Car of the Week: 1959 Chevrolet Impala

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Story and photos by David W. Temple

General Motors cars of 1959 are noted for their dramatic and extreme styling. Chevrolet was, of course, not immune to the virtually “anything goes” styling phenomenon of that model year. The big Chevys of 1959 marked the end of a decade of major advancement at GM’s “bow tie” division. The decade of the 1950s brought forth Chevy’s first hardtop, the Bel Air, in 1950; its first modern overhead-valve V-8 in 1955; fuel-injection for 1957; and the upscale Impala for 1958. The 1958 Chevys had changed about as much from the 1955-’57 models as the “Tri Fives” had been changed from their predecessors. Then Chevrolet changed its line-up for 1959 in about as drastic a manner, and the fact was boldly noted in Chevy’s ads with the statement “all new all over again!”

Beginning with the 1959 models, GM management decided that in order to save on costs, all GM cars would share common body shells. Therefore, all new bodies had to be designed to accommodate the mandate. The first-year Impala had been available only as a two-door hardtop or convertible, but two more body types were added for 1959: a four-door hardtop and four-door sedan. Four-door hardtops  received a low, flat roof with straight, angled C-pillars and wrap-around rear windshields while the sedans were capped by a bubble-like top similar to but taller than that of the two-door hardtop. Other sedans in the GM divisions used this arrangement, while Cadillac and Buick offered a four-door hardtop based on the bubble roof shape of the sedan.

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The most dominant styling characteristic of the 1959 Chevrolets was, of course, its deeply sculpted fins. An early report in Popular Mechanics on the 1959 Chevrolets said of the car, “Styling is the thing with the new Chevrolet … Its low, flaring rear end is as expansive as the deck of an aircraft carrier and looks almost as wide from the driver’s seat. Horizontal taillights squint, like giant cat’s eyes, from under chrome eyebrows. At the front, two sets of paired headlamps are set as low as the law allows to accentuate the road-hugging design.” A road test report in the January 1959 issue of Motor Trend concluded that, “All in all the Chevrolet stands out as the most unashamed proponent of the ‘bigger and wider styling school’ in its field. In performance it’s batting fairly even with the competition.”

The standard engine was the familiar Blue-Flame straight-six, although the buyer could still obtain the Turbo-Fire 283-cid V-8 two-barrel or the Super Turbo-Fire 283 four-barrel carried over from 1957. Also, the 250-hp Ram-Jet fuel-injected 283 was retained as was a companion 290-hp version dubbed Ram-Jet Special. The fuel-injected engines were very expensive and the Rochester setup was also significantly more complicated to keep properly tuned and in good repair. As a result, far more people wanting high-performance opted for the more affordable and conventional 348-cid V-8 with the fuel/air mixture fed to the cylinders via carburetor. It was offered in various outputs ranging from 250 hp to the little-known 350 hp variant. For some, though, the standard issue 235-cid “Stove Bolt” six-cylinder offering 135 hp was just fine in an increasingly V-8 world.

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Transmission choices included the standard-issue three-speed manual along with the optional three-speed manual with overdrive, close-ratio four-speed, the Powerglide two-speed automatic and the somewhat troublesome Turboglide automatic.

In addition to a multitude of engine and transmission combinations, cars across the 1959 Chevy lineup (consisting of the Biscayne, Bel Air and Impala series) could be optioned with such amenities as power steering, power brakes, power windows, air conditioning, tinted glass, padded dash, Posi-Traction, two-tone paint and more. As for paint, GM offered its new 13 single-tone paint colors and 10 two-tone schemes in its new “Magic-Mirror” acrylic lacquer. Among the single tones was Snowcrest White, as seen on the featured car owned by Pat and Jan Downing of Gilmer, Texas.

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The couple purchased the Impala in February 2014 after spotting it for sale on the Internet. It is an unusual car in that it is a top-of-the-line Impala Sport Coupe powered by the base 235-cid six-cylinder coupled to a Powerglide transmission. Other than the automatic transmission, the car is equipped with few other options, some of which may have been added by a previous owner. These include the AM radio, wheel covers, twin aerials, wheel covers, fender skirts and wide whitewall tires. One of the prior owners added a “V” emblem to the hood; the “V” denoted the presence of a V-8 engine, thus it would not have been originally included on a six-cylinder-equipped Chevy. Protecting the original turquoise upholstery is a set of vintage clear seat covers.

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The Downings’ Impala has traveled little more than 29,000 miles and is nearly 100 percent original; the second owner had it repainted shortly after purchasing it from the estate of the original owner who bought it new from a dealership in Sedalia, Mo., a small town nearly 200 miles west of St. Louis. The third owner is known to have bought the car in the early 1980s and showed the pristine Impala at the well-known Iola Car Show for many years. It was included in the “show tent” when Chevrolet was the show’s theme. Beginning in the year 2000, the Impala was put into long-term storage before coming to Texas 14 years later.

CLUBS
Vintage Chevrolet Club of America
P.O. Box 609
Lemont, IL 60439-0609
708-455-VCCA (8222)
www.vcca.org

National Impala Association
P.O. Box 111
Atlantic Highlands, NJ 07716-0111
732-291-7668
nationalimpala.com

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