Before American cars had officially “gone muscle” with the Pontiac GTO, the 1961 Chevy Impala Super Sport captured the formula nicely: upgrade a regular passenger car with the biggest engine the company could make producing as much power as it could muster. When you thought that Chevy had 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.