1971-1972 Chevrolet Heavy Chevy – Performance and Image at a Bargain Basement Price

May 27, 2013

1972heavychevy-s.jpgThe Chevelle SS was Chevrolet’s bread and butter muscle car during the golden era. It was a car that just about any high school graduate who found a full-time job could afford. A few hundred dollars down, and an easily obtainable loan from the bank, a brand new sporty Chevelle SS was then in the hands of a youthful male adult. This was the basic story from the mid to late-1960s. Unfortunately, easy street was a very short run. By the time the 1970 model year rolled along, insurance companies had figured out that a youthful with a fairly light car, powered by a high horsepower V8 engine made for a bad insurance risk. So these companies raised their rates accordingly. Unfortunately these rates per month for some young buyers were as high as the monthly car payment. So by 1970, muscle car sales were way down. Automakers were scrambling to find a way to deliver a muscle car to the young buyers which wouldn’t garner a large insurance premium. Some automakers found the perfect workaround – offer all the muscle car performance goodies found in a given muscle car into a more understated package. In other words, produce a sleeper the young would easily recognize as a performance car but the insurance companies would easily overlook, thereby keeping insurance premiums to a minimum. Another problem facing potential muscle car buyers at the time was the once spartan muscle cars had become laden with standard features and options which had made muscle cars on the average more expensive.

Chevrolet realized the problem and decided to release a more understated and budget conscious performance oriented Chevelle. Chevrolet’s top muscle car, the Chevelle SS was based on the more upscale Chevrolet A-body model – the Malibu, since it had the Malibu’s more upscale trim. The new budget conscious performance model would be based on 1971heavychevy-1.jpgChevrolet’s base level A-body, the Chevelle. What was ironic was Chevrolet used the "Chevelle SS" name on what was a performance Malibu, and the performance model that was based on the Chevelle, Chevrolet called the "Heavy Chevy". Nowhere on the outside body panels or inside the interior would the name "Chevelle" name be shown. To most living now in the 21th Century, they would think "Heavy" would mean this must have been a behemoth of a car. Actually it was lighter in lbs than the Chevelle SS and only had a curb weight of around 3,300 lbs. The name "Heavy" was a product of the times. Since the Heavy Chevy was aimed right at the youth market, one of the favorite slang terms of the time was "heavy" which meant something was good, excellent, brilliant, and in some cases unbelievable. It was indeed the perfect name for this base-level performance car.

Chevrolet had also released for 1971 a base-level performance offering of the Nova called the "Rally Nova", it was marketed to the buyers who couldn’t afford the insurance and/or the purchase price of the Nova SS. Chevrolet with the Heavy Chevy and Rally Nova, sent out talking points to dealership sales staff with four main areas to stress when trying to sell these cars to customers – low initial cost, low operating costs, low insurance rates, and high resale value. On all these four items the Heavy Chevy hit its mark with exact precision.

The Heavy Chevy may have been budget conscious, but it still had the "muscle car" look on the outside to attract the young buyers. To order a Heavy Chevy, one needed to check off the YF3 package on the  base 2-door Sport Coupe Chevelle order sheet. It was the best performance deal at the time for Chevrolet buyers, for a mere $142.20, it included a healthy dose of items. First was the standard SS hood with a raised hood scoop and racing style hood pins. Unfortunately if a buyer wanted the SS hood with Cowl Induction this buyer had to have move up to a Chevelle SS. Second was a blacked-out front grill and headlight bezels. Third was an attractive decal package which included a set of large "Heavy Chevy" 1971heavychevy-2.jpgdecals on the hood, rear, and front quarter panels and also full body length stripes on each side of the car. All these decals could be had in a choice of black or white color scheme. What was interesting was when a black or white painted roof or any color vinyl top was ordered the side stripes were deleted – however there are rumors of some vinyl top equipped Heavy Chevys that also came with factory stripes.

Last but not least there was a set of stylish 14 x 6 inch Rally wheels, sans trim rings, as the part of the YF3 package. With the YF3 there was no doubt the Heavy Chevy wasn’t just your ordinary base-level car, it was a more understated sibling to the Chevelle SS. And the great thing was Chevrolet had setup the Heavy Chevy as its own model, it had the unique "13437" indicator on the VIN number which it didn’t share with any other Chevrolet model (the 1972 Heavy Chevy used the unique "1C37" in its VIN).

