A Golden Jubilee Remembering a Titanic Sales Milestone
It would have happened first thing Monday morning. If Motor Trend, only then having recently celebrated its Sweet 16, had access to the doohickey called Al Gore’s Internets on January 3, 1966, and was able to rapidly tabulate the U.S. automotive sales counts for December 1965 (and by extension all of 1965), we would have been shocked. Shocked! Total U.S. car sales (excluding light trucks): 9.33 million. A fabulous growth spurt over 1964’s 8.10 million. But most stunning of all would have been the number inked right next to the Chevrolet Impala.
The exact number of units sold varies ever so slightly depending on the source, but they all agree on this: More than 1 million Impala sedans, hardtops, convertibles, and wagons fell into the public’s hands in 1965.
We’d probably be as impressed then as we are now when researching Ford F-Series sales (695,143 through November 2015). Of course it was a great time for domestic automakers in this time period. There’s no denying the Impala had been having a blast since it decamped from the Bel Air for 1959. The Impala was a top-of-the-line mainstream car that all could aspire to. Much of the Americana nostalgia whipped up nowadays makes a beeline for the Super Sport models or the lusty 396 and 409 V-8s, but Chevy didn’t collect 1,038,400 Impalas in ’65 (per the aggregators at R.L. Polk & Co.) without sloggers such as a 230 straight-six and the 283 base V-8 (195 SAE gross horsepower, which translates to 150 SAE net hp). That’s an astonishing 26.5 percent jump year over year. It wasn’t even a leap year.
Build combination possibilities for 1965 were more whimsical (more body styles, more engines, more transmissions, more colors, more seats, more personality) than they are today, yet the spirit of the nameplate stays largely intact after five decades, the Impala contributing a more comfortable and classed-up form of blue-collar travel within the GM portfolio. Never a stranger to inventing dubious reasons for not being in the office, I fabricated a day drive in our homeland Los Angeles area to commemorate the sales milestone. It’s a sort of SoCal-centric greatest hits of ’65, starring a baby-faced 2016 Impala with the Midnight Edition Appearance package. Two of my favorite baby boomer colleagues—testing director Kim Reynolds and in-house archivist/MT alumnus Thomas Voehringer—joined the ride and regaled me with not-fit-for-publishing tales of their youths. A day with them revealed that the young people of any decade were apparently always up to no good in some way.
Summer of ’65
What better way to begin the trip than with a stop at a state landmark a mere four miles away from our El Segundo home base? Neighboring city Hawthorne owns California Registered Historical Landmark No. 1041, which marks the former home of the brothers Wilson of the Beach Boys fame. The monument sits south of the present-day 105 Freeway (the very piece of infrastructure that led to the home’s demise) and is a stone’s throw from the Tesla design studio and SpaceX. The Beach Boys, forever interwoven with the California Sound and SoCal surf culture, released “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)” in the summer. “California Girls” was one of the most popular tracks, and we suspect the recording was played in many Impalas throughout the year.
The week of August 11-17 in 1965 was hugely contentious in the Watts area and the time of one of the most high-profile, racially charged incidents in American history. Buildings were burned. Innocent people were killed, injured, or arrested. By the time the smoke had cleared, everyone knew this calamity would be etched into history textbooks.
The distinctively styled Watts Towers constructed by Simon Rodia are a National Historic Landmark and were finished well before 1965, but we couldn’t think of a better community representation. Longtime Southern California residents Reynolds and Voehringer and I (a semi-recent transplant) had never seen the towers in person. Call it a long-overdue visit.
Cog in the Machine
Two factories are responsible for making the current 10th-generation Impala: Detroit-Hamtramck and Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. In 1965, 12 plants across the nation churned out full-size Chevys as quickly as they could. Two were based in the L.A. areaâVan Nuys and South Gate. The South Gate spot, identified as letter C in ’65 VINs, was the next logical stopping point along our drive.
L.A. (and California in general) is an auto manufacturing wasteland compared to its early to mid-20th-century glory years, and South Gate was one of the region’s casualties in 1982. The plant commenced production during the Great Depression in 1936, establishing itself as GM’s first plant located west of the Mississippi. (Van Nuys, the last Big Three plant to operate in the Golden State’s southern parts, shuttered in 1991.) The land where South Gate once stood now holds the impressive and clean South East High School, which opened in 2005. We wonder how many of its students are aware of their school’s somewhat illustrious past.
Many Kultures, One Love
At Reynolds’ request, we dove deep into Maywood to find a fabled shop. This shop created all kinds of krazy kustomized kars during SoCal’s Kustom Kulture heyday. By 1965, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth had hot-rodded plenty of kultural icons. A younger Reynolds admired Roth’s artistic creativity and had more than a few in Revell form, including the Beatnik Bandit and the not-a-car Rat Fink. Roth’s shop had long since closed when we rolled through, but we were readily greeted by a guard dog that insisted on terrorizing us from behind the old shop’s gate.
