Curbside Classic: 1968 Camaro SS396 – The Last Original And Unmolested One Left?

Camaro 1968 SS396 ffq

(first posted 9/3/2016)     CC has become CS, for Camaro Six. The underdog has gotten lots of love here; but what about the opposite end of the spectrum? As in an original, unmolested SS396? When’s the last time you saw one of those? Mike Hayes found this one in a parking lot and posted it at the CC Cohort, and we need to celebrate it.

Camaro 1967 ss350 ad

The really big question is whether Chevy originally ever intended to put the big-block 396 V8 in the all-new 1967 Camaro. The obvious evidence says no, as the Camaro arrived with a new (and exclusive to the Camaro) 295 (gross) hp 350 CID (5.7 L) version of Chevy’s small block V8. That was clearly intended to be the top engine, and to one-up the Mustang, which through 1966 had only been available with its small block 289 V8.

Mustang 1967 gt brochure

Was Chevrolet caught off-guard by the 1967’s Mustang GT’s optional 320 hp 390 CID V8? Which was made possible by widening the Mustang’s front end width and increasing the available space between the front spring/shock towers?

Mustang 1967 Bullit

Frankly, it was not exactly a marriage made in heaven. The FE 390 added a lot of weight to the front end, and the Mustang’s already so-so handling only got worse. And the 390 just wasn’t really all that powerful; it was perfect in a Country Squire, but it took heroic efforts to make the legendary Bullitt fastback to even appear to be staying ahead of the Charger.

Camaro 1967 396

There was only one obvious response: by mid-year 1967, Chevrolet’s 396 V8 was now too available in the Camaro. Not that it was all that hard, as the Camaro’s new platform/body was plenty wide from the get-go for the big-block Chevy engines. Presumably, that eventuality was a consideration all along.

Camaro 1967 and Mustang

The 325 hp L-35 version of the 396 was the mildest version of the family at that time, and was also better suited for use in a Caprice than a Camaro with genuine performance intentions (pretensions?). I don’t have ready stats or reviews in front of me, but as delivered, the SS396 Camaro was hardly a stormer or drag strip terror. Never mind that like in the case of the Mustang 390, already modest handling abilities deteriorated. The rear axle with its Mono-leaf single rear spring was utterly overtaxed, especially during acceleration, a severe limitation that was somewhat improved with multi-leaf springs (on performance models) and staggered shocks for 1968.

The reality was that stuffing the bigger and heavier 396 and 390 into the Camaro and Mustang was largely a big and heavy mistake, as these engines in stock form were just not that powerful, and their weight overpowered their mediocre suspensions. But the lure of an ever bigger number on the front fender was not to be denied.

1967 chevrolet camaro ss 396

Although only the mild L-35 was shown in brochures and ads, in reality one could readily order a 375 hp solid-lifter square-port L-78 396 in the Camaro, by checking the L-78 on an order form. This resulted in a “4K” in the car’s trim code. About 1,138 4K cars were built, and here’s the write up of one of the few survivors. Many of these 4K L-78 cars ended up at Yenko Chevrolet, where the short block was swapped out with a 427, but keeping the heads, intake, etc., as they were the same on both engines. Some COPO 427s were also built by the factory.

Camaro 1968 SS br -01

Apparently the somewhat more powerful 350 hp L-34 version of the 396 also became officially available in the Camaro at some point in 1968, but it was not listed in the initial 1968 brochure.

Camaro 1968 engines

That’s just the way things were back during these days at Chevrolet, as it was constantly finding ways to dance around the GM corporate edict at the time that its cars could not go below 10 lbs per advertised gross hp. That would explain the 375 hp version not being in the brochures, but it raises a question on the 350 hp, as the base V8 coupe had a curb weight of 2,955 lbs. I’d like to hope that the 396 alone didn’t push that over 3500 lbs.

Camaro 1967 Z 28 blue

What was also missing from the brochures in 1967 and 1968 was the Z28, the ultimate Camaro at the time, with its high-winding 302 and suspension mods. Not until 1969 would the Z28 join the ranks of the brochures, and become a full-fledged member of the Camaro family instead of a “limited production” mobile.

The Z28, whose 290 advertised hp was grossly underrated to meet that GM edict, could eat and spit out the heavier and duller 396 versions all day long, especially so when the road was anything other than perfectly straight.

Camaro 1968 SS396 emblem

The overwhelming odds are that this 1968 SS 396 with the RS package (hidden headlights, etc.) has the 325 hp engine. Since Mike didn’t get a shot of the interior, we don’t know what’s backing it up, but I’m going to guess it’s the three-speed THM. Just a hunch.

Camaro 1968 SS396 ff

Ordering the SS got one those simulated intake stacks on the hood. And simulated performance, without some tweaking and modifications, like “drag bars’ on the rear springs and a serious performance tune.

Camaro 1968 SS396 rq

The really big surprise of this find are those simulated mag wheel covers. God has long decreed that every Camaro must have Rally Wheels, so these are most unusual indeed. I couldn’t find them in the 1968 brochure, yet I remember them all-too well from that era.

Camaro 1968 SS brochure

Well, the standard SS wheel covers in 1968 were hardly very attractive either, nor original.

CC 181 006 925

They were “borrowed” from the 1963 Chevy II Nova SS. No wonder Camaros all sport Rally Wheels.

Camaro 1968 SS396 logo

Either way, Mike found a unicorn. How many stock and unmolested SS396 Camaros from this era are still on the streets? Probably fewer than Camaro sixes.