Vintage Review: 1972 Chevrolet Impala Custom 400 – Elvis Wasn’t The Only One Putting On Pounds In The Seventies

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Paul recently chronicled one of the all-time high points for the full size American car with his extensive write-up on the 1965 Impala.  However with cars, as in life, change is continual and not always for the better. 1967 and 1969 refreshes of the 1965 Chevrolet design added more inches and pounds, but the 1971 redesign ushered in truly gargantuan dimensions along with a correspondingly large weight gain.  Just two years after favorably reviewing a 1970 Impala Custom Coupe, in April 1972 Road Test Magazine took another look at the Impala Coupe—a car still right in the heart of the American market, but with the newest generation, flaws were more pronounced than before. Not that the Impala was a bad car, in the context of the times, but somehow the magic had faded a bit.

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Looking at the 1965 Impala and the 1972 Impala is a bit like looking at pictures of Elvis from those same years. Even though he was always a “big guy” (6 feet tall), Elvis had the moves and a sporty flair in the mid-1960s. But as 1972 rolled around, he’d added more than a few pounds and a great deal of rather tacky glitz. Yeah, he was still “The King” and still hugely popular, but things just weren’t quite the same…

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Even in the age of “bigger is better” the Impala seemed mighty big. Compared to the 1965 Impala hardtop coupe, the ’72 was 6½ inches longer, on a 2½ inch longer wheelbase, yet interior roominess was basically the same. Far worse, however, was the weight gain: the 1972 Impala 2-door hardtop weighed a porcine 668 pounds more than its 1965 predecessor. By 1974, the 5-mph bumper requirements had added still more length—about 3 inches, and another 116 pounds of weight.  These Impalas were whoppers…

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Given the size and weight gain, naturally engines had to get bigger as well. In 1965, buyers seeking a reasonable blend of performance and economy could opt for the “middle” engine, the 327 V8. To replicate that “middle” engine option in 1972, the buyer was looking at a 400 V8. However, the increased displacement couldn’t offset the Impala’s heft and the output strangulation caused by meeting stricter emission regulations: 0-60 times dropped noticeably, from 9 seconds for the ’65 to 11.2 seconds for the ’72.

Of course, the Impala’s big size and big engine displacement took a toll at the gas pumps. In city driving, the ’72 Impala would deliver about 10 miles per gallon. Even before the first oil embargo, this was problematic. In 1972 gas was hardly free: the average price was $0.36 to $0.52 per gallon, which on an inflation adjusted basis works out to $2.04 to $2.95 and is basically the same as what we are paying for fuel today. For a driver averaging 1,000 miles per month, that Impala would have sucked up the 2016 equivalent of $200 monthly in fuel costs. Then or now, a fuel tab of that magnitude is tough to swallow for a regular family/commuter car.

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One area where Chevrolet deserved a lot of credit was pricing. The nicely equipped ’72 Impala Custom 400 had an as-tested price of $4,743 ($26,883 adjusted), including A/C—these prices were very much in line with the equivalent car and optional equipment costs in 1965. Plus the Impala’s historically strong resale value further enhanced its reputation as a good buy.

Reading this review, it’s clear that Road Test’s editors weren’t enthralled with some aspects of this Impala, most specifically its ponderous size and lack of efficiency–both common criticisms from the press and buyers alike. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that GM saw the writing on the wall, even before the first oil shock, and knew that its biggest cars could no longer get bigger, and actually needed to return to a more reasonable scale. The resulting 1977 downsizing of GM’s full size fleet was unquestionably a bold move, but in reality it was a very measured response to market feedback that had been building for years.

Sadly, 1977 didn’t turn out as well for Elvis as it did for The General: the iconic pop culture legend passed away August 16 of that year in his Memphis home at the young age of 42.