Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 19 News List

[MOTORING] Once a classic, always a classic

Chevy's Impala, one of the first cars to sport 'coke bottle curves,' gets a facelift after 50 years

By Jerry Garrett  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala Sport Coupe.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

One fine winter day 50 years ago, my father pulled into our driveway with a new Chevrolet, a 1958 Bel Air Impala Sport Coupe in Panama Yellow. At the time, the Impala was not yet a separate model in Chevy's line, just a nameplate that designated its status as the top trim level for the popular Bel Air coupes and convertibles.

But Dad did not buy this car to signal his upward mobility or to be part of some Chevrolet plan to nudge buyers upmarket. No, he was smitten by the car's handsome details - and the 4,000cc Ram-Jet fuel-injected V-8 under the hood.

"It had those crossed racing flag insignias with fuel injection spelled out in chrome script, and I thought, 'I just gotta have it,'" he said recently.

And the must-have feeling has struck regularly since then, giving the Impala a special place in automotive lore.

From the start, the Impala impressed. In 1958, despite a sharp drop in industry sales, 60,000 buyers were willing to pay extra for the prestige - and the added trim and insignias - of the Impala, General Motors says. The Impala was so successful that it became a separate model line the next year, spawning five decades of memorable offspring, from family sedans and station wagons to pioneering muscle cars and the industry's unsurpassed sales leader. Chevrolet will introduce a 50th-anniversary edition this spring.

That Impala would also turn out to be the rarest of many cars our family would own. Collectors steeped in Impala history will note that Panama Yellow was a Corvette color in 1958. The dealer who sold the car to my father had an explanation.

"I had stopped at Felix Chevrolet in downtown LA to look at the new Corvettes," Dad recalled. "A salesman told me the owner's son had special-ordered this yellow Impala with everything on it, and before it arrived from the factory the kid bought a Corvette instead."

The salesman told Dad: "This thing's just been sitting here. We'll make you a real good deal on it."

The deal would have been even sweeter if Dad still owned the car; two 1958 Impalas sold last month at the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction in Arizona for more than US$150,000 each. Those cars had 5,700cc V-8s; one with a rare fuel-injected engine like ours would command 20 percent more, according to the Kelley Blue Book price guide for early models.

Rare collectibles aside, the Impala became Chevrolet's aspirational object of desire, though more for its sporty image than as a symbol of luxurious self-reward. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Impala became the quintessential big American car, serving not only as family transportation, but also as a canvas for customizers who turned them into the lowriders of East Los Angeles and later, the outrageous sky-high urban creations known as donks.

The styling of 1958 Chevys was a notable departure from the boxy, upright models of previous years. Though much-admired classics now, the 1958 models were less appreciated when new, caught short by a styling coup at Chrysler, which was capitalizing on the bold tailfins of its Forward Look cars.

The Chevy body design lasted just one year, until the "longer, lower, wider" 1959 models, distinguished by enormous bat-wing fins and almond-shaped taillights, were rushed into production.

Chevrolet toned down its designs for 1960. The simpler lines set the design direction of full-size Chevys for several years. The tamer styling did wonders for sales; the Impala became the best-selling model in America, a position it would retain for a decade.

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