Story and Photos by Karl H. Kazaks
Sometimes, less is more. Take, for example, Gary Duncan’s 1959 Chevrolet Impala sport coupe. You might not think this is a good example for proving less is more, as the model is known for its flamboyant design features, the most striking and well-known of which is its revolutionary outward protruding tailfins (“batwings” to some). The car, which sports a lower, wider, longer profile than its predecessors, also has a massive windshield and is bedecked with gleaming trim and an assortment of badges and emblems. The single teardrop rear taillight was also a dramatic change from Chevrolet’s previous well-known triple rear taillight style.
But those features are general to the design, something you can find on any well-restored Impala. What sets Duncan’s Impala apart, though, is the fact that it never has been restored.
If the car looks entirely original, that’s because it is. It has just 35 miles. And that’s where less is more: because it has so few miles on it, the car is a rare window into that point in our nation’s automotive history.
The car was originally purchased by Rudolph “Doc” Burnette, who at the time was working at a Chevy dealership in Hillsville. He ordered the car – with a special police car package which included heavy anti-sway bars – to use as a tow vehicle. He liked racing ’57 Chevys and planned to use the ’59 to haul his race cars.
He never used the Impala as a tow vehicle, and after a while, he decided to keep it as an investment, putting it up on Walker jack stands ~ which is precisely where it rests today, on those jack stands. By inspecting its details, it’s obvious that it is not only original, but also has been well cared for.
Owned by just two families (Duncan bought it from his brother, Gerald, who bought it from Burnette’s widow), the car has always been kept in some kind of enclosed, concrete-floored, heated garage – the ideal environment for storing a car. The automobile’s components are protected from the decay that can result from being subject to temperature swings or high moisture conditions. For example, some of the Impala’s trim work and emblems are made from pot metal, a zinc-chrome blend that can deteriorate over time. This Impala shows little or no decay. Had the car been kept in a barn for 50-plus years (where it would have been exposed to high humidity), the pot metal would show pitting – even if the odometer still read just 35.
The tires look like they are fresh from the factory. Their treads have a depth of 14/32 of an inch, and the outer surfaces still sport the thin rubber tips (technically called sprues) only seen on new tires. You can also feel the ridge on the center of the tire, indicating where the die for the wheel mold was joined. The ridge wears down quickly with road use. Not only do they not show wear, the tires also don’t show deterioration – another testament to the ideal conditions in which the car has been stored. The door weather stripping remains supple. The sill plate to the driver’s side door – an area which normally wears quickly because it gets rubbed when you get in and out – looks brand new. Likewise, the door panels remain perfect, free from wear.
The admiration this car gets has almost entirely been from the outside in, rather than the inside out. And when you do look inside – past the snowcrest white exterior – there’s much to admire. The mostly red interior gleams with showroom new condition. The patterned red vinyl seats are brand new, the dash is immaculate (the metal there, too, in fine shape). It’s like stepping back in time.
Underneath the car, you see more evidence of the car’s preservation. On the bottom of the floor pan, red primer is still readily visible. Normally that would have worn off with road miles. The strategically sprayed undercoating also looks fresh from the factory, unworn. Even in the wheel wells, where thicker undercoating was sprayed to protect the car from rocks, that extra thickness – quickly worn down with use – remains.
Twice a year Duncan starts the car, running it in first gear. “As my brother Gerald says, ‘It needs exercise.’” The car has no comparables. “It’s in extraordinary condition,” Duncan relates. “It’s a piece of history. And think: Today it would take a restoration shop a year to make the car perfect like this. Back when it was built, the guys on the line had just seconds to assemble it.”
Even if Duncan were to find a flaw in the car, he wouldn’t touch it. “They’re only original once.”