The 1959 Chevrolet was designer Harley Earl's final, dramatic statement before his retirement. While "all new all over again" was GM's apt description of its entire 1959 model series, it was the full-size Chevrolet that sparked the most controversy both within the industry and from observers.
With its signature cat's-eye taillights, it was called "the wild one" by admirers, and "the Martian ground chariot" by detractors. The only slightly less wild Chevys of the following two years represent a continuation of the automaker's experimentation.
The 1959 Impala (and the '60 and '61 models that followed) had narrow C-pillars and plentiful glass, which led these cars to be nicknamed "bubbletops." The long sweeping lines were the final iteration of a decade of flamboyant GM styling, all of which came to an end with the squared-off look introduced in 1963.
While the Impala was the top-of-the-line Chevy, and hence available with many convenience options including power steering, brakes, windows and air conditioning (not to mention foam seat cushions and an electric clock), it could also be ordered with a variety of Chevrolet's most powerful engines.
This vehicular holy grail-the combination of luxury and horsepower-marked the beginning of the muscle car as we now know it.
There were eight powerplants available in 1959, the most powerful being the Turbo-Thrust 348. The N.A.D.A. guide suggests that having a 348-c.i. V8 under the hood of a '59 sport coupe will bump the value of the car by 35%, from $16,900 to $22,815. Add another $1,000 if you've got a manual four-speed tranny.
The 1960 had the same powertrain options as the '59, with a few styling changes. The cat's eyes were gone, replaced by triple taillights on each side. However, the nearly horizontal fins still featured prominently in the overall design, as did the full-length (that's 17.5 feet) jet-age aluminum side moldings.
The big news in 1961 was the introduction of the Super Sport package and the high-performance 409-c.i. engine. Immortalized by the Beach Boys in the song of the same name, it produced 360 horsepower at 5,800 rpm. In the Impala, it resulted in 0-60 times of 7.8 seconds, and a 15.8-second quarter-mile, not bad for a full-size car. The Impala also delivered lighthearted, nimble (relatively speaking, of course) driving in a sizeable package.
As the popularity and values of 1955-58 Impalas has soared, the ripple effect has caused collectors to take a look at the '59-'61 coupes. Nearly saleproof five years ago, you can expect to pay up to $30,000 for four-speed coupes in concours condition, and even more for a 1961 with a 409.
As with all American muscle cars, documentation is the key to value. It's all too easy to put a 409 into a car that came with a less desirable engine-if the seller claims the car was born with a high-performance package, be sure he or she has the paperwork to back it up.
As with all collectible cars, be aware of ham-fisted restorations, often performed with limited budgets and more enthusiasm than skill. However, don't be scared off by an otherwise nice car that is missing trim pieces; many parts are available from aftermarket sources, and parts cars are relatively plentiful.
The bubbletop design does result in a significant greenhouse effect, causing these cars to become very hot in the summer. In fact, partly due to the bubbletops' reputation as "cookers," full-size Ford coupes outsold Chevys in '60 and '61. However, a quick call to Vintage Air will easily solve that problem today.
Customization is popular but hardly necessary given the Impala's radical factory-direct look, and will generally hurt the vehicle's value.
Proper coupes have been appreciating fairly predictably the past couple years, and while their values will never skyrocket like those of convertibles, nicely restored ones with desirable powerplants will continue to increase in value along with the market. And you won't be considered politically incorrect if, when someone asks you about your 409, you answer, "She's real fine."

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