If any car deserves to be called the archetypal sixties American automobile, it’s the Chevrolet Impala. In 1965, the peak of its popularity, one in every nine new cars sold in the United States was an Impala. If we add the sales of the mechanically identical Biscayne and Bel Air models, full-size Chevrolets accounted for more than 15% of the U.S. market. By comparison, the best-selling car in the U.S. in 2008, the Toyota Camry, accounted for only about 3%. In today’s fragmentary market, the sheer ubiquity the big Chevys once enjoyed is difficult to grasp. Let’s take a closer look at the 1965-1970 Chevrolet Impala, the most average of average American cars.
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
When we talk about the Chevrolet Impala, we’re actually talking about only one subset of what was once considered Chevrolet’s “standard” car line. In the late sixties, Chevrolet offered its full-size cars in five series:
- The low-line Biscayne, a sparsely trimmed, minimally equipped price leader aimed primarily at the fleet market.
- The mid-level Bel Air, once Chevrolet’s top-of-the-line model, but now demoted to invisible family-car duty.
- The Impala, another former line-leader relegated to moderately trimmed middle-child status.
- The sporty Impala Super Sport, previously an option group for the Impala, promoted to separate series in 1964.
- The luxury Caprice, Chevrolet’s answer to the popular Ford LTD, introduced as a sub-series of the Impala in 1965 and promoted to full-fledged model status in 1966.
A few years earlier, there had been a separate list of corresponding names for the station wagons — Brookwood, Parkwood, and Nomad — but by 1965, Chevrolet had merged the wagons into the Biscayne, Bel Air, and Impala lines.
This assortment of evocative names, many of them now defunct, described not a range of different cars with different bodies or running gear, but simply gradations in market position, with corresponding variations in price, trim and features, and the availability of certain body styles or optional equipment. You could not, for instance, have a Biscayne hardtop or, by this time, an Impala SS wagon.
Chevrolet’s merchandising strategy in this era, at least as far as model names went, amounted to an elaborate game of musical chairs. From 1950 to 1957, the Bel Air was at the top of the heap. In 1958, Chevrolet added the Impala, initially pitched as the most sporty, luxurious model (although this was really a relative term) and offered only in the most glamorous body styles: the convertible and the hardtop Sport Coupe. In its first year, the Impala was technically part of the Bel Air series, although even contemporary sources seldom described it that way, but it was promoted to a full model series in 1959 and subsequently became the mainstay of the Chevrolet line. The Impala SS, introduced in 1961 as an option package for regular Impalas, supplanted its parent as the top-of-the-line model in 1964 and two years later was in turn supplanted by the luxury-oriented Caprice.
Both the SS and the Caprice were comparatively specialized models and the Impala continued to account for the lion’s share of big-Chevy sales throughout the 1960s. Unlike the Ford Mustang, which was originally targeted at young Baby Boomers just reaching driving age, the Chevrolet Impala was aimed squarely at the stolid midsection of the American middle class. Unlike the flashier Caprice, the Impala had no particular pretense of being a luxury car, but at the same time, its steadily growing girth and thirst had taken it out of the low-price realm; Chevrolet now had the Chevelle/Malibu and Chevy II/Nova for cash-strapped or economy-minded young families.
As Car and Driver editor Brock Yates explained in a pointed 1971 editorial entitled “America’s Two-Dimensional Sweetheart,” the Impala had evolved into a highly specific symbol of class attainment for moderately affluent suburbanites careful to neither understate nor overstep their social position. This seems like a peculiarly narrow demographic for such a popular car, but the Impala’s ongoing sales dominance throughout this period suggests that such values held a strong appeal for a surprisingly large percentage of the contemporary American public. Yates pejoratively characterized such buyers as “underachievers,” but we think “conformists” would be closer to the mark. Maintaining one’s position is different than attaining it, particularly in a nation of definite but hazily defined class boundaries. Compared to the working-class customers then straining their credit limits to afford more conspicuous status symbols like the Cadillac Eldorado or the new Lincoln Continental Mark III, Impala buyers had less to gain and more to lose.
