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Car of the Week: 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle SS

It was 25 years in the making, but one man gets a second chance at living the dream in a '71 Chevelle SS.
Car of the Week 2020
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Bruce Bolwerk found a pretty good formula for success:

— Find very cool car when you are young

— Use cool car to get girl

— Sell cool car to buy wedding ring (show devotion and willingness to sacrifice for your girl)

— Do the husband/father gig for a couple decades

— Get kids out the door and on their own

— Go buy a car just like the one you sold

— Live happily ever after

That pretty much sums up Bolwerk’s full-circle journey to happiness with his hot 1971 Chevelle SS. The Winchester, Wis., resident was willing to sell off his most prized possession to decorate his girlfriend Deb’s finger and get her to the church. More than 25 years later, she returned the favor and told him he could have another Chevelle SS.

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“No more jewelry,” Bolwerk jokes. “She said I can keep this one.”

Bolwerk had to be the envy of a lot of other teens in town when he and his father came home with his first Lime Green Chevelle SS back in the ’70s. 

“I needed a car to go to school, and my father went out with me and we came across this one, and he liked it and I liked it,” he recalled. “It was too good of a car to drive it in the winter and I wound up having to store it and buy other cars to drive in the winter. I always had winter beaters. And a few years later I had to sell it to get married. It was the only money I had.”

Fast-forward two and a half decades and Bolwerk got the green light for another Lime Green Chevelle SS. The trouble was it’s a hard color to come by, and it took another 7 or 8 years before he found the right car.

Although Bolwerk’s SS is still technically an LS5, it more closely resembles a 425-hp LS6 under the hood these days after Bolwerk had the engine bored and stroked to 496 cubes.

Although Bolwerk’s SS is still technically an LS5, it more closely resembles a 425-hp LS6 under the hood these days after Bolwerk had the engine bored and stroked to 496 cubes.

“You couldn’t find this color. You could find the darker green, but not this Lime Green,” he says. “I finally found this one the internet in Kansas. Me and my boy went down there and it was a straight shot, like 12 hours down there. We didn’t wait around. [The seller] had it for a couple years and was going through a divorce, so he was selling off all his stuff and this was one of them.”

From what history Bolwerk could dig up, the Chevelle had lived at least part of its life in Texas, which would help explain how it was so solid and original. He didn’t get many details about where the car had been or what had been done to it. At some point, the Chevelle had been switched from an automatic to a four-speed with a Muncie M21 and 3.31 rear gears. “Somebody really did a good job with that,” he says. “It was very clean. Every time I brought it in to have work done on it they commented how the bottom side was mint. The body panels weren’t touched.” A new paint job and some new vinyl on the seats were quite possibly the only other updates the Chevelle SS had ever needed up to that point.

Extremely close to the Bolwerk's first Chevelle, but the orginal had a black interior.

Extremely close to the Bolwerk's first Chevelle, but the orginal had a black interior.

“It was just like my first one, except the interior was black in my original one,” Bolwerk noted. “On this one, the interior is green. Otherwise, it’s the same car. It’s a Lime Green LS5 with a four-speed, just like my other one.”

MIDSIZE MUSCLE MASTERPIECE

It’s hard to imagine anyone inside the halls of Chevrolet HQ could have predicted the lofty heights the Chevelle would reach when the company debuted the nameplate for the 1964 model year. It was the lowest-priced of the four all-new A-body intermediates from General Motors that model year. The others were the Pontiac LeMans, the Olds Cutlass and the Buick Skylark.

It was hard not to compare the Chevelle to the 1955-1957 Chevrolets. The 115-inch wheelbase of the Chevelle’s frame was the same as the 1955 model’s. Other dimensions, except height, were close.

A variety of models were offered, with the top-of-the-line Malibu two-door hardtop and convertible available with the $170 Super Sport option. This package included bucket seats, a console and appropriate SS badges. Initial power-plant offerings included the standard 194-cid six, an optional 230-cid six and a pair of old reliable 283-cid V-8s. In V-8 models, the 195-hp two-barrel version was standard. An L77 220-hp version with a four-barrel carburetor was $54 extra.

The lime green is a stunning color.

The lime green is a stunning color.

Nostalgia for the earlier models was fine, but when Pontiac shoved its big 389-cid/325-hp V-8 into GTO-optioned Tempests, the muscle car race was on. Chevrolet’s answer proved to be the SS 396, but by 1970 even that wasn’t enough to keep the Chevelle competitive with the top pavement pounders on the streets and drag strips. Chevrolet brass came up with a simple answer: more cubic inches under the hood. The company made waves when it unveiled a new 454-cid big-block V-8 for use in the Chevelle. The resulting model was called the SS 454 — considered by most fans to be the pinnacle of the hot Chevelle SS series.

