The Truth About Cars » Auto-biography The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sun, 27 Jul 2014 14:03:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Auto-biography Auto Biography: I Flunked Driver’s Ed Thu, 05 Jun 2014 14:51:00 +0000 driversed-evolution

I flunked driver’s ed. That’s no joke.

It’s true. I write about and review cars and the first time that I took driver’s ed I flunked. How’s that for irony? Now I’m not like that Korean lady who spent a fortune repeatedly failing her driver’s test before finally passing on the 950th try. The next time I took it, I passed, then passed my road test, got my license and never had a problem on the road.

So how did I flunk driver’s ed?


When I was a teenager, school districts still had enough money to offer driver’s ed as an after school or summer course. Car companies and dealers had enough money to donate mid-size sedans to those same school districts. I suppose it was good PR, what with doing their civic duty and all. I’m sure there were tax write offs available as well. Of course exposing a new generation of drivers to you product line was part of the motivation as well. So the first car that I drove was a 1970 Dodge Coronet, blue if I recall correctly, just like the four door pictured in the sales brochure below. I tried finding a current photo of one, but per our EIC pro tempore’s “Grand National Problem“, it seems that most old Coronets around today are Super Bee and R/T models (or clones). Of course the first car that I drove didn’t have a big block V8. It had a 318 if I recall correctly.


Regardless of the engine’s displacement, it was the first car that I drove (the homebrew go-kart my older brother and I built doesn’t count). No ‘borrowing’ my parents’ cars after they were asleep, or bugging a friend to let me drive, the first day of driver’s ed was the first time that I’d been behind the wheel. Make that the second time. When I was seven and we were at my aunt’s house. I was playing in the car in the driveway, pulled it out of gear and managed to turn it right into a parked car as gravity took over and I couldn’t reach the brakes.

I was inexperienced and nervous the first few times that our Driver’s Ed class went out on the road, but I was picking it up. I figured that once I got my learner’s permit, I’d get more comfortable in traffic, which is what eventually happened, but not for another year and a half.

Cooney's Driver's ed

The problem was that the driver’s ed teacher was a truly stupid and alcoholic phys ed teacher who got off on flunking a smart kid. Mr X was what I’d call a typical phys ed teacher in the 1960s or 1970s. A high school and college athlete who wasn’t smart enough to coach or do anything beyond grunt work in the real world, so he got his degree in physical education and a job at the local high school. He made his peace with the world by making sure all the nerds and smart kids got clobbered by the jocks in dodge ball, while he sipped “coffee” from a Thermos. Not qualified to really teach any serious academic subjects, not smart enough to teach shop, he supplemented his income like some of the other duller teachers by teaching typing and driver’s ed.

I don’t mean to disparage all teachers. When I said “stupid teachers” I’m not saying they all were stupid, I’m talking about the small number of less than intelligent teachers. As a matter of fact my high school had some really outstanding teachers. My Algebra-Trig teacher, Mr. Parnes, was brilliant, as was Mrs. Politzer, a science instructor who had done some of the early work isolating amino acids. Along with those fine pedagogues was my 11th grade chemistry teacher. He understood the topic well enough to teach it at a high school level but I relished the idea that I earned my A and didn’t pay for it with a fifth of booze like some of my classmates. I don’t know if he drank on the clock like Mr. X did.

So Mr. X was a big dumb lug and somehow I survived his phys ed class. I’m not a gifted athlete and I have trouble making a layup (let alone dunk at 5’6″) but I’m not uncoordinated and I think I got a B or C. Mr. X had very firm rules for grading. If you were a varsity athlete, you got an A (and get to run around the locker room rubbing your junk on the non-jocks while the phys ed teacher laughed). Everyone else got B’s or C’s depending on how much Mr. X resented your intelligence. While I was in high school, all the valedictorians were girls because all the smart boys got downgraded in PE.

Click here to view the embedded video.

So in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when I was old enough to sign up for driver’s ed and found out Mr. X was the instructor, I knew it wasn’t going to be fun, but I had no idea just how much some teachers resent smart kids.


I don’t know what driver’s ed is like today, I guess they must use driving sims on computers by now. As early as the 1950s there were mechanical driving simulators that were synchronized with film strips but our school district didn’t use them We had classroom work with books, film strips and tests, along with practical driving instruction and practice on the road. Back then it was fairly common for driver’s ed and even regular students to have to watch gory auto safety movies, but I don’t recall us having to watch any gore. However, the course was horrific enough for me. I discovered that with each additional 98, 99, or 100% score that I got on the classroom work, Mr. X got more and more critical when I was behind the wheel, while giving me less and less wheel time, far less than any of the other students.


So I flunked. I was completely mortified. I could already do some basic wrenching on our cars, as mentioned I built a go-kart with my brother, helped my friends work on their cars, followed racing since I was young, had a four lane slot car set (thanks to dad and a connection at a wholesale toy distributor), knew what understeer and oversteer were and just exactly why they taught us to “steer into a skid” (i.e. use opposite lock), and I flunked driver’s ed.

It was a bit of a hassle. All my friends had their licenses, a couple had their own cars, and I was stuck bumming rides, having my dad drive me, or worse, getting there late because my mom has never been on time in her life. The hassle was compounded when due to budget cuts I wasn’t able to get back into a driver’s ed class till the middle of my senior year. This time around I had another one of the school’s lesser teachers, but he was more interested in actually teaching us how to drive than acting like a bully. I passed the course, got my learner’s permit, then passed the road test given by the infamous Great White Whale. That’s what all the kids called the rather large lady in charge of road tests at the Secretary of State’s office that was around the block from my house. She was reputed to not pass a lot of new drivers but in fact nobody that I knew whom she tested didn’t get their license.


We had a spare car so the SS in name only 1966 Impala SS was mine for a few months till I left to spend the summer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Actually, that Chevy pretty much died when my dad tried to drive me to NYC for my flight. My brother joined us. We made it as far as Toledo before the 283 started overheating. We managed to limp home and instead took my older brother’s first car, a convertible Buick Special. He’d kept the Buick ragtop after buying a Lotus Cortina. It was June and not many mid-60s sedans had A/C, let alone convertibles.  If you had a sedan, on long trips you used “4/80 Air” – open up all four windows (and vent wings – remember vent wings?) and go 80 mph. Most cars then also had some kind of vents in the kick panels  that let in some fresh air. There was a time when “flow through ventilation” was high tech. Since it was a ragtop, dad just drove the 600 miles to NYC with the top down, sun permitting. After years of driving though Canada and then down the NY Thruway on our way to visit his relatives in and around NYC, my dad loved how much time the new Interstate 80 took off the trip. I think we made it in a tick over 10 hours.

When you buy a convertible they don’t tell you about too things, you don’t really want to drop the top on hot sunny day and you’re going to need shampoo. By the time we got to Brooklyn I think the only time that my hair has been dirtier has been when I’ve had to wash oil or transmission fluid out of it. When I got back to the States to go to the University of Michigan that fall the Chevy had been junked. I bought a Honda 90 “Super Cub”. Fine for around A Squared and just powerful enough to take back roads back to Detroit now and then. I rode the 90 for a year, upgraded to a Honda 305 the next year and when I decided to get a car, I used the monetary gifts from my Bar Mitzvah to buy a ’66 Lotus Elan that I still have, in pieces, in my ex’s garage. By then big brother had already dealt with iron-oxide alloy on a Lotus Cortina and a Mini Cooper, and I didn’t want something that would disintegrate. It was just after the first oil crisis of 1973. Besides my brother’s Cortina, a friend had already traded in his ’72 Montego MX with a 351 Cobra Jet for a new Lotus Europa Special for gas mileage reasons, and I’d already been reading the buff books for years so I was more than a little familiar with the brand.

Learning To Drive

The first car that I bought was a Lotus and I flunked driver’s ed. Wrap your head around that.

I think that I’m a decent driver. I’ve gotten less than a half dozen moving violations in all the years I’ve been driving, never caused a serious accident, certainly nothing hazarding life or limb, mine or anyone else’s, and whatever accidents I’ve had have been very minor.

Still, I have to hang my head in shame and admit that I didn’t get my driver’s license till I was 17 because I flunked driver’s ed.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Retreads, Camaros and Bumper Jacks Fri, 22 Nov 2013 12:00:37 +0000 'Merica


Paraphrasing the Drive-By Truckers; I grew up in the south back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The dinosaurs of were the boats you see in Murlee’s amazing contributions. But at the time, the “cool” ones fit into one of three narrow categories; Camaro, Firebird or Mustang. V8s and solid rear axles enabled them to spin the tires. Our $3.37 per hour minimum wage jobs did not enable us to replace them.

Fortunately the market had a solution; retreads. Bald tires with a new tread pattern effectively glued over the top. You don’t see them very often now, but at one time, they made up 20% of the tire market.

I was living in Atlanta with my roommate and grade school friend, Brent who had a Camaro. Keeping with tradition, under the requisite air shocks was a pair of retreads, or “recaps” from a small outfit in SC, near our parent’s homes.

