By on September 22, 2009

Imagine...

Look at the picture above. Now pretend it’s your rearview mirror. That giant set of batwings is right behind you and gaining; now it pulls into the fast lane. A couple of teenagers grin as they zip by you ass-backwards at seventy miles an hour. The front grille of the ’59 Chevy slowly recedes in the distance ahead. If you spent any time on the roads of Cincinnati around 1969, this may well have happened to you.

BiscayneThe 1959 Chevrolet begs not to be taken seriously. It’s just way too over the top, which makes it an open invitation to pranks, abuse, stereotyping, ridicule, and even willful destruction. Think about it: if you were given the opportunity to crash test a sixty year old car against a new one, wouldn’t the ’59 Chevy be the obvious choice? Well, except maybe a ’59 Cadillac, but they’re too expensive, and folks might get seriously upset.

The ’59 Chevy is the apogee of late fifties American taste spun out of control; it represents the point at which the collective consciousness said: STOP! That’s quite enough! We’ve gone down this road as far as it can go. Time for a one-eighty, time to reel in the excess, time for the bubble to burst, time for a recession.

By 1961, a recession and a drastically slimmed down Chevy arrived. And within a few short years, the ’59 developed cult status, a rolling art object (forwards or backwards), as well as the favored object of creative destruction. I speak from experience as an early participant.

True confession: at the age of ten, I had a spell of shoplifting, and the sole targets of my kleptomania were model car kits. Since my inventory soon resembled a current Chrysler dealer’s, I would stage elaborate crashes in the driveway. Lighter fluid was the accelerant of choice, augmented by firecrackers jammed into the engine compartment and trunk. One of my first victims was a 1959 Impala coupe. It was memorable, watching those crazy batwings droop and melt into a puddle. Roller

I say if you’re going to blow something up, make it a colorful object. The Chinese tumbled to this thousands of years ago. So I can totally relate to those IIHS guys and their choice of the ’59 Bel Air. Admit it: it was a beautiful destruction. Like a samurai warrior in his finest garb ready to meet death, the Bel Air glided gracefully to its spectacular end. Would you rather have seen the bland blob of a ’59 Rambler American take on the Malibu? I think not.

At Towson High, our dope dealer drove a Biscayne sedan just like this one. What a perfect rolling billboard. Everyone could see him coming blocks away, and we’d head across the parking lot to buy our dime bags of ditch weed. His eyes were about as squinty as the eyebrows on the Chevy. And his product was about as effective as those fins adding aerodynamic stability at speed.

One day at lunch time, we were lined up to make a transaction across the driver’s window sill, when someone said “Look, up there on the roof!” The Principal was standing on the flat roof of the auditorium, peering at us through binoculars. The dealer panicked, dumped his stash out the window, slammed the Chevy into gear, floored it, and clipped the stout back bumper of a school bus with his right front fender. Kapow! Another ’59 Chevy sacrificed to a higher calling. CC 28 040 600

The 1959 and the slightly-toned-down 1960 models were GM styling chief Harley Earl’s swan song. There are two ways of looking at them. As vehicles, they left a lot to be desired. With their huge overhangs, narrow tracks (inherited from the ’58 underpinnings), “Jet-Ride” soft suspension, undersized 14″ tires with a recommended 24 pounds of pressure, and flexible “X” frame, handling was atrocious. Build quality was mediocre and performance suffered under the bloat, up some 500lbs from the trim ’55-’57 models. Where the small block 283 offered sparkling zip in the classic tri-fives, now a big block 348 was necessary for decent momentum, unless you ordered it with the self-destructing Turbo-Glide automatic. In that case, you’d be gliding to a stop on the shoulder all too soon.

But life would have been so much less colorful without them. They’re a rolling testament to the blowout of late fifties irrational exuberance. And a magnet for creative minds. Like those that created the ass-backwards Biscayne that prowled Cincinnati.

