Car of the Week: 1965 Chevrolet Impala SS 396

Dennis Sherman’s pristine 1965 Impala SS 396 was made to last.
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By Brian Earnest

Car of the Week 2020
Impala in yard

Dennis Sherman can laugh about it now. He almost returned his beloved 1965 Chevrolet Impala SS hardtop when it wasn’t delivered as he had ordered it. He admits now that would have probably been one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

“After I ordered it, they called me about a week later and said, ‘You might not get your car.’ I about had a heart attack. They said, ‘They shut off our orders in midstream, and your order might have been in it.’ Well, it finally did come in at the end of August or early September, but wasn’t exactly the way I ordered it. I wanted the 4.11 gearing, because I wanted to go street racing. But the car had a 3.31… So I actually let the car sit on the lot for almost a month. I wanted them to change it out, but they wouldn’t do it.

“It got to the point where they said, ‘You’re taking the car or we will sell it to somebody else.’ So I took it, and it never really worked out for street racing, but it’s been a godsend in a way because everybody else was getting 7, 8 mph and I was getting maybe 13, 14 with that 3.31, so that probably saved the car for me. That’s probably the reason I still have it.”

Sherman opens up the lids and shows off the cavernous trunk and big-block power plant when he displays the Impala SS at events like Muscle Car and  Corvette Nationals (MCACN). Muscle car afficianiados  appreciate the big Chevrolet for what it is — a rare 396-powered Impala SS that is in nearly showroom new condition. The engine compartment is the only place that shows the ravages of time, but Sherman believes originality trumps shiny good looks when it comes to the engine.

Sherman opens up the lids and shows off the cavernous trunk and big-block power plant when he displays the Impala SS at events like Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals (MCACN). Muscle car aficionados appreciate the big Chevrolet for what it is — a rare 396-powered Impala SS that is in nearly showroom new condition. The engine compartment is the only place that shows the ravages of time, but Sherman believes originality trumps shiny good looks when it comes to the engine.

Indeed, not only does Sherman, a resident of Fort Wayne, Ind., still have the car, the full-size muscle monster has become a bit of a celebrity in Chevrolet circles — not only due to the fact that it was a bit of a rarity with its options selections, but the fact that it is an unrestored, one-owner, almost entirely original L-78 SS with a paltry 29,000-plus miles on the odometer. The Impala was supposed to be a car for Sherman to rip around in with his buddies, then became a daily driver for a short time, and now has graduated into a popular show car that has been a hit at events like Bloomington Gold and Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals (MCACN).

The car is so pristine, even many of the little maintenance-type items are still original: fan belt, rubber seals and gaskets, weather stripping, brakes, plug wires and windshield wipers. “Even the washer fluid in the bottle,” Sherman points out. “I’ve been fortunate. We’ve put in a lot of effort to keep it that way, but we’ve been fortunate that way, too.”

As it states, this is a "survivor."

As it states, this is a "survivor."

The idea of keeping such a car for more than five decades certainly wasn’t on Sherman’s mind when he first started looking around for some new wheels when he turned 18. He was hoping to find something that would keep up with his car buddies and had caught wind of a new engine that Chevrolet was launching. The 396 sounded like it was right up his alley.

“I saw the engine was coming out and was reading about in the hot rod magazines and Car Craft and it seemed really intriguing to me,” he says. “I worked on my friend’s 409 and it was good engine, but you couldn’t get any RPM out of it. This new engine I thought, wow, that’s pretty cool. I remember I had to give a speech about it in one of my college classes. I just became enamored with it, and then a friend of mine had bought one an early ’65 — one of the first ones out in an Impala — and I got to drive the car and it was just amazing. I thought, well, I was looking at new vehicles anyhow. I had just graduated from high school and was working and knew I had some income. I started looking and kind of had my eyes on a Corvette, but my wife [Rose] — she was my girlfriend at time — she’s short and when she sat down in the Corvette she had a hard time getting out of it … And the Corvette wasn’t really practical as an everyday driver, anyway.

