It's quite possible the Z16 was the first Chevrolet product to be powered by the legendary big-block, beating its counterparts by a few weeks

The early success of other GM division big-block cars pushed Chevrolet to pump up the power in its 1965 Chevelle in a big way, stuffing the smallish mid-sized mainstay with the hairiest 396 available-the 375-horsepower Z16. With only 200 coupes and one convertible slated for the market, a small number of prototypes were built to ensure the final product would stand up to the engine's massive power. This Regal Red 1965 Z16 is very special indeed, as it is the very first prototype built by Chevrolet Engineering to test the concept, and therefore the first SS 396 ever in that marque's illustrious history.

Assigned to Chevrolet Engineering for the official purpose of "experimental check," the car began life on the GM assembly line as a loaded SS 327, ordered at the behest of Z16 project manager D.H. McPherson. After delivery to GM Engineering, project personnel began converting the car to Z16 specifications, fabricating and fitting special components as testing progressed, with successful parts then going into regular production. Once it was completed and final testing finished, the car was driven for several months by McPherson; it is also thought that it spent time at both the Milford and Arizona GM Proving Grounds, and was a member of the contingent of Z16 Chevelles at the model's official introduction in the spring of 1965.

It's most unusual for a 1960s big-block muscle car to have remained for over 20 years in a state of almost complete originality, yet that was its condition when Z16 expert Doug Garrett began its restoration in 1989. The finished product reflects Garrett's famous attention to the finest details, and the car remains in that same absolutely correct as-original condition to this day. Close inspection of this Z16 "genesis machine" reveals several fascinating parts and pieces bearing unique details, including special vendor tags and markings reading "Sample" and "Experimental." All these features have been faithfully preserved by a series of high-profile collectors, and this incredibly important machine is as complete as it was on the day the Chevelle Z16 Prototype was pronounced ready for production.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z16 Prototype
Years Produced:1965
Number Produced:201 (including two prototypes and a one-off convertible)
Original List Price:$4,500
Tune Up Cost:$150
Distributor Caps:$10.99
Engine Number Location:Pad forward of cylinder head on right side
Club Info:The Z16 Registry
Investment Grade:A

This 1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Z16 Prototype sold for $355,100, including buyer’s premium, at Mecum’s Original Spring Classic Auction in Indianapolis, Indiana, on May 16, 2009.

While John DeLorean and Jim Wangers may have defined the great American muscle car in the Pontiac GTO, Chevrolet did a fine job of creating its own legend. Legions of Chevelles, Impalas, Novas, and even El Caminos were branded with SS 396, SS 427, and SS 454. Corvettes powered by the same big-block engines earned their own legendary status, but the 1965 Chevelle Z16 is one of the few Chevys to truly reach “Holy Grail” status with collectors.

That Chevy never advertised the Z16 added to its mystique

One reason for the Z16 mystique is its rarity-just 201 were built, and only 72 are known to survive. But Chevrolet did more than just drop its all-new 396-ci, 375-hp “Mk IV” powerplant into the Chevelle; it did the engineering and made the upgrades to create an outstanding performance package. The Z16 option included the stronger boxed frame from the Chevelle convertible, the shortened rear axle and brakes from the Impala, and a heavy-duty suspension. The only transmission available was the stout Muncie close-ratio 4-speed manual.

The rear of the Z16 had a unique black and chrome trim panel that framed Chevelle 300-style taillights, and most every Chevelle comfort and convenience option was included. And at a price of around $4,500, they cost as much as many Corvettes that year.

The fact that Chevrolet never advertised the Z16 Chevelle only added to the car′s mystique, but GM did make sure the right people were seen driving the cars, including the likes of Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright of the “Bonanza” TV show), Motor Trend and Hot Rod publisher Robert Petersen, Briggs Cunningham, A.J. Foyt, and Phil Hill, among others. With the exception of the two prototypes built earlier, production of the Z16 Chevelle began about February 15, 1965, and ended in April. Casting dates show these to be powered by some of the first 396 engines produced by the Tonawanda, New York, engine plant. It’s quite possible the Z16 was the first Chevrolet product to be powered by the legendary big-block, beating its Corvette and Impala counterparts by a few weeks.

Fully documented as the original prototype

That makes the 1965 Chevelle Z16 the first in a long line of legendary big-block Chevrolets, and this particular Z16 is fully documented to be the original prototype. The car was owned by some of the most prominent Chevelle authorities, including restorer Doug Garrett, Mark Meekins, founder of the National Chevelle Owners Association, and the late David Miner, founder of the Z16 Registry, all of whom helped to keep the car so amazingly original. Because the Z16 is so highly coveted, few are found on the marketplace, and Z16 #1 might not have come to market had not David Miner passed from cancer.

This Z16 Chevelle sold for $412,500 in 2006, so we can only assume the current economic conditions kept Mecum from reaching a similar price, which makes it very well bought in the long run. Keeping this car in perspective, Z16 Chevelle #1 sold for $100k more than the next highest Z16. That’s only fitting for the car that is truly the first in a long line of legendary big-block Chevrolets.

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