On one of our commutes to our movie theater jobs, one of the tires began to “round.” When the inner band of the previously bald tire split, ruptured or leaked air under the retread, the tire became round from a forward profile, like a sport bike rear. If had taken that shape over its entirety, there wouldn’t be an issue, but the small bubbles resulted in an oblong tire. Now the solid-axled, leaf-springed, jacked-up Camaro was transformed into a solid-axled, leaf-springed jacked-up clown car.

When this happened, Brent immediately swapped on a retread spare, which promptly rounded. Apparently this was a bad batch of originals, because the other side also rounded.

A long distance phone call (remember those?) to the retread outfit confirmed they would happily replace them, free of charge. All we had to do was bring them in; 160 miles away. Coordinating two days off from our flunkie theater was no small feat and took more approvals than a Pakistan drone strike. I was invested in the process because most of the time I didn’t own a running car. This was one of those times.

In the early morning hours after a shift at Litchfield Cinemas Brent pointed the wobbly Camaro north on I-85. At city speeds the out of sync rear tires jostled the car comically; at freeway speeds it was seriously dangerous. Cursed with youthful arrogance and no other options, we pressed on at 45 MPH, adding an hour to our trip. In the unfamiliar right lane, our Canadian steed rocked me to sleep.

30 minutes later I woke up as the car was shaking like Steve Austin’s ill-fated test plane. We were passing a semi at over 60. The driver’s side retread had enough and let go in a classic fashion. Boom! The car fish tailed. Brent caught the rear, finished his pass and limped to the shoulder. The concept of roadside assistance was a decade away. Digital pagers were just making the scene. Another newfangled technology was scissor jacks. We didn’t have one, we had a bumper jack.

Bumper Jack

A bumper jack functions by lifting the car via the bumper. A small metal plate was slotted for a 1×1 square pole with notches every quarter of an inch. Over this fit a small ratcheting box that lifts the car. Murphy was kicking us while we were down. The week of wobbling tires took its toll on the lug studs, two snapped during loosening.

FYI, a jacked up 74 Camaro on air shocks will almost exhaust a three foot bumper jack to get the rear wheel airborne. No part of this contraption actually bolted in place, so the whole car swayed with each passing semi, roughly every seven seconds. Miraculously, we got the spare on, but the third stud stripped hallway down. Its 4 AM, we are an hour from anywhere, and the only thing holding on a rounded spare was 2 lug bolts and a stripped third.

There was no option. Off we hobbled; at idle, in the breakdown lane. We arrived after 9 AM. Brent replaced the studs and got three new retreads. The next morning we returned in time to start our shift. I am sure some of the more experienced members of the B&B have retread stories. Low-cost Asian tires of infinitely higher quality have made them almost obsolete, as roadside assistance, cellphones and scissor jacks have done the same for the rest of this story.

Last January in the middle of rural Kansas, I ingested a screw sideways into a rear tire. It was late and I had no cell reception. I swapped the space saver spare on and limped the remaining 300 miles to Omaha at 45 miles an hour, smiling the whole time, because I managed to keep all five studs intact and I had a real jack.

Of course, now I was in Omaha in the winter, trying to purchase a pair high performance specialty tires with snow on the ground…but that is a another story.

W. Christian Mental Ward has owned over 70 cars and destroyed most of them. He is a graduate of Panoz Racing School, loves cartoons and once exceeded the speed of sound. Married to the most patient woman in the world; he has three dogs, a Philosophy degree and a gift for making Derek and Jack wonder if English is actually his first language.

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Pride Before the Fall Tue, 19 Nov 2013 20:38:27 +0000 GSXR1100

The ’91 GSXR 1100 was a feral beast. It had been tame once, well “mostly tame” anyhow, but the bike’s previous owner had stripped away the thin veneer that civilization had imposed upon it and restored it to its primeval form. It hadn’t taken much, really. Larger carburetors, performance cams and a full race exhaust had transformed the bike from a wickedly fast street machine into a full-race bike that, despite the license plates, had no business being on the street. Still, it had a sort of lethal charm that attracted men like me: confident, experienced, prideful. It was a battle of wills I would not lose. I was determined to master the bike and, like a living thing, the bike was determined to kill me.

They say that most people who die in accidental shootings are killed by “unloaded guns.” I would imagine that most people who die on motorcycles are riding relatively “safe” bikes. You know the kind, usually big and slow. The ones that inspire confidence in their riders. The GSXR was the opposite of a “safe” bike. It was big, powerful and with a short wheelbase was exceedingly ill-mannered at slow speeds. On the move it was roughly sprung and, despite the steering damper affixed to the bars, prone to a bit of headshake when you laid on the power.

Still, on the smooth pavement of the Japanese expressway, the bike was a marvel of precision engineering. The slightest input translated into immediate action. A simple turn of the wrist became instant acceleration. A modest pull of the brake lever would slow even the most determined head-long rush with surprising aplomb. The GSXR was a true thoroughbred and, when it was doing what it was built to do, the division between man and machine was nonexistent. Like living thoroughbreds, however, it could be sensitive and fickle, too.

The problem began with the slightest of judders when I rolled on the throttle. The bike still surged forward upon command, but the edge wasn’t there and I noticed the change immediately. The problem was more pronounced the next time out. As I hit the gas, the bike stumbled as it came up to speed. Over time, these little vibrations became a full-on epileptic fit as the bike surged and shook whenever I added more than just a smidgen of gas. I knew I would have to address the situation and ran, one at a time, through the possible problems.


Sportbikes are a pain in the ass to work on. Like an old muscle car, the premise of a sportbike is simple – take the biggest, most powerful engine you have and stuff it into the lightest, smallest package you can. Needless to say, clearance is limited and getting to the various bits and pieces I needed to work with proved to be a problem. I started by replacing the spark plugs but there was no effect. next, I made certain the fuel petcock was working and that no lines were pinched before finally deciding to access the air filter.

I hated the idea of opening the air filter. Located behind the carbs, under the gas tank and in the area that normally rested directly between my thighs, it was easy to see but next to impossible to get open. To make matters worse, the airbox, like so many other things on my bike was modified as well. To get into it, I had to pull the gas tank and seat and then disconnect several electrical connections before pulling the battery and then the battery box. After that I had to use a stubby screw driver to unfasten several screws and then another to loosen the large clamp that held on a single, large filter element. It took time, effort and a lot of scraped knuckles but I managed to do it without losing my sanity.

Once it was out, the filter didn’t appear to be especially dirty and so I figured that I had gone down yet another false path. Regardless, I washed it out in a bucket of fresh gasoline and started the tedious process of putting the bike back together. It took time, but when it as done the bike fired right up and idled fine. Grabbing my helmet, I wheeled the bike out of its parking spot and and headed for an access road that ran along beneath the expressway close to the Port of Yokohama.


At the first stoplight I checked for the cops and grabbed a handful of throttle. The old bike surged strongly as it shot its way towards the redline. I grabbed second gear and held the throttle wide open. Able to breathe correctly for the first time in a long while, the old bike ate up the road without missing a beat. Shifting into third I got off the gas and let the bike slow before working it through a series of roll-on accelerations to make sure the problem was fully resolved. It was and I felt good.

A couple of miles out I turned around and headed home. I stayed off the gas a let the bike chug along in the higher gears. It was a relief that my notoriously finicky bike was working so well and I decided at the last moment to head through the port facility to a small park at the base of the harbor light house. The Port of Yokohama is a sprawling place and the central road is easily six lanes wide. Normally filled with idling trucks waiting to pick-up or drop-off loads at the port it is, for the most part, a featureless, pancake-flat stretch of pavement split by frequent railroad tracks. At its far end, the road meets a high cement sea-wall and curves around the barrier in a set of sweeping S-curves. Given the width of the road and the lack of traffic I hit them hard and slipped through them without a hitch.

At the lighthouse, I turned around and headed once again towards. It was a nice day and I wasn’t eager to be back inside so I went slowly, trudging along in the higher gears, the engine stumbling along just above idle. As the S-curves approached I dropped down a gear but the bike’s engine abruptly died. Unphased, I pulled int he clutch, downshifted again and dumped the clutch to bump-start the bike. The engine sprang back to life and I rolled smoothly through the first corner, righted the bike and then leaned into the next. It was there, mid-apex, that the engine died again.

Things happened fast. The back wheel locked and the tire began to slide. To prevent a “low-side,” a type of accident where the back tire of a bike slips out from underneath you and leaves you sliding on your ass, I grabbed the clutch and got the back wheel rolling again. But skidding loads a bike’s suspension and, as the back wheel regained traction, the rear spring was free to unleash its pent-up energy. As the spring sprung, the bike bucked, turning into an angry bronco as it attempted – and then succeeded – in throwing me off.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Free of its rider, the bike continued to follow its momentum over onto its far side while I was thrown, still in seated position with my legs beneath me, high into the air almost like a fighter pilot being ejected from his stricken aircraft. The odd thing was that, despite the amazing height I achieved, my forward momentum was not really that great and I had let go of the bars quickly enough that I hadn’t been thrown head over heels. I straightened my body and landed hard on my feet, breaking into a run as soon as I touched down. In a mere moment I was safe on the sidewalk looking back at my stricken bike as it attempted to disgorge the contents of its fuel tank into the street.