It sprang from the same creative source that created Cadillac Ranch, and the other innumerable memorials to Harley Earls’ unchecked expansiveness. A friend who grew up there told me about it. A couple of high school classmates had the brilliant idea to lift the body off a ’59 Biscayne sedan, and drop it back on backwards. And unlike most wacko high-school inspirations, they acted on it. Why not? How hard could it be? These kids back then actually lived out their craziest fantasies in metal, not bytes, thanks to an uncle’s garage and welder. Try CC 28 051 600suggesting the same thing today to some high schoolers with access to a ’99 Accord.

The result was crude but highly effective. Rough edged holes under the rear bumper for radiator air. A crude steering column held in place by a couple of welded steel bars. The one bench seat was somewhere in the middle. No instrument panel. Or wipers. Lights? Who cared; it ran, and some kid’s crazy fantasy inspired by the ’59 Chevy was realized.

But it had an unintended effect: it brought traffic to a dead halt. Folks simply freaked when they saw those bat wings coming straight at them. Before long, the police put an end to the innocent youthful fun. I saw it some years later, when I drove my friend to Cincinnati: the bat-out-of hell-mobile was moldering away in a weedy side yard, a testament to the ’59 Chevy’s ability to inspire, amuse, revolt, entertain and cause traffic jams. Now if only those IIHS guys had resurrected it, to crash into the Malibu ass backwards. Now that would have been truly spectacular.

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52 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne...”


  • avatar
    KalapanaBlack

    Look at the picture above. Now pretend it’s your rearview mirror. That giant set of batwings is right behind you and gaining; now it pulls into the fast lane.

    I’m curious, what made this car so apt to be driven backwards at high speed? Wouldn’t the transmission limit that, to some extent?

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    I think that this article offers a better perspective on ’59 Chevys than did the piece on the IIHS test. Once you get past the nostalgia trip, these cars really were pretty ugly, representing an prime example of wretched excess in automotive design. Unless you have an emotional bond to ’59 Chevys due to personal experience with one in your formative years, I think that it would be hard for anyone to look at one today and say that it’s beautiful. About the most that I can say for the model year is that they were memorable, unlike most of the blandly curved jellybean sedans produced for the last few decades.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    It’s not as ugly as the plymouth and dodge offerings of the same era. if the IIHS had run a 348 V-8 version of the 59 chevy head on into the 09 model without offset I bet the 59 would have held together better.

    A rolling testament to the skill of sheet metal fabrication.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Whew! Finally got the explanation in your last paragraphs. Although – that was about the time that GM started it’s long slide backwards.

    (Notable exception – the new ‘vette. Please don’t let that one end.)

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    KalapanaBlack, from the text: A couple of high school classmates had the brilliant idea to lift the body off a ’59 Biscayne sedan, and drop it back on backwards. As in, lifting it off the frame and running gear, and mounting it backwards.

  • avatar
    pnnyj

    “Now if only those IIHS guys had resurrected it, to crash into the Malibu ass backwards. Now that would have been truly spectacular.”

    Amen!

    That might actually have made that insurance industry funded pressure group kind of cool.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Another great article.

    Interestingly, all of GM’s 1959 cars were styled in reaction to Virgil Exner’s low, sleek, tail-finned 1957 Mopars. The 1958 Chevrolet (and Pontiac) were all-new; GM expected this body style to last for three model years. Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac had been all-new for 1957; GM also expected this body style to last for another three years.

    When GM stylists caught a glimpse of the new Mopars in the fall of 1956, they panicked and tore up the proposed designs for 1959.

    The rooflines of GM’s 1959 four-door sedans and two-door hardtops look as though they there were lifted directly from comparable 1957 Plymouths and Dodges.

    Beautiful? No. Interesting? Yes. Although I always preferred the 1959 Ford Galaxies with their large, round taillights and “Thunderbird” rooflines.

    In some ways, the 1959s were the beginning of GM’s decline. All models – from Chevrolet to Cadillac – shared the same basic body. Plus, they were rushed into production, so build quality suffered.

    GM improved these cars over the years – the 1961 models are more rational and better built – but GM continued to slowly increase the number of shared components among its divisions to save costs, so that by 1980 a Cadillac had basically become a Chevrolet with better sound deadening and different sheetmetal.

    • 0 avatar
      bugo

      “When GM stylists caught a glimpse of the new Mopars in the fall of 1956, they panicked and tore up the proposed designs for 1959.”

