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This 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS 409 sold for $99,000 (U.S.) at auction last year. (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions/Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)
This 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS 409 sold for $99,000 (U.S.) at auction last year. (Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions/Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions)

Classic Cars

Giddy up giddy up 409 ... Add to ...

The lyrics of the classic Beach Boys car tune She's Real Fine My 409 are largely comprised of the phrase "giddy-up" - which, while perhaps less than imaginative in song-writing terms, isn't at all inappropriate in describing a 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS loaded for bear with a 360-hp, big-block, 409-cubic-inch V-8.

Songwriter Gary Usher, who helped the Beach Boys pen those lyrics half a century ago, was already a believer in big-blocks, with a 409 topping his lust-list at the time. His own Chevy was powered by the new engine's predecessor, the original 300 hp-plus big-block W-series 348. And it was Usher's car that provided the V-8 vroom-vroom background heard on the early 1962 recording.

Back in 1961

Popular tunes are Blue Moon, Blue River and The Lion Sleeps Tonight, but the Beatles are getting set to change things up after their appearance in Liverpool's Cavern Club.

Ken is introduced as a consort of sorts - the relationship isn't made clear - for Barbie.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of Fidel Castro's Cuba by CIA-backed Cuban rebels, launched shortly after John F. Kennedy assumed the U.S. presidency, is defeated after just three days. Construction of the Berlin Wall begins.

There are 18.2 million Canadians in 1961 and Queen Elizabeth gives us a call on the new transatlantic telephone system, chatting to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

Ham, the Astro-chimp, shows he has the right stuff - chosen from 40 contenders, he is sent skyward atop a Mercury Redstone 2 rocket in a Mercury capsule designed to take U.S. astronauts into space. The USSR's Yuri Gagarin beats them to it.

It didn't take long for the 409 to begin creating the legend that has made it an icon among 1960s muscle cars. American racer Dan Gurney promptly took one to Riverside raceway in California and beat the track record recently set by another car from the era that found its way into Beach Boy lyrics, a fuel-injected Corvette. But the 409 went on to find real fame in NASCAR racing and at drag strips across the U.S. - and on the street, of course.

The showroom-stock Impala SS 409, which sold for $2,900 (U.S.) and weighed in at 3,700 lbs (1,680 kg) punched like a heavyweight in 1960s terms, capable of getting to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.8 seconds and turning the quarter mile in 15.8 seconds. But it's interesting to note how dramatically things have changed when it comes to performance. The current non-turbo four-cylinder Hyundai Sonata sedan, for example, gets to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds and runs the quarter in an identical 15.8, according to Road & Track magazine.

But thanks to the Beach Boys and its legendary performance back in the day, the 1961 Impala SS 409 has become an American muscle car holy grail and is much sought after by collectors, one of whom snapped the ultra-rare example seen here up for a mere $99,000 (U.S.) at an auction staged by Blenheim, Ont.-based RM Auctions late last year in Georgia.

Equipped with a four-speed manual gearbox, it's a fully restored, numbers-matching, example of just 142 Impala SS 409s built that year - 491,000 Impalas were built, but only 453 were ordered with the SS option package. SS stood for Super Sport and was an inexpensive - at $54 (U.S.) - option package introduced that year that included trim, 7,000-rpm tach, passenger grab bar and badges plus uprated springs, brakes and 8x14 narrow whitewall tires that could be ordered with any engine from the humble six to the mighty 409.

The genesis of muscle cars like the Impala SS 409 is found in the latter half of the 1950s, which in America saw the arrival of new levels of automotive power fuelled by rising prosperity and an increasing sense of freedom.

This would surge into the 1960s and create - along with hippies and the peace and love movement - the muscle car era that saw monster motors stuffed into all kinds of everyday American cars. Today, these are the darlings of baby boomers who once daydreamed through math class about owning them but were forced to take their dates to the prom in the six-cylinder versions their fathers bought.

In the early 1950s, Chevy's not-untypical "Stovebolt" six maxed out at a little over 100 hp and even its new 265 cubic inch displacement (CID) "small-block" introduced in 1955 only made 162 hp. But the dogs of the horsepower war had been unleashed. Bigger and more potent V-8s emerged from all makers as the decade progressed, culminating at Chevrolet with the introduction of the W series, 348 CID (5.7-litre) "big-block" that barked to life in 1958.

The Turbo-Thrust 348, originally conceived as a truck motor, had a cast-iron block and overhead valve cylinder head and, with a four-barrel carb, was rated at 250 hp, but by the time it was superseded in 1961 versions with triple two-barrel carbs, were making 350 hp and it could be revved to 6,000 rpm. It weighed in at 660 pounds, which sounds like a lot, but was actually only about 30 pounds more than Chevy's ancient old-style six.

The 409 was essentially a bored and stroked version of this tweaked truck motor - with 11.25:1 compression ratio pistons and a hotter cam among other things - and when introduced just before Christmas in 1960 was rated at 360 hp and 409 lb-ft of torque. In 1962, this went up to 409 hp and a year later 425 hp. The mighty 409 was fitted to just 43,775 Impalas before its run ended in 1965, overtaken by technology that a 1950s-era truck engine just couldn't keep up with.

The year of the big-block's appearance in 1958 also saw the arrival of Chevrolet's Impala, which topped the redesigned Bel Air line and in 1959 became a stand-alone model. It would go on to become the best-selling car in North America in the 1960s, setting an all-time industry record of just more than a million units in 1965, and it is the top-selling full-size American car of all time.

Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story contained incorrect information about Gary Usher. This version has been corrected.

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