Adrenaline pumping, I ran back to the big bike and levered it back onto its wheels. One of the handle bars was twisted and a side mirror broken off, but otherwise the bike looked to be in decent shape. After pushing it to the side of the road, I pulled off my helmet, bent the bar back to where I could use it and tried to refire the bike. The starter growled for a fraction of a second and then clicked off, the battery was obviously dead. How odd. I pulled off the seat and looked to see if there was anything I could do. The problem was immediately obvious, in my rush to complete the project I had failed to reconnect one vital part of the bike’s charging system and had made the entire run on battery power alone. I cursed my own stupidity.

I snapped the wires back together and tried bump starting the bike. It took several runs up and down the flat street and by the time the old bike eventually fired I was nearly sick to my stomach with exhaustion. I waited to recover while the bike idled unevenly and, when the worst had passed, I clicked it into gear and limped home. It was a walk of shame.

In 20 years of hard, fast riding I had never had an accident on the street. Sure, once or twice I had put my foot down wrong at a stoplight and fallen over, but I had never been thrown or had any kind of real accident. I had been extremely fortunate. There was no real damage to the old bike and the only injury I suffered was to my own pride. You know pride, right? It’s that thing that comes before the fall. It’s the one injury that, I think, can never fully heal.


Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Porsche Reunion Thu, 14 Nov 2013 15:30:56 +0000 Headlights

“All I need is a name.” He said.

This road trip was a fiasco. A week ago we had left his home in North Carolina in my Porsche 911 on a starry-eyed quest worthy of “This American Life.

We were going to find my brother’s father.

For most of my life, my brother had existed only as a single distracted, almost-forgotten conversation. As a child, our now long-deceased mother had mentioned him at a most inopportune time. But to him, I existed in a different sense. I was a real figure from his past; biological proof he came from someplace; an answer to a question he had been asking for decades.

We met face to face the day after Christmas in 2007. 4 1/2 years later, I departed Oklahoma, picked up my brother and embarked on this adventure culminating in Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital. There, at the hall of records, I knew our heartwarming story of love, loss, reunion and redemption along our combined southern charm would open dusty vaults, rewarding us with answers.

Not a chance.

A woman from the records department met us in the lobby. She wanted to help; my brother sensed it and pressed.

“A first name…” He begged to no avail. She smiled sympathetically, but was handcuffed by regulations.

Indeed, a first name was all he needed. 19 years prior, he had come to the same building. The clerk at the window had held a file. She had told him ,”In here is everything you need to know.”

Then she added, “And I cannot give it to you.”

Instead, he had been given a sanitized copy, black marks lining through all the distinguishable details. Resembling an Area 51 document from the History Channel, the non-identifiable information included a generic description of an older brother.



Over the years he combed through the blacked out file and unceasingly requested further information. He received the same copies over and over. He searched, he posted on message boards, and he kept at it.

Finally, he caught a break. One copy failed to black out our mother’s first name. A volunteer search agency was able to cross reference birth records in several counties, filter the results with the non-identifying information; this lead to a cousin, then to my step dad, and finally me. That is what landed him in the passenger seat of my black 911 in the sweltering southern heat.

Now, defeated, we sat in the smoking area behind the hall of records.

Our last conversation with various faceless officials of our inscrutable government had ended with “Have you considered hiring a private investigator?”

Those words echoed as I looked at my brother, elbows on his knees, Marlboro Light in his fingers, staring at a patch of concrete waiting for the answers that had eluded him for his entire existence. The same gaze had come from behind titanium Oakleys in my passenger seat during the days leading up to this moment.

So I hired one. A specialist in adoption who sat on the state board. Realistic and professional, she warned me it could from six months to a year and that sometimes she could not make the connection.

In the end, it only took three weeks. When the report arrived, I was stunned by the detail; I had the grandparents, family locations, education and even employment. Most importantly, I had the answer my brother needed to know.

As written by Mike Rutherford; I had a name, and I had a number.

I refused to cause any family harm and I was not going to make this connection if it would bring my brother pain. I had to tread carefully.

I left a excruciatingly generic voicemail. Two days later my phone rang.

A few weeks later, my brother was waiting to meet his father. Sitting in his Charger SRT/8, he wondered what they would talk about. They had spoken on the phone, but it was still bound to be awkward. How would they break the ice?

Then his father arrived, driving his 911.

W. Christian Mental Ward has owned over 70 cars and destroyed most of them. He is a graduate of Panoz Racing School, loves cartoons and once exceeded the speed of sound. Married to the most patient woman in the world; he has three dogs, and will never be half the man his brother is.

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Just Another Day In the Life of an MGB Owner Wed, 02 Nov 2011 20:00:18 +0000 While scanning endless negatives and slides for the 1965 Impala Hell Project, I’ve run across a few images of other heaps from my past. I’m kicking myself now for letting dozens of now-interesting hoopties pass through my hands without getting any photographic record, but that’s how the pre-digital-photography era worked. My British Racing Green, chrome-bumper MGB-GT, however, served three years as my daily driver, and so it did get caught by a few photographs. Here’s a shot showing one of the many, many repairs this fine British Leyland product needed while serving as my primary means of transportation.
During a drive from Southern California to the San Francisco Bay Area, the MG’s rear end started to make ominous whining noises. As all British car owners do, I pretended it wasn’t happening at first, but by about Kettleman City I couldn’t turn the radio up loud enough to drown out the increasingly loud howl. Maybe it’s just a cheap wheel bearing and not the diff, I thought, but no. Fortunately, I was able to limp the thing all the way to British Only Auto Wrecking in Oakland (where they had rear ends stacked ten deep, thanks to a vast oversupply of abandoned MGBs in the late 1980s) and then patched the car up until its next major failure (which almost certainly involved the electrical system). Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed the Austin-Healey 3000 in the background; this car belonged to my Jaguar-mechanic uncle, Dirty Duck, who was the person responsible for convincing me that British cars are superior machines.

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 11: Son of Orange County Tue, 06 Sep 2011 23:30:48 +0000 In Part 10, the Hell Project Impala got Fiat scoops on the hood and hit the I-5 trail again. By late 1993, the car looked more or less the way I’d planned when I started the project and had become a surprisingly good daily driver (thanks to more modern brakes and a reliable, HEI-equipped 350 engine). I still planned to do some suspension and horsepower upgrades, once the early 1990s recession relaxed its grip enough for me to land a decent-paying job, but the setup I had was fulfilling my driving needs very well. Then, in the spring of ’94, Richard Nixon died, and I decided to take the Nixon-hood-ornamented car down to his birthplace and mingle with the mourners.
Before all this happened, however, I’d finally managed to ditch the office- and light-industrial-temp gigs and get a full-time job: delivery driver for a tropical-fish wholesaler.
Every morning I’d drive the Impala to the company’s East Bay warehouse and report to the 120-degree, 100% humidity Fish Room to help pack the day’s merchandise.
The entire aquarium/tropical-fish business is a festival of cruelty from start to finish, particularly with the salt-water varieties; first, starving divers in various Third World coastal towns in the Pacific jump into the water while breathing from a compressor air hose, and they hose down fish habitat with cyanide to stun the fish. Most of the victims die, but some get netted and put into plastic bags, and after another death-filled journey that culminates in the few sickly survivors making it to an American airport’s cargo facility, a Fish Driver (that was me, generally at SFO) arrives in a Mitsubishi Fuso van to pick up a bunch of insulated boxes full of plastic bags containing dead, dying, and (a few) living tropical fish. The fish then take a ride to the Fish Room, where they live in aquariums until being ordered by a retailer. Then the employees of the wholesaler net the fish and dump them in 5-gallon buckets full of salt water, at which point the Fish Driver puts them in plastic bags, fills the bags with oxygen, and dumps them in a styrofoam box for delivery to the customer. Then the fish— those that survive— are sold to the public, and they spend the rest of their abbreviated lives swimming in tiny, desperate circles, searching in vain for an ocean that will never again be their homes. Yeah, this part of the job sucked. If you’re now an underemployed 20-something who’s been on the same sort of not-so-encouraging career path for a couple of years after graduation, you are experiencing a harsher, less forgiving version of the job market of the early 1990s recession, and you probably have a pretty good grasp of the Fish Driver-type jobs out there.
I had no complaints about my commuter vehicle at this time; it drove very well and looked great. My commute covered about 15 miles of some of the nastiest traffic in the East Bay, so I spent a lot of time on the plush green upholstery of my Buick (or maybe it was Oldsmobile) bench seat, inching forward in stop-and-go traffic on I-880 and listening to music on my eight-speaker, twin-amplifier, all-junkyard stereo system.
Being a Fish Driver was pretty stressful, and so I made a special mix tape to listen to while driving to and from my route. Its name: I, Fish Driver.
The vehicles in the Fish Warehouse motor pool were the Fuso, a battered diesel Ford Econoline van, and a diesel Isuzu pickup with rattly-ass camper shell. In order to play cassettes while driving, I drilled a hole in the back of a cheapo Emerson boombox (seen here with a Les Faquins sticker) and ran some long power leads terminating in alligator clips. After loading all the boxes of fish into the Isuzu, Ford, or Mitsubishi, the final step in preparing for my fish-drivin’ day involved crawling under the vehicle’s dash and connecting the alligator clips to 12V+ and ground.

