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1963 Z11 Impala - Remembering 1963

Hank Gabbert's Restoration Of Jack May's Z11 Impala.

By Geoff Stunkard

As GM's infamous racing ban came down the corporate ladder in early 1963, both Chevrolet and Pontiac were caught off-guard. Money had already been spent to get fresh cars ready for the upcoming season, and contracts had already been signed that would keep some of those drivers on the payroll for the year. However, there wouldn't be the ongoing development work that had characterized the successful efforts of 1962.

For the new season, the Impala RPO-coded Z11 would be Chevrolet's top dragstrip contender-it ended up being a machine that went down in history as a very competitive vehicle. Though the bigger NHRA titles would come down to the lighter Max Wedge Mopars for much of the season, guys like Dave Strickler, Hayden Proffitt (who had left Pontiac at the end of 1962), Butch Leal, and Ronnie Sox were always a threat, whether in the S/S or FX divisions. The car seen here actually came from the upstart Sox & Martin team out of Burlington, North Carolina, though it was owned by Jack May and based out of Powhatan, Virginia.

The story began when May decided that he needed somebody to drive his car for him, and had talked to Sox about maybe stepping in. Sox declined, having firmly realized that a guy like Buddy Martin was perfect for success on and off the racetrack, but recommended a fellow Burlington-ite, Larry Wilson, to shoe the car. Moreover, because the Sox & Martin team already had its own Z11 from Chevrolet, they also agreed to take some responsibility for Jack May's car, which was quite similar to the Sox & Martin team car except it had a red interior rather than a blue. Since S&M's association with the factory meant they would need to remain legal enough to compete in NHRA events, the decision was made to make May's car the "more legal" barnstormer.

Match racing was growing rapidly in popularity, and either Sox or Wilson could be behind the wheel during any given weekend drag tour on the East Coast. We don't know what was done to the car for this purpose; back then, racers used everything from mild stroker motors to nitrated gasoline called "cherry mash." This one got a bored-and-stroked engine that reportedly displaced 500 cubes. Wilson says that if you ran it up the rpm band to powershift it, it would blow one or both head gaskets. The 11.20s it was capable of were run by just keeping as far ahead of the opponent as possible. As match racing evolved, May decided that he needed a smaller body and swapped the Impala's Z11 drivetrain over to a Chevelle in 1965. A racer named Allen Long out of Virginia bought the lightweight body, and raced it for the next several seasons with a 327 in it, probably in the Modified Production class.

The Z11 then went to its next caretaker, who wanted to make sure nobody knew what it was. A horrible green paint job covered the aluminum panels, and black Krylon was sprayed all over the red interior. The car seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth for the next 30 years, changing hands just one time when the owner decided to use the car to pay off a debt. His successor got his cash out of it by selling the aluminum nose, and the carcass ended up with a Chevrolet enthusiast from the Buffalo, New York-region.

This is where Hank Gabbert enters the story. Gabbert, who is a semitruck driver for DaimlerChrysler, had just finished up his latest project in early 2001, a gorgeous '63 Bel Air with a street 409 combination under the hood. The car was on its debut display at the Autorama in Cobo Hall, Detroit, when a young man told one of Hank's sons that he had an old '63 Impala with some lightweight parts on it.

"Well, that got me interested," Hank recalls now. "I began making phone calls to the people who know these cars, and started to get an idea about just what it might be. So, I made arrangements to go to New York. Once I saw it, I was pretty certain that it was Jack May's old car, so I went ahead and bought it."

The fingerprints included the aluminum bumper brackets and the rare factory Z11 air-cooled brake setup that had been lifted from the Z-class '63 Corvette. The rest of 2001 was spent documenting and planning for the restoration. Hank found many people in the vintage Chevrolet business who wanted to see the car done, and often a single phone number would help chase down a lead for a part or piece. It should be noted that, with just 50 examples built, the specific race parts used on these cars are very rare. While there are reproduction Impala pieces, Z11 parts are a whole different story.

"What was toughest? The air cleaners are non-existent, but I was almost able to get the one that came from the factory on mine back," Hank says. "Jack May had sold it with the car to Allen Long, and Long recalled selling to somebody in Washington State. I called John Mounts on a whim and asked if he had bought an extra air cleaner from Virginia. He said yes, and then looked at his notebooks. 'It came from a guy named Allen Long,' he told me. I laughed and said, 'Well, John, that's the air cleaner off my car and I'm gonna need it back!' Unfortunately, John had already sold it, but I got lucky and found another one near Alexandria, Virginia. It was the first thing most racers threw away back then, so they are very hard to come by."

