HomeCar CultureDeteriorating in a driveway for 40 years, rare Z16 Chevelle is rediscovered

Deteriorating in a driveway for 40 years, rare Z16 Chevelle is rediscovered


When anyone has a question concerning Chevrolet’s Chevelle, a mid-size model line introduced in 1964, they seek out Jeff Helms, and especially when the question involves the 1965 Z16 Chevelle.

Helms has heard all the stories about the elusive Z16 and maintains the registry to track the 201 vehicles Chevrolet rolled out in March and April of 1965 as an answer to the introduction of the Ford Mustang and Pontiac’s GTO.

It’s doubtful even he is surprised when a suspected Z16 is found hiding in plain sight, but that is exactly what was discovered last year in a southern California suburb. 

The story goes like this: Helms received a call about a ’65 Chevelle that had been sitting in a residential driveway for more than 40 years. It had some potential indicators that it might be an actual Z16, thus Helms was the guy to contact.

Pictures of the car showed it to be in sad condition. The paint was gone, the vinyl was missing from the roof. Trim also was absent. Primer and bondo covered nearly every body panel, and someone had tried to graft a Mopar hood scoop onto the car with terrible results.

But Helms knew exactly what to look for and he studied the pictures carefully, coming up with enough information that he was certain the car was, indeed, a Z16 Chevelle that no one, up to that moment, knew existed. Even with various emblems and trim missing, Helms knew this was one of the few that still survived but were yet to be documented in his registry.

Z16 Chevelle, Deteriorating in a driveway for 40 years, rare Z16 Chevelle is rediscovered, ClassicCars.com Journal
One of the key elements Jeff Helms saw was the remaining trim located under each taillight. Only Z16 Chevelles used this trim

The Z16 Chevelle was Chevy’s foray into the high-performance, muscle-car wars that had been sparked by Pontiac’s GTO in 1964. The GTO sported a 389cis powerplant that could be ordered with Tri-Power, making the mid-sized package a street terror right off the showroom floor. Oldsmobile and even Buick debuted big block power for 1965.

In 1964, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen had moved to Chevy as general manager in from the Pontiac division and he knew he would have to play with some bigger cubic inches if Chevrolet was going to stay competitive.  So in 1965 Chevrolet introduced its 396cid “porcupine” engine as a replacement for its venerable 409 “W” engine which was introduced in 1958 as a 34i powerplant designed primarily for trucks. 

Good as the 409 was on the drag strip, Chevrolet had been working on a new design which made an initial appearance as the Mark II 427 Mystery Motor that Smokey Yunick had developed in NASCAR in 1963.

Junior Johnson raced his ’63 Impala to seven victories, nine pole positions, 13 top five finishes and 14 top 10 finishes during that season before GM withdrew its teams from competition.

But the 396 big block lived on as the predecessor to the infamous 427 and was placed into the Corvette and full-size Impala in 1965, replacing the 409 about mid-year, while the Corvette received a one-time 425 horsepower L78 that required an extra clearance hood, transistor ignition, heavier front coil springs, larger stabilizers and a 4-speed transmission, pushing the Vette’s base price up to nearly $5,000. Only 13 percent of total Corvette production that year included the big block option.

Z16 Chevelle, Deteriorating in a driveway for 40 years, rare Z16 Chevelle is rediscovered, ClassicCars.com Journal
Taking a look inside the Z16’s trunk showed this Chevelle experienced some serious abuse over the years and was used primarily as a storage container for the owner’s junk
Z16 Chevelle, Deteriorating in a driveway for 40 years, rare Z16 Chevelle is rediscovered, ClassicCars.com Journal
The second element which firmed Helm’s identification was the speedometer, which gauges speed to 160 miles per hour

Knudsen was feeling the pressure to get into the muscle car wars and a prototype Chevelle was assembled at the Baltimore, Maryland, plant using the new engine in a 375 horsepower, hydraulic-lifter version, a convertible boxed frame, narrowed rear assembly and brakes from the Impala, heavier suspension and a Muncie wide-ratio 4-speed. 

In addition to wanting the car to be a barn burner, Knudsen wanted it loaded with every comfort and convenience option. He had picked the mid-sized platform to better compete with other similar-sized sedans, and because the Chevelle was becoming a fast favorite with buyers.

