No matter whether you like it or not, there is no denying the 1959 Chevrolet is one of the most distinctive cars ever to emerge from Detroit.
From its toothy grille, through its wildly shaped wrap around windscreen and on to its cats eyes tail lights, spread eagle fins and a boot lid wide enough to land a small airplane on — the Chevrolet has “presence”.
But the car we all know was not the car that General Motors (GM) originally intended we be driving in 1959.
Back in 1956, GM was planning for the 1959 Chevrolet to be a cheap and simple facelift of the 1958 car.
So what happened to cause GM to stop what it was doing, throw it all in the garbage bin and start again?
Well, it was the equivalent of an automotive styling earthquake — the discovery of the 1957 Chrysler range.
The story goes that Chuck Jordan, a GM stylist, (later to be Head of GM styling worldwide) was driving down a road in Detroit late August 1956 and through a fence saw the 1957 Chrysler range of cars all lined up in a car park.
Said Jordan later: “I saw all of these brand new Plymouths and it was really a shock. They were so clean and lean with thin roofs and all that glass and those fins! These were just the opposite of what we were working on.”
Jordan raced back to his office and rounded up all his mates to go have a look. As soon as they saw the Chryslers they basically abandoned their designs and started afresh.
Nothing could be done about the 1958 shapes as they were too far down the implementation process to be changed.
But they could have influence on the 1959 models.
So they decided to “go for it”.
The task of styling and engineering totally new cars, for all its brands, was mammoth.
GM would have to compress three years work into just 18 months.
No styling idea was considered too outlandish.
Radical headlight arrangements were actively considered as were triple fins and double curved back windows.
The development of the 1959 GM cars is said to have cost $15 billion in today’s dollars, but it helped boost Chevrolet sales by 20 per cent and kept GM as America’s sales leader.
The rear fins on the Cadillac and Chevrolet have become iconic reminders of the 1950s.
Pontiac’s split grille became its trademark design until the brand was terminated by GM in 2010.
David Burrell is the editor of retroautos.com.au
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