1961 Chevy Biscayne - The Return Of Old Reliable

After four years and $100,000, Terry Brennan, Bill Jenkins, and company have built a replica of one of the earliest Chevy 409 racecars

Jim McCraw Mar 16, 2012 0 Comment(s)
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Terry Brennan, a restaurateur, real estate developer, and car broker from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, is also a drag racer and race fan. He's had a personal friendship with Chevrolet engine-building and drag racing legend Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins for many years.

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In late 2007, Brennan asked Jenkins over their regular Wednesday-night dinner at Baxter's, "Bill, of all the cars you've owned and raced, which one would you most like to have back?"

Jenkins answered, "The first Old Reliable, the '61 Biscayne coupe 409." This was the car that Jenkins and Dave Strickler campaigned in the only year of NHRA Optional Super Stock, and set the NHRA national record at 13.24/106.64 mph.

Jenkins had been searching for that car for almost 30 years, says Brennan, with no success. So Brennan decided to find a '61 Biscayne coupe, and, with Jenkins's help, build a tribute car, a super-accurate recreation of the first car that put Jenkins and Strickler into the big leagues of drag racing. Only a handful of 409s, 142, were supposedly built, which made the project that much more difficult almost 50 years later.

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"I didn't even have a picture of the car to go on," says Brennan. "Bill thought he had some pictures of it, but he didn't. I searched all over for pictures of the car."

After a long search, Brennan found a candidate car through Hemmings in Arizona, a small-block car that had already been repainted white over green. He contacted longtime friend and award-winning builder Ronnie Evans, the Wild Fire '62 409 racer, about doing a frame-off restoration once the car was back in Pennsylvania, and Evans agreed.

Thus began a four-year process of stripping the car down to its essentials, taking the body off the frame, sandblasting, cleaning, painting and plating everything that the car needed.

While Evans cleaned, sandblasted, straightened, and painted all the body panels and the frame, Brennan spent many months locating NOS trim parts, chrome trim in New Jersey, NOS rubber floor mats in New York, station wagon steel wheels from Jenkins' own stash, and putting together the same type and color of gray block interior that Jenkins's original car had, right down to sandblasting the seat springs so they wouldn't squeak. Mike's Upholstery Shop did the seats and the headliner. Vintage Chevy parts dealers Jim Krauss and Vern France contributed their skills and parts to the project.

When it was time to paint the car, Jenkins cautioned Evans not to make the paint too shiny, because the original car wasn't shiny. Evans even shot some orange-peel into the paint to make it look more original.

Evans replicated all of the fender welds to factory spec, and when the body was complete, he went all around the car, duplicating the factory paint markings and tags from 1961, including the firewall markings indicating the radio-delete and heater-delete nature of the original Biscayne.

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They put together a new drivetrain that included a fresh 409hp, 409ci OSS-spec engine. Local racer Jim Stafford, who had campaigned a new Anniversary Gold '62 409, sold one of his 409 engines, which Jenkins had tuned when it was new, to racer and friend Ted Struse back in 1967, who in turn sold the engine to Evans for the project in 2008. Stafford, now owner of Centech, a company specializing in racecar and hot rod wiring, did all the wiring on the car.

A word to 409 purists: Don't write in about the orange rocker arm covers. Jenkins insists that the engine that came in the '61 car had this color rocker arm covers, not silver, and that they never bore any 409 decals. So there!

Evans located master header builder Jerry Jardine, semi-retired in Wyoming, and asked him to build a new set of headers for the car, just as he had for the original Strickler & Jenkins 409. Jardine found a mule, and built an identical set of new gas-welded tri-Y headers for the 409, matching the originals seam for seam and joint for joint, with original-style NHRA-legal 2-1/2-inch collectors. The story goes that Jardine had built headers for Dyno Don Nicholson's 409, which beat Jenkins three straight at a match race in North Carolina, so Jenkins insisted that Jardine build him a set to replace the stock headpipes Strickler and Jenkins had been running back in the day. The complete engine package was dyno tested by Jenkins on his own dyno and produced 429 horsepower.

The crew then found a proper four-speed transmission and shifter, a vintage NOS Ansen scattershield, an NOS driveshaft, a rare 4.56:1 10-bolt Positraction rearend, and a set of oversize drum brakes to complete the drivetrain.

Brennan says, "I couldn't find the rear glass. It's bad enough finding '61 parts, but finding a rear window was impossible." So they polished up the one that came in the donor car. "The gray interior was hard to find, too." The Stewart-Warner tach and gauge panel were somewhat easier to obtain.

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The white hood on the Honduras Maroon car came about because the '61 Pontiacs had a factory scoop, and Jenkins wanted fresh air for his car, too. But, since Ammon R. Smith Motor Co. actually owned the car, they couldn't butcher the stock hood. So, they removed the maroon hood, found a white hood in a local junkyard, fashioned the square-cornered scoop, removed the sides of the original air filter housing, and ran it that way everywhere.

Brennan says the lettering and decals on the car are as accurate as humanly possible, the only exceptions being the missing the 1961 NHRA Nationals event decals on the glass of the original racecar. And you know what? We don't care. We're just glad that a group of racers with the dedication of Terry Brennan and his gang of willing and talented helpers was able to do this amazing job so well.

That smiling, scowling man you see in the pictures of the car is 81-year-old Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins, the man who scrutinized and supervised every move of the recreation and stamped this tribute car with his seal of approval. The tribute car made its world debut at the Muscle Car Madness event in York, Pennsylvania, last July, to thunderous applause and now makes its home in the front corner of the showroom at County Corvettes in West Chester, Pennsylvania.c

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