This is what the muscle car was all about, straight line acceleration. If the car didn’t make the grade, all the racing stripes and catchy nicknames in the world couldn’t make up for it. Since 1964, GM, Ford, Chrysler and AMC had all been working overtime to create cars that captured the imagination and the pocketbooks of the youth market. Out on the streets, it was one overpowered cruise missile after another. By 1970, it had become really difficult to create a big splash in the muscle car marketplace. The car companies were trying everything, from cartoon characters to popular catch phrases to grab the spotlight. Everyone was looking for that one magic ingredient that would lift them to the head of the pack. Chevrolet decided to use an old but very effective gimmick: pure horsepower This is the 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LSX. 450 sit down hang on and shut up horsepower. 500 foot pounds of tire melting torque.
The History of the Super Sport Chevelle
The SS 454 Chevelle was the last of Chevrolet’s big cubic inch muscle cars. In a race today, without debate, as one of the two or three most awesome cars ever created. Super Sport Chevelles with 396 engines had been fearsome competitors on the street and the strip ever since 1965. Joe George remembers the appeal of the 396 Chevelle. “It has such great looks and plus the- it was a cheap car that you could by back then and it just had raw power. Of course, you don’t have any car- you have a lot of fast cars now- but you don’t have anything with the brute power that these cars have.”
The 1970 LS6 Chevy Chevelle
But in 1970, Chevy took the most powerful engine they’d ever built, put it into the most beautiful Chevelle they’d ever designed and created something truly special. The LS6 454 delivered more horsepower than any other production engine they’d ever built. In a body style that car buyers overwhelmingly loved and with all the other performance hardware Chevrolet could pack into a mid-sized chassis, the LS6 Chevelle could eat up just about any car it lined up against. It made a pretty big impression on those who drove it.
“These cars, straight off the showroom floor, were basically low 15 second cars. After we got finished with them, souping up the engines with cans and headers and tuning up the engines to maximum horsepower, you could put them down into the high 13s and 14s. “ Says Rory Burton of Braselton, Georgia.
In it’s one year life span, the LS6 Chevelle became a legend. Less than 5000 of these super cars were ever sold and perfectly restored LS6s today sell for nearly $40,000, placing them among the most prized collector cars. Chevelle buyers had their choice of four different Super Sports in 1970. Two models with 396 engines and another 454, the lower output 360 horsepower LS5 model. Chevy fans must have known, even in 1970, that the LS6 was going to be a special car. It outsold the LS5 by almost 200 cars. But that’s not surprising, Chevy owners have never been reluctant to spend a buck to go a little faster. In fact, that’s how this whole Super Sport thing started.
Restoration expert, Keith Maney explains that “Chevrolet spent a lot of time, spent a lot of money really wooing the performance enthusiast. Since that’s the case, now Chevrolet is probably the most popular of all the brands, of all the American brands anyway, for performance.”
The 1964 Chevy Chevelle
Cars like the SS 454 Chevelle don’t just happen, they’re a product of a long development process. In Chevrolet’s case, this process started with the very first Chevelle back in 1964. When the muscle car wars began, the Super Sport Chevelle, with it’s little 220 horsepower 283 cubic inch small block action wasn’t ready to run with the big boys, but Chevy reacted quickly. One year later, the Chevelle Malibu Super Sport with the 396 engine hit the streets. The first model of what would become one of the most popular, best selling muscle cars of all time.
The 1965 Chevelle Malibu
With a 1965 Chevelle Malibu SS 396, Chevy gave the world a good look at what they could do with a muscle car. Just 221 Super Sport Malibus were built with the Z16 option code, and this option included every fun part Chevy had, from the top of the line 375 horsepower 396 to high performance suspension parts and all the dress up equipment on the option list. The SS 396 option added an extra $1500 to the cost of what had been a low priced Malibu SS.
Paul Zazarine of Amos Automotive Publishing explains that “the Chevelle, just like all the other GMA bodies of that era was really a nicely engineered car, well balanced car. Very attractive, easy to drive, decent weight.”
The 1966 and 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle
When the 1966 models rolled out, the re-designed 396 Chevelle was no longer just an option package for the Malibu, but a separate model in Chevy’s line up. It was also ready for battle. The only two engines available in the Super Sport were both 396s. A 325 horse version and an all new 360 horse motor. In addition to all the big block horsepower, the Super Sport option came with a luxurious interior, with all the things muscle car buyers expected now, like a tach, dual exhausts, and sport wheel covers. Chevy also added the other ingredient, which would make the Super Sport Chevelle a winner. Loaded with options, the car cost just about $3500. 1967 offered little change, except to drop the 325 horse engine in favor of a 350 horse version. By now, the SS 396 Chevelle was well established as a full on street fighter. Where the Buick GS and the Olds 442 offered layers of luxury, the Chevelle SS was a straightforward go fast machine.
