Car of the Week: 1968 Chevelle SS 396

By Brian Earnest

Larry Sebranek’s 1968 Chevelle SS is one of those cars that’s lived a very full life. It started off as Vietnam vet’s dream car, went on to ably serve as a mean street machine terrorizing the Wisconsin backroads, eventually became a grocery getter and all-around family hauler, then changed owners and started collecting pink slips at the drag strip.

Then, back in 1996, it was sold back to its original owner, Sebranek, of Lone Rock, Wis., who has happily turned his beloved Chevy muscle car into a fully restored and appropriately pampered trailer queen.

For proving once again that you can do a lot with a Chevelle, a true muscle car for the masses, Sebranek’s stellar SS is this week’s OldCarsReport.com “Car of the Week.”

“It was our family car for, I betcha, eight, nine, 10 years,” Sebranek said. “It had kids in it, crackers on the floor, the whole deal. You didn’t really think about it back then. It was the grocery getter. I hauled my wife and kids to and from the hospital. Back then, it was just a car.

“I bought it brand new when I came home from Vietnam. It’s got the 396 (-cubic inch), 375-horse engine it. I ordered it when I came home from leave. When we were over there we got a lot of brochures on muscle cars … I wanted a 427 and the dealer said, ‘You can’t get it, we’ll get you a 396.’ I was naive and didn’t know, and you believe what the dealer said, you know? So, the first one came in and had the 396 and 325 horse. I said, ‘No, that’s not the one I want .

“I remember my dad calling me and saying, ‘What the hell you want that big motor for?’ I said, ‘That’s the one I want!’”

Eventually, another SS came in, but Sebranek turned that one down, too. Finally, a third 396 came to the dealer and it had something unique about it. “The interior was always different, but nobody could really tell me what the interior was,” he said. “The dealer said, ‘Well, somebody must have screwed up.’ I was a young kind and didn’t really know, so I took it, and it was finally about 10 years later that I found out it was a Buick Grand Sport interior … Apparently, GM was on strike, or something, and some Chevelles got the Gran Sport interiors. You’d get different stories over the years, and yet there is no official record of GM being on strike. But there are a few cars out there like this that got the Gran Sport interior. The guys who really know Chevelles know about them … There’s no logos, no 396 logos on doors, the seats are completely different in a ‘68 Chevelle. A Buick guy could probably pick it out right away. The Gran Sport has more of a pleated upholstery in it.”

Sebranek loved his Chevelle – the first new car he had ever purchased — and he had some painful seller’s remorse from the moment he sold it to a man in Texas more than 20 years ago. 

“In about ’87, we sold it. Our son was getting old enough to drive, and I just had raised enough hell with that car that I knew what it would do and I knew how dangerous it was for a 16-year-old boy,” Sebranek said. “I hated to see it go,  but then you know, when you got two boys and one’s getting old enough to drive, it’s hard to say no to them. I would have had to say ‘no’ 100 percent of the time. That was dad’s car.

“About six months after I sold it, I started tracking it. At that time you could call the DMV and if you gave them $5 or $10, they could tell you who owned it … So I knew who had the car.”

Sebranek eventually worked up the nerve to contact the second owner to ask if he could buy the car back, but the man declined. “I kind of gave up on it after that,” he said.

But he got one more chance. About five years later, the man sent a letter to Sebranek asking some questions about a warranty block that had been put in the car when it had 48,000 miles on the odometer. “I asked him again if he wanted to sell it. He called me a week later and said he’d sell it back to me. He lived in Kentucky at the time, so we grabbed a trailer and a come-along and we used a winch and went and got it.

“It had been a wrecked a little bit. The right front was dinged up and had quite a bit of mud (body filler) in it. And there was mud all over the wheel wells. It was done in sort of a cobbled fashion. The driver’s seat was torn. But for the average Joe, it was still a good car for being that old.”

During its time away, the Chevelle hadn’t been hauling many kids or groceries. “It had been a drag car,” Sebranek said. “The guy had it to Pomona [Calif.]. He even showed me the slips with the times it had run.”

The fact that it was a street and strip demon certainly didn’t hurt the wildly popular 1968 Chevelle in the eyes of the buying public when the cars were new. The muscle engines started with the base SS engine, a 396-cid “big-block” V-8 with 325 hp. Two more-powerful versions were optional. The 325- and 350-hp versions of the 396-cid V-8 were available with a special three-speed Synchromesh transmission as standard equipment. A four-speed manual gearbox and Powerglide or Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic transmissions were optional. The 375-hp versions, which had to be special ordered, were installed in no more than 2,000 cars. There was usually a two- to three-month waiting period to get one. A power convertible top was optional.

