(first posted 11/11/2015) We’ve covered more 1958 Chevrolet’s here than what I thought. However, for this I have upped the ante by riding in this Impala for an extended length of time. This was also the most roundabout way I’ve ever encountered a car to write about. Buckle up, because this will all eventually make sense.
About five or six weeks ago, I met our very own Jim Cavanaugh at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana. It was a fantastic museum (covered here, here, and here by Jim Grey) that provided a new sense of appreciation for all things Studebaker. The exhibits also covered the Studebaker brand carriages with four or five presidential carriages on display, including the carriage Abraham Lincoln rode in on that fateful trip to Ford’s Theatre in April 1865.
I even sat in a Studebaker for the first time ever. I finally quit playing with the shift lever long enough for Jim to take my picture.
As Jim and I were discussing the (de)merits of the 1958 Packard, also referred to as the Packardbaker, a gentleman approached us and asked “Isn’t that the ugliest front end you’ve ever seen?” We then begin a lively conversation. A few minutes into our conversation, this gentleman, who had introduced himself as Todd, asked where we were from, stating he lives in Jefferson City, Missouri. As Jim starts laughing and I pick my jaw up off the ground, I tell Todd that I, too, live there. Come to find out Todd and I know of some of the same people and some of the same cars around this area. It’s truly a small world.
Todd and I exchanged contact information and agreed to meet in a week or two for lunch. With both of us having a few major disruptions and distractions that prevented anything timelier, we were finally able to meet on November 6.
In his email making final arrangements, Todd said he would pick me up at work and to keep an eye out for a 1958 Impala. In the sea of earth toned cars and crew cab pickups that populate this area, it wasn’t very difficult. When I sat down in Todd’s Impala he said he had something terrific lined up – we were going to go visit another gentleman named Wes. That visit is equally memorable and will be covered at a later time.
Quickly after entering the boulevard, Todd pulled into the McDonald’s a few doors up the street. I was impressed – Todd has an eye-popping 1958 Impala and we were sitting in the dual lane McDonald’s drive through just inches between people oblivious to the world around them.
So how was the ride?
Following Harley Earl’s dictate for longer, lower, and wider, the 1958 Impala was definitely different than the 1955 through 1957 Chevrolets. For a while I owned a 1955 Chevrolet Two-Ten; entry and exit was rather straightforward with seating height being not too far off from that of a kitchen chair. The only gremlin was the dog-leg in the A-pillar. For Todd’s Impala, one does need to squat a bit for entry with the A-pillar still making its presence known. That said, the Impala feels to sit a bit higher than my 1963 Ford Galaxie, my best source of comparison.
At this point I do have a confession. Prior to this, I was a Powerglide virgin. I had never ridden in any car with a Powerglide and had absolutely no experience with them. Therefore, I was paying attention, hoping to hear, feel, or sense the upshift. It never happened. Well, maybe once I had a vague indication there was an upshift. It simply wasn’t perceptible.
Part of the lack of detection could be explained by the exhaust system. It is certainly not loud, and is rather like what might be if Tammy Wynette would have ever sang Donna Summer’s Love to Love You, Baby – it’s rather surprising and it certainly gets your attention.
After getting our food and merging onto US 54 for the ten mile trip to see Wes, I finally regained my wits well enough to ask the vital question of the day. What’s under the hood?
It’s a delightful eyeful. Todd told me while this was already a 348 powered car and the tri-power setup is something he added. He had found the intake somewhere out east and wanted it on his Impala. The three two-barrel carburetors are working in perfect harmony.
Speaking of things out east, Todd found this Impala in Virginia. Purchased new by a preacher in North Carolina, Todd had been looking for a 1958 Impala for a while. On a lark one day, he looked on eBay and found this car ten minutes before the auction ended. He low-balled and won the auction.
To say Todd’s car is an attention getter is mildly understating things. First, one simply never sees a 1958 Impala on the street. Second, the color – called Anniversary Gold to commemorate the 50th anniversary of General Motors – is a shade that so successfully mixes subtle and bold. As we pulled into the McDonald’s, a group of inmates working on the landscaping of the state office building next door all stopped and gazed in amazement. While driving down US 54 we received several thumbs-up from motorists.
Grabbing attention was the intent of the 1958 Chevrolet, particularly the Impala. After losing out in the sales race to Ford in 1957, the Impala was meant to recapture some mojo for Chevrolet. For an industry in which sales were down over 30% in 1958, the Impala helped Chevrolet recapture its number one position in the sales charts. To top it all off, the 1958 Chevrolet was a one-year wonder as GM introduced totally different cars again for 1959.
Chevrolet did not want to lose sales to anyone, even its corporate cousins at Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick. While that sounds odd now, that was the mindset in the 1950s. In an effort to not lose these sales, a person could specify options on their Impala that could easily push the sticker price up toward $4,000 when a new Oldsmobile 98 hardtop coupe started at $3,937.
One likely factor in the success of the 1958 Impala is basic good taste. For instance, the same 1958 Olds 98 hardtop I just referenced was slathered in chrome from stem to stern.
On the flip-side, the Chevrolet had corporate policy limiting the amount of chrome and ornamental doodads that could hang from its Body by Fischer. While size, engine displacement, and accoutrement were the measure of luxury in 1958, many people then had the same sensibilities as today and didn’t want the bumper crop of gingerbread.
A second factor could be the competition. As luck would have it, Wes has a 1958 Ford Skyliner, one of the retractable hardtops from that year. I was also fortunate enough to ride in it; a comparison will happen at a later date.
Since I have mentioned gingerbread, I realize my continued excitement from riding in this Impala has provided about 600 words between asking how it rides and actually answering the question. Maybe it’s a teaser of the highest variety or what happens when you lack of any type of outline before pecking away at the keyboard. So how did it ride?
Chevrolet heavily touted their all coil suspension for the 1958 Impala. Their advertisements weren’t wrong; it does feel like you are riding on air. The route we took is one I’ve taken countless times in a multitude of vehicles. This was hands-down the smoothest ride of any of them. At speed – while I couldn’t see the speedometer well, I think Todd was running about 60 miles per hour – one could occasionally feel a little bit of a mild bobbing sensation emanating from the rear of the car.
Here’s a promotional film Chevrolet made for 1958. Forward to 5:50 to skip hearing Pat Boone croon about whatever he crooned about and to see some action. This video shows the Chevrolet’s suspension being mightily worked by stunt driver Joie Chitwood, so you can arrive to your own conclusions. This video also provides a second definition of “riding on air”.
Road noise is mild and significantly less than some newer cars I’ve driven. This includes having the windows down as it has been unseasonably warm, with the temperatures that day approaching 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Once upon a time one could drive and carry on a conversation with the windows down.
When we arrived back in Jefferson City, Todd and I stopped to take these pictures. Of course, his Impala drew more attention by a couple of my co-workers taking a smoke. As Todd was chatting with my co-workers and I was taking pictures, Todd observed the amount of dirt on his Impala. He lives west of town and his house is a respectable distance down a gravel road. He figures any rock chips or other body damage can be easily fixed.
Todd gets it; cars are meant to be driven and that is exactly what he does with his.