Look at the picture above. Now imagine it’s your rear view mirror as you’re driving down the freeway. That giant set of batwings is right behind you and gaining; now it pulls into the fast lane. A couple of teenagers grin as they zip by you ass-backwards at seventy miles an hour. The front grille of the ’59 Chevy slowly recedes in the distance ahead. If you spent any time on the roads of Cincinnati around 1968 or so, this might actually have happened to you.
The 1959 Chevrolet begs not to be taken seriously. It’s just way too over the top, which makes it an open invitation to pranks, abuse, stereotyping, ridicule, and even willful destruction. Think about it: if you were given the opportunity to crash test a fifty year old car against a new one, wouldn’t the ’59 Chevy be the obvious choice? Well, except maybe a ’59 Cadillac, but they’re too expensive, and folks might get seriously upset.
The ’59 Chevy is the apogee of late fifties American taste spun out of control; it represents the point at which the collective consciousness said: STOP! That’s quite enough! We’ve gone down this road as far as it can go. Time for a one-eighty, time to reel in the excess, time for the bubble to burst, time for a recession.
By 1961, a recession and a drastically slimmed down Chevy arrived. And within a few short years, the ’59 developed cult status, a rolling art object (forwards or backwards), as well as the favored object of creative destruction. I speak from experience as an early participant.
True confession: at the age of ten, I had a spell of shoplifting, and the sole targets of my kleptomania were model car kits. I staged elaborate crashes in the driveway. Lighter fluid was the accelerant of choice, augmented by firecrackers jammed into the engine compartment and trunk. One of my first victims was a 1959 Impala coupe. It was memorable, watching those crazy batwings droop and melt into a puddle.
I say if you’re going to blow something up, make it a colorful object; the Chinese tumbled to this thousands of years ago. So I can totally relate to those IIHS guys and their choice of the ’59 Bel Air. Admit it: it was a beautiful destruction. Like a samurai warrior in his finest garb ready to meet death, the Bel Air glided gracefully to its spectacular end. Would you rather have seen the bland blob of a ’59 Rambler American take on the Malibu? I think not.
At Towson High in 1970, our dope dealer drove a Biscayne sedan just like this one. What a perfect rolling billboard. Everyone could see him coming blocks away, and we’d head across the parking lot to buy our dime bags of ditch weed. His eyes were about as squinty as the eyebrows on the Chevy. And his product was about as effective as those fins were in adding aerodynamic stability at speed.
One day at lunch time we were lined up to make a transaction across the driver’s window sill, when someone said “Look, up there on the roof!” The Principal was standing on the flat roof of the auditorium, peering at us through binoculars. The dealer panicked, slammed the Powerglide into gear, floored it, and clipped the stout back bumper of a school bus with his right front fender, thanks to the slow manual steering. Or his dulled reflexes. Kapow! Another ’59 Chevy sacrificed to a higher calling.
The 1959s were the results of the Great GM Design Center Rebellion of 1956, in response to Chrysler’s bold 1957 cars and the tepid ideas initially on the drawing boards for 1959 (more detailed story here). There are two ways of looking at them: As vehicles, they left a lot to be desired. With their huge overhangs, narrow tracks (inherited from the ’58 underpinnings), “Jet-Ride” soft suspension, flaccid shocks, undersized 14″ tires with a recommended 24 pounds of pressure and slow steering, handling was atrocious.
Build quality was mediocre and performance suffered under the bloat, up some 500lbs from the trim ’55-’57 models. Where the small block 283 offered sparkling zip in the classic tri-fives, now a big block 348 was necessary for decent momentum, unless you ordered it with the self-destructing Turbo-Glide automatic. In that case, you’d be gliding to a stop on the shoulder all too soon.
But life would have been so much less colorful without them. They’re a rolling testament to the blowout of late fifties irrational exuberance. And a magnet for creative minds. Like those that created the ass-backwards Biscayne that prowled Cincinnati.
It sprang from the same creative source that created Cadillac Ranch, and the other innumerable memorials to Harley Earl’s unchecked expansiveness. A friend (paulvaranasi, who did the two photoshop ’59s above) who grew up in Cincinnati, told me about it. A couple of high school classmates had the brilliant idea to lift the body of a ’59 Biscayne off its frame, and drop it back on the frame backwards. It’s the sort of thorough processes that high schoolers excel at.
And unlike most wacko high-school inspirations, they acted on it. Why not? How hard could it be? These kids back then actually lived out their craziest fantasies in metal, not bytes, thanks to an uncle’s garage and welder. Try suggesting the same thing today to some high schoolers with access to a ’02 Accord. Well, that would be a bit more complicated…
The result was crude but highly effective. Rough edged holes were cut under the rear bumper for radiator air. A crude steering column held in place by a couple of welded steel bars. The one bench seat was somewhere in the middle. No instrument panel. Or wipers. Lights? Who cared; it ran, and some kid’s crazy fantasy inspired by the ’59 Chevy was realized.
But it had an unintended effect: it brought traffic to a dead halt. Folks simply freaked when they saw those bat wings coming straight at them. Before long, the police put an end to the innocent youthful fun. I saw it some years later, when I drove my friend to Cincinnati: the bat-out-of hell-mobile was moldering away in a weedy side yard, a testament to the ’59 Chevy’s ability to inspire, amuse, revolt, entertain and cause traffic jams. Now if only those IIHS guys had resurrected it, to crash into the Malibu ass backwards. Now that would have been truly spectacular.
Postscript: Jim Snell left this comment at my GM X-Frame article about the ’59 Chevrolet used in the IIHS crash test:
This may seem hard to believe.. BUT, this ’59 in the video belonged to a friend of mine. In fact, I helped him sell it on my web site. (I have a ’59 Impala and I own a popular 1959 Chevy web site. I was tempted to buy this Belair, but passed.) When we sold it, the guy from the East coast showed-up with $8,000.00 in cash and a trailer, and took it away. We had no idea it was destined for destruction. This video has infuriated collector car people all over the world. The car was originally from Georgia, it was a six cylinder model. That red dust that comes out on impact is actually Georgia clay that had accumulated inside the frame rails. The car was not a ball of rust bondo-wagon!