Why is the loss of innocence such a recurring theme in automotive writing? Blame it on GM; or the other car companies. They perpetually stoked our dreams for the next great thing, and that next great thing usually wasn’t. But our desire for it be so sure kept us coming back; until our willingness to be seduced finally petered out.
If you’re at all like me, that took decades. But there was always that first time; the moment when the carnal reality of the car business first revealed itself in its naked lust – for profit, not the true fulfillment of our dreams (as if that were possible). Ideally, that kind of thing shouldn’t happen at a very tender age. And if Chevy had done the right thing with its 1958 models, my automotive cherry would have been intact just a wee bit longer.
It all had to do with my obsession on a particular 1958 Impala coupe that sat a block down the street from us. It was the first car on the way to my CC-studded walk to school that inevitably made me late. By then (’61 or ’62), the ’58 Impala was already practically a veteran, but it never failed to hold me in a certain thrall. Maybe it’s because I was still in Austria when the ’58s came out, and I was trying belatedly to recapture GM’s Motorama magic of the mid fifties.
Its colorful interior held a peculiar intense interest for me, especially the fact that it had something approaching bucket seats in the rear, but a bench in the front. Given that front buckets were all the rage in 1962, I just couldn’t figure out why Chevy didn’t bestow them on the Impala coupe, since it was trying so hard to be whatever it was trying so hard to be. What was that, exactly?
I found out, the hard way, when I stumbled unto this: a picture of the 1955 Corvette Impala show car. I’m not exactly sure where I found it; probably an old Life magazine in the house we rented from a family that went to off Pakistan for two years. They left everything behind, all the kids’ toys and stacks of MAD and Life magazine. My assimilation was very quick indeed.
Anyway, this Corvette Impala was one of the most important cars in the auto-development of my seven or eight year-old life. I thought it was one of the most beautiful cars ever, even if it was then already almost as old as me (an eternity then). Obviously, it carried the Corvette styling cues on its front end that so deeply grabbed me by the (very) short hairs when I saw my first Corvette upon arriving in NYC.
But the Corvette Impala developed that theme in a way that I never saw anywhere at GM again. The original Corvette was a bit primitive in some respects, but this coupe was (is) truly graceful and elegant. If someone had told me or you that it was commissioned by Pininfarina, wouldn’t we all believe it?
Now obviously, like all GM show cars to one degree or another, the Corvette Impala was a way of previewing the cars that came three years later, in 1958. And specifically, the 1958 Impala coupe, which was a radical concept in itself: a distinctive body style for a new high-end Chevy. Well, that alone is the stuff of another whole article, but not today. Let’s just say it was part of the (almost) endless escalation game that Detroit was playing, the counterpart to the cold war: Yesterday’s flashy new top-of-the-line Bel Air is now a rung down the ladder, and will keep going down a rung until it falls off altogether. 1958 was the last year this Biscayne would still be one step above the end, occupied by that one-year phenomena, the Del Ray.
But there’s many a slip from the revolving Motorama bowl to the 1958 production Chevy’s swollen lip. But why? Can you imagine what a desirable car that ’58 Impala coupe would be (then and today) if it had been built as is? Now that would have been some curvaceous competition to the ’58 Square Bird. So seeing that Corvette Impala in an old magazine and comparing it to the real thing down the street was the first crack of automotive innocence. I wish I hadn’t been so young.
What a trim, tight and elegant successor to the truly superb 1955 Chevy the 1958 Chevy could have been. Instead, it turned out to be a bloated, wallowing thing, literally drooping off the side of its willowy X-frame. Figure it: the 1958’s were all new, and yet it already looks like they were grafting a side extension on an old narrow undercarriage; something Studebaker might have had to do. It wasn’t the last time either: reminds me of that pregnant-whale 1991 Caprice. The Wide-Track Pontiac was just waiting to be invented.
Speaking of that frame, thanks to someone trying to sell that immaculate Impala coupe in the pictures above, here’s a very graphic picture of the infamous X-frame. It’s easy to see why its MIA side impact resistance put the death knell to it. But there was that Jet-Smooth Ride, thanks to coil springs on all the wheels. No wonder low riders always preferred Chebbies, they don’t need to be lowered. The coils naturally sag about an inch per decade, if not more.
The lower, longer and wider mantra took the industry by storm, starting with the giant 1957 Chrysler family of finned behemoths. Of course, the ’58 Chevy can’t be blamed on that; it was obviously well down the road to production by then. Bloat was just in the air, or maybe the Russkies put something in our water: first it made our cars obese, then us.
Only three years after Chevy built the perfect American car, with the perfect little V8 to power it so nicely, the ’58 Chevy was suddenly a completely new animal: a cut-rate Oldsmobile or Buick. Chevy had been a sort of junior Caddy for a while, in its styling cues, but now it wanted to grow up and actually be one, in size anyway.
