Long before “LS Swap the World” became a mantra among car enthusiasts, the original small block Chevy reigned supreme. It was – and is – small, reliable, easy to find, easy to work on, and relatively lightweight and affordable. These are some of the reasons why many old school hot rodders and budget-minded tinkerers alike still run the old architecture. Over the past decade or so, however, there has been a paradox of sorts rising in the classic Chevrolet community. Ever since the SBC hit the streets as a tiny 265 cubic inch engine, it and Chevy as a whole have been renowned by gearheads as the go-to for cheap speed. In many senses, it still is. Parts are still easy to come by and the engine will fit in pretty much anything.
The flipside of the Chevrolet coin is that this popularity of vehicles equipped with the small block from the factory has driven up the purchase price of many classic Chevrolets. It’s simple economics: if supply stays constant as demand increases, prices go up. This leaves us with the conundrum of an engine that is relatively simple and affordable, but with cars whose starting prices are out of reach for many budget-conscious enthusiasts. Gone are the days when a rust-free Nova was a sub-$5k beater and a cherry Camaro could be found on the street corner for ten grand. Even classic Chevy trucks have started to rapidly climb in price, to the point where the ubiquitous square body can easily bring five figures with decent paint and a working drivetrain.
All of this leaves people who want a bowtie, because of Chevy’s reputation of being easy to fix and cheap to maintain, with very few options. They could look to other brands, where things like mid-60’s A-body Mopars are still very affordable, but would then run into the quirks of those vehicles. Any car guy can tell you that quirks mean more money out of your pocket and into a car. I recently ran into the new owner of my family’s old 1966 Plymouth Valiant convertible. We admittedly sold the car too cheap, but the current owner has spent considerably more than he paid us for the car in modifications (I won’t say specific numbers because I didn’t ask for permission to quote him). In fact, he has spent nearly what he gave us for the entire car just on brakes. Of course, any comparable Chevrolet car from 1966 would have cost more from the outset, but would have been much cheaper to modify.
So, how did we get to a place in the enthusiast car market where a plain Jane Chevy II costs upwards of $25,000? After all, they built hundreds of thousands if not millions of most collectible Chevrolet vehicles. Chevrolet of course has legions of loyal fans who clamor for almost anything with a bowtie and a 350 under the hood. During the decades prior to the one we’re living in, Tri-Fives, Camaros, Chevelles, Novas, Impalas, C10s, and pretty much everything except the poor Corvair were gobbled up from barns, driveways and small town car lots all across the country. Many enthusiasts built up their own personal hoard or stashed away a gem or two, leaving behind scraps for the remaining car guys to fight over.
Tastes change with the times, and younger Chevy fans naturally migrated to square body trucks and G-Body Malibus, to name a few. Unfortunately for the latest generation of enthusiasts, many quality examples of those have been snatched off the market already. That pretty much eliminates any traditionally desirable Chevrolet. Well, what can you still get for a reasonable price?
If it has to have a bowtie for a badge, there are still some options. Third generation Camaros were hot stuff in their day and are still affordable aside from the rarest of examples. Granted, you may need to trash the boat anchor of a 305 it’ll probably have under the hood. If you’re not scared of high mileage, an OBS Chevy truck (1988-2002, depending on model) could be your jam. Many of these trucks were ridden hard and put up wet, but they’re generally bulletproof and don’t cost much to buy or work on. You should expect to see rusty rocker panels unless you live in the desert.
A four-door version of anything will run you less money, and provides essentially the same experience as the two-door version of the same car. You won’t get much cred amongst boomers, but you probably don’t want it anyway. Don’t want to join the more-door mafia? Pick up a Monte Carlo – any Monte Carlo. My personal favorites are the ‘70-‘72 models, but the G-Body years are good looking cars too. The engine bay offers plenty of room for activities.
Finally, and this could be a paradox on its own, buy a… Corvette. That’s right. You thought this article was about how ridiculous prices for Chevrolets have gotten. Oh, but it is. C3 Corvettes are all undervalued with the exception of the L88. It’s a bit of a stretch for many with smaller budgets, but a factory 454 Corvette is a performance heist. Don’t want a rat motor? Snag a small-block Stingray from the time before compression ratios got lower than a ‘64 Impala on 13” Daytons. Chrome bumpers too expensive? Buy a disco ‘Vette, slap on some aluminum heads and a bump stick and go to town. Stay FAR away from Cross-Fire Injection. Heck, you can even get a C4.
Cheap Chevy’s aren’t cheap anymore. They will likely always have the cheapest parts, but you won’t get a bargain basement 60’s Chevrolet muscle car anymore. Buy something a little newer and have a little creativity. Or, be the ultimate display of irony and buy a Corvette – the most expensive Chevrolet when new – for pennies on the dollar.