Curbside Classic: 1964 Impala Sport Coupe – Six Cylinder Three-On-The-Tree Oxymoron

 

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Whoever special-ordered this Impala Sport Coupe placed a lot more importance on outward appearances than inner qualities. They not only picked a top-tier model, but also splurged on the full wheel covers and white-wall tires (presumably). But that’s as far as it went, in terms if indulging themselves, given the very long list of options available. Unlike the overwhelming majority of Impala Sport Coupes that came with V8s of various sizes, they insisted on the 230 cubic inch six, which made all of 120 net hp (140 gross), as well as the three-speed manual transmission with column shift. Given that it doesn’t even have a radio, I can almost guarantee that it also lacks power steering or power brakes.

This was a rather unusually-equipped Impala Sport Coupe back in 1964. In 2016, it’s practically a unicorn, given the scarcity of any original ’64 Impala coupes, never mind a six. And to think I almost didn’t stop for it.

Chevrolet 1964 impala donk

Why wouldn’t I have stopped? Well, other than the fact that I was in a bit of a hurry, the ’64 Impala long ago became an icon, and not exactly the kind that has a lot of appeal to me.

Chevrolet 1964 mods

But it certainly does to others.

Chevrolet 1964 low rider two

Original ’64 Impalas are just not that common anymore, as most of them sacrificed their originality on one kind of altar,

Chevrolet 1964 impala resto mod

or another.

Gedney two chevys 1972

They’ve been attracting undue attention (and molestation) to themselves for a very long time, as a particularly desirable canvas upon which to express their owner’s automotive dreams and nightmares. Why?

chevrolet 1964 impala_sport_coupe_11

Well, it was America’s apple-pie sweetheart, prior to the arrival of those usurpers like the ’65 Mustang. The 1964 and earlier big Chevys always had a more loyal and intense following than its more flamboyant and all-new ’65 successor.  They represent a more innocent era, one that started to fade right about the time the ’65 appeared, along with Vietnam, psychedelics, and the Rolling Stones. And the resultant fragmentation.

For those that came of age before 1965, the ’64 Chevy represents a culmination of sorts, as well as a symbol of a time when just about everyone could agree on a number of commonly held values and ideals, including that a Chevy Impala Sport Coupe was pretty much the most desirable car in the affordable segment. One just couldn’t go wrong with one, in more ways than one.

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Not only did it confer maximum social acceptability, but its high resale value made it a pragmatic proposition too, as long as one didn’t order their Impala like the owner of this one did. Resale did not factor into this one, which was clearly intended to be a long-term keeper. The Impala’s clean, innocuous styling, rather outdated by 1964 like the crew cut, oozed of squeaky-clean mainstream and Main Street acceptability.

Chevrolet 1961 impala coupe

The ’64 was really just a ’61 (above) with some tweaked skin, along with that convertible-style coupe roof that appeared in 1962. And the ’61 was really just a ’59, with a body tuck. And the ’59 sat on the ’58’s chassis. Which means that the ’64 was getting a mite long in tooth, especially for GM’s and America’s best-selling car.

Chevrolet 1964 ad

But then between 1959 and 1964, Chevrolet had been busy developing and introducing no less than four lines of all-new cars, so the big Chevy had to be content with an annual facelift.

Chevrolet 1964 x frame safety girder

One suspects that Chevrolet was being a bit defensive in calling its X-Frame “Safety-Girder Frame”, given that the lack of side rails was specifically implicated in making this frame design more vulnerable in side impacts. 1964 would be the X Frame’s last outing, except for the Buick Riviera.

chevrolet 1964 impala jet smooth ride 1

Yes, the Chevy had a smooth ride. But when it came to handling, an analogy with a tug boat rather than a jet would have been more apt. The Chevy’s steering was very slow, sloppy, and dull. And its handling, such as it was, was equally plodding. But for a lot of Americans, it was – good enough.  Never mind the drum brakes and undersized tires (7.00 x 14, 2 ply rayon bias ply doughnuts). But the ride was smooth, which was of course the important thing.

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I was running an errand at Home Depot in a bit of a rush when I spotted this Daytona Blue coupe from some distance in a nearby parking lot. And I was already well past it, not feeling inspired, when it called out to me: Hey; CC has never had a proper curbside ’64 Impala! True that, which is practically a crime, considering how common and popular they were, and still are. So I heeded its call, and turned back, hoping it wouldn’t disappoint me. It didn’t.

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I was a bit suspicious when I noticed the distinct lack of a V8 emblem on its front fender, but then these cars are often not original. One look into its front seat area confirmed it though: this is not only a six, but it’s a three-on-the-tree Impala Sports Coupe. And look at what great shape the original upholstery is in. And no radio; just a blank expanse of polished aluminum, or whatever that blank plate is made of. Who would buy such a nice car equipped like this?

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And how did it come to be so well preserved?

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Seeing that long gearshift lever hanging there and that rather sparse instrument panel brought back memories of a ’64 Bel Air sedan that one of my high school girl friends had; a hand-me-down, and a bit tired and saggy by 1970. It too was a six, three-speed, with manual steering and brakes. That wasn’t really all that unusual at the time, except for Impalas. Yes, one would occasionally see one without the V8 emblem, but rarely so.

This Bel Air had the sloppiest steering I’d yet ever encountered yet, except perhaps for the Farmall tractors I used to drive in Iowa. Going down the highway, one could swing the steering wheel a good quarter of a turn without any noticeable response from those distant little tires out front. Not very sporty. And the polar opposite of the steering in my brother’s MGA. That was sporty. Of course my ’66 F100’s steering isn’t really any better, and I still do that sometimes at speed, just to prove it to myself. But then it’s a truck, not a Sports Coupe.

