Updated: Mar 9, 2022
The flamboyant styling of the ’59 Chevy Impala, in particular the ‘bat-wing’ tail fins and ‘cats-eye’ rear light cluster, carried the recognisable signature of General Motors’ chief designer Harley Earl, and this model was to be his final dramatic statement before retiring.
The 1959 model was a complete redesign from the debut styling of the previous year, and soon emerged as the best-selling automobile in the United States.
Harley Earl was born in Hollywood, California in 1893. His father owned a coachbuilding company, initially building horse-drawn vehicles but soon progressed into automobiles, and Harley joined the company as a young enthusiastic designer. The company created customized automobile bodies for the Hollywood stars of the time.
When Harley’s father retired, the business was bought by a Cadillac dealer on the condition that Harley remain as a director. When Cadillac’s general manager, Lawrence Fisher, called by as part of his tour of Caddy dealers he saw Harley’s work and was profoundly impressed. Fisher commissioned Earl to design the 1927 LaSalle, a vehicle that revolutionised automotive design, and Harvey Earl was taken into General Motors as the first director of their new design studio. He went on to create some of the industry’s most striking and influential concept cars, although his most enduring creation was probably the Chevrolet Corvette.
The Impala, as Chevrolet’s most expensive passenger model, was given the status as Chevrolet’s top-of-the-range automobile and was graced with all of the luxury options that could be thrown at it, including power brakes and steering, electric windows and air conditioning, and could also be ordered with any of Chevrolet’s most powerful engines, although the handling was a tad suspect.
But there were mutterings behind the scenes within General Motors concerning the rock ‘n’ roll appearance of Harley Earl’s creations, and a more sober, middle-class target market was favoured by many executives. Harley Earl was eased out.
The departure of Harley Earl heralded a new era across the board for General Motors and 1960 marked the taming of many of the styling excesses of previous years.
But the “fine ‘59” remains a classic among American automobiles, and Route 66 the iconic road to ride.