The high-performance SS 396 was a separate series in 1968. It included a sport coupe base-priced at $2,899 and a convertible priced at $3,102. Both had the shorter wheelbase, of course. Overall length, at 197.1 inches, was just a tad longer than in 1967, even though the wheelbase was downsized by 3 inches. Front and rear tread widths were also up an inch to 59 inches. The new Chevelle was also nearly an inch taller at 52.7 inches.

The SS 396 models were made even more distinctive by the use of matte black finish around the full lower perimeter of the bodies, except when the cars were finished in a dark color. Other SS features included F70 x 14 wide-oval red-stripe tires, body accent stripes, a special twin-domed hood with simulated air intakes, “SS” badges, vinyl upholstery and a heavy-duty three-speed transmission with floor-mounted shifter.

For ’68, the “flying buttress” roofline of the Chevelle sport coupe was replaced by a more fastback style and the rear windows had a “veed” appearance (also used on pillared coupes). The round-lens headlights were placed in square, hooded chrome housing that edged up into the hood line. The Chevelle muscle car again wore an exclusive hood with twin power domes. For 1968, the ornamentation was a smaller section of grille work at the rear of each dome.

As in the past, Chevrolet continued to offer the SS 396 with a wide range of transmission and rear axle options. Also standard were finned front brake drums and new bonded brake linings all around. About 57,600 Chevelle SS 396s were made and this total included 4,751 with the L78 engine and 4,082 with the L34 option.

Sebranek had no plans to race his Chevelle once he got it back. And he wasn’t going to be hauling groceries, either. The Chevelle went on to get a full restoration, courtesy of Newton’s Restorations and Al’s Interiors, both of Spring Green, Wis.

“Oh, I never thought I’d get it back,” Sebranek said. “Words can’t describe that telephone call. When he asked, ‘Do you want to buy it back?’ it was probably one of the happiest days that Judy and I ever had.”

The restoration started in 2001 and took more than two years. The car now makes occasional appearances at shows, and is occasionally taken for gentle weekend drives – a far cry from its former lives as a bachelor street racer, kid transporter, and then drag car.

“You don’t realize how stupid we were, to put it plainly,” Sebranek said, of his crazy younger days when he drove his Chevelle with a heavy foot. “Now, honestly, I’m scared now to drive it over 60 mph. We’ve got the bias-ply tires on it. When I was young, I had that car in third gear at 120 mph. Before I was married, I used to do my share of street racing, and it was a tough car to beat. And I enjoyed every minute of it, but you don’t realize how safe our tires are compared to the old tires we had. It’s just completely different worlds.

“The guys who restored the car just did an unbelievable job. We’ve had it to shows and won some awards. We just won ‘Best Paint’ and ‘Best Engine’ and at the Iowa Falls show.

“It’s a Butternut Yellow, so it’s not an eye-catcher. To the average guy it’s just a car, but guys who know paint, who know cars, and who know Chevelles, they know it’s a helluva car.”

Series        Body/Style    Body Type        Factory    Shipping      Production
Number     Number         & Seating          Price        Weight        Total
CHEVELLE SS 396 — SERIES 3800 — V-8

    38          37                 2d Spt Cpe-6P    $2,899       3,475 lbs.    55,309
    38          67                 2d Conv-6P        $3,102       3,551 lbs.     2,286

ENGINES
BASE V-8: Overhead-valve. Cast-iron block and head. Bore and stroke: 4.09 x 3.76 in. Displacement: 396 cid. Compression ratio: 10.25:1. Brake hp: 325 at 4800 rpm. Torque: 410 lbs.-ft. at 3200. Five main bearings. Hydraulic valve lifters. Carburetor: Rochester 7028211 four-barrel. Sales code: L35.

OPTIONAL V-8: Overhead-valve. Cast-iron block and head. Bore and stroke: 4.09 x 3.76 in. Displacement: 396 cid. Compression ratio: 10.25:1. Brake hp: 350 at 5200 rpm. Torque: 415 lbs.-ft. at 3400. Five main bearings. Hydraulic valve lifters. Carburetor: Four-barrel. Sales code: L34.

OPTIONAL V-8: Overhead-valve. Cast-iron block and head. Bore and stroke: 4.09 x 3.76 in. Displacement: 396 cid. Compression ratio: 11.00:1. Brake hp: 375 at 5600 rpm. Torque: 415 lbs.-ft. at 3600. Five main bearings. Solid valve lifters. Carburetor: Four-barrel. Sales code L78.

OPTIONAL V-8: Overhead-valve. Cast-iron block and head. Bore and stroke: 4.09 x 3.76 in. Displacement: 396 cid. Compression ratio: 11.00:1. Brake hp: 375 at 5600 rpm. Torque: 415 lbs.-ft. at 3600. Five main bearings. Solid valve lifters. Carburetor: Four-barrel. Sales code L89.

