The 1958 Ford Thunderbird is considered a milestone, the first successful four-place “personal car”. It dramatically expanded a whole new niche in the market, one that was pioneered by the Studebaker Hawk. GM was very slow to react to to the T-Bird’s almost shocking success; in 1960, Ford sold some 90k Square birds. The first response didn’t come until 1963, with the Buick Riviera, supported by the Pontiac Grand Prix. But in 1956, GM was showing a personal coupe at its Motorama Exhibits almost exactly in the vein of the ’58 T-Bird: the 1956 Impala coupe.
The Impala, also labeled “Corvette Impala”, sat on a 116.5″ wheelbase, and like most Motorama oncept cars, had a fiberglass body. It was of course powered by Chevy’s small block V8, a 265 CID version as used in the Corvette that year.
It’s hard to know whether there was any thought given to producing the Impala coupe in something like this form.
Realistically, its purpose was to pave the way for the 1958 Impala Sports Coupe, which was of course a new top-line model of the full-size Chevy line, with a distinctive hardtop coupe roof. A memorable car, but with a lot of heavy-handed details, and a serious let=down from the ’56 Impala.
And the ’58 Impala was hardly a T-Bird competitor, as a critical aspect to its success was its unique body, one that was totally distinct from the rest of the Ford line. And its bucket seats and massive console were also key features, ones not to be found on any GM car.
Well, the reality is that Chevrolet didn’t build the 1956 Impala, something I’ve been disappointed about since the age of eight or so. I stumbled upon pictures of it in about 1961 or 1962, by which time it had been long forgotten by those tens of thousands of 1956 Motorama visitors. But as one who couldn’t get the ’56-’57 Corvette out of his mind, at least until the ’63 Sting Ray came along, the Impala was a revelation. A family-sized Corvette! It’s exactly what America needed, as well as the Niedermeyer family. I never quite got over the fact that Chevy missed such an opportunity, to capitalize on the Corvette with a four-five place coupe, and beat the square and chunky ’58 T-Bird to the market with its relatively light and graceful lines. And with a fuel injected 283 and four-speed stick, this could have run circles around a T-Bird. In sales too? That is the big question of the day.
But then by the time it actually might have gone into production, or within a year or so, it undoubtedly would have looked as baroque as the ’58 Corvette, ruined by quad headlights, too-heavy of a grille, too may fake vents, and way too much chrome trim during Harley Earl’s heavy-handed era. Better that the ’56 Impala stayed in my mind as I first fell in love with it as an eight- year-old; clean and unfussy, a handsome Pininfarina coupe for (and by) Americans. Meanwhile, Europeans were being treated to a genuine Pininfarina coupe, one that was a a giant step ahead of the Impala and would directly influence GM’s ultimate response to the T-Bird.
Hat tip to Rio for getting me to finally act on my ’56 Impala memories.
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