Monday, September 12, 2011
Sports Car for Five
Text and Photos by David W. Temple
Cars of the 1950s, are noted for their dramatic and in some cases for their extreme styling – those of ‘59, especially so. The cars of the ‘50s were not only about styling, however. Horsepower and gadgets were the in thing, too. For 1957, Chevrolet merged the latter two with the introduction of fuel-injection.
The most dominant styling characteristic of the ‘59 Chevrolets was of course the deeply sculpted fins (or as some say, the “bat wings”). An early report in Popular Mechanics on the 1959 Chevrolets said of the car, “Styling is the thing with the new Chevrolet ... Its low, flaring rear end is as expansive as the deck of an aircraft carrier and looks almost as wide from the driver’s seat. Horizontal taillights squint, like giant cat’s eyes, from under chrome eyebrows. At the front, two sets of paired headlamps are set as low as the law allows to accentuate the road-hugging design.” A road test report in the January 1959, issue of Motor Trend concluded that, “All in all the Chevrolet stands out as the most unashamed proponent of the ‘bigger and wider styling school’ in its field. In performance it’s batting fairly even with the competition.”
The standard engine was the familiar Blue-Flame straight-six, although the buyer could still obtain the Turbo-Fire 283 2-bbl., or the Super Turbo-Fire 283 4-bbl. carried over from ‘57. Also, the 250hp (at 5000 rpm) Ram-Jet fuel-injected 283 was retained as was a companion 290hp (at 6,200rpm) version dubbed Ram-Jet Special. The latter engine was added to the line for 1958. The fuel injection equipment introduced for ‘57 soon showed it needed some “bugs” worked out of the system. It received upgrades that increased reliability on 1958 cars; further refinements were made for ‘59. Compared with the original ‘57 setup, the fuel-injected engines operated on a leaner mixture, air leaks around the nozzle anchorages were sealed, each injector nozzle received filter screens, and a simpler manifold vacuum operated valve replaced the complex arrangement involving a solenoid for cold starts and a micro-switch to bypass the solenoid for hot starts. For it’s swan song appearance on full-sized Chevys, minor mechanical changes were incorporated that included a unique air cleaner which was required due to the lower hood profile of the ‘59 Chevy. Other modifications resulted in simplified repair procedures. Those equipped with the Rochester FI setup had the fact noted with a unique fender-mounted emblem and script.
The two versions of the fuel-injection engines had significant differences. The 250hp Ramjet had cast alloy aluminum pistons with notched heads while the 290 horse Ramjet Special received pistons with slipper skirts and domed heads. Compression ratios in the respective engines were 9.5:1 and 10.5:1. The Ramjet had hydraulic lifters; the Ramjet Special got mechanical units. Valve size was 1.72 inches for the intake and 1.5 inches for the exhaust on both engines, but the tolerances differed. For the Ramjet engine a tolerance of +/- 0.005 inch was specified, but on the Ramjet special the allowed tolerance was zero. Rod and main bearings were different between the two engines, too.
Chevrolet ran an advertisement for the fuel-injected engine in the March 1959 issue of Motor Trend that featured an Impala two-door hardtop and a family of five proudly posed beside it. The large print banner at the top read, “I ‘built’ my Chevy to handle like a sports car ... for five!” The finer print mentioned the optional 290hp engine (no mention of the 250hp version, though) and the Corvette four-speed transmission as well as posi-traction. Also offered at extra-cost was a handling package consisting of metallic brake linings, stiffer springs, larger shocks, stronger wheel bearings and ball joints. The option generally appeared on Chevy police cars. One other option that was seldom ordered was the troublesome air suspension. It had been offered in ‘58, and surprisingly it was again in the options catalog for ‘59.