The conservatism of full-size Chevrolet buyers in this era was matched by the conservative engineering of the cars themselves. As former GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan explained in his 1963 memoir, My Years with General Motors, this was largely by design. Chevrolet’s success did not depend on providing class-leading technology or engineering and the division had more than once gotten its fingers burned attempting something too novel or clever with its mainstream products. The most egregious example from Sloan’s time, the Copper-Cooled Chevrolet debacle of the early twenties, had mostly faded from the public memory, but there were also more recent disappointments like the late-fifties flirtation with air suspension, the ill-fated Turboglide transmission, and of course the still-ongoing Corvair controversy. Chevrolet had not categorically sworn off innovation (although considering some of the disasters yet to come, that might have been prudent), but the division now made sure that its bread-and-butter full-size cars contained no unwelcome surprises.
The big Chevrolet of this period was a model of contemporary orthodoxy. As was still customary in the late sixties, there were seven body styles — two- and four-door sedans, two- and four-door hardtops, six- and nine-passenger station wagons, and a convertible — all sharing the same basic B-body shell. Unlike Chrysler, GM eschewed unitized construction for its full-size cars, but while the big Chevrolets were body-on-frame designs, the body was actually a rigid, welded, semi-unitized structure riding an intentionally flexible perimeter frame. Suspension loads would cause portions of the frame to twist, absorbing vibration and harshness rather than transmitting it to the body structure. To that end, there was no metal-on-metal contact between body and frame; each of the body mounts (of which there were 10 to 14, depending on body style) was isolated by a thick rubber biscuit.
There were two basic chassis designs, one for cars and the other for wagons. As had been Chevrolet’s practice since 1958, coil springs served at all four wheels. The front suspension was a mostly conventional double wishbone arrangement whose sole novelty was that each lower wishbone was actually formed by a control arm and a semi-leading link — commonly known as a radius rod or drag strut — that provided some fore-aft compliance, a trick Ford had introduced on the 1961 Lincoln Continental. There was also a front anti-roll bar of modest diameter. In back, a live axle was located on passenger cars by three trailing arms and a Panhard rod and on station wagons by two trailing and two semi-trailing links. As with the body structure, ride comfort and NVH isolation took priority over handling precision, so the standard springs and shock absorbers tended to the pillow-like, as did the the rubber suspension bushings and body mounts. A slightly stiffer heavy-duty suspension, intended primarily for towing, was available at surprisingly little extra cost; for a bit more, big-engine cars could be had with the still-firmer “special-purpose” suspension that was standard on Impala Super Sports.
GM was slow to adopt disc brakes for its mass-market cars, so through 1970, all full-sized Chevrolets had standard 11-inch (279mm) cast iron drums with lining area that was none too generous for the cars’ mass. A careful reading of the options list revealed the nominal availability of metallic braking linings, although whether the average dealer would be willing to order or install them for non-fleet customers was another matter. Front disc brakes became optional in 1967, accompanied by bigger wheels to clear the calipers, but did not become standard until 1971.
As for engines, you could order as much or as little power as your wallet and driving record could withstand. The cheapest option was the 250 cu. in. (4,095 cc) “Turbo-Thrift Six,” but around 80% of all big Chevrolets had a V8. The base V8 was the “Turbo-Fire” 283 (4,638 cc), a small block engine of 1957 vintage that offered 195 gross horsepower (146 kW). Beyond that were the small block Turbo-Fire 327 (5,354 cc); the big block Turbo-Jet 396 (6,488 cc); and, starting in 1966 for Impala SS models, the Turbo-Jet 427 (6,996 cc) with 385 gross horsepower (287 kW). A few customers even special-ordered the Corvette’s L72 engine, a hotter 427 with a claimed 425 hp (317 kW), although this was not a catalogued option.
From there, you still had to choose a transmission. Although almost 90% of all American buyers now preferred it, automatic transmission still cost extra even on the top-of-the-line Caprice. For sixes and the smaller of the two Turbo-Fire V8s, your only self-shifting choice was the venerable two-speed Powerglide, priced in 1967 at $194.35 with federal excise tax. Powerglide was also available with the 327 and 396, although for a mere $32.10 extra, you could also choose the newer and more flexible three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic. The latter was a new option for the 327 in 1967, although for some reason the 327/THM combination was denied to Biscayne and Bel Air buyers and the three-speed automatic was not yet offered with the smaller engines, which could have used the extra ratio. The Turbo Hydra-Matic was, however, the only automatic available with the Turbo-Fire 427, at least on full-size Chevrolets. If you were determined to shift for yourself — which very few Impala or Caprice buyers were — you had a choice of three-speed, three-speed plus overdrive, or four-speed manual transmission, although the latter cost almost as much as Powerglide, so there weren’t many takers.
