Back in the Summer of 1960, few in the automotive hobby had any idea what the new 1961 models would look like when they hit the showrooms that September. Spy photos in Popular Mechanics gave some hints, as did concept drawings in Motor Trend. The past three or four years' products from GM's stylists differed vastly from each other, so many wondered what was next.
Chevrolet would probably provide one of the biggest surprises with its new full-size models. The '57 had vertical fins, the '58 had none. The '59 had exaggerated horizontal fins and round edges. The '60 had similar fins to the '59, but with sharp, square edges. Lining the four of them up side by side, no one would ever guess that they were Chevrolet's models in four successive years.
Car crazy kids would ride their bikes to the back lots of the local dealers, hoping to peek through the fence and sneak a glimpse of a new model before the official showroom unveiling. It was truly an exciting time in Detroit history, when you definitely could tell the difference between makes and manufacturers. Chrome, fins, quad headlights, more chrome, wow!
The '61 Impala took the nameplate in a totally new direction, to a smaller, very stylish car. The styling was very soft and totally different than the '60 model. Engine choices still included the reliable Blue Flame Six, popular 283 small-block, and 348 W-motor big-block, now back for their third model year.
But the big news didn't come until later. During the model year, Chevrolet introduced the now-legendary 409 engine and the Super Sport option package. The latter was a low-cost exterior/interior trim upgrade, but in its first year you could only get it with several other "mandatory" options. What you ended up with was fancy badging, stiff suspension, anti-roll bars, spinner hubcaps, opulent interiors, upgraded brakes and either a 348 or 409 V-8; it was a real gentlemen's sports sedan-decades before this term was coined.
Charlie Freeland always liked the '61 Impala, but finding a real SS of that vintage was near impossible thanks to an annual production of just just over 450 (the actual number is open to question, with sources quoting 452, 453 and 456). Charlie decided to do the next best thing; build a clone. What you see on these pages is the result of five years of work, using a fair '61 Impala base car and two additional '61 donor cars.
The full rotisserie, frame-off project began by replacing the rear quarter-panels with handmade units and reworking/repairing the complete rear wheelwell areas. The grilles were removed from the deck lid, as were the front side marker lights. Pedro Jiminez then ironed out the remaining body panels, and Joe Loos sprayed on the Mercedes Wedgewood Blue basecoat/clearcoat finish.
The chassis has been updated with 2-inch dropped front spindles, 1.5-inch dropped rear springs and KYB gas shocks. Upper control arms and a sway bar were added to the rear. The entire chassis assembly was then detailed before the body was dropped back in place.
A complete '63 425hp 409 was located in Florida and shipped to Charlie. Engine specialist Mel Kelley then bored the motor 0.070 oversize, added Ross 11:1 pistons, an Isky 296 cam, Melling oil pump and a Cloyes roller timing chain. The Carter four-barrel carbs were rebuilt, then re-installed on the factory intake manifold. Ignition is a Mallory Unilite. A Mattson dual-pass aluminum radiator keeps the beast cool on those hot California days.
The transmission is a 1991 Chevrolet 700R4, rebuilt by Charlie. The converter is a D&P Products 2000 stall speed unit with a custom valve body. The rear end is a Chevrolet 12-bolt, narrowed 2 inches and carrying 3.70 gears. The running gear is complete with American Torque Thrust II wheels and Toyo Proxis tires. The fronts are 17x7 shod with 215/50 rubber, while the rears are 18x8 with 275/40 shoes. The driveline and dual exhaust system was built by Kenny at ADCO Muffler and Driveline.
The interior was next on the list.A set of '63 Impala bucket seats and the '61 rear bench seat were covered by Charlie, with help from Justin at West Coast Customs in Snowstorm White pleather, while the door and side panels are matching white vinyl. The carpet is grey loop. All of the glass is new, from Breaker Glass. The gauges are Auto Meter Ultra-Lite units and the steering wheel is from Billet Specialties. Tunes are generated through an Alpine 9820XM head unit and Alpine amp.
Charlie says that one of his biggest problems was getting the original stainless steel trim straight and dingless. All of the chrome work was done by Sherm's Plating in Sacramento.
Charlie Freeland's '61 SS clone is definitely one of a kind and, although it is not an original SS, it sure fools a lot of folks at car shows and rod runs. It is truly a vehicle that reflects the owner's passion for early '60s Impala's. Charlie and his wife Cynthia truly have a ride to be proud of.