Even as the epochal and precedent-breaking '55 Chevy line was causing sensations at the dealers' showrooms and racetracks, GM management had already decreed the first step in a market strategy to upsize and upgrade all its products.
These were the days when new-car introduction time was like a circus in town. When its arch competitor Ford and upstart Plymouth both came out with an all-new bodies and frames in 1957, ever wonder why big Chevrolet didn't follow suit? It's too easy to assume that as king of the "low-priced three" market, Chevy merely wanted to prolong the line of that classic with the iconic '57; nope, the front office had decreed that Chevrolet would spring a big (literally) surprise on the market to claim lasting precedence in 1958!
Ford's all-new—if traditional—body thus sold very well, and controversy exists to this day who won the 1957 sales race; suffice it to say that Chevrolet not only didn't like to lose, they likewise didn't relish a close finish. This surprise was a new line-leader called the Impala.
Precedent was broken a year later when GM planners pre-empted the new bodies (and similar Pontiacs as well) with a radically new design that retained only the basic frame and power packages of the '58s. Why? Well, part of the plan was to get all the divisions in-synch over at Fisher Body with intensified inter-line rationalization: think roof and window shapes. After that, C-B-O-P-C could march forward in a unified rank, thus significantly simplifying parts inventories and saving the bean counters lots of legumes.
For 1959, GM Design Center would set the "look" and basic body parameters for a number of wheelbases, and engineering could fix all the crucial body dimensions—firewall and door hinge lines, floor and roof height, and so on—and the five division studios could take it from there. Looking back on the photo files of GM Photographic a marvelous nuthouse of ideas can be revealed, with lots of themes and treatments recognized, which later crossed marque lines. Of course, the individual divisions had always expected to adapt to some degree of rationalization and corporate identity, but in those dear, dead days, in-house politics and sales competition being what they are, each nameplate still fought the trend like the Army fights the Navy fights the Air Force!
With full management approval, Chevrolet stylists took a huge gamble that those huge horizontal fins, even in a tailfin crazy market, would catch the fancy of the new-car buyer. Wide "cat's-eye" taillights never prototyped on any GM dream car drove home the impression. Controversy didn't hurt, in the real-time market, as all sorts of rumors surfaced about the '59 cars becoming airborne (or at least unloading the rear springs) in high-wind areas: supposedly a coastal highway tunnel had the capability to cause the lifting of the rear suspension to a really thrilling extent. Aerodynamicists scoffed, noting that the airfoil curve that causes lift was totally lacking, but it became an urban legend. As the dropped-in-front "Dagoed" look was beginning to move from street rods to late-models, the sight of radically raked '59s might have nurtured this rumor.
Frontal styling for the new lineup was a bit controversial for a different reason: critically viewed, it didn't quite "match" the rear look as seen in all previous Chevys. Though pleasing in a less radical way, to some critics it looked as if it had been chosen "off the rack" by the stylists and merely attached to the distinctive tail by the expedient of slathering clay to join two design bucks. Some definite Cad influence can be discerned in the stamped-aluminum grille texture; a toothy 'Vette-inspired unit was considered! The upside was that the treatment lent itself to loads of effective restyling, which customizers, even the high school auto shop kind, loved. The most popular of these was the replacement of the designers' nice "grin" with a simple tube grille of chromed bars. As to the twin pseudo-air scoops at the hood parting line, one custom shop artist [I think it was Darryl Starbird] remarked, in noting how little he cared for to the effect that it looked like one of the body designers had stood too close when holding a running grinder, and having buzzed off the leading edge, had to repeat on the other side for the sake of symmetry!
The '59 coupe roof was pretty and complemented the look perfectly; it still looks sweet, if you grant that the rear seat occupants might get a bit warm. Thought the "Forward Look" Chrysler products had sported a modest bubbletop look as early as 1957, but GM stylists trumped it with a super-thin C-pillar and beach towel–sized roof panel on all their two-door hardtops, ending it with the low-production and even prettier Bel Air Sports Coupe in 1962. Even the two-door sedan roofs looked rakish. All divisions had an optional four-door hardtop profile that was convenient, but rather bland.
The new body essentially lasted two years; in 1960 the boys in the styling backroom had toned down the flamboyant fins a bit, making the decklid a bit flatter and reinstated the modest round taillights that had arrived two years earlier, and these soon became a brand identifier even on Corvette and Corvair. Also, they decreed a pleasing new, less radical grille shape that was tied quite neatly into the rear treatment with a high horizontal reveal line. Otherwise, the '60 lineup was almost identical to the '59 in most respects and despite the pretty new Ford styling featuring gullwing horizontal fins and bubble roof, interestingly it took the sales trophy. Before summing up, we should add that the Motorama-inspired dash/instrument treatment (besides the inclusion of idiot lights) was a grand slam of a design!
The wild-styling card was discarded by 1961. That marked the advent of non-controversial body styling—starting a generation of Chevrolet domination in sales of what had become known as fullsized family cars. And a half-year intro of the balladized 409 (and rare Z-11 427) the 348 W was progressively supplanted by the legendary 327ci SBC, and the awesome Rat motor—produced partially on the same assembly lines as the W—was just around the corner. Well, heck: even the Caddies had become conservative and trimmed of fin by then. But now, as then, the '59 Chevy turns heads as a street cruiser on Saturday nights!