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!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

1961-64 Buick Show Cars

Obscure, One-Off, Full-Sized Buick Convertibles
Text by David W. Temple
Photos from author’s collection
1961 Buick Flamingo with swiveling passenger seat
After General Motors terminated building dream cars for the auto show circuit in the 1950s, they continued to dress-up production cars for various exhibitions across the country. Among them, of course, were Buicks.
Presented here are photos of virtually forgotten Buick show cars from 1961-64 with the omission of 1962; nothing from ’62 has yet been found by the author though undoubtedly something unique was shown for this year.
The most well-known from this group of years is the 1961 Buick Flamingo, a car shown on the final tour of the GM Motorama hence the reason it is the most well-known of the era. It was a modified Electra 225 convertible featuring pearlescent orange paint (probably made by DuPont) and paisley upholstered bucket seats. Its passenger side front seat could be swiveled to face the rear bench seat. Pearlescent paints at that time were quite impractical for production cars as they were subject to rapid oxidation and yellowing. Consequently, about three decades would pass before the paint industry perfected this pigment to the point that GM would offer such a finish.
Flamingo at the 1961 GM Motorama at the Waldorf-Astoria
The Flamingo was probably crushed after the show circuit due to its special features, though perhaps it could have somehow escaped that fate.
1963 Buick Wildcat show car
For 1963, a Wildcat convertible received a makeover featuring pearlescent white paint and a special interior with red, white, and blue accents.
A popular display in the 1963 Buick exhibit was the full-size four-door hardtop that automatically split itself down the middle, exposing the inner components of the engine bay, drivetrain, six-passenger interior and large trunk.
Another big Buick drop-top was altered into the Wildcat Sprint for ’64. It, too, was equipped with rectangular headlights. What other modifications the Sprint had are unknown to the author at this time, though undoubtedly it was given a special paint color and interior upgrades.
1964 Buick Wildcat Sprint show car
Can any reader offer anything further on these unique cars? If so, use the “comments” option at the end of this posting to do so.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