The Z11 driveline in the Chevelle had been destroyed during its days as Wally Bell's first serious match race car (he had bought that car from May in late 1965), so a correct Z11 engine package had to be put together. After locating the hardware, Dynamic Marine & Speed got the nod, and they decked the block and reassembled it to stock specs, complete with a balanced 13.5:1 reciprocating assembly. A set of the special Z11 heads top it off, which take fuel from the twin AFBs on the factory aluminum two-piece intake. A set of Stahl headers, just like they had back in 1963, is the one major variation from the factory package. Behind this are the factory aluminum-case T-10 race four-speed (with nickel gears) and a 4.56 Posi rearend.

Of course, while some of the aluminum brackets and pieces were still with the car, the front end was also gone. Thanks to Jody Anderson at Southside Automotive in Minnesota, a complete and well-cared-for nose off of the ex-Don Everhart Z11 was located and brokered; Anderson helped Hank with several other important parts to make the car right.

As this point, everything involving the bodywork was being done by the Gabbert family. This included the famous traction bars that Sox and Wilson had developed that year, made from square channel and stretching from the rear axle housing all the way to the rear transmission mount. Hank's son Jason handled the paint gun to put the Ermine White pigment back on the prepped panels, while Brush by Bock in Clinton Township re-applied the vintage lettering using vintage photographs for reference. The end result was outstanding.

Back in the day, this was a pretty famous car. Hank's research shows it did win a lot of match races in its travels both in and out of the Dominion State, beating Ron Pelligrini's 427 Mustang and some guy named Jake King, who was in a Thunderbolt until going over to Mercury with Mr. Sox and Mr. Martin in mid-1964.

When we had a chance to meet with Hank at the 2006 York US 30 Reunion, he was busy with many interested bystanders looking at the car and his display of memorabilia; since the car had run match races in the Northeast, it was still remembered. Later that weekend, we were able to get it over to the historical Beaver Springs Dragway on Sunday morning and shoot the photos you see here. The only thing missing was the famous personality once associated with the car."We wanted to get it done so Ronnie could see it, but that didn't happen," Hanks says of Sox, who had passed away earlier in the year. "He had helped answer some of my questions, and I hope we have done justice to his memory with our restoration."

Having seen it ourselves, we think Sox would have been more than happy to row through the gears in the "Good Ole Mr. Wilson" Impala for old times sake.

Tech. Specs and Background

VEHICLE This is a factory-built 1963 Z11 Impala race car that was once owned by Jack May. Tuned and driven by Larry Wilson and Ronnie Sox, the car was backed by Sox Sinclair Service, which Ronnie's dad Willard owned. It was set up primarily for match racing and barnstormed around the East Coast in the 1963-1965 era.

HISTORY After May sold it sans engine and trans, it was raced with a small-block and then remained hidden by its third owner for decades. Partially parted out, it became a labor of love for Hank, Jason and John Gabbert after Hank bought it in 2001.
RESTORATION The Gabberts spent five and a half years, plus many dollars, to make the car what it is today. Working evenings in their garage, they did almost everything themselves except the engine machining and the race car lettering, The hardest part was not the condition of the car itself, but the trouble and expense of locating all the proper pieces to make the car back into its original, as-built Z11 format. Letters attesting to its authenticity have come from Jack May, Larry Wilson, Ronnie Sox, and Willard Sox.
ENGINE A date-coded factory correct Z11 mill is under the hood, though not the one installed in this car when new, as that engine is documented as destroyed. This was a dual-quad 425-horse 427-inch monster, built to run on the ragged edge for drag racing. As restored, the engine retains its high compression and uses Stahl headers as its only deviation from bone stock.
TRANSMISSION A race-bred Borg Warner T-10 with nickel gears, shifted courtesy of a Hurst stick mounted through the floor.
THE REAR A Chevrolet race-prepped differential with a 4.56 cog and PosiTraction.
BODY The Z11 Impala was the final evolutionary step in Chevrolet's overt early 1960s drag program. It made use of aluminum front end parts and lightweight brackets throughout; neither radio nor heater were included from the factory, the lack of sound deadener would have made the radio useless anyhow. Vintage Stewart-Warner gauges are in the car from its racing days to monitor the vital signs.
THE RIDE Brakes for the Z11 came off of the 1963 Z06 race Corvette program, and are finned, air-cooled units. Traction is aided by a set of homemade traction bars installed back in 1963.
By Geoff Stunkard
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