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A meaningful makeover defined the 1959-'60 Chevy Impala
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A meaningful makeover defined the 1959-'60 Chevy Impala

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Talk about a torrid pace of change.

For the third straight year, the reigning king of GM’s fleet — Chevrolet — was sporting dramatically different sheetmetal, which affected the Impala, Bel Air and Biscayne.

It was autumn of 1958, and who could blame buyers for being a bit perplexed by Chevy’s state of constant change?

The reason for the annual visual revamp wasn’t apparent at the time, but the fact was that the brass at Chevrolet was close to panic. Chrysler had upstaged the entire North American auto industry with its low-slung, giant-finned 1957 “Forward Look” automobiles, which made all others appear downright frumpy by comparison.

GM’s 1958 brands — Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac — were already in the pipeline when the Chryslers were unveiled, so they were allowed on the street. However, the company’s design studios were ordered to immediately start over and develop a style that would not only rival that of Chrysler but also beat the company at its own game.

Thus, Chevrolet’s ’58 bodies were completely abandoned after just one season instead of receiving only a mild makeover for ’59 as originally intended. They were enlarged in all key areas including length, width and wheelbase, which left the impression that it sat lower to the ground than its predecessor. For added effect, the wraparound windshield was more steeply raked, the roofline lowered and the roof itself made flatter. Most notably, Chevy’s builders included subtle horizontal fins.

A more aggressive chromed grille was centered between a set of dual headlights positioned more than half a foot closer to the ground than in ’58.

In back, a pair of teardrop-shaped taillights added greater emphasis to the car’s horizontal fins. Despite the controversial shape, Chevy’s new gull-wing, or bat-wing look, as it was then called, carried the day, and sales immediately shot up.

The top-line Impala was available in a variety of configurations including pillarless two- and four-door hardtops plus a four-door sedan and sporty convertible. The Nomad continued as the sole wagon, but it was fitted with the Impala’s interior and exterior trim.

A full range of engine choices greeted prospective Impala buyers from a base 145-horse six-cylinder unit and a variety of 283-cubic-inch V-8s rated from 185-290 horsepower. For the most performance, Chevrolet made available a 348-cubic-inch V-8 with power that ranged from 250-315 horses.

Transmission selection depended on engine choice and included a three-speed manual, two- and three-speed automatics plus a rarely ordered four-speed manual gearbox.

The convertible clearly set the tone for the Impala brand and, in 1959, Chevrolet sold nearly 66,000 of them at a list price of about $3,000 a copy.

For 1960, Chevrolet clipped the Impala’s bat-wings and smoothed out the spiked, toothy grille. By that time, Ford had joined the fray with its own version of Chrysler’s advanced designs while mimicking Chevrolet’s horizontal-wing approach.

In the end, it might have looked like a game of follow the leader, but it was a gutsy call by General Motors and Chevrolet that kept the corporation competitive and put smiles on the faces of GM’s accountants as well as its dealers and loyal customers.

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