Tuesday, December 21, 2010
America's family sedan. The history of the Chevrolet Impala
Impalas are a pretty common sight around my house. Right now, we have three—my wife’s 2007, my ’96 SS, and a 2004 that we purchased new. We were supposed to trade the ’04 in on the ’07, but it was such a good car, we decided to keep it. So yeah, the leaping deer logo is pretty familiar in our garage.
The Impala started as an upscale trim option in 1958. Bumping the lavish Bel Air from the top of the food chain, those long, chrome-drenched first Impalas were everything people loved about 1950s automotive style. When you look at a ’58 Impala today, it is hard to imagine that this over-the-top, highly-detailed land yacht sits in the same place in the market as the current car, but that’s how it was. You could order your fancy new Impala with anything from a 235-c.i. straight-six, to a monstrous 348 V8. And these X-framed cars are still revered by collectors today.
As was the custom back then, styling changed significantly for 1959 and 1960, but upon the retirement of styling chief Harley Earl, you were starting to see some simplification in the design.
In 1991, Chevrolet introduced a new rounder Caprice body-style, complete with floaty ride and “skirted” rear wheel wells. They were nice cars, but even the sportier LTZ option didn’t scream performance. That didn’t stop the hot-rodders, though, and soon Caprices were turning up with custom wheels and lowered suspensions. In 1993, Chevy radiused the Caprice’s rear wheel wells, a styling cue that drastically changed the bulbous looks the Caprice was known for.
It seems that the Impala SS really was slated for production, however, when the LT1 V8, formerly only available in Corvettes and Z-28 Camaros, found its way into the big sedans. This opened the door for the Impala SS, which featured special seats, lowered suspension, and fat rubber. The SS was only available in black that first year, but Dark Green-Grey Metallic and Dark Cherry Metallic were added for ’95 and ’96.
And of course, 1996 was the first and only year for the floor-mounted gear selector and analog gauge cluster with tachometer. In '94 and '95, they used a digital speedometer taken straight from the police package, and the gear selector was mounted on the steering column. These features were a real sticking point with magazine reviewers during the first two years, but they only made it one year before the Impala was discontinued.
After 1996, the Impala name went on hiatus, while the Lumina filled Chevrolet’s full-sized needs. But in 2000, the Impala returned, this time as a front-wheel-drive sedan. The newest Impala may not have appealed to enthusiasts, but sales skyrocketed, as the bread-and-butter consumer appreciated the Impala’s simple, reliable platform.
The Impala SS returned in 2004, this time equipped with a supercharged version of GM’s venerable 3800 V6. And some people might think I’m crazy, but I believe the LT1 V8 that came in the ’94-’96 Impalas, and the 3800 that was in many, many GM applications, are two of the best engines ever built.
There was also an SS model during the current generation (now discontinued), that was equipped with a 5.3-liter, 303-hp V8. And if you ever have a chance to drive one of these, I recommend it. Let’s just say, the performance of this car will surprise you.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at Impala’s history. The slideshow below contains GM promotional images, advertisements, and brochures from every generation of the Impala throughout history. And don’t be surprised if you say, “I had one of those!” as you look through the pictures. Also, if you're curious about the year, click on the ballon in the bottom left corner to get the caption.