The Wonder Years is now on Netflix. So of course, when left to my own devices with a Netflix account (I don’t have one personally) of course I’m going to indulge in repetition of comforts. Front and Center, 3 episodes in, is the Arnold family’s 1963 Chevrolet Impala Sport Sedan, Green with a White top, as they swoop back silently, in middle class white grief, back from Winne Cooper’s brother’s funeral.
It reminded me of a quote I’m paraphrasing about 1960’s Middle Class station that Oprah made once. The determining entrance point for all middle class families that had “arrived” in some sense was purchasing a Chevrolet Impala. Once upon a time, the true marker of comfort meant the largest, most luxurious Chevrolet. Between 1960 and 1965 that number went from just under half a million to more than a Million. Year after year, a sextet of tail lamps meant equal if not more than a six figure salary does today.
It’s worth note that this was a long tradition of Chevrolet: Selling a little bit of upwardly mobile sophistication at an accessible price to a great deal of the masses. It helped Chevrolet eventually leapfrog Ford as the car for everyman. It allowed them to always stay ahead of puritan Plymouth.
The fact that more or less Chevrolets were the most disposable in terms of engineering of the 3, relying on flashier color combinations, styling aped from pricier GM cars, notably Cadillac, and the wealth of GM to offer loads of convenience options allowed their cars to coast the longest on Overhead Valve Inline Sixes that used splash lubrication not necessarily set up for longevity.
The Impala appeared first as a name as a dream in 1956, as a 4 seat Corvette concept before Ford even hinted at their specialty Squarebird (which was squarely priced in Oldsmobile and Chrysler price territory). It arrived as a special roof’d coupe and the only convertible available on mostly new 1958 Chevrolet line up.
The graceful leaping animal on 4 wheels debuted alongside the now infamous X-frame chassis, and new features like Air Suspension plus Chevrolet’s new “Big Block” V8 to haul the nearly Buick like bulk with some sort of haste. By 1959, the dream was spread to those that needed 4 doors and wagons. The fantasy could be held by the whole family.
Perhaps this was the pinnacle of accessible luxury available at your Chevrolet Dealer. Underneath it all, other than the larger V8 and the phase in and out of the wonky Turboglide automatic, The Impala provided a solid, yet stationary engineering for its run as America’s sweetheart car.
Most Impalas were equipped with one of the versions of the 283 V8, Powerglide Automatic, Power Steering and Power Brakes. In 1963, like the Arnold’s, that mean 195 horses from the 2bbl Turbo-fire version, and a 0-60 time around 13 seconds.
All out if mom or dad were feeling adventurous on the roadtrip, and had packed light, the Impala sedan could clock a honest 100 mph flying down one of the empty 2 lanes that hadn’t been replaced with an Interstate.
The average Impala went out the door at $3,200 to $3,300 equipped in this fashion. This is the equivalent of approximately $26,000 today, just below the average of what an average mid-sized Sedan or small CUV costs people that still purchase cars.
The pricing of accessible prestige put the Impala within the hands of many working and middle class buyers from coast to coast, regardless of race, creed and color. This can be explained in the prevalence of these Impalas in so many pockets of American Pop Culture.
The whole of this musing is inspired in how prominently they’re featured in rose tinted reviews of Suburban White Americana smack dab against them being treasured family heirlooms at a Low Rider gathering in San Francisco over the extended Fourth of July Holiday.
More than 50 years after its peak as the most coveted consumer good for the majority of Americans, it still embodies what people see as being a proud “American.” For many families, for many individuals, even in my own Family, acquiring that sextet of tail lamps said you had made it. Either it was great enough for you or you might be onto greater things.
As a piece of consumer art, that’s remarkably problematic in some ways. The homogeny of the Impala despite its faults reflects some of the tinted nostalgia around conformity of the times that produced it.
Beneath the glittering chrome and brilliant colors was more or less a slow evolution of the same car Chevrolet, General Motors, and the American Auto Industry as a whole, had offered since the mid 1930’s.
It wasn’t particularly efficient, fast, safe or long lived. The one savior that keeps these metallic beasts on the road is the long lived parts commonality they have due to their market dominance, not due to their sterling engineering.
The Impala peaked in the market as the baby boom ended in 1965, and the consumer market exploded into individual tastes hastened by social demands around racial, sexual and economic liberation, with consumer products to match.
One last hurrah of over a Million Impalas and Impala SS models passed the torch to The Mustang, The Beetle and the insurgence of other foreign cars in port cities East and West.
It’s of paramount importance to remember we’re in a changing world. It’s important to properly review what we’ve known, what we idolize about our past. We won’t long forget that the Impala was once the dominant choice of car for people, but its best to understand why.
For many families of color, oft credit restrictions limited access to longer lived, more reliable cars. Saving up year after year for an Impala, and preserving it as their greatest financial accomplishment under the crush of capitalism has left them shrines generation after generation.
Where a white family that fled to the Suburbs had no restrictions towards buying a Delta 88 on credit, allowing them to save finances and buy more resources on time, the boundaries of redlining had far reaching consequences on consumers of color.
The Impalas by result in the hood have become monuments of how to thrive, stay mobile, stay proud in the face of institutional segregation of all stripes. It became of symbol of striving to maintain freedom, to move beyond barriers of obstruction that stood in their handlers way.
50 years after Chevrolet moved to more suburban pastures by offering the Caprice as a budget Cadillac, The Impala became more than nature’s athlete re-imagined as an ordinary sedan. It became synonymous with agility to keep on leaping in tall bounds beyond societal station.
Thankfully, there’s a more complex, nuanced celebration that we’re seeing through the lenses of the Impala, and car culture in general these days. If you find yourself in L.A. I hope you get a chance to check out The Petersen’s exhibit The High Art Of Riding Low. And as always, make sure to engage with the wide diversity of people that hold their vehicular stories close to heart. There’s always a new way to see the U.S.A. with a Chevrolet.
2 thoughts on “Dynamic Divergence: Seeing The U.S.A. Through Chevrolet”
Such good and observant social commentary here Lawrence .
I’m a Boomer so I grew up during the 50’s and 50’s ~ we never had any Chevrolets after the 1949 Suburban Moms used to drag the five kid’s round in just before I was born .
I’m a Bowtie Guy through and through ~ my Shop trucks have almost always been 1/2 ton base model Chevrolets, every single one with an i6 engine .
FWIW, the “Target Lubrication” was dropped for the 1955 model year .
America loves it’s Chevrolets because they’re cheap, flashy and FUN ~ just like that special someone we all used to date ~ use ’em up and throw away, look back fondly the rest of your life =8-) .
Very enjoyable read on the cultural and historical significance of the Impala in the U.S., Laurence. As the son of a Canadian Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealer, Impalas were significant in my life, my fave being a black ’63 Impala SS coupe. It completely thrilled me with its red bucket seats, Powerglide floor shifter with full console, engine-turned dash trim and chrome rear seat radio speaker! Can’t remember if it was a 283 or 327, but didn’t matter, I just loved look of that car inside and out. It was a trade-in at the dealership and had I been old enough to drive, I would have tried to persuade my dad to keep it for my mom (and me, wink-wink). It ended up with an in-law and eventually was traded away for a ’67 Ford Country Squire. Heresy!