By Brian Earnest
Larry Debevec was definitely looking at the big picture when he bought his first car.
“My dad would tell stories like, 'I wish I still had my '33 Plymouth,’ or ‘I wish I had that 1940 Ford coupe’. I always said that’s never gonna happen to me,” says the resident of Summerville, S.C. “I decided at a young age I’m going to buy something that I like and that’s going to be a sweet, hot car and that’s going to be in the family for a long time.”
Debevec’s stunning 1967 Chevelle SS 396 certainly fills the bill on all accounts. It was the first car the car-crazy youth bought when he was barely old enough to drive, and he’s never parted with it. He’s never even remotely considered letting the Chevelle go, even when it was sitting in a barn collecting dust for about a dozen years.
The marriage began innocently enough back in 1970 when Debevec went with his dad to order a new 1970 Impala for the family from the local Chevy dealer. “I had just turned 15 and was helping the owner of the Chevrolet dealership with the options that I wanted and he saw that I was interested in cars and on the spot he offered me a job sweeping up in the shop and cleaning up after the mechanics," Debevec said. "In a couple of months I was doing brake jobs and putting mufflers on cars. The first engine I rebuilt was on a 1965 Corvair Monza Spyder.”
One of the other cars he helped work on belonged to his brother’s friend. It was a red 1967 Chevelle SS that Debevec had been lusting after. “He blew the engine in it, and I helped one of our mechanics rebuild the engine with a short-block. Then he decided he was going to sell it and I bought it from him for $800, and the rest is history. I drove it all through high school and college at Penn State.”
Debevec moved several times during his career working for Corning and the car followed him through multiple stops. Debevec eventually located a correct 1967 396 engine — donated from an Impala — to replace the original V-8. He transplanted the 396 in about 1977, but soon after that the Chevelle went into a long slumber. A full restoration would have to wait.
“I put it in this barn, probably about 1977 or so, and it sat there for 12 or 13 years,” he recalled. “And then in 1990 I was living in Danville, Va. and I decided it was time to pull the car out of the barn and do a frame-off restoration, and that’s what I did.”
Debevec re-did the Chevelle from bumper to bumper, with the exception of the engine. The front seats got new vinyl coverings, the body was stripped, sanded and repainted Bolero Red and Debevec’s uncle, who ran an upholstery and auto glass shop in New York, replaced the vinyl top.
The restoration was completed a year later in 1991, and the SS remained largely unchanged until last year, when Debevec rebuilt the 396 engine. “I put in a hotter cam, bored it .40 over, hardened the valve seats, polished the exhaust ports and blue-printed and balanced the engine. We just got it done this past November or December,” he said. “We put it on the Dyno and it was pushing 340 hp and 411 ft.-lbs. of torque. I’m still using all the original parts — it’s still got the Delco Rochester four-barrel. It’s still running mechanical points. Anything we replaced was all NOS parts. There are no reproduction [parts] on the car — no reproduction fenders or anything like that.”
Debevec did replace the factory drum brakes with power disc brakes, and also added factory-correct power steering and an instrument cluster. “It is now to the point where it’s pretty much in showroom condition,” he said. “There is really nothing else I can do but drive it and keep it refreshed
“It’s never had this kind of power. It’s a sweet car. My wife and I have a lot of fun with it. Living in South Carolina, it’s got the drop top, which is really nice, but doesn’t have the air conditioning. We do some cruising and some shows and try to enjoy it as much as we possibly can. We have a lot of fun with it.”
There were plenty of Americans who had fun with their SS 396 Chevelles right from the start. Chevy’s hot mid-size Chevelle officially became its own model in 1966 — previously it had been an offshoot of the Malibu line — and as the muscle car race heated up, so did the Chevelle SS. Even though production was off slightly for the model year, more than 63,000 SS 396s were built.
Like other Chevelles, the 1967 SS featured a cigar-shaped body and forward-thrusting front fenders. The radiator grille had more prominent horizontal bars. The prices for the SS 396 coupe jumped to $2,825 and the SS 396 convertible’s price increased by the same amount to $3,033.
Chevelle Super Sport models again had twin simulated hood air intakes, ribbed color-accented sill and rear fender lower moldings, a black-out style SS 396 grille and rear cove accents and “Super Sport” script plates on the rear fenders. Specific SS wheel covers were included, along with red-stripe tires. An all-vinyl bench seat interior was standard.
The 325-hp engine (RPO L35) was carried over as the base choice in 1967. The RPO L34 version was also offered again, but its horsepower rating dropped to 350 hp at 5200 rpm. The L78 375-hp version of the 396-cid V-8 was not listed on Chevy specifications sheets, but it was possible to purchase the components needed to “build” this option at your Chevy dealer’s parts counter. The total cost of everything needed to upgrade a 350-hp engine to a 375-hp job was $475.80.
SS 396 buyers could get the 325-hp engine with a standard heavy-duty three-speed manual transmission, a four-speed manual gearbox, Powerglide automatic (or later in the year, Turbo-Hydra-Matic). There was a choice of nine axle ratios from 3.07:1 to 4.10:1, but specific options depended upon transmission choice. The 350-hp engine came with the heavy-duty three-speed manual, wide- or close-ratio four speeds or Powerglide. There were eight rear axle ratios from 3.07:1 to 4.88:1, but you could not get all of them with every engine and transmission setup.
The 1967 SS 396 sport coupe with 375 hp did 0-to-60 mph in 6.5 seconds and did the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds.
Debevec and his Chevelle’s previous owner have combined to put 86,000 miles on his SS 396, although only about 500 of those have come since the second engine has been rebuilt. He hasn’t shown the car as much in recent years as he used to — his hot ’51 Mercury has been his car of choice at judged shows. Debevec expects to keep the SS 396 a little busier this year, however.
“I let it eat,” he says with a chuckle. “When we go out, it loves gas and it loves asphalt, so every once in a while I go out and let it breathe. It’s a fun car and, in my opinion, it should be driven. I don’t own any trailer queens. They all get driven. I’m still a kid at heart. The only thing I gotta be careful of is not to scare my wife too often!”
Debevec knows he would have no troubles finding any takers if he ever decided to sell the Chevelle SS, but he is positive that will never happen. When he’s done playing with it, he plans to hand it over to one of his nephews.
"I will keep it in the family,” he said. “I’ve had it for so long, the car is more than just a show car to me. It’s been a big part of my life.”
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