(First Posted August 8, 2013) We’ve spent a massive amount of time on these pages praising the 1977-up B-Body Impala and Caprice. But given that today we’re considering whether the new 2014 Impala is the best big car of today, let’s turn the time machine back to 1970. That was the last year of the generation of big Chevys that first appeared in 1965, and unlike nowadays, when new cars better get it right from the start, the 1970 Chevrolet was the culmination of six years of improvements and refinement. And it showed.
Stylistically, we could spend a lot of time and comments debating the best year for this generation of Chevy. But the 1970 undoubtedly was the “cleanest” of the genre, having lost the swollen hips and flowing fastbacks of the 1965-1968s. They had, and still have their appeal, but it had become old by 1968. The 1969-1970 Chevy was a bit of a welcome break from their excess, and the resulting look made them look surprisingly trim and clean, if perhaps a bit generic. That certainly applies to a comparison with the all-new 1969 Fords and the fuselage Dodge/Plymouths.
There’s no doubt that both the Ford and the Mopars had some very positive qualities to bring to the gunfight for top dog big car. The ’69-’70 Fords built on the existing Ford strengths: quiet and soft rides, and good interior material quality. But their handling suffered for that, which would be a family trait that only got progressively worse versus the competition all through the seventies. And their powertains seemed to consistently under-deliver against the competition, with typically longer acceleration times and worse fuel economy. Perhaps it was the C6 transmission, that was generally considered to be less efficient. And the FE 390 V8 certainly fell in that category.
The Plymouth (and Dodge) have a lot of appealing qualities, mainly under the hood. But the fuselage cars struggled with some quality issues, and they didn’t offer the degree of quiet and isolation that the BOF Chevy and Ford did. And although they were often considered a “driver’s car”, the Chrysler power steering was notoriously numb, which along with the excessively expansive body and somewhat restricted visibility made them less than ideal in that regard. And their once-vaunted handling superiority was no more: most, if not all contemporary tests gave the nod to the Chevy in that category. Time does not stand still, even for torsion bars and leaf springs.
I had a fair amount of seat time in all of these 1970 big cars, and the crucial difference was in GM’s attention to handling, something they started to take seriously in the late sixties. The degree to which these Chevys improved during this generation inn that regard was quite dramatic. Whereas the 1965’s were still coming off the lines with undersized little 14″ tires and drum brakes, by 1970 the Chevy sported beefy 15 inchers, and disc brakes. And GM’s variable-ratio Saginaw power steering had the competition beat hands down. For the first time ever, a big American car had a reasonable semblance of steering feel.
Combined with the Chevy’s well-sorted out suspension, these cars felt more modern behind the wheel than the competition. Their relatively trim and solid bodies only enhanced that feeling of confidence they inspired. And if the optional sport suspension was ordered, the Chevy was untouchable in that regard. This was the beginning of a new era, unfortunately interrupted by the oversized 1971-1976 GM cars, but taken up again with a vengeance with the excellent-handling downsized B-Bodies of 1977 on.
The evolution under the hood from 1965-1970 was at least as dramatic as in its handling. The base small block V8 was increased in size year by year (307 in 1968; 327 in 1969; 350 in 1970), and combined with the excellent THM-350 automatic, made a combination that was unbeatable, and would be for quite a while. The refinement from this fortuitous pairing, even in base 250 (gross) hp two-barrel version, was as close as perfection as one could expect, equaling anything in the world at the time. And of course, more power was available in lots of additional steps: a four barrel 300 horsepower 350, a two-barrel 265 hp 400 CID small block, and 345 and 390 hp versions of the big block 454. Pick your pleasure.
My seat time in several 1970 Chevys all happened to be four door sedans, and their build quality was on a very high level, for the times and for a domestic car. They all felt solid and tight, even the 1970 Biscayne taxi that probably had a half-million miles on it. Well, relatively so, compared to the 1971 taxi I also drove at the time. The difference after six years of constant abuse was very telling.
My appreciation for Fords and Mopars of this vintage has only grown over the years blogging about old cars. I’ve come to acknowledge that JPC’s claims for the Ford are true: it was a solid and quiet car, but its dynamic qualities just weren’t up to snuff, especially the handling. And the Mopars always tug at the heart. But for all-round qualities, in terms of what the big American car stood for: a refined, comfortable, attractive, balanced all-round car with unbeatable dynamic qualities to boot, the 1970 Chevrolet Impala was unbeatable.