1968 CHEVELLE OPTIONS
C60 Four-Season air conditioning, including 61-amp Delcotron, heavy-duty radiator and temperature-controlled fan ($360.20). G80 Positraction rear axle ($42.15). AXL1 Special economy or high-performance rear axle ($2.15). T60 heavy-duty battery ($7.40). A51 Standard-type front shoulder belts, in cars with standard seat belts ($23.20). AS1/S5 Standard-type rear shoulder belts, in cars with standard seat belts ($46.40). A39 Custom Deluxe front and rear seat belts, for cars with bucket seats ($7.90). A39 Custom Deluxe front and rear seat belts, for cars with bench front seats ($9.50). A85 Custom Deluxe front shoulder belts, requires Custom Deluxe seat belts ($26.35). A85/S4 Custom Deluxe front and rear shoulder belts, requires Custom Deluxe seat belts ($52.70). V31 Front bumper guards ($15.80). V32 Rear bumper guards ($15.80). D55 Console, including electric clock, requires bucket seats ($50.60). C50 Rear windshield defroster, all except convertibles and wagons ($21.10). B93 Door edge guards, two-door models ($4.25). L34 396-cid/350-hp V-8 engine, SS 396 only ($105.35). L78 396-cid/375-hp V-8 SS 396 only ($237). K02 Temperature-controlled fan, standard witrh air conditioning ($15.80). K79 42-amp Delcotron generator, not available with air conditioning or with C60 ($10.55). K76 61-amp Delcotron generator, with air conditioning ($5.30); without air conditioning ($26.35). A01 All windows tinted ($34.80). A02 Tinted windshield only ($23.20). A81 Driver and passenger headrests, with front Strato bucket seats ($52.70). A82 Driver and passenger headrests, with standard front bench seat ($42.15). U03 Tri-volume horn ($13.70). Special instrumentation with ammeter, temperature gauge, oil pressure gauge and tachometer ($94.80). U46 light monitoring system ($26.35). ZJ19 auxiliary lighting groups with A) ash tray, B) courtesy, C) glove box, D) luggage and E) underhood lights; in convertibles includes A, D and E ($6.85); in SS 396 sport coupe includes A and B ($11.10. B37 Twin front and rear floor mats ($10.55). D33 Left-hand outside remote-control mirror ($9.50). Two-tone paint ($21.10). J50 Power drum brakes ($42.15). J50 Power disc front brakes ($100.10). N40 Power steering ($94.80). C06 Power convertible top in White, Black or Blue ($52.70). A31 Power windows ($100.10). V01 Heavy-duty radiator, except with air conditioning ($10.55). U63 AM push-button radio with front antenna ($61.10). U69 AM/FM radio with front antenna ($133.80). U69/79 AM/FM radio with front antenna and stereo ($239.15). U57 Stereo tape system with four speakers ($133.80). U80 Rear seat speaker, not available with U79 ($13.20) U73 rear antenna, all except AM/FM ($9.50). CO81/82 Vinyl roof cover, for Sport Coupes ($84.30). A51 Strato bucket seats ($110.60). G66 Superlift rear shock absorbers ($42.15). K30 Speed and cruise control, with automatic transmission ($52.70). U15 Speed warning indicator ($10.55). N33 Comfortilt steering wheel, requires floor shifter or automatic transmissions ($42.15). N34 Sport styled steering wheel ($31.60). D96 accent striping ($29.50). F40 Special front and rear suspension ($4.75). M22 Close-ratio four-speed manual transmission for SS 396/375 hp ($237). M21 Close-ratio four-speed manual transmission for other SS 396s ($184.35). M20 Wide-ratio four-speed manual transmission for all ($184.35). M40 Turbo Hydra-Matic transmission for SS 396 with 350-hp or 325-hp V-8 only ($237). M13 Special floor-mounted three-speed manual transmission for all except SS 396 ($79 and standard on SS 396). M10 Overdrive transmission with 140-, 155-, 200- or 250-hp engines ($115.90). KD5 Heavy-duty closed engine positive crankcase ventilation system ($6.35). P01 Four bright metal wheel covers ($21.10). N96 Mag-styled wheel covers with non disc brakes ($73.75). N95 simulated wire wheel covers with non-disc brakes ($73.75). PA2 Mag spoke wheel covers ($73.75). ZJ7 Rallye wheels, including special wheels, hubcaps and trim rings ($31.60). P1 Appearance group ($46.40). P4 Operating convenience group ($46.40). P4 Operating convenience group for SS 396 with U14 special instrumentation ($30.60). P4 Operating convenience group ($9.50).

CLICK HERE to view the Car of the Week Index.

COMMENT