(first posted 6/9/2015) Has the simple use of a single, duplicated letter ever done more to elevate a pedestrian car into a formidable force of nature than sticking an “S” behind the Impala name?
Impala SS. The simple mention of it replaces mental pictures of grandma’s grocery getter with visions of something having more balls than a washtub on cutting day at the hog farm. If ever you have doubted the magic that was GM, look no further.
The year 1966 isn’t going to be a year many people would name as being one of the more breathtaking in the history of the United States automotive industry. However, it was far from being free of making history.
When Chevrolet introduced their new full-sized line for 1965, it was a significant departure in styling direction for Chevrolet, with the slab-sides being replaced with flowing curves, creases, and contours. There was no confusing a 1965 Chevrolet with anything preceding it.
There was a thorn or two on this rosebush of a Chevrolet. Doesn’t it seem like the 1965 Chevrolet’s tail has always had the appearance of the eleventh-hour conversation in the Chevrolet Styling Studio sounding something like “Uh, Mr. Mitchell? We didn’t put any tail lights on this thing. What if we stick these J.C. Whitney looking things on the trunk lid? Yeah, they could get broken in a stiff breeze, but hey, we’re Chevrolet. Everyone instinctually thinks we’re sharper than a roll of barbed wire.”
This less than graceful trait was resoundingly fixed for 1966 when Chevrolet gloriously broke tradition and went with square lamps. With the market share Chevrolet had, they couldn’t get too outlandish in their fix without running the risk of losing market share. Doing anything too rash might create conquest sales for those pesky folks in Dearborn, or – heaven forbid – those irritating upstarts in Highland Park. Such an occurrence simply wouldn’t be proper.
1966 was a terrific styling year for Chevrolet; dumped were the four eyebrow headlights of the 1965 that had the browbeaten yet eager frontal appearance of a puppy being scolded for having wet on the floor. In its place was a much bolder and more confident, cohesive appearance. Think of the ’66 Impala as being a fine scotch compared to the home brewed tonic of 1965. Both quench your thirst, but one is much more refined.
Chevrolet did a terrific job with the Impala for 1966. Proving no good deed goes unpunished, Impala sales were down with Impala SS volume down over 50% from the previous year. Worse yet for the Chevrolet fan-boys, Ford outsold Chevrolet in 1966.
There is one prime culprit leading to Ford’s sales dominance, but Ford still achieved the unthinkable. There was some solace to be found in sales of the full-sizers as Chevrolet still handily beat Ford.
While 1966 could be viewed as purifying the murky waters of the previous years redesign, there were other events afoot at Chevrolet. Did these help precipitate the near free-fall of Impala SS sales? Singularly they did not but they each made their special and unique contribution. Let’s explore.
In 1965, Ford grandly and triumphantly bestowed the world with their 1965 LTD, one of the founding fathers of the Great Brougham Epoch. Just like when the physician takes the rubber hammer to determine one’s reflexes, Chevrolet reacted accordingly and lobbed their answer to market. Calling it Caprice, it was a trim level for the Impala in 1965 and would become its own model in 1966.
Out of the box, sales volumes for the Caprice nearly equaled that of the second best year ever for the Impala SS, and for 1966 Chevrolet sold three Caprices for every two Impala SS’s. The World War II veterans were entering their forties, if not already there, and they were certainly a target of the Caprice.
Love it or hate it, Brougham was now in vogue; the tastes of the market were proving to be rather capricious.
The World War II veterans also had sizable litters of children who were rapidly becoming adults. Not wanting to miss out on this segment of carefree surfers and beach babes, in 1966 Chevrolet added the Chevelle SS 396 to the mid-sized roster. There had been a Super Sport option on the mid-sized Chevrolet for a while, but it was now its own unique model. Equipped with the 396, it was the same engine available in the Impala SS and it was wrapped in a car that was 200 pounds lighter and $200 cheaper.
Unlike the Chevelle SS, the Impala SS could still be found with any Chevrolet engine – even the relatively weak-kneed 250 cubic inch straight-six. With the Chevelle SS 396, there was no engine lottery upon opening the hood. While only 900 Impala SS’s came with the straight-six that year, there still remained that inkling of suspicion that any given Impala SS might be all talk and no action. That didn’t happen with the Chevelle SS 396, which let it all hang out.
It was the 1960s and automotive tastes were changing faster than Superman in a phone booth.
Despite changing tastes, the Impala SS was holding firm in its mission and this one embodies all the most desirable traits of any Impala SS. And, yes, SS does stand for Super Sport.
If one opens the hood on this particular Impala SS there are 396 reasons why a smile will spread across their face. Rated at 325 horsepower, this was toward the top of the Impala SS engine hierarchy, with only the Turbo Jet 427 sitting above it.
After being several years overdue, the three-speed Turbo Hydramatic automatic transmission finally made its grand debut. In its inaugural year, it could be bolted behind both the 396 and 427.
How does this console differ from those of today? It’s tasteful and not gobbling up copious volumes of real estate. This interior would be a wonderful way to spend the day, listening to the mechanical ecstasy that is 396 cubic inches of Bowtie bounty. It sure is inviting, isn’t it?
Whether or not sales reflected it, Chevrolet hit a home run with the Impala SS for 1966. It was a car built for comfort with a nod toward performance, be it handling, acceleration, or both. Our drop-top example likely encapsulates all the high points of the year with few, if any, of the downsides.
Sometimes, the best cars aren’t the most popular variations.