Photography by Al Rogers.
During the mid-fifties, the Big Three were experiencing a shift in direction by the buying public. It was becoming clear, styling had a major influence in adding market share. No longer was it acceptable to simply produce a good vehicle. The car had to say something about its owner, in essence becoming an extension of their personality. By the late fifties however, styling became outlandish with ever reaching fins and massive amounts of chrome slathered on. Fortunately for the masses, the 1959 Chevrolet didn’t follow that formula. And while it had fins and chrome, its design was subtle enough to entice well over one million people to drive one home from the dealer.
The new body was nearly five inches wider than the previous year. Its low slung and sweeping shape was in sharp contrast to the 1958 model. Body lines flowed gracefully with no hard edges in sight. It looked markedly more elegant. The Delray series was dropped leaving only the Biscayne, Bel Air and Impala as well as various station wagon models to fill the void. Wheelbase was increased 1½ inches, nearly all of which was used within the distance from the dash to the centerline of the rear wheels to add interior space.
The dual headlamps were lowered seven inches and moved to the outer edges of the grille, which now extended the full width of the vehicle. Elongated cooling air intakes and parking lamps rested above the headlamps and grille. The pencil-thin bumper added to the horizontal look. A compound curvature windshield extended deep into the roof increasing the greenhouse glass area. New for 1959 was a flat roof four-door model designed with a wrap-around rear window eliminating the need for rear quarter-windows. Cat’s-eye taillamps rested below eyebrow-styled tail fins. It was rumored that the design of the fins allowed the vehicle to become airborne if driven too fast. Tests later proved this to be false.
The interior was lighter and brighter. The new body design gave increased hip and shoulder room, adding about four inches in the front and three inches in the rear. Headroom was increased on four-door sedan models. Distinctive pattern cloths and leather-like vinyl were available in a variety of colors and designs. Convertible and station wagon models received all-vinyl seat covers. The attractive instrument panel set the large faced speedometer directly in front of the driver with the other necessary gauges placed on each side of it. Radio and heater controls were conveniently located close to the driver.
Chevrolet’s X-box frame was lengthened to accommodate the 1½-inch longer wheelbase. Its rear suspension was modified with the use of a new horizontal stabilizer bar that improved stability and roll-steer characteristics. The optional air-ride suspension was redesigned to soften ride but due to repeated problems with the system, 1959 would be the last year for this option. Larger braking surfaces reduced stopping distance.
Transmission choices included the base three-speed manual transmission with or without overdrive, four-speed manual, Powerglide or Turboglide unit. The Turboglide transmission was modified for improved durability. Stick shift cars had the clutch pedal linkage redesigned for smoother operation and easier servicing.
Buyers had a choice of nine power options, an increase of three from the previous year. While engine sizes didn’t change, several key enhancements were evident. The 235 cubic-inch six-cylinder engine had a redesigned camshaft that provided higher torque at low and intermediate speeds and a recalibrated carburetor, which improved fuel economy by nearly 10 percent. New intake valve stem seals on the 283 cubic-inch V8 reduced oil consumption. Fuel injected engines and all 348 cubic-inch engines had an improved cooling system that minimized overheating problems and prolonged spark plug life. Other changes included a revised vacuum spark advance system for improved idle operations. And for the first time a dry-type air cleaner was used on all engines except those equipped with fuel injection.
GM was hoping the changes to their best selling division would garner it a first place spot in sales for 1959. It wasn’t to be however, as Ford ultimately won the fight narrowly edging out Chevrolet by just over 25,000 vehicles.
Fuel For Thought
Crossed flags with a “V” indicate a 348 cubic-inch engine under the hood
Windshield area increased 61 percent on sport coupe models
Steering system redesigned to decrease steering effort
“Magic-Mirror” acrylic lacquer did not require polishing for three years
Last year for fuel injection
Number built – 1,436,954
Construction – body-on-frame
Engine – (1) 235 cubic-inch six cylinder, (4) 283 cubic-inch V8, (4) 348 cubic-inch V8
Power/Torque – (235 6-cyl) 135 horsepower/217 lb-ft torque, (283 V8) 185 horsepower/275 lb-ft torque, 230 horsepower/300 lb-ft torque, 250 horsepower/305 lb-ft torque, 290 horsepower/290 lb-ft torque, (348 V8) 250 horsepower/355 lb-ft torque, 280 horsepower/355 lb-torque, 300 horsepower/350 lb-torque, 315 horsepower/356 lb-torque
Transmission – three-speed manual, three-speed with overdrive, four-speed manual, PowerGlide, TurboGlide
Suspension front – coil springs with unequal length control arms
Suspension rear – four link coil and lateral control arm
Steering – recirculating ball/nut
Brakes – 11 inch four-wheel drum front and rear 199.5 square inch total lining area
Length/width/height – 210.9/79.9/56.3 inches
Wheelbase – 119 inches
Weight – 3,678 lbs. with V8
0-60mph/quarter-mile – 9.0 seconds/16.3 seconds at 83 mph (Motor Trend, February 1959)
Top speed – 115 mph est.
MPG – 11-16 est.
Price –MSRP $2,710 (Impala 4-door hardtop);
Today – $7,525 – $19,800
Insurance cost is $400 per year for a 1959 Chevrolet valued at $30,000. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving.*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance www.heacockclassic.com
Chevrolet’s stovebolt six-cylinder was a proven and reliable powertrain in 1958. The 283 cubic-inch small block was, without a doubt, the best engine on the market offering more than one horsepower per cubic-inch when equipped with fuel injection and special cam. The 348 cubic-inch V8, first introduced in 1958, provided additional power but added weight to the front end.
Handling was typical of cars during the ’50s, with excessive roll on hard turns especially with cars equipped with the 348 cubic-inch engine. Ride was however boulevard smooth, exactly what the American public wanted.
1959 Ford Galaxie 500
Number built – 1,462,181
0-60/quarter-mile – 10.5 seconds/18.0 seconds at 76.5 mph
Top speed – 110 mph est.
Price – MSRP – $2,655;
Today – $3,125 - $7,700
1959 Plymouth Fury
Number built – 434,799
0-60/quarter-mile – 8.5 seconds/16.4 seconds at 83.3 mph
Top speed – 118 mph
Price – MSRP – $2,814; Today – 3,500 - $7,275
Excellent interior comfort
Large number of available powertrain options
One-year only body style
Love it or hate it styling
Limited exterior trim and sheet metal parts available
Most 1959 Chevrolets are in the weekend driver category regularly taken to cruise nights and formal car shows.
What To Pay
1959 Chevrolet Impala
MSRP – $2,710
Low – $7,525
Average – $11,250
High – $19,800
*Prices courtesy of NADA
Master cylinder $90.00
Engine rebuild kit $642.43
Fuel pump $58.04
Carpet kit $219.00
Exhaust system $463.60
Standard Catalog of 1950s Chevrolet (Paperback) by Jon G. Robinson
Bowties of the Fifties by James Moloney
Pictorial History of Chevrolet 1958-1960 by John D. Robertson
Chevy Muscle Cars by Mike Mueller
Chevy 348-409 Hi-Po by R.M. Clarke
The 1959 Chevrolet ushered in an era of subtle styling. And while its rear fins were criticized for creating handling issues, they gave Chevrolet a truly unique look in the low price field. Today, the 1959 Chevrolet is highly sought after especially if equipped with fuel injection or the tri-power 348 cubic-inch engine.