Curbside Classic: 1973 Chevrolet Impala Sedan – 666, the Number of The Beast or No More Sixes

(first posted 4/9/2018)        In the Book of Revelation, 666 is the Number of the Beast. At the Yellow Cab Company of San Diego, 666 was also the number of The Beast: a 1973 Chevrolet sedan. It was the only one in the large fleet of big Chevies with a V8 engine, courtesy of Chevrolet effectively killing the six cylinder engine for 1973. Given the very extensive seat time I had as a cabbie in a six-cylinder 1971 version, I can attest to the fact that Chevrolet should never have offered it in these beasts. Which they all were, regardless of the engine under the hood.

A point of clarification: Technically the 250 six was still available on the Bel Air in 1973. But, and this is a big but, it was only available with the three-speed manual transmission. Meaning it might as well not be offered at all, since the take rate for that combination must have been minute; as in a half dozen Norwegian bachelor farmers in Minnesota. Realistically, it wasn’t going to work for a taxi, or any other fleet. Why did they even bother?

I moved to San Diego in the summer of 1976. After spending the first three months at the beach every day, I needed to get a job. I wanted to get hired by San Diego Transit, driving one of their newly-acquired Mercedes buses, but no such luck. Instead I got hired as a scab driver during a strike at Yellow Cab of San Diego, which was an old-school large operator of cabs that had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the taxi business there up to that time. But the times they were a changin’ in the taxi business, and the company would be bankrupt within a few years.

It was obvious that this outfit was not in good health by one look at their fleet of battered 1970 and 1971 Chevy Biscayne sixes, which were ancient by then in taxi years. They all had somewhere between a half a million and a million miles on them (they had their own full shop where they rebuilt their engines and other components). As a new hire, I was assigned a 1970 model, which had unassisted drum brakes and manual steering to go along with a very tired 250 six, and of course the two speed Powerglide. 1950 technology in a 1970 wrapper.

My prior job as a city bus driver piloting GMC fishbowl buses with six cylinder diesels, two-speed automatics and manual steering meant that I was relatively well prepared to pilot this. My arms were strong, and I drove it wide-open much of the time, including runs up I-5 at 85-90 mph to pick someone up in LaJolla. That was effectively its top speed. With its loose steering, drum brakes and utterly worn out shocks and suspension, it was…entertaining at speed.

Given how fast I used to drive it, its demise was a bit scary. Leaving the taxi garage one morning, tooling along at about 30 in downtown San Diego, I put on the brakes (moderately) for the first stop at a red light. One of the ball joints snapped and the left front wheel crumpled under the cab. I was sure glad that hadn’t happened the day before at 85. No, they didn’t bother to fix it.

Instead I was assigned to one of the many ’71s, but it was a downgrade, in reality. It did have power steering, but it was decidedly more sluggish thanks to its greater weight resisting the modest propulsive forces of the six and PG. Its interior, which was made of decidedly cheaper materials, was in much worse shape than the ’70. The most embarrassing thing was that the rear seat cushion was not attached anymore to the body; it just sort of sat back there loosely on the floor, and would slide forward under braking. The seat’s springs and foam were utterly shot. Not exactly a nice place for a fare to plunk themselves down in; sitting on a wobbly, loose cushion on the floor. I could barely see my fares’ heads in the rearview mirror. No wonder independent cab drivers who took pride in their own cars were killing the company. These cars were something one might have encountered in Tijuana back then.

Except for the easy power steering at very low speed, the ’71 was retrograde from the ’70. Most of all, its additional length, width, and soggier suspension made for atrocious handling. Between the glacial acceleration and a structure that was loose, rattling and wobbly in every respect, I can confidently say that this was the worst American car I had (or have) ever driven. And here I was driving it eight hours a day. It made the 1970 model feel downright tight and sporty in comparison.

Curiously, there was a sole 1973 Chevy among all of the creaking old ’70s and ’71s. Not that it was all that youthful either; in 1976, it was already three years old. Its number was 666, and it was driven by one of the most senior drivers, naturally. And it had an almost mythical role in the company; the driver of “Three Sixes” always seemed to get the best fares. Maybe he had a special relationship with the dispatcher? If someone needed a long ride to Oceanside, Carlsbad or Rancho Santa Fe, 666 most often seemed to be the one to get it.

One day when I came in midday with a leaky radiator, they sent me back out in 666, which had been in for service. I felt like royalty; here I was driving The Beast, a real car from the semi-modern era! It actually accelerated; relatively briskly, thanks to my foot being conditioned to floor the accelerator perpetually. And a three-speed automatic! And power disc brakes! And a suspension that wasn’t totally shot! Everything is relative, because in absolute terms this thing was still an oversized, sloppy, wallowing barge. And the new front end with its 5 mile bumper and a grille that looked like one of those anonymous cars in an ad didn’t do it any favors either. But at least it could get out of its way. And its exhaust didn’t sound like a Whoopie Cushion with a slow leak.

