A completely new look for the 1961 Chevrolet Impala's exterior was carried out for the model year. In the course of this reshaping, the spectacular, free-flying fins gave way to a more refined, integrated appearance. To counter this, the trademark sweeping side spear was emphasized; the result was arguably the most distinctive and handsome of all Impalas.
This September 1958 clay model seems a long way
from the final redesigned 1961 Chevrolet Impala.
For the same year, a two-door sedan joined the Impala family. The sedans lacked some of the sex appeal of the hardtops and convertibles, but contributed substantially to the Impala's growing sales numbers.
The big news for 1961, however, was the emergence of the legendary Super Sport package. At first glance, this might have seemed to be just another dress-up option, complete with special hubcaps and badges, a padded dashboard with passenger-side grab bar, and a large tachometer clamped to the steering column of manual-shift models.
The Super Sport (SS) was no boulevard poseur, as the order forms made clear: Anyone wanting an SS from the factory had to take a high-performance 348 engine along with it. At minimum, that gave the driver 305 bhp to play with, from which level 340- or 350-bhp variants were an easy (and relatively inexpensive) step up.
Slightly trimmer than the 1960, the 1961 Impala was
notable for the Super Sport performance package.
Unless, that is, the buyer wanted to go for the strongest weapon, a new 409-cid powerhouse. At first glance, this appeared to be little more than a bored and stroked 348, which would have been a pretty nice proposition. It was, however, much more than that.
Only some 10 percent of the 348's hardware interchanged with pieces used in the 409. Right out of the box, the 409 was developing a hefty 360 bhp; by the following season, improvements to cylinder heads, camshaft, pistons, and intake manifolds raised that to 380 with a four-barrel carburetor or a whopping 409 bhp with dual quads -- one horsepower per cubic inch, the Mt. Everest for factory-stock engines of the day.
1961 Chevrolet Impala hardtop sedans adopted a
more formal roof with fuller sail panels.
Chevrolet wasn't merely screwing this monster mill into your average Impala and hoping for the best. If one went for the 305-horse 348, beefed-up Powerglide was available, but all other SS buyers were required to take the four-speed manual transmission.
Likewise, power steering, heavy-duty drum brakes with sintered metallic linings, larger tires (with narrow-band whitewalls), and heavy-duty springs and shock absorbers were essential parts of the package.
Just how good was the first SS? Good enough, apparently, to attract the attention of one Dan Gurney, who thought it might be just the weapon to do battle in what the British quaintly refer to as "saloon-car" racing. This was then the province of Jaguar's potent 3.8 Mark II sedans, though Ford was soon to make a bid (ultimately successful) to unseat the Jags, first by running Lotus-Cortinas and then hulking Galaxie sedans imported from the United States.
Gurney chose an Impala SS, and had it prepared by California Chevrolet mavens Bill Fowler and Bill Thomas. The two Bills were working under a handicap, as Gurney specified that the Chevrolet must remain roadworthy so that he might use it for between-race travel as well as full-out competition.
The performance star for the 1961 Impala was the
rarely seen 409-cid V-8 in this Super Sport hardtop.
As a result, it retained all stock amenities, and was modified only slightly. The 360-horse, 409-cube engine was torn down, inspected, and carefully reassembled, and certain options available to any customer were included in the original order.
Foremost among these was the so-called "taxicab & police suspension," which stiffened things up considerably and added even larger wheels and tires. Power steering was dispensed with, flexible hoses were installed to aid brake cooling, and the rear antiroll bar was adapted from a Corvette.
In short, Dan's 409 SS was remarkably stock. Yet in early testing, it lapped California's Riverside Raceway eight-tenths of a second faster than the record for race-prepared Corvettes! Granted, Gurney himself was at the wheel, but that was still no mean feat. And the driver holding the record Gurney beat was Dave MacDonald, as talented and fearless a Corvette racer as ever wrapped himself in Chevrolet fiberglass.
For whatever reason, the Gurney Impala didn't set the U.K. saloon-racing contingent on its head, but the potential was certainly there -- and not just on a road course. A similar 409 SS was a standout at the dragstrip, covering the quarter-mile in 13.2 seconds with a terminal speed of just under 110 mph.
As a mid-year addition to the line, the 1961 SS was produced in limited numbers; fewer than 500 reached customer hands, of which a mere 142 were 409s. Public response to the SS grew quickly in the years that followed; in the peak year of 1965, sales of the SS grew to nearly 250,000 cars.
To see the growth of the Chevrolet Impala from 1962-1965, continue on to the next page.
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