That only scratched the surface of a lengthy options list that ranged from power convenience accessories and “appearance groups” to useful mechanical additions like a Positraction limited-slip differential, adjustable rear air shocks, and a special instrument cluster that traded warning lights for proper gauges. (In 1967, the latter even included a legible tachometer, which for once was mounted in an appropriate spot on the instrument panel rather than hidden on the center console, obscured by a clock, or in a bulge atop the hood.) A heater was standard by then, although it could be deleted if you were so inclined, and you had your choice of manually controlled or automatic factory air conditioning or a cheaper under-dash dealer-installed unit.
Further complicating this already convoluted process was the fact that not all of these choices could be combined. For example, both the six and 283 could be ordered with overdrive, but only V8s could have the four-speed. Some of these restrictions were curious indeed: The Turbo-Jet engines technically had no standard transmission, so if you wanted to connect your big V8 to the drive wheels, you were obliged to pay at least $79 extra for an “optional” transmission. (The likely reason for this curious strategy was that Chevrolet’s own three-speed manual transmission did not have the torque capacity for the big block engines, and the heavy-duty three-speed that did was actually purchased from Ford Motor Company — a mildly embarrassing point about which Chevrolet was understandably cagey.) Some normally unavailable combinations could be obtained with a special order form and the help of a sufficiently motivated dealer, but doing that required persistence and presumed that your eyes had not long since rolled back into your head.
Faced with such a broad and confusing array of choices, buyers of big Chevrolets generally responded the way most Americans do when offered an abundance of ice cream flavors: They chose vanilla. The Chevrolet sales organization told Mechanix Illustrated‘s Tom McCahill in 1965 that the median big Chevrolet of this era was an Impala Sport Coupe — a two-door hardtop — with the cheapest of the available V8s (although the 327 would become an increasingly popular option by decade’s end), Powerglide, power steering and brakes, a radio, and whitewall tires. Although full-sized Chevrolets were offered in more than a dozen colors, the most common was white. So equipped, the manufacturer’s suggested retail price was perhaps $3,300, close to the middle of the big Chevrolet’s vast price spread. The equivalent in modern dollars is around $23,000, which, probably not coincidentally, is roughly the list price of today’s four-cylinder Honda Accord LX, Toyota Camry LE, and other popular D-segment family sedans.
What did the Impala offer for the money? Adequate but unexceptional performance; mediocre fuel economy; a roomy interior (albeit not as cavernous as the exterior dimensions might imply); a huge trunk; a plush but somewhat floaty ride; and rather soggy handling. Just important for many buyers, the Impala had excellent resale values and was as close to reliable as American cars of this vintage ever got. Furthermore, if it did break down, owners could rest assured that nothing under the hood was likely to mystify any sentient mechanic, even in the wilds of rural America — something that could not be said of most imported cars in those days.
Some of these characteristics varied in degree with the choice of optional equipment, but even a fully loaded $5,500 SS 427 did not feel dramatically different and it’s easy to see why owners wouldn’t necessarily bother even if they had the means. The Impala was the epitome of Alfred Sloan’s philosophy and Yates’ thesis about the target audience: a car that was perfectly comfortable being safely unexceptional.
THE FALL OF A GIANT
Despite Chevrolet’s market dominance, powerful dealer network, and $50 million advertising budget, all was not well with America’s most popular automotive brand. Although Chevrolet was still selling more than 2 million cars a year, both market share and profits were eroding. John DeLorean claimed in On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors that by 1969, Chevrolet’s return on investment had fallen to less than one-fifth what it had been in 1964.
GM senior management placed the blame for that decline on Chevrolet’s general manager, DeLorean’s old boss E.M. (Pete) Estes, who had come to Chevrolet from Pontiac in 1965. Estes had made Pontiac No. 3 in the industry, so corporate expected great things from him at Chevrolet. By the end of 1968, however, Estes’ superiors had lost confidence in him. In February 1969, executive vice president Roger Kyes appointed DeLorean (who had succeeded Estes at Pontiac) to replace Estes as general manager of Chevrolet.
