The Last Car: Why the Chevy Impala Is Worth Eulogizing
Production of the full-size icon ends this week—and with it, a story larger than all of us.
There was a time, say, the year Brad Pitt was born, 1963, when a world without the Chevy Impala would have been unthinkable. That’s how numerous Impalas were. I almost called this column Once Upon a Time in Impalas, but that would have been both awkward and on-the-nose. Also, Quentin Tarantino threatened a cease-and-desist order. [Narrator: He didn’t.]
Sometime this week, the last Impala rolled off the line at General Motors's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant. The badge will be retired and the plant retooled to churn out electric cars, ending yet another era in an era jam-packed with the ending of eras. And as eras go, the Impala's was a biggie, and as far removed from our current frame of reference as the Model T was from the Apollo space program. Although it's been years since the Impala was truly relevant as a mass-market vehicle, the magnitude of its influence in both economic and social spheres cannot be overstated.
In 1963, Chevrolet sold its 50 millionth car. It was an Impala, and that Impala was joined by more than 800,000 other 1963 Chevy Impalas in customers’ driveways during the year of Brad Pitt's birth. In 1965, Chevrolet added an additional 1,074,925 Impalas to the 2.3 million Impalas sold since its introduction in 1958. That’s 3.5 million Impalas in seven years. And if you include all full-size Chevy models: Impalas, Biscaynes, and Bel Airs, the total is 8.8 million sold between 1961 and 1965.
(According to the Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975 by Ron Kowalke, which you really should read, if you add up all of General Motors’s B platform cars built between 1965 and 1970 the total is 12,960,000 units built across four brands, making GM’s full-size cars the fourth best selling in their day, after the Volkswagen Beetle, Ford Model T, and Lada Riva.)
That’s a crapload of Impalas. To put that in perspective, in 2019 the best-selling car—well, non-pickup truck—in the U.S. was the Toyota RAV4, with 448,071 sold. And it only accounts for the Impala's peak sales years. In the following decades, Chevrolet continued building versions of the Impala—a total of 10 generations’ worth. Despite tweaks in dimensions, the Impala’s underpinnings went virtually unchanged between 1970 and 1996, when the Impala was downsized into GM's $7 billion W platform and became just another front-drive economy sedan. GM's bean counters and shareholders may have been pleased, but no quantity of NASCAR-anointed Chevy Monte Carlo SS variants could shine up such an efficiency-before-beauty special.
But before all that happened, the Impala was the Impala. It wasn't merely a car, it was the rolling embodiment of American mass culture's vast reach. It was the car that beat the Ruskies. Like the backyard swimming pools Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev spotted while flying over Los Angeles on a rare trip to the U.S., the Impala was part of that Communism-defeating dream of hard work and soft leisure. The Impala, available as a sedan, coupe, or convertible, was an affordable run at luxury for those able to grab their first seats at the all-you-can-eat buffet of post-war America. For Americans further down that ladder, or left in the dust during relentless cycles of economic innovation and destruction, used Impalas were plentiful and could be had for pocket lint.
It’s no wonder everyone between the ages of 40 and 90 has an Impala story. How many ice creams gone out for, virginities lost, or newborns carried home. There will never be another car that wielded the same degree of social influence as the Impala had in its prime. It was the “bat-wing” tail, the Beach Boys’ 409, the SS 396, that car from Supernatural.
It was during those turbulent 1960s, as well, that the Chevy Impala played a very different sort of socio-political role. As economist Karl Muth writing for Global Policy in 2014 explains, in July 1964 the Impala inadvertently came to prominence in Los Angeles's urban civil rights movement, an assent that would propel it into pop culture as the Impala Six Four, a fixture in LA's lowrider and wider hip-hop culture for decades to come. In his essay, Muth tells the story, which begins over Independence Day weekend in 1964:
"General Motors, as part of its product launch marketing, tried to get 1964 Impalas to dealers in each of its major city dealerships for its 'Chevy Stands Alone Event' ... The hope was to have a big product launch and sell as many 1964 models as possible before the model’s much-anticipated replacements became available. However, this meant the first 1964 Impala destined for the event happened to—purely by coincidence—reach [a south Los Angeles Chevrolet dealership notorious for its 'no test drive' rule for black customers] the same day the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. That car, Riverside Red with a Cream interior, was driven by its first owner—the black proprietor of a series of modest retail shops in Vermont Square—from Alameda through South Park and Florence. Since then, it has been owned by a string of hip-hop artists and is probably one of the most-photographed Impalas in the world.
By the end of 1964, few, if any, General Motors dealerships retained no-test-drive policies for black customers in anything resembling an official 'policy,' though individual racist managers no doubt remained for years.
The concept of a full-size car from Chevrolet as a first step toward equality may strike readers—particularly in Europe—as a bizarre and obscure piece of symbolism. But the ability for a black customer to not only enjoy, but to purchase, an experience available only to white customers a few years earlier was, at the time, revolutionary and served as a tangible and conspicuous demonstration of a new degree of social and financial freedom."
Today, decades from its glory years, the loss of the Impala is likely saddest for the GM employees losing their jobs in the company’s latest tectonic corporate shift. The modern Impala has long since slipped from the high-volume world, spending its last decade or so on the wrong end of a tipping point during which crossover SUVs mobbed Chevy’s sales sheets (along with light trucks). In 2019, the company sold around one million crossover SUVs, and just 45,000 Impalas. That's not bad for a niche product, but it's light years from the market dominance Impalas once enjoyed.
It’s not like Chevy didn’t try to keep the Impala up to date. The latest generation rides on GM's large front-wheel-drive platform shared with the Cadillac XTS and Buick LaCrosse. Stand near one, and it has real presence, especially the Midnight edition (top). Still, that FWD setup and limited engine options made any attempt to rekindle the classic SS ethos impossible. The Impala could have been a badass budget 'Benz CLS. But that's just car guys talking. The Impala had a sell-by date, and it was up.