The 454-cid engine had a 4.250 x 4.00-inch bore and stroke. This monster was made available to the public in two different versions. The LS5 edition featured a 10.25:1 compression ratio and a 750-cfm Rochester Quadra-Jet carburetor. It was rated for 360 hp at 5400 rpm and 500 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3200 rpm. This engine was included in the SS 454 option, which had a $503.45 package price.

For a little bit extra, you could get the even more ferocious LS6 version of the 454, which used an 11.25:1 compression ratio and a 780-cfm Holley four-barrel carburetor. It developed 450 hp at 5600 rpm and 500 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3600 rpm. To get an LS6 you had to pay the SS 454 package price, plus $263.30.

Only 3,773 of the SS coupes and convertibles built in 1970 had the 454-cid V-8s, and only a relative handful were LS6 editions.

After winning “Car and Driver’s” Reader’s Choice Award for 1970, Chevrolet made sure it brought the Chevelle SS back for another run in ’71, although in a slightly tamer form. Chevrolet set things up so buyers could order all of the Super Sport goodies on any Malibu as long as it had a 350-, 400- or 454-cid V-8.

At some point, the Chevelle had been switched from an automatic to a four-speed with a Muncie M21 and 3.31 rear gears.

At some point, the Chevelle had been switched from an automatic to a four-speed with a Muncie M21 and 3.31 rear gears.

If you wanted a 1971 SS 454 Chevelle, you had to order one of the two big-block engines as an add-on option. This year Chevrolet listed the net horsepower rating and gross horsepower rating for both engines. The LS5 version produced 285 net hp and 365 gross hp. The LS6 version generated 325 nhp and 425 ghp. Both came with a choice of a four-speed manual transmission or a three-speed Turbo-Hydra-Matic transmission.

With a V-8 engine, the Malibu coupe sold for $2,980 and weighed 3,342 lbs. The convertible, which came only with a V-8, was base priced at $3,260 and weighed some 3,390 lbs. Only 5,089 Chevelle convertibles were built in 1971.

The RPO Z15 SS package sold for $357. It included: power brakes with disc brakes up front, a black-accented grille, a special suspension, a special domed hood with functional hood lock pins, SS identification for the hood, rear deck and fenders, a driver’s side remote-control sports mirror, gray-finished 15 x 7-inch five-spoke sport wheels, F60 x 14 white-lettered tires, a black-accented steering column and a steering wheel with SS nameplate.

Chevrolet put together an estimated 80,000 cars that carried the SS option this year. Of those units, 19,292 were equipped with 454-cid V-8s.

GOING GREEN (AGAIN)

Bolwerk admits his pulse rate quickened a bit when he first laid eyes on the car when the transport truck dropped it off just up the street from his house. “Yeah, when it came in I remember I said to my wife, ‘You just can’t beat American muscle’! I had my doubts it would ever happen … but when the boys left, it was like another separate income because you aren’t paying for food, insurance and clothing. It was like another paycheck, and I could go out and buy another vehicle.

“[The first ride] brought back a lot of memories. You hop in and see the dash and get the feel of it all again. It was a big rush.”

Although Bolwerk’s SS is still technically an LS5, it more closely resembles a 425-hp LS6 under the hood these days after Bolwerk had the engine bored and stroked to 496 cubes. He has kept it all stock in appearance, but he says it’s definitely quicker than the first ’71 454 Chevelle he owned. 

“I had the engine all gone through and the transmission all gone through, more for piece of mind so I knew what I had,” he says. “But everything else on the engine is original. The carburetor, intake, all that stuff, it’s all original."

“Yeah, It scares you sometimes! It will plant you back in the seat. With new tires on it that are sticky, yeah, it goes. Any more power and I’d have to build up the transmission and rear end, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to keep that stock.”

He also replaced a musty headliner and some other rubber pieces and odds and ends, such as the windshield wipers. The bumpers have also been re-chromed. “It’s pretty much the same as when I got it, but I touched up a few things,” he says.

Bolwerk hopes his winter project this year will be doing some work on the air-conditioning so he can cruise comfortably in the hardtop on hot days. Beyond that he’s got no plans for the hot green Chevelle other than collecting as much seat time as he can. He figures he’s got about 25 years of time still to make up for. He sold one Chevelle SS in his lifetime. He says he’ll never sell another one.

“We’ve got it set up so the car is in the will,” he says. “The boys can decide who gets it. They know they can have it when I’m done using it.”

Bruce Bolwerk next to his Chevelle SS.

Bruce Bolwerk next to his Chevelle SS.

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If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. Email us at oldcars@aimmedia.com

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