(first posted 4/21/2016) Spring is in the air. Having seen vintage cars aplenty the last few days, it was also time for the Mid-Missouri Old Car Club to fire up their chariots and take a field trip. On a recent Saturday, I met up with Todd, the owner of this 1958 Impala which debuted here last fall.
Taking the Impala on our club trip to the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s main garage complex wasn’t Todd’s original plan. However, as his 1953 Plymouth had a flat tire, he fired up the Impala and came by my house. The Impala itself had had two flat tires on Todd’s recent excursion to a show in Nevada (the town, not the state). Let’s just say he hasn’t been thrilled with tires the last few weeks.
Upon leaving the Patrol’s facility, where we got to see all sorts of really groovy things including a parking lot full of brand new all-wheel drive Dodge Chargers awaiting up-fitting, Todd uttered one of my favorite three word phrases: “Jason, you drive.”
No need to twist my arm.
The Impala was beckoning; as a one year wonder in this body style, she’s quite the temptress. Just don’t get rambunctious climbing in from either side; one needs to be darn cognizant of the dogleg at the corner of the windshield if you appreciate pain-free knees. However, once in the drivers seat, everything falls quickly into place.
The ignition switch is directly to the right of the steering wheel, on the dashboard. In their January 1958 review, Motor Trend knocked the location as being less than ideal, as having the gear selector in neutral prevents access to the switch. While that is likely true, I never attempted the start the car in neutral.
Todd’s Impala does not require a key; just twist the unoccupied switch and its 348 cubic inch V8 fires right up with the familiar sound of a GM starter. Giving it a little gas reminds a person there are three two-barrel carburetors on that intake manifold.
Prior to riding in Todd’s Impala last fall, I was completely unaware of the charms of a Chevrolet Powerglide transmission. At the time its shift into high gear was imperceptible. After having driven the car, the shift is still imperceptible. The only time I noticed the shift was starting down a steep hill from a stop when I heard a distant “thunk” in the background at around 20 mph; I felt nothing.
As we left the parking lot of the garage complex, I realized the steering could have been (but likely wasn’t) one of Pink Floyd’s biggest inspirations; it was wonderfully and comfortably numb. While it took a lot of turns on the wheel to navigate some minor curves in the parking lot, the steering oddly felt just right and it reminded me of 1980s era GM power steering.
Yes, I say the steering felt right despite it being about five or six turns lock-to-lock. Had I been required to take evasive maneuvers at some point my opinion may be much different.
Thinking about it, a 1974 Oldsmobile Delta 88 is the oldest car I’ve ever driven prior to 2016 that was equipped with power steering. It was a profound difference from my preconceived notions, primarily that of my 1963 Galaxie. The Impala and my Ford don’t drive anything alike.
Speaking of steering feeling just right, the seating position in the Impala is just about ideal and could best be described as business casual. It was upright, but not of the formality of a few years earlier, such as the 1955 Chevrolet I had in the late 1990s. It was also reclined, but not very much. There is a reason Chevrolet was the top selling brand for so long in this country.
Leaving the Patrol’s new garage a few miles east of Jefferson City (the old one burned down), Todd told me to romp the accelerator to feel the triple deuces under the hood. As Todd had honored me, I felt it only right to oblige him. Pulling onto US 50, I hammered the happy pedal and was rewarded with a mechanical utopia that was an intoxicating mixture of happy engine and talkative exhaust. When Motor Trend tested their 348 powered Impala in 1958, it was equipped with the three-speed Super Turbine automatic that provided a zero-to-sixty mph time of a smidgeon over 9 seconds.
I don’t know how fast I hit 60 mph, but I now understand why the Powerglide is favored by some. There was nothing but smooth, steady acceleration free of upshifts, a scaled down version of taking off in a jet where the power simply keeps coming.
My enthusiasm had to be quickly truncated as I was rapidly approaching a Ford Model A that was also on the cruise. It would have been all sorts of bad manners to have plowed over him.
After stopping at the Patrol’s museum (covered here), Todd told me to drive on back to my house. It was on this leg of our journey I got to experience the Impala in low-speed around town driving and all that comes with it.
As you might surmise, this Impala attracts attention. While not an unwelcome thing, it also brings the added delight of distracted, ogling people doing stupid crap as I’m piloting a 58 year old car that simply handles inferior to modern ones.
For instance: I was driving down a city street toward a red signal. As I was going straight, I was in the right lane; someone behind me wanted to turn left and approached my left rear. Due to Todd having had two flats a few days prior, the right front tire was his bias-ply spare while the others were radials. The bias-ply tire discovered a rut in the asphalt pavement that started to roughly relocate me in my lane. With Mr. Gawker to my left, and rapidly drifting my way for a closer look, I was concerned about smacking him.
Thankfully, that did not happen. And this Impala has the best acting four-wheel drum brakes I’ve ever experienced.
Given the preponderance of rubberneckers, this video is painfully short due to my concern about somebody doing something dumb with all the driveways on the boulevard. Shame on me for doing this, but I go to great lengths to give insightful coverage.
While there are rough spots aplenty on the city streets here in town, the Impala swallows them with only the occasional sensation making it to one’s bottom. Overall, it’s a very delightful car to drive.
Reviewing older cars is tough as there is always the temptation to compare them to newer cars. Doing so is an injustice and it misses the point. Times and automotive technology have changed so much since 1958 that any review must revolve around sensations and observations of the car as it is. It’s a variation of appreciating what you have and not worrying about anything else.
This 1958 Impala is a blast to drive, with uncommonly good power, terrific comfort, and head turning style as we received countless waves from other motorists. It is not a small car but neither is it some garage dwarfing monstrosity. Occupying that firm middle ground between nicely sized mid-1950s cars and the bloat that would soon start, the 1958 Impala sits in a happy place in automotive history. And it’s also quite talented in making its driver happy with its nice demeanor and 1950s era manners.
I suspect Todd will be keeping his Impala for many more years and it’s easy to see why.
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