The original Chevrolet Chevelle was the perfect size at the perfect time and for many today, it remains the perfect car.
Gary Pietraniec of Brighton, Mich., is one of those who fell under the spell of the Chevelle early in the model’s life. He said his first ride in a true muscle car was a triple black 1966 Chevelle SS 396 that a buddy had bought new when they were just teenagers.
“My very first muscle car that I ever rode in was a triple back SS 396 with 375 hp and I left my mark on that passenger seat — my buddy really got on it!”
That fast ride in an SS 396 set Pietraniec on a path to ownership of dozens of performance cars of his own: 1958-’60 Corvettes, Mustangs with the 428 Cobra Jet, GTOs and a Plymouth Road Runner. There were even a couple super rare 1965 Ford Fairlanes with the high-performance 289. However, not one of them was the ever-popular Chevelle Super Sport. Now that a Chevelle Malibu has found him, he’s pleased that it’s not of the muscle car variety. In fact, that’s what makes his car stand apart.
“I have been involved in cars for several, several years, and most Chevelles don’t have the original engine or transmission, or they are SS clones or they have 502s in them. This one is nice and original,” Pietraniec said. “This one is just nicely optioned. It has the 327, the four-speed and it has the buckets and console. It has front and rear bumper guards, tinted windows, it has the factory gauges with the ‘knee knocker’ tach — all in a Malibu, not an SS.”
Chevy grows with an intermediate
By the time the Jake Gallegos of Denver, Colo., ordered this Chevelle Malibu on June 14, 1966, from Burt Chevrolet (now Elway Chevrolet), Chevy’s Chevelle was only three years old but well-established. The Chevelle was part of Chevrolet’s ever-expanding model range that just five years earlier included only a full-size model in three trim levels and the two-seat Corvette sports car. The compact, rear-engined Corvair followed for 1960, then the compact Chevy II debuted for 1962 on a more traditional rear-wheel-drive/front-engine platform to fight the Ford Falcon. When General Motors’ “fun size” 1961 Buick Special/Olds F-85/Pontiac Tempest models gained a bit of girth and each became a traditional front-engine/rear-drive intermediate for 1964, Chevrolet birthed the Chevelle.
The Chevelle filled the size and price gap between the compact Nova and the full-size Impala/Bel Air/Biscayne. Initially, Chevelle was offered in three series: Chevelle Malibu Super Sport, Chevelle Malibu and the entry-level Chevelle 300. Between the three Chevelle series, every popular body style of the day was available: hardtop, convertible, sedan, coupe and station wagon.
The name “Chevelle” was simply dreamed up by Chevrolet and meant nothing, but at the 1963 press conference where the Chevelle was announced, Chevrolet General Manager S.E. “Bunkie” Knudson said, “we’ll make it mean something.”
Mean something it did. First-year sales were a strong 338,286 Chevelles and in 1965, the number went up to 343,900 Chevelles. Things were even better in 1966 when Chevrolet built 412,155 Chevelles. The numbers weren’t far behind the headline-grabbing Ford Mustang, which received the lion’s share of public attention as one of the first of the new “pony cars.” Chevrolet’s winning Chevelle formula included a 115-in. wheelbase, 196.6-in. overall length and a height of about 53 in. in a car that could be a six-cylinder station wagon or a V-8 convertible — or even a car-truck hybrid with the El Camino.
The new Chevelle also struck a chord with gear heads who still admired the “Tri Five” Chevys of the previous decade. Among the earliest to acknowledge the Chevelle’s similar pro-portions to the 1955-1957 Chevrolets was Motor Trend, which said in March 1964 that, “Somehow, we couldn’t help feeling we’d driven the Chevelle before, about eight years ago. It’s basically very similar to the popular 1955 Chevrolet — a shade shorter in overall length and height, but with the same basic engine/chassis combination.” Indeed, while the full-size Chevrolet became longer, lower and more lithe after the Tri-Chevys, Chevelle was again short-and-stocky looking — and packing V-8s and six-cylinders that could be traced back to the Tri-Fives.
