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Car of the Week: 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS-396 convertible

The following story was co-written in two parts by the former and current owners of the featured Chevrolet Chevelle SS-396 convertible.
Car of the Week 2020
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By Richard Emmons
and Ken Fichtner

{Editor's Note: The following story was co-written in two parts by the former and current owners of the featured Chevrolet Chevelle SS-396 convertible, Richard Emmons and Ken Fichtner}.

“Cars have always played an important role in my life. My first car was a 1949 Ford 5-window coupe. I loved that car. I drove it daily to high school and my part-time job; running errands, sanding and prepping cars for painting for a car customizer in a body shop. I came from a family with cars in their background. My dad was a body shop painter and he taught me the trade of automotive repair and maintenance.

In April of 1969, I purchased a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Indianapolis Pace Car from the local dealership. It was Dover White and had an Orange Hounds Tooth interior. As a young man, on Saturday nights in Billings, MT, we then had what was called “Burn the Point” downtown. It consisted of cruising around the downtown streets, while hoping to meet girls. One Saturday night I was on my way to a National Guard meeting. I was driving through the downtown cruise area and I met my “future wife” Diana. I didn’t have time to talk to her that night but I managed to get her phone number. Before long we were dating and then later engaged. Our local dealership, Frontier Chevrolet, had a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu SS-396 convertible on the showroom floor. It had a LeMans Blue exterior and Oyster white interior. It was beautiful! It was on Sept. 11, 1969 that I traded the Camaro for the Chevelle.

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We married in October 1969 and drove the Chevelle to Denver, CO., through Yellowstone National Park, as part of our honeymoon. We enjoyed the new convertible so much that we put 3,500 miles on it the first 3 months we owned it. We brought each of our sons home from the hospital in it and we picked up our first dog from Fromberg, MT, with it. I once considered selling the car. It was the gas crunch of 1974 and gas prices were sky high; up to 70 cents a gallon. So, I considered trading the muscle car on something more practical. The car dealership said it wasn’t worth a thing so, I took it home and never looked back! We’ve taken the car on Saturday night cruises, Sunday drives and numerous car shows. It still has only 7,700 original miles on it! We keep it out of the sun and snow. The car still has its original components and tires, and it still smells brand new inside. I was 26 years old when I bought it and, every time I get in, I’m 26 again!

Because of its pristine condition, it’s worth much more than the original sticker price of $4,046.00. We haven’t purchased another new passenger car for 45 years. We did buy new pickup trucks and many SUV models over the years. We have several other retro cars that I’ve restored. We have a 1970 Chevelle SS-396 that is red with black stripes, and a 1930 Ford Model A pickup. We also have a couple of Ford street rods that I hand-built during the past decade.

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Here is some more interesting information about the Chevelle:

The Chevelle motor was built July 5, 1969 in Tonawanda N.Y. Tonawanda was the only factory building big-block motors for General Motors in 1969. The motor was then shipped to Fremont, CA, prior to the closing of the Fremont plant. The other engine plants had already started production of the the 1970 Chevelle 396-cubic-inch motor, but they were now called 402-cubic-inch big-block motors. Our Chevelle was built late enough in the year to have either a 396 or a 402 motor... The car was shipped to Billings, MT without a build sheet or a factory window sticker. This probably indicates there was never an order placed by a dealer for it.”

— Richard Emmons

The rest of the story!

I purchased this 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS-396 convertible from Mr. & Mrs. Emmons on July 6,2017 with 7764 miles.

Mr. Emmons presented me with the Original Owner’s manual, warranty booklet with Protect-O-Plate intact, vehicle registration slips for many years, the original title, and the original purchase agreement from Frontier Chevrolet.

Richard signed an application for a new Montana title and a power of attorney. I explained to him that I would be preserving the original title and thus the reason for applying for a duplicate title.

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I asked him if he had ever been able to locate a build sheet for the Chevelle and he told me that he had looked under the rear seat and both front seats but couldn’t find the build sheet. He has never lowered the gas tank to look there and told me that he had never heard of anyone finding a build sheet for a Fremont-built Chevelle.

Richard and Diana then presented me with all of the awards that they had won with the car. They also went into great detail telling me about winning the HPOF award from the Antique Automobile Club of America in Philadelphia on 2/14/2015. HPOF stands for “Historical Preservation Original Features”... The Chevelle won the class at the Western Fall Meet and was then selected from all winners to receive the National Award in Philadelphia. Richard told me that to his knowledge winners in the past had to win several regional meets before they won a national award. His Chevelle won on the first try. He presented me with the Crystal trophy and white judging gloves.

We took a photo of Richard and Diana with the Chevelle in their driveway before I drove the car from their home in Billings, to my shop in Laure. The car drove like a brand new Chevelle!

I took a few photos when I arrive in Laurel and then put the Chevelle away inside.

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On July 15, 2017, I gave the car a careful cleaning. The exterior washed up without any effort. The convertible top appeared to have never been folded down. The interior was spotless except for a few pieces of lint and grass in the carpet. While vacuuming the interior I looked under the seats for the build sheet. As expected I found nothing. I read on several forums that it was extremely unlikely that would find a build sheet on this Fremont, CA.-built car. Some suggested lowering the gas tank and others suggested removing the interior door panels. I wasn’t really motivated to do so. While vacuuming the passenger side front carpet I took a moment to peer into the right front fender in hopes of seeing something. Nothing. A few minutes later I moved to the driver’s side. Before vacuuming I considered lifting the carpet to see if their was a build sheet there. But I realized that I would have to unscrew the sill molding and I didn’t really have time. While vacuuming I thought that I should look into the left front fender. Using the light on my cell phone I was able to see something! I couldn’t believe it, so I looked again. I could see a rolled up piece of paper with a piece of masking tape holding it to the inside of the outer fender. Focusing my eyes I was able to read the VIN in the upper right-hand corner and realized that I had just discovered a build sheet! I drove over to the local hardware store and picked up a 4-foot-long 1/4-inch wooden dowel. I carefully placed the dowel in the center of the rolled up paper and it fell loose with hardly any effort. I tipped the dowel up and the build sheet slid down the dowel to me. I carefully rolled out the build sheet on the tailgate of one of my pickups. The masking tape piece fell off. The buildsheet was quite brittle as it was covered with LeMans Blue overspray, but otherwise in excellent condition! It was clean, unsoiled and had never been wet. Richard had told me that the car was never driven in rain.