“So I went to check out the Impala and I just loved the lines of the new car. I fell in love with the way it looked. We were looking clear into July, and we had four Chevy dealerships in our area, and each one of them told me I couldn’t that engine in an Impala, couldn’t get that engine in an Impala … But I finally got one of them to say yes and I specially ordered the car exactly the way I wanted it: L-78 396/425 hp; no power brakes; no air conditioning; no power on anything but the engine. I just thought that engine had the performance and durability and was the way to go. I traded in a ’58 Chevy Impala convertible on it. Sometimes I wish I still had that car, too!”

You have to look hard to find a flaw in this ’65 Impala SS. The column-mounted tach and under-dash eight-track tape player were add-ons, but the rest of the classy black-and-white interior looks almost new after 29,000 miles and 55 years.

You have to look hard to find a flaw in this ’65 Impala SS. The column-mounted tach and under-dash eight-track tape player were add-ons, but the rest of the classy black-and-white interior looks almost new after 29,000 miles and 55 years.

After the car Impala SS arrived with the more pedestrian 3.31 gearing, Sherman decided he would have to be satisfied with a really cool new daily driver and turn another car into his stoplight drag car, and that’s what he did. The big new ’65 became his daily transportation for about a year, but a confluence of events soon relegated it to a weekend toy and hobby car.

“When we couldn’t get Sonoco 260 [racing fuel], we pretty much backed off driving it,” he says. “It just didn’t run right on regular pump gas. And we had other things to drive.

“I actually drove it to work that first year, then the second year I got married and went to work on Feb. 6 and we had a slippery wet snowstorm and a ’66 Plymouth Belvedere slid into the back end and put a little mark on it … My wife got all panicky about us driving it in winter and I said, ‘Well, that’s the last time that car is ever going to see snow, and it’s been in the garage ever since.”

This one clean interior!

This one clean interior!

BIRTH OF A ‘SUPER’ IMPALA

The SS package started life as a midyear option for the full-sized Chevrolet in 1961. It became a lot more available in ’62 and by ’63-’64, the Impala SS was a high-performance icon. In ’65, the SS played a major role in Chevy’s big-car efforts. Chevrolet’s full-size 1965 model was curvier and larger than its counterparts of 1963-1964. It gained nearly 4 inches of length, although using the same 119-inch wheelbase. Curb weights rose more than 125 lbs. over 1964 for most models.

The Impala SS models were in their own separate series for the first time in 1965. The V-8 sport coupe sold for $2,947 and weighed 3,570 lbs. The counterpart convertible was priced at $3,212 and weighed 3,645 lbs.

The 409-cid V-8 came in 340- and 400-hp versions. The more powerful one was available with a Muncie four-speed manual transmission. It had an 11.0:1 compression ratio. However, the 340-hp engine was a better seller by far and is the one that Car and Driver tested. This engine featured a single four-throat Rochester carburetor and a 10.0:1 compression ratio. In the 4,200-lb. test car it provided 0.83 hp per pound.

Equipped with a Powerglide automatic transmission and 3.31:1 final gear ratio, the 340-hp Impala SS sport coupe did 0-to-60 in 8 seconds flat. It took all of 16.4 seconds to scoot down the quarter-mile at 91 mph.

The top of the heap, though, was the L-78 SS 396, which was conservatively rated — in many folks’ experience and opinions, anyway — at 425 horses. The 396 big-block was part of the GM options list from 1965-’70. It was installed in 1,838 full-size Chevys (Bel Air, Biscayne and Impala) that first year, in addition to 2,157 Corvettes. The following year, it was available only in the Chevelle and El Camino, making the ’65 L-78 Impalas one-year wonders.

This is not to say that all Impala Super Sports were performance cars. Continuing a practice that started with the ’62 models, you could get either a sport coupe or convertible with SS markings and an incongruous six-cylinder engine.

The SS was noted by its bright wheelhouse moldings (without bright lower body moldings); Super Sport front fender script; black-filled rear cove band with Impala SS badge at right; and a similar badge on the radiator grille, at the left. Specific Super Sport full wheel covers were used. The SS interior featured full carpeting; all-vinyl trim with front bucket seats and bright seatback outline moldings; combination vinyl and carpet door trim (with bright accents); foam cushions; courtesy lights; SS identification on the door panels; and a console with a built-in, Rally-type clock. A vacuum gauge was standard as well.

