After over nine hundred miles in a single night, the Impala and I bedded down in my little subdivision to wait for Mark and his U-Haul to catch up, which he did later Tuesday afternoon.
83,929 miles: Down the street from my house, I put nine gallons into the Impala. At the counter, the clerk notices my “PRS Signature Club” T-shirt. “You play a Paul Reed Smith?” he asks.
“Oh yeah,” I respond, “I have four Private Stocks, some Wood Libraries, two of the Korina Collection, a Brazzy-neck Modern Eagle, some other stuff.”
“Man, I would love to have any of those,” he offers. We chat a bit more, and I talk to him about starting my own business in my twenties and the risk/reward equation inherent in doing so. Then I walk out to the car. When I drive past the window in the ’81 Impala, I see his face drop in disappointment as he realizes he’s obviously been talking to a poverty-stricken congenital liar. It’s all I can do to not run to the house, load the Chevy’s dingy cloth interior with guitars, and return. I feel like I’ve let him down. I imagine him in prison, twenty years from now, blaming his downward spiral on me. “Yeah, man, for one shining minute I thought hard work would pay off, but then I saw that the guy was actually driving a crappy old domestic. So I started harvesting copper pipes from senior-citizen housing.”
84,190 miles: At the Love’s travel stop down the street from Kentucky Speedway, the racing vendors are out in full force and a surprisingly number of stunningly beautiful women are just milling around. I get the feeling it’s a meetup of the Bud Light girls before they work the event. Being painfully close to the Young MC lament of having no money and no car, I keep my mack game to myself. In any event, I’m more shaken than stirred; filling the tires all the way has revealed a dashboard-earthquaking periodic vibration in the Impala’s running gear. It’s enough to make my spleen hurt.
I’ve come to a realization about this 1981 Impala, and that realization is like so: There’s absolutely nothing about it that would surprise or confuse the owner of a 1955 Chevrolet sedan. The twenty-six years between the tri-fives and this B-body barely exist. The technology is basically the same. The controls are the same. The amount of available power is the same. The cars aren’t that dissimilar in size, the 1977 “downsized” car basically returning to the 1963 form factor after a decade’s worth of bloat.
Where was the progress in two and a half decades? There wasn’t any. Disc brakes standard in front, better suspension geometry. That’s it. I love these cars, I love the GM full-sizers, I love the Panthers when I’m not recovering from side-impact accidents in one, but it’s no wonder the Japanese kicked our ass. A 1977 Accord is like a spaceship compared to this thing. You can’t sit still for nearly three decades and expect the competition to do the same. The fact that the 1984 FWD fullsizers were garbage just made it worse. YOU HAD ONE JOB, guys. The pace of change in cars, even GM cars, in the years between 1981 and 2007 completely dwarfed what happened in the quarter-century before. The ’55 Chevy owner wouldn’t have any trouble operating this Impala, but fast-forward the 1981 buyer to 2007 and he’d be unable to figure out ninety percent of the ancillary controls. Bluetooth? CD player? Tiptronic shift? Push-button start? How does all this work? How do you fix it when it breaks?
Look at that trim blank. Who signed off on that? Who installed it? At any point in the enterprise, from drawing board to pre-sale inspection, did anybody give a shit? Who thought this would be good enough for the American people? The only part of this car that really holds up is the exterior styling, which is still light-years beyond the porky-pig-looking crap GM is trying to sell today. In 1977 General Motors led the market in design, if nothing else. Today they lead it in government assistance.
84,219 miles: It’s been drizzling off and on. My biggest fear on this trip was that it would rain enough to make standing water the order of the day; the Impala doesn’t have enough tread on the back tires to maintain highway speeds in those conditions and I’d be a sitting duck for semis running up behind me with the hammer down. But as the rain fades and my concerns ease, I see traffic come to a halt ahead. For the next fifty minutes I bake in the sun while the 229 V-6 stumbles and fumes, moving ahead five feet at a time. I remember the phrase “vapor lock” and I think about how the Variable Venturi carb in my Marquis wouldn’t have been able to cope with this situation at all.
Just when I think I’m going to start getting physically sick from the heat and the sitting and the general cumulative effects of the past two days, I make it past the closed lane. Just this one time, I pin the accelerator to the floor and let the big coupe fly for twenty or so miles, the windows down, pulling the heat and the agitation out, leaving it behind.
84,255 miles: Nearly there! I’m confident enough to take a detour to the amphitheater in New Albany, Indiana for some photography and a brief look around. The tires have held pressure, the engine has run as well as I could expect. A few miles off the route can’t hurt.
After some photos, it’s time to take the Impala the rest of the way, to Greenville, Indiana.
84,271 miles: Mark’s father is waiting for me as I roll slowly up the gravel driveway, waving me to a stop behind his ’67 Thunderbird. “You know,” he offers, “I think the ‘Bird is in better shape than this one.” He’s right. But that didn’t stop us from making the trip. While I unpack the car, he and I talk about the plans he has to work on the car with his son. For years, they owned a trucking firm together; now they’ll be working on this Impala in the evenings.
Here’s the thing when you write about cars, and it isn’t something you realize right away. Yeah, the new-car press events and the road tests and whatnot are primarily about the fresh metal and the specs and the performance and the plastic quality and the warranty and half the time we’d serve the reader better by just reprinting the press materials. But in the long run all of that stuff is meaningless. In the long run what matters is how we interact with cars, our human stories, the way they carry us, steel and rubber, down the skeins of our lonely existences.
This Impala has had a lot of stories. Some we cannot know; they are lost to us, though they may be vivid to the people who lived them. For the last 1,249 miles, the story of the Impala has belonged to me, and I’ve shared it with you, so it’s yours now, as well. The next chapters will be written by Mark and his family, and I can’t wait to read them.