1958 Chevrolet Impala. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
The Chevrolet Impala nameplate, which returned to the General Motors fold for 2000 after an absence of four years, once epitomized the full size American car. Named after the sleek, swift African impala antelope, the name was originally applied to a Corvette concept car shown at GM’s 1956 Motorama show.
The Impala name came to market as an up-level package on the 1958 Bel Air coupe and two-door convertible. Sheetmetal changes produced a shorter roofline and longer deck, and other visual identifiers included fake airscoops above the coupe’s rear window and ahead of the rear wheels, and six taillights rather than the regular four.
The 1958 Chevrolet was pretty well all new in both styling and engineering. It was lower, longer and wider than the ’57 Chevy sedan, weighing some 1,633 kg (3,600 lb).
It used a new X-member frame that lowered the body by allowing the footwells to be sunk between the frame rails. Rear coils replaced leaf springs, and bladder-type “Level Air” air suspension was optional, although it proved troublesome and would soon be discontinued.
Engines choices were extensive, and included Chevrolet’s venerable “Blue Flame” overhead valve inline six, its “small-block” 4.6 litre (283 cu in.) overhead valve V-8 in various states of tune, and a new “big-block” 5.7 litre (348 cu in.) overhead valve V-8 that had started life under the hood of a truck. Mechanical fuel injection was optional on the small-block V-8.
In spite of an economic downturn in 1958, the Impala was so popular and sold so well that Chevrolet made it a separate series, and their top one, for 1959. It came in a full line of body types, including sedans, wagons and a convertible.
After only one year the ’59s again got new styling with “batwing” curving rear fins, and the Impala became Chevrolet’s best seller.
Chevrolet toned down and levelled off its fins for 1960, and in spite of increased completion from the new compact 1960 Chevrolet Corvair, the ’62 Chevy II, and the ’64 Chevelle, the full-size car market continued to be strong. None was better equipped to take advantage of this than the Impala, and its winning combination of luxury and affordabilty would make it the best selling Chevy for several years.
For 1961 the Chevrolet was completely restyled, with a crisper, cleaner look, and both of those icons of the 1950s, tailfins and the wraparound windshield, were now gone. It also got the legendary “409” engine, a stretch of the big-block 348 (5.7 litre), that became celebrated in both performance and song (Little 409 by the Beach Boys).
With the 6.7 litre (409 cu in.) engine the Impala was pretty quick. Car Life magazine (3//62) tested a 1962 380 horsepower 409 Impala SS (Super Sport) with a four-speed manual transmission and a 3.70:1 rear axle ratio. They recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 7.3 seconds, zero to 161 km/h (100 mph) in 17.0 seconds, and estimated the top speed at 201 km/h (125 mph).
The Chevrolet line, including the Impala, got lovely all-new styling for 1965. This was the zenith of the American full size car, and Chevrolet sold over a million Impalas, an industry record that still stands. It took advantage of an American auto industry that was in full flower, not yet impacted by emission and fuel economy concerns, and still largely free of pesky foreign completion.
But there was an ominous cloud on the horizon for the Impala nameplate. In a replay of 1958 when the Impala was a Bel Air option package, a new up-scale option called the Caprice was now offered on the Impala. It, like the Impala, proved so popular that it became its own series for 1966, and displaced the Impala as Chevy’s top model.
New styling came again in 1971, and full size American cars continued to grow. By the mid-1970s the Chevrolet sedan was a gargantuan 5,664 mm (223 in.) in length, had a 3,086 mm (121.5 in.) wheelbase (the wagon was even larger), and weighed a hefty 1,950 kg (4,300 lb). This was getting perilously close to Cadillac country.
General Motors had realized that a correction in car size was in order, and confirmation came with the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Smaller, more fuel efficient automobiles suddenly became popular and were seen as the way of the future, Chevrolet responded in 1977 with its “downsized,” lighter, full size cars, including the Impala. Although they were smaller on the outside, the engineers managed to make them larger on the inside, proving just how wasteful car designs had become.
A facelift came in 1980 with a lower hood and front fenders. Then in 1981 Chevrolet got a computerized engine management system called Computer Command Control.
With the Caprice now clearly Chevrolet’s flagship, the Impala name was discontinued in 1986. It returned in 1994 as the Impala SS, a Corvette-engined high performance version of the Caprice, and stayed until 1996.
From 1958 to 1986, with a brief re-appearance in the 1990s, over 13 million Impalas were sold, a record for the largest selling full-size American industry nameplate. At the peak of the Americanauto industry’s free wheeling, competition-free era, the Impala was the quintessential North American family car.