At this point in my life, the Flaming Lips song “Jesus Shooting Heroin” had become more or less the theme song for my days toiling on the Fish Route. In truth, it became the theme song of my life, and my incessant replaying of the song drove everyone around me nuts in a big hurry. When the album containing this fine song first came out in 1986, I wrote off the band as an Oklahoma-fied Butthole Surfers ripoff (which, of course, they were, in most glorious fashion), and I was such a Butthole Surfers fanatic at the time that it took me until the early 1990s to begin to appreciate the genius of the Lips. It goes without saying that “Jesus Shooting Heroin” was the first song on my “I, Fish Driver” tape.

Sometimes I would allow “I, Fish Driver” to run past the first song, in order to hear the mournful Sister Double Happiness song “Wheels A Spinning.” Yes, those two songs make for sort of a Generation X, diminished-expectations/downward-spiral one-two punch, but it made perfect sense at the time. Following them up with Hüsker Dü‘s “Never Talking To You Again” and the Minutemen‘s “Jesus and Tequila,” on the rare occasion that I didn’t hit the Rewind button right after Gary Floyd’s voice stopped.
As a Fish Driver, my days started very early. Into the Impala at dawn, slave in the Fish Room for a couple hours, load the truck, then drive for the next ten or so hours. Repeat. Endlessly.
None of the Fish Driver vehicles had working air conditioning, and my route took me to the broiling-ass Central Valley at least two days a week. Here I am sweating in a Jenny Holzer T-shirt, which is appropriately meta-irono-Gen-X-esque.

I’d usually bring a camera along, so that I could capture old Buicks on Interstate 5 and weird scenes like this “Get Hooked On Fishing, Not On Drugs” bait shop in Stockton.
I shot quite a few proto-DOTS-style interesting street-parked cars during my travels. How about a partially-stripped RX-7 parked in front of an abandoned Pinto?
But mostly I saw strip malls, grim pet-supply chain stores, and about-to-go-out-of-business independent aquarium stores.
I’d finally managed to put a stop to most of the leaky windshield and rear-window weatherstripping— a common GM weak point of the era; my $113 GTO got so bad that crops of mushrooms sprouted from the carpeting by about February— using copious quantities of caulk, Henry’s #204 Roof Cement, and JB Weld. That meant that the Impala’s interior no longer reeked of mildew during Northern California’s rainy winters.
I had gotten used to having weeks off between temp jobs and taking lengthy couch-surfing expeditions to Southern California, but being a Monday-through-Friday Fish Driver meant that my Interstate 5 expeditions had to be weekend-length.
One trip to Los Angeles seemed to promise a job much more interesting than being a Fish Driver.

My friend Ben’s girlfriend had taken a job as “Mistress Nina” at a dungeon in City of Industry, and the dungeon management wanted somebody to weld up some proper torture equipment, preferably using rusty old car parts. Yes, underemployed 20-somethings in a recession will jump at any quasi-interesting job possibility with ice-water-in-hell enthusiasm, an effect one can see all around us today.
Truth was, Mistress Nina’s employer— I’ll call the joint Humiliation-’Я’-Us, because I can’t recall the real name— had some pretty lame torture equipment. There was a medium-cool Triumph chopper sitting in the waiting room, and this head cage was sort of menacing… but check out the weak-ass chain running to the ceiling. How could a client of Mistress Nina feel the proper mix of fear and arousal, knowing that he could just snap the chain by not-very-desperate struggling?
Clothespins and Icy Hot are fine, sort of your bread-and-butter dungeon implements, but wouldn’t the addition of some gnarly, oxidized jumper cables and a big jar of well-used hose clamps add that extra dungeony je ne sais quoi? The mistresses wouldn’t actually have to use that stuff, so my additions to this sort of gear would be purely cosmetic. Humiliation-’Я’-Us, after all, was a legitimate, tax-paying business, not some fly-by-night operation that sent its customers to the ER with hard-to-explain injuries.
And this so-called rack? Why, this spindly thing would be smashed to kindling by any real struggles. Why should the customers of Humiliation-’Я’-Us have to exercise such suspension of disbelief during their ministrations at the hands of Mistress Nina and her coworkers? What this place needed was a rack based on bumper jacks! You know, the big ratcheting jobs preferred by Detroit in the 1960s, the ones that would let you hoist a Chrysler Newport at the top of a teetering shaft of cast iron. Imagine being chained to my rack, with hefty steel manacles at wrists and ankles (attached to clanking, logging-truck-grade rusty-ass chains you’d know you could never break no matter how desperate your struggles). My rack would be vertical, for a greater sense of vulnerability. Mistress Nina and her assistant would, with great deliberation, insert their tire irons into the twin bumper jacks behind your back and, at the count of three, crank down another notch. The glorious fear! Who knows what those evil torturin’ mistresses might do next? I’d use drum-brake return springs as safety devices, to limit the amount of torque on the victim. What could possibly go wrong?
Sadly, the job of dungeon-implement-maker never panned out. Negotiations with Humiliation-’Я’-Us broke down over the subject of remuneration. First, they wanted to pay in services. No, thanks. How about speed? Hell, no! I wanted cash, and that seemed like a foreign concept to the graduates of the Dungeon School of Business.
That was sort of a bummer, because it would be unimaginably hip to be able to put “Sex Torture Equipment Designer” on my resume today. Still, I was able to put the knowledge I acquired about the world of dominatrices and dungeons to good use more than a decade later, when I wrote Torment, Incorporated (now available for the Kindle!). Actually, my disdain for the low-budget, make-believe setting of the Humiliation-’Я’-Us facilities led me to come up with my own ideas for a really effective dungeon, and most of you will be pleased to know that I won’t subject you to any more of this digression here; jump over to for a semi-work-safe excerpt from the novel.
The Impala was really looking and running great around this time; the Fiat hood scoops were the crucial finishing touch for the car’s look, and now only a few more years of patina acquisition were needed.
I was still loosely affiliated with the anti-nuclear canvassing organization for which I did occasional wrenching work on the donated cars used to transport canvassers to door-knocking “turf” (a great San Francisco-to-Reno road trip in a ’76 Nova with one such canvasser is documented here). After spending most of 1993 suffering under the cruel lash of the Fish Master, I finally quit my Fish Driver job, which gave me time to visit my friends protesting imminent thermonuclear annihilation at Lawrence Livermore Labs aka Edward Teller‘s Commie-Vaporizin’ Playground. The sight of the Impala among all those hippie-driven Tercel wagons and lefty-sticker-encrusted Vanagons caused some consternation among the jaded CHPs who were keeping the rabid peaceniks from storming the facilities, but no harm came to me or my wheels.
I was surprised that nobody seemed upset about the Richard Nixon hood ornament (which started life as a rubber shower-nozzle decoration, for those who wanted to feel that Tricky Dick was spitting on them in the shower) above the car’s grille. I was also surprised that no Mission District hipster ripped the thing off while the car parked in San Francisco, since the Nixon Head was held in place by a just couple of easily-sliced lengths of speaker wire.
Most who saw my car just tuned it out as “yet another hooptied-out Detroit heap,” but a few recognized it as the art car I’d intended to build all along. Here’s a note left under the windshield one night in early 1994: The Sinester (sic) Car of the Week!
Greasy handprints, three-dimensional texture, and blacked-out trim. I’d returned to the temp-gig lifestyle; the light-industrial gigs were too similar to Fish Driving, so I stuck with office-temp jobs this time around. I had some sort of weird job working a microfilm camera at a Ross Perot-owned facility with an incomprehensible purpose involving billions of cancelled checks being pumped through thousand-yard industrial lines; I still don’t know what they did in that place, which had a spy-movie-style security tunnel with remote-operated doors (through which bewildered temps had to pass after being interrogated via PA speaker every morning) and such uptight security that my job was never explained to me.
I was eating lunch in my car in the parking lot (all office temps have an aversion to eating in the break room with the perms, who look upon temps as not-quite-human creatures) when the news came over the radio: Richard Nixon was dead. At that point, I thought to glance at my car’s Nixon Head hood ornament and found that someone had cut one of the wires affixing it to the car, so that Nixon’s face was now facing the ground. It meant something, and I decided in that moment that it meant I’d better tell Ross Perot that I was done working in his mysterious check-eating facility… and head down I-5 to Richard Milhous Nixon’s homeland: Orange County, California.
So, I finished my last shift, told the temp agency I was through with that gig, packed up the Impala, and headed south. My destination: Yorba Linda, California, birthplace of Richard Nixon and home of the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