DeLorean had remained on friendly terms with Estes, who was candid about his impressions of Chevrolet’s real problems. Chief among those was sheer size; as you would expect of an organization whose overall production sometimes topped 200,000 units a month, Chevrolet was enormous, with more than 130,000 employees spread across 11 assembly plants and nine regional sales offices. With an organization so vast, the hands-on management style Estes and DeLorean had used with such great success at Pontiac was simply impossible. At Chevrolet, it was a constant struggle just to keep track of what was going on at any given moment.
According to DeLorean, almost no one had a clear handle on the full scope of Chevrolet’s operations, leading to erratic production schedules, constant budget overruns, and a frustrating lack of interdepartmental coordination. Beyond the communication problems, the different departments had developed into their own private fiefdoms, that, like some entrenched government bureaucracies, tended to regard each new administration as a minor and transitory annoyance.
DeLorean also had many criticisms of Chevrolet’s product planning, merchandising, and marketing strategies. Ford had beaten Chevrolet to the punch in nearly every new market segment, from personal luxury cars to pony cars. Chevrolet dealers often had to wait three years or more before receiving comparable products and those products’ marketing and advertising seldom seemed to justify what Chevrolet was spending.
Chevrolet’s bewildering array of options, meanwhile, had created more than 150,000 possible production variations — not included special orders for fleets or preferred customers — which were driving up costs, hurting assembly quality, and exacerbating an already disjointed and chaotic production schedule. Compounding these issues were periodic micromanaging directives from corporate, which was also pushing for greater inter-divisional commonality that, in DeLorean’s view, tended to benefit rival divisions at Chevrolet’s expense. It was little wonder that Chevrolet’s profits were slipping.
DeLorean had some success in boosting Chevrolet’s sales — the division posted its first 3-million-unit year in 1971 — but his political position was becoming increasingly tenuous. Assuming his analysis of Chevrolet’s growing malaise was accurate, fixing those problems would have required strong internal and external support and probably an extensive divisional housecleaning. Little of that was forthcoming; DeLorean’s efforts at internal reform earned him a host of powerful new enemies. At the same time, he was having frequent clashes with Roger Kyes and GM president Ed Cole, who had never been entirely comfortable with DeLorean’s personality or style.
In the summer of 1972, DeLorean was appointed group executive in charge of domestic car and truck operations, but the nominal promotion only added to his sense of frustration and his feeling that he was being marginalized; he resigned in April 1973. The problems he had tried to address at Chevrolet, he later claimed, were never fixed and continued to snowball after his departure.
Chevrolet remained No. 1 in domestic sales until the mid-eighties, sustained by its reputation, the strength of its dealers, and sheer inertia. Nonetheless, the division was now challenged from above and below; Oldsmobile was gradually encroaching on the middle-class territory the Impala had once owned while at the other end of the scale, frustrations with quality control and problematic small cars like the Vega and the later X-body Citation were driving a growing number of customers to imports like Volkswagen, Toyota, and Honda.
Sales of the full-size Chevrolet, which was looking rather bloated by the early seventies, nosedived in the wake of the OPEC embargo, falling below 350,000 units for 1975. By the standards of any manufacturer but Chevrolet, that was still respectable, but compared to the Impala’s late-sixties heights, such figures were grim tidings. Fortunately, sales of the B-body Chevrolets were resuscitated for a time by the well-crafted 1977 redesign, which shed needless bulk without sacrificing the big cars’ customary stature.
Nonetheless, their audience was shrinking; the buyers to which the Impala of the late sixties and early seventies had appealed so strongly were aging and younger buyers were not taking their place. By the mid-eighties, sales were again on the decline. The Impala name was dropped after 1985, but the 1977 Caprice survived through 1990 with relatively minor changes. The controversial 1991 redesign managed to alienate traditional buyers without attracting new ones. After a brief revival of the Impala Super Sport in 1994, GM finally decided to pull the plug. The Impala name would return, but the B-body cars were discontinued in 1996 so that their plant capacity could be used for trucks.
In their declining years, the B-body Chevrolets became niche items, selling to fleet buyers and a shrinking pool of brand loyalists. The market that the Impala dominated four decades ago still exists, at least in the U.S., but many of those buyers now choose cars like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord for the same reasons people once bought big Chevrolets: reliability, comfort, and resale value. As familiar as those priorities are, Chevrolet has had a great deal of trouble reasserting itself in that segment or even challenging domestic rivals like the 1986-1994 Ford Taurus, against which Chevrolet could offer only the lackluster Lumina. It’s only been very recently that the Chevrolet Malibu has emerged as a credible challenger and it remains to be seen whether it will be able to remain above water against its better-established competition.
