Over the last 33 years, this writer has personally reviewed, touched and admired at least a few hundred thousand neat Chevys. Of them, only a handful were true '61 Impala Super Sports. Few enthusiasts today even remember that Chevrolet produced an Impala SS in '61. Offered in the spring of that year, only 453 Impala Super Sports were built. To order a Super Sport, a Chevrolet dealership had to order a whole bunch of different mandatory options, including a high-performance W-engine with a minimum of 305 hp. We estimate today that no more than 5- to 10-percent of the original 453 remain. That's roughly 22 to 45 cars worldwide.
Perhaps the very best example is this fully documented, two-owner SS owned and restored by Virginia's Tommy Nolen-himself a lifelong Chevy man.
This story begins in early '61 when Chester, Virginia's Goyne Chevrolet special ordered this vehicle. They checked off the long list of necessary options on the factory order sheet. Their engine selection was the Super Sport's base powerplant, a 305hp 348 with Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor. They also ordered a Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed transmission and a Positraction differential with a 3.70:1 axle ratio. Even the one-inch wide whitewall tires were another of the official Super Sport options which had to be ordered.
Soon after the car was delivered to the dealership in April '61, Petersburg, Virginia's Victor Hicks, a Korean War Air Force veteran-in his late 20s and a machinist by trade-stopped in with his '58 Chevy Impala sport coupe to inspect the new white '61 Super Sport sitting proudly on Goyne Chevrolet's showroom floor. For many years a fighter jet engine specialist, Hicks knew cool when he saw it. Finally, on May 26, a deal was struck and he had himself one of the neatest and (ultimately) most uncommon performance big Chevys ever created.
He and his '61 immediately became inseparable. He dated his girlfriend (soon-to-be-wife) Betty Lou in it. Because the '61 SS had an engine and exhaust tone like no other, Mrs. Hicks told us recently that she could always hear her husband coming from as far away as a few blocks. Back then she drove a '61 Galaxie, which was disposed of soon after their marriage. The Super Sport was now their official family car. After many years of trouble-free service and eons of fun, it was retired. Yes, a zillion people asked to buy it, but no, it was never for sale. Still a part of their family, it sat quietly in solitude resting in their barn.
Living in nearby Chester, Tommy Nolen had spent 30 years digging all of the great performance cars Chevrolet was known for. But the one Bow Tie Nolen always yearned for was a '61 Impala SS. His multi-decade search ended one day in '96 when he got a tip that such a car was still owned by its original owner and just 15 miles away. Nolen immediately drove to the location (the Hicks' residence) and knocked on their front door. After introducing himself to Victor Hicks, he asked, "Do you have a 1961 Impala Super Sport?" Hicks replied, "Yes, we do but it's not for sale."
"I had always planned to re-paint it and fix it up," Hicks told Super Chevy recently. As is often the case, however, that day never came. And Nolen was not about to just walk away. A friendship ensued. Soon, Nolen showed the Hicks family his personal '61 Chevy that he had recently restored to perfection.
We should mention here that Betty Lou loved the '61 Super Sport, and over a period of many years probably used it even more than her husband. For years, she drove it daily to and from her job. Finally, together, they decided that if they were going to sell their beloved Super Sport, it had to go to someone who would restore it and love it like they did.
Do you believe in destiny? In this case, Tommy Nolen was their man. On New Year's Eve, 1996, Nolen towed his car trailer to the Hicks' barn. Victor then pulled the '61 SS out with his tractor and Nolen winched it onto his trailer. Tommy thanked them profusely, then cautiously motored back home.
Nolen is an accomplished Chevrolet restorer with years of experience hunting down parts and information. The Hicks' '61 was an easy restoration, as it was all there and was in original, primo condition. Knowing Nolen as we have for decades, we asked him to write down his thoughts from the day the '61 SS came into his fold.
"I know how hard it would be for someone to clone a '61 Impala SS due to all of the specific mandatory options these cars have. But I turned to Jersey Late Great Chevy Club member, Verne Frantz (himself a lifelong Chevy big car and W-motor historian) for his thoughts and further documentation assistance. He came down to personally inspect the Hicks SS and to see all of the original documents Mr. Hicks had kept-including the original sales invoice, finance papers, battery warranty, dealership check-off sheet and extended warranty.
"Interestingly, the service manager had to road test the car, go through the vehicle check-off list, then sign off (approve for delivery) with his signature. Included on this check-off sheet were the ID numbers of the 348 engine, T-10 transmission, rearend, as well as the official vehicle key number," wrote Nolen.
He continued, "My restoration took two years time. The first 12 months were spent coming up with a what-to-do game plan. I studied the car thoroughly, then decided it deserved a complete frame-off restoration. I did everything myself at home except rebuild the engine (handled by NAPA Machine, Richmond, Virginia), trim prep and polishing, new exhaust system (Express Auto, Chester, Virginia), complete new Ciadella red interior, new non-tinted glass (Auto City Classic) and bumper chroming (Hanlon Plating, Richmond). The Ermine white body paint is PPG Deltron. The '61 SS still retains the original engine, carburetor, generator, starter, transmission, shifter, tachometer and air cleaner.
"The transmission has never been apart, It works fine and still has the original factory lubricant inside.
"May 26, 2001 marked the '61's 40th anniversary of purchase. We took it back to the dealership (now called Heritage Chevrolet) for a special celebration photo. It included the original salesman, original service manager, Mr. Hicks himself, the Goyne family and me.
"Two items on this particular Impala Super Sport are unique. The factory cowl tag defines the Super Sport option and the dash has crossed flags mounted behind the passenger side "SS" grab bar. Chevrolet did not intend for these flags to be on '61 Super Sport Impalas. Mr. Frantz and I agree that the flags on this car are most likely the result of the car getting too far down the assembly line before the workers realized that the holes had not been filled. When the factory received the dash assembly the holes were already punched for the flags, the holes in the Super Sport models were supposed to be filled with lead. Once the car reached the point of no return, it was much easier to install the flags than to fill the holes with lead."
Special thanks to Tommy Nolen for allowing us to use his personal photos in this story.
Tommy Nolen Biography Tommy Nolen's first car was, ironically, a '61 283 Impala. His second was a '59 Corvette with a 2x4 283. A car guy all his life, he drove NASCAR Grand National cars in the mid-'60s, then owned a bunch of circle track race cars through the early '90s. His performance Chevys included several Corvettes, a '63 409 and a '66 L79 Chevy II. For sure Nolen was (and still is) a guy who liked all of the early '60s factory performers. His collection of early muscle cars today numbers six, including another documented '61 Super Sport and it's a 409, one of only 142 Chevys of all models produced with 409 power in '61.