1966 Chevelle SS396

Time Capsule
Text and Photos by David W. Temple
In 1966, Lyndon Johnson was president of the United States; that year the U.S. was in a race to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth” within the decade – a goal set by the previous president, John F. Kennedy, in 1961; the Berlin Wall was just five years old; by early March approximately 215,000 U.S. soldiers were in Vietnam; Head coach Vince Lombardi led the Green Bay Packers to victory over the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship game; pitcher Sandy Koufax led the LA Dodgers to their third pennant of the decade though the team lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles; Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia 76ers was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player; top-rated TV programs included Green Acres, Hogan’s Heroes, I Dream of Jeannie, Perry Mason, and The Ed Sullivan Show; among the most popular songs heard on the radio and 8-track cassettes that year were The Ballad of the Green Berets (SSgt Barry Sadler), Cherish (The Association), Good Vibrations (Beach Boys), Summer in the City (Lovin' Spoonful), Wild Thing (Troggs), 96 Tears (Question Mark & the Mysterians), California Dreamin' (Mama's & Papa's), We Can Work it Out (Beatles), and Last Train to Clarksville (The Monkees); the population of the United States was under 200-million; a General Motors’ automobile won Motor Trend magazine’s coveted “Car of the Year Award” for the second consecutive year (for the new Toronado) and GM was number one in auto sales. The company also produced its 100-millionth car on March 16th of that year. A lot has changed since 1966, but not quite everything.
In 1966, the car shown here was new in more ways than one. The styling was fresh, the SS396 was a separate model, and the 375 hp 396 became a regular production option. The Chevelle SS396 seen here is equipped with the 375 hp 396 and mandatory four-speed and is still practically new having traveled a mere 13,300 miles since it left the Fremont, California assembly line. It is more than just a low-mileage car; it is a virtual time capsule of “bowtie” muscle from the height of the musclecar era. Our feature car still retains its original engine, transmission, paint, upholstery, spare tire, brake pads, undercarriage paint daubs, and even the paper tags on the brake drums. When the current owner bought this car from the second owner, three of the four original tires were in the trunk. However, they were too worn to use so a set of reproduction red lines is now installed. The L78 Chevelle Super Sport is something of a Holy Grail to Chevy musclecar enthusiasts, but to find one this well preserved is almost the equal of finding life on another planet! Let’s take a look at why the L78 was so special in 1966 and why it remains so desirable today.
The high-performance 396 V-8 evolved from Chevrolet’s 427 Mk. II “Daytona Mystery Motor” (the Mk. I being the 348-409), an engine which became quite controversial by the time it debuted in the Daytona 500. During qualifying runs a Mk. II powered Impala driven by Johnny Rutherford set a closed-course speed record of over 165 mph. The controversy stemmed from the fact the engine was not a production engine (which it was supposed to be for NASCAR competition) and GM had pulled its factory support for racing just a few weeks before the big race. Only five of the engines were delivered to customers – all NASCAR racers – before production of the engine ceased. However, much of the 427 Mk. II’s design led directly to the 396 Mk. IV engine which first appeared in the limited production Chevelle SS396 Z16 in mid-1965. (The Mk. III was a canceled project.) It was a near duplicate of the 425 hp 396 used in the ’65 Corvette. At the midpoint of the following model year the engine, cataloged as option code L78 and adding $237 to the base price, became available. It differed somewhat from the one used in the Z16 by having solid lifters and new exhaust manifolds. Other features of the L78 engine included a high-rise aluminum intake manifold, 800-cfm Holley carburetor, 427-type valve heads, .520-inch lift cam, low-restriction air cleaner, four-bolt mains, and an 11.0:1 compression ratio. It could propel a Chevelle SS396 from 0-60mph in just six seconds flat and blaze through the standing quarter-mile in 14.4 seconds with an end speed of 100mph.
Lower output 396 V-8s were offered as well. Optional was the 360hp L34 offered from the start of the model year. Standard issue for the SS396, though, was a 325 hp version. Other standard equipment included on this model were 7.75x14 nylon redline tires on six-inch rims, all-vinyl upholstery in a choice of seven standard colors, twin simulated hood air intakes, special color-accented body sills and quarter panel moldings, hub caps, a black-accented grille with series identification, and a blacked-out rear panel (though some did not get the black-out treatment). Among the options offered were bucket seats (with or without power-adjustment), headrests, console with electric clock, air conditioning (even with L78 option), mag-style wheel covers, two-tone paint (rarely ordered), black or beige vinyl covered top, and a gauge package consisting of a tachometer, parking brake warning lamp, and temperature-oil-amp gauges replaced the standard warning lights if the owner wanted this option.
The featured Aztec Bronze SS396, one of 3,099 built with the L78 option, was purchased new at a Roseville, California dealership by an elderly gentleman who drove it only sparingly. Optional equipment on it includes tinted windshield, deluxe front and rear seat belts, “Astro” bucket seats, center console, special suspension equipment, 3.55:1 axle ratio, close-ratio four-speed, simulated mag wheel covers, special instrumentation, AM push-button radio, rear speaker, heavy-duty radiator, and front and rear bumper guards. Along with the 375 hp engine, these extra-cost items added $790.20 to the base price of $2,776.00. The destination charge added another $134.75 bringing the total amount paid to $3,700.95.

Original color codes and tags used by assembly line personnel are still present on this low-mileage car.
The original owner maintained this car very well – even to the point of washing the undercarriage periodically. After several years of ownership this Chevelle was sold to its second owner who also drove it very little over a period of many years. Owner number three, the current one, has continued the practice of little driving and careful maintenance. A private collector in the Dallas, Texas area added this prized Chevelle to his collection of low-mileage unrestored cars a few years ago. Among the other cars he owns are a pair of L78 Camaros – a ’67 convertible with just 1,495 miles and a ’68 hardtop.
With cars so original – time capsules actually – one could almost expect to turn the radio on in any one of them and here an old broadcast… “♫ Monday, Monday, so good to me, Monday, Monday, it was all I hoped it would be
Oh Monday morning, Monday morning couldn't guarantee…
 We interrupt this program to bring to you live coverage of the launch of Gemini 8. Reporting live from Cape Kennedy, Florida here is Walter Cronkite… We are in the final minutes of the countdown for Gemini 8. The crew, Neil Armstrong and David Scott, are strapped inside their spacecraft and report all systems are ‘go.' With this mission NASA is hoping to do what has never before been attempted…”