Saturday, July 23, 2011
1960 Chevrolet Impala
Exiting the '50s
Text and Photography by David W. Temple
The story of the 1960 Chevys cannot be completely told without exploring the ’59s. How the ’60 model came to be was the result of General Motors’ management making the decision to share bodies among its divisions for ‘59, thus the ‘58s were a one-year-only design. The most dominant styling characteristics of the redesigned cars were of course the deeply sculpted fins and “cat’s eye” tail lamps. In retrospect, these features did not exactly represent the typical approach of GM of moderate change from model year to model year.
GM Styling Engineer Harley Earl knew the public did not respond well to too much change too soon, but he knew people could, and would, regard change as desirable if done in moderation. He spent most of his automotive career with General Motors and brought the art of styling to the mass-produced automobile. His sense of styling gave GM leadership status throughout the forties and fifties. However, by early 1957 when the 1959 models were on the drawing boards, some stylists under Earl began to wonder if their boss still had his inherent ability to style cars. Chuck Jordan, who joined GM in 1949 and was interviewed for the author’s book, “GM’s Motorama,” said he and a number of others were left wondering if Earl had “lost it.” Jordan got an early look at the new 1957 Chrysler Corporation cars one day and was amazed by their styling. He knew his boss had GM headed in the wrong direction and brought Bill Mitchell, the number two man in charge, and others to take a look at the Chrysler products. Still, Earl was in charge and no one could go against him. Fortunately, the boss was scheduled to take his yearly trip to the European auto shows and while away, Mitchell ordered a complete overhaul of all the ’59 proposals which included such garish features as stacked centrally mounted headlights and a large, singular rear deck fin. When Harley returned he saw a coup had occurred and had little to say for some time. Eventually, he came to agree that the new ideas were better. As radical as the 1959 GM cars seem today, they were far less so than the original ideas for ‘59 modeled in clay. Earl retired at the end of 1958. Perhaps after three decades of success his time had finally passed. However, GM was not convinced he had truly “lost it;” his retirement contract did not allow him to go to work for the competition. Given a little time, Earl might have gotten “it” back.
The 1959 Chevrolets were not as well received by the public as some other “bowtie” cars of previous years, but that is not meant to suggest they were not popular; the sport coupe accounted for 165,000 sales alone. However, Ford just managed to outsell Chevy that year by several thousand units. Since another major redesign was not affordable especially since one was already scheduled for ‘61, Chevy stylists did the best they could with the situation – that being to moderate the styling and concentrate on mechanical upgrades. Styling alterations effected nearly all of the sheet metal along with the grille, tail lights, and side trim. The latter item on the Impala had the look of a typical ‘50s sci-fi movie rocket trailing a long exhaust. Roof design was carried forward from ‘59, but the simulated air extractor exclusive to the Impala was relocated from above the back light to beneath it. Mechanical changes introduced for the ’60 models included new cylinder heads on the 283, lower height driveshaft tunnel, better brakes, a new power steering pump driven through a crankshaft pulley, and an additional cross member for the frame to give support to the rear axle upper control arm. Furthermore, new options and accessories were offered such as four-way power seat, cruise control, rear window defogger, and a vacuum-operated trunk lid release.
Despite higher sales of the more utilitarian, economical sedan models for ’60, overall production of their full-size cars dropped by over 87,000 units compared to ’59. Still, it was a good year for Chevy which surged ahead of Ford and grabbed approximately 28 percent of the automobile market in the U.S. Their new economical and compact Corvair helped put them in that position.
The 1960 Impala two-door hardtop pictured here is one of 204,467 built and is owned by Longview, Texas resident, Merritt Johnson. Merritt acquired the car some years ago after a lengthy search for a good, restorable one. Many he ran across were “junk” as he put it.
Johnson’s car is equipped with the Turbo-Fire 283 2-bbl. and Powerglide transmission along with two-tone paint; Ermine White with Roman Red was one of ten two-tone combinations offered that year. To make his Impala a bit more pleasant to drive, he added an aftermarket air conditioner and a stereo. Otherwise, his car is virtually factory stock.
The ’60 Chevrolets like our featured Impala represent the end of an era in automotive styling – an era some have described as “automotive excess” though others would argue that it was a time of the golden age of the automobile. Love it or hate it, Merritt’s Impala serves as a memento of a unique time in American history when stylists were certainly bold!