As I explained in the introduction to this series last week, I’m finally tackling the story of the most significant car I’ve ever owned. This ’65 Impala went through ten years, 100,000 miles, and many conceptual shifts during its time with me, but it all started out as my attempt to make an art car that wasn’t A) lame and B) contemptuous of the idea of the car itself.
Let’s face it: most art cars are attempts by the artist to spit on the canvas they’re using, to subvert the paradigm represented by the evil chariot of sprawl, pollution, and oppression, blah blah blah. Even if you agree with that view of the automobile, art cars tend to be no more than poorly— if earnestly— executed hippie doodles, the kind of thing that requires only time and a willingness to piss off the neighbors.
Which isn’t to say that all art cars suck; the amazing Sashimi Tabernacle Choir, for example, makes up for all 10,000 Tauruses with plastic action figures hot-glued all over their flanks.
Back in the pre-Internet Dark Ages of the late 1980s, however, the only art cars I’d seen were pretty weak. At that time, I was an art/English major living in a middle-class shantytown at an image-obsessed Orange County (California) university. Obsessed with the work of UCI product Chris Burden and under the influence of various crypto-nihilo-miscreants ranging from Laurie Anderson to Survival Research Laboratories, I developed the delusion that I might manage to make a living creating weird art. My band, Murilee Arraiac (yes, that’s the source of my pseudonymous first name; more on where the Murilee Arraiac/Martin name came from later, if anyone cares), a sort of cut-rate Negativland/Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV-style difficult/noise outfit, played gigs in which my “instrument” was a police scanner feeding three OD-1 overdrive pedals and a Maestro “Wow-Wow” pedal.
I made Murilee Arraiac music videos with Super 8 cameras and tube-based thrift-store video cameras.
Meanwhile, I was abusing my privileges at the Art Department’s darkroom and metal shop, plowing through vast quantities of photo chemicals and welding supplies. Here’s a shot I made for a series of no-commercial-potential Christmas cards, entitled “Chicom Junky Santa Cookin’ Up Skag For The Holidays.” Note the cotton-ball beard.
Of course, UCI being a performance art powerhouse, I put together some performance/installation pieces. Here’s a 1988 piece entitled “Our Friend The Carburetor.” Clearly, I was a decade or two too early to be an “interdisciplinary multimedia artist,” but I still felt that I was going somewhere with my work. What I really needed, I decided in late 1989, was a piece based on a car that I’d buy and modify entirely for the sake of my art. Dropping in on a particularly bewildered art professor, I convinced him to sign off on some sort of “Independent Studies” sculpture piece, essentially granting me graduation credits for doing… something with a car. The question at that point was: what kind of car? I had a $400 tax refund to work with, plus a bunch of random Ford parts left over from the ’68 Mercury Cyclone and ’69 Torino fastback I’d owned in the recent past.
My daily driver at the time was a British Racing Green chrome-bumper MGB-GT, which I wouldn’t have hacked up even if it had been appropriate for the project I had in mind (in spite of being underpowered, ill-handling, and unreliable). No, what I wanted was a car that would let me riff on what I considered to be three very important American negative automotive archetypes:
1. The Official Vehicle: A boxy foor-door Detroit sedan, of the sort used by The Man’s muscle to keep order. I was thinking somewhat of American police cars here, but— this being the era of the Guerra Sucia, Salvadoran Civil War and Revolución Popular Sandinista— mostly I had in mind the death-squad enforcermobiles in Latin America. The Official Vehicle would need dog-dish hubcaps, minimal trim, cryptic numbers and emblems, extra antennas, etc. Top of the list: Ford Falcons and Fairlanes.
2. The Redneck Street Racer: Some sort of iconic Detroit mid- or full-size machine of the 1955-1973 era, featuring V8 engine with loud exhaust and lumpy cam, fat tires, and a proper butt-in-the-air rake. Imagine the kind of vehicle that would be performing smoky beer-soaked burnouts in a convenience-store parking lot in Muncie, Indiana in 1989. Top of the list: GM A-Body, Chrysler B-Body.
3. The Drive-By Shooting Ghetto Hooptie: A big Detroit luxury car of the 1960-1980 era, of the sort that Reagan Era suburban cul-de-sac dwellers imagine to be inhabited by Superfly and several Uzi-wielding gangster henchmen, while Parliament blasts from the stereo. Diamond in the back, sunroof top, etc. Top of the list: Cadillac Deville, 1961-64 Chevrolet Impala, Boat-Tail Buick Riviera.
Quite a dilemma, and no single car would be perfect on all three fronts. I scanned The Recycler classifieds every week, and finally came across this ad. The 1965 full-sized Chevrolet fit each of my three archetypes to a certain extent, junkyard parts (at the time) were ridiculously easy to find, and I could deflect criticism that I’d be “ruining” a “classic” by pointing out that the ’65 big Chevy had the highest single-year production figure for any vehicle ever made by Detroit: 1,463,200 Bel Airs, Biscaynes, and Impalas that year. I went to the bank, got 30 $10 bills (makes a fatter stack than $20 bills), and headed over to Surf City USA.
The car was located in a sketchy skinhead-infested neighborhood of HB, and the seller was a woman who alternated screaming at her many children and screaming at her many dogs as we negotiated. She kept pointing out that the high beams and low beams worked, to which I’d respond by pointing out that the 300,000-mile 283 smoked like crazy, the interior smelled like a mixture of boiling piss and burning horsehair, the tires were a mix of bald bias-plys and bald radials, and the oil-pressure light flickered ominously at idle. My plan was to drop in a junkyard 350 as soon as possible, but I still wanted to get a few miles out of the 283. The car had started life clad in Tahitian Turquoise paint, but a previous owner had applied a thick coat of some sort of industrial gloss-gray paint on it.
Flashing my fat roll of Hamiltons and standing firm on various lowball offers eventually paid off, and the car was mine for the sum of 150 American dollars. Roaring down the 405, with the smell of burning 30-weight in my nostrils, I felt excited but intimidated by the task before me.
Getting back to Irvine Meadows West, the UCI trailer park that was bulldozed by minions of The Irvine Company back in 2005, I admired the 283/Powerglide combo. The 2-barrel 283 had bad rings and valve guides, among other super-tired-engine woes, but it started readily and still offered decent power. The Powerglide worked fine, and would no doubt keep working until the day the sun went supernova, as is traditional for the venerable two-speed slushbox.
The interior needed plenty of work to fit with the triple-archetype concept behind my project. Actually, it needed plenty of work just to keep me and my passengers safe from scabies, ringworm, and lead poisoning; the front bench seat was stuffed with several layers of wet newspapers and dog-juice-soaked blankets, and the back seat wasn’t much better. The weatherstripping had long since dissolved into black powder, thanks to decades of high-sulfur-and-ozone Southern California air and blazing sunlight, so rainy California winters made for soaked carpets and excellent fungal breeding opportunities. Fortunately, self-service junkyards in 1990 were bursting with big GM sedans, so I’d be able to mix-and-match interior components while engine shopping. Next up: Part Two: The Modifications Begin.
1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup