Chevelle SS or Malibu SS? – An Overview of Chevrolet’s Intermediate Super Sport

(first posted 5/22/2017)      Even though much has been written about the Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sports, the history is still unclear to some. There seems to be some debate on whether the car was called the Chevelle SS, the Malibu SS, whether it was a distinct model or an option package?  Well to answer in short, all of the above.  So, let’s do an overview of Chevrolet’s intermediate Super Sport models.

When Chevrolet released the Chevelle for the 1964 model year, the model lineup consisted of the three distinct series; the Chevelle 300, the Malibu and the Malibu Super Sport.  In its first year the Malibu SS was a separate series, available as a 2-door hardtop and convertible, either six or V8.  It is important to remember Chevrolet had separate model designations for six and V8 cars.  Therefore, the 1964 Malibu SS lineup consisted of four distinct models and two body styles.

The Malibu SS was not a performance package like the GTO, and it included no performance upgrades.  The Malibu SS only offered trim and appearance upgrades over a Malibu.  These included bucket seats, Malibu SS specific trim and emblems, a center console (with Powerglide or 4-speed), clock and a gauge package (excluding a tach).  These cars all had Malibu SS or Malibu Super Sport nameplates on the car and were called the same in GM literature.

1965 Malibu SS with RPO Z16

The Malibu SS stayed the same for 1965, available in the same four model variations (although model numbers were changed).  In March of 1965, a new option package was released on a very limited basis for the Malibu SS, known as RPO Z16.  This option package was limited to the V8 Malibu SS hardtop or convertible.  It did however require a number of mandatory options including power steering and brakes, tachometer, 4-speed transmission with 2.56 low gear, AM/FM stereo, deluxe front belts, rear seat belts and instrument panel pad.

The Z16 option was a performance oriented package.  Its performance upgrades included the 375-hp L37 396, a stiffer boxed convertible chassis, larger brakes, and a performance suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars.  In the end only 201 were built, mostly going to VIPs.  The Z16 was created to help produce buzz for the upcoming regular production 1966 SS396.  Despite these cars commonly being called the Chevelle Z16, the Z16 cars were badged as a “Malibu SS”, and Chevrolet called them the Malibu SS in their literature.

Things changed considerably for 1966.  With the popularity of the GTO, Chevrolet had to rethink its Super Sport for its intermediate line.  The market didn’t want a trim and appearance package, they wanted a real performance car.  Chevrolet decided to drop the Malibu SS for 1966.  However, the Malibu SS did live a while longer in Canada, which I will write a post about in the near future.  In place of the Malibu SS, Chevrolet released a new model, simply called SS396.  The SS396 was available as a 2-door hardtop or a 2-door convertible.

Unlike the Malibu SS, the SS396 featured mostly performance upgrades over a Malibu.  If you wanted to order a 396 engine in a Chevelle for 1966, the SS396 was the only way to get it.  The SS396 had three engine choices available; it came with a base 325hp L35 or the optional 360hp L34 or the 375hp L78.  While the 1965 Malibu SS Z16 included a number of chassis and brake upgrades, the 1966 SS396 was de-contented to reduce its price (the Z16 approached Corvette territory).  This meant no heavy duty convertible frame and no more large brakes.  It had a smaller front stabilizer bar and no rear bar.  The SS396 suspension did have somewhat stiffer springs compared to a base Chevelle but this was mostly to compensate for the heavier 396.  Also included was unique trim and badging as well as a new domed hood.  However, bucket seats, console and the gauge package were no longer standard equipment.

While an SS396 had appointments at a similar level to a Malibu, the SS396 was not a Malibu.  There were no Malibu nameplates on the car, only “Chevelle,” “SS396,” or “Super Sport” emblems.  Chevrolet generally called it “SS396,” but sometimes called it a “Chevelle SS396”.  To me it seems that Chevrolet intended it to be a standalone model name, as in “Chevrolet SS396” like “Pontiac GTO”.  That said, it doesn’t seem improper to call it a Chevelle SS396, since all intermediate cars were Chevelles and this seems to be the commonly accepted name.  However, since the SS396 wasn’t really a Malibu; I don’t think calling them a Malibu SS396 is correct.

1969 Chevelle 300 Deluxe SS396

Things continued on pretty well the same for 1967 and 1968 model years with only minor changes, and the SS396 remained a separate model.  Nevertheless, for the 1969 model year things changed significantly.  For 1969, the SS396 became option package Z25. This option package was available on all Chevelle coupes and the Malibu convertible.  All Chevelle coupes meant the Malibu hardtop, and the Chevelle 300 Deluxe 2-door hardtop and 2-door sedan.  So there were a total of four models the SS396 could have been ordered with.  Plymouth introduced the popular Road Runner in 1968, a no-frills muscle car.  Making the SS396 an option package available on the 300 Deluxe models was an easy way for Chevrolet to offer a no-frills version of its already successful SS396.