      Do pictures of these stillborn 1959 models exist?

  • avatar
    GS650G

    Sharing engines to the point where everybody got a Chevy block caused the identity of the car lines to vanish. Here they were designing a car meant to reflect history and create brand loyalty and they are stuck with the same powertrain as everyone else.

    Like many debates here before, there became no reason to buy a particular brand from GM for any reason except price, a few available features and in fewer cases styling differences.

    I saw a Buick with an Olds front end. It was about a 90 or 91 model year which had been in a front end accident and the replacement parts were Olds. It nearly lined up with the doors. That really says a lot about GM.

  • avatar
    racebeer

    Great writeup, Paul … just one sidenote for Ya ….

    When Estes and Knudsen looked at the Catalina, Star Chief, and Bonneville body on that narrow chassis, they didn’t like it at all. This was when the whole “Wide-Track” concept was born for Pontiac. They pushed the wheels out about 2 to 3 inches on both sides to fill out the width of the wheel openings, and it gave the cars a much more aggressive stance in ’59. The rest is history.

    Just a piece of trivia as a follow-up.

  • avatar
    TonUpBoi

    Another trip down memory lane for me. I still remember that my father (the Chevrolet dealer) was not in the slightest bit happy about the 59’s, especially after the excellent sales year he had with the ’58 models. The local coal miners and steelworkers really took to the ’58 as a blue-collar Cadillac (it’s still my favorite Chevy from that era), but the ’59’s really had everyone’s jaws wiping the floor.

    My cousin (aged 16 at the time) mounted small lights behind the upper grilles on his father’s Bel Air. It actually was an improvement.

    Oh yeah, if you think the ’59 was ugly, you should have seen the alternate designs that didn’t make it. Thank God.

  • avatar
    alfred p. sloan

    I have no personal attachment to the ’59 Chevy and so it ALWAYS struck me as a disgusting design.

    Iit’s so funny to me that GM reacted the way they ddid about Virgil Exner’s overwrought, bloated and excessive designs. They shoulda stuck with the lithe look ford had introduced on the ’60 T-Bbird.

  • avatar
    texlovera

    Well, having grown up in the sixties when these cars were ubiquitous, I must admit to a certain bias in their favor. On the now-rare occasions when I see one on the road, I cannot help but adorn myself with a broad, sentimental smile.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    geeber (above) is correct, except that I would disagree about 1980 being the approximate year that Cadillac and Chevy became essentially similar except for sound deadening and sheet metal. Leaving aside the question of engines (which may justifiable given that the 1980 Caddy engines were not Chevy engines), a case could be made that the all-new full-size 1971 models were the point at which Cadillacs became as noticeably poorly built as full-size Chevys.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Sigh. Those were the days when cars were exuberant, and we loved them. Going for a drive or to a drive in movie were things we loved to do. Since then cars have become appliances.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    Friend of mine has a 1959 El Camino in that same color. I’m pretty sure he’s got a big block motor in it, and wider rims.

    These big gaudy things begged to be equipped with every accessory known to man, but a rather high percentage of them were six-cylinder three-speed two-door sedans. Talk about a contradiction.

  • avatar
    probert

    I enjoyed the article a lot.

    I’ve got to say that I’ve always had a soft spot for these cars. There’s something friendly about the design . Maybe because the wing flow sideways instead of protruding upwards. Lot’s of glass… I don’t know it just makes me smile.

    The Caddies and and chryslers of the era do little for me; I think the 60s were the height of mainstream american car design. They seemed to have a real grasp of the materials and scale. Sadly, for the most part (excepting maybe the olds 442 and corvette) the engineering was bad – even given the technology available at the time. Pisses me off – they really had something and just let it go.

    It’d be fun to take the body and interior and put it on a modern chassis. Maybe Leno will take up the challenge.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    GS650G
    It’s not as ugly as the plymouth and dodge offerings of the same era.

