As with many projects, this one started with a passing remark from someone. Matt Hearn, the Event Content Manager here at Goodwood, mentioned ‘Dan Gurney’s Impala’ and, having never heard of it, I Googled the car.
Bitter experience has taught me this is the time to duck out of projects: once I get properly involved I have a rather terrible history of not giving up. The 500-mile pedalo around Scotland’s coastline in 2014 springs to mind. That also started with a passing remark…
Back to the Impala. There was quite a lot of content about the car online so I got reading. Early in 1961 Dan Gurney, at that time about to start his third Grand Prix season, realised he could probably beat the 3.8-litre Jaguars in the British Saloon Car Championship with a stock Chevrolet Impala SS. He duly ordered one off the production line in police specification (better brakes, stiffer springs, bigger shocks, a larger anti-roll bar and 15-inch wheels) with a 409-cubic-inch engine. It was one of the very first cars built that year and when he received the car in February he sent it to Bill Thomas and Bill Fowler who stripped the engine, checked all the clearances and reassembled it. They also used a Corvette anti-roll bar at the back and made air ducts for the front brakes.
Gurney took the car, with original bench seats, to Riverside where he broke the lap record by nearly a second. Satisfied with the performance he shipped the car to the UK, ready for its first race at Silverstone in May.
First practice was on May 4th and Gurney finished seventh on the timing sheets with a 2min 7.6sec after only completing five laps. Mike Parks, quickest in that session, was over three seconds faster. However, come the following day and second practice, Gurney was 1.2 seconds faster than second-placed Graham Hill. On pole, to his left sat Hill, Roy Salvadori and Parks. Behind sat Bruce McLaren and Ian Taylor all in Jaguars.
“The Saloon-Car Race,” commented Motor Sport magazine, “would have made mild history if Dan Gurney's huge 6.7-litre V8 carburettor-induced Chevrolet Impala hadn't lost a back wheel two laps from the finish, for it led all the way until this contretemps, in spite of G. Hill's efforts in a 3.8-litre disc-braked Jaguar. Both these drivers set new saloon-car lap records, Gurney leaving it at 91.15 mph. His huge car looked comparatively steady and its acceleration…
It was shod with Dunlop Racing tyres and larger wheels had been made up to take wider-base covers, which may have been why one pulled over the studs. It will be interesting to see what wheels and tyres the American uses at Silverstone on July 8th.”
Having ordered upgraded NASCAR wheels he entered the next race only to be told that the car was illegal. In the November 2003 issue of Motor Sport he was asked whether Jaguar was behind the “homologation difficulties”. “Yeah, it was Lofty England,” he said. “I don't blame him, it's a part of racing. I'd given the Jags a big fright at the International Trophy meeting, and he was protecting his patch. They never explained the discrepancies that prevented me from using the Chevy again, but I never really looked into it. Why fight City Hall?”
He sold the car to an Australian, who did a little racing with it, and it was then used as a road car and converted to right-hand drive. It remained in Australia until last year when the owner wanted to sell it. To help, he shipped the car to America and a restoration was started.
It took about a week to track the car down and eventually I found the name of ‘Verne Frantz’ who, according to the forums, was looking after the car and trying to sell it. Verne is a big block, 1958-64 Chevy expert and amazingly, I eventually managed to find his number online.
The car was for sale, but even if I flew over to have a look at it in New Jersey, I wouldn’t really know what I was looking at. Yes, it had a signed letter from Dan Gurney on All American Racers headed paper saying it was his car, but how on earth was I to know whether it really was and what a rebuild might cost if I’d never seen an Impala in the flesh, let alone rebuilt one?
Through CKL’s Chris Keith-Lucas I was pointed in the direction of someone who could help and this then morphed into a group email with some serious Chevrolet experts on it. One very kindly said that he’d go and look at the car and, even when I begged him to charge me for travel and time, he refused. We always say that the classic car world is a friendly place, but everyone on that email chain went above and beyond, especially Lance who looked at the car for me.
Eventually, a deal was done and I am now waiting for the car to be converted back to left-hand drive before being shipped over here. Once it’s arrived it’ll go straight to a workshop to get a complete rebuild up to racing specification. The last thing I want is a showroom car – it needs to be kept as original as possible. However, the original block will be taken out and not raced and it will need a roll cage and proper bucket seat. Everything that comes off the car – like the original bench seats – will be carefully stored.
Interestingly, for many years people believed the original engine was at the bottom of the ocean having been fitted to a speedboat. It was fitted to a speedboat, but it wasn’t at the bottom of the ocean. It was found and the car now has its original block.
Over the coming months, I’ll update you on how the rebuild is going. Let’s hope it doesn’t break the budget and that it’s ready to race at the Goodwood Revival. Now, who do I need to see about an entry? Matt?!