GALLERY: Go Behind The Scenes On Our 1961 Chevrolet Impala Film Shoot
The words “Chevy Impala” don’t tend to have motorsport connotations for most people, but that didn’t stop Dan Gurney from ordering one from the factory in police specification with an aim to take it racing in England. He’d been watching Jaguars dominate the British saloon car series and thought he could put the big Chevy above them on the podiums, so after rebuilding the motor to his liking Mr. Gurney sent his Impala across the Atlantic and proceeded to whoop the competition… for almost one full race.
The Impala was leading in its debut before a wheel failure, and upon its return to the grid in the next race was banned from the series. It’s a lesser-known project from a man who earned a laundry list of racing success, but thanks to its current owner Ed Foster, its brief but inspiring underdog story is still being shared today.
Ed thinks about the car’s connection to Dan Gurney from time to time when he’s on the road, but when he took the Impala to Silverstone “to complete the two laps that Dan never managed,” the history came into its sharpest focus.
It’s huge lumbering car that leans deliberately, has bench seats, no seatbelt, and no roll cage; to race the thing would have been a monumental challenge and a very clear measure of guts. Ed just cruised around the Silverstone rather than lead a pack of heel-nipping race car drivers, but that alone was enough to uncover the challenges that Dan overcame when driving the big American coupe at speed.
Growing up, Ed spent a lot of time in the car shed with his dad, who was an amateur racer himself. Ed would accompany him to events at Silverstone and the like, with the occasionally more exotic stop like Monaco. Ed recounts his duties as a mechanic back then consisting mostly of eating an ice cream off to the side and watching his dad work.
Fast forwarding a few decades, and Ed is starting to look for a car to buy. He wants an investment, but one that can be enjoyed on occasion in between bouts of storage. He says he’d missed the Porsche bandwagon by that point, and he didn’t want to try to chase it down the road. He’d have to find something else.
Working for Goodwood must have perks aplenty, not the least of which being a general exposure to other car enthusiasts. During a meeting regarding the car selection for one of the Revival’s many period-correct races, a colleague mentioned that an Impala would be a welcome addition. Ed’d not heard of a racing Impala before, but as it happened the late and very great Dan Gurney competed in one once upon a time.
As the story goes, Gurney was watching the British saloon car championship in 1961 and noticed that most of the races were won by 3.8L Jags. He was confident that he could beat these teams with an Impala, so he ordered one from Chevrolet with the “cop package”: bigger springs, bigger brakes, etc. (think Blues Brothers lite).
Upon receiving his new Chevy, Dan tore down the motor and rebuilt it before shipping the whole car over to England to compete. He got it over in time to be entered in the May round of the saloon car series at Silverstone, where he put the car on the pole. During the race proper he led every lap until one of the car’s rear wheels broke.
He entered it into the next round at Silverstone with beefier shoes sourced from NASCAR, but found that the car was deemed illegal thanks to some mixups with the homologation requirements that Dan believed was likely instigated by the Jaguar teams, unhappy as they were to be beaten by a foreigner with a mostly-factory Impala.
The car was sold and ended up in Australia where it competed in a handful of events before a brief stint as a tow car. Along the way the V8 was swapped out for a straight-six, and just about two years ago the car was sent over to the US. The owner was ready to sell and thought the market in the car’s home country would bear more fruit.
When Ed first came in contact with the car, he was mostly concerned with proving its heritage and seeing what would be involved in getting it to the Revival. Ed says he’s no expert on classic cars, nor is he an especially avid Impala enthusiast. The big question—seeing as he was in England while the car was in the United States—was whether the Impala was the same that Dan Gurney raced in so briefly in the 1960s. It turns out there was a document signed and written by the man himself on All-American Racers letterhead paper that attested to its authenticity.
Quite a bit of time was spent digging up the car’s past and getting to that point, and when the name Vern France popped up, Ed began calling every Vern France he could find in New Jersey until one confirmed that he did in fact have a classic Chevy for sale. It took a few weeks to work out a deal to buy the car, and as unlucky timing would have it, Dan Gurney passed just a week before his old Impala was headed back to England.
Ed never got to tell Dan about the car, but he’s in touch with the family, who have all been very supportive of the efforts Ed’s made to preserve the car’s history.
Once arrived, the Impala turned out to be quite original in many regards, and although the original plan was to race the car at the Revival, Ed decided that the process to get it up to spec would change the character of the thing too much. It never had a roll cage in period, and the chassis reinforcements that would have to be welded on to comply would be augmenting the Impala beyond what it was supposed to be back in 1961.