Despite the intoxicating aroma of French fries hanging in the air, meeting at the In and Out Burger in Palmdale, California, is proving to be a mistake. The place is a madhouse. The parking lot is packed to capacity and the drive-thru line is wrapped around the building. I’m terrified that a distracted housewife in that big Lexus SUV is going to open her door into Greg Preston’s pristine 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS, scarring its original Cherry paint.
Surprisingly, Preston and his wife, Shirley, don’t seem concerned. The couple has cared for and protected the Impala for more than two decades, and the car looks essentially showroom new. Its paint glistens in the late afternoon southern California sunshine, and the Chevy’s 17-inch wheels are immaculate; they’ve never touched a curb. The big sedan is mechanically perfect as well, even the underhood light still works, and the only interior blemish is a wear mark on the carpet where Preston rests his left foot. “I was going to replace it,” he says of the carpet. “But I figure it’s better to keep it original.”
Preston reaches into the back seat and produces the Impala’s original window sticker, which he had laminated soon after buying the car. “I saw one at the L.A. Auto Show and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a four-door hot rod,’” says the 59-year old retired Los Angeles County Sheriff detective. “A few months later I walked into Team Chevrolet on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena and ordered the car. I got every option.”
Base price was $24,405. Preston added the $490 Impala SS Preferred Equipment Group, which got him a six-way power passenger seat, auto dimming rear view mirror, a lighted and covered visor mirror, and automatic headlamps. He also paid $155 for the AM/FM Stereo Radio with four speakers and $52 for windshield heat reflective. With the $590 destination charge, the car cost $25,692.
Preston digs out the original sales contract. With tax and other fees, the total came to $28,434.07. He laid down $11,434.07 in cash and financed the remaining $17,000 for five years at an APR of 9.9 percent. Ouch.
Trying to reinvigorate sales of the full-size Caprice, Chevy reintroduced the Impala SS in 1994. It was the first time Chevy had used the name since 1969 and it was the first time any Impala SS had four doors. Basically a Caprice with the 9C1 Police Package, Impala SS badges, five-spoke wheels, and the iron-head variant of the Corvette and Camaro’s LT1 V-8, it was an instant hit with the press and the public. That first year, Chevy sold 6303 of them. They were all black.
Production would last two more years, and there were improvements and more colors along the way. In 1995, Chevy redesigned the exterior mirrors and moved them from the doors to the corners of the side glass. It also retooled the stamping of the sedan’s steel quarter panel and ditched the small piece of plastic trim that had been used to reshape the Caprice’s awkwardly pointed side glass at the C-pillar. And in its final year, the Impala SS finally got a floor-mounted shifter and full instrumentation, including a tachometer.
Sales climbed to more than 21,000 in 1995, and then Chevy announced the car would be killed off after ’96. GM wanted the Impala’s assembly plant in Arlington, Texas, to build big SUVs. “They said it was going to be the last year of the rear-wheel drive,” Preston says. And it was.
For car enthusiasts, it felt like 1987 all over again. That year the rear-wheel drive Buick Grand National and Chevy Monte Carlo SS were replaced with front-wheel drive junk no one remembers. Enthusiasts were pissed off, again, but they lined up at the showrooms anyway and Chevy sold 41,941 SS Impalas in 1996. The majority were painted black, but like Preston, 12,180 buyers chose Cherry; another 10,676 went with the Dark Green.
“I’d had a black car already, so I didn’t want black,” Preston says. “And Shirley hated the Dark Green.” She nods.
Preston first got into cars in the late 1970s when he started drag racing with a friend after high school, running a 1973 Camaro, then a V-8 Vega, and then more Camaros. Today, he also owns a 1965 big-block Chevelle convertible, 1963 Corvette roadster, and 1968 Corvette Coupe with the Tripower 400-horsepower 427. “I’ve also owned a 1964 Corvette and bunch of first-gen Camaros,” he says.
