The last Chevy Impala rolls off of the assembly line at the Hamtramck Plant in Detroit today. There are many articles lamenting the death of an American icon. For many, the Impala was a symbol of what America is and can be. It’s baseball, apple pie, and Impalas roaming our streets and highways. So there’s a lot of misty eyes and nostalgic platitudes being spent on the Impala’s demise. But the Impala died in 1976 and it was GM’s choice. The great American sedan is not dead, just ask Tesla. How GM chose profits over people is what killed it.
In the Impala’s heyday, GM tried to make it intrinsically desirable. It did that by producing a vehicle that checked off all of the boxes. Stylish, affordable, reliable, powerful, built well-it was a symbol of American achievement. Chevy didn’t cut corners, it produced something that consumers wanted, desired even.
From 1958 into the 1970s Impala owners had pride in their purchase
From 1958 until the 1970s an Impala owner had pride in his or her car. It wasn’t a Cadillac, which many aspired to, but it wasn’t an excuse for a good car-it was a good car. A great car, really.
Then GM lost its way and has been trying to dig its way out of what happened next for 40 years. When the gas crunch hit in the 1970s all of the American car manufacturers were faced with little to offer. It took Ford and Chrysler until the 1980s to respond. Ford did it the best with the Taurus. Chrysler did it with a crappy little car that in some ways helped its position, and in some, it didn’t. It responded with the K-Car.
Impala became Caprice but it also started becoming something less
GM soldiered on with its Caprice which was an Impala with a different name. When it debuted in 1977 it was slightly downsized. It also forged a new aesthetic with shear, folded paper and flat panels look that followed the trends of the time. Over the years as GM was want to do it stayed with the Caprice too long while producing smaller alternatives that were crappy.
Beretta, Corsica, craptastic creations that nobody aspired to. Dull, lifeless and absent of quality, these were establishing all GM cars for what they were to become known for. Cheap, styleless, clunky forms of transportation. All of GM’s brands did a series of these tin box heaps for years.
Reviving the Impala name was a desperate attempt at reputation over reality
When Chevy chose to revive the Impala in a desperate attempt to try and use a name it knew evoked something better, it didn’t matter. Everyone abandoned GM products for those with a value like Toyota and Nissan. Or they chose sedans with all of the things Impala’s stood for and flocked to BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. Chevy’s gamble that it could build what it wanted rather than what the consumer wanted became its MO. GM had shot itself in the foot, and Impala buyers in the heart.
Those greedy, short-sighted moves have been haunting GM ever since. Even though the last of the Impalas carried on the traditions the Impala was built upon it didn’t matter. The perception was that of what had been produced more recently. Those blandtastic, underpowered, cheaply-built sedans that had no value after just a couple of years. That’s what GM had saddled its cars with.
Impala wasn’t what consumers wanted but there were other choices
So the demise of the Impala is being met today with sadness, but the stake in the heart happened long ago. Instead of making something like a 5-series BMW or 300 Mercedes sedan, it made mistakes in what it could get away with. Instead of those values the company once had and the trust Impala buyers knew GM felt was sacred, it chose cutting corners to cheapen everything across the board. That included its reputation. It has never recovered.
Even now you see signs of the same bad culture GM can’t seem to shake. Look at a Ram 1500 and then check out a new Silverado half-ton truck. Inside, Ram went with what it thought would be the best it could provide within the price point. Chevy cut corners. Outside, Ram offers a unique design that is slightly reminiscent of its Power Wagons of the 1950s. Chevy chose to get oblique with front end styling no one wants.
Can you see it happening again?
You can see it happening again. So how did those pickup trucks do head-to-head? In 2019 Chevy dropped to third place in sales against Ford and Ram. Ram passed Chevy and landed squarely into second place right behind Ford’s F-150.
When Chevy builds what it wants instead of what the customer wants it pays a huge price. That’s what the death of the Impala today should mean to Chevy and all of GM.