Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe 1961 - Buyer's Guide

By: Cliff Chambers, Unique Cars magazine

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CHEV 3552 Chevrolet Impala bubble top CHEV 3552
CHEV 3609 Chevrolet Impala bubble top CHEV 3609
CHEV 3624 Chevrolet Impala bubble top CHEV 3624
CHEV 59430A Chevrolet Impala bubble top CHEV 59430A
CHEV 59469A Chevrolet Impala bubble top CHEV 59469A

Big, long and hard to miss, these cars have their own special version of elegance

Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe 1961 - Buyer's Guide
Big bold and elegant, they're hard to miss.

Trimmer, simpler, roomier, trumpeted the glossy brochures for Chevrolets new 1961 range and top of that range was the Impala.

The third-generation (1961-64) Chev was certainly trimmer looking than the 1958-60 gen-two models with clean, uncluttered lines. But simpler? For a start, there were no less than 24 engine and transmission combinations available, without even getting into the options list.

Impala buyers were completely spoilt for choice and the all-new model came in Sport Coupe, Sport Sedan, two- and four-door Sedans and Convertible versions, but the head-turner of the pack was the sleek Sport Coupe which featured a new bubble-top roof line that provided excellent all-íround vision and gave the interior a light airy feel.

Engine choice was almost a little bewildering. It started with the 135hp Hi-Thrift six followed, in horsepower order, by a 127kW two-barrel 283ci Economy Turbo-Fire  V8, a 172kW four-barrel  283ci Super Turbo-Fire  V8, 186kW four-barrel 348ci Turbo-Thrust V8, and 209kW triple two-barrel 348ci Super Turbo-Thrust V8.  

And there were five transmissions available: a three-speed manual, three-speed manual with overdrive, four-speed floor-shift manual, Powerglide two-speed auto and Turboglide three-speed auto. The Positraction diff was optional.

The new Impala promised better handling and a smoother ride from all-coil spring suspension with four-link rear end, and was stopped by power-assisted Safety Master drums at each corner. 

The hot Impala Super Sport (SS) coupe also debuted in 1961 with a choice of two 348ci Turbo-Thrust V8s with 254kW (four-barrel) and 261kW (triple two-barrel), but the 348-cuber was discontinued late in 1961 and replaced by the famous Turbo-Fire 409ci V8, which came in 268kW (four-barrel), 283kW (triple two-barrel) and 305kW (dual four-barrel) specifications.

Only 142 Super Sports were built in 1961 so keep your eyes peeled for one, they're rare.

Unlike American Impala customers, who arrived at their local Chevy dealership wide-eyed (and maybe scratching their heads) and had to decide on model and specification from all of the above, feature car owner Geoff Bower had an easier time of it: he found his car on the Internet. And it turns out his bubble top is a TV star.  

Bower drove a hard bargain with Canadian dealer Legendary Motor Cars getting the price down from $50,000 to $40,000 and then later finding out it had been featured on the dealerís popular Dream Car Garage TV show.

"I've always liked bubble-tops, I always thought they looked fantastic," Geoff says.

Bower's drivetrain combo is the 209kW 348ci with the triple two-barrel carburettor setup, which runs on the centre carby during normal driving with the other two kicking in when he puts his foot down.

With nearly 300 horsepower in the old money, you'd expect it to go pretty hard, but Geoff says the car goes well on the highway but won't win any traffic light drag races. That's probably due to the lazy two-speed Powerglide auto transmission and tall stock diff.

Narrow cross-plies on 14-inch rims wouldnít help either. Bower says most people love his Impala but don't know what it is. "There are a few 61s here but you won't see too many bubble-tops around and you wonít see too many like mine," he smiles.

IMPALA MARKET GUIDE

FINS WERE VIRTUALLY dead by 1961 and Chevrolet was quick to debut a stunning wide and low replacement for its ëbat wingí 1959-60 cars. A new bubble top Impala with a big-block engine and manual transmission was fast and classy.

Big-block cars are scarce though. During 61, just 142 long-stroke, 409ci Impalas were built. Cars with the 348 V8 are more common but still not expensive and with non-original engines make $32-40,000 on the US market.

Recent sales included an all-original 348 Tri-Power four-speed at less than US$50,000. Big-block convertibles attract much better money and exceptional cars can top US$100,000 and bargain hunters must have been heartened by a genuine 348-engined soft-top at just US$39,000. These Impalas are almost never seen in Australia but for money like that, imports are certainly viable.

CHECKLIST BODY & CHASSIS

An old fashioned perimeter chassis meant 1960s Chevs were heavier than uni-bodied rivals but did have something to which their rusting panels could cling. The best way to save a rusty Chev is the good body-off old rotisserie repair where the whole shell is removed to be inspected and welded as required.

If a car has already been restored, check body mounting points, the firewall, inner sills and window surrounds and rear axle attachments. Rust in any of these places says avoid this car. New chrome, glass and stainless are all available but do get the right bumpers. Some 61s had single-piece bumpers, others three-piece and the mounts are different.

ENGINE & TRANSMISSION

Big-block engines arrived in 58, delivering major power increases, although some claims were ambitious. Maintaining a big block isnít expensive and nothing much goes wrong, they just suffer the ravages of old age. Parts for a complete rebuild are affordable and available from many suppliers. However, original exhaust manifolds at $700 or an unrestored air-cleaner for $400 will hurt. The long-stroke 409ci engine generates more publicity than the 348, is a bit more expensive to buy but no dearer to repair. Three-speed Turboglide with ultra-low ëGrade Retarderí first gear is more practical than the two-speed.

SUSPENSION & BRAKES

Given the money being sought for bubble-topped Impalas, you'd think the suspension might be a little more interesting. But simple design means problems like worn ball joints and clapped-out idler arms are easy and cheap to repair.

Everything apart from springs and shock absorbers comes in kits and currently cost about $600.

Standard rims and tyres don't deliver anywhere near the grip these cars need when being pushed and bigger rims with wider, lower-profile rubber (probably not below 60 Series) is advisable. The same goes for brakes, which can be cheaply upgraded to a front disc/rear drum arrangement.

INTERIOR & ELECTRICS

Water leaks between the side windows, dropped doors, and flattened seat springs are points to check when buying a two-door Chevy of this age. Also if the car has been switched to RHD at some point in its life, check that the windscreen wipers have been repositioned as well.

Trim for cars with bench or bucket front seats is available pre-cut or in rolls to match a wide range of interior colours. Pre-assembled door trims cost up to $700 per side so try to find a car which doesnít need them replaced. Given the age of their components, power windows unless recently overhauled, are likely to give trouble.

VITAL STATS

ENGINE 5702 or 6702cc V8, OHV, 16v, single, dual or triple downdraft carburettor

POWER & TORQUE 208kW @ 4800rpm; 481 Nm @ 3200rpm (348 single carb)

PERFORMANCE 0-96km/h 8.4sec; 0-400m 16.5sec (348 4-speed) 

TRANSMISSION 3- or 4-speed manual 2- or 3-speed automatic SUSPENSION Independent, coil springs, A-arms, telescopic shocks, anti-roll bar (f); live axle, coil springs, Panhard rod, telescopic shocks (r)

BRAKES Power-assisted drums (f&r)

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