    I’m with you on the Dodge, but I always considered the 59 Plymouth much better looking than this Chevy. I owned a 59 Fury, and never understood how Chevy sold any of theirs. 2 speed powerglide (if lucky), flex X frame, seat so low you had to be 6-2 to see over the steering wheel (which spun 6 turns lock to lock, by the way) and UGLY besides. Yeeeshhh! Give me a Torqueflite, more powerful engines, a real frame (though not the stiffest ever, it was loads better than the 57) and a suspension that could handle roads that would send a Chevy through the guardrails.

    Anyway, great writeup on one of my least favorite cars ever. The second time in 2 years that Ford outsold them (although Chevy fans argue that it was a split decision, with one winning model year, the other winning calendar year).

    And Geeber is correct, this car represented full fledged total panic at GM, which redesigned its entire car line in a 24 month cycle after seeing Chrysler’s forward look. I guess it is a testament to GM at the height of its power that it could pull this feat off as well as it did. When the situation reversed 2 years later and Chrysler panicked in reaction to GM’s “downsized” 61s, the resulting 62 Plymouth and Dodge were nowhere near as good looking as the 59 GM line.

    And who’se idea was that X frame? The thing had close to zero tortional rigidity. I knew of a guy who had to be careful to find a level area if his company’s gravel parking lot or else the doors on his 60 Impala convertible would not open.

  • avatar
    nikita

    Unless you have an emotional bond to ‘59 Chevys due to personal experience with one in your formative years, I think that it would be hard for anyone to look at one today and say that it’s beautiful.

    Dad bought a Brookwood station wagon, equivalent to the Biscayne lowest trim level, in ’59. It sure attracted a lot of attention when he parked it in the driveway. I thought it was strange and ugly back then, and I was only six years old at the time.

    The greatly towned down ’61 is probably the least favored among collectors because it was so boring. That whole ’58-’64 series are my least favorite, not only for styling, but the crappy X frame structure. Ugly Mopars of the era, and there were some real turkeys, like the ’62 Plymouth, at least were better engineered.

  • avatar
    86er

    I agree with geeber about the ’59 Ford. It was a gorgeous car (for a ’59) and my dad’s all-time favourite.

    Speaking of my dad, he had a ’59 Chevy like this, but it met its untimely end on a narrow bridge one night, and was replaced with a ’59 Pontiac which I believe was much more to his liking.

  • avatar

    More on how the ’59s came to be:

    http://ateupwithmotor.com/model-histories/luxury-and-personal-luxury-cars/101-requiem-for-misterl-the-1959-cadillac.html

    The X-frame was not as stiff as the heavier ladder-type frames with cruciform bracing used earlier, but it was actually a good deal more rigid than the perimeter frames that became popular in the sixties. The big problem it presented is that it provided no protection at all from side impacts, and GM didn’t get into reinforced door beams until a decade or so later.

    The handling of these cars was indeed wretched, although it was more because of soggy springs and damping, slow steering, and mediocre suspension geometry than the frame. Detroit was just starting to get into rear coil spring suspension, and their early efforts were not inspiring. Ford put the “Squarebird” T-Bird on a trailing link/coil spring rear suspension, but then backtracked and reverted to Hotchkiss drive (live axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs) because they had a lot of problems with wheel hop. The original purpose of coil springs was to make the suspension compatible with air springs, which didn’t catch on at that point.

    Ahh, Turboglide. Turboglide and Buick’s Flight Pitch Dynaflow (a.k.a. Triple Turbine) were a fascinating idea: Let’s make a continuously variable transmission based on a torque converter! Turboglide was very smooth, not very efficient, expensive to build, and not particularly reliable. A genuine engineering curiosity, if not a very successful one.

  • avatar

    Thanks to Argentla for that excellent link on Harley Earl’s swan song, which follows nicely from Geeber’s comment.

    Also agree with Geeber about the beauty of the ’59 Ford. I was never a Ford man, but I really love that car. The ’59 Chevy is definitely a low, and the ’60, a moderate tweak of the ’59, is not much better. The ’61 was a big improvement, and the ’63 and ’64 were the best of the full sized Chevys, IMO, although I like the ’58 a lot.

  • avatar
    geeber

    gottacook: I would agree that 1971 was a major turning point for Cadillac and GM. Build quality really suffered, and it was very obvious that GM had cut many corners in designing and engineering those full-size cars.

