The Legendary “409” Chevy
In 1958 Chevrolet offered a new hot engine option, a 348cid V-8 engine(History of Chevy Engines). Chevrolet had become very performance minded ever since hiring Zora Arkus-Duntov (Zora Arkus-Duntov – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) as an engineer who was responsible for corvette’s success. This engine was originally designed for use in Chevrolet Trucks because it had a lot of torque and “pulling” power. The engineers at Chevy raised the compression, changed the camshaft and improved the breathing of the cylinder heads, added a performance intake manifold and a 4bbl Rochester carburetor and offered it in a few different versions in the passengers cars in 1958. It was rated at 250HP with a single 4bbl carburetor, 280HP with Tri-power and 315HP with tri-power, higher compression pistons & cylinder heads and a Duntov solid lifter camshaft & lifters.
In mid year of 1961 Chevrolet offered a higher horsepower version of the 348 Engine…it was bored and stroked to a displacement of 409 cubic inches and was rated at 360HP with 409 ft-lbs of Torque. ( had a single Carter AFB 4bbl carb)
Chevy produced 453 Impalas(Musclecarclub.com – Muscle Cars – Chevrolet Impala SS – History …) with the SS option and out of those, just 142 were produced with this 409/360HP option. The Beach Boys new song 409 hit the charts and rapidly rose to the number one song in America…and a true legend was born!
I was attending the University of Miami at the time and had developed a close friendship with Jim Rathman(Jim Rathmann – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). Jim won the Indianapolis 500 in 1960 in a head to head duel with Roger Ward in what many believe the greatest race ever run at the Brickyard! and had closed his speed shop on N.W. 27th Avenue in Miami and had moved to Melbourne, Florida where he opened Jim Rathman Chevrolet/Cadillac at 3300 North Federal Highway.
His speed shop had done extensive work on my 1960 Chevy Impala. This car was a 348 with the Grand National engine which was grossly underrated at 320HP with a single Carter AFB carb.
I consistently turned et’s at the old Masters Air Field which today is The Opa Locka Airport & Naval Air station base. This is the same place where Don Garlits (No. 1: Don Garlits) broke the 170mph record in 1957 and 180MPH record in 1958.
My times on my Grand National 1960 Impala in 1960 were in the mid to high 13’s and was flat out at 6200rpm in high gear hitting the traps at 106-107mph running 4:88 Getz gears. This car was legal and the only time I bent the rules…I got nailed!
The tech inspector was a VERY bright guy …his name was Bill Smith. Bill had lost his sight in one eye in an accident but that didn’t matter…very little, if anything, ever got by Bill. He nailed me one Sunday at Masters Drag strip one hot August running an illegal fuel mixture. I had set up a way to inject “The Joy Juice” into the carb using my windshield washer pump, but I made one mistake…I forget to disconnect the wiper motor…so, when I hit the wiper washer button in high gear, the wipers came on. When I returned to the pits Bill was waiting for me…He simply said….”raise the hood & take off the air cleaner” I knew I was “busted”. Bill took a quick peek and said “Do I need to have your fuel analyzed and your car taken apart…or do you agree that you have just won a 3 month suspension?” I just smiled, nodded my head and told Bill “Your the best!”
That was the last time I ever tried anything like that at a NHRA meet.
Jim Rathman called me in September of 1961 and told me all about the new 409/409 option. Now available with dual quads (2-4bbl carburetors) this was the new “hot ticket” from Chevrolet.
Jim Rathman offered a sponsorship from his dealership and said that if we would campaign under the banner of Jim Rathman Chevrolet, all of our racing costs would be covered. I instantly agreed!
I ordered a 1962 Black Chevrolet Impala SS sport coupe(CHEVROLET IMPALA and IMPALA SS) with the Anniversary gold bucket seat interior…Jim sold me the car at his cost which I think was around $3350. The only options I recall ordering was the 404/409 engine package with HD sintered metallic brakes, HD Radiator, 4/speed synchro-mesh transmission, and a 4:56 posi-traction rear.
My 409 arrived January 4th, 1962 and I immediately had a pal of mine, Steve Meadows, drive me the 166 miles to Melbourne to bring the car back to South Florida. I recall picking up my new baby and discussed my plans with Jim. I told him I was going to start the modifications right away as I intended to race the car in the upcoming NHRA Winternationals in Daytona Beach in February.
The car didn’t idle very well, so in the front parking lot of Jim’s dealership, I raised the hood and tossed the big black dual snorkel air cleaner into a ditch…Jim just stood there in amazement and laughed at me…He said “Kid, what the H are you doing?” I said Jim, this damn thing can’t breathe with this ugly ass big air cleaner on it” Thinking back I should have saved it…today an original 404/409 air cleaner is worth $1500 to $2500 depending on the condition.