Which meant a whole new bigger V8 engine to power the big boy Chevy adequately. Just one year after the brilliant 283 CID V8 small block appeared, the ’58 now offered a new 348 inch big block, with up to 315 horsepower, doubling the 265’s output. War!!
Let’s not even mention the ill-fated Turbo-Glide automatic, a typical GM over-reach disaster of the kind that they soon became famous for. That alone goes a long way to explain why Chevy stuck with the Powerglide for so many years. The Turbo-Glide blew the budget for a better automatic as fast as it blew itself apart.
So if Chevy could enthrall Americans in 1958 with its new car, why not also a three door sedan? Sure, why not indeed? It makes perfect sense; at least as much sense as the ’58 Chevrolet altogether. Actually, quite a bit more so, really, when you think about it.
I don’t know about you, but on those occasions we piled into Dad’s two-door Dart instead of the wagon, we always, only and ever crawled into the back seat via Mom’s side. Wouldn’t have dared to inconvenience him. Did anybody ever go in via the driver’s side? Maybe 10%, or less. So there’s the perfect argument for the three-door sedan: 90% of the benefit of a four door, for a savings of $27 (half the difference between a two door and four door). Which back then actually still meant something ($200 in today’s money).
That whole train of logic was applied quite successfully to Chevy’s Suburban from 1967 through 1972, which featured the same three-door concept. Someone actually applied logic there, figuring out that driver-side rear doors weren’t sagging and wearing out like the passenger side rear doors, which never fit and closed properly in the ’58s anyway. Might as well save one bit of that recurring headache.
So when it’s all boiled down, the three door concept was the best and most logical aspect about the 1958 Chevrolet, next to the beauty and grace of the Corvette Impala. Too bad they didn’t actually build either of them.
(my apologies for the ghosts in the pictures; that was my old camera which had dust inside it that reflected when shot towards the sun)
wow… memories… my buddy, Fred, had a ’59 Chevrolet 2-door… one of the many cars he traded for, back in high school. His Chevy had a glass pack (for the nice, rumbling sound) and leopard skin on the dash… a truly awesome hot rod!
A lifted Toyota 4×4 and a Subaru Brat in the same yard. Ah, Eugene!
Giving a CCclue with a custom car is cheating 😉 But I actually found it anyway. the curious bodystyle which I instantly recognized as a 58 chebby, was weird enough for me to go on a googling rampage, ending up with only one picture of a similar car. On flickr offcourse,the picture only named ’58 chevy’ and copyrighted and I couldnt hotlink the evidence here..
But, one of the comments under the picture was from someone named ‘Skeleturk’ saying it was indeed a Biscayne, and he knew it because it was his car. It had different colours in that picture (maybe just lighting/camera ), but now it has his signature on the numberplate 🙂 Link : http://www.flickr.com/photos/southerncalifornian/3640590234/
Seems liek he went through a lot of trouble hiding that rear door on the drivers side.
In my opinion it is a beatiful car, and especially the Impala Sport Coupe , but I must admit it’s linked to a childhood memory of my dads collegue owning a perfect torquise/white example with the 348. As far as I can understand nothing of the technical qualities of the car matches its looks, like so many classic american cars…
Love his comment on Flickr, under his car’s photo: “…how did this get on here? I never submitted it nor did I authorize this pic to be put up…”
Think I’ll start telling jurisdictions with photo radar, stoplight and toll enforcement that I didn’t authorize them to photograph my vehicle…
Hmmm….indeed. When you showed us that 2-door ’58 I quit looking at Chevys. I just couldn’t believe the rear door could be so invisible on a car without its chrome. Interesting to see the earlier picture, thanks zycotec. The filled-in door looks a little rough in that photo.
The Vauxhall’s resemblance is no coincidence of course.
The 3-door sedan does make perfect sense. Reminds me of the post-Avanti prototypes Stude built as 2-door on one side and 4-door on the other. 3-door cars actually, but they got it backwards.
PA series Vauxhalls aped the 58 Chev my favourite cars actually but didnt get out till 59 which are rare now Thank you Gm for the rust.
Well, Skeleturk was there the day I shot his car, and perfectly accommodating about it. I’m bummed my pictures came out so crappy; that probably affected my mood when I wrote this.
Truth is, I love his particular car; it’s putting the ’58 to proper use, as a rolling sculpture. It’s about my favorite ’58 I’ve seen. The really pristine ’58 Impalas always remind me of what they could have been.
it’s the same car as the one in this pic. it changes color often lol.
Suddenly yesterday’s 58 Ford doesn’t look so bad.