    David Holzman and 86er: I always found the 1959 Ford Galaxie to be a very attractive car. Maybe it was that old Matchbox model of the 1959 Ford Country Sedan I had as a boy (which, in mint condition, is now worth a lot of money!). Although Matchbox also included a 1959 Impala Sport Coupe in its lineup (and those are worth a fair amount now, too).

    Matchbox always had many American Fords in its lineup; its fire chief and police cars were based first on the 1961 Ford Fairlane, then on the 1965 Ford Galaxie.

    Some sources show that Ford outsold Chevrolet for 1959; others show that Chevrolet held the number-one spot. Everyone agrees that in 1959 Ford largely closed the gap that had opened up between it and Chevrolet during 1958.

    It’s also interesting that while GM rushed to copy Mopar’s 1957 models with their thin roof pillars, it was the “blind” rear pillar and squared-off roofline of the 1958 Thunderbird that turned out to have the most influence on auto design over the next few years. When Ford abandoned it briefly for 1960, its sales suffered. By 1961, it was back on full-size Fords.

    Perhaps Mr. Niedermeyer will see fit to make the 1959 Ford a subject of the next Curbside Classic article?

    jpcavanaugh: On paper the Plymouth looks much better than the Chevrolet, and it is better looking. But Chrysler had major problems with quality control in those years, and several Chrysler executives were receiving kickbacks from suppliers even as those suppliers were shipping substandard parts to Chrysler.

    Buyers in 1959 would also have been spooked by the terrible reputation earned by the 1957 Plymouths, which looked great and had many nice features, but literally started falling apart and rusting away within a year. When Popular Mechanics surveyed owners of the 1957 Plymouth, a staggering 11 percent complained of severe water leaks, which eventually lead to serious rust problems (not to mention ruined carpets and upholstery).

    Chrysler cut a lot of corners on its 1957 models, and that came back to haunt them for the remainder of the decade. The company did not have a good reputation in the late 1950s, while Chevrolet and GM did.

  • avatar
    npbheights

    Looks like a cheapned Edsel.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    @geeber: You are completely right about the 57 mopars. However, most of the 57s problems had been largely solved by 59. I will also agree that Chrysler’s build quality in 59 was still inferior to GM’s.

    But on the merits of the car itself, I still think Plymouth was a better car. I owned my 59 when it was 20 years old, and drove it every day. The driving experience was better in virtually every way compared to my college roommate’s 62 Bel Air which he owned at the same time. The Plymouth drove like cars 10 years newer, while the Chevy drove like cars 5 to 10 years older.

    I think what you are saying is that there was a perception gap in 1959. :) But back then, the perception gap benefitted GM.

    And the 59 Ford was a really attractive car.

  • avatar
    tigeraid

    I love ’59 Chevys. Ever seen the El Camino version? Just awesome. The 2 door Impala also looks a bit more well-proportioned than this car.

    It’s one of those “so ugly it’s cool cars”, like the early 60s Max Wedge Mopars. I’d totally own one of these, lowered with just a hint of rake, massive tires on all four corners, and 3″ side exit pipes, regardless of motor!

  • avatar
    tigeraid

    I must say I find it interesting that Mr. Niedermeyer calls the Powerglide “self destructive”, when it’s considered by the vast majority of the performance industry as just about the strongest automatic transmission ever built. (There’s a reason it’s still hugely popular for drag and circle track racing, and Ford and Dodge guys often swap it in using an adapter plate.)

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    @Tigeraid: I must say I find it interesting that Mr. Niedermeyer calls the Powerglide “self destructive”

    I believe that he was referring to the TurboGlide, another GM entry in “Crap Transmission Greatest Hits”.

    While durable, the 2 speed powerglide had become obsolete by 1959 compared with the Plymouth’s Torqueflite and the Ford Cruise O Matic, both 3 speed designs. Of course, Chevrolet was still selling it into the early 70s.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    tigeraid: I said “Turboglide”, not Powerglide. Two very different transmissions.

  • avatar
    geeber

    jpcavanaugh: I think what you are saying is that there was a perception gap in 1959. :) But back then, the perception gap benefitted GM.

    Which makes us realize just how much GM has thrown away over the past 30+ years. At one time, the GM vehicle was the default choice.

