Ron Cherry: Delayed gratification with ’68 Chevelle SS396 |

Ron Cherry: Delayed gratification with ’68 Chevelle SS396

1968 heralded a major design update for the Chevelle. The new long hood and short deck with streamlined B-pillars gave it an aggressive, sporty look. The SS396 had distinctive twin “power bulges” on the hood.
Submitted photo by Ron Cherry |

Sometimes not getting exactly what you want immediately makes it all the more sweet when you do finally get it.

When Jim Hopper was in high school, he knew exactly what he wanted.

“I was always dreaming in class about my first car,” he said. “I wanted a ’68 or ’69 Chevelle SS396 or a ’69 Camaro Z28. One of those cars was what I really wanted.”

Reality intruded when he actually went to buy his first car in 1977 when he was 15 years old.

“I was walking up and down the rows of cars and, lo and behold, it was like a light was shining on it.” — Jim Hopper

“When it came time, my dad and I went looking for a car that was runnable, but needed some work,” Jim said. “Everything I wanted in a car, I couldn’t afford. I was making $2.65 an hour at a gas station.” They found one that fit the bill in a used car lot on El Camino in San Mateo.

The make and model was right. It was a ’68 white Chevelle, but a Malibu instead of an SS396 muscle car. While they might have looked the same, there were huge differences. Instead of a torquey big block, the Malibu had a 327 CID small block. Its trans was a Powerglide, a two-speed auto, often termed “Slip-and-slide” for its less than positive shift. The rearend was a light-duty 10-bolt. It had a bench seat instead of sporty buckets.

“I remember thinking that the car was so old,” he said. “But it was only nine years old then.” It was also affordable, so Jim bought it.

Having a dad who is a hot-rodder was a big advantage. Gary Hopper, who is well known for building quality street rods in his Hopper’s Hot Rod Garage, was there to give good advice and lend a hand in getting better performance out the Malibu, spearheading the whole project. They installed a hotter cam in the engine, then put on an aluminum intake and a Holley carb, with headers for free-flowing exhaust. They swapped the Powerglide for a 3-speed, better shifting Turbo 350 auto trans. Then they pulled the 10-bolt rearend and put in a beefier 12-bolt to handle more power. Some changes had little to do with actual performance, but looks. The vinyl roof was having problems in the front, so they cut it down to a landau style. They also put on a set of Cragar wheels.

The Hoppers moved up to Grass Valley. Jim brought his Malibu with him and enjoyed driving here until he sold it after three years of cruising.

“I kept track of the car for years,” he said. “It rattled around in the area. Last I knew, a classmate of mine had it. He got in a front-end collision and it was just sitting in a field over on Rattlesnake. I would like to find it, see if it’s still around.” Sort of like keeping track of a first girlfriend even though it’s over, just to know if she’s OK.

Over the years, Jim owned about 10 cars, all of them Chevies and mainly muscle cars. He still owns six of them. Three years ago, he and his dad were at Hot August Nights, checking out the cars before the auction.

“I was walking up and down the rows of cars and, lo and behold, it was like a light was shining on it,” Jim said “It was everything I’d wanted my first car to be, a ’68 Chevelle SS396.” But what made it almost eerie was that it was white, had a vinyl roof and Cragars, just like his first Chevelle.

It was as if his first car had been reborn as his dream car.

Going over to it, Jim found two binders with the car, showing receipts for all the work done, over $40,000 worth. The 396 CID big block had been replaced with a 454 CID bigger block. It had a Lunata roller cam and Lunata roller rockers. Its closed chamber heads had been ported and polished. On top, an Edelbrock 850 cfm carb fed the engine through an aluminum intake with exhaust handled by Hooker headers and Flowmaster mufflers. It was rated at 550 HP with 11:1 compression. Power went through a B&M Turbo 400 auto trans with a B&M torque converter to a 12-bolt posi rear. The suspension was stock with power front disc brakes and power steering, all rebuilt. Inside, it had a Kenwood AM/FM/CD/iPod and Vintage Air A/C. The interior was stock, with buckets and console, completely refurbished.

Bidding started with a number of active bidders, but soon was down to two. Jim was one.

“My dad was encouraging me, saying that was the car I had really wanted,” he said. “I just had to bring it home.”

And he did. Since then, he hasn’t had to do much on his SS396. “Everything was done,” he said. “I just giggle about it when I see it in my garage.”

He also sometimes takes it to Cars and Coffee 8-10 a.m. Saturday mornings at the K-Mart parking lot off McKnight Way, where car lovers cruise in to check out each other’s cars and swap tales. Jim has a good one, one about how delayed gratification can be great.

Ron Cherry’s four books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His next book, a mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills, will be out soon. Check out his website at

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