The Mighty Chevrolet Impala
Want to know what your Dad tore up the streets in? Probably one of these. The Chevrolet 409. You’re looking at the Impala Super Sport Chevrolet made over 2 million Impalas between 1961 and 1965, making this one of the most beloved and popular cars of the muscle era.
But it’s not the cars that people remember, it’s their engines. These cars happened to be powered by a legendary muscle motor. The mighty 409. The Chevrolet 409 was born in 1961 in the heat of the horsepower wars, when Chevrolet was into racing up to its hub cubs. It moved from a run of the mill truck engine to one of the most feared and respected power plants of its day. The 409 had enough horsepower to propel 4000 pound Impalas and Bel Airs to every race track and drag strip in America. And it’s tire burning torque gave the Super Sport Chevys the image of the baddest boulevard cruisers in the land.
“One of the reason that the 409 has become such a legend, I believe, is because Chevrolet promoted it as such, as a performance engine, from day one. That’s really what brought attention to it and then through he 409 they went into the 396s , the 527s, but really it as probably Chevy’s first step into a real big racing engine.” Describes Tom Rettberg of Roswell, Georgia
During the five years that Chevy built the 409, it grew from 340 to 425 horsepower and it was offered in several different versions from slightly wild to really wild. 409s never came in mild versions. The 409 helped create the Super Sport mystique and today the SS name plate is one of the most accessible in the auto industry. Chevy sold hundreds of thousands of Super Sport Novas and Chevelles with small block engines on the strength of the 409 Impala’s drag strip reputation.
Paul Zazarine of Amos Automotive Publishing describes the Chevrolet’s appeal: “It was the first Chevrolet big block so you’ve got a lot going for it right there. It had a lot of torque with two four grill carburetors, it would go 0 to 60 in about four and a half sencounds. It would do the quarter mile in about 12.2. It roughed at about 115″
Today the full sized Chevrolet of that era are fabulous examples of the American muscle car during its big period. Like the other big fast cars of the day, the Ford Galaxy, the Pontiac Grand Prix, the Mercury Monclair, and the Chrysler 300, the Impala reminds us of an era when the muscle car was the biggest, the most luxurious, and the most powerful car on the road. When you drove up in one of these cars, you knew you had arrived.
When Hot Rods Began to Heat Up
This is what the muscle car looked like before 1955. They called them hot rods. Weren’t built by any automobile company, they were built by people who wanted a car that was distinctive and faster than most of the factory models. This art form was wide open to individual expression. Pretty soon, Detroit started noticed all these home builts on the street and they noticed the enthusiasm for auto racing that was sweeping the country. Soon, the big auto makers began testing the waters with a few special edition car, which featured lots of horsepower. These special edition cars sold by the truck load, which encouraged Detroit to build even bigger and faster ones. The horsepower race was on, with some pretty wild cars showing up on the streets all over America. These were the first factor hot rods or, if you prefer, the first factory muscle cars.
Racing was good for testing high performance parts and great for selling cars Chevrolet had jumped into this performance race in 1955 with their 265 cubic inch small box V8. Over the next three years, Chevy’s small blocks grew to 283 cubic inches and had enough horsepower to propel their classic lightweight Bel Airs into the winner’s circle all over America. But cars were getting bigger and heavier every year And the engine designers had to keep making more horsepower. Ford’s new 312 wide block, in their 1957 Fairlane, sported a super charger. Chrysler had two four barrel carburetors feeding their big engine. And Pontiac was building the trophy class Bonnevilles into world beaters. Pontiac even tested their engines under some incredible loads, like open parachutes. Chevrolet’s engine lab was working twenty four hours a day, squeezing more power from the small block with trick set up like fuel engine, the 283 was creating ample horsepower to keep the Chevys in the lead But without all this exotic equipment, which was banned from stock car racing in 1958, the 283 just wasn’t big enough to outrace the new, larger Fords and Chryslers. Especially in the new, heavier Impalas, which now weighed almost two tons.
Chevy did have another engine to build, however The rather unglamorous 348 cubic inch V8. This was the working class motor., designed for light trucks and never really intended as a high revving race engine However, it was sturdy. It produced nice torque and it could be modified fairly easily.
With the 348, Chevy enjoyed modest success on the drag strip and managed to win the Nascar grand national championship in 1960. On the racetrack, Chevy discovered just how far they could go with the 348. And it wasn’t far enough. So, in 1961, in classic Detroit fashion, they made it bigger. The 348 block was pured out to 409 cubic inches and the legend was born. The 409 engine was created by using a 4.313 inch bore and a stroke of 3.5. The ’61 409 produced 360 horsepower and 4200 RPM from what was basically just another large 348 with a slightly hotter cam shaft and a Rochester four barrel carburetor
Tom Shaw of Musclecar Power magazine remembers: “The 409 engine was neat, in that it had no combustion chamber . If you pull a 409 cylinder head off, it’s flat. It looks like a tractor cylinder head. That did affect its rate-ability IT didn’t respond to cam changes the way a normal engine would.”