Although the SS396 became an option package, it featured much the same upgrades as previous years’ SS396 models.  New features included 5-spoke SS wheels with wide oval tires and power front disc brakes.  Despite being an option package, Chevrolet continued to call the car simply “SS396” in sales literature.  Further, none of the Malibus equipped with the Z25 option had Malibu nameplates on the car.  Calling these cars “Chevelle SS396” was pretty well the norm then and it seems to be the accepted name today.  However, it would be hard to argue that it is incorrect to call one of these cars a 1969 Chevelle 300 Deluxe SS396 or a 1969 Chevelle Malibu SS396.  How else would you differentiate the two trims?

For 1970 things changed yet again.  With GM lifting its self-imposed 400 cubic inch limit off its intermediate cars, the Chevelle now added the 454 to its roster.  Like in 1969, the Super Sport remained an option package, but now there were two packages.  There was the Z25 the SS396 package, and the Z15 SS454 package.  Unlike in 1969, the only way to order a Z15 or Z25 option package required starting with either a Malibu Coupe or convertible.  No more plain-Jane Super Sports.

The SS396 Z25 option package was revised somewhat from 1969.  The SS396 had two engine choices, the 350 hp L34 396 (now displacing 402 cid) or the 375 hp L78.  Also now included was a new domed hood, the F41 handling suspension, and round gauges versus the horizontal style speedometer used on other Chevelles.  A four-speed or the Turbo Hydramatic were now mandatory options.  The Z25 SS454 was essentially the same package, but offered engine choices of the 360hp LS5 or the 450 hp LS6.  The LS6 was released partway through the model year, roughly November 1969.  When this engine was announced, Chevrolet told dealers they would no longer be accepting orders for the L78 396 which was subsequently phased out.  The SS packages had finally evolved into an all-round performance package, offering the high performance engines with suspension and brake upgrades to match.  It only took Chevy 5 years to make it as well rounded as the 1965 Z16 package.

For 1971, there were further changes to the Super Sport.  The two option packages of 1970 were reduced to just one, the Z15 Super Sport option.  The option package no longer included any engines.  Any V8 Malibu coupe or convertible with an optional engine could order the Z15 option package.  Remember that the V8 cars are a separate model from the six cylinders.  If you ordered a Malibu V8, the base engine was the 200-hp 307-2bbl V8.  So to order the Z15 option package, you need to select at minimum the 245hp L65 350-2bbl engine.  Also available was the 270hp L48 350-4bbl, 300hp LS3 402-4bbl, and the 365hp LS5 454-4bbl.  The 1971 engines had lower outputs due to reduced compression ratios, as mandated by GM corporate wide.  The LS5 454 was exclusive to Z15 SS optioned cars. Other than the engines, most of the SS package was the same as 1970.  The only minor changes were the inclusion of a driver’s sport mirror (instead of chrome) and new 15×7 5-spoke wheels with F60-15 tires.  All Super Sports now wore “SS” badging without any reference to the engine unless the 454 was ordered.  The 454 cars instead wore SS454 badges.

Note the factory brochures states you can get a 307 in an SS.  I believe this was incorrect.

For 1972, it was the same story as 1971.  The biggest change was engines rated in SAE net horsepower, but actual output was the same or very close compared to 1971 engines.  Many people think that in 1972 the Z15 SS option package was available with the any V8 including the base 307-2bbl.  Even the Chevrolet brochure said you could get the SS package with a 307.  However, GM’s factory vehicle information kit says otherwise.  It clearly states that an optional V8 is required for the “SS” package.  Furthermore, it seems amongst the Chevelle community there has never been one 1972 Chevelle SS with a 307 with the proper documentation to back it up.  I’d suggest if these cars existed, there’d be at least one that would have turned up by now.

Note that the factory information kit doesn’t show the 307 as one of the 1972 SS engine options

1973 marked the last year for the Super Sport Z15 option.  Just like in 1971 and 1972, it required a V8 Malibu coupe with any optional V8, meaning no 307.  For 1973, the 350-2bbl, 350-4bbl or the 454-4bbl were the three engine choices for the SS.  The option package was similar to 1972, including unique trim and badging, F41 suspension, and the round gauges.  The wheels were reduced to a 14×7 rally type shod with G70-14 tires and it included two racing mirrors.  The 454 cars were now labelled just as an SS, but had “454” call outs on the front fenders.  Interestingly, for whatever reason, the one major change to the Z15 option was that it was also available on the Malibu Wagon.

From 1970-73 the Super Sport option on the Chevelle always required a Malibu as the base model.  While all of the Chevelle SS’s from this time period were technically Malibus, selecting one of the “SS” packages removed any Malibu badging from the car.  Chevrolet literature generally referred to them as simply “SS396”, “SS454” or “SS” and most people call them Chevelle SS.  That said, I don’t think it would be incorrect to call these cars Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu SS396 or SS454 or SS, but what a mouthful.