We don’t think that Chevrolet will ever regain its former dominance; the world has moved on and the market has become far more balkanized than it was 50 years ago. However, the major players in that segment shouldn’t get too cocky. Indeed, Toyota’s rapid growth over the past decade has already led it to make some of the same mistakes Chevrolet did, including a worrisome conservatism in product development and design and a perceptible erosion of perceived quality. Those trends have not yet harmed Toyota’s reputation or resale value, but Toyota would be well advised to study Chevrolet’s example, lest they go the same way.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our account of Chevrolet’s late-sixties woes comes from from John DeLorean’s infamous profile by Robert Flowers in For Men Only June 1969, pp. 32-33, 67-69; J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980); and Brock Yates’ editorial “America’s Two-Dimensional Sweetheart” from the March 1971 issue of Car and Driver, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1996). Alfred P. Sloan’s oft-cited remarks about marketing and innovation come from his memoir, My Years with General Motors (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964).
Basic details on the 1967–1970 Impala came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John Bolster, “John Bolster tries the Chevrolet Impala,” Autosport 26 November 1965, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, p. 82; “Chevrolet Caprice: where does this top of the line car stand?” Road Test July 1966, reprinted in Chevrolet Muscle Cars 1966-1971, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1989), pp. 15–19; Chevrolet Division of General Motors Corporation, “Discover all the facts and features about the beautiful full-size Chevrolet ’66” [brochure], 1965; and “1967 Chevrolet” [brochure D35083, c. October 1966]; “Chevrolet Impala: A Car in August,” Motor Trend Vol. 20, No. 11 (November 1968), reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 104–105; “Chevrolet Impala,” Car and Driver October 1970, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 76–79; “Chevrolet Impala SS,” Car Life March 1965, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 71–75; John Ethridge, “Caprice ‘427’ Road Test,” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 4 (April 1966), pp. 54–55, and “It’s White Tie & Tails for Chevy Caprice ‘396,’” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 6 (June 1965), pp. 48–53; Art Evans, “Chevrolet Super Sport Owner’s Report,” Road Test March 1966, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 83–85; John Gunnell, ed. Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev. 4th Ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Bryan Hanrahan, “The Imperial Impala,” Modern Motor February 1966, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 90–92; “Impala 427: Is a Chevrolet Worth $5000? Ask a Swinging Family!” Car Life May 1967, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 98–101; Tom McCahill, “Tom McCahill Tests the World’s Most Popular Car,” Mechanix Illustrated February 1965, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 80–81; “No. 1 USA,” Road Test April 1972, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 133–137; the Old Car Brochures website, oldcarbrochures.org; “PM Owners Report: Chevrolet Impala,” Popular Mechanics August 1969, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 110–111; Dick Scritchfield, “Impala with Appeal,” Car Craft May 1967, reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 93–97; “Sporty Cars,” Motor Trend Vol. 19, No. 5 (May 1967), pp. 41–42; B.T. Van Kirk, “1967-70 Chevrolet: The Last ‘Regular’ American Cars,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 17, No. 4 (December 2000), pp. 8-21; and C. Van Tune, “Chevrolet Impala SS 1961-1969,” Motor Trend Vol. 45, No. 10 (October 1993), reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972, pp. 138–140.
Some additional background came from “Cadillac Eldorado: Still Wanted But Worth It?” Road Test April 1970; “Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado: Ownership is not a symbol of success, but success itself,” Car and Driver April 1970; and Bill Hartford, “Too Rough a Ride for the Soft Life,” Popular Mechanics July 1969, all of which are reprinted in Cadillac Eldorado Performance Portfolio 1967-1978, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000); “1958 Chevrolet Impala Road Test,” Motor Life January 1958; “1958 Consumer Analysis: Chevrolet,” Car Life January 1958; and Chuck Nerpel, “Hot Chevy,” Motor Trend September 1961, which are reprinted in Impala & SS Muscle Portfolio 1958-1972; Tim Howley, “SIA comparisonReport: ’58 vs. ’59 Chevrolet: What a Difference a Year Makes,” Special Interest Autos #140 (March-April 1994), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar Chevrolets: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001); and Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors Corporation, “Chevrolet 1958: It Goes Big…With Spectacular New Shape!” [brochure, c. October 1957].