Prototype testing ensued and some reports said that Chevy built two of the prototype cars, though there is nothing verified. Mark it up to myth and rumor.

The decision was made to assemble 200 of the cars at the company’s Kansas City plant. Apart from the load of convenience and comfort features, the Z16 was only available in a 2-door hardtop and the only colors were red, yellow and black, though you could get one with a black vinyl top.

Over the years, only a fraction of the factory built Z16s have been found and documented with Helms providing most of the historical data needed to identify a true Z16. Which brings us back to the Chevelle sitting in the driveway in southern California.

Z16 Chevelle, Deteriorating in a driveway for 40 years, rare Z16 Chevelle is rediscovered, ClassicCars.com Journal
Helms included an actual trunk lid from a Z16 Chevelle when he displayed this one

Virtually all identifying emblems and trim had been removed from the car, and the holes where they had been mounted at the factory had been filled. The trunk lid on Z16 Chevelles is slightly different from regular production cars, using a special piece of trim across the bottom of the trunk lip and under the taillights. The trunk lid on this car was gone, replaced by a regular production lid and regular trim.

But two small details told Helms this was a real Z16. 

Even though the rear lid had been replaced, under each of the taillights remained a single piece of trim found only on Z16s. In addition, the car had a 160 mph speedometer that was only used in the Z16s. Regular production speedometers are 140 mph.

Helms was convinced, a deal was made, and he retrieved the car from its sad surroundings. He says the car is one of just 77 survivors that have been identified and is one of only 12 yellow with black vinyl top cars built.

He displayed the car in “as found” condition at the 2018 Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals show and has vowed to show it again at the 2019 event. However, by showtime, the car will have been treated to a complete and no-expenses-spared frame-off restoration by Terry Davis Restorations in Wytheville, Virginia. 

Z16 Chevelle fans worldwide can’t wait to see the results.

Jim Volgarino
Jim Volgarino
At age 12, Jim Volgarino peeked under the hood of his grandfather’s 1957 Oldsmobile and saw a Rocket 88 for the first time. He was hooked. Following stints in the Air Force, the newspaper business, the printing business, and the teaching business he’s finally settled into his first love… automotive writing. He’s covered everything from Bonneville Speed Week to the Lambrecht Chevrolet auction in Pierce, Nebraska, from his home in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He’s owned pretty much anything and everything with a motor and wheels. Currently, he’s restoring a 1964 Chevrolet Impala SS 409.


  1. You state in the beginning of the article there were ,Z16’s made later on you say 200 cars made which is ?I always heard there were 201 cars one being a convertible that nobody has ever found what is the real storie

  2. after viet nam 1968 I bought a 67 Chevelle 2 door post plum color l-79 327. after 1984 sold it with rust. to bad I didn’t know what I had. still looking and have vin. someone in wisc. or ills. has it sad days

  3. What price range are the Z16’s going for, either restored or original (if that is possible) ?
    Only saw 3 in my life since 1965, one was Marina blue, yellow & red.

    • Not Marina Blue only 3 colors on the exterior paint were available on the 1965 Z16 which were Tuxedo Black, Regal Red, and Crocus Yellow

  4. Washburn Chevrolet in Santa Barbara, Ca had a Red Z16 with Black Vinyl Top on the showroom floor, the window sticker was $4440.00. Shelly Washburn always had the latest Chevy hot rods on his lot. The Edlebrock family now races Washburn Chevrolet’s ’63 Corvette split window Corvette in vintage road race events.

  5. Move the clock back to my Birthday on 29 April 1984. I had just married 24 days prior and told my new wife I was going over to Englishtown New Jersey to the car show and swap meet. I spotted a 65 SS Chevlelle for sale at 1700 dollars. No motor, no trans 160 speedometer, SS396 badge on truck, convertible frame, no badges on rear quarters, the real deal. Then it gets better. Original paint and the color on this car is maroon. I waited for the owner to show up, he was out shopping! I didn’t copy down his number, who knows what ever happened to this holy grail car.

  6. A Z-16 convertible is owned by Rick Tweworthy who owns Muscle Car City in Punta Gorda Florida. Mecum is getting ready to auction this car!

  7. Great article always a big chevelle fan I recently checked casting numbers on a set of big block heads I’ve had for years and they come up as being z-16 heads 3856208 casting number


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