The History of the American Muscle Car Era - 1961

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1961 American Muscle Cars


American Muscle Cars of 1961

1961 Pontiac Bonneville Convertible

The 409 Chevy

If the new-for-1960 352 Ford Special engine started the musclecar movement, certainly the 409 Chevy, introduced in 1961, could be said to have given it the push that would keep it rolling for more than 10 years. In fact, the 409 was the pacesetter engine that pushed the boogie size for "in" Super Stocks over the 400-cube mark. It started a cubic-inch race as well as a performance race. It would be a mistake to say the 409 Chevy was a popular supercar in the 1961 model year.

Chevy introduced a brand-new body and chassis that same year, and those occupied most of the engineering and tooling attention. The 409s didn't start coming off the assembly line until six months after the 1961 models were introduced, and only 142 such cars were produced in that model year. You had to know somebody to get one. But it was the introduction of the 409 that was important. A few pre-production models in the hands of professional drag racers like "Dyno" Don Nicholson - with several wins at national events, plus 12 NASCAR speedway victories - built up a brilliant reputation and demand for the engine among Chevy enthusiasts. So they were pounding on Chevy dealer doors when the first 1962 models showed up in the fall of 1961.

The reputation was there before many Chevy fans had even seen a 409. Very briefly, the new 409 engine was essentially an upgrade of the popular 348 police engine of the 1958 to 1960 period. It used the same big-port cylinder heads, high-lift solid-lifter cam, beefy forged rods and crankshaft in the bottom, aluminium bearing and downswept exhaust manifolds.

The newest thing about the 409 was a new two-plane aluminium intake manifold, mounting a new model 650 cfm Carter AFB 4-barrel carb, the largest 4-barrel available at that time. In conjunction with the big ports and high-lift cam, the carburetion gave impressive breathing above 5000 rpm. These new 1961 single 4-barrel 409s were given a gross power rating of 380 hp at 5800 rpm with the rated 11.25:1 compression ratio. Actually, the early production models came through with two head gaskets on each side. This dropped compression about one full point, to get along better on the premium fuels of the time, about 96 RON. With this compression, net output on the street with the stock dual exhaust was around 300 hp. That was plenty to get you well down into the 15-second range on quarter mile ET, which was as quick as anything else on the street in 1961.

Pontiac's Super Duty Ventura was a formidable drag strip contender in cubic inches and a considerable amount of bottom end beef-up, including a special reinforced block casting, new rods and crank and a bigger oil pump. (These goodies were mostly for NASCAR racing.) The cylinder head, valve gear and 4-barrel carburetion remained the same. The advertised power at 6000 rpm was raised from 360 to 375 hp. About halfway through the 1961 model year, in the spring, Ford rocked the industry by announcing a radical 6-barrel carburetion system for its high-output 390 - three 2-barrel Holleys on a new dual-plane aluminum manifold with very smooth, large passages. This system increased the rating to 401 hp, they said, and it would be available for assembly line installation. Unfortunately, very few 6-barrel 390s came through in 1961.

Most of the systems were dealer-in-stalled. But the extra breathing did help 0-to-60 and quarter mile acceleration by a few tenths. Several hundred serious racers used them on the 390 street engine. Another important introduction for full-size Fords in 1961 was the famous Warner T-10 manual 4-speed transmission, for factory installation with a floor shifter after April 1961. This transmission was first offered on passenger cars by Chevy and Pontiac the year before. Ford engineers did not use the close-ratio gears, but designed a set of wider ratios, with a 2.78:1 low gear for the Fords. These gears gave better off-the-line jump with 3.89 axle gears, of course. Unfortunately, the gearbox proved no stronger in Fords than in GM cars. Plenty of maintenance headaches for racers, though it helped performance. Obviously, performance cars were becoming hot items in 1961.

1960 Pontiac Boneville Convertible
The 1960 Pontiac Boneville Convertible remains a muscle car classic.

1961 Pontiac Super Duty Ventura
The 1961 Pontiac Super Duty Ventura was a car you could literally drive from the showroom straight to the drag strip - and win.

Ford's 1961 6 Barrel carby setup
Ford's 1961 6 Barrel carby setup for their 390 hi-po engine. It made its debut mid year, and used 3 Holley 2 BBL on a 2-plane manifold.

The 1961 Ford Galaxie
The 1961 Ford Galaxie.

