The early 1960s was a heady time for the performance team at Chevrolet. Active in NASCAR circles, they were competitive with old number 43 (Mopar) and the Ford team was understandable chastened when the Impala SS came along.
The real SS was the NASCAR version with its 427-cubic-inch V-8 that was actually intended for short-tracks and there was a slightly toned down version available for street use by police departments. These were the ones that could actually handle reasonably. They did tend to fall down on brake performance, even with metallic drums, as one or two good hits on the drums tended to make them heat up and fade into the background. Sometimes it seemed as if – when you’d had your two hits on the brakes – that you needed to start your stopping around Cleveland, if you wanted to make sure you hit Pittsburgh when you stopped.
Of course, this is a slight exaggeration, but, it did indicate the imbalance of braking versus performance of the era. Detroit could build engines that would rip pavements and could pull stumps, but they didn’t have a club about braking – just yet. It took the influence of imports like the Jaguar E-type (probably the most esthetically pleasing vehicle of any era) and the like for Detroit’s engineers to look underneath the body panels and to say “Hmmmmm, they do stop better than we do, why???” It would be almost another decade before the lessons began to sink in (early Dodge Colts, believe it or not, with their semi-hemis and a deuce actually had front discs, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).
By 1964, though, the Impala SS had gained status as a line unto itself. Before 1964, the Impala SS could be had in any form you chose, if you plunked down the money and asked for the option pack (it was about $150 by this time). Imagine a 1963 Impala SS with an L-6 and 3-speed manual. They did exist. In 1964, though, that changed as the Impala became a distinct line.
One could tell that you were actually driving the real thing by its two-spoke, walnut-grained steering wheel and the corners were more squared for slightly better styling. Indeed, the Impala SS can really be said to be an understyled vehicle. The lines were very conservative but almost plain, compared to the first SS models that appeared back in 1961 which still bore a few interesting reverse curves and such. By 1964, the world was becoming a very conservative place and cars that stood out tended to be consigned to the outer fringe of the “real car” world. (That the SS was quite a car beneath its squared-off body was a big surprise to many people. For example, although it did take a full tank of gas, one could drive from Boston to New York City, buy some cigarettes, turn around and make it back to Boston, in time for first class in the morning – and this was leaving at midnight. We personally never did this sort of thing, being the older and more responsible (???) brother who was saddled with the 1959 Rambler Custom VI, but the younger scoundrel did make the run more than one night. Indeed, the Rambler made the run, we found many times because we’d fill it on the way home from school and the next morning, empty. It didn’t dawn on us until our younger brother explained that he used my car as well as the Chevy).
The Impala SS, though, was a very nice vehicle. From its dual quad headlamps the lines gently swept up to the rather large windshield. They front end, with its enormous chromed grille, was slightly convex as the bottom piece of the grille swept down to the chromed bumper that formed part of the valance. If there was one thing that Chevy’s design crew had heard about by 1964, it was chrome and they used a large chromed surround on the front end that was nicely fared into the design. You had to look for it, but it was there. The rest of the lines were conservatively respectable and quite simple with very few design surprises.
There was only one small crease that carried through the rear quarters and a rather high beltline was established by a constrasting white stripe. The interior was nicely styled and the Impala SS (the real line, you could still have an SS badge for the right money) featured a two-door hardtop sedan and a convertible. The instrument panel was a largely oval affair with all of the key gauges and controls facing the driver and trimmed with a bright surround plus the front seats were low-boy buckets with a standard bench rear.
The surprise came under the hood where the 327 was still the base powerplant, having replaced the 348 as standard. The engine note was nice, especially from the dual-pipe/resonator combo that Chevy used with a low-restriction manifold for easy breathing and 409-horsepower available for the three-speed, floor-mounted Hydramatic automatic that was available. The 409 used a pair of dual four-barrel 46 mm carbs for easy breathing and while you still could have a very base 283 installed, if you believed you couldn’t handle the power, many more 409s still rolled out the door. Final power output was set by a variety of rear-ends.
The Impala SS was a quick car handling 0 to 60 in 6.3 seconds with an exit speed of 14.4 seconds for the quarter mile (roughly 90 mph). The SS actually started the horsepower race that culminated in some humungoid powerteams by 1970s and a competition that involved all of Detroit, including little AMC whose Javelin was quite a nice car.