A bit of background might be in order here. At this point, Frank Zappa’s ode to the 37th President of the United States, “Son of Orange County,” seems the appropriate background music (my dad, a big Zappa fan since the days of “Freak Out,” i.e. my entire life, played this song endlessly during the era of the Watergate hearings; therefore it’s etched forever in my mind as “the Watergate theme song”), so crank it up.
Where did my Nixon obsession come from? As a kindergartner and first-grader in Minneapolis during the run-up to the 1972 presidential elections, I didn’t have a very clear grasp of politics; I knew we had been bombing the shit out of Southeast Asia going back to before I was born, for some reason that didn’t even make sense to the grown-ups, and that somehow the upcoming election had something to do with bombs and protesters, but that was about it. What I did know, however, was that my mom (a tough ER nurse from union-stronghold St. Paul) hated this Nixon guy’s guts, and the anti-Nixon tirades I overheard her delivering had me convinced that Terrible Things would ensue if Nixon won the election. I wasn’t sure quite what these things were (nor did I get that Nixon was already president at the time), but I somehow came up with the idea that we’d all be rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the desert if McGovern lost the election… which he did by the biggest blowout in United States presidential election history.
So, Nixon won… and a few weeks later, my parents quit their jobs, sold their house, bought a 1973 Chevrolet Beauville passenger van (shown here after the family got totally 1970s-California-ized, down to the floppy leather cowboy hats), and we left Minnesota for California… or that was the cover story. I knew that we were really heading to Nixon’s camps in the desert, where we’d be put to work digging holes and filling them up again, or whatever evil presidents did to innocent Minnesota families.
Actually, my parents left Minnesota because they’d gone to visit friends in California on a week when the temperature in Minneapolis was 25 below and the temperature in the San Francisco Bay Area was 75 above. That 100-degree difference was all they needed to ditch the Midwest, forever. The Beauville survived long enough for me to wreck it as a teenager, incidentally; here are my sisters on a family trip in the red-and-white Chevy, circa 1981.

Even though the camps in the desert never happened, I remained fascinated with Nixon. During the period starting with the Watergate hearings and peaking with the Fall of Saigon, the Malaise Era was in full effect, with a downward-spiral sense that all principles had been betrayed, no institution was trustworthy, life would always get worse, etc., and Richard Nixon’s face was always front and center for me throughout all of it.

Nixon would be regarded as a flaming socialist liberal these days, what with such Trotskyist big-government/nanny-state moves as the EPA, Clean Air Act, radical economic moves, and so on, and he might have made an OK president (in spite of his SoCal-real-estate-money-backed reprehensible campaign tactics and general lack of moral compass), but unfortunately he was driven completely insane by having the ’60 Presidential election stolen for Kennedy by the vote-generating machines of Mayor Daley and LBJ and then— a mere two years later— losing the race for Governor of California to liberal Pat Brown (no, not this Pat Brown). Nixon had spent his life up to that point convinced that he needed to crush his enemies before they crushed him (an activity at which he excelled), but after the ’62 elections he became convinced that everyone, particularly the “East Coast media elite,” was out to destroy him. By the early 1970s, he was all hopped up on Dilantin, obsessed with legions of real and imagined enemies, and surrounding himself with cronies who felt it necessary to burglarize the offices of the (obviously hapless and doomed) opposition. As I got older, I read everything I could find on the subject of Richard Milhous Nixon, and came to see him as a profoundly American tragic figure— I didn’t exactly empathize with him, what with the permanent damage he inflicted on everything America was supposed to stand for and all, but I couldn’t look away.
When the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace had its grand opening in 1990, I was living 20 minutes away and had just purchased a 1965 Chevrolet Impala sedan. Naturally, one of the first trips I took in the car was to Yorba Linda, to be there when two ex-presidents and one current president (Ford, Reagan, and Bush I) dedicated the site honoring yet another ex-president.
Even though I was an obvious freak with a huge red beard at the time, I figured that my appreciation of Nixon’s significance would be understood by the wholesome Orange County Republicans running the show, and that I’d be welcomed to the ceremony outside the little house that lemon farmer and grocer Frank Nixon had built with his own two hands.
Unfortunately, the Secret Service guys saw it differently. The nice old ladies in red-white-and-blue dresses who guide visitors around the place (right side of the above photo) are very friendly and welcoming to visitors, no matter how unlike clean-cut La Habra Republicans they might appear, but the SS guys obviously figured I was about to produce a five-gallon bucket of pig blood and dump it on Gerald Ford, screaming about millions of dead Southeast Asians, tit-for-tat presidential pardons, and so forth.
I probably risked getting hustled off to an unmarked van and given a very unpleasant lecture about the lack of wisdom shown by photographing Secret Service personnel with four United States Presidents nearby, but this guy just gritted his teeth and told me to take off and never come back.
I did come back, of course, returning a few months later to tour the place. It may be different now, but the Nixon Museum was extremely… well, Nixonian. In stark contrast to the LBJ Museum (where they’re proud of the fact that LBJ stole elections, treated his subordinates like crap, sold out his allies, and lied like a sumbitch every chance he got), the Nixon Museum is a temple to spin and revisionist history, like the sort of thing Assad will set up if he gets booted out of Syria. The Silent Majority speech has its own little house with a white picket fence, the Vietnam War is blamed entirely on Democrats (fair enough, until 1969, not counting Eisenhower and the French), and Watergate was a conspiracy to destroy the Executive Branch of the United States government. Needless to say, I loved the place, especially the gift shop that provided me with the pewter Nixon Museum & Birthplace keychain shown here with my Impala keys.
So, I steered the Chevy onto I-5 south. The Northridge Earthquake had occurred a couple months before, and the freeways south of the Grapevine were a nightmare of construction and detours.
But I persevered, because I knew that I had to be present at the Richard Nixon Museum & Birthplace when the distraught Orange County mourners showed up to pay their respects to their idol.
In truth, I was a little worried that I’d be lynched by a yowling mob of enraged retirees from Laguna Hills and .38-packin’ Tustin housewives the very moment anyone caught sight of my wretched-looking car and its disrespectful hood ornament, but I had no choice. The Nixon Head hood ornament would stay, lynch mob or no.
I needn’t have worried about getting strung up on a lamppost at some Yorba Linda strip mall, because the mourners at the RNM&B were so caught up in their own grief that they didn’t even notice my car rumbling into the parking lot. The nice old Republican ladies in their red-white-and-blue dresses just wanted to make sure I had a chance to sign the guest book.
The steps of the Museum were covered with flowers, flags, and heartfelt notes. “Love from my children. Sleep well, sweet Nixon.” You can’t make this stuff up!
I hadn’t thought to bring flowers, but I did feel a sense of loss that we wouldn’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more. Not quite the sadness that I felt when, say, Frank Zappa, Charles Bukowski, and Kurt Cobain died during the several months prior to Nixon’s death, of course, but it did feel strange knowing that Nixon was gone.
“Soon. Very soon. Under golden skies and in fair clime. We’ll all be there again to meet & greet you again.”
Maybe so, if heaven turns out to be something like a Corona del Mar guard-gated community, peopled with honest small businessmen out of Yorba Linda, circa 1922. I hung around the mourners for a while, then climbed in the Impala and headed out of Yorba Linda. Perhaps it’s time to let the late Hunter S. Thompson, a man whose life often seemed bound to Nixon’s, have the last word here:

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

Next up: Packin’ up, movin’ to Georgia!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 12

