COAL: 1977 Chevrolet Impala – The Honest Car

(welcome our new Wednesday COALer)   General Motors’ 1977-96 B-bodies have been thoroughly celebrated over the years on the pages of Curbside Classic.  As my first COAL, my intent is not just to add to the praise, but to describe why one nascent middle-aged car collector decided to plunk his money down on a car that sold in the hundreds of thousands over forty years ago.

Meet my current classic ride – a gloriously retro buckskin gold/tan 1977 Chevrolet Impala sedan.  With slightly more than 100,000 miles, the Impala appears to have survived years in the upper Midwest without completely succumbing to the tin worm that made mincemeat of most of its contemporaries.  Originally delivered to Larsen Chevrolet in Superior, Wisconsin (as can be seen on the rear), the car lived most of its life in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota and only made its way down to the Twin Cities under the auspices of a granddaughter who didn’t really want to inherit grandma’s car.

One of the most amazing aspects of this car is its complete basic nature – no A/C (not uncommon in the upper Midwest of its era), no rear defroster (ditto), manual windows and locks, and a simple mono AM radio for entertainment.  It’s the kind of car someone bought who wanted just the barebones to drive to church and run errands.  The bench seat is covered in cloth, but other than sliding back and forth, offers no other adjustments.  Like every Impala/Caprice of its vintage, it did come with power steering and brakes, as well as a three speed automatic.  But other than springing for the “upgraded” engine – a 305 V8 – and some chrome moldings, grandma kept it light on the options sheet.

And that is part of the appeal of this car – it’s not only a time machine because of surviving four decades.  It’s a time machine because it is the kind of car impossible to find these days – an honest, low option family driver.  Millions of people bought cars like this, especially from the post-World War II era through the 80’s.  Simple, basic machines that did the job for families – room enough to carry people, hold groceries, store luggage on the family vacation, shuttle to work or school.  It’s a car that reminds me that a car, for many, was a just basic necessity, not a fashion or personal statement.  You can’t get less flashy than the Impala’s boxy shape, generous space and simple controls.  It’s a refreshing change of pace from the high tech, integrated touch screen driven cars of today.

Driving the Impala also reminds me of the inherent soundness of the car’s design.  As the vanguard of domestic downsizing, the 1977 B’s represented the best distillation of GM’s engineering at the time.  A comfortable, generally controlled ride.  Predictable handling – no sports car, but even without the upgraded suspension, the Impala handles winding back roads better than you’d expect.  Decent space utilization for its size and reasonable enough pick up and torque from the small block V8 to make the compromise for somewhat better mileage worth it.  Compared to my other cars – a 2016 BMW 228i Xdrive and a 2016 Mazda CX-5 – the Impala is definitely out of another era, but it demands a different kind of driving.  More deliberate, planful, relaxed.

This summer, my 17 year old son and I took the Impala on a road trip from the Twin Cities to Kansas City.  While the A/C was definitely missed in the hot drive through the fields of Iowa and Missouri, the car more than held its own on the highway.  Floating down I-35, the Impala was in its element.  When we arrived at one BBQ joint in KC, we parked and ate our takeout next to the car.  One of the men working the smoker remarked, “You drove that car all the way from Minnesota?”  My son and I nodded.  He responded, “That’s cool, man!”  Over 900+ miles, the Impala never broke a sweat – and, as long as the windows were down, generally neither did we.

Which highlights another plus – everyone over the age of 35 drove, rode or knew someone who owned some version of this formerly ubiquitous “box” Chevy.  There is something about owning a car that people can relate to – one that was essential in some way to their daily lives.  Yes, it’s fun to see muscle cars and exotic supercars at a car show, but they don’t bring out the visceral memories that folks share when they stop me to talk about the Impala.  I have been stopped at street lights by guys who wanted to tell me how much they loved their old Chevys and can’t believe I’m still driving one.

So, as I prep my Impala for its eventual winter slumber to avoid the season of salt and snow, I appreciate that, 43 years after its creation, it still fulfills its mission – basic, honest transportation.  To me, that’s a car worth preserving.