Jack Rainbow’s slammed ’61 Impala Bubbletop must have been what the Beach Boys were talking about when they sang, “She’s real fine, my 409”.
Real muscle car power was brought to the people in the early ’60s, especially with the arrival of the 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS 409. Chevy built 491,000 Impalas that year. Only 453 had the SS (Super Sport) package, and of those just 142 got the 409ci engine.
Word spread quickly about a mainstream Chevy V8 with 409lb/ft (554Nm) of torque and the ability to do mid-15-second quarter miles with the standard 3.36:1 rear axle and four-speed manual. The Beach Boys even immortalised it in the song ‘409’ (She’s real fine/my 409).
Jack Rainbow’s 1961 Chevrolet Impala may not be an original SS 409, but with a 409 W series motor now resting between the front guards and an impeccable build quality, it’s “even better than the real thing” — thought I’d keep up with the song theme with that little U2 snippet.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself here, let’s go back to the beginning…
It all started in 2002 when a 16-year-old Auckland lad, Jack Rainbow, started building a ’55 Plymouth station wagon. He began by lowering the roof 2-inches and turning it into a two-door. That’s when the money ran out.
Fast forward two years, and a now 18-year-old Jack decided the Plymouth would never be worth the money he was going to sink into it, and so the hunt was on for a new project; one with style enough without chopping the roof, and with the correct number of doors to begin with.
Jack went to have a look at a red 1961 Chevy Impala Bubbletop that was being pulled out of a shipping container after 20 years of storage.
He bought it on the spot.
Blister In The Sun
The Impala wasn’t running, but that didn’t matter because Jack had no intention of cruising around in a mundane 283ci-powered Bubbletop.
After taking a few photos of his new purchase the Impala was stripped down, and the first thing to get the Rainbow attention was the chassis. This was sandblasted and painted, and new bushes were installed throughout. A couple of coils were cut off the springs and everything was pieced back together.
With the chassis looking like new, it was time for the body to get some attention.
Before going into the container in which it sat for 20 years, the Chevy had been partly restored and had already been sanded back and repainted, but two decades of sweating in a container had taken their toll. The new paint had blistered badly and had to come off.
Hi Ho Silver Lining
Jack and his dad, Ian, were keen to get the body soda blasted but didn’t know a lot about the process, so took one of the front guards to the soda blaster to see what it was all about. They couldn’t believe their ears when the guy told them to take it home and wash the excess soda off with water, then give it a good wipe dry. Hold on, you can’t get bare metal wet, it will rust right before your eyes; but he guaranteed it wouldn’t show any signs of rust for at least three weeks.
They did what they were told and left the newly blasted guard in the corner of the lounge, which is where it sat for six months without showing any signs of surface rust. Jack and Ian were converted.
Overall the body was in pretty good condition, and after soda blasting there were just the normal dents from years of use to take care of. As with most of the build, the panelbeating was done at home, but the task was handed to Graham McNab who came by to get it sorted. The Impala was also primed in the garage and only then did it leave home to be painted.
Pete from GA Car Painters in Pukekohe was handed the responsibility of covering the huge Chevy panels with Audi Silver, a colour picked by Jack after seeing a silver Impala the same as his in an American magazine. Until then the car was destined to be black, a favourite colour of Jack’s for muscle cars.
The first thing he did after the return of his newly painted car was to fit new 15-inch American Racing Torque Thrust mags. I am a strong believer that wheels can make or break a car, and I think Jack has got it spot on with his choice. When questioned about the size of the wheels and the reasoning behind not fitting 18 or 20-inch rims, he said, “I like a decent sidewall on a tyre. I’m not into the rubber-band tyres.”
Bad Motor Scooter
Now that the Impala was looking like a million bucks, it was time to give it the performance to match. The car was rolled in through the front of the garage, where the 283 engine was pulled out with a chain block attached to the rafters. The car was then rolled out the back door of the garage, with the new engine dropped in on the way out to the back shed — simple.
The engine now residing in the engine bay is a 409, as fitted ex-factory in 142 of the 1961 SS Impalas that rolled off the assembly line. And how did Jack come by a 409? Dad, of course. Jack’s dad, Ian (you might remember his 1950 Business Coupe from the cover of issue 53), was buying an engine from the States for one of his builds, and the deal was that to buy one you had to buy two. Bummer — but not for Jack. The engine was originally given to Jack, but he ended up buying it off dad anyway.