Dodge-Plymouth 413 Long Ram

Chrysler's famous dual-quad Long Ram carburettor system was made available in B-body Dodges and Plymouths in the 383 engine in 1960. For 1961, they upgraded to the 413-cube high-deck block. This raised the power rating from 340 to 375 hp at 5 000 rpm. But the real key was the boost in mid-range torque. This gave fantastic off-the-line jump with that excellent 3 speed torqueflite automatic. Even though the complex carburettors cost an extra $400, more Mopar fans ordered it on the 413 engine in 1961 than on the 383 in 1960. In fact, the Ramchargers drag club gave the reputation a boost with some impressive wins at national events with the 413 Long Ram '61 Dodge. They would have won top Stock at the 1961 NHRA Nationals if the driver hadn't missed a shift with the balky 3-speed manual transmission. It was a demonstration that brought a lot more attention to Chrysler products entering the 1962 season.

Lancer-Valiant 225 Hyper-Pak

There was somewhat of an economic recession in the USA in the late 1950s. So, in the early 1960s, the Big Three brought out low-priced compact cars to fill a new market segment. Chrysler's entries were the Dodge Lancer and Plymouth Valiant, using a 170- or 225-cubic-inch Slant Six engine. In 1961, NASCAR launched a track and road racing series for these new compacts, using all factory equipment. Only Chrysler got interested. This resulted in the famous dealer-installed Hyper-Pak kits for the Slant Six engine. They consisted essentially of a Long Ram manifold, Carter 4-barrel carb, hot cam, solid lifters and stiff valve springs, bigger exhaust system and a heavy duty clutch. The kit added about 50 hp to both 170 and 225 engines and could be bought and installed for around $550.

With the kit, the 225 was rated at 196 hp at 5200 rpm.Needless to say, a few diehard Mopar street racers put on the Hyper-Pak kits and went hunting at the traffic lights. Not for big-block V8 Super Stocks, of course, but for unsuspecting Corvairs, Falcons and Olds F-85s. The race was all over quick. Car Life magazine tested a 225 Dodge Lancer with the kit, and got 0-to-60s in around 7.5 seconds and quarter miles in the low 16s at around 80 mph. Things got more competitive when the turbocharged Corvairs and Olds F-85s showed up in 1962.

Pontiac Trophy 425-A

We mentioned these cars in 1960. That is, a light Catalina coupe with the optional Trophy 425-A version of the 389 engine - 348 gross hp at 4800 rpm with Tri-Power carburetion. With a close-ratio 4-speed and the right axle gears, this combination was very competitive with early Super Stocks, like the 4-barrel Chevy 409 and 6-barrel 390 Ford. Poncho fans bought a lot of them. Of course, at this time, there was no 421 engine or factory-installed Super Duty 389. Without a doubt, America's teenagers were falling in love with fast cars. It certainly wasn't an unprecedented movement - America had been having a love affair with the automobile since the turn of the century. Come the 1950s and into the 1960s, the viewing audience had a whole raft of sitcoms, dramas and variety shows to chose from. Game shows, however, had taken a beating after the "$64,000 Question" scandal of the 1950s.

Measuring Up Performance

Admittedly, all the models mentioned so far, except the compact 6-cylinder Mopars, would be very close in drag performance, assuming equivalent body style, transmission, gearing, etc. All would have been in the mid-15-second bracket at 88 to 93 mph trap speed with no special tuning and with street tires. That was about par for those early Super Stocks. Judged individually, on potential alone, they would be ranked something like this:
  • Chevy 409 4-barrel (380 hp)
  • Ford 390 6-barrel (375 hp)
  • Dodge-Plymouth 413 Long Ram (375 hp)
  • Pontiac Trophy 425-A (348 hp)
  • Lancer-Valiant 225 Hyper-Pak (196 hp)

Of course, don't take these rankings too seriously as a sign of what was really happening out on the US streets in 1961. Remember, there were only 142 of the early 409s built in the 1961 model year. Many car fans never even saw one before the 1962 models. And the first 6-barrel carburettor systems for the 390 Ford were dealer-installed. There weren't many of them around in the 1961 model year either. The Dodge-Plymouth 413 Long Ram option was factory-in-stalled, but it was a special order thing, so delivery times were long and unpredictable. Only a few diehard Mopar fans were willing to wait. Most bought 383 4-barrels and weren't even in the hunt on the street. In fact, the Pontiac 425-A models, which were readily available and low in price, were probably seen more than all the other hot ones combined.

And they were tough to beat at the traffic light. This is why Pontiac was so popular with the youth market in those years. Their stuff was available, and the prices were right. And don't forget there were earlier models that were still tough to beat for the latest Super Stocks. Cars like '56-57 Chevys with 283 Corvette engines were still tough in the early '60s, especially with a few extra mods that most of the owners performed (like headers, cams, extra carburetion, etc.). Even some oddballs, such as a '57-58 J-2 Olds or late '50s Tri-Power Pontiacs, might slip in and blow off a new Super Stock in the early 1960s. So it was really a growing thing, this musclecar movement of the early 1960s - a mixture of the old and the new.

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