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Chevy Impala shaped up in the '60s

November 30, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

It's easy to blur the 1950s and '60s together, at least when it comes to cars and certainly if you weren't alive during that period.

When it comes to Chevrolet, at least, there's a very clear division between the two decades.

As the backbone of General Motors' vast automotive empire, the division was a prime example of how the styling excesses of the 1950s gave way to the more balanced and functional shapes of the 1960s, as bolted-on baubles and garish geegaws began to disappear. While not the ground-breaking works of art crafted by a variety of European studios, cars such as the 1962-'64 Impala were nonetheless revolutionary in their day and signalled the emergence of the Modern Era in North American automobile design.

The GM cars of the 1960s could be considered almost plain-Jane compared to those from the previous decade. From the fall of 1959 and beyond, company stylists acted as though chrome was in short supply, perhaps concerned it had all been consumed during the previous 10 years. The original 1960 Corvair startled first-time viewers not so much for its engine location,but for its almost complete lack of brightwork. Other examples include the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and Buick Riviera, as well as the first front-drive Oldsmobile Toronado from 1965.


At Chevrolet, the emphasis on shape over shine was in full swing. Almost overnight, tailfins were excised and side trim began to recede. At the same time, physical dimensions began to grow as the longer/lower/wider concept took hold.

Chrome, or chrome-like exterior pieces didn't completely vanish overnight, however. The stuff was simply used in more subtle ways to underscore model differences. Most professional car spotters could tell in an instant whether a particular Chevrolet was a bare-bones Biscayne, a mid-grade Belair or a top-line Impala. From the rear, the Impala was easy to pick out. Along with its three-per-side taillight arrangement (ordinary Chevys had only two) there was a chrome trimmed aluminum panel that stretched along the lower trunk lid just above the bumper. Forty years ago, how little or how much you spent to acquire your new car was out there for all the world to see. It was the equivalent of pinning your pay stub to your shirt collar. From a marketing perspective, it worked like a charm.

Within the ranks of the Impala there was also a pecking order. The Impala Super Sport, or SS model, had its own spinner-style wheel covers and special badging as well as a heavy-duty suspension and exclusive vinyl-covered bucket seats separated by a floor console.

As well, there was also a distinctive roof design that featured convertible-like creases just above the rear window. It didn't fool anyone, but it remains to this day one of the most recognized and celebrated design cues of 1960s automotive styling. The roofline was shared by virtually all GM car lines, including Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile.

You could argue forever as to which of the 1962-'64 Impala hardtops was the most stylish, but the 1963 version remains a particular standout. With its flat-faced grille and rear-end, the lines are a bit more interesting than those of the '62 or '64. The 1963 Impala's vast acreage of sheetmetal had just the right blend of curves and angles.

Impala engine choices in 1962 ranged from frugal, all the way up to NASCAR-style outrageous. For starters, there was the 235 cubic-inch inline six-cylinder that delivered a tame 135 horsepower. The list of available V8s included the 283 and 327 variants that served the needs of most buyers looking for extra punch.

At the extreme end of the scale, there was the infamous 409 cu.-in. motor made famous by the Beach Boys song of the same name. It was basically a detuned version of Chevy's stock-car racing engine. With a single four-barrel carburetor it was rated at 360 horsepower. But with a dual four-barrel setup, the engine checked in at an extravagant 409 horsepower, one pony for each cubic inch of displacement. The following year, the 'dual-quad' 409's power was bumped to 425, yielding sub-seven-second zero-to-60 m.p.h. flybys, and quarter-mile times of less than 15 seconds.

Those classic Impalas from 1962-'64, with their cleaned-up looks and assortment of comfort and performance options, were an enormous sales hit and helped maintain GM's unassailable position as the most dominant automaker on the planet.

Compared to today's cars, they still appear oversized and overloaded with unnecessary shiny bits. However, the design of these Chevys represented an early signal that change was in the air, and that glitter-free shapes would eventually become the norm.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and historical writer.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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