After installing a junkyard-centric, street-sign-based instrument panel and 20-pound “pullout sound system,” I hit the streets on my post-college-graduation job search. After all, with a newly-minted degree from the University of California in hand and the Bay Area from San Francisco to Concord, Santa Rosa to San Jose as my search area, I’d soon be raking in sufficient Benjamins to install a 6-71-blown 427 in my Chevy, right? Short answer, learned after several hundred increasingly grim job interviews: no. I really feel for today’s recent college grads, since I had it easy compared to what you poor 22-year-old, in-student-loan-debt-up-to-your-nodules bastids are facing… but still, with no income other than the occasional junkyard-wrenchin-fer-cash gig and death-to-soul office temping (more on that later) showing up for me, I felt the abyss (i.e. graduate school) looming ever closer. What to do? Hit the highway!
It was about this time that I became completely addicted to Peter Bagge’s brilliant Hate Comics, which seemed to capture the sense of diminished expectations and ironically-waiting-for-the-apocalypse mindset of my alleged generation a lot better than did Douglas Coupland with his much-hyped-by-mainstream-media novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (note: not that I have anything against Coupland; I’ve since become a serious fan of his work and recommend his novels without reservation). I suggest that you head over to Fantagraphics and buy everything published by Mr. Bagge immediately, pausing only to read his excellent editorial cartoons at Reason.
Just like the characters in Hate, my friends and I spent a lot of energy pretending that our educated poverty somehow made us cool, like we’d choose to live with 5 flatulent hipsters in a two-bedroom apartment in the Western Addition and drink Milwaukee’s Best-grade suds if we actually had, like, real jobs. My love of cars and junkyards bought me exactly zero coolness points in this crowd (some things never change), though my Impala was certainly well-suited to survival in the ghetto neighborhoods I found myself frequenting. While it did get broken into and searched for valuables every so often, and its complement of dents and dings appreciated rapidly, no meaningful damage was ever done to it during my travels about the bohemian Bay Area of the early 1990s.
It was a great real-world daily driver, but for one small detail: the brakes. Even after I’d replaced the shoes and adjusted everything with obsessive attention to detail, the Impala’s four-wheel drums were frighteningly inadequate for any speeds above about 20 MPH. Yes, yes, cranky old geezers, our forefathers did fine with drum brakes, but that’s because they didn’t know any goddamn better! I do know better, and after I came upon stalled traffic on the Nimitz Freeway and had my brakes fade to nothingness when attempting a looks-like-I-got-plenty-of-space stop from 60 (I nearly had to resort to scraping the guardrail to avoid hitting other cars), I decided to invest a few bucks in some junkyard upgrades. Full-sized Chevrolets from the 1965 through 1970 model years have full bolt-on interchangeability when it comes to front-suspension and brake parts, and the disc brake option became fairly common on the ’69 and ’70 models. In 1991, old Impalas and Caprices were just about as common in junkyards as are Tauruses today (as you can see from my extensive collection of early-70s Impala door emblems), so it was no problem to grab the master cylinder, lines, proportioning valve, rotors, calipers, spindles, and so on from a ’70 Caprice at Pick Your Part in Hayward. By waiting for Half Price Weekend (which used to take place every couple of months in those days), I scored all the parts for not much more than a C-note.
Once again, the inherent technological suckiness of the Allegedly Good Ol’ Days comes into play here; because I was documenting the project with 35mm film and not a digital camera, major milestones in the Impala Hell Project’s progress went undocumented. Such was the case with the brake upgrade, which was your usual weekend-long thrash and would have produced all manner of grainy, artsy-looking Plus-X black-and-white images… had I not spaced on shooting photos in the first place, or screwed up developing the film in the bathroom sink, or lost the negatives, or whatever the hell happened. In any case, the brakes from the ’70 big Chevy, which scaled in at 400-800 pounds more than the ’65 due to the inevitable process of Model Bloat, transformed my driving experience from terrified nostalgia to totally pleasant, just like that. One weekend of bolting on parts and my car stopped just as well as modern-day machinery. Hooray!
Naturally, a project of this magnitude never goes completely according to plan. While the complete everything-from-ball-joints-out assemblies from the ’70 bolted right into the ’65, the hub centers ended up being about 1-1/2″ lower relative to the suspension than they’d been with the drums. That jacked up the front of the car enough to reduce its mean-looking rake. I wasn’t about to hose my comfy ride by chopping the springs, so I decided to live with the change. At the same time, my 14″ wheels wouldn’t clear the disc brake calipers, so I had to grab some junkyard 15s immediately. Fortunately, I scored a set of Pontiac Rally wheels from El Pulpo at half off.
These wheels were once dirt-common at wrecking yards and they’ll bolt right onto a Chevy. To geeks who knew enough about old GM products to identify my wheels, I’d be committing a mild breach of some unwritten GM-fanatic code. To all my Generation X friends, however, I’d just upgraded my ride with the same wheels that came on Hot Wheels cars. Finally, a tiny vestige of hipster coolness for my car!