My seat time in 666 was fleeting; the next day I was back in my old six cylinder heap. What a let-down. Maybe Chevrolet was just having pity on us poor cab drivers when they killed the six.

By now you’ve probably guessed I wasn’t exactly a big fan of these 1971-1976 GM beasts in general. GM simply went overboard with the whole crop of them that arrived in 1971. They earned the name “barge” honestly. They were a pain to park, or thread through thick traffic. The hood was endless, the sloping trunk not visible, and it was wiiiiide. The low seating position exacerbated its visibility and maneuverability issues. And they got lousy gas mileage, no matter what engine was hiding under that vast hood. A lousy car for taxi work, and a taxing car for any other use.

These beasts were 222″ long and 80″ wide, almost identical to a current Suburban. And which vehicle is vastly more practical, given these outsize dimensions? There’s a very good reason these oversized, low sedans were replaced by SUVs in so many roles they once played, including ferrying paying passengers.

I see a lot of GM designer Wayne Kady’s influence in this generation of big GM cars. He clearly was infatuated with big, long, flowing cars, like this proposal for a Pontiac sedan dated 1966. That’s right about the time early planning and design for this generation would have been taking place.

And there’s this Cadillac rendering by Kady dated from 1966 too. Both strike me as quite predictive of where GM went in 1971 with its big cars.

Or where Kady would have liked GM to go, with this rendering of a V16 concept dated from 1967. Perhaps this colossus was to predict where the following generation of big GM cars could go. Now that’s something to ponder. Meanwhile, real folks in the real world were snapping up VWs and Toyotas.

The irony of these cars is that they weren’t really all that roomy inside. Yes, elbow room was very generous, but curiously, hip room was actually less than on its predecessor. The basic dimensions were typical big American car as they had been for some time, but not nearly as good to sit in as they were back in the early/mid 50s, when cars were taller and the seating was too, which made for a decidedly roomier atmosphere.

That was especially the case in the back seat. This front seat may well be pushed back pretty far, but it’s obviously no leg room wonder. A modern Camry most likely gives just as generous (or more) rear seat accommodations except for width. It certainly was no Checker Marathon, as so many taxi riders (and drivers) lamented.

Compare it to the back seat of a ’55 Chevy, to bring home the point. High seat cushions mean that the legs don’t need to be so stretched out. Which explains why the ’55 had a 115″ wheelbase compared to 121″ for the ’73. And the ’55 was almost 2½ feet shorter overall. Starting in 1958, Chevy went down a road that turned out to be a dead end. By 1977, the downsized B Bodies were back to 116″ wheelbase, taller and narrower bodies, and superior seating accommodations.

Depending on your point of view, these oversized 1971-1976 GM sedans are the high water mark or the nadir of the American car. Yes, they’re certainly infinitely cool now as relics of a very different time, but they were not cool in 1971. They showed just how out of touch GM was in the late ’60s, when these were being developed. Powerful social forces had been brewing in the 60s, and the market was fragmenting. An increasing percentage of young people coming of age did not see this Impala sedan as something to aspire to, as something that they would ferry themselves and their future (or current) families in. That was not the case ten years earlier, or even five. The public, especially women, had been complaining about cars being too big ever since 1957-1958, and GM did nip and tuck their cars a bit in 1961. But that was short-lived; every subsequent generation got bigger and heavier and wider.

By the time these cars came to the market, there had been a decided shift to smaller cars, and there was increasing talk about the likelihood of energy shortages to come. But the guys cocooned up on the 14th floor obviously weren’t hearing it. Their Grosse Pointe Myopia couldn’t imagine a world other than their own, and their daily drive out to the exurbs of Detroit where they lived and socialized with each other in a bubble, insulated from the changes taking place. VW was selling half a million Beetles in 1970, more than half the number of full size cars Chevy sold that year. And the solution was ever bigger cars?

Needless to say, the timing of these behemoths was impeccable. In the fall of 1973, OPEC’s oil embargo hit, and the US got its first taste of a world without unlimited cheap gas. And GM had to initiate what would become the biggest industrial investment in the US since WW2: a sweeping downsizing, which effectively killed these large cars, as the new downsized ’77s were essentially a Malibu with a new taller, boxier body.

And yes, these made great taxis; the next best thing to a Checker. And they even came with sixes again. And they were not beasts, regardless of the numbers painted on their sides.