Thursday, May 31, 2012

Extraordinarily Ordinary


The next thing to talk about was in the booth for Chevrolet to accompany the release of their new Impala. It was a sky-blue, convertible 1966 Impala Super Sport in seemingly perfect mint condition that was actually much more interesting than the new one. I'd like to say right off the bat that many of the interesting facts herein are courtesy of my friend over at Ate Up with Motor. A huge nod of thanks to him and his vast automotive knowledge.

It's fortunate that I have such a good excuse to talk about the Impala, considering that I so recently examined Levittown, because the Impala was sort of like the 1960s automobile equivalent to a Levittown house. There was nothing at all exceptional or innovative about it, in fact, its appeal was that it was utterly ordinary. Adding to this is Chevy's choice of a model from 1966 to display at the show. The Super Sport options package was first offered on the Impala in 1961. In 1964, it became the top-of-the-line model, but in 1966 it was surpassed in prestige by the Caprice, which had become its own series. All the standard cars in Chevy's line-up, including Impala and Caprice, shared most of the same basic innards. The differences were in power, styling, and options. There was nothing particularly new about the '66; it was mostly a cosmetic upgrade of the '65. The moral of the story, by 1966 the Super Sport was even less exceptional for a Chevy than previous Impalas had been.

It was most popular with exactly the same demographic who a decade earlier would have gravitated toward Levittown and communities like it. It was a preferred car for mostly middle-income buyers who wanted a relatively good quality car, easy to service and maintain, but nothing too flashy or outrageous. It's the same demographic that today buys the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. But while the Camry enjoyed 3% of the market as the best selling car in the United States in 2008, Impala in the 1960s commanded 15% of the market. Out of ten of your car-owning friends, at least one if not two of them would have had an Impala.

It's a fairly mammoth car, over 312 inches long (792cm) and almost 80 inches wide (203cm). Perhaps one of the more interesting things about the engineering of the Impalas from '65 onward was their flexible frame. At the points where the frame curved inward for the wheels at front and rear, the frame was designed to flex to absorb impacts from the road. The body was then mounted onto the frame with no metal-to-metal connections. Instead, rubber pads separated the frame from the body in up to fourteen places, depending on the model. The body was welded together and gusseted extremely rigidly and cross-braced, especially at the front end. The idea was that the body would feel extremely firm while all the vibrations and shuddering from the engine and road were handled by the flexible frame.

My friend from Ate Up... shared with me one of the critical reactions to Impala at the time which I thought was rather funny. Evidently, the resonant frequency of its coil spring suspension was such that the car would start hopping at certain speeds when driving over the seams of a concrete highway. I'm amused by this in part because I can't remember the last time I was on a highway paved with concrete. Having driven around many parts of the country, I remember the familiar rhythm of those seams in the road slabs. But they use asphalt almost exclusively in the New York area. Asphalt is cheaper and much faster to install on highways that, around here, serve enormous amounts of traffic almost continuously. Potholes in asphalt can also be more quickly and easily spot-repaired rather than having to replace entire sections of road at a time as with concrete slabs.

In its design, the Impala is anything but a remarkable car. Evidently that was sort of the whole point; above all, it was a safe choice. To put the design of the car under discussion here in some perspective, 1966 was the same year that Ferrari unleashed on Turin this masterpiece by Pininfarina. Nonetheless, in retrospect, there are some nice things about the old Impalas that could have inspired their new one with fantastic results. I think Chevy would have been wise to take a similar approach as they did to the Camaro--and as Dodge did to the Challenger--and look back to the older models for inspiration. For a few things, the broad, muscular grille, forward angled front end, or the side detailing that streaks straight from the front all the way to the back end (most pronounced on the 1964), could have been extrapolated quite wonderfully on a car for 2012.

Instead, Chevy seems to have recreated the past glory of the Impala in spirit rather than style. Their new offering is about as bland today as the '66 may have seemed when it appeared on the market. I might be tempted to wonder whether it's more difficult for the huge corporate manufacturers to reconcile good design with other concerns like marketing and economics if it weren't for the fact that I've seen comparably large manufacturers overcome these conflicts quite adeptly.

The 427 Turbo Jet was newly available on Impala in '66, and was the biggest engine option. 

All text and embedded images ©2012, Ryan Witte.

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