It would be easy to just drop in the Beach Boys’ “409” for today’s entry engine month, but instead, we’re going to appreciate the car that debuted that engine, the 1961 Chevy Impala Super Sport and the race cars it spawned. Before American cars had officially “gone muscle” with the Pontiac GTO, the Impala SS captured the formula nicely: upgrade a regular passenger car with the biggest engine you could make to make as much power as you could muster. When you thought you’d done it all, go a step farther and sell race motors to the public.
You could order a 409 in any of Chevy’s full-size offerings, but the burly Impala SS again carried the majority of the big-block/four-speed manual transmission sales. The 409 was directed largely to both drag and stock-car racers and by the engine’s second production year, 1962, it had drawn serious attention by cleaning up the NHRA’s Super Stock class. The top-trim versions of the street-car 409 churned out an astonishing 425 horsepower, while the Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins-tuned NHRA cars could run the quarter mile in under 13 seconds.
Few examples of the 409-powered drag cars are more famous than “Old Reliable,” the ‘62 Chevy that Jenkins tuned and Dave Strickler drove to the NHRA class title that year. That car, along with Hayden Profitt’s 409-powered Bel Air, featured some clandestine speed parts, namely “Z-11” option heads, camshaft, and two-piece induction that gave a healthy horsepower dose. A few of the Strickler/Jenkins Old Reliables from various years are still around and they sound fantastic.
NASCAR hall of famer Rex White was at the same time racing his own Chevy Bel Air as a privateer in NASCAR’s top Grand National Series. The short-of-stature White had won the Grand National title in 1960 with the Chevy 348, upon which the 409 was based, and he switched to the 409 in ‘61 along with that season’s champion Ned Jarrett. White racked up a pile of race wins for the 409 and was among the first, along with Junior Johnson, to race Chevy’s stroked, Smokey Yunick-built “Mystery Motor” 427 thoroughbred—an engine that HOT ROD Magazine dyno-tested in 2015— at the 1963 Daytona 500.
The 409 remained on the Chevy options sheet through 1965, after which it was replaced by the next-generation 396 Big Block. As it stands, you’ll regularly still find the early ‘60s Impala SS with an original 409 in it. Do yourself a favor and check out Car Craft‘s 409 rebuild story from February 2016 right here to see the ins and outs of this legendary motor.
Ah, what the heck? Here’s the Beach Boys.