The ’61 409 had been rushed into production using bored out 348 blocks right off the shelf. Chevy soon found out that these blocks couldn’t stand the extreme stresses of racing duty. Production was halted after just 147 units were built and Chevy’s engine designers went back to the lab. The 409 returned to the race track in 1962 and it was race ready.
Chevy Impala Super Sport
For many enthusiasts, 1962 was the greatest year for the Chevy Impala. ’62 Chevys had finally thrown off the excesses of the fins era and had grown into one of the most stylish, graceful looking cars on the road Chevy’s ’62 SS cars lit up the marketplace. And sales grew from just 453 Super Sports in 1961 to over 99,000 in 1962. ’62 Impalas were equipped with the 283 or 327 small block engines. In a move designed to help the racers, the 409 was also available this year in the Bel Air. ’62 Bel Airs shared the same body with the Impala but were a few hundred pounds lighter. The Bel Air two door sport coupe also offered a very aerodynamic real window called the bubble back by the street racers, which gave it a racy look. Bel Airs featured very plain interiors with few creature comforts, which mad them an instant hit with the street rodders. The final endearing quality was their price tag. A Bel Air Sport Coupe was over $300 cheaper than an Impala and with the 409 engine, backed by a four speed transmission, and the heavy duty suspension in the rear axle, very few cars on the street could touch it. An image or stoplight to stoplight performance.
The Chevrolet 409
Paul Zazarine explains the public’s passion for Chevy: “Everybody loved Chevrolet, so the car was a very significant car and an SS package, the 409 was, for a lot of people the ultimate Chevrolet.
In its second year, all the 409′s early problems had been solved The ’62 409 block forgings were all new and were made to take the heat. Two versions of the 409 were now available A 380 horsepower engine, which used a single four valve carburetor and a no nonsense 409 horsepower engine with dual starter four barrels. Larger port cylinder heads were new for ’62 and inside the engines, the pistons were redesigned to give an 11.2 to 1 compression ratio. The engineer’s found a number of other shortcomings in the 409, so in ’62, they went through the engine with a fine toothed comb. Practically everything in or on he engine was upgraded. If you were one of the privileged few who could get the right part numbers, you could build your stock 409 into a real race car right in your own garage.
By now, the big Chevys with the 409 were well-established. Both on the race track sand on the streets. The legend was growing and the car was becoming a part of pop culture.
“The Beach Boys released the song 409, which is a flip side of Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ Safari got a lot of air play that summer. But it wasn’t until fall that the DJs began to discover the 409 song on the backside of the record and once they did that really kicked open the flood gates for the 409 to capture the imagination of the public.” Recalls Shaw.
The 1963 Chevrolet Impala
The Chevy Impala went roaring into 1963 as the number one car in America.
General Motors had discovered back in the late 50s that to stay number one they would have to redesign their cars every two years. The ’63 models from Chevrolet took the market by storm and everyone from Corvette to Impala had new lines and new features. Chevy’s Impala was now a full grown luxury car. But it started out as an upgrade to the Bel Air in 1958 and it had now become one of the world’s finest automobiles. Chevrolet was the world’s largest automobile company and they spared nothing to make the Impala into the most popular, best selling car in America
The ’63 Impala was bigger and heavier by almost 100 pounds, with larger bumpers and more chrome and stainless steel trim. The Super Sport still had plenty of ID and let everyone know that this was top of the line. The re-shaped tail panel still sported Chevy’s usual three tail outs on each side and the very popular Super Sport roof line was carried over from 1962.
Jerry Sykora of Marietta, Georgia recalls: “I was interested in the ’63 Chevrolet because I’d had one when I was in college and the 409 had an attraction because it was a muscle car and I’ve always wanted a muscle car, something to have a little bit of horsepower, but something I Could drive on the street At the time, most of the cars that Chevrolet built were the full sized cars. It was a sporty car, it has bucket seats and it was aimed at the younger car buyer at the time.”
Deluxe carpeting greeted you as you slid inside this comfortable cockpit. SS badging appeared everywhere to remind you that you were driving the best. Driving a ’63 Super Sport was an incredible experience Luxury behind the big steering wheel, it didn’t seem like you were handling a performance car until you nailed the gas and unleashed the big 409 under the hood. ‘In ’63, Chevy did it again and came up with more versions of the 409. There was now a 409 to please practically everyone The de-tuend street version of the 409 now made 340 horsepower, which was tame enough for city driving. This engine would move the heavy Impala from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 6.6 seconds and 0 to 100 in just a shade over 19 seconds.