Joe George of Lawrenceville, Georgia, remembers the power one felt when driving a Chevelle: “This thing, when you really get on it, it just- it’s a feeling like you don’t get from driving a small V8 or V6 because there’s just no feeling like thing.” There was never any question that Chevy’s car would be a performance leader, but you could also count on Chevrolet to make sure all the comfort and luxury options anyone could ever want were always available on the Super Sport From 1966 through 1969, Chevy would sell almost 285,000 SS 396 Chevelles. And it would continue to improve the car every year in every way.
The Super Sport Chevelles were everything muscle cars were supposed to be: fast, great looking, affordable, and tremendously popular. In fact, the SS 396 logo badge was such a popular name plate that this would rename the cars name even after the engine was enlarged to 402 cubic inches in early 1969. And then when you went ahead and put the 396 in the early days of the Chevelle, the SS Chevelle, you had a terrific car at a very, very affordable price. But in 1970, the streets were shaking from a whole new wave of muscle cars, led by Chrysler with their 440 magnum engine, there was a mad rush to stuff these cars with the biggest engines that would fit under their hoods.
The 1970 Super Sport Chevelle 396
Between 1966 and 1969, the SS 396 Chevelle had evolved from a cute little runabout to serious no nonsense street machine. The 350 horse 396 was a match for most of the hardware on the street and the 375 horse motor, with a little tuning, could be a 13 second drag strip screamer. In 1970, the 396 would become one of the smallest muscle car motors on the street. The new standard for engine sizes was now somewhere between 440 and 460 cubic inches. The Super Sport Chevelle was coming dangerously close to being the little guy on the block again, just like they were in 1965. So in response to all those 455 engine badges on their sister cars from Buick, Olds, and Pontiac, Chevy reacted just like they did in ’65 and reached of the biggest engine they had.
Recounts Zazarine, “Everyone in the industry who was building a performance car was now building it with a big block. The displacement figures went up dramatically in 1970, virtually everybody in General Motors went to 455 cubic inches. So, at 454, Chevrolet was very competitive with the LSX.”
Since its birth as the 427, the engine that had stood the stop car racing wall on its ear in 1963, the big block Chevy engine had been under constant development. The engine was amazingly responsive to tuning and by 1970, every version of the big block, from 396 to 427 to 454 was a world beater.
Keith Maney goes on to say that “the Mark 4 big block was really based on the Mark 2 mystery engine of 1963. It’s called the mystery engine because it was not a t that time a production engine. Chevrolet showed up at Daytona in ’63 with this new, strange big block for the Daytona 500.”
“Chevrolet in 1970 produced two big engines: the LS6 and the LS5: both of those were the 454 engines. The LS6 was the epitome of the muscle car with 450 horsepower, truly one of the most exciting cars ever made.” Says car authority, Tom Fraser.
The 454 block had a bore of 4.25 inches and a four inch stroke. The LS6 version used a compression ratio of 11.25/1, a solid lifter cam and a Holley 780 to make 450 horses at 5600 RPM and 500 ft pounds of torque at 3200 RPM. The LS6 used every high performance part in the book: a Ford steel crank shaft and a 4 bolt main bearing block, forge pistons, big port heads, aluminum intake manifold and solid lifter cam. This engine was nearly bulletproof. The running gear was just as indestructible. With the LS6 engine, your choice of transmissions was either the heavy duty M40 automatic or the Muncey M21 or M22 four speed and front disc brakes. Other mandatory options included dual exhausts, special rear suspension, and a positraction rear axle. The SS Chevelle’s most attention getting option was the cowl induction hood with tis vacuum operated hood scoop.
Keith Maney waxes poetic on the Chevelle’s power: “When the driver nailed the accelerator, it caused a door in the back of the hood to open. It was placed towards the rear of the hood to take advantage of high pressure area at the base of the windshield. It really let the engine breathe fresh air, outside air, as opposed to the heated under hood air and was meant to improve horsepower Now there’s some debate as to whether or not it worked but there’s no doubt that it looked impressive.”
Chevy crafted a new body for the 1970 Chevelle that was as beautiful as the LS6 was powerful. The body sides were sculpted in a Coke bottle shape, which flared slightly at the wheel openings for the 14 by 7 Raleigh wheels and F714 tires. Chevy put plenty of SS badges on the car, from grill to tail and Chevy’s mile long option list made this interior a plush environment. Instead of relying on wild colors and cartoon gimmicks, Chevy chose to adorn the SS cars with just two wide stripes on the hood and deck lid. Other than this, the only announcement that this car was something special were the three little numbers on the front fenders: 4-5-4.
Suddenly, with the advent of the LS6 there was a new kid on the block and he had a very bad attitude. The people on the street started giving 70′s Chevelles a lot of newfound respect.
“When they went to 1970 and dropped the LS6 into the Chevelle you literally had one of the most awesome street muscle cars ever released. The 450 horse power, even though the car weighed close to 4100 pounds when it was optioned out, there were very few cars that beat it, very few. It would give the Hemi a heck of a good race.” Explains Zazarine.
And Rory Burton talks about the wonders a Chevelle did for a driver’s reputation: “It was very impressive. It was also, at 16 years old, very good for your ego, too. There was just something about sitting behind a 400, 450 horsepower car feeling that acceleration pushing you into the backseat and doing it legally, of course, on a track that was completely sanctioned and very safe.”
