Story and photos by Angelo Van Bogart
Then and now, a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz and a fuel-injected 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible are incredibly rare sights, but in northern California, two such scarce machines once shared a garage.
“The people were up north in the wine country and supposedly had something to do with the film business,” said Tom Dietz, who now owns the fuel-injected 1959 Impala convertible. “The husband had the Biarritz and his wife had this car. She supposedly wanted a stick shift, believe it or not.”
Dietz isn’t exactly sure if the previous owner’s background story is accurate — he admits that when he bought the Impala in the late 1990s, he cared more about the car than the story. He does know that when the cars became available from the estate, the buyer had to buy both wildly finned converts to get the black Biarritz. Upon securing both rare General Motors drop tops, he immediately sold the red Impala to Dietz’s friend. That friend spent at least two years acquiring new-old-stock parts and had the Impala painted with 18 coats of hand-rubbed Roman Red lacquer before he realized it wasn’t the car for him.
“He partially restored it and said, ‘This is going to be too good for me,’” Dietz said. The 1959 wasn’t the National Impala Club member’s normal cup of tea, but he jumped on it.
“I am a big ’62 [Chevy] guy, especially the 409s, and he said, ‘You are going to love this one,’ and I said, ‘I need something different.’ I wasn’t a convertible guy until I saw this one.”
With the 1959 Impala Dietz received the small mountain of NOS parts, some of which probably weren’t necessary since the Impala had never deteriorated. “The stuff that came on the car was fine, but he wanted perfect, which is a tough way to go.” Dietz said there were many duplicate NOS parts as the owner wanted to pick from the best parts to put on the car. He even went so far as to polish the NOS trim before installing it.
“All of the front end trim is NOS, the tail lights, it even has NOS resonators — on the high-performance cars, you had resonators on the tail pipes so it has the resonators on the back with the part numbers stamped on it.” Even the continental kit and super rare triangular fuel injection badges are NOS, along with a few of its other options.
“It has the last bunch of NOS seat material,” Dietz said. “On the convertibles, that was a vinyl but on the [closed] passenger cars, that was a cloth material. It has the vinyl and it’s still soft.
“Another cool option is the speed minder where you set the dial in the dash and set it to a certain number and a light flashes and it buzzes if you hit that speed. Also a vacuum ash tray where the vacuum of the engine sucks the ash off.”
The red top-of-the-line Chevy is also equipped with power windows and power seat and a 3.55 Positraction rear, as well as its two hottest options: the four-speed manual transmission and, of course, that ultra-rare passenger car Rochester fuel injection unit on its 283-cid V-8. “It is one of 26 made,” Dietz said of the fuel-injected full-size Chevy, “And from the last year for the fuel injection (regular production option 578) and the first year you could get a ‘four on the floor’ for a passenger car.”
Both options are rare in their own right, but for different reasons. A handful of high-performance 1958 Chevys destined for racing applications are believed to have been fitted with four-speeds, but for 1959, Chevrolet formally made the Corvette-based gearbox an option on the big cars, and many buyers tried to get the Borg-Warner four-speed in their high-performance Biscaynes, Bel Airs and Impalas. However, demand was greater than expected and supply was hindered by a fire at Borg-Warner that year. Because Corvettes were given priority for the few available four-speed transmissions, very few full-size 1959 Chevrolets actually received them.
Conversely, very few full-size Chevy buyers wanted to mess with the optional mechanical fuel injection setup by 1959; it had developed a troubling reputation as being fussy. The exotic fuel delivery system had been available beginning in 1957 on Corvettes, Bel Airs, Two-Tens and One-Fiftys as an option costing a pretty penny, and only 1530 were installed on full-size Chevys that year. Very few people saw a factory fuel-injected full-size 1957 Chevy, and if they did, it was probably on a race track. For 1958, even fewer full-size Chevys appeared with the little-publicized option. Chevrolet gave it one more try and published an ad featuring a fuel-injected Impala in the March 1959 issue of Motor Trend that touted the benefits of fuel injection: “Take a young architect (that’s me) with a Corvette appetite, a one-car budget and a family of wife, three kids and a puppy, and you’ve got frustration.