The big news for Chevrolet in ‘58 had been the new 348 cid V8. For ‘59, the big news remained the 348. It was offered in three states of tune during its first year – the Turbo-Thrust with four venturi induction and a pair termed Super Turbo-Thrust each with three, two barrel carburetors, but with differing compression ratios. Their respective output ratings were 250hp@4,400rpm on 9.5:1 compression, 280hp@4,800rpm with the same fuel/air mix squeeze, and 315hp at a high winding 5,600rpm and 11.1:1 compression. This series continued for the ‘59s along with new additions. Offered at the start of production was a single four-barrel version of the high compression engine rated at 300hp (also reached at 5,600 rpm). The upgraded version of the 348 became known as the Special Turbo-Thrust while the tri-carb 315hp engine took on the title of Special Super Turbo-Thrust. During January 1959, a pair of even stronger 348s was added to the list. Both featured 11.25:1 compression ratios, dual valve springs, centrifugal distributor, and scavenger exhaust headers. The four-barrel version had an output rating of 320 while the other with its three deuces pumped out 335. The single carb setup was legal for NASCAR competition where Chevrolet managed a number of Grand National victories. Fuel-injection had been banned from NASCAR tracks at the midpoint of ‘57. Most performance buffs believed in the old adage “there is no substitute for cubic inches” anyway; they got them for ‘58 when the 348 was introduced. By ‘59, the expensive fuel-injected 283 was old news. The option had gotten a reputation as being unreliable although that may not have been true. Some today say the setup is unreliable while others will say the Rochester unit performs as well or better than a carburetor. One issue that is certain is that the Ramjet option was very expensive. It added nearly $500 to the price tag while the Super Turbo Thrust was priced at under $270. Even so, fuel-injection was very exotic for the late ‘50s. It was discontinued on the big Chevys by the time the last of the ‘59s had rolled off the assembly lines, but Corvette fans could still get the “fuelie” through 1965.
Several transmission choices were available. A three-speed manual was standard issue with any engine while a three-speed manual with overdrive and a Powerglide two-speed automatic were optional for the carburetored 283s. The Super Turbo-Fire, the Ram-Jets, Turbo-Thrust, Super Turbo-Thrust could be had with the close-ratio four-speed and floor-mounted shifter. The latter was in great demand, but the strike by the employees of Borg-Warner, the company which supplied the units to Chevrolet, made getting a four-speed very difficult – so much so that Chevy had to give preference to the Corvette when the four-speed gear box was ordered. Many customers who ordered the four-speed on their full-size Chevy finally settled for a three-speed unit to speed delivery of the car.
Chevrolet was not the only American automobile maker to offer fuel-injection during the last years of the ‘50s. Chrysler Corporation released the option for the 1958 model year, but very few of the units were ordered. Most of the cars ordered with it were retrofitted with carburetors. Rambler allegedly offered the option for 1957, but it is unclear if any of their cars left the assembly line with the setup. Early rumors that indicated Chevrolet would offer a fuel-injected engine for ‘57 were heard by some with Ford Motor Company. They elected to respond with a Paxton supercharger, though.
The 1959 Impala convertible shown on these pages arguably represents the ultimate extreme in American cars of the ‘50s; it is one of a reported 26 full-size Chevys to receive the fuel-injected 283 that year (although another source indicates 37). The car underwent a total restoration which was completed in 2000. Other equipment on the Impala includes Powerglide transmission, power windows, power seat, power steering, power brakes, tinted windshield, continental kit, bumper guards, rocker molding, spinner wheel covers, skirts, door handle shields, Wonderbar radio, and dual aerials. “Bat wings” and gadgetry… for what more could one have asked in a car of the ‘50s?!
1959 Chevrolet Impala
Engine: 283cid V8*
Bore and Stroke: 3.875x 3.000 inches
Induction: Rochester fuel-injection
Transmission: Powerglide two-speed automatic
Top Speed: approx. 130mph
Wheelbase: 119 inches
*Two fuel-injected 283s were offered as options – a 250 horsepower version and a 290 horsepower type. Also optional were variously rated 348s ranging from 250 to 335hp.
**This estimate is based on the 1958 Daytona Speedweeks result for a fuel-injected 1958 Chevy that ran a top seed of 131.004mph which was higher than that attained by a tri-carb 348 powered Chevy –126.249mph.***One source indicates 26 full-size 1959 Chevys received a fuel-injected engine while Rochester’s records indicate 37 units were built for full-size Chevrolets. At least three FI cars – two convertibles (including the feature car) and a two-door sedan – still exist. No breakdown by model and body style is currently available. At least one four-speed FI convertible was built, but its disposition is currently unknown.