Driving a low 13 second car is one thing. Taking it to the drag strip is something else. Driving a 70s Chevelle with a 454 was, as one magazine writer said, “Like being in charge of nuclear bomb tests. You knew something bad might result if you pressed the button, but you just couldn’t resist doing it, just to see what would happen.” When you press the LS6′s button, the torque of the big block pushed you back in the seat and the RPM started heading for the red line, faster than anything most folks had ever driven. Some folks found this a little unnerving, but for most muscle car fans, this was the precise feeling they were looking for. LS6 Chevelles could rip up low to 13 second quarter miles right off the showroom floor with some careful starting line technique. Of course, those who just nailed it when the green light came on just melted their rear tires.
Joe George loves the Chevelle’s power and speed: “Driving this is just brute power, I mean you’re going to turn most of the time in a car like this, you’ll probably turn in the 13s with it, when you’re driving down the strip it’s just like ea feeling like you won’t get anywhere else.” And if the factory 454 wasn’t fast enough for you and, believe it or not, there were some for whom it wasn’t, there were hundreds of after market speed parts available to make it go even faster.
“Back when I was in high school, I had a 1971 Trans Am with a 455 four speed. A rip roaring car. There was another gentleman at the high school, he had a ’70 LS6 Chevelle . I did pick on him a time or two. Unfortunately, I could get him out of the hole a little bit, baby it out somewhat. But the LS6 would run me down every time and by the time it was all over with I had a pretty good knowledge of the back end of that 70 Chevelle.”
King of the Street
Despite its prowess on the drag strip, the SS 454 Chevelle really earned its reputation on the street. In 1970 the street is where the action was and when the sun went down, the streets filled with cruisers. “A Mustang came up on the side and he looked over and said, ‘Do you want to run that thing, old man?’ I said, ‘Yeah, matter of fact I do.’ So he caught up to me finally at the next red light and he said ‘You don’t have a 350 in that car.’ I said, ‘Son, you never asked me what I had in it.’” Remembers a proud Chevelle owner.
Part of the reason SS Chevelles enjoyed this king of the street reputation was sheer numbers. By 1970, Chevy had sold close to 400,000 Super Sport Chevelles, including almost 9000 SS 454 Chevelles in both LS5 andLS6 trim. No matter where you went, you were probably surrounded by Super Sports The SS 454 Chevelle continued in 1971 but it was definitely not a ground pounder anymore.
The 1971 Super Sport Chevelle 454
The years after 1970 were particularly hard on the Super Sport Chevelle. The ’71 SS 454 still looked racy: the wide stripes and power bulge hood were still there but all the excitement was gone.
Keith Maney talks about the slow death of the muscle car: “With the advent of safety concerns, emissions concerns, fuel economy, things of that nature, really that was the death knell of the American super car, the American muscle car.” Chevy had planned to reissue a low compression LS6 with a 425 horse power rating but the engine just didn’t perform well enough. Burdened by all this, Chevy finally gave in and axed the LS6 from the line up. “These days a car has to get 25 or 30 miles to the gallon or else there’s a big tax placed on the manufacturer. Cars have to be very safe, you should be able to run a car through a group of trees and not harm the passengers. They can’t really stretch their imaginations as much as they did back in the good ol’ days when you could go down and buy a V8 rear wheel drive car that would seat four comfortably.” The Chevelle Super Sport is the best example of what Chevrolet was all about during the muscle car era. Chevrolet found out what the young car buyer wanted: tons of horsepower without a lot of frills. The SS Chevelle stayed at the top of the muscle car pack by always giving their customers these things at a price they could afford.
Yet, restoration projects are a great way to cultivate an appreciation for classic cars in the younger generation. One Chevelle restorer explains: “My son and I built the car together. When we got it, it was total basket case. The interior looked like rats had been living in it for a couple years, but my son and I, we’re really close and we used this car to spend our time down in the garage and just rebuilt it. I hate to see these cars be torn up and done away with because they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
Terry Gunter talks about the attention he receives at car shows: “A lot of people know and have heard of the cars but have actually never seen a Z60. I love taking it to the shows and talking to people, that’s what I enjoy doing.”
There’s a thing that happens to muscle car owners today that’s a bit of a pay back for all the sweat, the hard labor and the cost of restoring an old car. No matter where they go, they always hear the same thing.
“They come up and say, ‘I used to have one just like this.’” Says Gunter. It feels good to hear that and chances are, if you’re a Chevelle owner, the person you’re talking to probably did have one just like it.
For many, maintaining a Chevelle is a dream come true: “I was 13 years old in 1967, when this car first came up, and the first time I saw it, it was a Marina blue car and I said, ‘When I turn 16 or 17, I’ve gotta have that car.’ It was basically just an obsession of mine. I had posters all over my walls that Chevrolet had in the magazines promoting this car and it’s just something that I had to have.”
As long as people with this kind of dedication are still around, these wonderful cars will never die.