Curbside Classic: 1960 Chevrolet Impala – Gullwing, Take Two

(first posted 6/7/2012)      Ah, the early Sixties. In a way, it was like graduation. Suddenly, all of the carefree and foolish (though fun) things of the recent past were just that, the past. Times were changing. It was time to get a bit more serious. The 1960 Impala fits right in between those periods.

The story has been told many times before, so it’s unnecessary to go into a ton of detail, but in a nutshell, several GM Design employees stumbled upon a lot full of new ’57 Chryslers and Plymouths in Highland Park in the late summer or early fall of 1956. They freaked, ash-canned their Chrome Baroque ’58-based barges, and started from scratch. All ’59 GM cars were new, and while the ’59 Caddy has got to be the craziest, the ’59 Chevy is a close second. One feature it had in common with all the other GM makes was headlights incorporated into the grille, instead of in pods above it. This was a striking new feature, though it was lost in all the other wild styling cues.

Yes, the 1959 Chevrolet looked pretty far-out from the front with those “eyebrows” above the grille and the extreme panoramic windshield, but the rear styling made the front look tame. Gullwing fins soared below a sweeping decklid that looked like you could land a Piper Cub on. Cat’s eye taillights rounded out the back, set off by a “shadow box” license plate recess, a rather simple rear bumper and backup lights on the lower rear valance.

Response to the new Chevrolets was, well, mixed. Obviously, the styling was pretty crazy, and the ’59 was lampooned in several cartoons at that time, implying that it scared your kids and was too wide to fit in your garage, among other things. In addition, customers did not exactly take to the super low profile, as it made getting in and out a chore, and once you got in (hopefully not barking your knee on the windshield “dog leg”), you felt like you were sitting on the floor, with your legs splayed out in front of you.

Well, Chevrolet couldn’t do anything about the height of the car, but they could tone down the styling. The 1960 Chevys were certainly not plain, but they did take the wild styling and made it a bit more classy. The cool triple taillights, introduced on the ’58 Impala and eliminated in ’59, were back on Impalas. The gullwing fins were still in evidence, but instead of being a continuous, curvy swoop, they were bent at about a 45 degree angle in the middle of each fin, and ended at the edges of the license plate housing.

Up front, the wild and crazy ’59 nose was exchanged for a conventional look. The eyebrow grilles, with their built-in parking lights, were gone, replaced with a chrome framed “Venetian blind” grille, with the parking lights relocated to below the front bumper.

All 1960 Chevrolets received more modest side trim compared to the ’59s. While nearly all the sheetmetal was new, it was still clearly derived from the 1959. All you had to do was look at that airy greenhouse and wraparound windshield. The overall proportions were nearly identical too, with a 119″ wheelbase and 210.8″ overall length.

As before, 1960 Chevrolets came in three series (four, if you count station wagons): plain-Jane Biscayne, mid-level Bel Air, and the top of the line Impala. While still the best Chevrolet you could get, it had gone from an exclusive hardtop and convertible in 1958 to a full line including four door models, in 1959. As befitting its status as the top Chevy, Impalas had exclusive chrome “speedlines” extending back from the headlights and a chrome rocket on the side with “jet trail” chrome spears set off by an accent color.

While frontal styling was shared with other Chevrolets, out back, Impalas got triple taillights and an anodized aluminum trim panel. The pattern of six taillights on Impalas and four on Bel Airs and Biscaynes would continue for many years as a Chevrolet trademark. Starting in 1961, Corvettes would receive four round taillamps too. Did that make them Biscaynes?

As far as equipment was concerned, Impalas were similar to Bel Airs, but added parking brake and glovebox lights, back-up lights, extra exterior trim and fancier interiors. The Impala two door hardtop (Sport Coupe in Chevy terminology) sold for $2597 with the six and $2704 with the V8. In 1960, Chevrolet sold 204,467 Sport Coupes. It is unknown how many were Impalas, as there are no model breakouts available. Popular options included air conditioning ($468), positraction ($43), tinted glass ($22) and power steering ($75). The tinted glass and A/C must have been especially popular in the warmer Southern states, considering the large amount of glass area these cars had.

