I had never seen these development images of the ’59 Chevy before. These hideous designs must have come about by conflicting and contradictory direction or lack of same. At a time where ’50s American automobile design had run its course and had to make a transition into something that made more sense, maybe Earl just couldn’t change directions. I don’t know. Pretty scary stuff. The production ’59 Chevrolets were tame and refined next to these earlier proposals.—Dean’s Garage
How GM‘s Radical 1959 Chevrolet Came to Be
by James Humble
Source: Hot Rod Deluxe, May 21, 2015
Even as the epochal and precedent-breaking ‘55 Chevy line was causing sensations at the dealers’ showrooms and racetracks, GM management had already decreed the first step in a market strategy to up size and upgrade all its products. Well, let’s face it: in the ‘50s the automotive marque to which the overwhelming majority of the automotive masses aspired was the General’s flagship: Cadillac. Traditional rival Packard was going into its final coma, Lincoln was only a spunky wannabe, and Chrysler’s Imperial was a distant “me too.” The Caddie, in the eyes of the public, held the whip hand in terms of luxury, speed, and “charisma”—a quality that is hard to define, but sells cars. The tail wagged the dog and the “Low-Priced Three” were dog itself.
These were the days when new-car introduction time was like a circus in town. When its arch competitor Ford and upstart Plymouth both came out with all-new bodies and frames in 1957, ever wonder why big Chevrolet didn’t follow suit? It’s too easy to assume that as king of the Low-Priced Three market, Chevy merely wanted to prolong the line of that classic with the iconic 1957; nope—the front office had decreed that Chevrolet would spring a big (literally) surprise on the market to claim lasting precedence in 1958! Ford’s all-new—if traditional—body thus sold very well, and controversy exists to this day who won the 1957 sales race; suffice it to say that Chevrolet not only didn’t like to lose, they likewise didn’t relish a close finish. This surprise was a new line-leader called the Impala, and it would bring even more Caddie cachet to the arena. It was to be a package: a completely new, compact V-8 at 348 CID (available with dealer-installed Borg-Warner four-speed), a new X-frame that moved the engine’s harmonic balancer up even with the spindle centerline—all in support of a more luxury-oriented, and appreciable heavier, body. Released only as a convertible and two-door hardtop—remember that the 1958 Bel Air series had its own hardtop that shared few body panels—it overwhelmed the warmed-over second-year styling of both Ford and Plymouth, and notched up the luxury target for years. And, in a hotly contested race for high sales, it regained the winner’s circle—but the challenge would be how to follow that act?
Precedent was broken a year later when GM planners preempted the new bodies (and similar Pontiacs as well) with a radically new design that retained only the basic frame and power packages of the 1958s. Why? Well, part of the plan was to get all the divisions in sync over at Fisher Body with intensified inter-line rationalization: think roof and window shapes. After that, C-B-O-P-C could march forward in a unified rank, thus significantly simplifying parts inventories and saving the bean counters lots of legumes. At least that was the theory. To keep these developments in context, recall that a wild and hyper-controversial new lineup was being readied by FoMoCo in 1958—that styling boomerang called the Edsel! Sensation proved its worth, and the E-Car sold very well at first, but mostly to the detriment of Ford and Mercury. Few now recall the poor timing of it all; 1958 was the year of the “Eisenhower Recession” and though the new Chevy again prevailed in its market, overall car sales slumped badly, and adventurous marketing proved hard sledding!
For 1959, GM Design Center would set the “look” and basic body parameters for a number of wheelbases, and engineering could fix all the crucial body dimensions—firewall and door hinge lines, floor and roof height, and so on—and the five division studios could take it from there. Looking back on the photo files of GM Photographic a marvelous nuthouse of ideas can be revealed, with lots of themes and treatments recognized that later crossed marque lines. Of course, the individual divisions had always expected to adapt to some degree of rationalization and corporate identity, but in those dear, dead days, in-house politics and sales competition being what they are, each nameplate still fought the trend like the Army fights the Navy fights the Air Force!
With full management approval, Chevrolet stylists took a huge gamble that those huge horizontal fins, even in a tail fin crazy market, would catch the fancy of the new-car buyer. Wide “cat’s-eye” taillights never prototyped on any GM dream car drove home the impression. Controversy didn’t hurt, in the real-time market, as all sorts of rumors surfaced about the 1959 cars becoming airborne (or at least unloading the rear springs) in high-wind areas: supposedly a coastal highway tunnel had the capability to cause the lifting of the rear suspension to a really thrilling extent. Aerodynamicists scoffed, noting that the airfoil curve that causes lift was totally lacking, but it became an urban legend. As the dropped-in-front “Dagoed” look was beginning to move from street rods to late-models, the sight of radically raked 1959s might have nurtured this rumor.
Frontal styling for the new lineup was a bit controversial for a different reason: critically viewed, it didn’t quite “match” the rear look as seen in all previous Chevys. Though pleasing in a less radical way, to some critics it looked as if it had been chosen “off the rack” by the stylists and merely attached to the distinctive tail by the expedient of slathering clay to join two design bucks. Some definite Cad influence can be discerned in the stamped-aluminum grille texture; a toothy ‘Vette-inspired unit was considered! The upside was that the treatment lent itself to loads of effective restyling, which customizers, even the high school auto shop kind, loved. The most popular of these was the replacement of the designers’ nice “grin” with a simple tube grille of chromed bars. As to the twin pseudo-air scoops at the hood parting line, one custom shop artist (I think it was Darryl Starbird) remarked, in noting how little he cared for to the effect, that it looked like one of the body designers had stood too close when holding a running grinder, and having buzzed off the leading edge, had to repeat on the other side for the sake of symmetry!
