396. Say it aloud. It’s an easy number to like, an easy number to sell; its intonation suggests malignity. John Milton eulogized William Shakespeare in 1630 by lauding the way his “easy numbers” flowed, how his natural ear for scansion became his monument. The number 396 sounded so right to so many ears that even when Chevrolet upsized it several years later, they kept the badge all the same; after all, there’s something about a 402 that doesn’t quite make it. In combination with the sensual swells of the new-for-’65 Impala, Chevrolet “hath built…a live-long monument.”
Why does “396” sound so right? While it may not have the mid-century jukebox cachet of its 409 predecessor, Paul Revere and the Raiders attempted to immortalize it in their aptly titled “SS 396,” a song that never really caught on with disc jockeys in the way that the Beach Boys’ “409” did. The smaller engine had the last laugh, however, as the Big-Block Chevy remains a staple in the internal combustion fueled world of hot rodding, 56 years hence.
The ’65 Impala actually started out the year with the old 409 before giving way to the Mark IV. By 1966, the 396 gave way to another mellifluous numeric combination – “427.” Both Ford and Chevrolet took advantage of that number’s cadence, even though the Ford was mathematically a 425.98, a number that is somewhat less likely to light a superspeedway or an imagination afire.
Our featured Impala combines the beautiful styling of the Chevrolet B-Body with the “Turbo-Jet” engine that eventually became so famous. The General Motors color palette of 1965 included this Willow Green, one of several attractive colors that would make a customer’s order so difficult: Mist Blue, Crocus Yellow, Evening Orchid, Rally Red, Madeira AND Milano Maroon, and many others.
The legend of the 396 was founded on the 425-horsepower L78 (rated at 375 horsepower beginning in 1966), but vastly more Chevrolets were propelled by the far less exciting 325-horsepower variant. It’s unclear which version powers our feature car, but the four-on-the-floor hints at a sporting first owner, although a solid-lifter ’65 Impala SS with a four-speed is almost too much to contemplate, an Atlantis on wheels.
This picture was taken at the 2020 Pure Stock Muscle Car Drags in Stanton, MI, an event that provides me with a significant amount of content. While this Impala didn’t make a quarter-mile run on the day I attended, it didn’t really have to. The 396 had a reputation that it didn’t need to back up. Sure, most versions were designed for workaday station wagons, but this “great heir of fame” and the sound of its name alone elicits reverence. And it didn’t need Paul Revere to make it happen.