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 10: Fiat Hood Scoops, Endless Ribbon of Asphalt Thu, 25 Aug 2011 19:00:17 +0000 Last week, the Impala roared into 1992 with more refinements and spun quite a few digits on its Buick odometer. Late in ’92, with Bill Clinton packing up his Astroturf-enhanced El Camino and heading for the White House and the days getting shorter, I decided to celebrate my escape from the looming menace of an academic career by tricking out the Impala’s hood with some Fiat X1/9-sourced scoops… and getting back to Interstate 5, where I belonged.
The car was really starting to look the way I’d envisioned the project by this time, with random application of primer paint, greasy handprints, and road dirt giving it the proper finish, but I felt that was coming up a bit short in the jacked-up-street-racer portion of its image. I asked myself what a young Bill Clinton would have done to, say, a beater ’51 Olds Super in 1965 to impress the young ladies of his fevered Arkansas fantasies. The answer came immediately: Hood scoops!
I thought about going with one of J.C. Whitney’s fine selection of fiberglass scoops, but didn’t see one that really seemed right for the Impala. What I needed, I decided, was a pair of junkyard scoops, something made to mount on a flat surface without too much hassle. First-gen Toyota MR2s had pretty interesting square air-intake scoops, but Pick Your Part didn’t have many 8-year-old Toyotas on the yard in 1992. The choice was obvious: Fiat X1/9!
The X1/9 was a common sight in California self-service junkyards of the early 1990s; the little mid-engined Fiat (and, later, Bertone) had been quite popular during the Late Malaise Era. The plastic side scoops (which, if I recall correctly, were used for carburetor air intake and engine compartment cooling) mounted using two screws and required about 15 seconds apiece to remove from a junkyard specimen. Five bucks each from El Pulpo.
A few minutes’ work with a metal-cutting-blade-equipped Sawzall, two trapezoidal holes in the hood, a couple of screws per scoop, and I had hood scoops that had a vaguely ’64 GTO-ish look about them. I wish I had better photos of the installation, but one works with the photos one has on hand.
The scoops were “functional” in that they weren’t blocked off, but they simply directed air downward, into the engine compartment. I thought about rigging up a cold-air intake for the carburetor, fed by dryer hose to the scoops, but the scoops had square outlets and I couldn’t figure out an easy way to route the hoses so that they’d have enough slack to allow the hood to open. Anyway, they looked good; here’s a view of the back side of the scoops from the driver’s seat, while rumbling through the Fruitvale BART Station parking lot in East Oakland.
By early 1993, I was living in East Oakland, near the intersection of Seminary and MacArthur. This meant that I spent a lot of time driving up Seminary from the Nimitz Freeway, and I shot quite a few Seminary Avenue photos out the window of the Impala during this period. Here’s what the scene in this photograph of Seminary near Foothill looks like today.
The crazy clown face on this long-boarded-up candy store on Seminary was the stuff of nightmares.
Having grown up on an island just off the “coast” of Oakland, I was quite comfortable living in the home of Jack London and Gertrude Stein. Unfortunately, the early 1990s weren’t the best time to be living near Seminary and MacArthur; gun battles over prime crack-dealing turf broke out, on what seemed like a nightly basis, within a few blocks of the crowded slacker house I was renting. First you’d hear a lot of shouting, followed by one or two lone gunshots, followed by a couple of minutes of a half-dozen combatants spraying bullets, followed by screeching tires… and then, much later, ambulance sirens.
The Impala seemed properly apocalyptic for this environment, and it seemed to inspire respect in the ‘hood. Other than the occasional kid yelling “HOOPTIE! HOOPTIE!” as I drove by, nobody in East Oakland seemed to notice my car.
Most of my Bay Area friends were living in similarly rough neighborhoods across the Bay in San Francisco at the time, and the Impala turned out to be admirably suited for climbing SF’s steep hills and squeezing into tight parking spaces. Perhaps because so many mid-60s big Chevrolets were sold to police departments and taxi companies, GM designed the car with a very tight turning radius. As an added bonus, the hordes of San Francisco smash-window-grab-glovebox-change thieves stayed away from my car when it spent nights parked in the Lower Haight or Western Addition. Strangely, my 28-year-old sedan had turned out to be an extremely practical daily driver for a Generation X slacker on a tight budget (had gas prices been higher at the time, of course, it wouldn’t have worked out so well for me).
Life was pretty good at this time; I had a good car, I had found a way to keep office-temp jobs from driving me too crazy, and I’d found a set of housemates that didn’t make me feel like doing murder every few hours. Here’s a photograph from an early-1993 party we threw, with a “disreputable characters” theme for participants. That’s me on the left, dressed as a Lodi meth dealer. The other costumes were, left to right (if my memory isn’t too faded after 18 years): a crooked real-estate hustler from Oklahoma City, a Ponzi-scheme operator from Pittsburgh, an Earlimart junior-high dropout who’d just scratched her rival’s eyes out in the Dairy Queen parking lot, and a Talahassee strip-club owner.
Since I was doing so much driving in sketchy neighborhoods full of Olde English 800-fortified drivers in mechanically-challenged Buick Electras, I became quite conscious of my car’s difficult-to-see urban-camouflage finish. With visions of being T-boned by some bleary-eyed Chrysler Newport driver, I decided to channel the spirit of Ralph Nader and install side marker lights and more visible front turn signals on the car. I picked some lights off of Japanese subcompacts and rigged them up on the Impala; I believe this marker light— used here as a turn signal light, mounted above the headlight— came from an early-70s Datsun 1200.
For the rear flanks, I used the little square marker lights from a late-1960s Toyota Corona. A ’69 Corona sedan was my first car, and I never forgot those goofy square marker lights.
My sister went to China for a few weeks and brought back this tasseled Mao Zedong mirror icon for me; Young Mao on one side, Old Mao on the other. It seemed just the decoration for my car.
Of course, there was always the chance that some enraged survivor of the Three Terrible Years would flip out upon seeing my Mao icon, but it never happened.
Likewise, no fanatical Richard Nixon zealot ever snapped at the sight of my Tricky Dick hood ornament (in a later episode, we’ll see what happened when I drove my Nixon-ornamented Impala to Nixon’s birthplace on the day after his death in 1994).
It was fun driving the Impala to temp jobs and ironic Generation X parties, but the open road was where the car really belonged.
Even though most folks had gone to CDs for in-car music by the early 1990s, my tunes collection was all on cassette at the time. The Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head was on extremely heavy rotation for me in 1993, as were several road-trip mix tapes I created around this time; here’s my long digression on the subject.
Even though I’d left Orange County to return to my homeland 430 miles to the north a couple years back, I kept returning to visit friends behind the Orange Curtain. During 1992-1993, it was rare that more than two months passed between Impala trips down I-5.
Mostly I went by myself, but you’ve always got a pool of quality traveling companions when you’re hanging around underemployed Generation X types. Yes, that’s a taxi-fare list sticker on the rear side window; I have no recollection of where it came from.
With no air conditioning in the car, the best time to drive through the Central Valley in summer is late at night.
How many cars today have room for the driver and two sleeping passengers in the front seat? I think it’s time for the automakers to de-clutter their vehicle interiors!
The first beer after an all-night drive is always most welcome, although only dire slacker poverty could make a 40-dog of King Cobra seem like a good choice. Shudder.
The whole brigade of couch-surfing slackers would join the party when the Impala rolled into Santa Ana. Here’s a future Ivy League professor contemplating what looked like a downward-spiral future of office-temp days and King Cobra evenings… and, given our current economic conditions, she might be looking down the barrel of a similar future today.
We paid a visit to my steel sculpture, entitled “The Electric Man,” (much enlarged after my departure from UCI by artist Lars Israelson) in the Irvine Meadows West sculpture garden.
What’s that I’m standing on?
It’s the Impala’s original 283 block, now used as ballast to keep the Electric Man from tipping over. Sadly, drunken UCI frat boys kept climbing the sculpture in later years, and lawsuit-fearing university officials had it torn down and scrapped.
After a day or two down south, it’s time to pack up the gear and point the Impala’s snout north.
Palm trees and smog.
And, on closer view, a billboard hawking the execrable ’93 Pontiac Grand Am.
Goodbye, land of excellent tacos al pastor and junkyards bigger than Disneyland!
The Glendale Boulevard overpass over I-5 in Los Angeles is my all-time favorite freeway overpass in the whole world.
But the real I-5 experience starts once you get out of the Grapevine and into the Central Valley. Then you watch the number of miles to San Francisco get smaller as the cotton fields and almond orchards go by.
As Tower of Power says, Back To Oakland. Next up: getting on Nixon’s posthumous Enemies List.

