OLD IRON REVIVAL: ONE IMPALA SS, SIX GEARS AND 310 HORSES TOUR REBORN RUST BELT by John P. Cortez and Wes Raynal (Autoweek 10/31/94)




   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

same language.



   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

that.



   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

appropriate.



   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

bad news.



   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

car.''



   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

been.



   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

that fast.



   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

opposite.''



   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

garbage trucks.''



   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

steelworkers.



   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

throttle.



   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

resolution.



   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

Chevy's-image.



   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.''