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Dan Gurney’s 1961 Impala pays a visit to the Jim Clark Museum

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Dan Gurney’s 1961 Impala at the Jim Clark Museum, reopening summer 2019. Photos courtesy Jim Clark Trust.

In 1961, Dan Gurney shipped a Chevrolet Impala to England, intent on beating the Jaguars that dominated the British Saloon Car Championship. He led the sole race entered, at Silverstone, at least until a rear wheel failed with just two laps to go. Acquired and restored in 2017-’18 by Ed Foster, deputy head of motorsport content at Goodwood, the Chevy recently made an appearance at the under-renovation Jim Clark Museum in Duns, Scottish Borders, which will reopen in expanded form in summer 2019.

Clark and Gurney may have been rivals on-track, but they were friends off the circuit. Each had a healthy respect for the other’s talents, and both raced a variety of cars in a variety of series. In the days before mega-million-dollar driver contracts, such behavior was necessary to pay the bills, and (later) to keep sponsors happy. If there was a chance to win prize money in a series, a good driver often seized that opportunity.

Such was the case in late 1960, when Gurney reasoned that an American sedan would be quite competitive in the British Saloon Car Championship. Opting for a new-for-1961 third-generation Chevrolet Impala, Gurney procured an early example, powered by a 360-horsepower, 409-cu.in. V-8 and equipped with a severe service package that included a stiffer front anti-roll bar, firmer springs and shocks, and sintered metal brake shoes with corresponding drums. The car was delivered in February 1961, then sent to Bill Thomas and Bill Fowler for race preparation. The 409 was disassembled and balanced, an anti-roll bar was added to the rear suspension and brake ducts were crafted for the front brakes, while 15-inch wheels were fitted with 7.60×15 Goodyear Blue Streak tires. After shakedown testing (and a new lap record) at Riverside, the car — complete with a bench front seat, heater, and radio — was shipped to England in time for the 13th Annual International Trophy Meeting at Silverstone in May 1961.

There, Gurney easily took pole position, besting second-place qualifier Graham Hill (in a 3.8-liter powered Jaguar) by 1.2 seconds. Gurney led from the start, but with just two laps remaining in the race, the left rear wheel failed at the bolt circle, ending his day with a Did Not finish (DNF) instead of a win. Ahead of the next British Saloon Car Championship race in July, Gurney procured a set of NASCAR-spec wheels plus an assortment of spare parts that would have been difficult to source in England.

Gurney’s Impala with the Jim Clark Special Edition Lotus Evora GT410 Sport, being raffled to raise funds for the museum. This Lotus is a nod to Clark’s Lotus Elan, which wore a similar livery. 

The night before the July 8 race, Gurney was notified by organizers that his Impala would not be allowed to enter, since it was not approved by the Federation Internationale d’Automobile (FIA), which then governed all international racing. Though the paperwork on the car had indeed been filed by Chevrolet, the documents had been misplaced by the FIA in Paris, a fact learned too late to allow the Chevy to compete. Smelling a rat, Gurney suspected the paperwork error may have been prompted by a phone call from Jaguar competition manager Lofty England, who feared humiliation on his home turf.

Busy with other pursuits (including his third season in Formula 1), Gurney wrote an angry letter protesting the decision, then sold the car to a friend in Australia who raced it for a period before converting it to right-hand drive and using it as a tow vehicle. It remained in Australia until 2017, when the owner shipped the Impala to the United States for a restoration before offering it for sale. There, it came to Foster’s attention, and eventually, a deal was struck for its purchase. The Chevy would remain in America for its conversion back to left-hand drive, but would then be shipped to England for the rest of the restorative work.

Sadly, Dan Gurney died in January 2018, just a few weeks before Foster took delivery of the car. Completing the restoration in time for the Impala to appear at Goodwood was no minor feat, and at first, Foster intended to bring the car up to contemporary safety standards, a requirement if it was to be vintage raced in any current series. A compressed time frame ultimately changed his plans, for which Foster was later grateful, calling the Chevy “too significant” to alter for modern vintage racing. The work was carried out by Jordan Engineering, and completed in time for the 2018 Goodwood Revival, a process documented in the videos below. As a further nod to history, Foster even brought the Gurney Impala to Silverstone, where he completed the final two laps denied Gurney in 1961.

On December 11, Foster drove the Impala to the Jim Clark Museum, currently undergoing a major renovation and expansion, with a projected opening date of summer 2019. Thanks to the support of donors, the Scottish Borders Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, what began as the Jim Clark Memorial Room in a small regional museum will soon be transformed into a facility capable of telling the story of Clark’s remarkable life in a more comprehensive manner.

The raffle’s Lotus Evora posed with Clark’s Lotus Elan. 

Donations are still needed, and to help raise funds, the Jim Clark Trust is raffling off a Jim Clark Special Edition Lotus Evora GT410 Sport, patterned on Clark’s Lotus Elan and said to be the 100,000th Lotus built. A donation of £20 ($25.25) is requested for each entry, and the contest is not limited to residents of the United Kingdom (those outside the U.K., however, will be responsible for the delivery costs of the right-hand drive Lotus).

For more information on the Jim Clark Museum, visit JimClarkTrust.com; to purchase an entry into the Lotus Evora raffle, visit JimClarkLotus.com.