X19_Scoop_2-1280px 93-DollHutSticker-1280px 93-DollHutSticker_Taillight-1280px 93-DoorFlankPano-1280px 93-ElectricMan1-1280px 93-ElectricMan2-1280px 93-ElectricMan3-1280px 93-ElectricMan_Me-1280px 93-ElectricMan_w_283-1280px 93-ElectricMan_w_283_Night-1280px 93-ElectricManNight2-1280px 93-Headlights2-1280px 93-Headlights-1280px 93-JeffSunset-1280px 93-MajesticWeazles-1280px 93-MandyImpala-1280px 93-MeDrivingFlash-1280px 93-MeKingCobraJeffHouse-1280px 93-MiaLemonTree-1280px 93-MistressNina-1280px 93-MistressNina_w_Rack-1280px 93-MistressNinaGear-1280px 93-OCHighway2-1280px 93-OCHighway-1280px 93-OCHighway_GrandAm_Billboard-1280px 93-OCHighway_GrandAm_Billboard-close-1280px 93-OneEyedCat2-1280px 93-OneEyedCat-1280px 93-PaulMustang_w_Impala-1280px 93-RearFenderDent-1280px 93-RH_Night-1280px 93-RoadsidePanorama-1280px 93-RoadTripRoadSoda-1280px 93-RoadTripStopNight-1280px 93-SanFranciscoTaurus-1280px 93-SantaAnaDisposCam2-1280px 93-SantaAnaDisposCam-1280px 93-SantaAnaMustangII2-1280px 93-SantaAnaMustangII3-1280px 93-SantaAnaMustangII4-1280px 93-SantaAnaMustangII-1280px 93-SantaAnaOpenTrunk_w_Cat-1280px 93-SkullAbacus-1280px 93-SleepingBrits-1280px 93-Taillights_Negativland-1280px 93-TrunkLidParkingLot-1280px 93-TurnSignal2-1280px 93-UCI_w_63Imp-1280px 94-CokeSign_LH_Window-1280px 94-DashMao-1280px 94-FruitvaleBART-1280px 94-GlendaleBlvdOverpass-1280px 94-HeadlinerRHSide-1280px 94-HighwaySideView-1280px 94-I5_North-JCT119-1280px 94-I5-LA-1280px 94-I5-Mao-1280px 94-I5-Rain-Mao-1280px 94-I5-SelfPortrait-CleanShaven-1280px 94-ImpalaDoorPanel-1280px 94-MirrorViewHighway-1280px 94-RH_Flank_Tire-1280px 94-SeminaryOakland2-1280px 94-SeminaryOakland3-1280px 94-SeminaryOakland4-1280px 94-SteeringWheelMao-1280px 94-SteeringWheelOaklandCrane-1280px 94-SteeringWheelTach-1280px 95-HoodScoopsOverhead-1280px 99-RH_Flank_Scoop-1280px X19_Scoop_1-1280px Impala7-43 92-Grille_w_Nixon 92-RoadMixCassettes ]]> 17
1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 9: Fastening Shoulder Belts, Bailing From Academia Thu, 18 Aug 2011 16:00:49 +0000 IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8 • Part 9 • Part 10
Once the Impala had been modified sufficiently to function as a 1992-grade daily driver, the long-term project of converting it into an art car that drew upon the Holy Trinity of American Car Archetypes (drive-by-shooting ghetto hooptie, official vehicle, redneck street racer) took on less urgency; I planned to “finish the work of art,” whatever that meant, but along the way I’d created an excellent road car. And when you have an excellent road car, you have no choice but to hit the road.
Back in the early 1990s, cheapo Chinese-made point-and-shoot 35mm cameras flooded the world. At that time, my love of photography had veered from an obsession with shooting razor-sharp, depth-of-field-calculated-to-the-millimeter shots on my prized Canon AE-1 to a fascination with shooting blurry, bleary, headache-inducing shots with the likes of the $1.99 Guangzhou Special panorama camera that took the photograph above.
With disc brakes, a rebuilt front end, stiff shocks, and new rear springs, my 27-year-old Chevy drove and handled like a much more modern car; the design of the advanced-for-Detroit-at-the-time four-link-with-Panhard rear suspension had held up well (especially compared to the leaf-spring setups on the GM B platform’s contemporary Chrysler and Ford competitors), and improvements in tire technology helped a lot.
The car’s 350 small-block, with its Malaise Era smog heads, woke up a bit once I installed headers, a Quadrajet, and HEI ignition; my Impala wasn’t particularly quick, but it had the edge over Camrys, Tauruses, and the like when it came down to freeway-onramp drag races. Fuel economy (about 17 MPG highway, much less city) wasn’t great by early-90s standards, so I resolved to wait for the day when small-block Chevy throttle-body fuel injection systems started showing up in Pick-Your-Part in large numbers.
Around this time, I burned out on bouncing between rejected job applications and working for temp agencies and surrendered to the inevitable: I started graduate school. With a University of California undergrad degree under my belt, the skids were already greased for my quick acceptance into my choice of California State University campuses, and so I looked for the Cal State in the area with the cheapest living expenses. With presidential candidate Bill Clinton excoriating Sista Souljah and Ice-T as background noise, I packed up the Impala and moved to my new home in… Turlock, California.
Yes, I was no longer an underemployed San Francisco slacker driving a primered-out Detroit heap. As the spring semester at California State University, Stanislaus (aka “Turkey Tech”) began, I was an academic driving a primered-out Detroit heap. American Grafitti was filmed in Turlock, allegedly because it resembled the early-60s version of George Lucas’s hometown of Modesto (located just a bit down Highway 99), and its bovine-scented farm-town ambience was just the thing to force me to focus on my studies. Ideally, I’d have a master’s degree in Rhetoric and Composition (a fancy name for “teachin’ writin’ to the young’uns”) in two years’ time, at which point I’d be able to snag a soft job teaching sullen small-town stoner kids how to write five-paragraph essays at some backwoods-ass junior college. I would have preferred a warehouse job staring at stacks of boxes, punctuated by the occasional forklift race with my coworkers, while the Dead Kennedys played on my workplace boombox, but such jobs were no longer available in 1992 California.
Graduate school turned out to be fairly pleasant, if somewhat boring. While Los Angeles burned during the Rodney King riots and Clinton, Bush, and Perot duked it out, I cranked out gibberish essays about the hermeneutical reification of the work of John Donne. The English Department at CSUS boasted perhaps a dozen graduate students, half of which were cynical Generation X types like me, sheltering from the Unstoppable Downward Spiral of Civilization and half of which were jaded, chain-smoking high-school teachers hoping to nail down a fatter paycheck by adding a master’s degree to their resumes.
My life settled into a low-stress routine. Every couple of weeks, the professors would scrounge up English Department funds sufficient for us to buy barbecue food and a keg of beer, and we’d all spend a day getting drunk and sunburned and playing volleyball. Every night, I’d stay up until about 4:00 AM with some of my fellow impoverished grad students, drinking Milwaukee’s Best, listening to Cypress Hill and Primus, and playing cribbage. Most weekends, I’d hop in the Impala and drive the two hours back to the San Francisco Bay Area and hang out with my friends there. It was a dignified life and an easy one, and the months went by fast.
During this period, a couple of my cribbage partners drove off a freeway overpass while drunk-driving a mid-70s Celica back from a Social Distortion show in San Francisco. They were pretty well banged up, with the un-seat-belted driver being thrown from the wreck and having an Evel Knievel-grade quantity of bones broken; when he recovered enough to move under his own power, he fled to the Czech Republic Czechoslovakia to avoid probable jail time for a DUI-with-injuries crash. These events had two effects on me: first, no more nightly cribbage marathons. Second, I became more aware of the crash-safety limitations of my pre-Ralph Nader GM car. I had installed some junkyard Olds 88 lap belts soon after getting the car, but visions of my face getting mashed by the steel dashboard in a wreck sent me to the Modesto Pick-N-Pull to buy a 1969 Caprice shoulder-belt setup. Due to the inherent inferiority of the film-camera era, I don’t have any photographs of my seat belt installation, but it was simple enough: the first generation of US-market shoulder belts used separate belts and buckles for the shoulder and lap seat belts, which meant that I could keep my bright green Oldsmobile lap belts and add some brown Caprice shoulder belts merely by drilling holes in the B pillars and mounting the upper mounts of the shoulder belts with Grade 8 hardware through the pillars. This worked well, although the lack of spring tensioners in the early shoulder belts meant that I had to unbuckle the belt in order to lean over and adjust the stereo volume or turn on the heater.
During my second semester as an R&C scholar, I began to realize that the life of an academic wasn’t a good fit for me, and that my envisioned future teaching writing at Butcher Holler Junior College wouldn’t be to my liking. Accelerating this realization was the fact that I had been taken under the wing of the angry, sociopathic professor of feminist literature who had poisoned her relationships with academics on several continents (I was heavy into Virginia Woolf at the time, which apparently convinced her that I would one day be just as angry and poisonous as she was); this meant that my academic career, such as it was, would forever be tainted by my association with a mentor loathed by everyone in my field. Things got weirder by the day. At one point, I attended a party at the home of one of my fellow grad students, one of the bitter/master’s-degree-chasing high-school teachers, and she cornered me and a couple of my cynical 20-something peers (as we were in the process of guzzling a bottle of Bailey’s we’d found in her liquor cabinet) and launched into a scary tirade along the lines of “All you young guys, you think you want to teach… but YOU’RE NOT SHOWING ME ANYTHING!” That was the tipping point.
I decided to take a leave of absence from my academic career and head straight to the land that inspired me to write (what I thought was) good fiction and take4 (what I thought were) good photographs: southern California. So, I rounded up my friend Judy (the only San Francisco resident I’d ever met who was actually born in San Francisco) as a traveling companion and steered the Impala onto Interstate 5.
By that time, I had spent seven years driving between the Bay Area and Southern California on I-5 between five and thirty times per year. When driving I-5, I had the sense that everything that had taken place between the current drive and the previous one had been a weird dream, and that I-5 was the place to evaluate the dream. As the Impala had proven to be the best I-5 car I’d ever owned (better even than my Competition Orange ’68 Mercury Cyclone), I slipped into the requisite I-5 mental groove very easily while behind its wheel.
So, while I pondered existential questions as the mileage signs to Los Angeles showed progressively smaller numbers, Judy read fashion magazines and enjoyed the nostalgic sensation of riding in the same type of car she’d ridden in during early childhood.
During my performance-art career, I spent quite a while working on my never-to-be-finished magnum opus, a piece entitled “I-5.” In it, slide projectors would show an endless series of through-the-windshield photographs of I-5 between I-580 and the Orange County line. Meanwhile, Murilee Arraiac (my Negativland/Throbbing Gristle-influenced band) would perform a short musical piece representing every freeway exit during that drive. I got as far as shooting a few hundred slides and recording perhaps a half-dozen songs, including “Twisselman Road”.
I had decided that I would photograph this journey using only the Guangzhou Special panoramic camera, loaded with Kodak Tri-X. It’s difficult to shoot a flying bird out the side window of a moving car with a 1/30th shutter speed, but I managed this one.
Even though my Impala looked like a clanking beater, it ran perfectly at this point, and the ride was quite comfortable. I had never expected this 27-year-old Chevrolet to win me over as a driver the way it did, but sometimes things sort out in unexpected ways.
These days, I prize the images on this single roll of film more than just about any other. I became a jaded hack long ago when it comes to photography, and I’d never go back to film, but I’m glad I put in my time in the darkroom.
I must admit that the P71 Crown Victoria I bought in the 21st century was an even better long-distance-drive car than my ’65 Impala, but not by much.
Just around sunset, we made it through the Grapevine and entered Southern California proper. Little did I know that the Southern California journeys would soon end, as the economy picked up and full-time employment loomed its ugly head. Next up: Fiat X1/9 hood scoops, spinning that Buick odometer.

