Originally Posted December 1, 2018
This week as you probably know, GM announced enormous cutbacks and layoffs as it deals with overcapacity. One thing they did was announce they were ending production of most of their passenger car lineup, as they follow Ford and FCA in focusing on SUVs and trucks. One of the victims of the cutback was the Chevy Impala.
There was a time when the Impala was America’s best selling nameplate, when it was the lynchpin of GM’s empire that built 2 in every 5 cars sold in America for most of the 20th century and built stuff like buses, big rigs, and even refrigerators. Those days are long gone and GM is now a shadow of its former self. So it is fitting that now the Impala is being axed.
The Impala was born in the 1958 model year when it became the range topper in Chevrolet’s lineup, a spot previously held by the Bel Air. The previous year, Ford had outsold Chevy for the first time since 1935, so there was a lot riding on this new line of ‘58s and it largely delivered.
1959 marked the peak of Detroit gaudiness. GM’s Chief Designer Harley Earl was a big fan of fighter jets and rockets and did not appreciate subtlety. With acres of chrome and huge tailfins, it represented peak automotive grandeur. But what would catch on would be the front end. It had headlights mounted low and integrated into the grille. In almost every car before, the lights stood high above the grille. This type of face would be used on almost every car after. 1959 also saw the first time that all of GM’s cars from Chevrolet through Cadillac shared the same bodyshell.
The next redesign for the Big Chevys was 1965. By this point, buyers could now get their Chevys in a bewildering array of sizes. For something a bit smaller, they could get an intermediate Chevelle, if they wanted something even smaller than that they could get a Chevy II, and for something sporty, they could have a Corvair. In 1965, the Impala lost its flagship status as the more luxurious Caprice was added to the lineup. At the time, Detroit liked to play a game of nameplate treadmill, they would add on more luxurious names to the top, then everything below was decontented and moved down in price and the lowliest nameplate was discontinued. That’s how the Bel Air went from being the most expensive Chevy in the 50s to being reserved for cheapskates and cab drivers in the 70s.
The 1965 Impala was handsome to look at. Harley Earl had been replaced by Bill Mitchell, who believed in graceful and subtle lines, and spawned such beauties as the Corvette C2 and the Buick Riviera. This time period was arguably the Impala’s golden age. It was positioned just right and continued to crush all opposition, frequently selling 1 million units annually. For comparison, America’s best selling car today, the Toyota Camry, typically only manages 400,000 sales per year and is slowly sinking thanks to SUVs. And the customizability of the Impala would make today’s car buyers swoon. You could get it in coupe, sedan, convertible, 4 door pillarless hardtop, and wagon variants. You could get it with a 6 cylinder engine or one of the 9 V8s offered ranging from 4.6 liters to 7.4. The most popular was the 5.7, better known as the 350.
But such a golden age could not last forever. In 1971, the Impala was redesigned and, as usual, got longer, lower, and wider. It was now a bloated whale of a car. The continuous growth in car sizes was remarkable. A 1975 Chevrolet Nova compact was as long as a 1955 Full Sized Chevy! The 1971 model year would see Ford take the sales lead, the culprit? A 67 day strike from September to November 1970 that saw all of GM’s workforce walk out and production at the world’s largest company grind to a halt.
The Impala’s weight problem got even worse in 1973. That year, the government mandated that all cars be able to survive a 5 mph front impact with no major body damage and 2.5 mph rear impact with no major damage. In 1974, the rear requirement was upped to 5 mph. This forced the use of ugly and heavy bumpers. By this point it was 222 inches long. For comparison, a modern Chevy Tahoe, no small car, is 203 inches long. When the energy crisis hit, sales of big heavy cars plunged. From 800,000 in 1973, inflated by all the ones used in Live and Let Die, sales of full sized Chevies were down to just over 400,000 in 1975. That year, the convertible models were discontinued, as air conditioning, sunroofs, and rumored rollover regulations made them a dying breed. In 1976, the Impala was outsold by the Oldsmobile Cutlass.
But then, redemption. I like to imagine that GM’s 1977 full sized cars were designed in a Rocky style training montage. The statistics do not lie, the new Impala was 10 inches shorter, 4 inches narrower, and just to totally reject the idea of longer, lower, wider, it was 2 inches taller. With so much less size and extensive use of high strength steel, it was 800 pounds lighter. It was barely larger than the midsized Chevelle, and much lighter than the Chevelle. Yet, just like Doctor Who’s Time Machine, it was bigger on the inside despite being smaller on the outside. Headroom, legroom, and trunk room were up over 1976, the only dimensions that were down were hip and shoulder room. Buyers liked these new smaller Chevies, sales soared from 420,000 to 660,000, making it the best selling car in America once again. But for the Impala, the news was not all good. It became the victim of the nameplate treadmill, with the discontinuation of the Bel Air, it was now the cheapest Chevy, aimed at fleet buyers. 1977 was the first time the Caprice outsold the Impala.
By 1985, most Impalas looked like this. They were subject to a hard life equipped with light bars and shotgun racks. And then after that stage in their lives, they were painted yellow and given taxi meters. In 1985, the Impala nameplate was retired.
But then, it came back. In 1994, Chevrolet put a powerful 5.7 liter V8 making 260 horsepower into the Caprice, then renamed it as the Impala SS. The Impala was once again the top of the line Chevy. But it was not enough. People just weren’t buying body on frame rear drive sedans. In 1996, GM killed off all of its body-on-frame sedans and wagons, the Impala included.
But then, in 2000, when Chevrolet was redesigning its W-body Lumina family sedan, they chose to bring back the Impala name. For the last 19 years of its life, the Impala would be a large front wheel drive sedan. In 2004, the SS was revived with a 240 hp supercharged V6.
The w-body platform was not impressive in 1988, and it sure as hell wasn’t impressive in 2006. But Chevy stuck with it anyway. The Impala was a mediocre sedan when it came out and within 4 years, it was downright terrible. It was burdened with a line of ancient pushrod V6s and mated to a 4 speed automatic transmission. Many 4 cylinders were faster, and much more fuel efficient. And despite the Impala’s size, it was not spacious inside, especially in the rear. It had clumsy handling and a nauseating ride. It had a cheap interior and lacked power lumbar support or a telescoping steering wheel, features available on much cheaper cars. The one redeeming feature was the enormous trunk, making it ideal for rental car fleets. GM would eventually give it a modern V6 and a 6 speed transmission, but that couldn’t fix all the other problems. As Consumer Reports said at the time “Most family sedans, they offer a lot more than the Impala, including Chevrolet’s own Malibu!”.
GM decided to do the most un-GM-like thing possible. Instead of silently putting the Impala out of its misery, they went back to the drawing board and fixed every single one of its problems. The result was that the 2014 Impala was once again the best full-sized sedan in America, if you didn’t want to shell out for something from Germany. Even Consumer Reports raved about it. It looks stylish, goes like stink, gets good fuel economy, has a spacious, well finished interior filled with the latest toys. It handles like a sports sedan while riding like a luxury car. But all this fresh new life was for nought. People simply are not buying large sedans anymore. They prefer SUVs. As such, next year will be the last year for the Impala. I’m disappointed that such an amazing car didn’t sell well, but I’m happy that Chevrolet chose to end the Impala legacy with a bang, not a whimper. And so as the Impala heads to that parking lot in the sky, I send it off with The Doors