Rare doesn’t always equate to valuable, as this 1963 Impala SS convertible with a straight-six engine proves. Photos by author.
Yes, you read that correctly. This Impala SS convertible is powered by a straight-six engine–Chevrolet’s tried-and-true 230 Turbo-Thrift overhead-valve six-cylinder. For far too long, enthusiasts have thought that an SS-equipped Impala meant that it was a high-performance model, but it wasn’t. The SS package was simply a sporty decorative option and bucket seats, and not much more. More significantly, back in 1963 a buyer could order the SS’ RPO Z03 package on any body style, be it a hardtop, convertible, or sedan, with either the V-8 or straight-six. This black SS convertible is proof.
While most enthusiasts hold the 409-powered Impalas in high esteem, the opposite is true about those Impalas with two fewer cylinders. Because most of the six-cylinder-powered cars–having either been sent to the crusher or converted into V-8s by hot rodders, those base-level sixes that were once commonplace–are now the truly rare Impalas. Unfortunately, rarity doesn’t always equate to desirable, or valuable. Thankfully, there are some enthusiasts who know rare cars when they see them, and take the time, effort and expense to restore them as authentically as possible, regardless of the powertrain.
Two such individuals who appreciate and truly understand this six-cylinder Impala’s historical significance are Joe Davis of Melbourne, Florida, the car’s owner, and his brother John, the one who found the old Chevrolet in the first place.
That was back in 1986, when Joe told his younger brother that he really liked early ’60s-era Chevrolets with the six taillamps. Joe says: “I was also particularly fond of convertibles and so, thinking that I needed a project, John, who lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at the time, started searching for one, and found this car in Harrisburg. He convinced me that I needed to come up from my home in Maryland and look at it, and I ended up buying it for $1,600.
“The car was located in a dilapidated garage off an alley and appeared to be a totally original version of the particular make and model that had been used as a daily driver and simply retired to the garage,” Joe remembers. “It was in rough condition, with evidence of rusted-out floors and body mounts. The interior condition was also rough with evidence of water intrusion. The engine barely ran, and the transmission barely shifted when coaxed. It had an aftermarket under-dash air conditioning system that had been installed at some point in its life; the system was not functional.”
Like many enthusiasts who first buy a project car, this Impala was not at all special to Joe. Yet, over time, he developed a strong bond with it. “I have always liked convertibles and have owned several over the years, so perhaps the fact that it is a convertible first made me look seriously at buying it,” Joe says. “At various times in the rebuild sequence, I considered modifying the car and choosing a more desirable powertrain, but I always came back to the conclusion that it was born a six-cylinder, it should remain a six-cylinder, and that it should be kept as near ‘stock’ as possible.”
That engine was the base six-cylinder that displaces 230 cubic inches from its oversquare 3.87 x 3.25-inch bore and stroke dimensions and has a 8.5:1 compression ratio. At 4,400 rpm, it develops a very useable 140 horsepower, and with its seven main bearings and hydraulic lifters, it runs smooth as silk. The carburetor is a single-barrel Rochester. Attached to the bellhousing is the car’s original two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission; equipped with the SS option, the shifter is located in a special floor-mounted console between the bucket seats.
As the restoration work progressed on the old Impala, Joe and John started to see the car in a different light. “More and more, I began to see the car as something special,” Joe tells us. “One thing that helped in this regard was that, as we continued our work on the car, we kept seeing anecdotal information pointing out just how rare this particular body and powertrain combination was, and this made me want to keep it as original as possible.”
Joe goes on to tell us that “Chevrolet production numbers in 1963 didn’t provide a lot of detail. We have read that GM claims there was a fire that destroyed them. If you take a look at surviving production numbers, you very quickly conclude that, in terms of the numbers, 409 cars were much more rare than six-cylinder cars. The difference is that, as these cars became collectible, the 409 cars were very desirable and the six-cylinder cars were not. So the question becomes, is this the most valuable surviving 1963 Impala Super Sport convertible? Most people would say, ‘no.’ Is it the rarest surviving 1963 Impala Super Sport convertible? We don’t know, but we think it might be. We don’t believe that many SS convertibles with a six-cylinder and Powerglide transmission have survived.”
After about 22 long years, the restoration of this striking Impala SS was finally completed in 2012, yet no one in the old-car hobby or vintage Chevrolet circles knew of its existence because the car has never been displayed at a show. Rather than sitting all day in a parking lot beside his car, Joe and his wife, Jolene, would rather be driving it, and they do to the tune of several hundred miles every year. And when they aren’t cruising around in this handsome Impala, they’re driving their stylish 1956 Ford Crown Victoria instead.
On the road, Joe says that he really enjoys driving the Impala. “The car gets so many thumbs up, honks, and whistles that it just makes it a joy a drive. However, after not driving the car for a while, I find that I need to become accustomed again to the turning radius and road feel. It is equipped with power steering that provides very little in the way of road feel. It also requires quite a bit of ‘turn’ of the steering wheel to get the car turned. The addition of radial tires in place of the original bias belted tires greatly improves the car’s overall handling.”
Upon the conclusion of my photo shoot of the Impala, Joe suggests we go for a ride, with me at the wheel. Although I have never driven an early ’60s Impala before, being a close cousin to Pontiac, it drove nearly identical to my 1964 Le Mans that I used to drive daily from Brooklyn to New Jersey back in the early ’90s. Same steering, same brakes, same cornering characteristics, and same performance, as my Pontiac was also powered by a 140-hp straight-six engine and two-speed Super Turbine automatic. And same interior smell, too!