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The good news for the Heavy Chevy engine options was that there were four V8s to chose from. The bad news was the Chevelle’s 425 horsepower LS6 and 365 horsepower LS5 454 V8s could not be had in the 1971 Heavy Chevy. The standard engine on the Heavy Chevy was Chevrolet’s small-block 2-bbl 307 CID V8, rated at 200 gross horsepower. On the 1972heavychevy-3.jpgtransmission front, the 307 could only be equipped with the 2-speed Powerglide automatic or 3-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic. Next up the scale was the optional small-block L65 Turbo-Fire 350 (CID) V8 which was equipped with a 2-bbl carburetor and rated at 245 gross horsepower.  A 3-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic and a floor mounted 4-speed manual were the two available transmissions with the L65. For those wanted a little more grunt the 270 gross horsepower L48 Turbo-Fire 350 (CID) V8 was just the ticket, it was equipped with a 4-bbl carburetor. However the big dog performance engine for the Heavy Chevy was the 300 gross horsepower Turbo-Jet 400 which was Chevrolet’s big-block LS3 402 CID V8 that was mated to a performance tuned 4-bbl carburetor. The LS3 had plenty of brawn and easily moved the Heavy Chevy down the quarter-mile in the very respectable low-15 second range. This was the exact same quarter-mile performance which the 1967 Chevelle SS equipped with the 350 gross horsepower big-block (L34) 396 CID V8 obtained. So even though all Chevrolet engines including the LS3 for 1971 had low-compression ratios due to the upcoming 1972 unleaded gas mandate, the 402 was packing real performance under the hood. There were three transmission choices for the L65 and LS3 – a 3-speed floor mounted manual, a 4-speed floor mounted manual, and the 3-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic. Worth noting, when the Heavy Chevy was equipped with an automatic transmission (no matter which engine), it had a mandatory column shifter. In keeping with the thrifty nature of the Heavy Chevy a buyer had a mandatory front bench seat, so a center console was not offered where an automatic transmission shifter could be mounted. The 3-speed and 4-speed manual transmissions however could be floor mounted since there was enough floor space in front of the front bench to accommodate a manual floor shifter.

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The front bench seat would also be mandatory with the 1972 Heavy Chevy. All 1971 engine and transmission choices would carryover to the 1972 model year. The only thing that changed was that on paper horsepower dropped considerably, however real output and performance was exactly the same as the previous year. The reason for the change was all 1972 model year cars were mandated to use the new SAE "net" standard for measuring horsepower which was more stringent than the old gross ratings. Under the new ratings the 307 V8 was down to 130 horsepower, the L65 to 165 horsepower, the L48 to 175 horsepower, and the LS3 to 240 horsepower. The Chevelle SS was down to one big-block 454 CID V8 – the 270 horsepower LS5 for 1972 – and just like the previous year the Heavy Chevy could not be equipped with the LS5.   

The Heavy Chevy’s handling was surprising good for its day and there was a handling package upgrade if a buyer desired a notch up the handling scale. Ride quality for a budget car 1971heavychevy-4.jpgwas good, where most manufacturers of the day on budget cars usually used pedestrian rear leaf springs, Chevrolet had gone the extra mile with the Chevelle and offered standard rear coil springs, so the Heavy Chevy was so equipped as such. Henceforth, the Heavy Chevy with its coil springs at all four corners rode like a much more expensive car.

Externally the 1972 Heavy Chevy was clone of the previous year. Only the front grille was slightly different and and the front parking lights which for 1972 were now one piece units on each side of the front-end instead of the 1971’s narrow twin parking light strips on each side of the front-end. Even the YF3 package carried-over with the same sticker price of $142.20 of the previous year.        

Inside the cabin, the interior was as exciting as a Red Roof Inn, the flat front and rear bench vinyl seats were the type of fair you found in a stripped down taxi cab back in the day. Even with Chevrolet as a whole being a budget brand, you were going to have to go a long way back in the day to find a Chevrolet 1972heavychevy-4.jpgmodel that was this austere. Fortunately the rectangular speedo could be replaced with an optional round speedo and a round tach gauge was also optional. The 1971 model did have a unique full length white strip along each interior door panel while the 1972 had simulated wood strips in the same locations. And most buyers didn’t really care about the barebones interior since the base price of the Heavy Chevy was around $2,900 and $3,000 for 1971 and 1972 respectably. As a comparison a 2-door Pontiac Lemans with a V8 cost a few hundred dollars more, the story was the same with the rest of the Heavy Chevy’s competition. This fact alone made the Heavy Chevy a downright bargain. And unlike a lot of the budget performance coupes of its day, the Heavy Chevy could be ordered in bright and wild colors such as orange, lime green, etc. which made the Heavy Chevy very appealing to young buyers.

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When muscle car sales were drying up, Chevrolet’s Heavy Chevy offering was a formula that worked – it appealed to young buyers and sales increased – 6727 produced for 1971 and 9503 for 1972 (it was the reverse trend of most muscle cars during these two years). And looking at 1972’s total production was very good when you consider that only 5,807 1972 Pontiac GTOs were produced – and the GTO was still a fine-looking and very good performance car in 1972. Heavy Chevy sales would have probably continued to increase when the all-new bodystyle for the Chevelle was released for 1973. Unfortunately Chevrolet decided to not include the Heavy Chevy in the 1973 Chevelle lineup which was a big mistake. In the end it was Chevrolet’s failed commitment to the Heavy Chevy that led to its demise. Never-the-less for two model years Chevrolet had understood the market and for the smart budget conscious buyers, they knew the Heavy Chevy offered both performance and image at a bargain basement price. Unfortunately with many Heavy Chevys being converted to Chevelle SSs or scrapped for parts in the last four decades, there aren’t many still on the road. In the current market they easily yield 80 to 90% of the cost of a comparable Chevelle SS. With really pristine examples in some cases yielding more than a comparable Chevelle SS. So if you want a good conditioned or better Heavy Chevy expect to pay Chevelle SS level prices for one.

Written contents in this article – © 2013 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved

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