OLD IRON REVIVAL: ONE IMPALA SS, SIX GEARS AND
310 HORSES TOUR REBORN RUST BELT by John P. Cortez and Wes Raynal
The cruise ship Goodtime III was docked on Cleveland's
waterfront, about to set sail for a dinner cruise on Lake Erie.
Near the ship stood a sunset-drenched black Impala SS, a
shimmering onyx lodged in the belly button of the Midwest. It was
about to be taken for a trip away from Cleveland, to Pittsburgh
and Buffalo along what is often referred to as the Rust Belt, a
name which has become a misnomer because today the belt is
shinier than ever-and, like the Impala, more powerful. If cars
and cities could talk, the Impala and Rust Belt would speak the
The car is a one-off creation of Jon Moss, manager of
specialty vehicles at Chevrolet (see page 31) and the man behind
the evolution of Chevy's Caprice into the standard Impala SS, a
bulky black beast. For those who have been wishing for the
Corvette's six-speed transmission to go with the Impala's detuned
Corvette engine, the good news is that this car exists. The bad
news is that this is the only one.
Moss contracted the engine and drivetrain out to Jack Roush
Technologies in Livonia, Mich. Roush took out the 260-hp Impala
SS LT1 engine, ported and polished the heads, and put the
Corvette camshaft and distributor back in. The company also
replaced the exhaust with pipes 2.5 inches larger in diameter,
connected to Superflow mufflers, and ended up with 310 horses,
which is 10 more than the Corvette. Then Roush modified the
transmission tunnel to accept the six-speed transmission, and
installed a Z28 clutch. To the standard Impala SS
suspension-independent front and live axle rear-Roush added
Bilstein shocks front and rear. The standard Impala SS's 17-inch
BFGoodrich Comp T/As were retained.
The improvements are not unlike what's been done to many of
the cities in the Rust Belt over the last decade.
The freeways south from Detroit flow into the heartland, and
there could be no more fitting place to let this reborn American
Muscle Sedan roam. As for its being like the Rust Belt, you would
have to turn the Impala back to when it was a Caprice. The 1991
Caprice, with its bathtub-on-wheels styling, was the brunt of
many jokes. Meanwhile, on the coasts, the Rust Belt cities were
known by unflattering nicknames. Cleveland was The Mistake on the
Lake, for example, and Detroit was Murder City.
But now things are great in rustland. Employment is up, and
cities are coming back from the dead as they redefine themselves
with new high-tech industries, inner-city development and
investment. Nowadays it's even cool to be from Cleveland. Maybe
too cool. ''There's no place to park in downtown anymore,'' says
one resident. ''It's too busy.''
Meanwhile, in California, the former Eden of employment and
coolness, jobs have dried up like a spilled soda in Death Valley,
while residents flee in exodus. Some of them are even moving to
Cleveland, possibly returning to their Midwestern roots, to
regain their optimism.
When people were looking for a place to put an institution as
American as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, they didn't
go to the Sunset Strip or Rockefeller Center. They came to
Cleveland, where disc jockey Alan Freed first coined the term
''rock and roll.''
And so did the Impala SS.
Monday. Cleveland rocks.
When the redesigned Caprice came out, its styling and banana
boat feel was met with laughter from many quarters. But last year
when Chevrolet built the Impala SS, the car was obviously not
just for laughing any more.
The first thing you hear when you twist the key is a loud,
low, guttural growl. A Vette with an attitude. An Impala SS on
steroids. A Winston Cup car with a muffler, and a weak muffler at
In these times of fuel savings and electric cars and global
strategies and CD-ROMS, cars like this musclebound sedan don't
show up on your doorstep every day. Ford and Chrysler don't build
them like this any longer. The Japanese and Germans never did.
This is American iron. It would be nice if Chevy could see it in
its heart to make more than one.
Barrelling down the Ohio Turnpike from the car's home in
Detroit toward Cleveland, the rumble from the engine compartment
just rolls on; it's In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida in repeat mode.
