Once upon a time in the 1980s, my birthday came along and I was allowed one really expensive 1:24 Die Cast model. So I walked into the Hobby Shop, bypassed all of the sports cars and fixed my eyes on the bewilderingly finned wonderment that was a Bright Red 1959 Impala.
To my adolescent eyes there was so much going on even in the scaled down die cast version of this 35 year old beast that was so out of the ordinary. Even now, I can’t really make sense of what GM’s designers were thinking in response to the Forward Look Chryslers. There’s just so many themes going on in all five GM cars that year, like that healthy dose of Harley Earl’s love of compound curves and (except for Pontiac) wheels too far away from the corners of the bodies. I know the X-Frame chassis was modified for 1959, but part of me thinks they just hung the extra width and length over the 1958’s narrower frame and didn’t push the wheels out. But there’s a bunch of crisp points, especially in the rear that point to the well-tailored look that would grace most GM products within 2 years.
The most eye catching element of the 1959 Impalas was this: that rear end view. Even today I can spend hours pouring over the details of this view alone. Some people find it ugly, campy, over the top. Only second in automotive excess that year compared to the 1959 Cadillac (for whatever reasons, the 1959 angry Buicks escape such criticism). To me, it’s more pure in detail and less fussy than the 1960 model based on the same bodies. The fins rise, dip (into the creatively inserted Chevrolet Crest) and rise again in one unbroken line, where the 1960’s fins just drop and melt into the body, looking all the less graceful for it.
It’s an awesome piece of metal working. It’s also amazing to think that more than a million people drove away in this whimsical piece of work (albeit not as many that drove away in Fords that year).
Another weird thing is how the faux-sport aspect of the 1958 Impala was translated to a full line of full-sized cars for 1959. It’s kind of odd to think that something this large (and in the case of the still available 235 Cube “Blue Flame” Inline 6 and Powerglide Automatic combination) and possibly slow could have a checkered flag emblem placed on a piece of trim on the rear doors.
But it was just the beginning of Chevrolet putting “faux” on it’s full sized offerings. The “Sport” era lasted quite a bit shorter than the “Brougham” epoch as performance moved to smaller, more reasonably sized cars. You could say that the 1959 Ford Galaxie hinted where American tastes were headed, with the thick Thunderbird “Exclusive” C pillar and restrained styling. Even when the 1960 Fords pulled their own winged look, they kept that “privacy” C-Pillar look for their 4 Door Hardtops.
Even in the interior Chevrolet made one last stab at “sport” before plunging head long into Horizontal Speedometer “speeding is somewhere by the radio” land. There’s something that makes your more aware of gaining momentum where an orange needle swings across a dial rather than leaving your field of view.
You have to give it to the 1959 Chevrolets though; something about them does provoke thoughts of forward thrust in their design. In their forward leaning stance they seem closer in concept to those Forward Look Mopars they sought to dethrone. You can also say that this was the first time since the 1955 models that Chevy didn’t try to look like a baby “Cadillac” or “Buick” despite the fact that all GM cars in 1959 shared the same basic body shell and so many details, including that awesome panoramic rear window. Of all the design details, that’s my favorite from this era of General Motors cars.
Admittedly I planned to work viewing the 1959’s from back to front because there’s a weird emotional change in the design as you progress. Notably the face of the 1959 is quite; well, if you assign emotion to the faces of cars, quite humble, quite friendly. And despite the amount of chrome and aluminum trim, it doesn’t come across as overblown as the 1959 Fords and Plymouths, or a host of other 1959 cars that seemed to be so heavily into angry eyebrows over the headlamps that looking across the dealership looked like the dueling eyebrows of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Only the 1959 Oldsmobile’s rather dopey wide-eyed look comes across as less aggressive than Chevrolet’s.
But the juxtaposition of friendly face and tumultuous everything else is probably a great automotive metaphor for the 1950s: The social change rumblings surrounding Race, Women, and Sexuality in general were (and in retrospect still are) given a friendly face that America was at its peak during this era. Everyone was happy, and bought shiny new things from cars to tract houses to washers and dryers in an endless proliferation of products. And consumerism was key to happiness. The fact that there were two nasty recessions in 1953-54 and 1958 aren’t really well known today, other than people that can explain to you why the Edsel failed and why there’s no 2011 DeSoto. And the countless representations of women selling these chromed beauties were ironically in one of the few respectable positions for women to work in during that era.
There’s a friendly haze of “Pleasantville” aspect to everything we associate to the 1950s, but behind the rose colored glasses, there was a well of anger, frustration and drive to change the status quo with a variety of things from the Pill, to The British Invasion to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that would define the 1960s. Just as this friendly face tries to put a happy spin on the transition from Harley Earl’s influence of exuberant rotundness on GM Styling while the anger of the rest of the design staff of being upstaged by Chrysler and ready to overthrown the regime is evident in the rest of the body.
No other line up of cars proved to be the zeitgeist of the moment like the 1959 General Motors Line. The 1959 Chevrolets just happened to be the populist voice.