Rebuilding a piece of racing history

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It is worth noting at this juncture that I am not an expert on classic cars, writes Ed Foster, let alone big American muscle machines from the early 1960s. It made the decision to buy Gurney’s Impala a leap of faith in some respects, as while I had done as much due diligence as possible I was still spending my life savings on something I’d never seen…

The first question was whether this really was Dan’s car. Thankfully there was a signed letter, from Dan, on All American Racers headed paper, stating that this was his car from Silverstone in ’61. What’s more, I managed to find someone in the US – it was shipped there by its Australian owner in order to sell – who went to go and look at the car and verify that the period modifications were there along with the original matching-numbers block. It was a very kind gesture, considering that he refused to be paid.

American car enthusiasts really are an amazing bunch of people and Verne Frantz, who was selling the car on behalf of the owner, was a huge help sourcing parts even after the deal was done. The next question was how much work needed to be done on the car. It was, after all, in bits. My father always told me, “never buy a car that you can’t drive round the block”. I had failed spectacularly.

The car was converted to right-hand drive when it was sent to Australia in 1961, so the first task was to convert it back to the original left-hand drive. Not a small task, even in America. I bought a donor car, it was shipped from the west coast of America to the east coast, and the entire bulkhead was cut out of both cars. It was only when I saw photos of the operation that I realised just how big a task it was. Amazingly, it cost a total of £3000 and that included the correct dashboard and even the same radio and cigarette lighter that Dan had in the car. Both, I am sure you’ll agree, being essential parts. At the same time I ordered a ‘new’ engine from Jack Gibbs at 409 Chevy Performance as I didn’t want to risk the original block in the car. The freshly built unit is based on a less rare 1962 block, but built to the exact specification Dan had in 1961. Amazingly, the cost came in at a quarter of the quotes I got from UK-based V8 specialists. It also goes like a train. I still have the original block in storage.

The car came with the aforementioned original block and a set of heads, as well as the original seats, gearbox, running gear, brakes and suspension but, as recent history has taught me, there’s more to a car than that.

Having arrived in early June, the Impala was immediately sent to Jordan Racing Team (JRT), home of Mike Jordan and his son, 2013 BTCC champion Andrew. They make seriously quick, and immaculate, historic racers. Quite quickly, though, the decision was made to build it back into the specification that Dan had raced it in 1961. While this went against the original plan to turn it into a modern racer with roll cage and bucket seats, it would mean that we could keep all of its originality.

In order to get it up and running there have been 110 parts, not including the engine, shipped from the States and a further 15 or so sourced in the UK. While that sounds a lot, the parts have been remarkably easy to find and no work has been needed on the bodywork, which remains in amazing condition after a life spent in the sunny climes of Australia. There are so many stock Chevrolet parts from that era that a new clutch set me back only a couple of hundred dollars.

Four-time IndyCar champion, and friend of the Gurneys, Dario Franchitti drove it at the Goodwood Revival, heading the St Mary’s Trophy cars onto the grid, leading a pack once again, and I hope Dan was smiling, wherever he is.

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