Was Chevrolet’s 1961 Impala SS the first musclecar of the musclecar era? Photo from www.barrett-jackson.com

Many automotive historians claim that the day in 1964 when Pontiac put a 389-cubic inch engine into a mid-sized Tempest LeMans and called it a “GTO,” the first musclecar was born. We wish to present a different opinion on which was the first musclecar of the muscle era. This opinion comes from a man that actually raced at LeMans and knows what a musclecar is. Dan Gurney’s opinion is more than just a theory. He proved that the ’61 Impala SS was indeed, the first American musclecar created when he took the sedan to England to race it in the British Saloon Races, and the legacy of that single race that it competed in lives on.

“I knew that American cars could compete with the european sedans at that time. The ’61 Impala looked like a rocketship compared to the boxy Jaguars that had been dominating the Saloon racing,” said Gurney. 

Determining the First Musclecar

The 1964 Pontiac GTO was equipped with the 389 Pontiac engine with a four-barrel carburetor that was standard for the vehicle. This combination produced a published 325-horsepower. The three-two barrel carburetors could be upgraded as an option which brought the horsepower up to almost 350-horsepower. These were not bad for the day, and if power is one of the measuring sticks for determining what a musclecar is, these GTO’s surely set a standard. 

However, three-years earlier Chevrolet released the mid-year vehicle introduction of the Impala SS 409.  The 409ci engine was essentially a larger displacement 348ci engine with a few upgrades. Included in the new 409 package was forged aluminum pistons, a more aggressive camshaft and 11.25:1 compression. A single four-barrel carburetor sat atop the aluminum manifold which helped deliver the published 360-horsepower.  A musclecar must have power to be considered a musclecar, and the Impala SS had plenty of it.

Gurney picked the Impala SS to challenge the Jags in the British Saloon racing series. Photo from www.sandcastlevi.com

Gurney’s Selection

In 1961 the third generation Impalas were restyled and built on GM’s legendary B platform. The Sport Coupe models featured the now familiar “bubble top” roofline and a unique feature in the sedan’s was a 2-door pillared sedan, which was only available in 1961. The two-door sedan was rarely ordered and considered a collectible today. This Super Sport option was also debuted in 1961, and is very rare and collectible option today.

More than just a dress-up option, the SS package included a large tachometer clamped on the steering column and a passenger-side grab bar for any squeamish riders.

The Impala SS was offered in a high performance 348 engine or the newest bullet in GM’s arsenal, the 409-cid powerhouse. With the larger displacement engine cam a beefier four-speed manual transmission. For a factory stock combination, this was as good as it could get for the times.

Changes 

Gurney’s Impala was ordered with the “taxicab and police” suspension which added some stiffness to the shocks, springs and included larger wheels and tires. Adding some ducts to aid with the drum brake cooling, Gurney also added a rear antiroll bar that was adapted from a Corvette.

Gurney’s sly grin has always implied that there was more to the story than what was said. Photo from www.allamericanracers.com

“I took the engine over to get “blueprinted. Whatever that means,” said Gurney with a mischievous smile forming on his face. “And I added a longer pittman arm to quicken the steering. I did the welding to the pittman arm, which is a scary thought, but I added enough metal that I thought everything was going to be alright.”

Gurney’s 1961 Impala SS Specs

  • Chevy 409 cid – 360 hp at 5,800. Balanced and polished.
  • Chevy 4 speed manual transmission
  • Positraction rearend
  • Exhaust manifold was changed out for headers.
  • Stock mufflers were changed to straight through mufflers.
  • Chevrolet’s Police and Taxi cab suspension option
  • Heavy duty shocks
  • HD springs
  • Sintered (metallic) brake linings with mated brake drums. 
  • Anti sway bar for the front suspension
  • Power steering gearbox replaced the stock unit.
  •  Air ducts for the front brakes.
  • 7.60 X 15 Goodyear Blue Streak Racing tires
  • Sun Electric tach on the dash

Testing and Shipping and Racing

The Gurney team took the Impala out to Riverside International Raceway for testing where Gurney drove the car 0.8-seconds faster than the Corvette lap record set by Dave McDonald.

3.8 liter Jaguars were the weapon of choice in the Saloon racing class. The Jags had dominated the class from 1962. Photo from www.allposters.com

Satisfied that his bow tie could wage a battle with the 3.8 Jaguar sedans that had dominated the Saloon class since 1952, Gurney had the car shipped to South Hampton, England where he picked up the car and drove it to Silverstone International for the Trophy race on May 6, 1961.

During the practice session, Gurney piloted the Impala around the course turning laps that were seconds faster than the fastest Jaguar. In the actual race, Gurney led by a large margin at the white flag lap when the left rear wheel broke around the lug center ending the Impala’s day.

While Gurney and the Impala did not win the race, “They knew that we were there,” said Gurney with the same boyish smile on his face.

He planned on returning with the Impala for the July 8th Silverstone race with reinforced racing wheels (NASCAR-style) but was side-tracked by series politics the day before the race when Gurney was told that his car was not approved by the FIA and would not be allowed to race. “I knew that politics went on in racing but I had too much going on at the time – with Formula One and other racing – to let this bother me,” explained Gurney, “I thought that American sedans could go over and beat the European sedans and this proved my point. It was my way of saying ‘neener-neener’ to the British,” (and the mischievous smile crept across his face again).

With more on his plate to deal with (like Formula One racing), the politics of a minor division of racing were left behind without a second thought. Photo from www/wikipedia.com

What Happened To It?

After the bureaucratic problems stopped the Impala from racing in the saloon class, Gurney sold the big-block Turbo-Fire 409 V8 Chevy to an Australian named Laurie O’Neil, who planned on racing it down under. O’Neil was never about to race it however. The Chevy had two-doors and not four, which eliminated it from the local rules. The once proud race car was relegated to street duty towing other race cars.

According to the current owner of the car, “The car is in great condition and currently is in storage awaiting a complete restoration with the original 1961 3795623 409ci block, aluminum T10 and P case posi intact. Up until recently it was thought that the original 623 409 engine was lost in a ski boat at the bottom of a deep harbor. The boat part was true but it was not at the bottom of any harbor. With the help of some die hard 409 friends here in Australia we have found the original 409 with the car’s VIN number stamped into the front of the block.”

The car is scheduled to be restored as it was originally with the intention of preserving the Gurney Impala’s place in Chevrolet’s colorful racing history.