America's one-hit wonder

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Fifty-seven years ago, Dan Gurney brought a monster Chevrolet to the UK to fight the dominant Jaguars. It came agonisingly close to scoring an upset… before it was banned

The large steering wheel on the Impala means that there’s actually very little space for your legs. An astonishing feat of engineering in such a large car. Once you’re in, though, starting it up is a fairly simple procedure: ignition on, check generator and oil lights come on, pump throttle twice and turn the key.

It’s the first time the car has started in years, but it fires almost immediately. The whole car shakes as the V8 roars into life and the straight pipes emit a noise similar to Godzilla chewing concrete. You cannot help but smile even as your hearing worsens by the second.

The car is the ex-Dan Gurney 1961 Chevrolet Impala and, after six months of restoration, it finally runs. Plenty has happened between this moment and when I first discovered it after stumbling across the story of Dan Gurney’s Impala or, as his widow Evi refers to it, the ‘Danpala’.   

The story of the car in period ended with an uncharacteristically angry letter from Dan Gurney to Autosport, printed in the July 21st, 1961 edition. “I would like to set the record straight in regard to my 409 Chevrolet Impala,” he wrote, “which was not allowed to compete in the production saloon car race at Silverstone on July 8th.

“I must admit to being surprised, disappointed and disillusioned by the action which prevented the car from running.” The letter goes on to explain his version of events and ends with: “I will, in time, get over the fact that I spent a lot of time and money in bringing the Impala to Great Britain, but I will not readily forget the suspicion that there may have been some behind-the-scenes sabotage to prevent the Chevrolet from running at Silverstone.”

Rewind five months, to the start of the 1961 season, when Dan was about to start his third year as a Grand Prix driver. The Impala project was already forming in his mind, though, having seen the 3.8-litre Jaguar MkIIs competing in the British Saloon Car Championship. He decided that even with a stock Chevrolet Impala he could give them a good run for their money. No small task when the likes of Roy Salvadori, Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill and Mike Parkes were driving the Jaguars.

Dan bought a very early car, straight off the production line, in Police and Taxicab specification, which meant better brakes (they were still drums…), stiffer springs, bigger shocks and a larger anti-roll bar. The car also had a whopping 6.7-litre V8. It would need to be to power the 1.6-tonne car. The engine was stripped and checked, and Dan fitted a Corvette rear anti-roll bar alongside a straight-through exhaust and some front-brake cooling. The bench seats, carpets and working radio all remained in the car.

Having broken the Riverside lap record by nearly a second, he shipped the car to the UK, ready for the 13th International Trophy Meeting on May 6. By now the American motoring media had picked up on the project and Sports Car fired a warning shot across the British teams: “Don’t tangle with it in anything short of an all-out Corvette (and we know what would probably happen even then) unless you want to have the sinking sensation of seeing a family car completely outperform your prized sportsvagen in all departments.”

There was a huge amount of interest in the Impala, which is unsurprising when you consider it was the first American muscle car to compete in the championship. It is also enormous, at nearly two metres wide and five metres long – it’s both 10cm wider and longer than Ford’s Galaxie.

In first practice Dan finished seventh, having only completed five laps, but in second practice the following day he was over a second faster than the quickest Jaguar of Graham Hill. It prompted the commentator to say that Jaguar’s manager “Lofty England had bitten his nails down to his elbows”. This was the first American muscle car to compete in the BSCC and its speed must have come as rather a shock to the series’ usual competitors… The Jaguars beat the Impala off the line, but Dan’s 360bhp still made sure he got to Copse first.

The pair led every lap of the race bar the last two when disaster struck – the left rear wheel broke and Gurney was stranded at Abbey, leaving Hill to win. “The Saloon Car Race would have made mild history,” commented Motor Sport, “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, in spite of G Hill’s best efforts in a 3.8-litre disc-braked Jaguar. Both of these drivers set new saloon-car lap records, Gurney leaving it at 91.15mph. His car looked comparatively steady and its acceleration…”

Gurney immediately ordered larger NASCAR wheels, ready for the Empire Trophy at Silverstone on July 8. However, this is where the story ended abruptly. Dan’s letter to Autosport explained that he had financed the project himself and that he’d made every effort to ensure that the car complied with the necessary rules. He had the homologation papers from the FIA in New York and these were accepted at Silverstone.

Two days before the Empire Trophy he was told that the car wasn’t homologated as the New York arm of the FIA hadn’t sent the appropriate documents to Paris. Calls to New York and Paris eventually uncovered the fact that the papers were in the right place, but that there ‘wasn’t enough time to do
anything about it’. Dan asked for the Paris office to telegram the BRDC saying that the car was good to run, but “the answer was that they would try their best, but pointed out that it was already 4.30pm, and getting near closing time for their office. However, one hour later Mr Gibson [of the BRDC] received the telegram which simply stated ‘Chevrolet not homologated’.”

Gurney was furious, and suspected the British Jaguar teams and Lofty England had something to do with the paperwork debacle. Having originally planned to use it as his transport across Europe during the 1961 season, he sold the Impala to a friend called Laurie O’Neil, who raced it occasionally in Australia. The car passed through several hands and it was always believed that the very rare early 409cu engine was at the bottom of the sea, having been fitted to a speedboat (which must have made the driver’s eyes water somewhat). For many years the car ran with a six-cylinder unit, but the original V8 block was indeed found, in a boat. It hadn’t sunk at all, and the unit was duly bought back and reunited with the car.

Sadly, Dan passed away a matter of only two weeks before I had done the deal, so I never got the chance to ask him more about it. I did get an email from his son Alex, though, which read: “My Dad beamed every time he mentioned the Impala. That whole adventure of going to Silverstone was one of his favourite stories and he told it over and over again.

“It meant so much to him to go and challenge the Jags and when he spoke of the wheel problem on the second last lap, even 50 years later, it bothered him as if it was yesterday. He was still so proud to have given it a go.”

Paul Fearnley asked Dan in the November 2003 issue of Motor Sport whether the Jaguars were behind the ban and, 42 years later, he was even more direct than he had been in 1961. “Yeah, it was Lofty England. I don’t blame him, it’s 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?”

Even though the Impala project didn’t work out for Dan, one suspects that he had a wry smile on his face when Jack Sears won his first race in a Ford Galaxie ahead of Roy Salvadori in a MkII Jaguar, less than two years later at Silverstone on May 11, 1963.

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