    It’s ironic that Ford panicked when it received the blueprints for the 1959 Chevrolet from moles planted at Chevrolet’s suppliers, and then decided to rush a 1960 model into production that was based on a show car, a looked a lot like the 1959 Chevrolet.

    Buyers didn’t like the copycat styling, and the quality suffered that year for Ford, too. Too bad Ford didn’t simply build the more conservative 1961 model as the 1960 Ford; it probably would have sold much better.

  • avatar
    georgie

    I spent the summer of 1959 at the Chevrolet assembly plant in Van Nuys California.
    I worked in the Fisher body area of the plant assembling these 59 Chevy’s I cant say much for quality control because I saw a lot of crap come down the line.
    Ahhh..Those were the days. The plant is gone now but the memories of my summer there still linger on.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    @argentla: I followed your link. Great read, and cleared up a mystery for me, which was why were the GM 1960 models so much better looking than the 59s. I had not realized that Harley Earl still had such a strong hand in creating the 59s, or that the 1960s were all Bill Mitchell. Now it all makes sense.

  • avatar
    NickR

    My dad had one of these…a white 2-door. It was replaced with another Chevy shortly after I was born. It puts in an appearance in just one picture in our collection. It is hideous, a frontrunner for being the ugliest car of the 50s.

  • avatar
    JTParts

    I remember hearing something about these being the most costly models GM had made due the to the compound curves of the rear fender. My first girlfriends parents had a ’59 wagon and I have fond memories of that car. I love the looks, much moreso than a ’57.

  • avatar

    My grandpa had a ’59 Chevy. Those taillights used to frighten the crap out of me as a four year old! What an angry looking thing. That car and the 1960 Valiants were the archetypes for a scary looking car for me.

    They’re very cool looking cars if for nothing other than their sheer outrageousness, but my ’60 Chevy wagon gave me first hand experience on living with one day-to-day. Truly nasty build quality. That panoramic windshield cracked, delaminated and leaked like a sieve, which was directly followed by the floors rotting out. If you didn’t watch it, you could bang your knee where the windsheild frame stuck out when you climbed in. It rattled, rusted and drove like a pig boat. My verdict: Very cool to look at, not so good to own. At least parts for the engine were cheap (small block V8). I finally got some sense and ditched it.

    Last year, I scored a set of ’59 Chevy taillights at a swap meet, lamp housings and all. Slightly beat up, but that’s fine, I’m going to graft them onto my artcar! I still haven’t decided to mount them in the stock horizontal position, or vertically to create the base for some monster tailfins!

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    It’s not as ugly as the plymouth and dodge offerings of the same era. if the IIHS had run a 348 V-8 version of the 59 chevy head on into the 09 model without offset I bet the 59 would have held together better.

    A rolling testament to the skill of sheet metal fabrication.

    OUCH-I have 2 59 Plymouths and 3 more fin cars.Yeah, the late 50s cars get serious attention in today’s clone car world but instead of throwing rocks at the outlandish look I’d be more inclined to salute guys who put the time and effort and serious coin to drive these wild looking cars in real traffic.It’s an incredible experience.May the spirit of Virgil Exner live forever…

    http://www.mystarcollectorcar.com/

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    As a boy, I was always frightened by the rear end of this car … somehow, it seemed evil.

    btw, Isn’t this the same car that stars in the opening of S. King’s novel The Stand? -(guy dying of plague pulls into a gas-station)- If not, this is sure the car I imagined as I read it…

  • avatar
    Bearadise

    My dad was a Ford (and Renault & Peugeot) dealer in 1959. He told me that, at the dealer unveiling of the ’60 Ford, you could hear a pin drop. They were dumbstruck that Ford would deviate so much from the highly popular ’59, the first year that Ford beat Chevrolet in sales. He came home and sold the dealership.

    My first car was a used ’59 Skyliner (retractable). After my sister totalled that, I bought a green 6-cyl, 3 speed ’59 Biscayne 2 door with chrome reversed wheels. The car’s best feature: a cavernous back seat, although I don’t think my girlfriend’s father was as happy about that as I was…rightfully so. Ah memories.

