What a stellar year for Detroit’s Big Three. In 1961, each company was readying their new high-performance engines for the dragstrips and NASCAR circuits. Car companies clearly understood the significance of the mantra “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday."
Chevrolet participated in this mantra by pouring cash into engine development on a yearly basis. However, Chevrolet’s profits did not come directly from the high-performance portion of vehicle sales, but from sales to middle-class Americans needing reliable transportation for their families. But Chevy did know the importance of good press: its three basic models–Biscayne, Bel Air, and Impala–were built off of the same platform, and provided the public with a total of 20 models to choose from. Most models were available in a two-door hardtop, four-door hardtop, two-door sedan, four-door sedan, and a garden variety of both six- and nine-passenger station wagons. Most Chevrolets went out the dealership door with a typical young married couple with a child or two, living in middle-class USA. Their cars were, for the most part, equipped with the 283 cubic-inch V-8 or the trustworthy 235 cubic-inch, stove-bolt, six-cylinder engine that had been around for many years. There were, however, a few owners that ordered the 348 cubic-inch engine–and after mid-year, the notable 409.
These basic powertrains and body styles were the bread and butter for Chevrolet. It was mom and pop with the growing family who were shelling out their hard-earned dollars to buy the new Chevy that Diana Shore pitched to them weekly on her TV show. She wanted everyone to “See the USA In Your Chevrolet.” With sales of over 1,000,000 units, Chevy was now building cars in 11 assembly plants nationwide just to keep the buying public happy.
This year gave way to more subtle styling cues. The excessively big finned cars of the 1950s had exited, and many say just at the right time. While the car still shared the 1960 chassis, the body lines were smoothed out in every corner. One feature that kept it looking like a Chevrolet was the traditional three round tail lights on the Impala, with other models getting two round taillights. The side of the car highlighted a horizontal line that gently sloped down towards the rear. The front fenders and grille simplified the front end styling of 1960. In general, the 1961 Chevrolet was more pleasing to the eye from any angle.
The interior was restyled, with a new dashboard and easy-to-read dials. An aluminum trim panel on the cluster and glove box was exclusive to Impalas and Nomads. Impalas also received a special steering wheel, with horn buttons at the end of each wheel spoke.
Chevrolet transmissions covered the gamut, starting with the base three-speed manual, three-speed manual with overdrive, four-speed manual, two-speed automatic, and Turbo-Glide transmission. The four-speed manual was the one to have with any of the performance engines, and it would set the customer back an additional $188.30 for the pleasure.
Most people cherished the newly redesigned Chevrolet Impala, but it was the improved powerplants and a very rare mid-year option called the “Impala Super Sport” that made the 1961 Chevrolet the symbol it has become today.
In a corporate memo dated February 1961, Chevrolet announced the RPO-240, the Impala Super Sport Equipment Package. Interestingly, the SS equipment package was available on all Chevrolet models except for the Nomad Wagon, but it appears that the option appeared mainly on two-door hardtops and convertibles.
It required that the buyer order at a minimum the 305-horsepower, 348 cubic-inch engine. Upgrades from there would include the 340- or 350-horse, 348 cubic-inch engine. Mid-year, Chevrolet pulled out all the stops with the release of the 360-horse, 409 cubic-inch V-8. While based on the 348, the 409 was much more durable.
By the end of 1961, only 456 Impala Super Sports were sold–and only 142 had a 409 dropped between the frame rails. The Impala SS became a stepping stone for Chevrolet performance. Over the next 10 years, the Big Three thrashed their engineering staff to get the best combination of performance and handling out of their particular car line. It may not be the fastest Chevy ever made, but the 1961 Impala Super Sport is one of the muscle car world’s most important ancestors–and one of the most sought-after collectibles today.