The interior is pretty much standard Impala SS, with the
exception of the center console that houses the shift lever at
the cup holders' expense. The seats, though electronically
adjustable, are decent at best, flat and wide enough for an elk.
Which means most humans kind of sink into them like into a '70s
beanbag chair, making the In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida drone all the more
And the stick shift in the driver's right hand acts as his
baton for the Iron Butterfly symphony. Going through the gears
and working the throttle with the percussive right foot creates a
roaring rhapsody. It's enough to make you get off the freeway
just so you can get back on, and accelerate full throttle down
the entrance ramp just for the rush of it. Punch the throttle on
the down slope, ears ringing from the roar and eyes on the add-on
tach in the middle of the dash as it nears red, then upshift and
explode into the right lane going faster than left-lane traffic.
Breathe. Take the next exit and do it again.
Once in the city, in the midst of rush hour, the fun delivered
by the manual tranny plummets. Traffic picks up, and stoplights
come twice a minute. With repeated use in stop-and-go mode, the
stick's long throws grow longer with every toss, and the clutch
gets heavier. It's like holding a door shut against a tiger. This
beast wants to run.
The Impala rolls along some clearer paths down the hills and
into the Flats, a revitalized district of old warehouses turned
into bars and night spots that line both sides of the Cuyahoga
River, which hasn't caught fire for years now. Ferries regularly
shuttle revelers back and forth, and provide a beautiful view of
downtown, where old and new cohabitate. The muscle car with the
old name plods through traffic by the venerable Terminal Tower,
which overlooks the new baseball stadium and sports arena complex
in the heart of town. Red and blue merchandise dots the shop
windows, evidence of enthusiasm left over for the reborn
Cleveland Indians, who were making a run in the American League
before gamus interruptus so rudely transpired.
The Impala rumbles down toward rickety Municipal Stadium, home
of the Browns, right on the lake where the winds blow field goals
into the ground. Next door is the construction site of the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame, a huge glass spaceship that seems to have
landed in wonderful juxtaposition to the old stadium.
Workers leaving the construction site crowd the car. ''Has
that got the Corvette engine?'' one hard hat asks. ''Do they all
come with a stick shift?'' Unfortunately, he had to be told the
About then, a guy in a sailor suit eyed the badge of the
Impala SS inquisitively.
"Great-looking car, he said. ''But I don't get the deer.
What's with the deer? It's gotta have something to do with the
Only about as much as the guitar has to do with rock and roll.
Chevrolet's marketing mavens have established that America is
the country that invented rock and roll. But they haven't yet
established an identity for the Impala SS, as the sailor
illustrates. They quietly sold all 8000 Impalas built for the '94
model year. But that so many Rust Belt folk don't recognize the
car at all, let alone a six-speed one-off, suggests that Chevy
didn't turn the '94 Impala into the image car that it could have
Tuesday. Autumn in Pittsburgh.
Somewhere near its eastern border with Pennsylvania, Ohio
ceases to be boring. The terrain rolls more, as cornfields fade
into woods. On the 55-mph Pennsylvania Turnpike the rustic
scenery passes slower but looks better and better.
About six miles short of Pittsburgh, reality rears its ugly
head and intrudes upon the joyful ride. Two big trucks roll by
with their cargo platforms covered by huge blue tarps, escorted
by police and camera crews down a side road. It is near the
airport, and it is apparent that they are hauling airplane parts
out of the woods where a USAir jet went down only days earlier.
Escape behind the wheel of the big Impala, safe and sound and
fortunate, is needed to take the chill off the spine.
Pittsburgh is a great place to approach by car from either
direction, going over mountains and through tunnels. Hidden by
the hills, Pittsburgh's majestic skyline greets new arrivals as
they reach the point where the three rivers meet.
The Impala has a shining moment down near the University of
Pittsburgh on the tree-lined curving roads where the Vintage
racers run. The car is deep in its element on the freeway, but it
isn't bad on these twisties either, where bodyroll is minimal.
