Six Four: An End to Automotive Apartheid

By Karl T. Muth - 06 October 2014
chevrolet, impala, african-american, 1964, civil rights act, discrimination

Karl Muth takes readers on a journey down memory lane to show how a particular Chevrolet become a symbol of minority empowerment.

Anyone who has spent time with me knows I have an affection for West Coast hip-hop that borders on obsession. But there is an important policy story behind a particular oft-mentioned car that is, sadly, almost unknown among even loyal fans of the genre. Let's have a look at how the 1964 Impala became an important symbol of minority empowerment on the American west coast.

Fifty years ago this week, the last 1964 model year Chevrolet Impala rolled off the assembly line at GM Arlington Assembly in Arlington, Texas. It marked the end of the full-size, boxed-crossmember-frame third-generation Impala, which was replaced by the more subdued styling of the 1965 model (which was all-new and shared no parts with the 1964 model). The 1964 model proved relatively unpopular with buyers, since the 1965 model had been announced at the New York Auto Show unusually early in the 1964 model year and was seen as a significant improvement, particularly aesthetically (the 1965 model abandoned the last of the late-1950’s styling cues that many thought were making the 1963-64 Impala look like a somewhat dated full-size car).

However, fifty years later, there is probably no car more sought-after in the west coast hip-hop scene than a 1964 Chevy Impala. What is the cultural significance of this car, and why is it at the centre of the self-identities of so many young men? And why is the six-four’s identity so tied to Los Angeles, a city many miles from the places where it was designed (Detroit, Michigan), built (Arlington, Texas), and first shown to the public (New York, New York)?

“I put gold Daytonas on that cherry six-four.” – The Game
“I wish I had a rabbit in a hat with a bat and a ’64 Impala.” – Skee-Lo
“I pulled up in my ’64 Impala; they greet me with a 40[oz] and I start drinkin’.” – Eazy-E

It’s been a few years since Skee-Lo told our entire generation where we could find him rollin’ in a slammed six-four (and most of us can still recite Skee-Lo's commute: take the one-ten to the one-oh-five and get off on Crenshaw, lines meant to firmly plant his storytelling in south, rather than east, L.A.).

But this blog's storytelling begins two years before the tooling to build the 1964 Impala arrived in Texas.

In 1962, the term “white flight” was invoked for the first time in major media in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times published seven articles that year on the declining state of public schools in Los Angeles County and editorials aimed (with varying degrees of subtlety) the blame at the increasing racial integration of schools in central Los Angeles (put differently, more-poorly-performing black students increasingly present in mostly-white schools were blamed for those schools' poor performance and for the declining enrollment of white students). During this period of increasing residential and educational integration, the demographics of south and central Los Angeles, particularly along the freeways, changed radically. By the end of 1963, demographers attached to the U.S. Census Bureau issued an advisory that demographics were changing so quickly that 1960 census data, even if accurate, might not reflect current conditions in one of the largest counties in America.

At the start of 1963, which was the end of the 1962 model year for most Chevrolet models, Mid-City Chevrolet (confusingly named, as it was actually south of the freeway), a dealership in Baldwin Hills (which today might be considered to be in Windsor Hills or South Crenshaw) closed, and was replaced by a used car lot that mostly sold late-model Fords. The used car lot closed sometime in late 1967 and was bulldozed (leaving behind a vacant lot that was converted to the basketball court and park shown briefly in two N.W.A. videos).

This left only one Chevrolet dealership in Los Angeles for 1963 within the area immediately south of route ten (Felix Chevrolet had not opened its current location at 3330 S. Figueroa, which would later serve South Los Angeles). This dealer was somewhat notorious in the black community, particularly for its (sometimes explicit) policy of not allowing black customers to take test drives. Though no-test-drive policies for black customers were common among Cadillac dealers at the time (for the evolution of whites' attitudes toward blacks driving Cadillacs, see Taylor's much-acclaimed novella The Gold Cadillac), the no-test-drive rule for black customers at a Chevrolet dealership was seen as particularly restrictive in the relatively liberal and integration-optimistic environs of Los Angeles.

In July, a strange coincidence catapulted the Impala from being an end-of-model-cycle full-sized car to being part of the urban civil rights movement. General Motors, as part of its product launch marketing, tried to get 1964 Impalas to dealers in each of its major city dealerships for its “Chevy Stands Alone Event” over the Independence Day weekend of 1964. Chevy enjoyed 28% market share at the time, down from 30% in the previous model year. The hope was to have a big product launch and sell as many 1964 models as possible before the model’s much-anticipated replacements became available. However, this meant the first 1964 Impala destined for the event happened to – purely by coincidence – reach the south Los Angeles Chevrolet dealership the same day the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. That car, Riverside Red with a Cream interior, was driven by its first owner – the black proprietor of a series of modest retail shops in Vermont Square – from Alameda through South Park and Florence. Since then, it has been owned by a string of hip-hop artists and is probably one of the most-photographed Impalas in the world.

By the end of 1964, few, if any, General Motors dealerships retained no-test-drive policies for black customers in anything resembling an official “policy,” though individual racist managers no doubt remained for years.

Almost immediately after that Riverside Red Impala’s drive down from Alameda, the 1964 Impala became a symbol of urban black financial independence, freedom, and masculinity and began to show up in pop culture, with sixty-four Impalas in Blaxploitation films such as “The Split” (released in 1968, principal photography in 1966 and early 1967). In Sidney Poitier’s “The Lost Man,” two different 1964 Impalas are seen. The styling cues of the front end of the 1964 model, which recalled the 1961 model’s success (which had appeared in a variety of television shows and films, almost always driven by white-collar white men), proved no obstacle to sales in the African-American community, possibly the result of pent-up demand due to racial discrimination by dealers in the pre-1964 period.

So popular were the 1964 models that they began to command a premium in the used market by 1969; because many in the black community couldn’t afford new Impalas in 1964 (and few white buyers preferred the 1964 model over the all-new 1965 Impala), the used market began to heat up. The visibility of the 1964 Impala hardly faded, with the car enjoying recurring roles in television and film (the Blaxploitation films “Super Fly,” “Super Fly T.N.T.,” and “The Return of Superfly” all include 1964 Impalas). The subsequent imposition of emissions control laws, which strangled the horsepower of V8 cars (particularly in California after the imposition of CARB rules), made the 1964 Impala popular once again, even during the oil crisis era of the 1970’s.

The concept of a full-size car from Chevrolet as a first step toward equality may strike readers – particularly in Europe – as a bizarre and obscure piece of symbolism. But the ability for a black customer to not only enjoy, but to purchase, an experience available only to white customers a few years earlier was, at the time, revolutionary and served as a tangible and conspicuous demonstration of a new degree of social and financial freedom. And every music video showing a six-four – whether it’s slammed on bags or murdered out or squatted classy on Daytons – is, in some way, a re-enactment of that one-car parade rolling southbound from Alameda during the summer of 1964.

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