Car of the Week: 1959 Chevrolet Impala

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Larry Axdahl figured he’d have a hard time improving on the 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible he bought new back in ’59.

But that hasn’t stopped him from trying.

In some ways, his glorious red ’59 ragtop is actually better than the Impala he bought new and kept for five years in his younger days. The car has a modern air ride suspension, point-less distributor, dual exhausts, a more modern 700R4 transmission and certainly a better paint job than the factory would have supplied.

Impala No. 2 will never make Axdahl forget his first one, but the Chetek, Wis., resident seems just as happy with this one as he was with his brand new convertible. “My wife and I met and 6 months later got married and started having babies, you know how that goes,” he recalled. “When the second [child] was coming she said, ‘That’s it, no more convertibles,’ so down the road it went. I had to unload it in ’65, and then 11 years later I found this one in Minnesota, where we lived.”

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The catch was, the car wasn’t for sale. Axdahl didn’t even know who the owner was, but he knew how to find out. “I saw this one at a local restaurant in the parking lot, and I took down the license plate, and I knew the town constable and he helped me trace the owner down. He didn’t want to sell it. He told me no,” Axdahl said.

“Then he called back a couple weeks later and said, ‘I’ll sell you the car.’ He had only had it a year and was doing a little fixing on it. And when he called me back, he said, ‘I’ll sell it, but I’m going to ask a lot of money.’

“He said, ‘I’m going to ask $1,800 for it,’” Axdahl adds with a chuckle. “We didn’t negotiate at all.”

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That was back in 1975, and ’59 Impalas were anything but collectors items at the time. They weren’t old enough to be really scarce, and the gas crunch at the time wasn’t doing any favors to the popularity of big, full-size cruisers of any vintage. Axdahl said his wife, Roanne, certainly wasn’t in the market for one.

“[She] was kicking me when I bought it, though. She thought I was crazy. ‘What are you paying $1,800 for that old used car?’ We didn’t get that much for it when it was only five years old and we traded it in [laughs].

“At that time it was a used ’59 Chevy convertible. That’s all it was. It was not a collector car, but I could see the potential for it to be a collector car. You never see the ’59 Impala convertibles. That’s what I told my wife in the early ’70s. I said, ‘You don’t see any ’59 convertibles. If I ever see one I’m going to buy it.’”

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Axdahl said his Impala had been a lifelong California car before landing in Minnesota for one year.  The previous owner had been driving the car a little and tinkering with it a bit before Axdahl came along and talked him out of it.

“It was still original paint and every piece of metal on this is original. It’s never been rusty. It came from California, so it’s never been driven in the winter,” he noted. “The guy had had it for a year, and when he got it, the engine was gone, so he replaced the engine with a 327 and a 400 transmission behind that and put a new top on it and new black ’71 Buick cloth on the seats; black with a black top, and that just didn’t fit the car, but I drove it that way until 2004, when I retired and had time to fix it.”

If Axdahl wasn’t already sure he was getting a screaming deal before he took delivery, he was downright positive after he showed up to make the transaction official. “The funny thing is, the guy … didn’t tell me until I picked it up that he [was giving me] all the parts in it that he’d acquired over the year — that front bumper, the headlight bezels, one of the chrome strips on the side for the door … tail light bezels, all the aluminum stuff for the eyebrows. I looked all that stuff up when I had the car done in 2005, and it was more than $2,000 in parts that he left me. That was worth more than I paid for the car at that time.”

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Axdahl certainly had plenty of company in his affection for the second-year Impala, a model which has gone on to become a collector favorite and one of the most beloved and recognizable cars of the fabulous ’50s. The Impala was launched in 1958 and perched atop the Chevrolet stable as a member of the top-tier Bel Air family. A year later, the Impala was broken out and given its own series, which included the four-door Nomad wagons. That same year, all GM cars were redesigned yet again and given radical bat-wing rear fender profiles and eyebrows over their headlights. The “cats eye” tail lights are among the most distinctive features of any car of the era.

Other identification features included Impala nameplates and crossed racing flags emblems. Both identifiers were mounted inside the painted insert area of the full length side trim moldings, below the rear side windows. The front fendertop ornaments also had rear extension strips. Bright metal trim marked the deck lid center crease and tail lamp lenses. Closed models had simulated Impala-style roof scoops. Other standard fare included electric clocks, front and rear armrests, ventipane windows and dual sliding sun visors. The options list included Turboglide automatic, air conditioning, six-way power seat, power windows, air suspension, positraction, two-tone paint and other goodies.

A 235-cid inline six-cylinder or 283 small-block V-8 were the base powerplant offerings, but the 348-cid that had been introduced for 1958 was optional with horsepower ranging from the 250-hp Turbo-Thrust up to the 315-hp Special Super Turbo-Thrust.

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The Impalas rolled on 119-inch wheelbases and measured 210.9 inches from tip to tail. A convertible with a V-8 on board weighed in at more than $3,650 lbs, and prices started at $2,967.

For almost 30 years, beginning in 1975, Axdahl drove his second Impala in almost the same condition he found it, but he longed to return the convertible to its factory configuration and have a car that looked as nice as the one he had bought new. This time, it was going to be his hobby car and not primary transportation, and he wanted to have a car he could take off in any time the spirit moved him. That meant adding the air suspension, front disc brakes, modern four-speed automatic, dual exhausts and dual antennas. It also meant swapping in a correct 1959 348-cid V-8, which was an optional engine on the Impalas that year, and re-doing the interior in red.

That’s a little different than the car he wanted the first time around. “The first one, I ordered it the way I wanted it, with three-on-the tree, with overdrive and a 283. With that rear end and the overdrive, I had a pretty good drag car for the stoplights, and I could still get 22 mpg with a four-barrel on it!” he said. “My first car right out of high school was a ‘55 Olds, and it was three years old at the time I suppose. It had been beat up pretty hard by the guy who owned it and I said the heck with that, so I traded it for my first ’59 Impala. At the time I really wanted another Oldsmobile, but it was $1,000 more – so I had to settle for the Chevy. It was cheaper! [laughs]

Axdahl says he did most of the mechanical work himself during the frame-off rebuild of his second Impala 10 years ago, but had L’Cars Auto Specialists in tiny Cameron, Wis., handle the paint and bodywork, upholstery and new convertible top. Under the hood, the engine still appears stock, and the original factory markings inspection stamps on the inner fenders and firewall have been preserved.

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Impala No. 2 was “set up to cruise,” and Axdahl has done plenty of that. He regularly has the car at hobby events like the Iola Old Car Show in Wisconsin, and has rolled up about 40,000 miles on his trusty Chevrolet over the years. “We get about 2,000 to 2,500 miles a year on it,” he notes.

It comes as a bit of a surprise to hear Axdahl admit he is considering selling his lovely convertible after all these years. He has become plenty attached to it, but. “None of my kids want it,” he laments. “Well, they want a collector car, but one from their own era.”

In the next breath, though, it’s clear Axdahl hasn’t yet forsaken his love for the iconic 1959 Impala. “I could get another car that’s a lot less expensive than this one,” he laughs. “Who knows, I might look for another ’59. I’ve got a lot of parts. Every time I see any I bring them home.”

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