“That is, you did — until Chevy came out with that terrific four-speed floor-shift gearbox. The minute I heard that, I knew Chevy had given me the makings of a family sports car that would be the greatest!
“Here’s how I ‘designed’ the sweetest handling five-seater that ever came down the pike: First, an Impala two-door sport coupe. Then the 290-h.p. Fuel Injection V8 and, buttoned on right behind it, that great four-speed box. (That’s the Corvette transmission, you know, with synchro on all four gears and that solid, direct floor shift.) The driveline ends up with Chevy’s limited-slip Positraction rear axle to give me real glued-to-the-road traction on gravel, mud or whatever.”
That “whatever” was probably traction on the drag strip where most of the full-size 290-hp fuelies were likely destined.
With just 26 cars believed to have been built — of which Dietz believes about 12 still exist — the ad clearly wasn’t effective. In addition to the fuel-injected 1959 Impala, Dietz has a 1960 Impala with the tri-power 348 that was also available in 1959 and he said the ’59 fuelie is king.
“The fuelie is superior without a doubt. To be honest, it’s not even close… I had four people in there and took it up to 5500-6000 rpm in first and ‘Bang!’ It barked the tires in second gear. With the fuelie, you got the spider valve right there and it’s spitting fuel right there, and going around the corners, the fuel doesn’t slosh around [like in a carburetor]. That’s why Zora Arkus-Duntov pushed for it. In racing, the European cars [with fuel injection] would pull away from them on the corners. But also the fuel economy — that is why Chevrolet offered a fuel injection unit, believe it or not.”
Chevrolet called the unit Ramjet fuel injection and offered two versions on the 283 after prodding by Corvette engineer Arkus-Duntov. The 250-hp Ramjet version is largely differentiated by its hydraulic lifters and different camshaft when compared to the solid-lifter 290-hp Ramjet Special version. The 290-hp unit had unique domed pistons with slipper skirts and a 10.5:1 compression ratio versus the 250-hp unit’s 9.5:1 compression ratio. Fuel injection units were unique to each engine with the 250-hp Ramjet unit carrying model number 7014800, 7017200 or 7017300-R and the 290-hp Ramjet Special carrying Model number 7017250. Fuel-injected 283s were also available on the Corvette, and the different bodies of the ’Vette and the full-size Chevy necessitated some differences in the fuel injection units between the Chevys, most notably in the air cleaner. Dietz said the fuel-injected full-size 1959 Chevy air cleaner is mounted to the radiator core support and has a long flexible hose that connects it to the fuel injection unit atop the engine. Also, full-size fuelie ’59 Chevys have painted steel valve covers while fuelie Corvettes have finned aluminum valve covers with “Corvette” cast into the tops. Dietz added that the air cleaner is different each year between the full-size 1957 to 1959 Chevys because of the difference in the car bodies from one year to the next, and 1959 is the only year the air cleaner was mounted on the radiator support.
Performance and fuel economy were just two of the fuel injection unit’s sales points. In its brochure, Chevrolet said the 250-hp unit provided “Instant throttle response from idle to cruising speed, with ordinary carburetors eliminated. Fast cold weather starts, high over-all-fuel economy: all features of Ramjet Fuel Injection — greatest engine advance since overhead valves.”
The pitch wasn’t enough and fuelie sightings have always been few and far between. It wasn’t just an issue at Chevrolet; Pontiac had offered it in 1957 and ’58 and even De Soto mounted a dozen or so units on its 1958 Adventurer models with little public interest due to big reliability issues. With so few fuel-injected full-size 1959 Chevys having been built, current and previous owners tend to network among one other. He said it appears most fuel injection units that went into full-size 1959 Chevys were the 250-hp Ramjet version.
“Chevy promoted it for its fuel economy, and I have talked to some people that had a (1959) four-door and a station wagon and they were both the 250 horse [cars]. Back then, nobody wanted the solid lifters except the Corvette people.”
Although the 1959 Impala has been perfectly restored, Dietz hasn’t let its primo condition stop him from enjoying the 283 engine’s 290 horses from time to time, or the car’s top-down pleasures.
“It’s like driving on your sofa but once you put the top down and the boot on, there is nothing like it.”
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