“It’s not difficult to drive, it’s got enough horsepower that you can feel it if you want to use it but unlike the dual four barrel versions it’s not a road burner.”
But Chevy had more for the customer in 1963. They also offered a hotter 400 horse 409 with a single four barrel carburetor and a top of the line race 409. The L80 engine produced 425 horsepower and what seemed like enough torque to rotate the earth. This engine featured dual Carter four barrels, 11.4 to 1 compression, and a higher lift cam shaft. But, for the racers, even this wasn’t enough. They were jogging head to head every week with the best that Ford, Pontiac, and Chrysler had to offer. So, Chevy developed the ultimate 409. TheZ11. The Z11 was a proud out version of the most powerful409. It measured 427 cubic inches and it was installed into special lightweight factory race cars. When it hit the track in mid-year 1963, it let the air out of everyone’s balloon who was racing a different kind of car.
Explains a Chevy enthusiast: “The cars themselves also offered a lot to the equation, particularly after GM and Chevrolet did a lot of work to lighten the cars. You started seeing aluminum body panels, bumper brackets, all types of lightweight components that would bring the weight of the cars down, which made the performance much more spectacular.”
Chevy’s factory races were nearly unbeatable now with all this power under the hood. Chevy’s win at the U.S. nationals in 1963 capped their most successful season in three years. This racing success continued to drive sales. 153,000 Super Sport Impalas were sold in in11963. ON the streets, the SS Impala was King of the Road. A car with this kind of luxury and styling and all this power was irresistible. But the other auto makers weren’t asleep at the wheel They were on a mission to knock the 409 off the top of the performance mountain.
Drag Racing and Chevrolet
Drag racing had grown into a big time spectator sport by 1964. Winning at the drags was a big part of the Detroit car makers’ marketing plan. Faced with new competition from Chrysler’s Max Wedge and Hemi cars and the especially built Ford Thunderbolt, the Chevy 409 was finding it difficult to keep pace. Even the lightweight z11s were struggling. But lack of power wasn’t the reason. It was a management issue at GM.
Keith Maney, a restoration expert, talks about the Hemi: “The infamous Hemi racing edict of 1963 came down and really what that made all of the performance divisions, mainly being Chevrolet and Pontiac, had to provide most of their support through the back door.”
In short order, most Chevy drivers found other rides with Ford or Chrysler, but out on the street the Chevrolet Super Sort Impala was such a favorite with car buyers that its sales continued to increase, regardless of Chevy’s no racing policy. 185,000 lucky buyers drove home in a new ’64 Impala SS that year. The Impala Super Sport and all the other super cars of the early ’60s were in for a surprise and this one would eventually spell their demise. The surprise came in the form of a mid-size two door sedan with a very large engine. It was the ’64 GTO and it would run rings around the 409 and all the other big cars. The GTO started Detroit on a new way of thinking about performance cars. Its success in 1964 propelled all the other auto makers to follow suit and within a year, there was a new word in America’s popular vocabulary: muscle car. And the word didn’t mean the big cars of a few years earlier.
The 1965 Chevrolet 409
The 409 stayed around for one more year But in 1965, there was another performance engine under the hood of the hottest Chevy: the 396 rat motor. Under development since 1963 it was the engine that had propelled Chevrolet to new records on the stock car tracks and now it was ready to take on the world. This engine would prove to be everything the 409 was and even more. And a new generation of Super Sport cars would carry, not 409 badges, but SS 396 emblems. But they’d never replace the 409s in the hearts of their motors.
Tom Rettberg of Roswell, Georgia talks about the Super Sport: “It’s six inches longer than a Dodge Grand Caravan. And it weighs about close to 2 tons so it’s a land cruiser. It’s great going straight When you corner you can feel the corners but that’s what cars were like in 1964.”
Another enthusiast adds: “I like a little bit of power. I like knowing there’s a lot of steel wrapped around me. I like the way these cars look and I guess I really like the fact that occasionally someone will give you the thumbs up and say, ‘Gee, that’s an okay car.’”
“I’ll get 7 miles per gallon. I’ll be lucky on the road to get 11 miles per gallon. That’s when gas was a quarter so people didn’t worry as much as they do today.” Says Rettberg.
The Super Sport Impalas helped Chevrolet grow from making low priced cars with little engines into America’s #1 car marker. The 409 was a large part of that growth Don’t believe me? Think about it. Did anyone write a song about your favorite car.
The 409 as a Part of American History
“If you grew up in that era, it was wonderful music, great music. As we get older and we’re restoring these cars, I don’t know too many guys that don’t have the oldies station on in their garage while they’re out there working on their cars, playing the same tunes and enjoying the same feelings that I had then. So, it’s reaching back through time in a lot of ways.” Remembers Zazarine.
Not every car from the muscle era lived up to its reputation. But when big was cool, the 409s were the coolest. And that’s why they’re so beloved today.