Point it where you want to go, and squeeze on some power. When
pushed hard, though, the car's size and weight cause it to lean
and send the message that it's really not into taking corners
One good example of Pittsburgh's comeback from the end of the
steel boom years is on an old industrial site where the new
Pittsburgh Institute of Technology is being completed. No longer
the steel capital of the world, Pittsburgh has redefined itself
as a leader in high-tech, specifically in robotics and artificial
intelligence, thanks to a burgeoning high-tech research industry
spawned around Carnegie-Mellon University.
Pittsburgh native and Indycar team owner Chip Ganassi confirms
this. ''Educational and medical technology are what drive this
town now,'' he says.
It's a success story you don't hear much about, but that's the
nature of Midwesterners, Ganassi says. ''People in the Rust Belt
don't blow their own horn-they let the work speak for itself. If
they say they have a dollar, they have $10. In Texas, you get the
The transition from steel to high-tech had its growing pains,
apparent as the Impala rumbles through an area that hasn't quite
made it back. ''The town's identity went away,'' according to
Ganassi. ''People thought the mills would get rolling again, but
the only place they were rolling was down the road on the back of
When things began to bottom out, in the late '70s and early
'80s, Pittsburgh went from being the Iron City to, temporarily,
the City of Champions, as the Pirates and Steelers were winning
titles. When the rest of the country thought of Pittsburgh, they
pictured Franco Harris and Willie Stargell, not unemployed
Through the '80s, Pittsburgh fell out of the national
spotlight. The steel mills closed. The championships stopped. A
guy named Bubby Brister actually quarterbacked the Steelers. It
was then that the recovery began to gather speed. There's still a
specialty steel industry in town, but in the bigger picture, the
glowing molten steel has been replaced by glimmering CRTs.
But not everywhere. In a seedy warehouse district, the Impala
is parked in front of a commercial garage door strewn with
graffiti. A man in a white compact pickup pulls up and says he
owns the building and would like to know what's going on. He
looks at the slumbering Impala and says, ''Well, I wouldn't hang
around here too long with that car unless you got some of
these.'' The handguns on the seat speak for themselves.
Escaping with all four expensive alloy wheels, the car begins
a tour of Pittsburgh's old ethnic pockets. This is still a great
neighborhood town, which means it has great neighborhood bars,
the cornerstones of the Midwest. Stats say there is one watering
hole per 1300 residents in Pittsburgh. Beyond the obvious
advantage of being able to get a beer just about anywhere, the
thinking here is that the closeness built in these neighborhoods
helped pull the city through the hard times.
"When I was a kid,'' Ganassi says. ''I was the only one in my
class whose father didn't work at the steel mill in town. Fathers
and grandfathers worked in the same mills. When they closed, the
families were all so close that they didn't move to another town.
The families took care of their own.
"It's a great part of the country and it gave me a good work
ethic. I'm glad I grew up here and I'm glad I live here.''
And it's a nice place to visit. But the Impala is starting to
itch for the open road. This is clear by the way it's sucking
down premium unleaded, begging to have a full tank and an open
If it's Wednesday, this must be Buffalo.
The open road heading north starts to blur in the rain-a
pleasant, comforting blur, very much unlike the annoying blur of
words coming from the radio, a product of Pete Rose and his
sports talk show.
The origin of the name ''Buffalo'' remains a mystery-but no
buffalo ever lived here. It may be a bastard pronunciation of the
French beau fleuve, or beautiful river, meaning the Niagara. They
tried to start calling it New Amsterdam around 1800, but it just
didn't catch on.
Wading through other Buffalo trivia, it's discovered that
President William McKinley was assassinated here in 1901. Buffalo
wings were invented here. Millard Fillmore, one of your more
anonymous presidents, was born here. So was Grover Cleveland, the
only president ever to serve two non-consecutive terms. Beyond
these items of monumental import, the city's latter-day sports
heroes (and therefore celebrities) have been led by Jack Kemp and
O.J. Simpson. Quite a legacy.