Once the Impala was returned to the shed, it was time to put it all back together, and get Graham around again to line up all the panels properly.
With everything in place, with the glass fitted and the sounds wired up by Jack himself, it was off for the car’s final trip away, this time to Sku at Design Auto Interiors in Rotorua to get the upholstery sorted.
How Low Can You Go?
Jack drove his newly finished Bubbletop Impala around like this for the next seven months until he got sick of people using it as a bar leaner at its ride height. Out came the suspension and in went an Air Ride Technologies airbag kit from the States. In keeping with the tradition of the build, Jack tackled this task himself.
The kit came with Shockwave front bags, new A-arms and bars for the diff. Everything went in pretty easily once Jack had worked it all out, with only minor adjustments needed to the exhaust to make it all fit. He is very happy with his new adjustable ride height, and likes the way it makes the Chevy more stable around corners. The only thing to remember with airbag suspension is to make sure you don’t have the car sitting too low when going up mates’ driveways, something Jack didn’t do one day and only realised upon hearing an almighty bang when ascending a friend’s drive. He got out at the top to find oil gushing all over the white driveway and a large crack in the sump.
Given it’s such a stunning street machine, you’d guess it only comes out on fine weekends or to the occasional show. Hell no. Jack drives this beautiful beast all the time, rain or shine. In fact in 2009, three years after the Impala hit the road, Jack and some mates piled into it and made the 1100km trip from Auckland to Muscle Car Madness in Christchurch, where the Chevy got in the top 10. With $1000 dollars spent on petrol and friendships tested, you’d think he would mark it up as a once in a lifetime experience. Not Jack, he did it all again this year, and after telling everyone who would listen how great it was, there were three other cars following him down this time.
The Impala has also scored Best Chevy in the Pukekohe Hot Rod Club for 2008, and Best Burnout at the club’s Christmas party.
We Are Family
It’s pretty obvious Jack got his passion for cars off his dad. “It has always been hot rods and muscle cars for me,” says Rainbow Jr. There are not many families that can boast both father and son cars in NZV8 magazine. You could say Jack was born into the scene, with a dad who owns a 1950 Business Coupe and a bad-ass 1937 Convertible that won nearly every award available a few years back. Not to mention a mum with a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria, and older sister with an El Camino. With the way the Rainbows build bitchin’ street machines it probably won’t be the last time you see a Rainbow car here, either.
1961 Chevrolet Impala – Specifications
Engine: 409ci (6.7-litre) motor, 690 high-performance heads, twin 600cfm Edelbrock carbs, MSD 6AL ignition, Weiand rocker covers, chrome alternator, factory cast iron headers, dual 2.5-inch system to HSV mufflers
Driveline: turbo 350 trans
Brakes: Front Holden power disc brakes, rear stock drum
Suspension: Front Air Ride Technologies Shock Wave airbags with Strong Arm tubular A-arms, rear Air Ride Technologies airbags with tubular arms
Wheels/tyres: American Racing Torque Thrust 15×6-inch front with 215/60R15 Supercat tyres, 15×7-inch rear with 255/60R15 BF Goodrich tyres
Exterior: Filled aerial and wing mirror holes, Audi Silver paint
Interior: Reupholstered interior, Moon Eyes tacho, engine temp and oil pressure gauges, Alpine head unit, Infinity 6-inch front and 6×9-inch rear speakers.
Performance: 425hp (317kW), 14.0 at 100mph in the quarter mile
Jack Rainbow – Owner Profile
Previously owned cars: 1985 Starlet, 1955 Plymouth wagon, 1956 Plymouth sedan, 1977 Chevy pick-up (current daily driver)
Dream car: Fully stocked Lion Red truck
Build time: Two years
Length of ownership: Six years
Thanks: Ian, Trish and Katie Rainbow, Graham McNab (panelbeating), Grant Evans (sparky), Sku (upholstery), Dave Loose, Graham Mattasa, Grant Precious, Carlene Armstrong, Larry and Chris from Fair Deal Autos, Dave Moyle, Pete from GA Car Painters, Richard and Keiron Adlington
Words: Barry Lorimer Photos: Dan Wakelin
This article is from NZV8 issue 62, click here to check it out.