For the year, Chevrolet sold more than 1 million Impalas on its way a model year production total of 2,382,509 vehicles.

Note the extra pedal... This SS is for rowing gears.

Note the extra pedal... This SS is for rowing gears.

ORIGINAL AND UNUSUAL

You don’t need many fingers to count the number of things that Sherman has done to his Impala beyond washing it and changing the oil. He’s swapped in a new battery; put in an “Aoogah” horn, just because he likes it; added an eight-track player and Sun Tach; replaced six different light bulbs around the car; replaced the radiator hoses and cap; replaced the tires and shocks; put in a new right rear exhaust resonator; and replaced the pressure plate and clutch. “Other than that, it’s never been apart,” he says. “The interior is all original. The engine has never been apart. People look at the engine and say I should repaint the engine, but that would devalue it. The only thing on there that has been painted is the water pump.”

He can also name the seven different people that have driven the car in the past 55 years. One of them was his dad — “I was 18 years old so he had to co-sign the loan, and he said if he had to sign the loan then he got to drive it!” — and two of them were mechanics who drove the car in and out of the shop back when it was under warranty. Suffice to say that Sherman doesn’t had over the keys to just anybody.

Of course, he hasn’t babied the big Chevy every day of its life, either. The car wasn’t quick off the line, but the speedometer needle had to move a long way to max out, as Sherman found out occasionally during his young and foolish days.

“I shouldn’t be telling you this, but car has seen 85 [mph] in first gear,” he says sheepishly. “I was 18 back then, and you feel like the car is almost invincible. It was stupid, I know, but I got it up to 8 grand on the tach. Not just once or twice, either. But a handful of times … I would take it out to see if the engine was running just right and adjusting the lifters, and to do that I would rev it up to 75, 80 in first year. I’ve double-clutched this car and laid rubber at 55 with a friend in the car. I had the car up to probably 140 and got scared because it started to float. You feel like you don’t have very much control.”

But that kind of top end speed never made Sherman inclined to take the Impala SS to the track, however. It wasn’t quick enough out of the blocks for his liking, and the thought of breaking anything on his big red beauty queen wasn’t too appealing, either. “Once I found out it didn’t have the gear to come off the line, I wasn’t really interested in racing,” he says. “It’s got the M21 Muncie close-ratio, and that first gear is a higher gear. And with the 3.31, you put those together and it’s like starting out in second gear with most cars. If you come out hard, you burn out your tires. If you wanted to enter one of those burnout contests, that’s what it would be good for.”

Driver front corner at Muddy River Run show

After one year as a daily driver, Sherman says the car became pretty much a “Sunday” car. He insists at that he wasn’t trying to preserve the car for the rest of his days, but “it started to evolve into that. I had guys start saying this might be worth something, and I had guys make some offers to buy it back then. But it became just like a member of the family and we started really taking care of it. It just kind of became our baby.”

Sherman jokes that even if he wanted to turn the glorious SS back into his daily driver, even for a short time, it would be hard to afford the cost. “I run straight racing fuel — Sunoco or whatever is available locally. The last few years it’s been about $9 a gallon. Last time I got some it was $9.50 a gallon! We drive it maybe 200 miles a year now, so I can handle that. It sill runs great, no knocking or pinging.”

Sherman says the car gets treated a bit like royalty when he has it on display at MCACN and the other big shows he has attended with it. He laments that the car doesn’t always get appreciated for its rarity and condition at smaller local events, but the more educated and sophisticated muscle car crowd showers the car with plenty of attention when it appears.

“One guy walked up to me one time and handed me his card and said, “I will be the next owner of this car,” Sherman laughs. “He didn’t even ask a price.”

So has he ever been close to selling?

“Mmmm, no. Not close [laughs]. It would take a lot of money to pry it out of my hands, probably more than it’s worth because of the sentimental value to me. I’ve got less than $4,000 in the car, so I’m not going to lose any money on it no matter when I sell it. My son says when I die he’s going to put the car in the ground with me.”

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