by Tom Shaw, photography by Colin Date
Styling never seems to end cleanly at the end of the decade. For Chevrolet, the 1950s lasted into the ’60s, as the ’60 model was a revised ’59. 1960s began in ’61 with an extensive restyle of its full-sized models that turned the corner on the fins of the Fifties. Fins were still present elsewhere in the industry, but the trend was on the wane and would soon be gone.
Reversing the renowned Detroit cliché of longer, lower, wider, Chevrolet reined in the dimensions of its expansive ’59 and ’60 models, downsizing a bit. Wheelbase remained unchanged, but length and width made the full-sized Chevrolets noticeably smaller.
It was a new look. The ’50s era wraparound windshield was gone, replaced by two angled A-pillars up front. Big changes were also made to the rear, where a brow replaced the fins and the taillight panel was now canted forward. The front end was revised too, with a forward-thrusting grille that would remain a signature style for two more years.
Inside, the interior was completely new. The instrument cluster was changed from 5 round dials to a horizontal speedometer with three round instrument pods beneath it. All functional items– instruments, heater controls, radio, ignition, ash tray, vent and light controls, and an unusual center glove box– were beneath a brow that took about 3/5ths of the width of the dash, with the non-functional section to the far right. The steering wheel was redesigned, keeping with the horizontal theme. It featured a single horizontal spoke with a top brow of its own, trimmed with a bright fascia and five decorative “holes”. Horn buttons were metal bars in the two downward struts connecting the center spoke with the rim.
The chassis, still based on an X-type frame, remained essentially the same, with one big exception. Early in the new year, Chevrolet introduced a new engine, the 409. A February amendment was made to the official Automobile Manufacturer’s Association specs, showing the big engine’s horsepower to be 360. That was huge step forward for a marque that ten years earlier had nothing more than the Stovebolt 6. Now Chevrolet had an engine with over 400 cubes, a high-lift cam and four-barrel carburetor, and nearly triple the horsepower of the basic six-cylinder. Also optional was a floor-shifted 4-speed transmission, making the ’61 quite a transformation.
But there was more. To showcase the powerful 409, Chevrolet introduced a new performance package, the Super Sport. You may have heard of it. The Super Sport continues as Chevrolet’s signature performance model to this day, but it all started in 1961.
This would be the architecture that would take Chevrolet through the next decade– big engines, big power, and a well-appointed Super Sport package to show it off. Sales were very modest, but this was the wave of the things to come. If you looked closely on a spring day in 1961, you could see the future. It was simple, V8 powered, affordable, and getting better looking.
Dinah Shore famously sang about seeing the USA in your Chevrolet. With American automobile manufacturing coming off of some very good years, and poised for more, you could see what was right in our industry and in our country– and the freedom that an automobile represented. You could indeed see the USA in a Chevrolet. And you didn’t even have to travel.
1961 Impala courtesy of George Hanner, Daytona Beach Shores, FL
SIDEBAR 1961 Chevrolet Essential Specifications
1961 1960 Difference
Overall Length 209.3 210.8 -1.5
Width 78.4 80.8 -2.4
Height 56.0 56.3 -0.3
Wheelbase 119.0 119.0 Same
Track, Front/Rear 60.3/59.3 60.3/59.3 Same
HP @ RPM
235 I-6 135 @ 4000 (Hi-Thrift 1V)
283 V8 170 @ 4200 (Turbo-Fire 2V)
230 @ 4800 (Super Turbo-Fire 4V)
348 V8 250 @ 4400 (4V Turbo-Thrust)
280 @ 4800 (3 x 2 Super Turbo-Thrust)
305 @ 5200 (4V Turbo-Thrust Special)
340 @ 5800 (4V Turbo-Thrust Special, Special Cam)
350 @ 6000 (3 x 2 Super Turbo-Thrust Special, Special Cam)
409 V8 360 @ 5800 (4V, Special Cam)
Passenger Car Models
Station Wagon Models
Kansas City, MO
Los Angeles, CA
St. Louis, MO
Check out this commercial for the 1961 Chevrolet online
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