Simply The BeSSt: Our Favorite Chevrolet SS Performance Cars

Automobile Staff
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Chevrolet's SS badge has a long and storied history -- many cars have been worthy of the legendary "Super Sport," while others (remember the Malibu Maxx SS?) were certainly not. In honor of the revival of the SS badge for the 2014 Chevrolet SS rear-wheel drive sedan, which debuts this weekend, we have rounded up our favorite 10 SS-badged Chevys from over the years. Check them out below.

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1957 Corvette SS

What a coincidence: the first and only Corvette to officially don the Super Sport/ SS nameplate also managed to be the first Chevrolet to use the name. But despite its toothy grin and small-block V-8 power, the Corvette SS shared little with the road car that shared its first name.

Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus Duntov yearned to field a Corvette in international motorsport as a means of promoting the vehicle, but he – along with other managers – knew the stock Corvette wasn’t exactly competitive against the likes of D-Type Jaguars, but perhaps a new, purpose-built machine would do the trick. Work began in secret on the XP-64 racer in the summer of 1956, with the goal of having the car ready to race at Sebring the following March.

The Corvette’s standard ladder frame and fiberglass bodyshell were eschewed in favor of a complex tube-frame chassis (which some allege was inspired by that of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL), wrapped in magnesium body panels. An independent rear suspension was once considered, but a de Dion setup – complete with inboard drum brakes – was ultimately fitted. Power came courtesy of a fuel-injected 283-cubic-inch V-8, which also received aluminum cylinder heads and a magnesium sump in an attempt to shed weight.

Though the finished product looked stunning and was technically fascinating, it failed to live up to expectations in the real world. Drivers John Fitch and Piero Taruffi tried their best to coax the car through the grueling 12-hour race, , but issues with brakes, ignition, and temperature (the SS was keen on roasting drivers’ feet and shins within the cockit) proved troublesome, but a broken suspension bushing ultimately forced the car out of the race. Duntov hoped to regroup and perhaps field the car at Le Mans, but GM’s adoption of a company-wide ban on racing prevented that dream from happening.

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1961 Impala SS

The SS moniker would re-appear four years later, when it was introduced in the middle of 1961 as a trim package for the Impala, the top-tier darling of Chevrolet’s full-size passenger car line.

Lesser full-size Impalas were available with Chevy’s inline-six-cylinder, but as the SS was intended to be a true super sport, adding the SS package mandated a shift to eight-cylinder power. The base engine was a 305-hp, 348-cubic-inch V-8, but the big news was a new, enlarged 409-cubic-inch version. Available only with a four-speed manual transmission and a four-barrel carburetor, the engine produced 360 hp – 10 ponies more than the 348 when fitted with three two-barrel carbs.

The SS package also included some flashy interior decor, but apart from a padded dashboard, it was still performance inspired. SS models gained a tachometer for the driver, and a decorative grab handle for the passenger – which, we imagine, was frequently clenched by white knuckles, especially in Impalas fitted with the 409.

To call this a collectible classic is putting it mildly. Since the SS option wasn’t available until mid-year, volumes were rather low. Chevy built only 456 examples in 1961, and only 142 with the 409. Predictably, 409-powered cars – especially in convertible form – can fetch big bucks from collectors today. This beautiful blue example sold at an RM Auctions event in late 2010 for $99,000.

Photos courtesy of RM Auctions

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1967 Corvair Monza SS

The Corvair was designed to be an affordable, entry-level Chevrolet – but its innovative design and rear-engine configuration quickly had engineers and designers alike dreaming up ways to spin it into something sporty.

Chevy’s R&D group was attempting to recycle the Corvair’s flat-six for use in a front-wheel-drive vehicle when design chief Bill Mitchell had a grand idea: why not use it for a mid-engine sports coupe? After some top-secret design and engineering work, the XP-777 – or the Corvair Monza GT coupe – was born. Shortly after, work began on a matching roadster variant – the Monza SS – though it would boast a few noticeable differences.

Visually, the Monza SS looks even more low-slung than its GT sibling, thanks to its stubby, speester-eqsue, wrap-around windshield (the wrap-around hoop was added later in its lifespan). Though it once boasted clamshell headlamp doors, the SS was later given translucent lamp fairings, much like those used on several variants of the Chaparral 2 race car. The biggest change, however, wasn’t visible from outside of the car: though the Corvair’s six-cylinder and transaxle were mounted in a bespoke monocoque chassis, the SS hung the whole assembly behind the rear axle – a la Porsche 911.

