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Impala sent GM styling in a new direction

SUNDAY DRIVER - '59

July 24, 2005|By MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Its styling remains a topic of hot debate, but no one can deny that the sight of Chevrolet's 1959 Impala still generates its fair share of gawkers at classic-car events.

The excitement today, however, is only a murmur compared to the full-on reaction of the buying public in fall of 1958 when the first full-line Impala (the name originated from a 1956 Corvette-inspired prototype), along with its Bel Air and Biscayne siblings, was unveiled.

That's because the '58 Chevy models had just been redesigned. Yes, for the third consecutive year, the reigning king of GM's fleet (about one in every four domestic passenger cars sold wore a Chevy bowtie) was sporting dramatically different sheetmetal.

Who could blame buyers for being a bit perplexed by Chevy's state of constant change?

The reason for the annual visual revamp wasn't apparent at the time, but the fact was that the brass at Chevrolet were close to panic. Chrysler had upstaged the entire North American auto industry with its low-slung, giant-finned 1957 "Forward Look" automobiles, which made all others appear downright frumpy by comparison.

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GM's 1958 brands - Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac - were already in the pipeline when the Chryslers were unveiled, so they were allowed on the street. However, the company's design studios were ordered to immediately start over with clean-sheet designs and develop a style that would not only rival that of Chrysler, but beat the company at its own game.

Thus, Chevrolet's '58 bodies were completely abandoned after just one season, instead of receiving only a mild makeover for '59 as originally intended. Without any input or approval from Harley Earl, GM's veteran styling chief who was working in Europe at the time, the car was enlarged in all key areas, including length, width and wheelbase, leaving the impression that it sat lower to the ground than its predecessor. For added effect, the wrap-around windshield was more steeply raked, the roofline lowered and the roof itself made flatter. Most notably, Chevy's builders included subtle horizontal fins.

A more aggressive chromed grille was centered between a set of dual headlights positioned more than half a foot closer to the ground than in '58.

In back, a pair of teardrop-shaped taillights added greater emphasis to the car's horizontal fins. Despite the controversial shape, Chevy's new gull-wing, or bat-wing look as it was then called, carried the day and sales immediately shot skyward.

The top-line Impala (by then no longer an offshoot of the Bel Air model as had been the case in 1958) was available in a variety of configurations, including pillarless two- and four-door hardtops plus a mom-and-pop four-door sedan and sporty convertible. The Nomad continued as the sole wagon, although it was fitted with the Impala's interior and exterior trim.

A full range of engine choices greeted prospective Impala buyers, from a base 145-horse six-cylinder unit and a variety of 283-cubic-inch V-8s with between 185 and 290 horsepower on tap. For the most performance, Chevrolet made available a 348-cubic-inch V-8 with power that ranged from 250-315 horses, the latter fitted with a "full house" of three two-barrel carburetors.

Transmission selection depended on engine choice and included a three-speed manual, two- and three-speed automatics plus a rarely ordered four-speed manual gearbox.

The convertible clearly set the tone for the Impala brand and, in 1959, Chevrolet sold nearly 66,000 of them at a list price of about $3,000 a copy.

For 1960, Chevrolet clipped the Impala's bat-wings and smoothed out the spiked, toothy grille. By that time, Ford had joined the fray with its own version of Chrysler's advanced designs while mimicking Chevrolet's horizontal-wing approach.

In the end, it might have looked like a game of follow the leader, but it was a gutsy call by General Motors and Chevrolet that kept the corporation competitive and put smiles on the faces of GM's accountants as well as its dealers and loyal customers.

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

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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