New Size Trim, Clean New Style: 1961 Chevrolet

Chevrolet adopted more conservative styling for 1961, but with a dramatic new hardtop body style that became known as the Bubble Top.

In both the product and the messaging at Chevrolet in 1961, there was a tacit admission that maybe the 1959 and 1960 cars had gone too far. Under the direction of GM styling boss Bill Mitchell and studio chief Clare MacKichan, in ’59 the stylists had created the wildest Chevy in history. (See our feature here.) Now the designers were pulling back to a cleaner, more traditional look—a trend that developed across the General Motors car brands in 1961.

In Chevrolet’s ’61 television campaign, spokesman Joel Aldred reported that this new, “sensible” Chevy was “made the way you want a car made—with classic simplicity,” Over on the print side the copywriters proclaimed, “Trim new size, clean new style.” In truth, at 209.3 inches the ’61 Chevy was only 1.6 inches shorter than the ’59-’60 version, but it was 2.4 inches narrower and 100 lbs lighter. Here, at least, was the reversal of a years-long Motor CIty trend in which cars always grew bigger and more bloated with each new selling season.

Under the new sheet metal the ’61 Chevy was much the same car as before, retaining the controversial X-frame chassis with 119-in wheelbase. The six-cylinder and V8 powertrain choices continued as well, but with the addition of the 409 cubic-inch V8 at mid-year.

The familiar Biscayne, Bel Air, and Impala trim levels were offered in the usual body styles, with a restyled two-door Sport Coupe available in the Bel Air and Impala. With its long, sweeping rear glass, in a few years the distinctive ’61-’62 hardtop would become known to Chevy enthusiasts as the Bubble Top. The Super Sport also made its debut in ’61, originally as a dealer package for the Impala.

In a down season for the industry, the Chevrolet division enjoyed a solid year in ’61 with around 1.3 million cars sold. However, Ford had also adopted more formal and conservative styling that year and managed to edge out Chevy by around 20,000 units. Chevrolet came roaring back in ’62, delivering more than two million cars, and with annual styling updates the basic ’61 package would remain in production through 1964.

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