Chevy was once serious about repurposing the Corvair Monza SS for production, going so far as to show a non-running prototype with a full windshield, forward-hinged doors, and bumpers at several auto shows. Ultimately, the project was cancelled – partly due to waning public acceptance of the Corvair itself, and partly due to a reluctance to steal thunder from the Corvette.

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1967-1969 Camaro SS

The 1967-1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS was not the first car to wear the iconic Super Sport badging, but it may be one of the most well-recognized examples.

The '67 Camaro was may have been available from launch with a manner of straight-six engines, but the SS threw them out in favor of – what else? – a big, honking V-8. The 1967 Camaro SS came stock with a 5.7-liter (350 cu-in) V-8 engine, but was available with a 6.5-liter (396 cu-in), big block motor. SS models also came with a manner of chassis upgrades and, of course, the fabled SS ornamentation. The ultimate Camaro in this era was an RS/SS, which paired the SS’ performance upgrades with the RS’ cosmetic touches, which included hide-away headlamps.

Chevrolet sold 97,227 Camaro SS sports cars during its first generation, between 1967 and 1969, before the nameplate went through a succession of different body shapes and styles. When Chevrolet sketched a design for the return of the Camaro SS in 2010, it used just one car as inspiration: the first-generation Camaro SS.

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1970-1972 Chevelle/ El Camino SS

The midsize Chevelle was available with all manner of engines in 1970, including some straight sixes and some small block V-8 engines. Any guesses as to what the biggest V-8 engine was? Four, five, six liters of displacement? You're getting close--the Chevelle was available with a 7.4-liter motor, which works out to a whopping 454 cubic inches of American muscle.

There were actually two 454-cubic-inch motors: one coded LS5, and another coded LS6. In stock form, the LS5 454 engine made 350 horsepower, which was a lot in 1970, but the LS6 engine was available with an estimated 450 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque. It's a power output figure that made most other factory-stock muscle cars blush.

For buyers looking for big thrills, lots of noise, and enough cargo space to go to the big box store, Chevrolet also slotted the 454 under the hood of the El Camino, a small trucklet built off the floorpan and chassis of the Chevelle wagon. The tradition of big horsepower and truck beds continues to this day: Australians can still buy big V-8-powered utes to lug around stuff at great speed.

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1982-1988 Monte Carlo SS

We all know what happened to the muscle car in the 1970s: it withered to a shell of its former self in the face of oil crises and engine/size downsizing. The Ford Mustang II, famously, was available with a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine underhood, but even its optional V-8 barely eclipsed the 100-hp mark.

But as the U.S. recovered from the petro-politics from the '70s, it took a particular liking to NASCAR and the cars racing around banked tracks all across the country. The Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS was originally conceived as a homologation special, a aerodynamic body kit that NASCAR required to be sold to the general public in order for it to be used on (and benefit) the race cars. But engineers, clearly with an eye to the history of bowtie-branded muscle cars, decided to throw in some more upgrades, including a 175-horsepower, 305-cubic-inch V-8, and call it the Monte Carlo SS. At the time, it was the lone Chevy to employ the SS badge.

The Monte Carlo SS went on to sell more than 150,000 copies before the Monte Carlo nameplate was phased out in 1988 to make way for the new Lumina nameplate. Still, the American public had spoken: it still wanted muscle cars, OPEC be damned.

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1990-1993 Chevrolet 454 SS

Dodge may have kicked off the muscle-truck trend in the mid 1960s and late 1970s, but Chevrolet revived the idea in the 1990 with the 454 SS – and ultimately birthed a wave of similar performance haulers from its two Detroit-based competitors.

The recipe was simple: take the biggest engine available in GM’s portfolio, and stuff it into a short-bed, standard cab, rear-wheel-drive pickup. GM dug up the 7.4-liter/ 454-cubic inch V-8 – an engine offered only in its heavier 3500 HD line of pickups – and stuffed it into a C1500. Other hop-ups included Bilstein dampers, a thicker front anti-roll bar, quicker steering ratio, a three-speed automatic transmission, and a 3.73:1 rear axle. GM wrapped this in a mean-looking wrapper, mandating black paint, black trim, a black grille, and red emblems and interior trim.

That engine didn’t boast a whole lot of horsepower (230 hp), but it did pack a sizable amount of torque (385 lb-ft at 1600 rpm) which reportedly helped the beast turn in 0-60 mph times below eight seconds. Owners had to brace themselves for a significant investment: not only was the sticker price close to $18,295 (close to $31,000 today), but also drank fuel as if there was no tomorrow. The EPA rated the 454 SS at only 10/11 mpg (city/highway).

