When Chevrolet introduced its new Chevelle in 1964, the initial plan was for the mid-sized car to take sales away from Ford’s Fairlane. But, 1964 would also find automotive sales placing more emphasis on performance vehicles than ever before. The sensible Chevelle was in a position that it could have been left behind. Fortunately, certain folks at Chevrolet were not about to let that happen.
Chevrolet immediately placed its potent little 327ci small-block engine on the Chevelle option list. But, since the folks at Pontiac already offered a 389 cubic-inch engine in its mid-sized cars — like the GTO — Chevrolet knew something “big” was needed to make an impression. The Chevelle was a very versatile platform, and the buying public had the choice of a sedan, coupe, convertible, several different forms of station wagons, and even the El Camino. But, versatility aside, the Chevelle needed more attitude, and attitude it would get. Enter the now iconic 396 cubic-inch big-block, and the Z16 package.
In 1965, the Z16 option was much more than just a larger engine being stuffed under the hood of Chevelle. It started with a foundation of using the reinforced frame typically reserved for a convertible. This frame featured several chassis reinforcements, and utilized unique chassis components like the biggest brakes available, which were taken from the full-sized-car line up. The exterior of Z16-equipped Malibus feature only subtle differences from other Chevelle SS coupes. These differences were special black and chrome trim, mag-wheel-looking wheel covers, and small 396 Turbo Jet badges. What’s more, unlike standard non-Z16-quipped cars that could be purchased in any of the 15 available exterior colors, Z16-optioned cars were only available in three – Tuxedo Black, Regal Red, and Crocus Yellow.
When peering through the window and inside the car, Z16-optioned cars looked much like any Malibu SS. Front seat passengers got comfortable in bucket seats behind a padded dash that featured a dash-mounted pedestal clock, and a unique speedometer that let the driver think they could reach 160 mph in the car. The Malibu SS also included a center console for manually-shifted cars, and those equipped with a Powerglide (a column shifter was also available with the Powerglide and Turbo three speed transmissions). The information we found, states the Turbo three-speed manual transmission was not available with a floor shifter and console. If a column shifter was ordered, bucket seats were still standard fare, but could be swapped for a bench seat. The Z16’s standard-issue tachometer (RPO U14) was also optional on any V8-powered Chevelle.
The engine in all Z16-optioned cars was an L37 396 big block, rated at 375 horsepower. The L37 big block 396 used a hydraulic-lifter camshaft, and featured forged pistons and crankshaft, four-bolt mains, ported closed-chamber cylinder heads, and an aluminum intake with a Holley 3310 four-barrel carburetor. In a strange twist, Z16-spec cars were not available with Positraction.
Chevy only built 201 of these specially-equipped Chevelles with the Z16 package, and the car was never marketed to the public. It wasn’t even listed on any dealer order forms, so buying this car meant you knew the secret handshake.
What are they worth now? At the Mecum 2015 auction in Anaheim, California, a freshly-restored example was a no sale at $220,000. Not a bad investment since they sold new for slightly more than $4,500.