An end of season ride
The temperature is about 80 degrees, theres no wind and invading clouds promise much needed rain. It is August, the swan song of summer, and one of those lazy summer evenings perfect for cruising in a convertible. By rights I should be younger by more than half, and Id know how I ranked with the young lady riding with me by how far she slid across the wide bench seat. Some things were easier in 1972
Not, of course, automotive engineers who were struggling with reducing automotive emissions, but according to Consumer Guides 1972 Cars, there was nothing on the horizon likely to change the 25 percent grasp that the standard size car had on the American car buying public. Standard size, as on the Chevrolet Impala, by then had grown to a wheelbase of 121.5 inches, an overall length of 219.9 inches and just shy of 80 inches in width. Curb weight was over two tons. But OPEC had not yet discovered its leverage on the crude oil market and gasoline still sold for well under 30 cents per gallon. So go ahead, flip the little lever on the dash, lower the black vinyl roof into the well behind a back seat wide enough for three real adults and snap on the tonneau to make it look neat and tidy.
Except this isn’t 1972. Its the cusp of the millennium and giant convertibles are extinct as the proverbial brontosaurus. On the vinyl bench to my rightfar to my rightis Tom Yanosko of Freeland, Pennsylvania, owner and restorer of the 72 Impala convertible I’m driving.
The exhaust is modestly more expressive now than when the car left Hasay Chevrolet in Shickshinny, Pennsylvania in May of 1972, but otherwise the optional 400 cubic inch V-8 is stock and smoother than Mark McGuires swing, and with just about as much muscle. Push down on the skinny pedal and the needle sweeps relentlessly across the horizontal band speedometer, torquing the Big White faster at five mile per hour intervals. Yet the vigor was already somewhat vitiated, Chevrolet lowing compression ratios in 1971, and the SAE net horsepower figures used in 72 masked a real decline in horsepower. The 255 bhp of 71 became a gross 210 in 72, or 170 net hp. It took, said Consumer Guide, more than 13 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph.
But the Impala isn’t a drag racer nor a road racer and make no such pretense. This is a go-out-for-a-drive car, a smell-the-new-mown-lawn car. Despite the heavy-duty suspension, it rides like a dreamboat, like a long white cloud on an unblemished sky, absorbing bumps and potholes like a damp sponge. The sheer mass of the vehicle counteracted any chassis flex or twist, cowlshake obliterated by the total weight of body and frame like an NFL linebacker going through an offensive line of Brownies. The front double A-arm suspension and even the rear live axle are simply no match for the massive load above.
The standard power-boosted recirculating ball steering system is light and not excessively precise piloting the Impala down the two-lane. Isaac Newton was right. Object in motion do tend to so continue. The Impala doesn’t carve corners, it molds them to its image.
Yet the image was already fading, the era of full-framed, full-size convertible was almost over. In 1961, Chevrolet built 64,624 convertibles. Ten years later that shrank to a mere 4,576 topless Impalas. That rose to 6,456 for 72, but it would be the final year for the Impala convertible. The Caprice line inherited droptop duties for the 1973 model year and witnessed a slight resurgence in convertible sales, though never to top 10,000. The nattering class ranted about safety, as if there was an epidemic of spontaneous rollovers, and improved air conditioning made convertibles less necessary. And perhaps, as mens’ hairstyles became longer, guys just weren’t willing to put up with tangled tresses. The convertible Caprice survived several more years, and then they were gone.
Gone, save for the survivors and their end-of-the season memories.
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