Farther up the road from Maywood, a different car culture would have been coming together nicely in ’65. We’ve made it to Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., where lowriders of all shapes and colors would be cruising in the 1970s. Older Impalas are a favorite to modify in this scene. The most storied of them all has to be Jesse Valadez’s Gypsy Rose, a 1960, then 1963, then 1964 when the originals were put out of commission, model featuring heavy splashes of pink and a floral motif. We’re not really in the business of covering lowriders or kustom kars but certainly appreciate the enthusiasm that goes into both.
Showdown at Chavez Ravine
It’s how it’s scripted in the movies. The date: October 9, 1965. The hometown heroes, the Los Angeles Dodgers, are back on the West Coast after falling to 0-2 in the best-of-seven, 2-3-2-format World Series against the Minnesota Twins. L.A.’s pitching aces and Cy Young winners Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax took the first two losses. With a Dodgers loss, Minnesota would be one game away from winning it all. Advanced statistics weren’t as prevalent as they are in the majors now, but the chance of any team winning four straight ballgames has always been low.
Games three, four, and five were resounding victories for the Dodgers; the Twins fought back at home in game six to level a thrilling series. Following a four-hit shutout in game five, Koufax started game seven on two days of rest. He tossed another complete gem, striking out 10 and allowing only three measly hits. Dodgers win the series. Maybe some of the players or Vin Scully drove Impalas? Who cares!
We hope the World Series championship took the sting off the L.A. Lakers’ showing in the NBA finals earlier in the year, when they were banished by the Boston Celtics four games to one.
From Dodger Stadium, it’s a quick drive (by L.A. standards) to the classic Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank. Here, four young men once dined together in August 1965. Lads John, Paul, George, and Ringo sat way back in the restaurant—as youths are prone to do—though the plaque memorializing their patronage is decoupled from the actual booth. (We suspect the plaque is posted closer to a bussing station to limit sticky fingers.) We came on a Friday afternoon and could already see older cars jockeying for good spaces in the jammed parking lot (classic car show tonight). George Barris’ (R.I.P.) shop, Barris Kustom Industries, is just down the street.
Why were John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the area to begin with? It was the height of Beatlemania and the Beatles’ second tour in the U.S., which occurred entirely in August. They played down the road at the Hollywood Bowl on August 29-30, both performances supplying tracks for the 1977 live album “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.” Neither of my colleagues recalls ever seeing the pop phenoms live, unfortunately. Reynolds notes he has been to the Bowl many times through the years. Voehringer has now possibly been twice; I, once. Apparently, at least one of us could benefit from more culture.
We might have been able to walk the two miles or so from the Hollywood Bowl to the site of the old Petersen Publishing building on Hollywood Boulevard that housed Motor Trend staff in 1965. But we did the time-honored SoCal tradition of zipping by car, moving from the Bowl to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art instead. LACMA opened in its current location on March 31, 1965, and is the largest art museum in the western U.S., according to its website.
After passing the renovated Petersen Automotive Museum and its new faade, we make a pit stop in Century City outside the 20th Century Fox lot because it’s hard to avoid “the industry” in L.A. “The Sound of Music” was one of Fox’s babies in ’65 and turned into the top-grossing film that year, well ahead of the second-place “Doctor Zhivago.” Adjusted for inflation, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer’s musical jewel is still one of the top-five highest-grossing movies ever.
It’s home to a shoe company now, but in 1965, 1042 Princeton Drive in Venice (Marina del Rey) belonged to one Carroll Shelby. And he made magic. Have a look at this sequence of exciting events in ’65, obtained from our timeline of his life:
January 1965: The 427 Cobra is unveiled to the press. Shelby American moves its HQ to LAX. Ford turns its GT40 project over to Shelby American. The 1965 Ford Shelby GT350 makes its debut.
February 1965:Under Shelby’s tutelage, Ford’s GT40 wins its first race, at Daytona. The Shelby Mustang GT350 also wins its first race in Texas. Shelby American begins production of the coupe version of the 427 Cobra Roadster.
June 1965:Shelby American and Ford take on Le Mans with two 427 GT40 Mark IIs, four 289 GT40 Mark Is, and five Cobra Daytona Coupes. The GT40s all drop out, and one Daytona coupe finishes.
October 1965:Shelby American proposes a special Hertz rent-a-racer and builds a GT350H prototype.
November 1965:Hertz likes the GT350H and gives Shelby American a contract for 200 cars.
