In the history of the American muscle car, few have attained such iconic status as to be identified simply by their model abbreviations. Pontiac has its GTO and Dodge has its R/T, but before either one of those models was released, Chevrolet made an indelible mark on the performance world with its SS-first in 1957 with the Corvette SS race car and then in 1961 with the release of the Super Sport Impala. Since that first Impala, Chevrolet has built more than one million SS production models, and that number continues to grow with Chevrolet's latest crop of SS performance cars and trucks.
Bill Mitchell, head of GM styling through the 1960s, had his own idea of how an automobile should look. Starting with the 1961 General Motors cars, he toned down the exaggerated graphics of the late 1950s that had become the trademark of his former boss, Harley Earl. Mitchell's ideas were beautifully interpreted through his design staff. The Chevrolets of the 1960s were much leaner and their design lines conveyed a sense of power and speed, even when they were sitting still. Each car had its own unique look, but each was unmistakably a Chevy. They were all highly identifiable and all were designed with a powerful front and rear view. Mitchell's designers wanted everyone to know what kind of car was coming at them, and what kind of car they were following.
The muscle car era of the 1960s made exceptional demands on Chevrolet's engineering staff. The group that Ed Cole assembled in the 1950s was ready to take on the challenges of a new decade. Cole loved well–engineered products and valued the efforts of designers and engineers who were creating new and excitingautomobiles. Cole and Chevrolet's other two general managers through the 1960s, Bunkie Knudsen and Pete Estes, loved cars, encouraged innovation, and set the tone for the most exciting decade in automotive history with their beautifully crafted Super Sports.
Chevrolet set the horsepower bar high with its first production SS car-the 1961 Impala. While most manufacturers were happy with a 300–horsepower engine, Chevrolet rated its first 409 at 360 horsepower. And in 1962, they raised that to 409 horsepower. Nothing looked or sounded more impressive in the summer of 1962 than a glistening black Impala SS rolling through a drive–in restaurant with 409 flags visible on the front fender.
But "Super Sport" wasn't always synonymous with "fast," at least not in some cases. In 1962 Chevrolet allowed any of its engines to be included with the SS option, including its inline six–cylinders. Product planners continued with this strategy until they saw the success of Pontiac's 1964 GTO. In 1965 Chevrolet released a small production run of Chevelle Malibus equipped with its 396 engine: the legendary Z–16s. In 1966 Chevrolet made horsepower available to the masses and equipped the new SS396 Chevelle, which featured the potent 396–cubic–inch Mark IV big–block as standard equipment. They made another strong horsepower statement in 1967 with the release of the Camaro SS with its 350 and 396 engine options.
In 1968, much of what was being written about the muscle car focused on Plymouth's new Road Runner, a stripped–down, midsize car with a high–horsepower engine. Chevrolet also released its new Nova SS, also a stripped–down, midsize car with a high–horsepower engine.
Throughout the late 1960s, Chevrolet offered several versions of its 396 in the Chevelle, Camaro, and Nova. Customers who wanted more horsepower could purchase it through Chevrolet's Central Office Production Order (COPO) system. Then in 1970, Chevrolet unleashed its SS454 Chevelle with the famous LS6-a 450–horsepower, 454–cubic–inch engine. With the LS6, Chevrolet offered for retail sale the highest horsepower engine of the muscle car era.
Suspension, Tires, and Wheels
Chevrolet didn't just drop a big engine into a production car and allow it to wear an SS badge. Starting with the 1961 Impala SS, Chevrolet either added or required the addition of heavy–duty chassis components with the Super Sport option. That tradition continues today with computer–selected spring rates matched to specially selected shocks. In the 1960s, metallic brakes were the best Chevrolet could offer with the SS package. Today, four–wheel disc brakes with ABS are part of any SS package.
In 1961, Chevrolet added oversize 8.00x14 thin white walls to its new Super Sport Impala. At the time, wide white walls were the only optional tires and alloy wheels were only a dream for a production car. But Chevrolet did the next best thing with its new SS package by adding a special three–bar spinner to the Impala's full wheel cover. In 1963, Chevrolet added a unique three–bar wheel cover to its Super Sport models. When they released the SS396 in 1966, it featured simulated mag wheel covers and standard red–line tires. In 1969 Chevrolet included a special Magnum 500 road wheel and wide white–letter Polyglas tires with its SS396. In the 1960s, Chevrolet also included its unique Rally Wheel on many SS cars optioned with disc brakes.
When Chevrolet reintroduced the Impala SS in 1994, it included a unique set of P255/50ZR/17 BF Goodrich Comp T/A tires mounted on 17X8.5–inch five–spoke alloy wheels. In addition to the trendy tire and wheel combination, Chevrolet lowered the car 1 inch, giving it an aggressive stance. When Chevrolet reintroduced its latest Impala and Monte Carlo SS models, included were low–profile tires mounted on stylish 18–inch alloy wheels. Chevrolet went one better on its Silverado and Trailblazer SS models by installing 20–inch–diameter aluminum wheels with 255/50R/20 V–rated tires.
Exterior Trim-Emblems and Stripes
When Chevrolet introduced its 1961 Impala SS, designers included special red inlayed SS emblems on the sides and on the deck lid. As the SS package evolved for 1962, Chevrolet's designers added engine turned inserts to the side molding's rear deck panel. The craftsmen who built the most expensive and fastest motorcars of the 1930s had used engine turning on those cars, because it was a sign of fine craftsmanship. In 1964, Chevrolet's designers again used the engine turned insert; but instead of modifying the existing Impala molding, they created one unique to the SS. Today's SS models are free of chrome side moldings, but unique touches are added, such as blacked–out grilles, to differentiate the SS models.
When Chevrolet introduced the small–block engine in 1955, designers proudly placed small "V" emblems under the taillights of cars so equipped. Each year, Chevrolet continued to identify cars equipped with its V–8 engines. In 1962, customers could select among three V–8s, and each had its own distinctive fender emblems. When Chevrolet introduced the 396–cubic–inch engine in 1965, it had its own distinct fender emblems. These 396 emblems became part of the iconic look established for the SS396 Chevelle in 1966. The 396 flags were also used on the 1967 SS Camaro. The most impressive engine identification flags Chevrolet ever installed were the ones on the 1967 SS427 Impala. In 1968, Chevrolet dropped the flag emblems and only used the numbers "396" on the fenders of both the SS Camaro and SS Chevelles. In 1970 Chevrolet offered two different big–block engines and they proudly displayed the engine sizes on the side of the new Chevelle's fender, along with the SS emblems. The last and boldest engine callout Chevrolet placed on an SS vehicle was the 454SS graphic it placed on the bed of its 1990 454SS pickup. Today, Chevrolet plays it low key with only understated SS emblems and no engine size callout on its latest Super Sport offerings.
When Chevrolet introduced its SS Impala in 1961, stripes were only for race cars. That race car look soon migrated to the muscle cars driven on the street and made its SS debut on the 1967 SS Camaro. In 1968, the Chevelle SS396 featured excellent graphics that wrapped across the hood and down the side of the body. Each year throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s the SS Chevelles and SS Camaros always featured bold contrasting stripe patterns. The only Impala SS ever to feature any kind of striping, and it was an option, was the 1967 SS427. Following the current trends for performance vehicles, all of the latest SS models are monochromatic and have no stripes.