Of course, Buffalo is now known for the Bills, who have taken
losing to a new level. They have dominated their conference for
four years, but lost an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls.
And that's what people remember. It's like remembering only the
Caprice and forgetting the Impala. How the city's image might be
different had Scott Norwood's Super Bowl-winning field goal
attempt sailed through the uprights four years ago.
The ornate dome of the City Hall dominates the Buffalo
skyline, which is attractive even on this dreary day. The Impala
requires a lot of maneuvering through the tight streets, and it,
too, is striking among the mostly small commuter cars.
A cop in a Caprice rolls by, creating an opportunity to get
some directions and his feel for the Impala. But he seems
sincerely uninterested in the car. When told it has a Corvette
engine tuned to 310 hp, he can only offer up a half-hearted ''Is
that right? Where did you say you wanted to go?''
Typical of the locals, he's nice-so nice it makes you
uncomfortable with their effort too help you. How can they all be
so nice? Is this really the same state as New York City?
On the southern track of the city's Lake Erie coastline stand
some horribly ugly ultra-industrial facilities-old mills, grain
elevators, factories, some operative, some not. A few miles up
the coast some ritzy new condos are going up. They appear to be
for the rich suburbanites moving back into the city, as a
resident says they start at $280,000 and go up from there.
"Buffalo is a town still looking for its identity,'' the
resident says. ''But it's trying real hard.''
The steel mills in Buffalo closed, too. The city's plastics
industry also fell on tough times, along with its substantial
agricultural distribution gig. But, like Pittsburgh, Buffalo is a
proud town with a lot of ethnic neighborhoods where they aren't
afraid to put in a full day's work if you give 'em a job. (Little
known fact: The songs When Irish Eyes are Smiling and My Wild
Irish Rose were composed not in Dublin, not in Boston, but
Buffalo. Bank that one, trivia freaks.)
Also in Buffalo's favor is an abundance of youth and vitality.
Eighteen colleges and universities dot the metro area. When the
city does find its new niche, the population will be young
enough, strong enough and disciplined enough to fill it.
Buffalo's dilemma is to build a better tomorrow without losing
touch with its roots. And the same formidable task is faced by
the Impala's next stop.
Thursday. Can't forget the Motor City
With the auto industry riding a huge crest, Detroit has more
potential than any of the cities in the Rust Belt. But it has the
longest way to go. No secondary industries anywhere near as
life-sustaining as the auto industry have developed. It's cars,
car parts, car accessories, car washes, car everything.
The auto industry built this town, and when it crashed and
burned, Detroit did too. With the industry riding high on its
wave of recovery, the auto makers are focusing on rebuilding
themselves, leaving the city itself spinning its wheels. Detroit
would like to see the auto companies take the profits and funnel
some dough back into the city. But so far, all it's gotten is
GM's Clark Street Cadillac facility, to be turned into a
technical vocational school, and about 200 acres of vacant land
from Chrysler, near its Jefferson North assembly plant. If
there's one thing the city does have, it's plenty of vacant land.
What it doesn't have is something to rebuild around, something
to spur rebirth. The Renaissance Center, a gigantic one-off, was
supposed to do that in the 1970s, but it has never managed to
bring back the companies that fled to the suburbs, nor spur any
development around itself. The debate has been raging for years
about whether to build a new Tiger Stadium, where to put it, and
how to pay for it. But the issue doesn't appear to be close to
Detroit does have some bright spots to work with: Greektown's
restaurant and bar district and the Theater District featuring
the fabulous Fox. Like Detroit, GM also has some bright spots,
the Impala SS, Corvette, Aurora, Seville STS, Firebird/Camaro and
trucks among them. But there's still a long way to go. And
building a muscular Impala SS like this one with a Corvette
six-speed would go a long way toward enhancing the company's-and
This car, a redefined Caprice with a take-no-prisoners
powertrain, proves, as the Rust Belt has, that rebirth is
attainable. With every shift to first gear and lift of the
clutch, the one-off Impala echoes a resounding ''hell, yes.''