I arrived back in South Florida a couple of hours later and went to work on my new baby which we officially named “Black Thunder” I personally torched both fender wells at Vic Westbrook’s in South Miami and proceeded to install a set a new set of Jerry Jardin headers from Garden Grove California.
The next day we installed a complete new 4:88 Posi-traction 3rd member from A.J. Getz in Indianapolis, Indiana. I re-jetted both carbs and changed the advance curve on the distributor and headed out to Masters Drag strip on Sunday.
We won Super Super Stock and Stock eliminator with a 13.21et at 112MPH. I was hoping to get into the high 12’s as I had heard that Dave Strickler running the Old Reliable out of Ammon Smith Chevrolet and also that “Dyno Don” Nicholsen had both run in the high 12’s at that time…Both were running the lighter Biscayne post body or Bel Air model…my SS probably weighed around 300 pounds more.
I called Jim up and told him I needed to either lighten my car or get more horsepower out of it…and he promised me that prior to the Dayton Winter Nationals that he would have some “goodies” for me to raise the horsepower. He said that in a few months I would be able to shed at least 300 pounds of weight with some new aluminum fenders, hood and bumpers.
True to his word, Jim and two of his pals showed up at the pits on Saturday during the time trials. He introduced me to both guys, one was a fellow named Ed Cole(National Corvette Museum – Hall of Fame [Ed Cole]) but Jim didn’t tell me that Ed Cole was V.P. of Chevrolet Motor Division. The other was Bruce Crower(Crower Cams & Equipment – About Us) of Crower Camshafts. Jim handed me a new cam wrapped in newspaper and a box of special valve springs. He said “get this “goodie stick” installed tonight back at your motel and set the intakes at .18 and the exhausts at .35″
I said, “You must be kidding Jim…what type of cam is this?” He said come this Monday morning it will be available to order from Chevy parts counters all over the U.S. you just happened to get an “early” delivery…and Bruce says it’s good for a half second off your best ET!”
We drove “Black Thunder” back to our motel and worked through the night and installed the new camshaft, lifters and triple valve springs. Around 4:00am we got frustrated when we could not get the grille removed so we could slide out the old cam and slide the new one in…so one of my pals took a tire iron and bent the heck out of my brand new grille…5 minutes later we slipped the new lubed camshaft in and began to put the car back together.
About 6:00am with the sun getting ready to come out…we fired up “Black Thunder” with the headers wide open! I had never heard a car idle that wild…it sounded as if the engine was about to swollow itself! I’m sure they heard that baby for a block in all directions. Thanks to Joel Cohen, Steve Meadows, Wayne Miller, Richie Small and 4 or 5 other guys whose names I can’t remember….we got the job done.
The next day (Sunday) was the actual Winter Nationals…there were 34 cars in our class.
Our 1st run we drew a match with a 409 Chevy out of North Carolina….we turned a 12:61 in just over 115mph and came through the traps in 4th gear at 6800RPMS! I thought I had a rocket to the moon! LOL.
WE won every round and finally it was down to just us and a Black 1961 406 Ford from New Jersey…I think it said “Lou’s Sunoco on the side of the car.
I pulled him about 1/2 length out of the hole and held it until 4th gear…at the traps he edged me out by less than fender length. I had never lost to a 406 Ford…so I went to the judge’s stand and posted my $50 protest fee to make him tear down. When he discovered what I had done…he did the same so I would have to tear down.
The owner/driver approached me and said that he had a business to run in New Jersey and that he really needed to get on his way back home….I looked him straight in the eye and said “Tell me the truth…is your car 100% legal?”
He paused about 30 seconds and started to laugh and replied “Legal? Hell NO!!!!!!…I am bored 1/4, stroked a 1/2 and am running a Isky full race roller cam”
I told him I had never seen a Ford run so strong!
He stared at me and said “And don’t tell me that damn Chevy is legal…I turned a 12.39 in 117MPH and beat you by a couple of feet!”
I said “well tomorrow morning when the Chevy dealer’s open up my car will be legal” and I told him about the Crower cam with the GM parts number….After laughing for at least 5 minutes we both agreed we both would be disqualified and that neither of us would be eligible to win the $1000 prize money or the 1962 Chevrolet 327 fuel injected engine.
In at least one of the old record books, it shows that the Daytona Winter Nationals were won by a 61 Ford…but the truth is no one won or received any of the cash or engine awards.
We put “Black Thunder” back on the trailer and went back to Coral Gables…with one thing in mind….to make the car lighter and faster and to be ready in September for the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis, Indiana……
To be continued……