Chevy amended the package slightly in 1992, adding two new paint colors (red and white), along with a four-speed automatic, and a little extra power (255 hp/ 405 lb-ft) underhood, but dropped the model from the lineup after the 1993 model year. GM tried to revive the idea in 2003, but that truck – a gussied up all-wheel-drive, extended-cab Silverado – didn’t quite have the same raucous feel as the original.

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1994-1996 Impala SS

Chevy mentions the new 2014 SS is its first consumer-grade rear-wheel-drive sedan to be sold in America in close to 17 years. Its last? Why, that would be the legendary Impala SS.

At its core, the Chevrolet Impala SS was a Chevrolet Impala with an engine from a Corvette and a bunch of upgrades from the Caprice 9C1 police package. It boasted the LT1, a 5.7-liter V-8 making 260 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque, a sport suspension, and bigger brakes. It was also originally available in one color: black. It was later available in other colors, and Chevy sold 69,678 units before the car was killed at the end of 1996.

The Impala SS – which, along with the Caprice, Buick Roadmaster, and Cadillac Fleetwood -- was killed off in favor of freeing up as many production lines as possible for GM's more profitable (and higher volume) sport utility vehicles. The plant in Arlington, Texas, was later retooled to churn out Tahoes, Yukons, and Suburbans as quickly as possible. The Impala SS only to return years later with front wheel drive and a supercharged V-6 engine.

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2003 Chevrolet SS Concept

Penned in GM's North Hollywood Design Studio, the Chevrolet SS concept was first displayed at the 2003 Detroit auto show. It showed a bold vision from a company that seemed to have abandoned rear-wheel drive performance machines: a long, curvy, sexy American sedan with a traditional V-8 up front, and the drive wheels out back. It was powered by a 6.0-liter V-8 with 430 hp and 430 lb-ft,which was coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission. The car boasted adjustable, fully independent suspension, and rode on massive 21-inch front and 22-inch rear wheels.

The SS concept may never have made it into production, but it did give us hope that Chevrolet would continue to build exciting cars. Rumors suggested that the SS would be produced on the Australian-sourced, rear-wheel drive "Zeta" platform (which was eventually used for the modern Camaro). In fact, some people within GM were apparently pushing hard for the company to sell a large rear-drive sedan that would look very similar to this concept. Sadly, those plans never panned out. If this car had found its way to showrooms, we can easily imagine it picking a fight with the Chrysler 300C.

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2010-present Chevrolet Camaro SS

Chevrolet killed off the Camaro in 2002, and almost immediately fans clamored for another version of the company's famed muscle car. But it wasn't until four years later that Chevrolet responded to the outcry with the Camaro concept, which bowed at the 2006 Detroit auto show. The timing was key: it was just a year after Ford had launched the latest version of the Mustang, which wore squared-off retro styling to pay homage to the original pony cars of the 1960s and 1970s. The Camaro concept followed in the footsteps of the earlier SS concept: 21- and 22-inch wheels, a 6.0-liter V-8, independent suspension, and the Zeta platform. The exterior wore razor-sharp lines and creases, while the interior had retro-fabulous touches like toggle switches and a quartet of analog gauges placed by the shifter.

Then things went quiet for a few years. It wasn't that Chevrolet had forgotten about the Camaro, but the public didn't hear much about the project again until early 2009. Then Chevrolet launched the 2010 Camaro SS, as well as the lesser V-6-powered Camaro. The new car stayed amazingly true to the 2006 concept, with retro design married to modern-day mechanical parts. Under the hood in SS models was a 6.2-liter V-8 belting out 426 hp and 420 lb-ft, which could be channeled through a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Base models had a 3.6-liter V-6 with 304 hp, which was upgraded to 312 hp by the 2011 model year. The Camaro was back, and it was ready to fight the Ford Mustang.

Since then, the Camaro has spawned several variants. The 2011 Camaro convertible debuted at the 2010 Los Angeles auto show, and was available either with the base V-6 or SS V-8 engines. Then at the 2011 Chicago auto show came the fire-breathing ZL1, also available either as a coupe or convertible. With a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 making 580 hp and 556 lb-ft, Chevrolet says the Camaro ZL1 will rocket from rest to 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds before reaching a top speed of 184 mph. Most recently, Chevrolet upped the Camaro SS ante with the 1LE, a special version designed for better acceleration and handling. It gains things like shorter gearing, stickier tires, larger anti-sway bars, and tougher wheel bearings in order to pull a claimed 1 g of lateral acceleration.

Oh, and the icing on the cake? Chevrolet Camaro sales continue to slightly edge out those of the Ford Mustang each month.

Ben Timmins, Jake Holmes, and Evan McCausland contributed to this post.

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