There were a lot of Chevys in my life. Belair, Nova, Caprice, Chevette, and even, god help me, a Cavalier. Oh yes, and there were a couple of Corvettes that may pop up later. The Chevette should be forgiven, because it belonged to a girl, and in any world worth living in, girl trumps car. However, the Cavalier was mine and so for that I carry a scar. It met a violent end, even before its probably short life time was up, and I am not sure whether that is an indictment or a vindication of my car choice. On the other hand it did have a manual transmission, was inexpensive and reliable, and thus had its redeeming qualities.
But no cars were more intertwined with my young life than Chevy Impalas.
1963 Chevy Impala
This story is about a 1963 4 door Chevy Impala. Black with a red interior it belonged to my paternal grandparents, who unlike my paternal parent were kind and decent people. Anything that is associated with them has special emotional triggers for me; all of them good.
They owned the car from ’63 to ’68, when I was very young, but I still have memories of it.
By today’s standards, the car was a powerful beast. It would have had a 327 cubic inch engine with a 4 barrel carburetor at a minimum. There was no AC, simplifying the whole belt and pulley assembly, and leaving more power for that V8. It also would have been a 100% USA product built at the Chevrolet assembly plant in Tarrytown, New York. Being a dedicated union man, my grandfather would not have had anything unless it was made in the USA by Union workers. That’s just the way it was. Being made in New York would have factored in heavily too. God forbid it was made by some farmer on the wrong side of the Hudson.
Speaking of the Hudson, the publicity still above is set in the Hudson Valley, not far from where the car would have been built, downriver in Tarrytown. It is not black and it is not a 4 door, and that is not my grandmother, but it captures the essence of the car and the vibe of the era so humor me.
My grandfather never talked politics, other than to complain about the current mayor of New York. Party be damned, the mayor was always a fool and crook. However, he communicated his beliefs indirectly when the moment called for it. One of those moments was in this car.
The island that my grandparents lived their whole lives on was known as Broad Channel. Well, technically, it was called Rulers Bar Hassock and the neighborhood was called Broad Channel. But Rulers Bar Hassock doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue so everyone calls it Broad Channel. At either end of the island was a bridge that connected to the mainland of New York City. “Mainland” and “New York City” are a bit of a misnomer since every single part of New York City, save the Bronx, is located on an island. New York is an archipelago.
The bridge at the south end required a toll, supposedly because it was not yet paid for, but more likely because the tolls had been “redirected”. This necessitated a toll plaza with a number of booths operated by collectors who were New York State Civil Service employees. These were good union jobs that required no special education, just the ability to pass a general state Civil Service exam. It was a way for people to climb a rung up the ladder. You could own a small place of our your own and live comfortably on the salary; no degree required.
One day, several automated toll collectors showed up. These were the baskets that you threw your coins in. All the manned booths were still there, but now supplemented with the new automated booths.
My grandfather ignored them and drove straight to one of the attended booths. I asked him why he hadn’t tried one of the cool new booths. He shook his head and said: “That’ll cost a man a job.”
My grandfather was a democrat when being a democrat meant you were pro-union, you flew the flag, and you looked out for the blue collar class. You would not have talked shit about the USA in front of my grandfather without getting, as he liked to put it, “your head handed to you.”
He was a shop steward for his union and you didn’t mess with him or his crew. He came from a time when workers had to fight for things like safety, a fair living wage, and in general being treated like a human being. You get to argue about whether you can work from home in your pajamas because people like my grandpa did the heavy lifting. Some of that heavy lifting wasn’t pretty and you get to turn up your nose at that as well and tsk tsk about how messed up unions are. But you know what? He would have fought for you too.
It was in that car that he and my grandmother would take me to Rockaway Playland, and to my first summer camps in the beautiful Hudson Valley (born there, the Impala was always up for a trip home). One ThanksgivingI the fuel pump went out on the way to my aunt’s house. Somehow he got it going, we limped along to a garage, and still made it for dinner.
It was a pretty cool looking car for a sedan. It had none of the over the top design elements like fins and outrageous hood ornaments, so prevalent just a few years earlier. The front end had a “don’t make me get down off this barstool” sort of a look. Not super aggressive, but willing and ready.
The ass end did not merge gradually with the trunk in one smooth set of lines as most of todays cars do. The trunk deck dropped off abruptly, set off with lots of chrome, the bow tie, and the signature Chevy taillights with six separate fixtures and lamps. Look closely, and you can still see elements of that same design today.
My final memory of the car, is riding to the Chevy dealer in Elmhurst to pick up its successor. A brand new 1968 version of the same car. This one blue with a black interior. It was bigger, smoother and distinctly non threatening.
It didn’t have air conditioning either.
© Glenn R Keller 2023, All Rights Reserved