When discussing the perennial popularity of the 57 Chevy yesterday, I forgot one additional cause – the 58 Chevy. As often as I saw 57s as a kid, I virtually never saw 58s. The X frame, the Turboglide, the looks of a 56 Oldsmobile with a bad case of bloat, no wonder I love old Mopars so much. If Chrysler hadn’t screwed up the 57 launch so badly, they wold have sold a bazillion 58 Plymouths once everyone saw Car C and Car F for 1958.
When I was in grad school in the early 80s, there was a kid in our apartment building who brought the most raggedy looking 58 Bel Air sedan known to man into the parking lot. This was the most pathetic car I had ever seen. Rusting, sagging, dented, you name it. He tried to tell us how powerful it was, and that it was probably good for 130 mph. When I opened the hood and saw the Blue Flame 6 sitting on a Powerglide staring back at me, I concluded that the car’s owner was a pathalogical liar. Last week on the news, I saw that the State is pulling the same guy’s used car dealer’s license. It only took them 25 years to figure him out. I did it with a single car.
I beg to differ. The Impala coupe pictured above is far more attractive then the Fairlane of yesterday.
But yes, the ’58 Mopar was better than both.
On the Chevy, I always found the 4 parking lights useless. The same for the Cadillac’s of this era. Aesthetically they are clumsy, and don’t enhance the face. And did two light up when turning? Confusing.
Kind of like the third center brake light of today that lights up a split second before the regular tail lights. My first thought is always to question why all 3 brake lights did not light up simultaneously? Is something wrong?
caljn – Your answer about the 3rd brake light lighting up sooner than the others – More than likely it’s that the other lights are old-style bulbs and the high mounted lights are LED. LEDs will appear to come on and off faster than the bulbs do.
This car being built during the early days of the jet age, the four parking lights were meant to resemble jet engine intakes. Much the same way the taillights were meant to resemble jet exhausts. I don’t know about all ’58’s, but on my dad’s only the outer light ever worked, both in parking light and turn signal modes.
It’s really hard to justify any of General Motors 1958 cars as Attractive. I try (there’s some nice lines underneath all of the chrome of all of these cars) but their narrow stance makes them look like hippos doing ballet.
I don’t know which people have more lousy memories of, the 1958’s or 1959’s. Weren’t they both cursed with the same frame? So a lot of the flaws carried over until at least 1961? I have to say that I would have had to brave the quality issues of the Plymouth for 1958, because when it did drive, it drove far better than the other two, and wasn’t as painful to look at. Also it didn’t look like a watered down Imperial or New Yorker. 1957-58 is when Chrysler did its absolute best in giving their cars really distinct looks (except for Chryslers and DeSotos).
The X-Frame soldiered on through 1964. The changes from 1958 through ’64 were essentially all external re-skins. Same basic car underneath, and under the hood.
What did he do, buy Mr. Roper’s old car from Three’s Company???
I remember one episode of Three’s Company where the subplot was Jack Tripper’s answering a newspaper ad for a ’57 Chevy at a bargain price…but when he got to the seller’s residence and actually saw the car…the reason for the bargain price became obvious…
The car was a ’58.
The “57” was a typo. Cue the canned laughter.
Whereas the Tri-Fives were virtually instant classics, the ’58’s have only been considered such for the last 25 years or so.
I thought that Mr. Roper was trying to sell the car, which he kept saying was a “1957 Chevrolet.” He therefore thought that it would be worth a fortune.
He then told his wife and Jack Tripper (John Ritter) that it was “one of the first ones out that model year…I bought in October 1957.” Which, of course, resulted in audience laughter, as it was therefore one of the first 1958 models, which weren’t worth as much.
Interesting that, even in the late 1970s, enough people were aware of the difference between a 1957 and 1958 Chevrolet, and their relative values, that a sitcom could use it as a crucial part of the plotline. Also shows how people commonly understood that new cars were routinely introduced in the fall months for the next model year.
He tried to tell us how powerful it was, and that it was probably good for 130 mph. When I opened the hood and saw the Blue Flame 6 sitting on a Powerglide staring back at me…
Gee, maybe he meant 130 km/h? 🙂
I believe that 1958 was the year that a new-car buyer was better off skipping the low-price three entirely, and either somehow making the leap to an Oldsmobile (ignoring the gruesome styling, of course) or a Pontiac, or else buying a “standard” Rambler or Ambassador. Oldsmobile and Pontiac were the only medium-price makes that avoided serious quality problems in the late 1950s.
Someone across the street from the college I attended in Iowa in 1958 had two new Impala two-door hardtops – a lowered one in white and a stock-height one in black. I wasn’t nearly so envious of them as I was the fellow student who had a new 1958 red Plymouth convertible…exactly like the one I bought in 1967 and owned for 32 years.
Word on the street right from the git-go was that the 348 was a truck engine and the Turbo-Glide transmission was to be avoided.