I continued to examine the Chevelle in great detail. I found a few things that needed further explanation. In particular:
— The rear ashtrays didn’t match. One has smooth lid and one has a ribbed lid.
— The rear two wheel center caps have a black “SS” insert. The front two wheel center caps have “SS” stamped in them without a black insert.
— The driver’s door edge doesn’t have a “GM” logo decal, a tire decal, or a VIN decal.

On the evening of July 15, 2017 I sent a quick email to Richard and Diane asking about the ashtrays, center caps, and decals.

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On July 19, 2017 Richard called me and offered the following additional information:

His son told him on a Sunday afternoon drive that there were two holes in the rear armrest and asked why. Richard had never noticed but the ashtrays were missing. He visited Frontier Chevrolet and asked for them to order ashtrays for him. He was told that there were unavailable, but that they would see what they could find for him. They were able to get one with a smooth lid and one with a ribbed lid. Later they were able to get him an additional one with a smooth lid but he never bothered to change the one with the ribbed lid out. But he promised to deliver the smooth lid ashtray to me.

He told me that the front two center caps were missing the black inserts when he took delivery.

He told me that the driver’s door never did have any decals on the end of it.

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He also offered the following additional information:

— When the car was delivered by the carrier to Frontier Chevrolet the passenger side convertible top latch had not been installed. Frontier ordered one and installed it.
— Before the base warranty expired the water pump was leaking and had to be replaced. Frontier replaced it with a HD GM water pump.
— Before the base warranty expired there was a rattle in one of the mufflers. Frontier replaced it with a new muffler.
— The belts, hoses, air cleaner element, and fuel filter have never been replaced.
— The wheels have never been unbolted or rotated. The tires have “the original” air! Never a leak. He checked the air pressure every six months when he started the car in the garage and added air if needed.
— The oil has been changed every 1,000 miles and then annually since the car was last driven in 1975.
— The radiator has been drained and refilled five times.
— The car has not been driven since 1975 but has been loaded in an enclosed trailer and taken to a select few car shows.
— The car has not been driven outside of Billings, except on the honeymoon and then to Fromberg, MT, to pick up a new puppy.
— The convertible top has only been down one time!
— He told me that he had filled in a few paint chips when he noticed any. He also told me about the excess striping that was never trimmed on the back side of the driver’s front fender. He said he was always annoyed seeing the excess stripe inside the fender.

After Richard shared all of this information, I told him that I had noticed the excess stripe in the left front fender. I asked him if he ever looked in the same fender with a light. He asked why he would have ever looked there and said no. At that time I told him that if he had only looked further inside the fender with a light that the build sheet had been there the whole time. Silence prevailed! He was in absolute shock that I had found the build sheet.

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He asked if I would send him a copy and tell him what I had discovered from the build sheet and Protect-O-Plate.

I was able to confirm the following from the build sheet:
— The car was built on July 18, 1969, a Friday. Fremont plant closed the next week.
— The car was ordered for stock by Frontier Chevrolet. His story indicated it was not ordered but rather just shipped to the dealer. Now he knew the truth.
— The car had the following options ordered: SS-396 package, Soft Ray tinted glass, strato bucket seats, power convertible top, center console, sport striping, positraction rear axle, 3.55 12-bolt bear axle, four-speed transmission, LeMans Blue, white convertible top, parchment vinyl interior

From the Protect-O-Plate I was able to confirm the following:
— 1969 Chevelle SS-396 convertible produced in Fremont, CA,
Rochester Carburetor
— Tonawanda built engine on July 3, 1969
— 3.55 rear axle ratio, 12-bolt Positraction built on April 28, 1969
— Muncie transmission built on June 21, 1969
— Retail delivery date 9/11/1969

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Richard told me that he believes that there’s a chance that the 396 is actually a 402 based on the build date. So, using a digital inspection camera I took a photo of the engine pad. Here’s what I found: T0703JA

The engine is a 396. But what is most interesting is that according to an article in “To date, the latest known 1969 396 Chevelle with a 3969854 block casting is assembly date stamped T0703JA and was cast June 30, 1969.”

My Chevelle has the last known 396 engine!

On July 22, 2017 I drove the car to Red Lodge, MT for a car show. It was only the fourth time that the Chevelle had ever been driven outside of Billings, MT.
1 – Honeymoon to Colorado
2 – Picked up a puppy in Fromberg, MT
3 – Driven to Laurel when I purchased it
4 - Driven to Red Lodge for a car show

The car is an incredible time capsule — 100% original except for the battery.

On July 29, 2017 I drove the car back to Billings for a car show. Mr. and Mrs. Emmons attended and spent several hours with me telling about the Chevelle and the role that it played in their lives.

Richard & Diana couldn’t believe that I drove the car to two shows and that I actually put the top down! I assured them that it would be driven very little and that I would be very cautious with their car. Especially given that the components are now all 48 years old, including the tires, belts, hoses, etc!

They told me that many people have tried for many years to buy their car. They only wanted to sell it to someone who would take care of it and share it with others. I am honored that they allowed me to purchase their Chevelle.

— Ken Fichtner


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