In Part 2 of this series, I began the process of modifying my newly-obtained ’65 Impala sedan to suit my concept of a true art car. Once I’d sprayed the chrome flat black, replaced the skinny back tires with fat Radial TAs on universal slot mags, pried off most of the emblems, and torn out the mung-saturated carpeting, the big Chevy was ready to start its first high-concept performance/installation art piece: lowering property values in the heart of the world’s first and most intensely micromanaged Master-Planned Community: Irvine, California.
Irvine makes the most uptight, looking-down-the-barrel-of-the-Homeowners-Association, cul-de-sac-heavy, parody-of-the-American-Dream suburban enclave you could possibly imagine looks a filthy postapocalyptic hobo jungle of tarpaper shacks and heap-leach mercury tailings ponds. If you feel like taking fish-in-a-barrel shots at the emptiness of American suburban life, a ten-minute drive around Irvine will provide you with a lifetime of ammunition for your tedious screeds. Step out of line in Irvine— say, leave your garage door open for more than 15 minutes, paint your house any color other than the one specified in The Master Plan, or in any way attempt to drag your neighborhood into the jaws of anarchy— and The Man will come down on you. The Master Plan was drawn up in the 1950s, not coincidentally at the same time Walt Disney was drawing up the plan for nearby Disneyland, and it was still in full effect in 1990.
Since I lived on the campus of the University of California Irvine, in the Irvine Meadows West RV park (bulldozed by The Man in 2005, for the crime of not conforming to The Master Plan; this community of engine-swappers and weird artists now provides parking for several dozen students), I lived on what was technically California state property and thus not subject to the direct diktats of the Master Plans apparatchiks. My home was a ’69 Roadrunner camping trailer, to which I added a very comfortable plywood shack and painted in a sort of school-bus-yellow-with-lavender-stripes Fear and Loathing theme. One of my neighbors was a drag racer who had a couple of Hemi Darts in the gravel in front of his trailer, another had built a 5,000-square-foot dance studio out of scrap lumber behind his trailer and operated a dance school, and yet another had thrown together a geodesic dome out of particle board. Pets were OK, you could be part of the community or left alone as you saw fit, and the rent was well under 100 bucks a month. Utopia!
The university seemed unaware of the existence of its trailer park for my first few years there, but eventually The Man caught on and started sweating IMW residents. It wasn’t long before ominous demands that we paint all our trailers in Irvine-approved earthtone colors and tear down all our buildings and landscaping started coming from The Man’s toadies in the campus housing department. In an attempt to conform to The Man’s demands, I upgraded my trailer’s sewage system with this Orange County Health Department-approved setup. Thing is, once you’re on The Man’s radar, you’re going to feel the heat. As a card-carrying performance artist, I felt that I had no choice but to launch my latest piece, entitled “Lowering Property Values.”
First, I grew out my hair and beard and cultivated an appearance even more scurvy than my semi-dirtbag baseline look at the time. I’d already had plenty of unpleasant encounters with the Irvine law enforcement community, thanks to the Competition Orange, Cherry Bomb-equipped 1968 Mercury Cyclone that I used as a Pizza Deliverator whilst working at Sergeant Pepperoni’s, so I figured the Impala coupled with my newly scurvified style would trigger cavity searches by the law every time I ventured off state property… but if UCI performance art hero Chris Burden could take a bullet for the sake of art, I could deal with a few cop hassles.
“Lowering Property Values” was a pretty simple piece: On Sunday mornings, I’d get into the Impala with a couple of my sleazier-looking friends and we’d cruise around to new Irvine subdivisions. While the wholesome families looking to purchase a very expensive slice of the Dream rolled up in their BMW 5 Series and Volvo 740 wagons (wholesome families weren’t yet driving 8,000-pound SUVs in 1990) admired the way the brand-new houses’ rain gutters matched the color of the trash cans, we’d park the Impala, get out, pop the hood, and proceed to drop tools, exclaim “Looks like she done sucked a valve!” and in general behave like we’d just stepped out of a squalid Oildale honky-tonk bar.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any surviving photos of one of the Lowering Property Values pieces in action (damn pre-digital photography era!), but the whole thing actually turned out to be fairly anticlimactic; other than a few horrified stares from realtors and some desultory “move along” demands from the cops, there was no awesome mushroom cloud of outrage rising over the 92715 zip code. Still, the UCI Art Department gave me my Independent Studies graduation credits for the project, and driving a beater Impala around beats the hell out of grinding out a couple of art history classes.
And the credits I got for “Lowering Property Values” put me over the top for my degree. June of 1990, the UC Regents shot me a diploma (just to make you current UC students cringe, tuition at the time was about $1000/year for California residents, making my education an even better deal than my Chevy). My family drove 450 miles from the Island That Rust Forgot to watch the ritual, and here they learn why I went to college.
What I didn’t expect, when I bought the Impala, was that I would fall in love with the thing as a daily driver. The suspension was loose, the engine was clearly not long for the world, the Powerglide transmission sucks for real-world driving, and it drank gas, but it just felt right. I sold my ’73 MGB-GT for a decent profit and committed myself to the Impala as my primary means of transportation. The first of many comfort-related upgrades was the front seat; the one that came with the car was dis-freakin’-gusting, so I hit the junkyard and found this bench seat from (if I recall correctly) a ’68 Olds 88. I replaced that seat with Escort buckets a couple years later, so this is the only photo I can find that shows its luxurious texture.
The speedometer and gas gauge were the only functioning instrument cluster items, so I added some swap-meet gauges to the dash. Hmmm… 2 PSI oil pressure at idle can’t be good.
I really enjoyed driving the Impala around Southern California’s highways, a task it had accomplished with great competence since the day in 1964 that it rolled off the assembly line at the South Gate (Los Angeles) GM plant. However, even a 283 can’t live forever, and the rattly, oil-burning small-block under my hood was clearly getting ready to spin a bearing or worse. Next episode: Engine Swap Hell!
1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup