by Tom Shaw, photography by Colin Date
What a year, 1959. Unencumbered by any governmental dictates about design, safety, fuel efficiency, crash standards, eco-friendliness, or other external directives of good or not-so-good origin and intention, the auto industry was free as the wind to create anything it wanted. And in 1959, styling took an unforgettable turn.
For GM, 1959 became the year of the fin, with Cadillac setting an all-time high water mark for altitude and outrageousness, while the higher –volume and popular-priced Chevrolet also went fin-happy, but in a horizontal mode.
Where grilles had been styling’s traditional focal point, for ’59 the strongest styling point moved to the rear. There, Chevrolet had dramatically shaped the body with a mighty wingspan 5 inches wider than the ’58 models. Five extra inches would be impressive just in the additional size, but it wasn’t just the stretched size that raised eyebrows. It was what they did with it.
The rear of the car-taking wing spawned some unflattering nicknames. With decades to digest the design, opinions still vary. Yes, it’s wild. But was it just 1950s excess– or could it have been the right car at the right time? Enthusiasts will have to render that judgment for themselves. But here’s something to consider: the ’59 outsold the ’58 in every body style.
Inside, the ’59 was more conventional with generous dimensions, a wide bench seat, column shifter, and a pair of gauges left and right of the large center speedometer. Upholstery and appointments were commensurate with the model. The basic Biscayne was plain, and the upscale Impala was bright and dressy.
Just like Chevrolet offering the ’59 in three basic models; Biscayne, Bel Air, and Impala, engines also came in one of three displacements – the 235 inline six-cylinder, the 283 V8 with 2 barrel, 4 barrel, or fuel injection, and the big-block 348 with 4 barrel or 3 x 2 induction. Horsepower ranged from a modest 135 up to 335.
The Hi-Thrift Six Cylinder was a familiar 235.5 cube version of the venerable Chevy Stovebolt 6 that powered millions of passenger cars. A basic iron block-and-head inline 6, it was the one and only engine in the pre-’55 Chevys, and the basis for the early Corvette’s power.
Benefitting from development for the Power Pack Bel Airs and Corvette, the 283 was coming into its own as a powerplant capable of making impressive power. Multi-carbs and high-lift cams had official horsepower ratings nearing 300, and the fuel-injected ’57 was officially rated at 283 hp, making 1 horsepower per cubic inch. For ’59, the top 283, a fuel injected version with 10.5:1 compression and a high-flow cam, bested that mark with a rating of 290 hp.
But the on the frontier was a new engine family, based on new architecture for greater displacement. The new engine, introduced the year before, would become better known as the 409, but for ’59, the smaller version, displacing 348 cubic inches, was the top engine option, good for as much as 335 hp. They’re not renowned as fire breathers among collectors these days, but they probably pack a little more firepower than casual observers might suspect.
So into one of Chevrolet’s more peculiar and highly styled cars, GM’s most prolific division slipped a handful of amped-up fuelies and big-blocks that went largely unnoticed, eclipsed by a pair of wild tailfins and “alien eye” taillights. If you’re a fan of late-’50s styling, this Impala should punch all the right buttons.
1959 Essential Specifications
Overall Length 210.9
Track, Front/Rear 60.3/59.3
HP @ RPM
235 I-6 135 @ 4000 (Hi-Thrift 1V)
283 V8 185 @ 4600 (Turbo-Fire 2V)
230 @ 4800 (Super Turbo-Fire 4V)
250 @ 5000 (Ramjet Fuel Injection)
290 @ 6200 (Ramjet Fuel Injection Special)
348 V8 250 @ 4400 (4V Turbo-Thrust)
305 @ 5600 (4V Turbo-Thrust Special w/HD Powerglide)
320 @ 5600 (4V Turbo-Thrust Special)
280 @ 4800 (3 x 2 Super Turbo-Thrust)
335 @ 5800 (3 x 2 Super Turbo-Thrust Special)
Passenger Car Models
Station Wagon Models
Kansas City, MO
Los Angeles, CA
St. Louis, MO
Check out this commercial for the 1959 Chevrolet online
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