What About the 1955 Bel Air Made It Special?
After five years in production, the Bel Air received a major restyling for the 1955 model year. Dubbed the “Hot One” in GM’s advertising, the car had a standard 4.3L V8. which was a solid performer, producing 162 hp when paired with a 2bbl carburetor. Owners could opt for a “Power Pack” option, which put a 4bbl carb on top of the motor and bumped the horsepower ratings to a hefty 180 hp. (A “Super Power Pack was also available with a more powerful V8 engine).
The new Bel Air was offered in several configurations: the sedan, station wagon, convertible, and sport coupe. With styling that was more reminiscent of a Cadillac than a Chevrolet, the car sported a wrap-around windshield, full-wheel covers, tail fins, and two-tone paint schemes. With roomy interiors, chrome headliner bands, optional air conditioning, and excellent visibility, the car offered consumers a fresh new look. The sales brochure for the Chevy full-line offered an invitation when it described that the car “looks as young as you feel behind the wheel.”
While the new Bel Air was well received by the press, it was even more adored by the public, who purchased over 800k units that year alone. The 4-door model was the most popular, with the station wagon being the least purchased.
The Bel Air The Impala Makes An Appearance (1958)
With the introduction of Bel Air’s third generation in 1958, the Impala nameplate began its journey as the premium trim line for the Bel Air Sport Coupe 2-doors and convertibles. Chevrolet touted the long, elegant Impala as “excitement on wheels” with luxurious interiors with “beguiling” vinyl and fabric colors.
Under the hood, the Impala favored a 283 ci V8, producing 185 hp or 250 hp, depending on the choice of carburation. Two versions of the 348 ci V8 Big Block (a Chevy first) were also options. The larger V8 engines cranked out 250 hp with a 4 bbl carb, or 280 hp when paired with three 2-bbls lined up in a row.
The Bel Air Impala sold relatively well for a premium sedan, with 55,989 convertibles and 125,480 coupes. The sedan accounted for nearly 15% of Chevrolet’s total sales in 1958 and helped the company regain the number one slot as the best-selling brand in America.
The Bel Air Comes Into Its Own (1959 - 60)
GM decided to make the Impala its nameplate in 1959, situating it at the top just over the Biscayne (low) and Bel Air models (mid-line). While all three shared body contours with Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiac models, the Impala sold very well (490,000 units) due to its good looks rather than its low price ($2,764 for the Coupe and $2,704 for the Convertible).
A standard inline-six-cylinder engine was offered, although customers could choose 283 ci (4.6L) V8 and 348 ci (5.7L) V8 engines that they had encountered before. Chevrolet continued using the X-frame chassis it had introduced the year before. Still, it redesigned the Impala to sit lower and wider by 2 inches), while giving the car a longer wheelbase to improve the ride quality.
The tail fins that had been such a marque feature of the older Bel Airs of the fifties were traded for sideways fins that sloped up slightly from the center trunk line. Both front and rear windshields were increased by almost 50% to improve the visibility for drivers. Chevy referred to the new appearance as its “Slimline” design.
The Impala Gets Muscles (1961 - 1964)
In 1961, the Impala entered its third generation on the new “B” platform with a boxier appearance than before. The side fins were replaced with a more rectangular body and a new “SuperSport” (SS) option. The SS option is significant because it offered customers three choices of V8 engines (all over 300 hp), mated to a 4-speed Synchromesh manual transmission, competition suspension, and brakes. When Chevrolet upgraded the 283 ci V8 to a 327ci (5.4L) V8 and dropped the 348 ci (5.7L) V8 in favor of the monster 409 ci (6.7L) V8 the very next year, the Impala entered actual muscle car territory. Chevy dropped the two-door Nomad wagon, but kept the station wagon under the Impala name.
The Impala Sets A Record (1965)
The 1965 Impala has the distinction of being the best-selling vehicle of all time by setting an industry sales record of more than one million units (in a year). Chevrolet kept the SS trim but included a higher luxury level named “Caprice” with extra padded seats, wood-grained accents on the dash, and other upgrades. Eventually, the Caprice would follow the same path as the Impala, becoming a model the following year. This generation also saw significant safety updates like seat belts, collapsible steering column padded dash, and emergency flashers.
The Impala Loses Some Steam (1971 - 76)
The fifth generation of the Impala kept American buyers opening their wallets for Chevrolet as its best-selling model. The high-performance 454 ci (7.4L) V8 (which Chevy had introduced the year before) was available, producing a monstrous 365 hp. While the oil embargo and increasing federal emissions regulations would take their toll over the next few years, the Impala continued to sell well, but it wasn’t the top seller for Chevy. This generation also saw the addition of power front disc brakes, among other improvements, and the end of the convertible dropped due to a lack of sales.
The Impala Regains Its Status (1977 - 1985)
The sixth generation of the Impala saw a smaller, thinner, more simple car. Americans responded well, restoring the more diminutive sedan to its rightful status as the most popular car in the US. When MotorTrend picked the Impala/Caprice as its Car Of The Year for 1977, sales of almost every model of Chevrolet went up. Consumers were more aware than ever of the wastefulness of large V8s and embraced the more fuel-efficient inline-six introduced for the ‘77 model.
In 1980, Chevrolet dropped the two-door coupe and wagon models after 1981 but continued to produce the sedan version, primarily for fleet usage (taxicabs and city vehicles). By 1985, sales of the car had fallen to just over 53k, and Chevy discontinued the model to give the car a well-deserved rest.
The Impala SS Rises Again (1994 - 96)
Chevrolet reintroduced the Impala SS in 1994 based on a performance concept that Chevrolet teased at the 1992 Detroit Auto Show. The car went into production two years later without the massive 8.2L (500 ci) V8 that potential buyers had hoped for. (It was replaced with a detuned version of the 5.7L (350 ci). Despite the downsizing, the Impala SS could still haul, as Car and Driver found out when it logged a 6.5 second 0 - 60 mph track time.
The car was equipped with an LT1 engine that had been modified from the Corvette, using cast iron heads and two bolt mains. The car performed well with a sport-tuned suspension, enhanced springs, and upgraded shocks. However, Chevy used an electronically controlled 4L60E transmission, which they failed to beef up the tranny to meet the engine’s power output, so cars equipped with the transmission had constant problems, particularly for higher mileage Impala SS models.
When Chevy discontinued the entire B platform in 1996, the resurrected Impala died again.
The Impala Rises From The Dead (2000 - 2013)
It would not be long before Chevy brought the popular name plate back (less than four years). While the Impala was completely redesigned, sharing the W platform with the Chevy Lumina, the car was saddled with two V6 options. Chevy touted the fuel economy and efficiency of the car, trying to convince customers that the Impala was a “practical” choice.
In subsequent years, the Impala saw its share of upgrades, with the Impala SS having a V8 engine option from 2006 - 2009 until Chevy dropped the SS label. In 2011, Chevy offered three trim levels: LS, LT, and LTZ.
The Final Generation (2014 - 2020)
Chevrolet entered its final generation of Impala by making the sedan a full-sized car again (having toyed with a mid-sized version earlier). The Impala was well-built, with impeccable lines, nice amenities, and Ecotech engines delivering an excellent balance between power and fuel efficiency. The tenth-generation Impala was the first North American sedan to win Consumer Report's top score with a 95 out of 100 rating.
Unfortunately, GM recognized the popularity of SUV models, and decided to kill the Impala once and for all in 2020. While enthusiasts hold out hope for an electric version of the sedan, it is clear that for now, GM is putting its resources into building EV Crossovers and Sports Utility Vehicles.