removed from service, and the frame was treated to a full complement of Hotchkis Performance suspension parts. Making the car stop at will when James presses the brake pedal, Baer brakes were bolted on all four corners.
Although the ’66 SS396 Chevelle was available with a potent big block when new, this project was sans any powerplant when it arrived at the Stewart garage. Since he was starting from scratch, James — like any true gearhead — wanted more power. For that reason, he decided to use more cubic inches than was the factory offering in this car — 427 of them. Inside the Merlin block is a stock, steel crankshaft and heavy-duty H-beam connecting rods. Building the compression under the Brodix heads are a set of JE pistons squeezing the air and fuel to a ratio of 11.0:1. Finally, a COMP Cams roller stick, Chevrolet Performance intake, and Holley Sniper EFI were thrown into the mix. To say this is a stout mill is an understatement.
Having a well thought out package makes a drivetrain upgrade like what’s in this car very easy. To get the drivability he wanted, James chose to mount a TREMEC T56 Magnum behind the big block. Talk about a great combination built for cruising! Finally, he kept with the heavy-duty theme and opted to install a Moser Engineering FAB9 rearend under the rear frame rails. Inside the sheetmetal creation are an Auburn positraction differential and 4.10 gears.
At first glance, James Chevelle looks the part of a great cruiser, look a little deeper, and the true quality of how the car is put together is amazing. With the big block and manual transmission, James has stayed true to the car’s original lineage. However, by adding an updated suspension and modern appearing interior, he has given the car a new lease on life that can be enjoyed for decades to come.