After driving the Impala SS every day for the first five or six years, and then driving it sporadically for the next eight, Preston parked the car in 2010 with just 44,000 miles on its odometer and essentially walked away. He only recently got it back on the road. “The original BFGoodrich tires had dry-rotted,” he says. “I also replaced the fuel pump and filter, serviced the air conditioning and transmission, and installed new KYB shocks and suspension bushings. Oh, and I buffed the paint.”
At idle, there’s a satisfying rumble from the 350-cubic-inch V-8. With two-bolt mains, cast-iron cylinder heads, and a milder camshaft, the Impala got a slightly different version of the LT1 than the 300-hp Corvette. It was rated 260 hp at 5000 rpm in the Impala (as well at the Buick Roadmaster and Cadillac Fleetwood), with 330 lb.-ft. of torque at 2400 rpm. Its 4L60E automatic has four forward gears including an overdrive and a limited slip rear end was standard.
The sedan’s floor shifter feels solid and clicks into gear with gratifying heft. Like the steering wheel, its T-handle is wrapped in leather. You can feel the oversized stitching on your palm. With two spokes and a thin rim, the steering wheel was a leftover from the Caprice. Its big, pillowy airbag is a sign of the times.
Also covered in leather, the driver’s seat is broad and soft, but comfortable. And there’s space. Oh, boy is there space. The door panel feels like it’s a few states away from my left shoulder, and the base of the windshield is in another time zone. You could play Bocce Ball in the backseat. At 214.1-inches long, 77.5-inches wide, and about 4200 pounds, this is a big, heavy car, and it feels XXL on the road.
“That’s my favorite part about it,” Preston says from the passenger seat. “It’s just a big, comfortable road car.” At 80 mph in top gear, the LT1 is turning just 2000 rpm, thanks to the big Chevy’s tall 3.08:1 rear end gears.
Torquey and smooth, the LT1 was loaded for bear in 1996, and it can still get the big Chevy rolling. Nail the gas at 40 mph and the transmission kicks down quickly from fourth to second and winds out the small-block. The acceleration is enough to push us into the upholstery until the trans grabs third at 5300 rpm, about 80 mph. It isn’t exactly a firm hard shift, but it isn’t lazy either.
When new, these cars were capable of 0–60 mph in 7.5 seconds and a 15-second quarter mile at 94 mph, which put them among the quickest sedans in the world, easily out sprinting a Mercedes S500. Today a V-6 Toyota Camry will smoke the Impala, but the Chevy’s off-the-line punch is enough to squeal its rear tires and squat its rear suspension. First gear is long and lasts until 48 mph. A good stiff set of 3.73 rear end gears would vastly improve its acceleration and has become a popular upgrade.
Softly sprung and damped, the Impala feels a little wallowy at first, but you quickly realize the suspension’s body control is good and its beefy anti-roll bars keep lean to a minimum. There is some, but less than you would think. And the Impala is stable, responsive, and easy to handle in a few long, smooth, high-speed corners just west of California’s 14 freeway.
These cars were praised in their day for impressive handling and stopping abilities despite the Impala’s heft and rudimentary hardware. There is a live rear axle back there. Preston has also fitted a new set of Hankooks in the stock size (255/50R17), so there’s plenty of rubber on the road. “With my other cars I play with the wheel and tire combinations, but not on this one,” he says. “I like this one just the way I bought it.”
Although the brake pedal action is a bit soft by today’s standards, there’s an impressive amount of stopping power and feel from the Chevy’s big 12-inch front discs. The Impala also has rear discs as part of that Police Package upgrade; the standard Caprice came with drums in back.
In the model’s three years of production, Chevy sold 69,758 SS Impalas. And they stopped depreciating years ago. Although they are still relatively affordable, these cars have reached bona fide collector car status with low mileage survivors like Preston’s are the most coveted.
“I always wanted to be the original owner of something that was going to be a collector car,” Preston says. “So many people I’ve talked to over the years say they’ve regretted selling their cars. I’m glad I’ve held on to this one.”
Back at the In and Out Burger, the parking lot is just as crazy as before. Night has fallen, but I carefully navigate the big sedan through the chaos and find a safe parking space on the outskirts of the property. Lets get some fries.