I was also lucky enough to score an HEI distributor at Pick Your Part around this time; this electronic distributor design was so many orders of magnitude superior to the original points ignition that came with my engine that it was like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when I stumbled upon a late-70s El Camino with this distributor on Half Price Weekend. Chevrolet HEIs would last about 17 minutes in a self-service junkyard before getting snatched in those days, and the going swap-meet rate was still something like a hundred bucks. Ever seen the sequence in Slacker in which the junkyard scroungers score an HEI and stuff it through a hole in the fence? Whatever that film’s numerous flaws may be, that part was dead-on accurate.
I also did some tweaking of the transmission kick-down linkage, since the linkage on my Quadrajet had been intended for a ’69 Eldorado and never quite worked right on my TH350. After much futzing with junkyard linkage bits from a wide assortment of GM machinery, I came up with this low-buck drill-some-holes-in-scrap-of-metal fix.
The 350 seemed to run a little hot in traffic with the clutchless stamped-steel fan and washtub-influenced fan shroud that The General probably spent $1.24 to manufacture back in 1964, so I obtained an electric “pusher” cooling fan from an early BMW 7 Series.
Some plumber’s tape, a few homemade brackets, and wiring to the Space Shuttle-style instrument panel and I could drop the coolant temperature 25 degrees with the touch of a finger. That BMW fan drew more amps than the rest of the accessories, headlights included, combined, but you can always count on German overengineering to more than get the job done.
You don’t really need a heater in coastal California, but it is nice to warm up on a gloomy 45-degree February day. After donating the air-conditioning hardware to my engine-swap assistant, the Impala had a gaping hole where the evaporator coil housing had once lived. Since air destined for the heater core had to pass through this housing, I wasn’t getting any heated air in the passenger compartment… until I tin-snipped and hammered a piece of sheet steel into this block-off plate. I’d been trying to find a non-AC-equipped car in the junkyard, so I could use the correct factory piece, but it appears that most California full-sized Chevy buyers preferred their cars with 150 pounds of Frigidaire gear in the engine compartment, even in the 1960s.
After a winter and spring of bouncing between the home of my long-suffering parents on the Island That Rust Forgot and various flaky living situations in Oakland and San Francisco, I decided that perhaps a trip back to the car’s home turf would be just the thing: time to get over to I-5 and head south.
I’d made a few bucks replacing the entire clutch hydraulic system on an acquaintance’s Mazda 626, after she’d poured transmission fluid in the clutch master cylinder and ruined all the seals throughout the system. Paying me to replace everything with Pick-N-Pull components was way cheaper than what the dealership wanted (which shocked nobody), but it put enough gas and food money in my pocket for a lengthy Los Angeles-Orange County-San Diego journey.
I’d been experiencing some culture shock in the San Francisco Bay Area, after five years in Southern California, so it felt comforting to be back beneath the white sky, inhaling deeply of the petroleum-enhanced air down south.
Nothing but an endless grid of freeways and mysterious adventures to be had. I’d been reading Mike Davis’s City of Quartz in obsessive detail, so it seemed that I was encountering revelatory experiences on all sides.
My first stop was in Santa Ana, where some friends rented a big decaying Art Deco house. My friends in Southern California were just as broke and underemployed as their counterparts up north, but rents were cheaper and the recession’s teeth less sharp behind the Orange Curtain. Santa Ana is the city in which Philip K. Dick was living at the time of his death, having fled there from Berkeley in order to live in the least freaky region of California that he could imagine. I felt like I had come to the right place when I saw this ’65 Impala coupe in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood was one of those formerly prosperous suburbs that had been drifting in a gentle downward spiral since about the end of World War II; decaying 1920s crypto-Mission-style houses with a few hints of splendor here and there, but gang graffiti and boarded-up windows also demanding attention. Southern California has many such neighborhoods. My car didn’t attract much attention.
I drove around, chowed down at the taquerias, and shot a lot of photographs. This was the summer of 1991; Ice-T’s O.G. Original Gangster and the Butthole Surfers’ Piouhgd had just come out, and I listened to both tapes non-stop on my all-junkyard, eight-speaker Impala stereo. I started hearing more and more about the upcoming Lollapalooza Festival, some sort of Jane’s Addiction farewell concert tour that would feature Ice-T, the Butthole Surfers, and a bunch of other bands I liked. I forget how, but a friend in San Diego scored a bunch of tickets for the San Francisco show…
…and it made perfect sense for the Orange County contingent to head 80 miles south to San Diego, pick up some folks there, and then cruise 500 miles north for the show. My Impala seemed like the perfect vehicle for such a slacker hegira.