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I always drove every GF’s car; it was essentially a condition of any possible relationship. Well, there was one exception, but it didn’t last, obviously; control issues. Actually, this one didn’t last very long either; maybe it was the Chevy. Anyway, there were often a half dozen or more of us kids in it when we would head off somewhere after school or on weekends, usually out to the Gunpowder River or such, in North Baltimore County. The drive there involved the kind of winding, hilly narrow country roads sports cars were designed for, not the Chevy.

The wheezy moan of its tired 230 inch six, the balky shifter, and the bobbing, wallowing Bel Air are all coming back to me; not in a really good way, although it did afford us some good times. And it never let us down. But remembering its ways makes me wonder again: why would someone order such a lovely Impala Sports Coupe equipped this way?

Chevrolet 1964 engines

There were so many better alternatives. Never mind the brawny 409s (full story here). How about just a 327 backed up by the four-speed floor-shifted manual? And throw in the HD suspension and oversize tires, for good measure. Doesn’t one deserve a wee bit of fun with their new sweet-looking Impala Sport Coupe? Ok; at the very least the 283 V8, even if it wasn’t exactly a rocket in these bigger Chevys.

Was its buyer a cheapskate, or just a lover of sixes? They might have at least ordered it with overdrive, which also came with a lower 3.70:1 rear axle, for somewhat brisker take offs as well as a slow-turning engine on the highway. But no…good thing these cars weren’t all that heavy yet; the Impala six had a listed curb weight of just 3265 lbs. Without seven teenagers aboard.

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The debate over which ’61 – ’65 Chevy is the most appealing is an old one, going right back to 1964. Frankly, as much as I was Chevy man at the time, I did think that the new ’64 was a bit of a modest effort, especially its front end. Unlike its predecessors, it was flat as a board, and rather dull and cheap looking. This came from Bill Mitchell’s vaunted studios? The same place that gave us the ’63 Corvette? It looks like it belongs on a Dodge; like the ’63 Dodge 880, actually.The designers must just have run out of ideas. Or they were too tied up with the all-new ’65, which had a very daring front end. Actually, my theory is that they purposely gave the ’64 a dull and boring face to set folks up for the ’65.

GM 1964 Concept_Car_1964_NY_World's_Fair

One of the highlights of my childhood was going to the 1964 NY World’s Fair. At the GM Futurama exhibit, I ogled the various concept cars on display. But there was also a large sampling of current GM production cars, and I remember thinking that the disparity between the far-out concepts and the ’64 Impala was getting to be mighty big; a genuine leap of faith even for a true acolyte of the Church of St. Mark of Excellence. Only a month or so later, when the ’65s were unveiled at our hometown Chevy-Buick-Cadillac dealer, did my niggling doubt evaporate.

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I had just spent too much time obsessing on the ’61 – ’64 Impalas, feeding my endless internal debate about their stylistic strengths and weaknesses. Truth is, none of the ’61 -’64 Chevys had a very compelling front end; it was their rear ends that much more caught my attention at the time.

Chevrolet 1961 Impala tail

In these debates, the 1961 won most often, thanks to its originality, ‘lightness’, and of course the bubble top on the Sports Coupe. Its Corvair-inspired rear end though, was a wee bit off in some regards; its wrap-around effect was starting to look a bit dated by 1964.

Chevrolet 1961 impala 2 door

Speaking of ’61s, I had a special obsession on the Impala 2-door sedan, the only year one was ever offered. They were incredibly rare too; seeing one was cause for a celebration.

Chevrolet 1962 -Impala-Coupe-in-Ausitn-TX

The ’62 ushered in that close-coupled convertible-style roof. And its rear end was now more self-contained, with a  contrasting bright panel on the Impalas, to really draw attention to itself. Which it did. It’s actually very nice, and although a it sparser than the ’63, it’s less contrived too, and as such, the best of the bunch. For the moment…

Ford 1962 Galaxie rear

The ’62 Ford’s rear end looked heavy in comparison, as if the tail lights were melting into the bumper.

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The ’63 refresh brought a more chiseled look all over, including at the rear end. It has more depth, but it’s also a bit self-conscious; trying a bit too hard to be different from the ’62.

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The ’64 reflected the change to the front end: flatter. And trying to look a bit different than the ’62 and ’63. And succeeding in that, if not in overall appeal. But no matter; it still caught my eye, and in particular it was of course the Impala that caught it the most, what with its three tail lights per side and the inevitable bright/white accent.

Chevrolet 1964 Impala SS tail lights

Of course, the Impala Super Sport, which was now a distinct series of its own, always one-upped the mere Impala in that department, with this machine-turned-effect accent band. Not that it was actually any sportier in the true meaning of the word, since the SS was strictly an appearance package, except for the 1961 original. Super Sportless. Now if this Impala six coupe had been an SS, it really would have been a find.

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But I’m quite happy enough with this one. The ’64 Impala Sports Coupe was a car that was bound to make it to CC eventually. It was just a little slow getting here, thanks to its six cylinder engine.

 

Related CC Chevy Love:

CC 1963 Impala SS 409 – Giddyup, Giddyup 409  PN

CC 1965 Impala Super Sports – The Peak Chevrolet Experience  PN

COAL:  Gary Dulude’s 1964 Impala – Updated and Still Driven Regularly

Automotive History: A X Ray Look At GM’s X Frame   PN