The bucket seats are somewhat soft, allowing you to sink into them just the right amount, although there’s no side support of any kind. The steering wheel falls readily at hand with the horizontal speedometer in clear line of sight at all times. And the view out the wide windshield provides lots of visibility, which makes driving a breeze. Yet, just like my old Pontiac, the steering ratio is quite high, which isn’t as reassuring to steer, especially when compared to today’s quick rack-and-pinion systems; this is especially so when driving in traffic. But you do get used to it, and realize that you need to plan ahead more and avoid driving in a hurried manner.
As to those four-wheel drum brakes, as long as you don’t repeatedly abuse them, they perform just fine, slowing the car straight and smooth with a comforting feeling that, yes, you will stop in time. Joe says that “When the car has sat for a while, the brakes may require some use to begin to operate properly; however, after a few miles and some hard braking, they straighten out and work well. The braking system performs adequately.”
Most amazing is that Turbo-Thrift six engine; it really does provide sufficient power, be it from a standstill or at speed, and really isn’t that noticeably less powerful than the base 283-cu.in. V-8. Considering today’s crowded roads and the car’s somewhat lifeless steering and braking characteristics, this Impala’s overall performance and usability is perfectly adequate, and it’s ideal for the kind of drivers who aren’t in a rush and who enjoy smelling the flowers as they drive by. You don’t need to drive fast to enjoy the old-car experience, as confirmed by this Impala’s high fun-factor and alive demeanor.
Even the two-speed Powerglide isn’t a hindrance. Like all GM automatics, it shifts smoothly, with an authoritative notice of engagement when starting off. Joe says it best: “It performs as you would expect an early ’60s Powerglide to perform.” And while it may not be an ideal transmission for long-distance highway travel at a constant 75 miles per hour, its performance on secondary roads is beyond satisfactory.
In fact, everything about these early Sixties Impalas is just right. They are the kind of collector cars that pay you back with loads of charm, inviting style, and ease of maintenance. They ride smoothly, handle well for their size–especially when fitted with radial tires–are extremely comfortable with plenty of legroom front and rear, and are blessed with a trunk large enough for you to haul plenty of parts back from your local swap meet. With so many new reproduction parts now available for 1961-’64 Impalas, regardless of their condition, they can all be restored to the same level of Joe’s black beauty. And if it has a straight-six engine under the hood, then all the better.
Editor’s note: To discover all the details that were required to make this Impala SS the beauty that it is today, we will profile its restoration in a future issue. Stay tuned.
Whoever approaches the car is immediately struck by the fact that there is a six-cylinder under the hood. But, because this car was born a six-cylinder, it shall remain a six-cylinder; our goal was always to restore it to as original as possible. I really enjoy driving it, and the addition of radial tires improved the handling greatly. There is absolutely nothing about this Impala SS that I particularly dislike. It’s a great car, and I’m particularly fond of those rear taillamps. –Joe Davis (seated, rear in the photo above)
1963 Chevrolet Impala SS convertible specifications
Base price: $2,914
Price as profiled: $3,550.75
Options on car profiled: Super Sport equipment ($161.40); Powerglide transmission ($199.10); power steering ($75); two-speed windshield wipers ($17.25); grille guard ($19.00); rear bumper guards ($10); pushbutton radio w/extra speaker ($56.50); padded dash ($18.30); left/right door mirrors ($10.00); whitewall tires ($31.90); wheelcovers ($38.30)
Type: OHV straight-six, cast-iron block and cylinder heads
Displacement: 230 cubic inches
Bore x Stroke: 3.87 x 3.25 inches
Compression ratio: 8.50:1
Horsepower @ rpm: 140 @ 4,400
Torque @ rpm: 220 lb-ft @ 1,600
Valvetrain: Hydraulic lifters
Main bearings: Seven
Fuel system: Rochester single-barrel carb
Lubrication system: Full pressure
Electrical system: 12-volt negative ground
Exhaust system: Single
Type: Automatic, two-speed Powerglide
Type: Hypoid, open
Gear ratio: 3:08
Type: Saginaw recirculation ball, power assist
Gear ratio: 24:1
Turns lock-to-lock: 5.25
Turning circle: 39 feet, 6 inches
Type: Self-adjusting manual drums
Front: 2.75 x 11-inch drums
Rear: 2.00 x 11-inch drums
CHASSIS & BODY
Construction: Separate body on channel X-frame
Body style: Two-door convertible
Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive
Front: Unequal-length A-arms with coil springs, tubular shock absorbers, anti-roll bar
Rear: Solid axle with coil springs and tubular shock absorbers
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels: Front/rear: 7.50 x 14
Tires: Front/rear: 215/75R14
WEIGHTS & MEASURES
Wheelbase: 119 inches
Overall length: 210.4 inches
Overall width: 79 inches
Overall height: 55.5 inches
Front track: 60.3 inches
Rear track: 59.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,400 pounds
Crankcase: 5 quarts
Cooling system: 18.5 quarts
Fuel tank: 20 gallons
Transmission: 16 pints
Rear axle: 4 pints
Bhp per cu.in.: 1.64
Weight per bhp: 24.28 pounds
Weight per cu.in.: 14.78 pounds
0-60 mph: 16.8 seconds
¼-mile: 21.6 seconds
Top speed: 92 mph
Fuel mileage: 17-18 city; 20-21 highway
Convertible: 82,659 (no breakout available for Six or V-8 models)
Pros & Cons
+ Easy to work on
+ Distinguished styling
+ Lots of reproduction parts
– Just 140 horsepower
– Two-speed Powerglide
– Dashboard too plain
What to Pay
Vintage Chevrolet Club of America
P.O. Box 609
Lemont, Illinois 60439
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.