Fuel For Thought
There were 20 models to choose from
The 360-horse 409 engine was introduced mid-year
To order a Super Sport, the 348 engine was mandatory
The Super Sport option was available on all models
A 3.36 axle ratio was standard with the 409 option
Number built – 456 Super Sports
Construction – Body-on-frame
Engine – (3) 348 cubic-inch V-8s, 409 cubic-inch V-8
Power/Torque – 348 cubic-inch V-8, 305 horsepower, 355 lb-ft torque, 348 cubic-inch V-8, 340 horsepower, 362 lb-ft torque, 348 cubic-inch V-8, 350 horsepower, NA lb-ft torque, 409 cubic-inch V-8, 360 horsepower, 409 lb-ft torque
Transmissions – Three-speed manual, three-speed manual w/overdrive, four-speed manual, three-speed Turbo-glide auto, two-speed Powerglide auto
Suspension front – Independent, long and short arm control arms, coil springs with .6875-inch stabilizer bar
Suspension rear – Four-link rear suspension with upper and lower control arms, coil springs
Steering – Semi-reversible recirculating ball
Brakes – 11-inch front and rear drum
Length/width/height – 209.3/78.4/55.5 inches
Wheelbase – 119 inches
Weight – 3,480 lbs.
0-60mph/quarter mile – 7.8 seconds, 15.31 seconds at 94 mph (Motor Trend, September 1961) (409)
Top speed – 125 est.
MPG – 8 - 11 mpg est.
Price – MSRP - $2,901; Today – $17,700 - $49,000
Engine – The 348 V-8s were strong runners, but the mid-year 409 was a monster. It eventually became the darling of the quarter-mile world, with the likes of Dick Harrell successfully racing a factory-backed 409. After that engine was released, Chevrolet never looked back.
Handling – The 1961 Chevrolet was typical of the earlier performance cars: little development money was spent on exceptional handling and braking systems. All domestic cars still rode on soft suspensions, had rather sluggish steering, and stopped with four-wheel drum brakes.
1961 Pontiac Ventura
Number built – 12,297
0-60/quarter mile – 8.2 seconds, 15.5 seconds at 95 mph (Motor Life, 1961) (Trophy 425A)
Top speed – 125 mph est.
Price – MSRP - $3,233; Today – $12,850 - $27,400
1961 Ford Galaxie Starliner
Number built – 29,669
0-60/quarter mile – 7.0 seconds, 15.1 seconds at 89 mph (Motor Trend, 1960)
Top speed – 115 mph est.
Price – MSRP - $2,713; Today – $6,725 - $26,800
First year for the Super Sport model
Mid-year introduction of the 409 engine
Fresher body style than previous year
New stylish wraparound windshield
Base-suspension cars were soft in turns
Bucket seats were not available
Ford’s new 390 offered more power than the 409
Summer in a bubble-top car was like driving in an oven
Most 1961 Impala Super Sports, particularly ones with the 409 engine, are generally kept in the garage and used only as weather permits. They continue to appreciate in value during this performance car craze. With a total of 456 SS cars produced and only 142 409s, they are exceptionally rare.
What to pay
1961 CHEVROLET IMPALA SS
MSRP – $2,901
Low – $17,700
Average – $34,200
High – $49,000
*Based on prices from the Classic Cars and Parts Price Guide, fueled by NADA and available wherever Corvette & Chevy magazines are sold.
Insurance cost is $281/year for a $34,200 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving.
*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance,
Front/rear carpet kit $134.99
Front/rear door pad kit $699.99
Date-coded spark plug set $67.95
OEM-style big block radiator $364.99
Power steering pump $179.95
*Based on information from Classic Industries Inc.,
Chevrolet SS Muscle Car Red Book: Camaro, Chevelle, Impala, and Monte Carlo, 1961-1973 by Peter C. Sessler
Chevrolet SS (Muscle Car Color History) by Robert Genat
Impala and SS 1958-1972 Musclecar Portfolio by R.M. Clarke
Standard Catalog of American Muscle Cars 1960-1972 by John Gunnell
The press loved the styling of the 1961 Super Sport. Its body had been massaged into a sleeker look, and the new bubble top gave it an aero look. With the SS version’s performance handling and braking parts, and the 409’s 360 horse engine, it was one of the nicest riding and fastest factory cars.