It’s the end of an era. General Motors has announced that when the current Chevrolet Impala retires next year in favour of the 2014 model, it will take the bench seat with it.
The company says the outgoing Impala is the last passenger car in production in North America with front-row seating for three.
The configuration isn’t all that popular, it seems, since only one in ten Impala buyers chose the three-seater option over the standard bucket seats.
Some trucks and SUVs will continue to come with bench seats, but still, I felt a little pang when I read the news. I was a teenager in the 1970s, when true bucket seats were rare birds, found mostly in the little sports cars that I occasionally saw zipping around. Most of the “two-seaters” in my neighbourhood were ersatz buckets found in the more upscale models, such as Buicks or Lincolns, consisting of individual overstuffed cushions attached to either end of a bench seat.
The middle position contained a wide pull-down armrest. If you had to take three people, you could push it back up, and someone could sit on that middle portion, with the armrest now serving as a backrest.
Of course, I was never in that category. The cars in our household had plain vinyl benches, with nothing but the seatbelts to mark the individual seating positions. And even then, that was only if you’d bothered to pull the buckles out from where they’d been stuffed down between the seatback and cushion, because we were young, stupid, and bulletproof, and hardly worried about safety. There was an eighth of an inch of padding on the metal dash! What could possibly go wrong?
The bench seat was great because a driver could take five friends along, and since only one or two people in the group actually had a car, that could be an important consideration. It did work against me, though, when I took a rather odd career change in 1978, swapping a job as a secretary for one that put me behind the wheel of a taxi.
All of those cars had bench seats, of course, and there was nothing like getting a call to a house party when five people, all of whom had thoroughly enjoyed themselves that evening, crawled into the car. There were probably a few nights when I went home half-crocked myself just from breathing in what they’d breathed out.
But then there were the times when there were only two people – those on very friendly terms – and the bench seat made even more sense. It sounds positively quaint now, but you knew your relationship was moving to the next level when your date took his right hand off the wheel and motioned for you to slide across to the middle of the seat. He’d then drive with his left hand, and put his right arm around your shoulders, and you were now officially A Couple.
I was dating the sweetest guy, and he drove a 1966 Chevy, and I still remember the moment when he did that. That was about as far as I got with him, though. The stuff you’re probably more interested in reading came much later, and involved a guy who owned a pickup truck. But it had a bench seat, too.
I know there are younger readers for whom this is all Too Much Information, and they’re wishing they hadn’t read this far. But some of you older ones, I know you’re smiling and nodding along. Farewell, bench seat, and thanks for all the memories.