I always liked 58s something about them looks right after the stickon fins of 57 we got 4 door only unless privately imported and theres a marvelous unrestored daily driver around here with the plate 58 MATE in multi green Ill try for a foto next time I see it. 3 doors reminds me of the Holden panel vans built as ambulances using 1 station wagon door for side access to the blood bin now Hyundai has caught the 3door disease.
I think Kaiser Travellers were 3 door. The drivers side rear door was welded shut to hold the spare tire.The Traveller was one of the first “hatchbacks” made and didn’t have room for the spare in the cargo area.
AWESUM very first hatch back I reckon alot of people claim the Austin A40 Farina but Kaiser predates that by 10 years or more, nice
In 1951 the Traveler was redesigned so that all four doors opened, but this model didn’t sell as the one with the “fake” door.
Reminds me of the three door Saturn SC
As a kid, my memories of a repainted medium flat blue, Probably Biscasne or less Were All That My divorced neighbor had left when his lovely wife Left Him in Her new 1968 Chrysler Convertible, A Newport Custon I believe Dk Green Black…
But HE Polished away at his 58 Chevy ….. Maybe It was even a Bel Air, But I doubt it. It shined better than original. I think he was cool with my questions so I liked him, but felt sorry that he ciouldn’t seem to keep up with the neighborhood. He was an obvious exception to not having a 60s car in our sidestreet… Lots Of Ford Squire Wagons, Buick & Pontiacs, Kingswood Estates/Estate Wagonzzzz… Now its all Camrys, Lexus, MB,Hondas…
I’m thinking I would prefer the 1958 Ford Skyliner to this…. in highsight it looks trimmer than this for one thing. I Like The 59…Chevy much better than 58…Which 2 me is Monumental for Introducing IMPALA to the American Auto industry. The #1 Car When we were growing up, until Cutlass first stole #1…
I will always have a soft spot for the ’58 Impalas, my dad had one all my life til I was 17, then he sold it. Sierra Gold/Artic White two-tone with the 348 Tri-Power. When dad was just out of college (about ’69 or ’70) the Turbo-Glide did what they all do. The guy at the transmission shop told him it was a 45-cent washer, but it would cost about $300 to fix it because the trans had to be gutted to get to it. Dad had all the parts needed to convert it to manual, so it became a 3-speed manual. And it would do 130+. Dad got caught twice. I remember the officer coming to the house to write him the ticket because they couldn’t catch him, but they knew where he lived. The unspoken problem with the x-frame is that there is a double-cardan CV joint with a hanger bearing in the middle of the driveline, right where the frame rails come together (under the bolded-on plate). Dad always said if you dumped the clutch in 1st at just the right time, you could almost lift the front wheels, but it tore up the hanger bearing, and it was the better part of an afternoon to fix.
I have never been a fan of the “Corvette Impala” concept car. I don’t think that the Corvette lines scale-up all that well. Mind you, it is nicer looking than some production cars, and better looking than a 58 Chevy in my opinion. Looks-wise, I’d rather have a production 55, 57 or 59 Chevy than the Corvette Impala concept.
My dad had a 1958 Biscayne 2-door sedan with a 6 and 3 on the tree. I don’t remember much about it except that it was silver-blue and seemed a lot bigger that the 56 Plymouth Savoy 2-door sedan that he traded in.
The 58 was traded on a 1960 Biscayne 2-door sedan with a 6 and 3-speed manual. What was the point? It looked a lot newer.
I don’t think we understood that the dramatically different-looking 59 and 60 were not all-new.
He only kept the ’60 for one year. It was traded for a ’61 Plymouth Belvedere that was as bad as it looked and it was, in turn, traded for a ’62 Ford Galaxie which was the most solid of the bunch.
I’m sure the local car dealers loved him.
With all the money he wasted on these frequent trades amongst the low-priced 3, he probably could have bought a Caddy.
That was the Detroit way, in those days – make it look wildly different every couple of years. Compare the 1957 Chevrolet with the 1963. Appallingly different – hard to believe they were even made in memory of each other.
Now, compare the 1964 Chevy with the 1979. Actually, a lot of similarity…size; layout; structure of the cabin. A combination of factors ended the Good Old Days of planned stylistic obsolesence; chief among them were expensive, time-consuming regulatory standards, smog and later fuel efficiency, that had to be met. Corners had to be cut elsewhere; and while nobody cheered the neglected engineering of the later full-size Chevys, radical and silly styling trends and frills also went away.
That coin has two sides. Now that cars cost so much more, to meet these standards…they’re no longer throwaway appliances. I’m no fan of the Regulatory State, but I have to admit that the standards brought changes to cars, primarily in the engines and drivetrains, that enable to last three times as long as they did in the Tailfin Age.
Obviously inspired Saturn for their three door coupe.