The 1958-1960 Chevrolet Impala survived its first three years with aplomb, making major changes after the 1958 model year in a last-minute redesign intended to keep up with the competition.
Four-doors, like this 1959 Impala hardtop, helped to
more than double demand for Impalas.
As in past years, the line-topping Chevy was to be the Bel Air, but a new top-of-the-top model was added for 1958. The 1958 Chevrolet Impala arrived in convertible and two-door hardtop form as a subseries of the Bel Air line.
Most notable among the Impala's distinctions were its three taillight lenses per side (lesser models had two) and simulated air-extractor vents above the wraparound rear window and on each rear fender. The Impala hardtop had a lower rear roofline than that seen on Bel Air sport coupes.
For power, Impala buyers could select the 145-bhp "Blue-Flame" inline six, carbureted and fuel-injected versions of the 283-cid V-8, and the new 348s. Transmissions included the standard three-speed manual (with overdrive available) and a choice of automatics: two-speed Powerglide and the more ambitious, year-old, triple-turbine Turbo-glide.
In 1959, the Impala sport coupe was the only
Chevrolet two-door hardtop.
Shoppers could order from a host of appearance and convenience items. One most inconvenient option was air suspension. Dubbed "Level Air," it was similar to other air-suspension systems available at the time, replacing conventional steel springs with rubber bladders kept inflated by an engine-driven pump.
Despite claims of improved ride and handling, the system simply didn't work very well. The basic design was good but the execution was poor; Level Air-equipped Chevrolets suffered from pressure leaks and a host of other maladies. After two years on the market, Level Air vanished unmourned.
But the Impala definitely did not vanish. More than 181,000 Impala hardtops and convertibles were sold in the first year, assuring a continuation of the series for 1959 and beyond.
When the 1959 Chevrolets appeared, they wore all-new exterior sheetmetal as part of a corporate design revolution. While wholesale abandonment of year-old body dies must have caused some consternation among General Motors accountants, the change raised fewer eyebrows in the late 1950s than would be the case today. It was all part of a drastically accelerated process set into motion by outside forces.
More than 65,800 1959 Impala convertibles
were made for the model year.
According to the late Dave Holls, then a designer at Cadillac, "We had all our clay models for 1959 finished in early 1956. ... [T]hen we saw the 1957 Chryslers. They were light and fresh in appearance; for the first time we thought Chrysler had outdone us. We started a revolution, scrapped the existing clays, broke all the rules in the place. ..."
All this was done while Harley Earl was off in Europe. "Nobody knew what Earl would think of our 1959s," Holls recalled in 1990. "We asked ourselves, 'Will he go through the roof?' We ended up in the courtyard of the General Motors Design Center with our 1959 design models and the 1957 Chryslers side by side. Earl was so shocked he didn't say anything at first. He approved our designs, but after that he felt the place had passed him by."
One byproduct of the last-minute redesign (actually completed in less than two years) was a greater degree of commonality between all General Motors bodies. Whether Cadillac or Chevrolet, the 1959s shared rooflines and front-door skins. It is a tribute to the designers that strong brand identities were maintained in the face of necessary compromises.
Aside from the new styling, the 1959s saw a 1.5-inch wheelbase extension of the cruciform chassis and beefier brakes. The same drivetrains were available (with some reshuffling of horsepower figures and the addition of an optional four-speed gearbox.)
The Impala badge was extended to a pair of four-doors, a sedan and a hardtop, and the four-door Nomad station wagon was an Impala in all but name. Sales improved dramatically, easily surpassing the quarter-million mark.
The least costly 1960 Impala was the family-friendly
$2,697 four-door sedan.
The slightly more conservative 1960 Impala -- now without Level Air suspension or fuel-injected 283 V-8 engines on the options list, but again with three round taillights per side in place of the 1959's large "cat's-eye" lamps -- sold even better.
To read about the changes for the 1961 Chevrolet Impala, continue on to the next page.
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