Interiors were very nice, with a combination of houndstooth cloth and vinyl bolsters in several two-tone combinations, not to mention lots of chrome trim and a patterned aluminum garnish panel on the dash. Our featured CC is rather special, as it has a factory equipped floor shifted four speed manual, a Borg Warner T-10 unit.

While the standard V8 in Impalas was an OHV, 185 hp 283 V8, this Impala has the optional 280 hp 348 with triple carbs, also original to this car. This was one of the top engine offerings for 1960 and included dual exhaust. If you wanted even more power, however, you could get a 348 with an 11.25 compression ratio (in place of our featured car’s 9.5 compression), good for 320 hp with a four barrel carb and 335 hp with triple carbs.

Here is a view of the attractive instrument panel, with round hooded gauges and sporty steering wheel, both inspired by the contemporary Corvette. I found this car in a most unlikely place – a new car dealership. I had stopped in to get a catalog on the ’12 Impala and Camaro for my brochure collection, and this stunning car was just sitting in the showroom, minding its own business. I had the camera in the car, but for some reason didn’t run out to get it. Stupid me!

A couple weeks later, I realized I needed to get some shots of this car and went back. It was gone! I asked a salesman about it, and he introduced me to the owner of the dealership, David Mills. I explained about Curbside Classic and how I would like to do an article on it. As it turns out, the Impala was from his personal collection. He was very cordial and explained that the car was being prepped as it was going to auction, but it was still in the service area. “Would you like to go back and see it?” “Yes, that would be great!” “Follow me.”

I should mention that I really like 1960 Impalas. We even had one in the family, though it was years before I came along. My Mom’s second car (a ’59 Dodge Custom Royal hardtop was the first) was one of these, an Impala Sport Coupe in Suntan Copper. It was a bit unusual in that it was not two-tone; the whole car was copper, including the interior. Mom really liked that car, especially that houndstooth interior.

She had a friend in high school who also had a copper 1960 Impala, though his was just a four door sedan. According to Mom, it wasn’t near as cool as her two door hardtop. Her Impala was just a used car back then (circa 1970) and had a few old car quirks. One of them was that it could be started without a key. She recalled several times when she’d be in class, and see her car drive by. It was just her friend, taking it for a ride! Apparently, he thought it was hilarious. She always liked that car, and even after it was replaced with a Diamond Blue ’68 Mustang hardtop, she fondly remembered that copper Impala and still loves the looks of them today.

Anyway, back to the present. While Mr. Mills and I were checking out his car, he offered to pull the car around front so I could get better pictures. Perfect! It was neat to see it go around and park out front, as I usually see cars like this parked at cruise-ins and car shows. I rarely see them under their own power.

This particular Impala is very special. In addition to the rare floor shift and tri-carb 348, it is also a largely original car. On the outside it has had two resprays in the original colors – once in 1980 and more recently in the winter of 2009 – and a bit of replating here and there. The interior is as it left the factory, with the exception of the carpeting. It was an original North Carolina car and still has the chrome dealer tag on the back, and has a bit less than 70,000 miles on it. This car’s title history is known going all the way back to 1963. Quite a time capsule.

This car was built the second week of August 1959, making it an early ’60. It was built in the Norwood, Ohio plant and was finished in code 900 Tuxedo Black with white spear and code 873 red and white interior. When this car was delivered in late 1959, it basically looked like it does today. In this age of 100% nut and bolt, frame-off, better than new restorations, this car is a breath of fresh air. After all, it is only original once.

1960 was Chevy’s last year of really flamboyant styling. The 1961 models, while attractive, were quite a bit more restrained, and not as in-your-face as the 1959 and 1960 Chevys. It was also one of the last years that almost the entire lineup was based on one car, with various body styles and trim levels. Soon, a conventional compact, the Chevy II, would join the Corvair, and the mid-sized Chevelle and Camaro would make for an especially broad lineup for Chevrolet. Things would never be the same, though Chevy would enjoy many years of success and would end the ’60s fat and happy.

By the time you read this, this beautiful Impala will probably be with a happy new owner, but I’m sure it will continue to be preserved and cherished, as it should be. I would also like to thank David Mills for his hospitality, especially towards someone he had only just met. Thank you sir, it is much appreciated.