  • avatar
    50merc

    ClutchGarGo: “Once you get past the nostalgia trip”

    Why do that?

    “an emotional bond to ‘59 Chevys due to personal experience with one in your formative years”

    Well, that’s probably the difference between you and me

    A good case can be made that the ’59 Plymouth was the best of the Top Three, but the terrible build quality of ’57 was still crippling Chrysler’s reputation.

    The ’59 Ford (my parents had one) was actually an adaptation of the Mercury body. Nice lines, especially after Ford belatedly introduced the Galaxie 500 model with its “Thunderbird” roof, but details and interior trim still weren’t up to Chevy’s standard of elegance. Chevrolet was quieter and smoother, too.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    Looks are obviously a personal opinion thing.
    But,6 years later when I was getting out of High School nobody wanted a 59 Ford NOBODY. Lots of people wanted and many had 59 Chevies along with a zillian 55 57 chevies. Go to a cruise night and count the 59 Fords, it won’t take long.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Juniper, Bingo!

  • avatar
    tigeraid

    Paul Niedermeyer :
    September 22nd, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    tigeraid: I said “Turboglide”, not Powerglide. Two very different transmissions.

    So you did, my apologies. That Turboglide was the weird one with the 5-part torque converter. My Chevy Car Guy mind generally blocks things like that out. :p

  • avatar
    geeber

    I remember reading a quote from a Chevrolet executive who noted – much to his amusement – that the 1959 model later became a sought-after used car.

    But I still see plenty of 1959 Fords at various cruise nights (and AACA shows) around here.

  • avatar

    So hideous they were wonderful! My grandfather had a white one for a number of years. Then my uncle grew bored or something of his white ’59 and parked at the old home place. To this day the memory of those two cars parked side by side is, well, one of wondering how in the heck I could get the keys and get on the road with the “extra” car at age eight?

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    WRONG!

    The 1959 GM cars are not Harley Earl creations. The 1959 cars Mr. Earl finished before taking an extended European vacation were updated 1958 models. They were not these beasts.

    GM had just redone their full size cars in 1958, and there were no intentions to change them for 1959. The 1955 design was updated until 1957, and the 1958 design was intended to last until 1960. The updated 1959s were already finished.

    From “Ate Up With Motor” –
    “It was Bill Mitchell who finally made the decision. Earl was traveling in Europe, and largely out of contact; in his absence, Mitchell was in charge. Mitchell had sworn that he would never let Earl down, but he had his own future to think about. He gathered together the senior designers, and they agreed to formulate a new styling direction, abandoning everything that Earl had dictated for the ’59 cars. Mitchell enlisted the support of the divisional managers, and of Harlow Curtice, who regularly stopped by to see the new cars. All of the new designs were sleeker, crisper, and thinner, taking their lead not from Harley Earl, but from Mitchell and, indirectly, from Virgil Exner.

    No one expected “Misterl” to be happy when he returned from Europe, and many feared the inevitable explosion. For a man of Earl’s ego and temperament, a rebellion of such magnitude was unimaginable. As it happened, Earl was so staggered that he wandered around the studios for days, not saying a word to anyone. Earl ordinarily didn’t hesitate to fire anyone for any reason, but this time it would have meant a purge of his entire senior staff, including Mitchell, his favorite son and heir apparent. Moreover, Harlow Curtice, Earl’s chief patron since the retirement of Sloan earlier in the year, had already sided with the mutineers. Earl was outmaneuvered. Finally, he grudgingly threw his support behind the new direction.”

    So don’t blame these monstrocities on Harley Earl.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    VanillaDude: Ok. I’ll just blame him for the much worse craptastic ’57 (senior) and ’58 models, the all-time low point for GM styling. As in this ’58 Buick:
    http://www.misterw.com/Buick/58BuickLimited03.jpg

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    The 1958 Chevrolet Impala gets a lot of money from collectors, and is considered a rather beautiful car.

    The 1958 Oldsmobile line was one of the only car line that saw sales growth during the 1957-58 recession. Ugly, but popular.