While the 1964 Chevelle’s styling wasn’t revolutionary like that on the Mustang (it actually borrowed many styling elements from the bigger 1964 Chevrolet), it was often described as clean and handsome. Today, Chevelle styling is considered timeless. During the full run of the first generation from 1964 to 1967, the Chevelle sported horizontally arranged quad headlamps, a hood and rear deck that looked to be of similar length, clean flanks with a slight muscle bulge in the beltline just aft the front door, and rather vertical grilles and tail panels. The rooflines of the popular Sport Coupes were elegantly swept back with a slight formality to them, adding to the car’s overall “Coke bottle” shape that was so in vogue during the 1960s.
During 1965, the Chevelle became a full-blown muscle car with the midyear availability of the Z16 396-cid V-8 to the Chevelle Malibu SS. Only 201 were built but in 1966, the Chevelle SS 396 was a full-fledge model of which 72,272 were built. Pietraniec’s Chevelle was not one of them.
A ’66 keeper
“The thing that is really nice about this car is it’s a [code] 136 car — just a plain Chevelle Malibu, but it has so many options on it,” Pietraniec said. “It’s a loaded car. The gauge package and ‘knee knocker’ tach is really nice. There’s just a lot to it, but it’s not a SS. It’s more drivable than a 396. You don’t have to put premium gas in it and you don’t have to baby it. You can still kick it in the butt and it will still put you back in the seat. It’s just a great, great little car.”
Being from Colorado, the Chevelle Malibu has always been a really clean specimen. Pietraniec said it was repainted in Colorado but it’s largely original and well-documented with its original Protecto-Plate, order sheet, build sheet and numerous other original papers. The original dealer order form shows a red 1959 Chevrolet four-door was traded for the new Chevelle Malibu. Even the name of the salesman who took the ’59 Chevy in trade remains on the inside of the glove box door.
Pietraniec wasn’t on the look out for such a car, but he was impressed with the Chevelle Malibu when he first saw it and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy it when it became available about three years ago.
“Back in 1998, my best friend bought the car from a dealership in Colorado and he had it shipped back sight-unseen,” Pietraniec said. “He has more guts than I do — I will not buy a car sight-unseen. But it was a really nice car. I was at his house when it was delivered.
“He kept it for 12 years or so and then another friend talked my buddy out of it. And he had it for seven six, seven years and he was thinning out his collection so he said, “Gary, I know you have always liked the Malibu — I will give it to you for a friend’s price.” I thought, ‘I don’t need it — I am thinning out, too,’ but I said I will buy it. I bought it mainly because I knew the history and my buddies are both meticulous.”
Aside from simply keeping the ’66 Chevelle Malibu in nice shape and adding a few miles here and there, one of Pietraniec’s friends added power disc brakes. The car also sports muscle car-era Cragar mags now, but Pietraniec is very proud that the car retains so many of its other original features.
“It has the original 327 it was born with, it has the matching numbers transmission and original shifter and shifter ball and correct rear end,” he says. Inside the Marina Blue car’s matching blue interior, only the covers for the front bucket seats have been replaced. The rest is original, including the working clock and cigarette lighter.
Pietraniec said the Chevelle Malibu’s performance doesn’t compare to any of the muscle cars he’s owned before, and he considers that a good thing. He’s put about 2500 miles on it in the last three years, which he probably wouldn’t have done with a temperamental big-block.
“It still has a lot of power and it’s fun to get on it, but it is nothing like the hi-po muscle cars. It’s more streetable and that’s the fun part. It doesn’t break as much as a big-block or overheat. The Road Runner with a 440 and a 6 Pack, it would always overheat. I have never had any problems with [the Chevelle Malibu].”
After years of judged shows and concours, the 275-hp 327 in Pietraniec’s Chevelle Malibu is more his speed than his muscle cars of yesterday. He says he doesn’t enter it in shows because it has a few minor blemishes in its 20-some-year-old paint, but he does take it to a lot of local cruises.
“It has a few little dings that you can barely see and I don’t cry about a new scratch,” he said. “I take it to Kroger’s. I drive it almost daily in the summer time. I have had cars in major magazines, at concours, and now it’s just a matter of been there, done that. Now let’s have some fun.”
Pietraniec doesn’t seem to miss those muscle cars in his rearview mirror and for where he is today, the small-block Chevelle Malibu is perfect.
“I sure didn’t need it, but it would be hard to part with now.”
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