In a sea of luxury cars and imports during afternoon rush hour under the Loop tracks of the Chicago Transit Authority, which car stands out in this photograph? When I moved to Chicago in late summer of 2003, I was much like this ’78 Impala – a fairly simple, straightforward, Midwestern dude who found himself trying to hang among folks with a lot more money, means and maybe class than I had. Miscalculating the impact of my relocation pay raise against a (much) higher cost of living than I was used to, I saw myself burn through close to $3,000 in hard-earned savings over the course of just three months before I sat back down and re-crunched the numbers. Ouch.
Of course, my initial spending included some fixed costs involved with starting over in a new city, including buying new work clothes, replacing household items left behind, etc. But still. I was in a little over my head. I was now in this exciting, historic, all-American city with so much to do and explore, but I needed to find a way to do this within my means. Sure, I was making more dollars than before, but I wasn’t Moneybags McGee. I was Joe Dennis, Insurance Underwriter with a good, honest job and a modest-but-decent salary. I didn’t grow up in a family with a ton of free spending money, and now wasn’t a good time to start treating everyone I had just met to a free round of martinis.
Once I was able to figure out and own that coming from a lower-income factory town in the U.S. Rust Belt (Flint, Michigan) was a plus and not a minus, that’s when my Chicago experience started to turn around for the better. I was able to meet and make other friends like myself, to learn where and how to effectively save money on things like groceries and clothes, and also where to find fun places to go on weekends that weren’t expensive. And everything else started to click. There was true strength in knowing, appreciating, and loving the no-nonsense environment which helped shaped me. To paraphrase a popular saying: even though you may not still be in the place from which you originated, that place will always be a part of who you are. Don’t front.
Let’s look again at the cars in this frame (same picture, sorry – as I was able to snap only one shot on the fly). The ’78 Impala is sharing this stretch of asphalt with all kinds of premium / semi-premium machinery: a Lincoln MKZ, a Jaguar X-Type, and two Mercedes. You don’t need to ask me twice which one I think looks the best. Sadly, I was unable to get a shot of the Impala coupe’s inspired piece of creased rear-window glass, as I was trying to make an after-work meeting, and also the driver was in the car. As I’ve stated in previous posts, you just never know if people will appreciate that you appreciate their car. That conversation could have gone either way.
I’m convinced that proverbial water does seek its own level, and this Impala speaks to me. To my eyes, the clean, linear, unadorned styling of this entry-level Chevy B-body is far more expressive (in a positive way) than that of any of the other over-styled vehicles on this stretch of N. Wabash Avenue on this particular weekday afternoon. The Impala doesn’t need custom rims, a bug deflector, tinted glass, a banner over the windshield, extra chrome, or any other such accoutrements. It simply has presence. It also may never be the star of a Concours d’Elegance, but it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to represent for what it is: an honest, uncomplicated car for and from middle-America, just doing its job in the big city as best, and as reliably, as it can. Authenticity is key.
As photographed by the author downtown, The Loop, Chicago, Illinois.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011.
Tom Klockau’s piece on the Impala’s upmarket sibling: Curbside Classic – 1978 Chevrolet Caprice Classic – GM Knocks One Out Of The Park
Robert Kim’s piece on GM’s downsized ’77 full-sizers: Vintage Ad: GM Announces Its 1977 Full Size Cars
Len Peters’ piece on the GM B-bodies: The GM B-Body: A Love Song In B Major
Paul Niedermeyer’s piece on the related ’79 Caprice: Curbside Classics: 1979 Chevrolet Caprice – GM’s Greatest Hit #2
Joseph, not sure those Chicagoans had more class than you. Your eye alone is top grade, and your writing just gets better.
Love the Cheb. Plain and simple superb shape makes it more appealing than its BOP siblings, let alone the current metal in the pic.
Don, thank you so much, and much appreciated.
It may not NEED many of the items you named to make a bigger impression on the world, but unfortunately most of the examples of this type of car are now rolling on “dubs” and have been repainted garish colors.
For some reason, in my area, Ford Crown Vics and Mercury Grand Marquis don’t suffer the indignity of “modding” as often as their GM counterparts.
Well said and true .
Plus . fronting is for losers .
Great post – and love the Hamlet allusion in the title!
Great article. You just stay the same. Phonies and poseurs are my least favorite kinds of people.
77 Impala. Who would have thought all the things that made it a success would be forgotten with the bloated Impala/Caprice of the 90s.
The “folded glass” backlight of the coupes was simply stunning. What a shame that went away by 1980.
