I took a brief cafecito respite in Little Havana the other day and a distinct sound captured my attention — and sparked my imagination.
It was a bizarre cross between the roar of a lion and the thunder of a locomotive. Somehow, that ominous noise was like mother’s milk to me. I turned and saw a 1974 Chevy Impala, faded blue, making its way down Calle Ocho. l “diamond in the back, sunroof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean,” as William DeVaughn’s funk classic “Be Thankful for What You Got” put it.
A couple of days later, a friend told me that General Motors has decided to end production of the iconic car. Over the years Impala sightings like the one I had last week, brought back memories of childhood in Hialeah, Miami’s bluest collar suburb. Impalas were commonplace in my hometown, and it turns out they were popular, especially in other minority neighborhoods, throughout the United States. The Impala was the poor man’s Lincoln Continental.
After World War II, the vehicle became popular among Mexican-American GI’s returning from the war — and thus the birth of the low rider.
The economic boom after the war thrust many working-class Americans into the middle class. Suburban sprawl, shopping malls and excess ruled the day. It was an era of big hair, big burgers and big cars. You could argue that the size of the sedan on your driveway was the truest sign of your level of wealth — bigger was better. The Impala hit its peak in 1968 as the most sold American car in this country.
When the economy tanked in the 1970s, these old sedans instantly became relics of the golden past. The rising cost of fuel was one of the major daggers in the heart of the slumping American economy. Political turbulence in the Middle East led to gas shortages, which subsequently led to price hikes. The old sedans were now dinosaurs, nearly obsolete.
That’s when I come into the picture. Most everyone who owned an Impala in the 1970s was working class. Rich folks had moved on to more fuel-efficient vehicles while the lower rung of American society inherited the Impala, the preferred mode of transport of pipe fitters, butchers, waitresses and secretaries by the mid to late 1970s.
On my block alone there were three -- all faded and worn. If only those tires, dashboards and oversized trunks could talk. What tales they’d tell. What were once well-oiled, well-kept machines used for Muffy’s ballet rehearsals and Howard’s trips to the golf club had now become transportation workhorses for families like mine who were hanging on for dear life.
Dad’s Impala took me to school, took him to work, and on weekends we would cruise to the local Quick Chek. We could load half the market in the trunk and still have room to spare. By the time my family got a hold of the old jalopy, the brakes were beat up, the interior had long lost its luster and the smell of cigarettes permeated the vinyl seats — it was also the era of smoking and polluting.
The hip-hop boom in the 1990s illustrated how, for black and brown Americans, the Impala was the family car. Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre rapped about the “six four” — a reference to the 1964 model. The old car appeared in dozens of hip-hop videos. Backseat hijinks and hydrolics accented the videos.
The Impala’s end signals the end of America’s favorite hand-me-down car, a car that went from riches to rags, covering the entire American tapestry. I’m sure they’ll be on the road for some time to come, long enough for me to still hear the familiar roar and reminisce about a time when bigger was better.