While our story’s subtitle sounds like an episode of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” this 1961 Impala SS was something special. Its owner, Dan Gurney, had it modified to go “Jaguar hunting on the weekends,” said writer OCee Ritch in the July 1961 issue of Sports Car Graphic magazine.
At the time, Gurney was in the thick of his Formula 1 career. He believed that the Impala SS, with just a few choice modifications, could successfully take on the Jaguar sedans competing in British saloon races of the time—saloon being the British word for sedan and not some pub crawl.
This was the first year Chevrolet offered the 409 in the Imp—rated at 360 hp and 409 lb-ft of torque using a single four-barrel carburetor—and for the most part it was left alone. Local high-performance guru Bill Thomas and Bill Fowler just tore the engine down, inspected it, returned all clearances to stock spec, and then reinstalled it in front of the car’s aluminum four-speed gearbox. “Even the jets in the stock four-barrel carburetor were left untouched,” wrote Ritch.
It was the chassis that was the target of most of the upgrades. The car was ordered with Chevrolet’s Taxicab & Police suspension, which included stiffer springs, heavier shocks, a beefier front sway bar, sintered-metallic brakes, and 15-inch wheels. A Corvette sway bar was adapted to the rearend and the wheels were shod with 7.60x15 Goodyear Blue Streak tires. To help control brake temperature, Fowler made cooling ducts using flexible heater hose. And while the car’s manual steering was retained, they swapped in a power steering box to give the car 3.5 turns lock-to-lock.
The mods were certainly effective. Gurney’s 2:16.6 lap times in the car at Riverside Raceway were 0.8 of a second quicker than the record set by Dave McDonald in a Corvette. “For a stock automobile which has not even been brought up to NASCAR specs, it borders on the incredible,” wrote Ritch, reminding readers that this was a “fully equipped pleasure car,” with radio, heater, “lavish upholstery—everything but air conditioning.”
Gurney raced the car just once that year, at Silverstone in May. He was right about the Impala. He built a considerable lead over the Jaguars before a broken rear wheel put him out of the race—on the last lap. He tried to enter the car in another saloon race later that summer, this time on upgraded NASCAR wheels, but was told the car did not meet FIA specs. Officially there was a question as to the car’s homologation for racing, but unofficially it looked as though politics were used to keep him from making the locals look bad.
With his hands full of other racing pursuits, Gurney sold the Impala to an Australian, who intended to do a little saloon racing of his own down under. The car is still there, from what we understand, awaiting a full restoration.
Photos: Al Paloczy, Petersen Publishing Co. Archive