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)