Thursday, August 18, 2011

As the ISSCA meets up this weekend at the Woodward Dream Cruise, we look at the history of the 1994-1996 Impala SS

The big Woodward dream cruise takes place this weekend in Detroit. Automotive enthusiasts from all over the nation will converge on the Motor City to celebrate America’s automotive heritage with the granddaddy of all car cruises.

Chevrolet is a major sponsor of the cruise this year, with all kinds of displays and events happening as part of their 100th Anniversary celebration. Included in all the action, the Impala SS Club of America is holding their annual ISSCA Nationals event in conjunction with the Dream Cruise.

I couldn’t be there this year, but I have gone to this event in the past. I’m a long-time B-Body owner, and I’ve made a lot of like-minded enthusiast friends over the years. To that end, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at the history of the 1994-1996 Impala SS.

NASCAR fans, you may notice that the Chevy guys are driving V8, rear-wheel-drive Impalas. And even though this racing affiliation is supposed to help sell the street version of the popular family sedan, there hasn't been a rear-wheel-drive Impala in dealer showrooms since 1996.

With its blacked out trim, large (for the time) 17-inch wheels, and Corvette-derived 350-c.i. LT1 V8, the ’94 – ’96 Impala SS performed as strong as it looked. And this was at a time when real performance cars had been basically regulated off the radar.

The Impala started as an upscale trim option in 1958, but the “SS” option in 1961 is where our story begins. When equipped with the famous 409-c.i. V8, a ’61 SS was capable of quarter miles in the 15’s. Performance and popularity of the Impala SS grew throughout the 60’s, but the SS disappeared after the ’69 model year. As the 70’s wore on, governmental regulations and gas shortages transformed the Impala to more of an affordable family car, while the up-level Caprice added a little luxury to the mix. The days of indulgent performance were gone. By the '80s, the Caprice was the consumer’s choice, while the Impala, which had been relegated mostly to fleet applications, finally faded away.

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 (Motor Trend’s 1991 Car of the Year) 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.

There was some definite hot rod potential hidden within that new B-Body platform. In 1992, GM designer and performance aficionado John Moss brought a factory customized Caprice to the Detroit Auto Show. It looked, well, just about like the Impala SS that went into production two years later, and reportedly had a "powerful Corvette engine". But at the time, it was just a concept meant to gauge public interest and the attention of the aftermarket. At least that's the way GM put it.

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.

There are a few other ways to tell the three years apart. '94s had a plug in the rear quarter window that housed the chrome Impala emblem. This was a somewhat hasty way designers converted the pointed side glass on the Caprice. The feature became so popular that the kink was built into the sheet metal of all Impalas and Caprices for '95 and '96. '94 was also the only year the Impala had the smaller, pod type side mirrors attached to the doors. After that, larger mirrors were fastened to the window area.

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.

’96 was the last year for the rear-wheel-drive Impala SS, because the Arlington, TX plant that built the GM B- and D-Body lines was converted to truck and SUV production.

Even in today's green environment, Impala SS's remain popular with enthusiasts and people who just want a good car with a little character. In spite of the car's size, the LT1 achieves a respectable 25-mpg on the highway, and the full-frame chassis provides an extra level of passenger protection. There is also a strong aftermarket parts base, and there are local and national clubs all over the country with hundreds of enthusiastic members.

Kansas City has sort of an on-again, off-again Impala SS club presence. There are plenty of members that claim to be a part of the Kansas City Impala SS Club, but over the years it has been pretty hard to get the consistency needed to keep the club afloat. As these cars get older, and more of them leave the garages of the original owners and the die-hard enthusiasts, this trend is destined to continue.

The 1994-1996 Impala SS proved that the performance car spirit was alive and well among designers and engineers at GM, even at a time when such cars weren't really thought about. Of course, today's high-performance cars generally have more horsepower, handle better, and have more gadgets than these 14+ year-old behemoths. But for sheer character, nothing beats the classic muscle car formula that was the tri-nine Impala SS.

My dad actually ordered my Impala in 1996 as his company car when he worked for Chevrolet Motor Division. Dad rarely purchased his company cars after they went out of service, so this was something special. He wanted a green one, but I managed to talk him out of it, reasoning that black was the most sinister color.

Dad put about 9,000 miles on this car in 1996, then parked it in his garage. When I purchased it from him a few years ago, it only had 13,000 miles on it.

Since then, I’ve proceeded to drive the puddin’ out of it. It’s my daily driver, and now has more than 65,000 miles on the clock and counting. And I’m here to tell you, a better, more reliable car you’ll never find. I’ve also owned a ’93 Caprice, a different ’96 Impala SS, and similar ’95 Fleetwood, all ending up with very high mileage, and they have all been fine cars. These things are a real testament to how good American cars can be.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a car picture-takin’ fool. That even gets worse when it’s my own car that I’m taking the pictures of. See them in the slideshow below.


  1. The last O the great land-yachts but then again, who cares? The original Impala (59 and newer) still rules!!

  2. didn't know you could get that "built especially for" plate. Very cool if it was a dealer item
    -ALF out...

  3. There's a story with that too. Dad was a District Manager with Chevy, and in addition to selling new cars to dealers, they also had things like that plaque sometimes. They had those for all GM divisions. That one was already engraved with "CHEVROLET MOTOR DIVISION", becuase it was a salesman's sample from Chevrolet Motor Division. Normally, the dealer would be in the bottom. It sat in its little box with the tissue paper in dad's desk since 1973. Whe I bought the Impala, I figured it was built especially by Chevrolet Motor Division, because it was a Chevy company car ordered and driven by a district manager (my dad). So I had the James C. Hover engraved in there and used it in this car. My dad and I also happen to share the same name, so it seemed pretty natural.

  4. Great cars ; shoulda left dad alone though and let him order green. Pretty colour and rare too. But, methinks you probably had designs on the car yourself when he ordered it and preferred the black... ;)