In the last episode of the Impala Hell Project story, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 made me choose a small-block engine instead of the big-block I’d originally planned as a worn-out 283 replacement. I was still running the factory single exhaust and two-speed Powerglide transmission at that point, so some more upgrades were in order.
With my new college degree in hand, I figured I’d drive 430 miles north to the parents’ place on The Island That Rust Forgot and crash there until I landed a high-paying job and scraped up enough cash for a nice apartment in San Francisco. Sadly, the early 1990s recession (while laughably mild by Great Recession standards) meant that fresh college grads in California were getting laughed right out of job interviews. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of all their unemployed University of California-graduate offspring coming back to the nest, but what really bummed them out was the prospect of the fleet of wretched hoopties that tended to accumulate around their once-dignified Victorian when I lived there. They’d managed to dispose of my ’58 crypto-Baja Bug, which I’d unwisely left behind when I went down south for college, but I could acquire beaters much faster than they could get rid of them.
Making matters worse for them, but better for me, my sister’s boyfriend Chunky (of “Oh Lord, Stuck In The Lodi Volvo Again” fame) was staying in a brain-shaped trailer in the back yard, and he already owned several terrible Detroit heaps. “Let’s drop a Turbo 350 in that thing!” he suggested. I agreed. In fact, I agreed so wholeheartedly that we pulled the old Powerglide before I’d even obtained a replacement.
The amount of property-value devaluation caused by the two of us was so devastating that we made a comic strip entitled “Econoline Hi-Jinks With Phil & Phil,” showing what we imagined to be the neighbors’ perception of the scene in the Martin household’s back yard. Someday, “Econoline Hi-Jinks” will be a full-length animated feature film. Someday.
I thought about getting a junkyard TH350, but Chunky had a transmission-shop-employed friend who could get me an alleged recent rebuild for cheap— one of those “customer wrecked the car and gave it to the shop” deals. Sounds good to me!
The Powerglide ended up in the driveway, right next to the not-so-drivable ’71/’72/’73/’75 Firebird/Camaro that ended up being sold at a huge profit to some sailors at the Navy base on the other side of the island (home to Bob Lutz and Richard Nixon at various stages of their respective military careers). As I recall, the forgotten Powerglide then sat in my long-suffering mom’s rose bushes for another 10 years after that; eventually, she found it while weeding and demanded that I come over immediately and make it go away, forever. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be gearheads! Actually, my mother grew up in a racing household and had come to accept the sight of busted-ass car parts as normal.
Meanwhile, I was feverishly mixing-and-matching various Quadrajet components, in an effort to make the 350 run just right; I’d swapped in a junkyard HEI ignition as soon as I could find one at U-Pull-It (because points ignitions suck), and I figured I should be able to get the fuel-delivery system working well enough to make the car purr. Eventually I came to accept that any functioning Q-Jet should just be left alone.
Swap-meet headers for small-block Chevy engines are ridiculously cheap, and most of them will fit the full-size Chevy. Here I am installing a $25 pair of Hedmans.
Time to install the new transmission! I videotaped the TH350 installation, but I no longer have a version with the original sound. Instead, here’s a Murilee Arraiac music video, featuring the 1989 Japanese-college-radio hit (and by “hit” I mean “a couple of Japanese college DJs played it at 4:00 AM and sent me bewildering postcards about the experience”) “Hajoi Hotai.” It’s sort of like a transmission swap in a 24 Hours of LeMons paddock, only with more beer and less panic.
Once the transmission (but not mufflers) was installed , we couldn’t wait to test it out. We’d fabricated some brackets to make the Powerglide column-shift linkage work with the TH350, and there was no telling whether the thing would actually go into gear (the shift indicator marks didn’t line up once the shifter went past R, so from that point forward I had to count the number of detent clicks to determine what gear I was in).
Reluctantly, I decided that open headers would attract too much attention from the APD, and so I got some muffler pipe, clamps, hangers, and junkyard mufflers. No tailpipes— it sounds better if you dump the exhaust right in front of the rear axle! While I had the car up on jackstands, I replaced the sagging rear springs with some very affordable JC Whitney “heavy duty” replacements.
It drove very well and sounded even better. As an added bonus, the 3-speed transmission and free-flowing exhaust improved my fuel economy from about 12 MPG overall to 15 or so (any owner of a 60s-vintage full-size Detroit car who claims 20+ miles per gallon with a carburetor is being somewhat less than truthful). Not bad for a great big carbureted boat. Next up, a new instrument panel and 20-pound pull-out stereo.