The 1959 coupe roof was pretty and complemented the look perfectly; it still looks sweet, if you grant that the rear seat occupants might get a bit warm. Thought the “Forward Look” Chrysler products had sported a modest bubbletop look as early as 1957, but GM stylists trumped it with a super-thin C-pillar and beach towel–sized roof panel on all their two-door hardtops, ending it with the low-production and even prettier Bel Air Sports Coupe in 1962. Even the two-door sedan roofs looked rakish. All divisions had an optional four-door hardtop profile that was convenient, but rather bland. While the fin design was no particular help at the new Daytona oval, the roof profile was a real plus; unfortunately, Pontiac and Olds had it too. With a well-worn ’59 Sports Coupe “Junior” Johnson did win the 1960 Daytona 500, but it had been discovered that the “W” head/combustion chamber design became a bit breathless on the high-speed oval. Fortunately, it proved to be a torquer that always did better on short tracks or drags.
Performance-wise, neither year had it all their way in the Stock Car wars; there was plenty of competition, especially from GM rival Pontiac with a larger-displacement 398 CID motor that breathed very well and rode in a perimeter frame with a wider stance. The second-gen four-seat Thunderbird was low, had a smaller frontal area, and was equipped with the big Lincoln 430 CID powerplant. However, at the now burgeoning dragstrips, the Chevrolets did very well, and seemed to be everywhere garnering NHRA class records, both with the 348 and the 283 CID in lower echelons. That the cars were campaigned hard and in great numbers is told by a perusal of the strip box scores from your old National Dragster weekly. Bear in mind that despite the fact that the “W” was actually a tad lower than the small-block, it was more massive and couldn’t really be shoehorned into the elderly frame of GM Managements’ performance car of choice, the sporty Corvette.
From its introduction, the W benefitted strongly, as did many GM cars, of the availability of the Borg-Warner T10 four-speed (originally developed from their heavy-duty three-speeder), especially in the upper stock/stick classes at the local strip. Quick: what carburetion equipment (not counting FI) was never offered on the “W-motor”? That the engine was never sold with a basic two-barrel carburetor bolsters the stance propounded in the prestigious Society of Automotive Engineers “Engineering Journal” of 1957 that Chevy boffins were on the hunt for more BHP and torque with the 348 series! Not many V-8s can make that claim; the “W” came only with the basic Rochester 4GC four-barrel, or optional triple Rochester 2GC two-barrel intakes. Later, of course, the 3X2s were supplanted by two hard-to-quench Carter AFB four-barrels, but that was with the rather tardy advent of the famed 409ci iteration. Why did the “W” get the appellation of “truck motor”? Like the original 265 CID mouse-motor, it was introduced in both automobiles and commercials simultaneously; but the 409 was retained in Chevy’s larger gas-powered trucks after it had been supplanted by the 396-427ci big-block in passenger cars. Chevrolet engineers stated in the SAE Journal that based on the metallurgy available in 1955-56, they didn’t think the small-block could be reliably built beyond 301 CID. But recall that the competition’s little V-8 never went beyond 312 CID.
Whereas division rival Pontiac held its own against the rapidly developing threat of the B-block 413 CID Chrysler products vary, especially with automatic-equipped cars becoming heavy threats for top stocker after the advent of the Torqueflite, Chevy had really needed the 409 at least a year earlier. And the ancient two-speed Powerglide, never a threat in stock configuration, had to soldier on in the automatic classes for too long. The 1959–60 Chevrolet, especially the Impala Sports Coupe, was the ideal car to cruise main and attract attention; under the streetlights, it screamed (especially in Gypsy Red lacquer, strong forward rake, and playing a tune on dual Pacemaker mufflers and the three-twos intake) “Hey—look at me!” With all the windows rolled down, of course, cat’s-eyes glowing to the rear, and AM radio thumping out a monaural “Little Darlin’” or Jorgen Ingmans’ “Apache,” one was automatically trolling for black and whites!
The new body essentially lasted two years; in 1960 the boys in the styling backroom had toned down the flamboyant fins a bit, making the decklid a bit flatter, and reinstated the modest round taillights that had arrived two years earlier, and these soon became a brand identifier even on Corvette and Corvair. Also, they decreed a pleasing new, less radical grille shape that was tied quite neatly into the rear treatment with a high horizontal reveal line. Otherwise, the 1960 lineup was almost identical to the 1959 in most respects, and despite the pretty new Ford styling, featuring gullwing horizontal fins and bubble-roof, interestingly it took the sales trophy. Before summing up, we should add that the Motorama-inspired dash/instrument treatment (besides the inclusion of “idiot lights”) was a grand slam of a design!
The wild-styling card was discarded by 1961. That marked the advent of non-controversial body styling—starting a generation of Chevrolet domination in sales of what had become known as full sized family cars. And a half-year intro of the balladized 409 (and rare Z-11 427) the 348 W was progressively supplanted by the legendary 327 CID SBC, and the awesome Rat motor—produced partially on the same assembly lines as the W—was just around the corner. Well, heck: even the Caddies had become conservative and trimmed of fin by then. But now, as then, the 1959 Chevy turns heads as a street cruiser on Saturday nights!