    The 1957-59 recession forced everyone but Studebaker and Rambler into reconsidering their car lines. While I do not know what the 1959 Harley Earl creations looked like, what we did see happen was a recession that knee-capped the Big Three automakers into keeping their embarrassing 1959 car bodies, then shaving off the excess over the next three years. Had Earl’s design remained in place until the 1960 model year as originally planned, we would probably have seen better cars in 1960 and 1961.

    The entire tail fin era would have ended for most of the auto industry by 1960 – which would have been a good thing.

    As to Exner, he went on to create even more bizzare cars for Chrysler and their sales tanked. Mr. Exner is truly the father of the fin era, and the father of the 1960 Valiant, 1961 Dart, 1960 Imperial, and was shown the door by Chrysler by 1963. The 1965 Chryslers were entirely new designs based on the Lincolns, since the guy who designed the 1961 Lincoln, designed the 1965 Chrysler line. Post-Exner, Chrysler returned to normalcy and profitability.

  • avatar
    geeber

    I always thought that the 1957 Cadillac was a good-looking car. It was the best-looking Cadillac since the 1948-49 model. The Buicks and Oldsmobiles from that year, not so much.

    The 1957 Cadillac is an improvement over the 1954-56 models in the styling department, something that cannot be said about the 1957 Buicks and Oldsmobiles compared to their respective 1954-56 generation.

    I don’t know if I would call the 1958 Chevrolet Impala “beautiful.”

    “Not bad looking compared to most of its contemporaries” would be more accurate.

    The 1959 models are officially considered Harley Earl creations because they were completed and finalized before he retired. Granted, he didn’t actually draw any of them, but he didn’t draw too many cars. That really wasn’t his job. His job was to manage the designers and encourage them to come up with new ideas, and then identify which ideas were worthy of further development.

  • avatar
    ExtraO

    I was 8 years old going on 9 when the ’59 chevy hit the streets. Our neighbors bought an Impala early on. It was light blue, lots of brightwork & power everything. At the time it was daring, almost hard to stand next to, the statement was so in your face for 1959 & especially so for a Chevy. The world was a different place then. I think it was probably the first car that I ever looked at as an object of desire. They were considered very sexy (I remember hearing that said about them), but just 4 years later they were the definition of an anachronism.

    You say the build quality wasn’t very good? I wouldn’t know. What would an 8 year old have known (or cared) about assembly quality in 1959? I do know that we had a ’57 Chevy which everybody years after became ga-ga over, but which left me mostly unimpressed. Especially a little later when I started driving it. It handled like shit.

    I think even with the styling wars that were raging at the time, it took some balls for GM to let their most proletarian & popular division put this strange looking car on the road. They could have used some of that chutzpa more recently….on second thought, no way, josé. These days, with their bad rep, in order to make a comparable splash, anything they did that looked as radical relative to now would also need to be capable of vertical take-offs & landings, and we already know that’s not gonna happen during GM’s existence.

  • avatar
    davepolzin6666

    Paul, great artice, but you forgot to mention that after hitting the school bus the “59 Chev continued to run for over 100,000 miles, has been restored and is still driven to car shows every weekend. It sure lasted longer than the dealer’s stay at Betty Ford.

  • avatar
    flameded

    Well, I think the 59 chev is quite beautiful.(even tho it doesnt have enough lights.) However, its no 58.

    (off topic..)
    The best big chevys (my opinion) have 3 tail lights on each side
    (6 total ) ;)
    I remember as a kid ,recognizing them from a distance ..in all their bright red illuminated glory..and so started my love affair with the 6 light chevys.
    the 58…the 63 ..nice…the 65..mm..mm..the 68 oh, man …these are my favs..

    • 0 avatar
      cstoc

      I also love those 3-light Chevies, especially the 66 and 69.  But, I’ve always had a soft spot for the 59 because of its sheer outrageousness.  A rear deck big enough to land an ultralight on, those podded instruments, the huge trunk and interior.  A friend of mine with Dutch relations she visited in the 60’s and 70’s said at the time that entire gypsy families were living in 59 Chevies.
      Also, on the TurboGlide: my dad had a 57 Chevy with one.  He said it was extremely smooth, but he never saw any problems because a friend wrecked the car when it was only a few months old.  Oh well.


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