Old Cars Weekly archive – April 10, 2008 issue
Story and photos by Geoff Stunkard
Carl and Bessie Nichols bought this 1963 Impala SS new It is the first new car they owned, and they still have it
Though the muscle car era has been defined in many ways, the truth is that the dawn of the 1960s had already brought about a new attitude about what Detroit was offering the American public. The big-horsepower machinery, such as the Street Hemi, LS6, and 428 Cobra Jet were not even on the minds of those designers, but the companies recognize that the public wanted cars with performance. Unlike the European models that were built more from a handling standpoint, most U.S. models, other than Corvette, used horsepower and styling as their strong suits.
For Chevrolet’s fans, the styling upgrades came in the form of a package called Super Sport, or SS. This included features such as deluxe interior appointments, additional exterior trim, styled wheel covers and premium tires, added to the better hardtop and convertible model lines. In 1963, the SS package was available on the Impala Sport Coupe and convertible models (plus the Chevy II-based Nova 400 and convertible). According to Robert Genet’s book “Chevrolet SS,” one of the biggest changes for the 1963 year was the external Impala design cues created by designer Dave Holls, who had come over from Cadillac’s studio.
Powerwise, if you wanted nothing but burned rubber, the 409 cid was the way to go. Available in non-competition form were three versions – 340-horse, 400-horse (both with a single four-barrel carburetor) and the dual-quad 425-horse version. A select number of drag racers were able to obtain special race-only Z11 427-cid examples before GM suddenly ended racing programs in January of 1963. If you had other ideas in mind, any engine from the six-cylinder to the 300-horse 327 cid was optioned as well in the ’63 SS Impala.
Another big change for 1963 was the four-speed transmission behind the small-block, and it was this change that made Carl Nichols decide to take the plunge and buy his first new car.
“The reason for ordering the car like that was because I was really anxious to get a four-speed car, but it also needed to be a family car,” Carl recalls now. “It needed to be reliable and get at least a little fuel economy. I had test-driven a 300-horse Impala prior to making the order, and felt that engine was just as good as the 340 version. The Positraction rear was also a big plus, and I thought the new padded dash was really nice, even though it cost another $18.59.”
Married and with a young family, Carl and Bessie Nichols had gone to Cutting Cross Chevrolet in Morganton, N.C., in late 1962 to special-ordered their car, which cost the young family $3,249.75. It was painted red with a red interior, including the standard console that came with the four-speed option, factory tach, 14-inch whitewall tires and a reasonable 3.36 PosiTraction rear end.
It was a good car that the Nichols family still owns today. Both Bessie and their son Doug drove it until 1980, when it was parked inside the garage almost permanently. Carl had other cars he enjoyed playing with, and it would not be until early 2004, when he and Bessie retired from their long-time jobs that the red SS would again be the focus of their affection.
This project was done almost entirely at home — the only major project that was farmed out was the frame, which was powder-coated. Bessie also helped, even with some of the nastiest jobs, such as stripping off the 40-year-old paint. The engine was still solid; after a mechanical internal clean-up and some detailing, it went back in between the fenders; the rest of the driveline was rebuilt to OEM specs as well.
“It was always special to our family,” Carl says, “and Bessie always took care of the paperwork and it was always well-kept. She kept all the receipts all these years; the car was never in an accident and it was rust free since it had always been garage-stored.”
The work they put into the mechanical ‘family member’ has been judged ‘well-done’ by many. In fact, members of the automotive media and VIPs agreed it was among the best when the fresh family Impala won the prestigious Year One Cup in 2004 during its first public showing and against some of the nicest muscle cars in the country. Of course, rather than park in the garage for another 25 years, the Nichols’ enjoyed some road time by participating in the 2005 Hot Rod Power Tour, and have also displayed the car at Floyd Garrett’s Muscle Car Museum and at the Forge Invitational Musclecar Show.