OLD CARS: Impala’s awe-inspiring racing started in 1958

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Detroit and the rest of North America were plunged into an economic recession in 1957 – the first major economic downturn since the end of World War II. And against this background, two new cars were introduced in September and October. Both would have a profound impact on the companies that built them.

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The first was the all-new Edsel from the Ford Motor Company, a brand new line of mid-priced cars that was a big bet on Ford’s part.

The second car was a new variant of the full-size Chevrolet, a two-door coupe. It was called Impala.

Edsel would become a huge failure and would only be built for a few years.

Impala would become one of the most successful automotive nameplates ever for Detroit.

Edsel’s story has been well documented. In the early 1950s, Ford was enjoying huge success with the all-new car that was introduced for the 1949 model year. These sales saw the company overtake Chrysler Corporation and become Detroit’s second-largest automaker.

Ford’s next goal was incredibly ambitious. It wanted to compete with General Motors, which at the time held 50 percent of the market. But Ford executives quickly realized they were limited by having three divisions, while GM had five.

Ford bosses believed the answer was a whole new division to compete with models like GM’s mid-priced Pontiac and Oldsmobile and Chrysler’s Dodge and DeSoto. The new division could fill part of the void left wide open by Mercury.

But the changes in the economy and in buyer preferences have been so abrupt over Edsel’s five years of development that Ford has been caught with a costly dud. The recession occurred between August 1957 and April 1958 and most businesses in Detroit suffered. But what was worse was the collapse of the mid-price car market. The demand for any mid-priced car has fallen like a rock. Edsel’s sales were much weaker than expected, but the collapse also hit DeSoto. Chrysler quickly ceased production of DeSoto in early 1961.

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Contributing to the turmoil was the ambition of low-cost brands such as Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth. Since 1955, the three low-cost divisions have been able to offer their customers the performance of the V8, as well as style and fashion previously in the realm of more expensive cars. In 1957 or 1958 you could order a new Chevrolet, Ford or Plymouth, and it could be as well equipped as any Pontiac, Mercury or Dodge or DeSoto.

Among them was the all-new Chevrolet Impala. It was rolled out a month after Edsel’s introduction, also as a 1958 model.

The beautiful Impala was offered as a two-door coupe or convertible. It was part of GM’s celebration of its 50th year of production. Special anniversary models were introduced for each GM make, and the new Impala was Chevrolet’s contribution to the corporate celebration.

For the 1958 model year, the Impala was part of the Bel Air lineup. But there were some unique differences between her and the other Bel Airs. The Impala’s wheelbase (117.5 inches) was longer than that of other Chevrolets. The Impala’s interiors were also much more special, with unique additions such as a two-spoke steering wheel and color-matched panels with brushed aluminum accents.

Impala also offered equipment such as power windows, power brakes, power steering, air conditioning and a signal-seeking radio.

Impala looked special. It featured more chrome than the Bel Air models, as well as three round taillights on each side, rather than the two placed on other Chevrolet models.

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Equally important, the Impala featured crossed flag badges above the side moldings, as well as shiny rocker panel moldings and mock rear fender scoops.

Overall, the all-new premium Chevrolet offered significant Corvette styling cues.

The Impala’s standard V8 was the 283 cubic inch engine, with horsepower ranging from 185 to 230. When fitted with the optional Rochester Ramjet fuel injection, horsepower was increased to 250.

Adventurous Impala owners could purchase a large block Chevrolet V8 – the 348. As a single four barrels, it produced 250 horsepower. But fitted with three two-barrel carburettors, the horsepower was increased to 280.

The 1958 Impala stood out from its Chevrolet brethren in several ways, but the most obvious were the three taillights on each side.  The other Chevrolet models only had two taillights.  Photo by Peter Epp
The 1958 Impala stood out from its Chevrolet brethren in several ways, but the most obvious were the three taillights on each side. The other Chevrolet models only had two taillights. Photo by Peter Epp jpg, California

In general, all new full-size Chevrolets were special for 1958. They were longer, lower and wider than the 1957 models. They were also heavier, about 300 pounds. And they featured, for the first time, dual headlights. Additionally, those iconic spoilers found on 1957 Chevrolet models were replaced with deeply sculpted side fenders.

The new Chevrolet sat on a new elongated “X” shaped frame. Chevrolet claimed that its new frame offered increased torsional stiffness. But more importantly, the new frame allowed Chevrolet to lower its cabin. It was a big deal in Detroit in the late 1950s, as customers demanded longer, lower cars. One of the reasons Ford sold more cars than Chevrolet for 1957 was because Ford’s all-new Fairlane was longer and lower.

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But that changed in 1958. Chevrolet overtook Ford sales. And his secret weapon was the all new Impala. The sumptuous Chevrolet captivated buyers. A total of 55,989 convertible Impalas were sold, while 125,480 coupes were sold. The Impala wouldn’t be offered as a four-door until 1959. Yet its 1958 sales accounted for 15% of all Chevrolet sales.

What makes the 1958 Impala so special today is that it is a bridge between two decades. Its appearance bears no resemblance to the 1957 Chevrolet, and does not have much in common with 1959 models. The 1958 Chevrolet Impala stands alone.

It wasn’t meant to be that way. It’s understood that GM’s 1958 full-size bodies would be kept for at least an additional year, but GM stylists got a feel for what the styling leader Chrysler was up to and decided to move their design agenda forward. And so GM’s 1959 models were drastically different. They were universally longer and lower and had a somewhat controversial style.

For 1959, Impala became a stand-alone line and became Chevrolet’s first nameplate. While the Impala was offered as a two-door coupe and convertible for 1958, for 1959 it could also be purchased as a four-door or hardtop sedan, or as a station wagon. It has met with extraordinary success, with more than 473,000 Impala models sold.

Sales were slightly better for 1960 and 1961, at around 491,000 units each, then climbed to nearly 705,000 units for 1962. In that year, Chevrolet car sales topped 1.2 million and buyers rose to nearly 705,000 units in that year. preferred the more expensive Impala models.

That’s not to say Ford’s sales have plummeted. The company’s all-new Galaxy had equally impressive sales, but the Edsel was a painful memory for Ford executives. Over three model years, just over 117,000 Edsel cars were built and sold. Only 2,846 were produced for 1960.

But the Impala wouldn’t suffer from such a failure. The name is said to be attached to full-size Chevrolet cars for several decades and more than 10 generations. The last Impala was built for the 2020 model year.

The Impala emblem with a cross badge set Chevrolet's new car apart from the rest of the herd for 1958. Photo by Peter Epp
The Impala emblem with a cross badge set Chevrolet’s new car apart from the rest of the herd for 1958. Photo by Peter Epp jpg, California

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