(first posted 7/6/2013) The role of the traditional large, rear-wheel-drive American car had changed by the mid-1980s. We’d been through the gas crisis, which led to the Japanese successfully wooing us with fuel-sipping, fun-to-drive , well-screwed-together little cars. The big American automakers responded with littler cars of their own. But it still felt sudden and strange when the Chevrolet Impala, once America’s bread-and-butter big family sedan, took its final bow in 1985.
There was a time – already fading during my 1970s kidhood – when GM, Ford, and Chrysler sold endless configurations and trim levels of their basic large platform. Cars like this two-door ’69 Impala commonly roamed America’s streets and parked in America’s driveways. The four-door sedans were more common, of course, but not to the point of squeezing out coupes as has happened today. A family up the street had a ’70 two-door in this color, identical but for slightly different grille and tail light treatments. My dad had an even bigger ’71 Impala Sport Coupe for a while. The Impala was such a common sight that it might as well have been the official car of our neighborhood. I imagine it was the same across much of America. Truly, the Impala was as endemic to our nation as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie.
Of course, the nation’s Broughamification had begun, and Chevy led the way with its fairly flossy Caprice in 1966. The sedan shared the hardtop Impala’s roof, but the coupe wore a unique upright, formal roof with a squared C pillar that couldn’t have been more different from the Impala coupe’s sloping roof . By 1969, the Impala coupe’s roof stood more upright and was less different from the Caprice’s. You could even get the Caprice coupe’s roof on the Impala. The lines were beginning to blur, but Americans still favored the Impala. They drove a whopping 777,000 of them out of Chevy dealers in 1969, compared to 166,900 Caprices.
As the B body began its behemoth years in 1971, the tide started to turn. This 1975 Impala was one of just 176,000 that rolled off the assembly line, next to 104,000 recently-renamed Caprice Classics. Americans were turning to less thirsty cars for everyday transportation. Big cars were starting to be marketed as more of a premium item, which led to more emphasis on the Caprice and less on the Impala. Just as the Impala supplanted the Bel Air as the most popular big Chevy during the 1960s, the Caprice was now beginning to supplant the Impala. (You could still get a Bel Air in ’75, by the way, but it was a stripped fleet queen. Only 13,000 were sold. It was the Bel Air’s last year in the US.)
This is my friend Karen with her ’77 Impala. Americans responded favorably to the downsized big Chevy, buying 255,000 Impalas and 285,000 Caprice Classics that year. This was the first year the Caprice Classic outsold the Impala and the gap only widened in the years that followed.
I took this photo in 1984 when we were both seniors in high school. By this time, the early downsized Impalas had become common hand-me-down transportation for young drivers. (The car most often found in my high-school’s parking lot was the Colonnade Cutlass Supreme coupe.) My chief memory of riding in Karen’s car was that my knees always touched the dashboard. Karen was only 4’10”, so she had the front bench shoved all the way forward and tied wood blocks to the pedals so she could drive her car. This gave back-seat passengers limo-like legroom.
Karen’s Impala was a very plain car in light blue metallic with a light blue interior. I’m pretty sure the seats were vinyl. I remember the car wasn’t air conditioned; its only nod to luxury was an AM-FM radio. This was a far cry from my dad’s ‘71 – while it was no luxobarge, it was a much more nicely appointed automobile. Surely a better-trimmed Impala could have been ordered in 1977, but in 1971 a big Chevy this plain would have been a Bel Air.
By 1985, the transition was complete: Chevy moved 115,000 Caprice Classics and just 53,000 Impalas. How things had changed from 1969, when Chevrolet produced more than a million B-body automobiles. The people who would have chosen a Bel Air or maybe a no-option Impala in 1969 were choosing Cavaliers or maybe base Celebrities for their frugal transportation in 1985 – if they were still buying domestic, that is.
That this car wears (or wore, as they’re missing) Impala badges and a “4.3 Fuel Injection” decklid badge means the car is from 1985. The 4.3L V6 engine debuted that year, in time for the big Impala’s swan song. Whoever ordered this Impala tricked the exterior out as much as one could in ’85, with a vinyl roof, pin stripes, and sport wheels. But the interior is still a pretty Spartan place with standard cloth seats.
In ’86, a non-Classic Caprice took the Impala’s place as the entry-level big Chevy. It was probably not much different from the previous year’s Impala, but by 1986 the Caprice name had more equity. It seemed strange to live in an America where one couldn’t buy a new Impala. But the Chrysler minivan had debuted two years before, and Ford’s Taurus had just bowed. America had moved on. A new generation considered cars like these to be traditional family transportation.