In a lengthening list of things I’ve never done until recently, I had gone to Chicago City Hall a few weeks ago to obtain some documents. That stunning structure faces the Richard J. Daley Plaza in which stands the famous abstract Chicago Picasso steel sculpture first unveiled in 1967. The main atrium inside of City Hall is just as beautiful as its exterior, with high, domed ceilings and exquisite, glimmering tilework. Perhaps shockingly for any government office, I was in and out of there with my papers in minimal time, and the staff was helpful, efficient, and courteous if not overly smiley. Having taken half a workday off to take care of a few things downtown before returning to my laptop back home, I spent a few minutes afterward to walk around and snap a few pictures, which was when this Impala SS materialized one block west of State Street.
Maybe it was a strong sense of pride in my adopted city in that moment, but it occurred to me as this Impala turned right onto Dearborn that it served as such a great metaphor for the Second City. First of all, there’s the Impala’s size and Chicago’s status as the third-most populous city in the United States. The largest U.S. city by area is actually Sitka, Alaska, with over 2,870 square miles. In fact, the top-four cities on that list are all in Alaska, but Chicago’s population of about 2.7 million is third only to those of New York City (8.8 million) and Los Angeles (3.9 million).
Chicago does everything on a large scale and also places an emphasis on preservation of its historic architecture, much like the ’96 Impala was based on a platform that dated back almost twenty years by the time this car was new. It’s a big, heavy sedan, weighing over two tons, stretching 214.1 inches from front to rear on a 115.9″ wheelbase, and being fully 77.5″ wide without its mirrors. We Chicagoans also tend to be a little bit bigger. There’s just so much delicious, Chicago-specific food to be experienced, whether its our take on hot dogs (“drag it through the garden”), to pizza both deep-dish and tavern style, Garrett’s gourmet popcorn… there’s so much deliciousness available everywhere. It takes willpower to live here if you like food and also want to stay fit.
Like Chicago, the ’96 Impala SS has a certain unmistakable bluntness about it. The no-nonsense demeanor of Chicagoans in general had taken me by surprise when I had first moved here. I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, with its residents still holding the title in my book for directness (and I say this with love), but I had come to Chicago only after having spent years in Florida which is very much a southern state, thank you, kindly. In a way, it’s really refreshing to deal with a general population full of people who just come right out and say or ask whatever’s on their mind, and in a way that’s not necessarily intended to sound mean. Look at the all-business, monochromatic black paint scheme of this Impala. Would you expect it to waste an overabundance of time exchanging pleasantries with you? Didn’t think so, either.
Like Chicago, a ’96 Impala SS is thirsty, with its 260-horsepower, 5.7 liter engine similar to the 300-hp unit installed in that year’s Corvette. EPA fuel consumption estimates were 17 mpg city, 26 highway, and 20 combined. A real-life number might be closer to 18 mpg, according to what I’ve read online. When I had first moved to this city two decades ago, Chicago was for years afterward in the top-ten list for highest alcohol consumption among U.S. cities. Recently, it appears to have fallen just out of the top ten by a few recent surveys I was able to reference, but this city has a long and storied history with its thirst for booze. “The town that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down…” goes that lyric from “Chicago” by Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle. (Sunday was a prohibitionist.)
The Impala’s EPA ratings actually don’t seem that awful for a two-ton car able to catapult from rest to sixty miles an hour in just 7.0 seconds through a four-speed automatic transmission. The SS was basically a police car bedecked in a stealthy black suit, looking just a little gangsta. Again, there’s not much more “Chicago” it can get than that. Its base price in ’96 was $24,405, which translates to almost exactly double that in 2023. It was widely considered a great performance bargain.
Ninety-six was the last year for a full-sized, rear-drive car based on that 1977-vintage B-body platform. The Impala name would return for 2000, but on a front-drive, W-body replacement for the Lumina and close relative of the refreshed Monte Carlo. It wasn’t the same. In typical GM fashion, the last model year of the rear-drive Impala SS was the most sorted-out, right before production was discontinued. Most final-year improvements were inside the cabin, where the car received an updated dashboard with an analog speedometer and tach to replace the former digital readouts. The gear selector was moved from the column (like in a police car or taxi cab) to a newly designed center console that featured a stylized, chrome “Impala” emblem.
The reborn Impala SS had a brief run, lasting only three model years from 1994 to ’96. The ’94 models, the first to bear the Impala name since ’85, were something of a limited production item with only about 6,300 units sold after a mid-year introduction. We can thank those who had openly pined for one after seeing the ’92 show car on which it was based, and specifically designer Jon Moss, who was Chevrolet’s manager of Chevrolet Special Vehicles, for creating it. Another 21,400 were sold for ’95, and then the seemingly unthinkable happened in its final year, when sales of the Impala SS eclipsed those of the Caprice LS sedan, at 41,900 units versus 27,200. (An additional 500 or so Caprice longroofs would be sold before the final chapter on the full-sized Chevrolet wagon would have been finished and done.)
I thought it was fitting that the cover photo of the factory brochure for the ’96 Impala SS looked like it could have been shot on one of the Windy City’s many drawbridges. Poet Carl Sandburg had referred to Chicago as the “city of the big shoulders”, and there’s something inherently comforting to me about living in a place where that strong, solid, hardworking, no-foolishness ethos seems to be built right into the experience of daily life. This essence, at its core, isn’t all that far removed from that of the GM town in which I grew up, where the factories were humming twenty-four-seven and people didn’t feel the need to add any unnecessary sweetener to their everyday demeanor. Words and ideas are still delivered straight and to the point in both Flint and Chicago. That’s the ’96 Chevy Impala SS in a nutshell.
Downtown, The Loop, Chicago, Illinois.
Wednesday, May 17, 2023.
Brochure photos were as sourced from www.oldcarbrochures.org.