Curbside Classic: 1961 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe – Wherein The Author Meets His Nemesis And Finds Love

(first posted 5/1/2017)    Can a guy who hates holds a healthy dislike for early ’60s Chevrolets as much as I do give one a fair shake here on CC?  Well, I guess we are all about to find out.


Most of you already know that I am not among the many fans of the 1961-64 Chevrolet.  Alright, pretty much the opposite of a fan.  In fact, I am on record as naming this car’s slightly younger brother as the car I hated driving above all others.

You must understand that 1961 Chevrolets were around in moderate numbers during my childhood.  But they were old cars then.  In fact, I am trying hard to remember seeing a ’61 in some color other than that metallic beige that had lost every hint of a shine after about four years in the weather.  It being northern Indiana, the dull, colorless paint jobs were accented with sizeable rust holes above those eyebrow-mounted parking lights.  And they were invariably Biscayne or Bel Air sedans with at least one broken taillight and one missing hubcap.

The result of nearly every sighting seemed about the same.  After the metallic grinding of the starter the tired 283 would fire.  The high-pitched whirrr of the Powerglide in Park would be followed by the loud “Clack Clack Clack” of the shift into Drive and the old Chivrolay would start moving in front of the little wisp of blue smoke that would follow it until it went out of sight.  To be fair, most other 8-10 year old northern cars were not in much better shape. ’61 Fords were a lot less common and were just as unappealing as a chalky, rusty dark blue Fairlane 500 sedan with a weak cylinder or two in the worn-out 292 causing the “thub thub thub” sound it made as it reluctantly began its forward motion.

I only share these memories to set the stage for just how uninterested I have been for most of my life in 1961 Chevrolets.  But then I saw this one.

I forget where I was going, perhaps back to the office after a lunchtime stop by the house for something or other.  On my route is a McDonalds that has been the site of a couple of previous CCs (like this) (and this) and so I have learned to gaze over into its parking lot as I pass by.  This lovely Impala was right by the road and pretty much impossible to miss.

For the first time in my life I found a ’61 Chebby that made me want it.  Is it the car?  Or have I finally put Jackie DeShannon’s advice to work and “put a little love in my heart”.  Either way, let’s savor this one together and make the world a better place.

First off, I love turquoise cars.  There is something about that shade that makes almost any car more desirable in my eyes.  Yes, it is not a common sight in today’s roadscape, which makes me appreciate them all the more.  And boy is this Twilight Turquoise a beautiful formulation of the color.  Which, by the way, I don’t seem to remember seeing on the elderly ’61s of my youth.

Another peeve of mine is a moderately interesting car that has few individual details worth photographing.  A mid 1970s Cutlass, for instance, or most anything from the 1980s on up.  This old Impala, however, is just a symphony of fascination.  The side sculpting that kicks up both in front and back and makes it appear that the top portion of the body sets down on the lower part.  Or the chromed fake exhaust vents under the rear window.

There is also the “V” shaped dip in the middle of the decklid.  The bullet-shaped taillights.  And the front parking lights mounted up high in one of the few designs where that trick actually worked.

I have also never been as enamored as are many of you by the “bubbletop” hardtop design of 1961.  The way that the deck and belt line had to rise up to meet the C pillar never quite worked for me – I much preferred the execution of the other thin pillar hardtops of the period like the Ford Starliner and the Chrysler/DeSoto/Dodge 880.  On GM cars, I much preferred Bill Mitchell’s fresh hardtop concept that took hold in 1962.  But everything else about this car makes me stand back for a moment and decide that it’s really no big deal, and perhaps the lack of a contrasting roof color makes this work better for me.  And did any of the other GM Divisions nail their ’61 B body hardtop coupe like Chevy did?  I don’t think I see a thing I would change on this car, something I cannot say about the others.

Inside is one of GM’s great mid-century interiors on full display, restored to perfection.  Yes, I know that it carries the “GM Full Instrument Package” (speedometer and gas gauge) and has a seat low enough to make you feel like you are 10 years old again when you try to look over the steering wheel.  But if a guy has to stare into a steering wheel hub at eye level, what better one than this?  And was this a 1961-only design?  Perhaps those who speak Chevy more fluently than I do can tell us why this one disappeared after a single year.

So much about this car seemed to be completely unique, all new from 1960 and yet so thoroughly changed for ’62.  How often did a car make such a big change from the year before and be changed so substantially again the following year?  Really, without those teardrop-shaped vent windows and the basic dashboard layout, who would guess that this car and the ’62 model are so closely related.  Oh how jealous Chrysler and the other smaller manufacturers must have been that GM had the wherewithal to dump that much money into totally restyling an already attractive and popular car.

I am also encouraged by the purely stock treatment on this one, which is quite rare in my part of the world.  Wheelcovers and period-correct whitewalls are so much more appealing to me than the ubiquitous Chevy rally wheels and white letter tires.  And is this car breaking some kind of law by not being retrofitted with bucket seats, a 4 on the floor and the ever-present “USA-1” front license plate?  I have shots of a ’61 in my stash with some of these “upgrades” (as well as the flat black paint treatment that was so popular a few years ago) but I could not work up any enthusiasm over it.  As much as Chevy fans want to pull this car forward into the era of 409s and the Beach Boys, the ’61 predated all of that stuff.  So while the Super Chevy Crowd may look askance at this car’s owner, I offer him (or her) a big ol’ CC Salute!

Looking over this Impala I am freshly reminded of the attraction that these must have exerted in Chevrolet showrooms so many years ago.  Did you know that Chevrolet sold nearly 80,000 more Impalas (411,000 , which did not include the Bel Airs, Biscaynes, wagons Corvettes and Corvairs) than Plymouth managed with its entire lineup, including Valiant (332,000)?  But then beauty has always sold cars.

Whenever I see and photograph an old car to share here, two questions invariably come to mind:  Would I have bought this when it was new?  And would I own and drive this now?  Being completely honest, I might not have bought this car in 1961.  I have always been a function over form guy and the roadable but, um, interesting looking Fury or the sleek Ford Starliner might have swayed me from the undeniable visual appeal of the Chevrolet.  And let’s not forget the V8 bucket seat 4 speed Studebaker Hawk.  But today?  This is one early ’60s Chevy that could overcome my generally negative disposition towards the breed.  Because the dull rusty smoking Biscayne sedan of my youth this car is most assuredly not.


Further Reading

1961 Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Sedan (Paul Niedermeyer)

1961 Chevrolet Brookwood (Dave Skinner)

1961 Buick LeSabre 2 Door Hardtop (Paul Niedermeyer)