Museum Classic: 1959 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe – The Chevy Horror Picture Show

I’ll admit to being a bit apprehensive. This is my first post about the fantastic ’59s. One should tread carefully on this pinnacle of American automotive excess that were the 1950s, if for no other reason than they’re so damn pointy all over. I’m also anxious because I’m pretty sure that Chevy is liable to bite me if I’m not nice to it. Impala by name, but certainly not by nature.

In my imaginary Bestiary of Angry and Aggressive Automobiles, the 1959 Chevrolet is one of the few that seems dangerous at both ends. The front end seems almost tame at first, like a quad-eyed teenager with thick eyebrows and braces. But I don’t trust it. It’s trying to lull me into a false sense of security, and I can tell.

The rear end is way more threatening, of course. Those malevolent red eyes, almost out of their orbits and topped with that prominent angry unibrow, which looks sharper than a butcher’s blade… the stuff of nightmares, frankly. Some called this curious feature bat wings, others went with gulls. I’d say: get the flock out of here. This is not a bird, it is not a plane, it’s a panicking conglomerate.

As has been well documented, GM’s 1959 line-up was the product of GM designers seeing the Forward Look Chrysler cars in late 1956 and thinking that their ’58 and ’59 cars would look like obese dinosaurs by comparison. It was too late to do anything about the ‘58s, but styling work on the ‘59s was just beginning, so a complete turnaround was achievable by then. Which is exactly what happened, as the success of the 1957 Chrysler line-up became obvious to all.

For the Chevrolet division, the difference between early clays made in early 1957 and the ones dated from June onward is stark. One thing though: one of the early clays already had horizontal blades at the rear, but that was coupled with vertical fins, too. Kind of like a Philips head. Or rather a Philips tail. The bulky, bottom-heavy early attempts gave way to longer and wilder experiments. Headlamps stacked in the centre of the grille, giant boomerang at the back. It could have been so much worse. But the horizontal theme was kind of there from the start for the back end. The front, on the other hand seems to have been in much more flux.

It’s not surprising that arch-rival Ford were neck-and-neck with Chevrolet sales-wise in 1959. The Chevrolet design was about as polarizing and controversial as it could be. Middle America, along with the Eastern, Central, Pacific, Southern or any other America you might conjure up, and I’ll throw in Canada too, looked at the 1959 Chevrolet and thought “Nah, not having that thing peering at me from my garage.”

That’s one of the reasons why I like these. They’re just outrageous. Although Detroit’s designers had raised the bar for weird very high by the late ‘50s, the 1959 Chevy deployed its rear wings and wafted over it like it wasn’t there. Nothing was as extreme as this car in 1959. This did not last long, as Virgil Exner said “Hold my beer” and produced even stranger things for 1960-62, even as GM toned it down almost as quickly as they had hammed it up. So the 1959 Chevrolet really stands out among Chevrolets in general.

One might even argue that it stands out compared to the other GM offerings for 1959. Yes, the giant-finned Cadillac is also quite noticeable, but then it’s supposed to be the top dog. Chevrolet, as the cheapest car, was never noticed for its styling, usually. For ’59, with all divisions basically sharing the same underlying body elements, the little Chevy became as wide as the Buick it was based on. But though Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick were plenty weird in their own right, they were more restrained than Chevy and Caddy.

Once the beast has swallowed you, things actually looked rather pleasant. The green fabric matches the exterior colours (Aspen green / Classic cream) very smartly. Bit of a let-down, in a way. One would expect more flashes of bizarre googie design – or at the very least a gear selector shaped like a bone, but no. It’s just a nice interior. To Mr Jim Klein: Yes, that’s the black ’63 Sting Ray over there. It’s beautiful and all that, but it just didn’t photograph all that well. Black cars need a little sun, or at any rate a lot more light than what they have at Megaweb. If there’s one thing I’d change at that place, it would be the damn lighting!

I’m hoping to see one of these curbside someday. It could happen. I saw a 1960 sedan on the street not long ago (alas, no photo was taken – I was too shocked to take action!), so why not the real thing? The ’60 is tone-deaf rather than toned-down, a poor approximation of the gloriously eerie ’59.

Fly, my pretty! Stretch those ghoulish fins and soar into the moonless night, like a batwing out of hell!


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Cohort Outtake; 1959 Chevrolet Parkwood Wagon – Lots of Woods, But No Woodie, by PN

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Curbside Classic: 1959 Chevy El Camino- Unrestrained Exuberance, by David Skinner

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