Car Show Classic: 1965 Chevy Chevelle Malibu – Absolute A-Body

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At most car shows, you’re likely to see any number of extensively modified or resto-modded cars alongside more purely stock rides. The latter attract my attention far much more and I suspect the same is the case for most CC readers. That would explain why I voted this 1965 Chevelle Malibu best-in-show at the Stone City Rumble car show in Bedford, Indiana in May. It may have been modest compared to the nearby ’68 Charger with its lurid purple metal-flake, but it was much easier to relate to.  It didn’t hurt that it was a particularly beautiful example, with flawless black paint over blue vinyl.

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Its good looks today in 2014 were helped by Chevy’s aim to create a timeless look that would appeal to as broad of an audience as possible in the mid ’60s. This car was meant to be everything to everyone, and if anyone wanted to blame its stylists for being conservative, they’d have to ignore that the intermediate competition from FoMoCo and Mopar was far from scintillating at that point.  The Chevelle managed to temper the fashionable straight-edged look of the era with a hint of roundness about its edges and, in Malibu trim seen here, a modest amount of extra jewelry.  And if it didn’t benefit from the rubenesque curves of the ’65 B-body, at least there was little of the severity which characterized the ’66 Coronet and Belvedere/Satellite (which I personally love), and the blandness of the famously unloved ’65 Fairlane.

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Paul once described the mid-sixties Chevy A-body as the American Opel.  This car, in flossier Malibu trim, demonstrates this point rather well, with a 230-turbothift six and not one of the increasingly hot V8s.  At this point, the cars were trim enough, and expectations modest enough, that such an engine wasn’t wholly inadequate and if nothing else, this car’s six has helped save it from extensive modification.

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As I recall, the owner said the car’s all-stock, and it certainly looks it.  This 230 Turbo-Thrift six sat between the standard 120-horsepower Hi-Thrift six and the 195-horse 283 Turbo-Fire V8.  Its 140 gross horsepower hauled about 3,100 pounds through a two-speed PowerGlide, the sole automatic available.  It wouldn’t be until 1969 that a three-speed TurboHydramatic would be added to the mainstream powertrain line-up to match Chrysler’s TorqueFlite and Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic, though it was available on the SS396 beginning in 1967.

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Isn’t this the sort of dashboard you’d want to face when driving east against a setting sun?  That’s a lot of brightwork and if there’s any upside to the cheaper, somber injection-molded affairs soon to follow this shiny piece, it’s the decreased likelihood of getting blinded in such a situation (or worse, with a truck riding your tail at night).  The owner said that other than the reupholstered seats, the interior is all original and I see no reason to dispute his claim.  Nor can I fault him for his choice of seat covering amid all the other show cars’ painted vinyl buckets.

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In 1965, going Malibu bought Chevelle buyers such niceties as an electric clock with a second hand, armrests, sun visors, ashtrays as well as back-up lights and front seat belts; in other words, not much.  Of course there was the Super Sport, available as a hardtop coupe and convertible, but it was mostly an appearance package, as its standard engines were the same 194 six or 283 V8. Optional on all ’65 Chevelles were 250, 300 and 350 hp versions of the 327 V8. The  350hp 327 with the optional four speed made a very brisk package, even if it wasn’t generally considered a true muscle car like the GTO.

Chevrolet Chevelle 1965 Z16 Yellow

As a promotional prelude to the 1966 production SS 396, Chevy built a small batch of 201 1965 Z16 SS 396 coupes, a very potent package which included a unique 375-horsepower, high-compression, hydraulic-lifter V8, a reinforced convertible frame, oversized brakes, heavy duty suspension, etc. Their primary purpose was to generate publicity, which it did successfully.  The 201 Z16s were distributed to a select number of Chevrolet dealers, one each, to be sold to a favored customer or celebrity.

The current, second owner used to operate a service station and bought the car in 1983 from the original owner, who would bring the car in to be serviced.  He’s cared for it since and I can’t remember if he said this is the original paint, but the modest kit is pretty much in keeping with this car’s story.

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What’s interesting is how much expectations changed while the ’64 A-body was in production.  This was a low-ambition machine, with drum brakes, a crude transmission and a poor reputation for handling, but it ended life with a much more contemporary looking dashboard and the (limited) option of a much improved transmission and disc brakes.  And that’s not including the changes the platform underwent at Pontiac, Olds and Buick.  People were beginning to move out of full-size cars and into intermediates for reasons other than simply cost and even if Chevy management didn’t position the basic Chevelles to be the most noteworthy contenders, an excellent job was done making this a platform easily tailored to the needs and desires of a very large, very diverse buying public.

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My young eyes can’t view the purposeful styling of this sedan without making associations with the more famous powertrains of the muscle car era; surely a car that looks this good must have a big bruiser under the hood and go fast.  But popular recollections of history are rarely accurate, and while this skewed understanding of 1965 helps explain why so many of these cars are resto-modded, it also makes this very faithfully maintained machine an important reminder of what so many Americans really wanted in their cars back in the day: a simple machine with a hint of added style.  We’ll always remember SS396, the GTO and the 442, but for those of us who didn’t live through the era, this reminder of the GM A-body in its most basic form helps keep things in perspective.

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Related reading:

Powerglide: A GM Greatest Hit Or Deadly Sin?,

1965 Chevelle SS396 Z16: 201 Built, And A Common 396 Engine Misunderstanding Finally Resolved

1967 Chevelle Malibu Sedan – The American Big Opel