December 1965:Hertz ups its contract for GT350H models to 1,000 units.
Let’s not forget the signature 1-2-3 GT40 finish at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans after ol’ Shel’s ’65 shakedown. The Impala may not have the GT40’s sheer pedigree, but one million sales in one year for a single nameplate remains a remarkable feat we may never see again.
The Eyes Have It
One of the most common reader complaints we receive is that today’s color selection for exteriors and interiors is terrible. Based on 1965 Impala options, we can see their point.
|1965 Impala/SS exterior||2016 Impala exterior|
|Tuxedo Black||Siren Red Tintcoat|
|Ermine White||Blue Velvet Metallic|
|Mist Blue||Iridescent Pearl Tricoat|
|Danube Blue||Citron Green Metallic|
|Willow Green||Heather Gray Metallic|
|Cypress Green||Silver Ice Metallic|
|Artesian Turquoise||Summit White|
|Tahitian Turquoise||Mosaic Black Metallic|
|Evening Orchid||Green Envy Metallic|
|Two-tone Ermine White/Artesian Turquoise|
|Two-tone Mist Blue/Ermine White|
|Two-tone Willow Green/Ermine White|
|Two-tone Cypress Green/Cameo Beige|
|Two-tone Tahitian Turquoise/Artesian Turquoise|
|Two-tone Sierra Tan/Cameo Beige|
|Two-tone Cameo Beige/Madeira Maroon|
|Two-tone Glacier Gray/Tuxedo Black|
|Two-tone Crocus Yellow/Ermine White|
|1965 Impala/SS interior||1965 Impala/SS interior|
|Aqua||Jet Black/Dark Titanium|
Truth in Testing
The December 1964 issue of Motor Trend featured a six-passenger, two-door hardtop (front bench seat!) in a 2,500-mile road test and cross-country trip. Freshly redesigned for 1965, the big Impala was chosen to participate, owing to its sales popularity. The car performed well over the lengthy distance.
“Performance of this big car with the small V-8 will be adequate for normal use,” our predecessors noted. “The only complaint we could find in this area was that the Powerglide automatic has only two speeds. Passing distances could be shortened if there were three.”
But how does that ’65 hardtop’s specs compare to our brand-new, highly modern 2016 Impala test car? Let’s just say matching them up was very amusing.
|2016 Chevrolet Impala LTZ V6||1965 Chevrolet Impala|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, RWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||90-deg V-8, iron block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||OHV, 2 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||217.5 cu in/3,564cc||283.0 cu in/4,638cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||305 hp @ 6,800 rpm*||150 hp @ 4,400 rpm**|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||264 lb-ft @ 5,300 rpm*||245 lb-ft @ 2,400 rpm**|
|REDLINE||Not indicated||5,200 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||12.4 lb/hp||25.2 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||2-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, coil springs|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.6-in vented disc; 12.4-in disc, ABS||11.0-in drum; 11.0-inch drum|
|WHEELS||8.5 x 19 in, cast aluminum||5.0 x 14.0 in, steel|
|TIRES||245/45R19 98V M+S Goodyear Eagle RS-A2||8.25 x 14, 4-ply rayon/whitewall|
|WHEELBASE||111.7 in||119.0 in|
|TRACK, F/R||62.2/62.0 in||62.5/62.4 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||201.3 x 73.0 x 58.9 in||213.1 x 79.6 x 54.1 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.8 ft||40.8 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,793 lb||3,780 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||59/41%||N/A|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.9/37.4 in||38.2/37.2 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||45.8/39.8 in||42.0/34.9 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||57.9/56.9 in||62.4/60.9 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||18.8 cu ft||17.7 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.4 sec||4.6 sec (2 persons aboard per period custom)|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.0||7.5 (passing, 40-60 mph)|
|QUARTER MILE||14.9 sec @ 95.9 mph||19.7 sec @ 69 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||118 ft||161 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.83 g (avg)||Nope|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.6 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)||Double nope|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,500 rpm||3,125 rpm|
|BASE PRICE||$36,415||$2,785 ($21,000 in 2015)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$39,875||$3,447.90 ($26,000 in 2015)|
|STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL||Yes/yes||Right ankle adjustment|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee||Air-what?|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||2 yrs/24,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||409 swap?|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/60,000 miles||Call dealer or AAA|
|FUEL CAPACITY||18.5 gal||20.0 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||18/28/22 mpg||Check back next decade|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||187/120 kW-hrs/100 miles||Where are the turbine cars?|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.90 lb/mile||Pb permanently, please|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||20.3/31.9/24.3 mpg||12.2 mpg (observed over 1,978-mile road trip)|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Leaded regular|