The Chevrolet Impala/Caprice.
The workhorse of the everyman, the city, state, Federal government and every cab driver for a span of 50 years and a car most of the public are surely familiar with...
Either you’ve ridden in one as a Taxicab or you’ve been pulled over by one (or if you’re really unlucky) a ride in a police cruiser, its one of the most successful US models finding its way to 13 Million Dads, Moms and Mr. Average Joes driving them to work, school, or grocery store.
The Chevy Impala/Caprice is the longest running & still in production, model of any US passenger car.
Only the Corvette sports car (introduced in 1953), and Ford F-series truck (1948), can claim a longer continuous production history.
Surprisingly, the first introduction of the nameplate “Impala” was heavily related to the Corvette. The Impala, a GM Motorama show car, based on a Corvette chassis was shown to the public in 1956.
1956 Impala Motorama Show Car
Essentially a four seat Corvette from the futuristic design studios of Harley Earl. Perhaps a nod to Ford and the upcoming four-seat Thunderbird, giving notice that Chevy could play that game too…but the design would never see the light of day.
1958 Bel Air Impala Bel Air vs Impala tail light treatment
Jump to 1958, the restyled big Chevy and the Impala was offered as a sporty, luxury trim option on the Bel Air. Though the Impala was very similar in shape/style to the Bel Air, the three pod/placed taillights that would soon become the trademark for Chevy and Impala/Caprice appeared here.
By 1959, the upscale trim options became so popular, the Impala evolved to its own model line. A new daring shape was needed for the new model. And so Harley Earl, his reign at GM waning, the 1959 Impala/Caprice became his last personal project.
And what a design it was. Under Earl, tail fins had already grown to an outlandish extent, yet the '59 went in a different way. The ‘58 had already started a Chevy trend of slightly canted tailfins, but the ‘59, it stretched them to a flowing seagull-like appendage. The three pod taillights gone, replaced with almond shaped, “cat-eye” taillights following the contour of the gull shaped fins.
There were big changes here, the Impala models having a panoramic rear window mimicking the front wraparound windshield. Two-pod headlights, introduced high and above the bumper in ‘58, were now much lower and integrated with the grille. And the grille, departing from convention, was split in two. A conventional grill spread side to side with headlights at each end, and above, two separate "nostrils" with turn signals at each side.
'59 Chevy Impala front end
Even with the radical gull-wing fins, the overall appearance, compared to ‘58 (or many cars of the day) was lower, cleaner and leaner than before. It was obvious that Bill Mitchell, groomed by Earl to be the next chief of GM design, influences was showing through.
'59 Impala sedan & sport coupe
What might seem like nothing to a modern day observer, the ‘59 was quite a radical departure for what was supposed to be a conservative company selling cars to the “everyman” market. It was popular however, and modern looking, though maybe too much so for some.
It was the butt of jokes, and complaints of high interior heat, due to the great new expanse of glass introduced on this car, were raised.
Rumors persist to this day of rear end lift caused by the "gull" wings at highways speeds.
The wings, cats-eye lights, and overall appearance were off putting to some, but still, it sold well. Even so, GM/Chevy management didn’t like controversy (the bad smell of Ford’s very expensive flop, the Edsel, was still blowing in the wind), they weren’t happy, and wanted a change.
1960 Bel Air
So, the 1960 Impala was a fairly major conservative redo, the gull wings were flattened, and the three pod rear tail lights re-appeared and replaced the cat eyes. As the fins were less emphasized, a large jet emblem was placed on the rear quarter panel to compensate and strengthen the last gasp of the “jet-forward” theme that had been the hallmark for all of Harley Earl’s designs dating back to the late 40’s.
1961 clay mock up/1962 Impala SS
1961 further brought the space age/jet theme down to the earth and saw the roof line conform to a more formal, square cornered look. The Impala “B-body” re-style now was more in line with the trim and neatly pressed style of now chief of design, Bill Mitchell.
Mitchell’s comments on Earl and their difference in design philosophy…
“He had a tendency to make fat, rounded heavy things. I think it was because he was a big man. I like sharp, razor edges in contrast to his rounded deals. When they threw the reins over to me, it didn't take me long to get back into a sheer look.”
Creased lines replaced the past bulbous shapes and the fins or gull wings had become just vestiges of their former glory. A “bubble-back” roof line and rear glass was featured as the “floating top” disappeared and a “B” pillar-less convertible-like hardtop roof became standard in the 2 door/sport coupe and few four door models.
Despite the many drastic design changes the Impala had gone through, a model only 3 years old, sales remained strong and steadily increased throughout the 60’s. Chevrolet made sure the car was popular with an abundant amount of options and engine choices, the Impala stayed popular because it could be customized to the individual buyers’ needs or wants. Along with traditional good looks, it was a combination that kept the car in the top of US sales for more than a decade.
It’s important to understand the challenge of having to design a fresh look for the countries most popular car and ensure that look fits with the “everyman”, average Joe image Chevy claimed its cars to be. The Impala had to meet the needs of the public, fleet/rental/taxi markets, law enforcement requirements and not cross an imaginary line of non-conformity. The difficulty of styling a car that needs to be everything to everyone, be basic and simple, yet overall new, good looking and customizable for those who want or demand something more, is incredibly ominous. Yet the Chevrolet styling staff managed to do that, and even hit home runs doing so, three times in ’63, 65 & ‘67.
1965 Impala SS
With the now classic styling of the ‘63 & ‘65 Impala and the introduction of the hi-performance 427 and the Super Sport (the legendary SS, previously offered in 1962), the Impala solidified its place in the American car industry as a leader in value, comfort and performance, and the public was buying. 1965 marked the year that the Caprice (an upscale luxury option with a formal non-fastback roofline only) was introduced on the Impala, and one million Impalas rolled off the line and into the hands of the buying public and fleet that year, a record unsurpassed by an American car model to this day.
1967 Impala fastback coupe
1967 marked an obvious and successful effort in transplanting the “coke bottle” shape on to the Impala with great results.
By 1971 another fresh look was due, and the B-body was once again reborn, this time it was to be the largest full size car ever produced by Chevrolet.
Impala/Caprices sales continued strong, but now the Impala was now the downmarket entry level car, and the Caprice the top of the line. For 1972 a new handsome split bumper/gaping grille was introduced, partly due to increasing federal standards, requiring larger body protection.
But there was trouble brewing, the coming of the fuel embargo of 1973, increasing safety requirements, rising fuel costs and growing emissions concerns. The heyday of large American cars with large fuel gulping V8's was coming to an end. The writing was on the wall, the B-body Impala/Caprice had to be downsized to meet the growing need for a more efficient smaller full size car.
In 1973 Project 77 was implemented at GM, targeting the economizing of the entire full size car line. B-body’s from Chevy to Cadillac were going under the knife for major reductions in size and weight.
At this time Bill Mitchell, his reign as VP of design at GM coming to an end, took an unusual step from behind his committee design chair, and assumed a large part of the 1977 re-design personally.
Project 77 was a huge investment program for GM, with over $600 million spent towards an 600 lb decrease in weight and 10 inch reduction in length. Mitchell, the most capable of achieving the goals of Project 77, showed he was still able to apply themes of sharp creased edges and balanced proportions to the redesign.
Considering the parameters, Mitchell paired down the car to bare essentials in shape, yet managed to bring out a strong, basic look of refinement and style that normally would've been found on upper-class, more expensive cars. With squared off ends, near slab sided body and slight folded edges, the Chevy long before considered a “commoner” car, achieved an almost stately look. Mitchell, known for his battles over the rear window treatment of the ’63 Stingray, and the infamous boatail Rivera, managed to push through a unique three paned and frameless window treatment for the two door coupe Impala/Caprice as a final statement.
Immediately sales rose to near 1960’s figures. It was named car of the year by Motor Trend and factory shifts went into overtime to keep up with demand. Even with a reduction in power and choices in engines/drivetrains, it was seen as a major step forward for GM and Chevy, and the public responded.
The redesigned B-body Caprice/Impala sold very well and essentially went on for another 13 years without major changes, excepting minor front and rear end updates.
The platform was extensively redesigned in 1991 and returned to a more organic and rounded design reminiscent of some of Harley Earl’s designs of the ‘50’s.
Unfortunately, the design was not a welcome one and landed with a resounding thud with the public. The car was quickly accepted by rental fleets, taxicab owners, and law enforcement, but the public was left cold and a sales slump reflected that.
1992 Caprice/1996 Impala SS
Fortunately, Jon Moss of GM skunkworks, managed to resurrect the Impala SS nameplate, and with some creative and needed design tweaks, plus a Corvette engine, gave the car a much needed boost in both performance and style. Easily one of the fastest and most sought after cars of the last decade, the Impala SS lived up to its SS moniker and heritage.
But the fun was only short lived, and by 1996 the Impala SS (at least in RWD form) bowed out of the GM line up.
In 2000 the Impala name was resurrected, but as a FWD sedan. Many of the past styling cues of the Impala were used, but in a much more subdued effect. Styling here was less than inspired, the nameplate being resurrected to supplement the less than loyal following of the Chevy Lumina.
Yet luckily, and most likely due to the legacy of the Impala/Caprice, a genuine small block V8 and SS version was added back to the lineup in 2006.
The Impala is still on sale today, and despite the many accolades of its new modern mid-size sister, the Malibu has gained recently, Chevrolet still, very quietly, sells three Impalas, for every two Malibus they move. A testament to the model lines history and tradition.
A new Caprice is in the works, and is guaranteed a great future due to this nameplates legacy.
The Impala/Caprice, a favorite of movie directors/stunt drivers, police departments, taxi drivers and the American public for its simple but reliable tradition.
When people talk about a real American classic car, this is it.