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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. While the musclecar movement was just about a year old in 1961, rock 'n' roll celebrated its seventh birthday. The country was starting to get a taste of progressive music. Six of the top seven best-selling albums were soundtracks, including Camelot, The Sound of Music and Elvis Presley's G.I. Blues. 1961 saw Ricky Nelson drop the y from his name and have a hit with "Travelin' Man." Smokey Robinson's career was launched with the Miracles' hit "Shop Around." This was also a big shot in the arm for the young Motown record label out of Detroit. Other memorable hits of the year included Roy Orbison's "Cryin' " and the Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" The Supremes also made their debut in 1961, but unsuccessfully. Their time was yet to come. In New York's Greenwich Village, a young musician named Robert Allen Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, performed his first concert. And a group called the Beach Boys was building a strong local following in California, which gave instant popularity to a new craze - surfing.

Everybody's got their favorite musical picks of 1961, but let's take a closer look at the three or four hottest, most popular performance cars of that year. 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 roaring reputation and demand for the engine among Chevy enthusiasts. So they were pounding on Chevy dealer doors when the first '62 models showed up in the fall of '61. 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 '58 to '60 period. It used the same big-port cylinder heads, high-lift solid-lifter cam, beefy forged rods and crankshaft in the bottom, aluminum bearing and downswept exhaust manifolds. The newest thing about the 409 was a new two-plane aluminum 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. Even hotter than the cars, though, were the social and political scenes. A young Bostonian named John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn in as president of the United States, earmarking a decade of liberalism. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country," the youngest man to ever occupy the Oval Office declared.

The United States broke diplomatic ties with Fidel Castro's Communist Cuba, while in East Germany, a wall went up separating the eastern and western portions of Berlin. Military advisors were being quietly sent to Vietnam, while the first members of the Peace Corps were off to help out in impoverished nations. In the international space race, the Soviet Union once again beat the U.S. to a first - this time by putting Yuri Gargarian into orbit. A month later, the U.S. sent astronaut Alan B. Shepard into a suborbital flight in his tiny Mercury space capsule. In the world of sports, the awesome New York Yankees beat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, after fans had been treated to a season-long home run race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Maris wound up on top with 61, topping Babe Ruth's mark of 60 set back in 1927. Mantle, who wound up sitting out the last week of the season in the hospital, had to be content with 54. The Boston Celtics and Green Bay Packers took the national championships in basketball and football, respectively. Let's take a look at some combinations available from Pontiac and Chrysler that were making names for themselves on the nation's streets and strips.

Dodge-Plymouth 413 Long Ram

We mentioned that Chrysler's famous dual-quad Long Ram carburetion system was made available in B-body Dodges and Plymouths in the 383 engine in 1960. For '61, 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.

In 1961, Newton Minnow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, called TV "a vast wasteland." Whether he was referring to some of the sillier shows of the day or the fact that TV was like an unexplored continent doesn't matter. What matters is that more and more people were staying home nights to gather around the tube for entertainment from such classic shows as "Ben Casey," "Gunsmoke" and "Mr. Ed." Though television was keeping more people indoors, Hollywood was cleaning up with teen movies for the drive-in set. Where the Boys Are sent thousands of college kids to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, for spring break. Twist movies, made popular by Chubby Checker's song, "The Twist," were also big. Two notable examples of the breed were Hey Let's Twist and Twist Around the Clock. Teen gangs made it to the big screen in The Young Savages and the immortal West Side Story, which won an Oscar for Best Film.

Measuring Up Performance

Admittedly, all the models mentioned so far, except the compact 6-cyl-inder Mopars, would be very close in drag performance, assuming equivalent body style, transmission, gearing, etc. All would have been in the mid-15-sec-ond 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. But if we had to rate their potential right down to the tenth, it would go something like this:

  1. Chevy 409 4-barrel (380 hp)
  2. Ford 390 6-barrel (375 hp)
  3. Dodge-Plymouth 413 Long Ram (375 hp)
  4. Pontiac Trophy 425-A (348 hp)
  5. 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 those 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 carburetion systems for the 390 Ford were dealer-installed. There weren't many of them around in the '61 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.

Formula One Championship:

Phil Hill (United States) / Ferrari

Wimbledon Women:

Angela Mortimer d. C. Truman (4-6 6-4 7-5)

Wimbledon Men:

Rod Laver d. C. McKinley (6-3 6-1 6-4)

The Movies:

  • West Side Story
  • The Hustler
  • Judgment at Nuremberg
  • La Dolce Vita
  • Spartacus
  • Ben Hur
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • The Millionaires

Academy Awards:
  • Best Picture - West Side Story
  • Best Actor - Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg)
  • Best Actress - Sophia Loren (Two Women)

The Charts:

  1. "Tossin' 'n' Turnin'," Bobby Lewis
  2. "Michael," Highwaymen
  3. "Calcutta," Lawrence Welk
  4. "Runaway," Del Shannon
  5. "Exodus," Ferrante and Teicher
  6. "Pony Time," Chubby Checker
  7. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" The Shirelles
  8. "Raindrops," Dee Clark
  9. "Travelin' Man," Rick Nelson
  10. "Cryin'," Roy Orbison
  11. "Wooden Heart," Joe Dowell
  12. "Running Scared," Roy Orbison
  13. "Take Good Care of Her," Adam Wade
  14. "Mother-in-Law," Ernie K-Doe 15. "Boll Weevil," Brook Benton


  • Sir Thomas Beecham (English conductor)
  • Ty Cobb (Baseball Player)
  • Carl Jung (Psychologist)
  • Chico Marx (First of the fabulous Marx Brothers to exit stage left)
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