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Chevrolet Impala's last run: Production ends, but spirit likely to live on

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News
1960 Impala Sports Sedan

Detroit — Jeff Tucker had found the car he'd been searching for, the exact model he had when he was 17: a 1966 Chevrolet Impala SS convertible in Marina Blue.

It took him years to track down and eight hours to drive from Buffalo to Montreal to see it, but once he did, he knew it was his. That first night he took it out for a cruise in 2009, it was like reliving his past.

MoreFinal Chevy Impala comes off the line at Detroit-Hamtramck plant

"So many years later, and it was still turning heads," the now 58-year-old said. "It took me right back there."

Production of the Chevrolet Impala will cease Thursday after six decades, making the Impala yet another Detroit sedan to be laid to rest as buyers switch to crossovers, SUVs and pickups.

Ferras Sabo, 39, of Sterling Heights shows off his customized 1962 Chevrolet Impala lowrider. The trunk is packed with hydraulic pumps that can raise any of the four corners independently and even cause the car to hop.

Introduced in 1958 and produced continuously except for gaps in the 1980s and 1990s, the final Impala will roll down the line at Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly. Seen by many as emblematic of the all-American car, more than 16.8 million have been sold globally (not including the 1994-96 Impala SS, which was counted as a Chevy Caprice).

Impala enthusiasts around the country are sad to see the nameplate hit its expiration date and cherish even more the Impalas they have found and made their own.

"I think I'll probably have one until the day I die," said Ferras Sabo, his heavily customized lowrider 1962 Impala resplendent in Viper Red in his Sterling Heights driveway.

He could talk for days about his first love. The 39-year-old remembers his neighbor telling him to come outside when was 12 to show him a 1964 Impala he had just purchased.

It was the shape of the car, its body lines, its design that hooked him.

"I was in love," he said. "That was it. There was nothing else that meant anything to me."

Sabo is a 16-year member of the Majestics lowrider car club from Detroit's west side. True to the style that grew out of the Mexican-American lowrider culture of 1960s Los Angeles, the Impala that Sabo purchased in 2002 has been lowered so it hugs the pavement. Tiny 13-inch rims bring it even closer to the ground, and the rear wheels are hidden behind fender wells that create an unbroken line across the bottom of the car.

The recognizable back end and taillights of Ferras Sabo's 1962 Chevrolet Impala low rider.

Early Impalas like Sabo's have an X-frame that makes it ideal for lowering and fitting with hydraulic pumps that allow the body to be lowered or raised with the flip of a switch.

Four pumps and the massive batteries that power them take up the entire trunk of Sabo's Impala. They allow any of the four corners of the car to be jacked up independently. And worked in the proper sequence, they can make it jump. At its apex, the tires have bounced 62 inches off the ground. 

It took four years to get the car the way he wanted it.

"This was my art," he said. "This was my canvas, and I painted it. This is mine now."

End of the line

General Motors placed the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant on a closure list in November 2018. The Lordstown Assembly complex in Ohio was also on the list. Both plants produced cars that were being chopped from GM's lineup: the Impala and Cadillac CT6 at Detroit-Hamtramck and the Chevrolet Cruze at Lordstown.

The Impala's U.S. sales had dropped 25.5% to 56,556 the year of the announcement. In 2019, they fell to 44,978.

"Just as the Impala evolved over the years, the market has shifted dramatically and demand for sedans has declined and we adjusted to meet customer needs," said Steve Majoros, vice president of Chevrolet marketing.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was the first to start cutting sedans from its lineup by ending production of its Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart. Likewise, Ford Motor Co. has discontinued the Taurus, Fiesta, C-Max and Focus; the final Fusion will be built later this year.

"The popularity of crossovers and SUVs have taken a severe bite out of the sedan market," said Matt DeLorenzo, senior managing editor for Kelley Blue Book, an auto information resource. "There is some demand, but not the demand there was years ago."

American as apple pie

The Impala first hit sales floors in 1958 as a high-end Chevrolet Bel Air full-size sedan fit for a family. 

From the late 1950s through the 1960s, the Impala struck a chord with buyers. In 1959, GM sold more than 440,000; by 1965 it sold more than 1 million.

"They were affordable and so many people had the opportunity to experience them that they really became very much a part of the American landscape," said Don Keefe, president of the National Impala Association, which holds an annual rally for Impala enthusiasts. "They were great cars and they looked good."

1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala Convertible

The Impala was in "a class of its own," Chevrolet proclaimed in a 1964 commercial filmed with the car perched on top of the towering 400-foot Castle Rock in Utah. As a camera pans around the car with a female model draped over the seatbacks, the voice-over continues: "No other automobile offers so much of what so many people desire. With styling that brings you back to look and look again, Chevrolet stands alone. Alone in pure dedication to beauty and relaxation."

Chevrolet urged drivers to "See the USA in your Chevrolet" and equated "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" in a series of commercials from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Watch: Chevrolet Impala commercials through the years.

And no car captured the spirit of the times like the Impala.

"It was a uniting thing," Keefe said. "I think the Chevy Impala is the embodiment of that American spirit. Everyone has a story about one. Everyone grew up in the back seat of one."

'Just perfect'

GM discontinued the Impala in 1985 and then brought it back in 1994 as the Impala SS performance car. 

The mid-1990s model was really born as just a show car, Keefe said, but then GM realized how popular the vehicle was.

"They were fantastic and people were trying to put down deposits on the show car," he said. "They knew they had a winner on their hands."

Members of the Michigan Impala SS Legends Club take their Impalas on the road and to drag races through Impala SS Clubs of America.

Hunter Gersch, from left, her father Daniel Gersch, Glenn Waineo, and Mitchell Bergslien, stand in front of examples of the 1996 Chevy Impala SS.

Mitchell Bergslien, 25, of Clawson recently raced his dark-cherry metallic 1996 Impala SS for the first time. 

"It's fun," he said. "It lets you legally push the car to its limits and have fun doing it." 

Bergslien got his first taste of the Impala at a car show with his dad when he was a 12 and liked it immediately. Why? "Because it's a big old boat, four-door sedan, V-8 with rear-wheel drive. You can haul whatever you want and you can go fast doing it." 

Dan Gersch stands next to his 1996 Chevy Impala SS, in Detroit.

Dan Gersch, 42, of St. Clair Shores has passed on his love for the 1996 Impala SS to his 23-year-old daughter, Hunter. Dan fell for the Impala after helping his dad restore one back in the 1990s.

"It was just perfect to me," he said. 

It was the horsepower and the solid, full-frame design that got him. It's "pretty much an army tank." he said. "It's a solid heavy-duty car, and I can put all three of my kids in the back seat and race with it."

Return appearance?

With the recent news of the Hummer's comeback as an electric vehicle and Ford's electric Mustang Mach-E SUV, an encore of the Impala name is not out of the question, said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights Edmunds Inc., an auto information website. 

"I think anything is really possible at this point," said Caldwell, noting that Chevrolet could capitalize on the name-recognition of the Impala.

Kelley Blue Book's DeLorenzo agreed: "There’s such a rich history with car names. The Impala name will always be an asset, and you never know."

Some Impala owners hope that one day GM will bring back the Impala — and maybe even pay homage to one of its past renditions, especially an SS performance version.

"That's what I would like to see them do: make a race version rear-wheel-drive Impala 10 years from now," said Gersch, the owner of the 1996 SS.

Back in Buffalo, Jeff Tucker is hoping for a retro 1960s Impala comeback like the one he fell for when he was a teenager.

"It was such a good model for them for so many years, it wouldn’t be surprising," he said. "The Impalas are about as American as apple pie. It’s been around forever."

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall