Curbside Classic: 1969 Chevrolet Impala – All Hail The King!

All hail the King!

What you now see sitting triumphantly in front of you is the king of American cars from 1969.  This Impala sprang forth during that historic year when man first walked on the moon and some long and wet concert was held in New York state.

1969 was also a time in which the full-sized sedan attempts at being all things to all people were starting to diminish.  Infrequent has been the mention of any 1969 full-sized Chevrolet around here and we’ve never had a CC on one.  It’s time to correct that.

This Impala is a descendant of the 1965 full-sized Chevrolet, a car that was a vast departure from the previous models by doing away with the X-frame and having a lot more curvaceousness.  While we’re split on whether the ’65 is visually superior to the ’66, we could all likely agree these cars certainly had stamina.

Draped in more new attire for 1969 than had been the case the previous few years, the underpinnings were primarily unchanged with overall length being one inch longer than in 1968.  The Impala was still a formidable contender in the perpetual sales race despite this being the fifth year of the same basic car.

For those inclined to think of successful sales volumes by present day parameters, where 400,000 units is a successful year for a Camry, full-sized sales from a half-century ago require some distinct mental recalibration.  Chevrolet sold 777,000 Impalas alone for the 1969 model year.  Expanding this to include the Caprice, Bel-Air, and Biscayne (perhaps the knight, bishop, and rook to King Impala?), all being trim variations of the same body, and sales were well over one million.

The closest comparison to such volumes these days is that lightning rod for internet commentators, the Ford F-150.  Ford sold a comparatively paltry 909,000 of them in 2018.

For a comparison in better context, Ford sold 999,000 full-sized cars for 1969.  Ford was doing well but Chevrolet was doing better.

It could be argued our feature car is the near stereotype Impala for that year – a four door sedan with an automatic transmission and an eight cylinder engine.  The only way this Impala could be more stereotypical is if it were green.  This is likely the most popular permutation of Chevrolet (sales aren’t broken down by body style, only model) and it was marketed as a comfortable and affordable people mover, which was the reason for Chevrolet in the first place.

Few people sought the Impala SS427, that big-boned, big-blocked quasi-performance car.  Available only with the 427 (7.0 liter) engine, the car was on a mission for which demand was quickly diminishing.

To it’s credit, the Impala SS427 did advertise itself as being a hybrid, likely making it one of the first hybrid cars ever produced.

The availability of a three-on-the-tree manual transmission as an alternative to a four-speed manual does prompt some head-scratching.  If any were produced as such the number would have to be minuscule.

A three-on-the-tree would have been more in the domain of the Biscayne, the offering most appealing to skin-flints and fleets.  It was also the big Chevrolet most likely to be packing a straight-six under the hood.

Forty percent of Biscaynes required only six spark plugs for a tune-up.

Stepping up the Chevrolet hierarchy (perhaps a sub-Sloanian ladder?) got a person to the Bel-Air, a name that had been gifted with the full-debasement treatment since 1958.  At first blush it’s hard to distinguish a Biscayne from a Bel-Air as both had two tail lights per side instead of three.  The biggest indicator is the Bel-Air having some pretense of chrome trim on the sides.

A person also had much better odds of finding a V8 in a Bel-Air than a Biscayne as just over 88% of Bel-Airs had eight cylinder engines.

The only big non-wagon Chevrolet to have nothing but V8s in the arsenal was the upscale Caprice.  The Caprice was still top of the heap at this point; its name debasement wouldn’t happen until the mid-1980s, definitely one of the longer runs of continued prestige ever seen by any model name on an American car.

But as often seems the case the name was too good to leave undefiled forever.

This leaves us with the bread-and-butter, baseball, and apple pie Impala of which nearly 90% were powered by one of four V8s in various states of tune.  General Motors was leaving no stone unturned in trying to attract and maintain its share of the market.

Let’s talk engines for a moment.

The standard V8 was a 327 (5.3 liter) mill with an advertised 235 gross horsepower.  It had replaced the 307 that was standard fare in 1968.  From there one could get a 350 in two or four-barrel form, a 396 with only a two-barrel carburetor, and the previously mentioned 427.

There was also a straight-six, the same as found in so many Biscaynes, but the take rate was marginal.  How marginal?  Right at 11%.

The two-barrel 396 was an oddity.  Rated at 265 gross horsepower, this was 10% less than the four-barrel 350.  Even odder was this lower power 396 costing nearly $16 more than the 350.  Torque output was no doubt a bit healthier – or was it?

Bud Lindeman sure didn’t care for the two barrel 396 powertrain.  He was pretty critical of it, even going so far as to say their test Impala needed an idiot light to indicate it was moving.  With a 0 – 60 time of over 13 seconds, it was a pretty pitiful showing for a 396 in a 3,800 pound car.

The brakes on their test unit really pulled to the left but it did make for great television.  Cornering wasn’t this Impala’s forte either as tire squall and sidewalls scrubbing the pavement can be seen throughout this video.

Leaving no stone unturned also applied to Chevrolet advertising of the time.  While finding commercials for most cars is often a crap shoot we have to remember this is Chevrolet.  They had an Impala commercial to appeal to anyone.

One has to assume hiring The 5th Dimension at the height of their popularity cost some serious coin.

Especially when the group filmed multiple commercials.

Too bad they couldn’t find a voice actor that didn’t pronounce “Caprice” as “Cap-Reese”.

As an aside, I was rather captivated by the first commercial with The 5th Dimension and I know why.  As a youngster during the 1980s I enjoyed watching Solid Gold hosted by 5th Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo.  A little research revealed she is now 75 years old and looks fantastic.  She has been married to fellow 5th Dimension singer Billy Davis since around the time of these commercials being filmed in 1969.

McCoo needed to sing more often on the show; her voice is outstanding.

But back to our Chevrolets.  This ad shows a Cap-Reese with an intriguing sounding option – liquid tire chain.  Costing around $23 when new, the Caprice in this advertisement is likely one of the most loaded Chevrolets produced that year.

The liquid tire chain was an effort to improve our lives through chemistry.  A button inside the car activated two aerosol cans located in the trunk that dispensed a polymer compound onto the drive wheels.  This can be seen in the video.

The liquid tire chain option was available across the entire Chevrolet line.  With only 2,600 takers it was a complete flop and did not reappear for 1970.

Watching these commercials are a hoot.  From watching this particular one Chevrolet sure made it appear people were lined up to buy an Impala.  The “competitors” look really downtrodden, demoralized, and strung out.

It’s also interesting to see the production values of this commercial versus those of the other commercials.

To bring things full circle, when was the last time you saw a passenger car commercial that touted towing capabilities?  Since that ability has seemingly evaporated one could argue that is part of why pickups have been gaining in popularity the last forty or so years.

After the blue Impala in the last commercial let’s talk more about our featured blue Impala.  The Impala was sold as being capable of umpteen odd tasks and it seems this is still the case as it was found outside a big-box home improvement store.

The trunk alone could swallow several squares of shingles, many boxes of ceramic tile, or several bundles of hard wood flooring.

Taking out the backseat, the car could likely accommodate a copious amount of lumber.  Perhaps if there’s a plumbing or electrical project, full-sized sticks of PVC or metal conduit could fit in the back of your Impala.

But I’m speculating.  Given I’ve seen it elsewhere in town it might simply belong to a happy owner who enjoys driving a comfortable old Chevrolet in which parts are plentiful and it doesn’t break the bank to run it.  This blue Impala’s mission really hasn’t changed in a half-century, has it?

Regardless, the 1969 Chevrolet Impala was truly King.  It’s not difficult to see why.

Found April 2018

Jefferson City, Missouri