Better still, my friend Jeff had a rich girlfriend, and her arms-trader dad was overseas making Stinger missile deals with Adnan Khashoggi. His brand-new Mercedes-Benz 560SEL was just sitting there, all lonely in the driveway of its guard-gated McMansion, and so it was decided that a caravan consisting of my hooptie and Papa Stinger’s Benz would make the trip north. Fortunately, I thought to load a point-and-shoot camera with Tri-X 400 and hand it to the W126’s occupants, in order to photograph my car in its highway glory.
By this time, I’d installed a nine-foot whip CB antenna on the trunk lid, which didn’t do much good when attempting to communicate with the hardwired car phone of the Mercedes but allowed me to hear garbled smokey reports from truckers on my 23-channel Sears CB.
The level of luxury was somewhat lower in my car, what with the lack of air conditioning in the triple-digit Central Valley heat coupled with the howl of the headers and cheap 275-width rear tires, but we compensated with enhanced American Road Trip authenticity.
Still, I must admit I felt a bit of envy for the occupants of that gleaming black German luxury machine. Would I have traded places? Hell no!
I knew that it wouldn’t be many years before The Man had me chained into a veal-fattening pen in his cubicle farm, and that I’d be remembering my aimless Impala road-tripping period fondly as I smelled the burned microwave popcorn of Office Despair and waited for Death’s comforting arms to release me from the nightmare of the American white-collar workplace (I’d figured out by that point that the idea I had of making a living as a performance artist wasn’t exactly going to pan out). So, with that cynical Generation X perspective in mind, I was determined to have as good a time as possible.
Feet out the window, Midnight on cassette, the Gulf War over with no apparent nuclear annihilation in sight, and a Benz and an Impala full of real-world-avoidin’ types on their way to some sort of Gen-X mecca.
Lollapalooza #1 went all right; while I was somewhat disappointed by the performance of the Butthole Surfers in a big venue, the Rollins Band and Nine Inch Nails were pretty decent live. Time to head back south!
A couple of world-roaming Brits I met at the concert decided they needed to ride to the Mexican border in my “authentic” American hot rod (I didn’t want to disappoint them by admitting my engine probably made barely 220 horsepower), and so they dropped a couple of C-notes in my glovebox to pay for the trip back down I-5. I crashed at a friend’s place in San Diego for a while. Then I fell into some sort of deal with an art gallery in a crack-saturated ghetto on the edge of Old Town San Diego, in which me and my scurvy artist friends would do a live performance “every hour on the half hour” in the gallery.
We were called “Nureochiba and the Lizards” and we were terrible. The less said about our shows the better, I think.
I recall needle-tracked arms snaking in between the gallery’s window bars, trying to steal our effects pedals, and thousands of empty tiny plastic bags and burned-out lighters in the alley behind the joint, and tackling some junkie who’d grabbed an amplifier and attempted to run out the door with it. Gunshots and screams in the neighborhood every night. Oh yes, the crack cocaine epidemic was in full fucking effect; clearly, the collapse of Western society that would follow the end of the Cold War was just beginning.
I was certainly driving the right car for the Mad Maxian world soon to be upon us; the Impala always started, managed a steady 17 MPG on the highway if I kept my foot out of it, and could be parallel-parked in a shockingly small space (its turning radius was much, much less than that of my old MGB-GT, which should tell you something about the depressing limitations under which British Leyland had to build its cars). Even the most desperate crackhead’s theft antennae indicated “move along, nothing to steal here” when encountering my parked car, and I could sleep in fairly low-compromise comfort in the back seat if it came to that.
Even on my extremely tight budget, I could afford a few luxury upgrades for my car. A can of white spray paint, a junkyard mercury tilt switch, and an old taillight socket and bulb gave me this handy automatic underhood light. Just the thing for late-night fan-belt adjustments and the like.
Around this time, Nirvana dropped their album “Nevermind” on the world, and— seemingly the same day— the Red Hot Chili Peppers released “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” I had done my best to avoid damn near all vestiges of popular culture up to that point, sort of a combination of snobbery and just being too damn lazy to keep up, but these two cultural artifacts swept all those principles aside and immediately became the endless soundtrack of our no-doubt-wasted lives. Give It Away and Smells Like Teen Spirit emitted from every amplified device in the world, sort of like Wolfman Jack coming from all the AM radios in American Graffiti, only without the optimism of 1961 Modesto and with the sense that life would always be getting worse from this day forward. Yeah, that was Generation X in a nutshell. I decided that maybe graduate school wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and that I could avoid both the uranium-factory Reeducation Center of all my dystopic-future tirades and the far-more-likely ennui-in-office-cubicle-land by getting a master’s degree and becoming a teacher of writing in some backwoods junior college. Plus, I still sort of had a girlfriend up north (actually, I was mistaken about that, but such are one’s 20s), so I figured I’d put the car back on I-5, crank Cobain’s voice on the cassette, and go back to the Bay Area. Next up: More primer, more junkyards, more art, more trips.
1965 Chevrolet Impala Hell Project Roundup