That was such a nice detail.
You’re a brave and honest individual in this vain and impression-
oriented 21st Century! I’m sick of it as you probably are.
Everyone – and even everything – trying to be something they
are not. Why? Our expectations as consumers have been
artificially elevated, and we tempted into parting with more of
our hard-earned money, to go “high-end”. And to what end?
The end of something ELSE if we don’t get off this societal
high-horse and settle back for what’s REAL. Does every surface
in an office or home need to be marble or granite? Even the
way we talk: “Previously owned” vs. “Used”. “Less expensive”
vs. “Cheaper”. I just counted SIX syllables saved on the right-
hand side of those comparisons! English, people!
The ’78 Impala in your photo reminds me of myself among my
co-workers at my part-time job – in a thrift store of all places! Yes,
snob factor and high prices have infiltrated that industry as well, a
sector supposedly aimed at helping others, by employing them,
and by helping others find jobs or careers, while offering discarded
items a reprise from landfills or the recycling heap.
Wish there was a “Like” button for this.
“Swap out, switch out, change out”
Granite and stainless, everything needing to be “upgraded” before moving in. Gourmet kitchens where only the microwave gets any use.
Base model cars with so much extra junk on them they need 96 month loans to pay for them.
Remember your roots. Stay out of debt. Let the Jones keep up with the Joneses.
All bling and no bank is no way to go through life.
I found a glasses place today where some of the frames are made out of stone, but to me it looks like it is just decorative, but still. Then they tried to sell me a coating that blocks out blue light which emanates from laptops, etc. which I already know can mess with your circadian rhythm.
Well said Joseph, and very true. My experiences seems to parallel yours but in reverse. I moved from a lower-income working class city to a small, mountain tourist town where visitors flaunt their money. Took me a long time to settle in, but I love it now. As much as I dislike my home town and have no plans to return, I find myself talking about it a lot. It’s something that frames future experiences and that’s a good thing.
Every town needs an old GM B body to provide contrast for it’s surroundings.
Mine is a somewhat different variation of your journey. We moved away from the Bay Area, where I had a very high paying job, to Eugene, where I had none. We had to re-learn the basics, and how to live on a fraction of our previous income. Day-old bread instead of fresh baguettes, etc..It was a bit of a challenge, but it felt much more real to me, after the over-the-top rich scene in Silicon Valley and LA.
We’re back to affording many of the small luxuries of life that are important to us, like the best possible fresh food, but the whole status scene and trying to keep up with everyone else is over for good, thankfully. It never felt like the real me; and it was well-worth walking away from all of that.
Thanks, everyone, and also for sharing your own stories. It’s “Keep-It-Real-Saturday” here at Curbside Classic. 🙂
Staying real is good like tha cars in that shot the old Chevy is a good honest car, the Benz a flashy overpriced taxi the Lincoln and the Jag are just Fords puttin on the Ritz and failing miserably in the Lincoln’s case, go with the Chevy
I do love the B-Body, and that kinked glass in the impala two door was so attractive. Far better than its predecessors. GM was by far the best in styling in the 70’s as well as (generally) durability; the X car and Olds Diesel really destroyed that reputation.
As to the whole Lifestyle and premium products issue – – – I bought my current home in 2013 and the first thing I did was rip up the carpet and put in real hardwoods. Not much more than laminate, but you can tell the difference and I expect them to last my lifetime as well as the lifetime of the house. I just had the kitchen done and had the horrible pink laminate countertops pulled up and replaced with granite. The pink countertops were rotting after only 12 years, because particleboard is a crappy thing to build with. And there’s a huge difference between things being less expensive and cheaper; cheaper to me implies lower quality and less durability, and less expensive can mean good quality at a reasonable price.
As for the base model cars with so much junk . . . . Y’all may recall the “America” versions of the Omnirizons and Shadows and Sundances. Chrysler discovered it SAVED money by making optional features standard on a car and building them all exactly the same way. There are people who long for a hair shirt car, something with vinyl seats and crank windows and 70 horsepower, but they are few, far between, and only buy a car once every 10-15 years. Most people will see, wow, this car is much nicer and plushier for a few hundred or a thousand dollars more and buy that. It costs the same in regulations, testing, crash testing, marketing, labour and development to produce a really wretched stripper as the bucks-up versions. A hair shirt car, a really el strippo model like a Versa or Yaris, doesn’t really cost any less to produce than a luxed-up version and no one will buy it.
Cars cost more, but those hair shirt Chevettes and Sentras you fondly remember from the 70s and 80s were used up in 7 years, if not sooner. Today’s Camcords will run 15 years easily with basic maintenance, so the cost of driving them per year versus a hair shirt car, is equivalent or lower. I do prefer the styling sometimes of the Good Ol Days (your mileage may vary depending on your age as to when the Good Ol Days were) but I have 215000 miles on an 06 Caravan and it’s never missed a beat. I’ll be willing to pay a little more for that kind of reliability and durability.
“There are people who long for a hair shirt car, something with vinyl seats and crank windows and 70 horsepower”
I believe they inhabit Quebec!
Sorry, I’m from the planet Vulcan, but what does “hair shirt”
It kind of depends on the economy. In 79 the Chevette was suddenly one of America’s best sellers as the economy tanked. It had just added the 5dr and they were throwing in the back seat by then. We saw a similar thing during the 2009 recession when that $9995 4 door Versa with no radio or A/C was a rare bright spot in car sales. It did have a 16 valve twincam and a five speed. In the same way that Walmart and Mcdonalds do well during reccesions.
FWIW, the “no back seat” Chevette Scooter hardly sold at all. Was to deal with mid 70’s sticker shock. But, for 1976 model year, car sales came back, despite higher MSRP’s, so most Chevettes sold had automatics and even A/C.
“Ah yes, the Impala Coupe. Nice car, big where you want big but we trimmed the fat for ’77. Of course, for under five bucks a month extra I can put you in a Caprice Classic that’s a *really* nice car. Take a feel of the crushed velour…”
Too true. My dad made that choice in ’78. The Caprice Classic just looked so much classier. 1977 was the first year Caprice outsold Impala, I think.
A very good friend of mine, who is by no means a car guy (he knows NOTHING about cars, and doesn’t car too), brought a 10 year old 78 Impala Coupe from his uncle. At the time, it only had about 65,000 miles on the clock. It was in beautiful shape, looked the part in brown with a beige vinyl interior. But unfortunately, it was Mexican car, because everything was “Manuel” ha ha ha. No power windows, no power seat, no power door locks. But, it did have the very rare 50/50 split front seat with individual armrests (I only saw this option before in Caprice Classics). Also, the car had a full vinyl roof, which didn’t really do anything to the look. In fact, I thought it distracted from the beautiful bent glass rear window. The “Landau” versions with their front canopy vinyl roof and color keyed window frame moldings made the car look really good.
My friend totally abused this poor B body classis. I don’t think he ever changed the oil in all the years he owned it. He managed to loose every wheel cover, collected many scratches and dents, and of course, the ceiling cloth was fixed by stapling it to the foam.
I wish I could have brought this classic American car from him, and treat it in the manner it deserved to be treaded. I too, would take the 1977 to 79 Impala coupe over any of todays luxury cars.
I do find it odd that Chevy inverted the rear window glass on all Caprice and Impala Custom Coupes from 69 through 76, while the lesser standard model Impala Coupe featured a plainer window. IDK why Chevy designed the 77 to have a non inverted rear window. I often wonder what the 77 would have looked like with an inverted rear window.
Mr. Dennis you are a talented and thoughtful man. Thank you for sharing so many fine photos and posts with us. Keeping it real, always a good idea. These old American cars were just good reliable transportation. Some were honest like this Chevy and some were not, like some of the Brogham-tastic creations of the eighties. I think most readers here appreciate the honesty of simple cars of any vintage and they also appreciate finely built high quality cars also. We all have different life experiences and outlooks and can benefit from each other’s opinions. Thanks.
Thanks for the kind words, Jose!
I remember riding in one of these 1977 – ’79 B-body Chevy coupes as a pre-teen, as our church youth group director had a red Caprice coupe of this vintage. It was as nice a car inside as the styling was on the outside. Also, my aunt and uncle had bought a 10-year-old Caprice Wagon around ’88 which was also just a really nice car. Given how much car technology had changed in the ten years spanning 1978 – 1988, how much my aunt and uncle liked that car was a testament to its basic goodness.
hair shirt : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cilice. Term is used to denote unnecessary suffering/penitence; Paul Niedermeyer is familiar with the concept, as his father could have afforded better cars or better cars could have been had for only a few hundred dollars more but a car was chosen which was more for the penurious and miserable experience rather than for any actual savings.
Thank you – “hair shirt” was a new one for me, as well. “Curbside Classic – learn about cars and expand your vocabulary in just a few clicks!”