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8 • Part 9 • Part 10

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Would-Be Civic Thief Thwarted By Hidden Kill Switch, $21 In Junkyard Parts Fixes Damage Sat, 13 Aug 2011 14:00:57 +0000 Having spent most of my driving years in car-theft-prone neighborhoods in California and preferring the please-steal-me Honda Civic as my daily driver of choice, I learned many years ago that a secret starter and/or fuel-pump cutoff switch is a must-have. Such kill switches have prevented theft of my past Civics on three occasions that I know about. Last week, the maddeningly hard-to-find kill switch I installed in my 18.2-second quarter-miler 1992 Civic left a Denver Honda thief empty-handed.
I’m not going to give away the type and location of the kill switch in my ’92, other than to say that it cuts power to both the starter solenoid and the fuel pump and it doesn’t look like an electrical switch. The first Civic kill switch I installed (in an ’85 hatchback that was stolen out of the Oakland Coliseum parking lot and then recovered a couple months later when other thieves stole its license plates while parked near 98th and Edes, attracting police attention) was pretty crude: a spring-type clothespin ziptied into the underdash wiring harness, with electrical contacts in the jaws; I would stick a guitar pick between its jaws to interrupt the power to the starter circuit and remove the pick to enable starting— crude but effective, and just about impossible to identify at a glance. My current setup is much more sophisticated as well as more invisible; the thief used a key to get into the car and turn the ignition switch (Hondas of the 1980s and early 1990s had a depressingly small number of possible key configurations, so a thief need only carry a few dozen in order to have a good chance of starting any random Honda of the era; try your Honda key on junkyard car locks to see what I mean), but the starter wouldn’t crank for him. So, he removed the steering-column cover— busting the wiper switch in the process— and tried to jump wires to fire the starter. No dice. On to the next 1992-95 Civic!
Nothing other than the wiper switch was broken and nothing was stolen from the car (not even my snazzy five-cell red-anodized MagLite), so I got off light. Still, I needed wipers, so off came the shattered switch. Next stop: junkyard!
The fifth-generation Civic has become something like the ’55 Chevy of the 21st Century, with huge demand for parts (no doubt the motivation behind the scrote who tried to steal mine). This means that they’re quite rare in self-service junkyards. I found this switch in good condition on a junked ’94, but there was a problem.
My car, a one-notch-up-from-the-bottom DX model, has a rear wiper/washer, and this CX does not. The switch would physically bolt up, but the rear wiper couldn’t be actuated. The lever on my car’s switch was pretty well busted, so I couldn’t buy this switch and swap levers. Sorry about the blurry cell-phone photos here; I was in such a hurry to fix the car that I forgot to grab a real camera.
The only other 1992-95 Civic at the yard was a ’93 hatch that had had its interior completely torn apart. It did have the correct wiper switch (buried beneath greasy suspension parts on the back seat), but its case was cracked and internal components were missing.
Still, I had enough components between the two junkyard switches, plus the one from my car, to make one good one.
The lever and wiring harness from the broken ’93 switch joined the guts of the ’94 switch. I had to swap the grease-coated electrical-contact sliders to make the lever actuators work correctly, but such is the nature of finicky automotive electrical components.
Honda was thoughtful enough to enable wiper switch replacement with the steering wheel installed (in stark contrast to many Detroit cars, which tend to be all about ease/cheapness of initial assembly, to hell with everything else), so installing the Frankensteined wiper switch was a three-minute task.
All fixed! I’m sure glad the thief didn’t have a tow truck.

CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-01 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-02 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-03 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-04 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-05 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-06 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-07 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-08 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-09 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-10 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-11 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-12 CivicTheftAttemptThwarted-13 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 23
1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 8: Refinements, Meeting Christo’s Umbrellas Mon, 08 Aug 2011 18:00:30 +0000 IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7 • Part 8 • Part 9Part 10
In the last Impala Hell Project episode, the now-disc-brake-equipped Chevy and I hit Interstate 5 for some Generation X-style road tripping. Through late 1991 I continued my process of junkyard upgrades, and the car racked up some serious highway miles.
I’d enabled the heater by fashioning a block-off plate to cover the torn-out evaporator core housing, which made my second winter with the car much more pleasant… but then the blower motor’s bearings started to scream. 26 years out of a part that The General’s low-bid supplier probably charged $1.04 for wasn’t too bad, but I’d become spoiled after a few months of not being forced to wear several grunge-grade flannel shirts while driving.
In case you were wondering what happened to the Impala’s original air-conditioning gear, I’d given all the parts to my friend Paul (who provided invaluable help during the 283-to-350 engine upgrade in the summer of ’90). He ended up knocking together this Field Expedient Engineering AC setup in his ’67 Mustang, using a weird mashup of 1965 Impala and 1980 Fiat Brava climate-control components. This rig gave the Mustang meat-locker temperatures on even the hottest Anaheim days, though it did have a tendency to spray condensation all over the passenger.
Since this generation of full-sized Chevrolet was designed to be bashed together by a bunch of dudes who started each shift with a six-pack of Country Club apiece, I figured the heater blower fan would be easily accessible. Sure, it was accessible on the assembly line, before the fenders and hood were installed, but it turned out to be a serious pain in the ass on a complete car. Not anywhere near as bad as replacing the heater core on a Volvo 240, mind you (if the heater core in your 240 goes bad, my advice is to scrap the car), but way more work than I’d expected.
The replacement blower motor was under 20 bucks new (and still is, 20 years later), so I decided to splurge and avoid the junkyard-parts route this time.
Aaaah, the pleasure of driving in winter without bundling up like the Michelin Man!
Replacing the sagging rear springs, along with new front ball-joints and control arm bushings, solved most of the car’s wandering-in-freeway-lane problems. However, the completely played-out shock absorbers— no doubt installed by Manny, Moe, and Jack in about 1979— made the car way too bouncy and ill-handling. I scored a full set of new KYB Gas-A-Justs on sale at Lee Auto Supply, and the car started taking the turns in semi-modern fashion.
Applications of various shades of gray and black primer paint, plus the normal patina acquired when you never wash a car during coastal California’s dry season, were really helping me achieve the look of the art car I’d had in mind all along.
Around this time, I’d become more serious about photography in general and hacked-up thrift-store cameras in particular. I’d been bulk-loading my own Kodak Tri-X 35mm (film of choice for generations of news photographers), and I’d discovered that you could pry open the early disposable cameras and reload them with your own film. Just the thing for gloomy winter shots of the Impala with skeletal trees and a Pinto wagon!
The car was really starting to look exactly the way I’d envisioned the project when I bought the car; the glossy industrial-gray paint that a previous owner had hosed over the original Tahitian Turquoise had been transformed into a gritty urban camouflage with texture.
I’d load the car up with disposable cameras, pinhole cameras, $2.99 panorama cameras, and so on and take it out on long photographic expeditions. At night, I’d set up a darkroom in the bathroom and huff Dektol for hour after hour.
It wasn’t a bad life, but the ongoing early-1990s recession and the Vietnam/Watergate/Energy Crisis experiences of my formative years made it clear to me that I’d spend the rest of my life working a series of shit jobs while The Downpresser Man drank the big champagne and laughed. Eventually, The Downpresser Man would round up everyone who didn’t have at least $10 million in his or her bank account and ship them off to shovel radioactive uranium-mile tailings in the Spiro Agnew Memorial Re-Education Facility in the Utah desert. In the meantime, I was going to enjoy driving my Impala.
My long-suffering parents were cool about me and my wretched car staying at their place when my various 10-slackers-in-squalid-apartment living situations fell through, and so I helped them out by re-foundationing and reinforcing the 1880-stable-turned-useless-garage in their back yard; a dim-witted do-it-yourselfer had destabilized the structure by installing a half-assed garage door in the 1950s, and the ’89 earthquake had come within seconds of knocking the whole thing down. By the time I got to the project, the entire building was being supported by two come-alongs stretching steel cables diagonally from corner to corner.
Still, I had to put in my time in The Downpresser Man’s salt mines. There were exactly zero real jobs available in California for recent college grads during the early 1990s, but temp agencies had a vast assortment of low-pay/low-prestige gigs available. Since I could type 60 WPM and lift 150 pounds, I qualified as both office temp and light-industrial temp. This meant that, one day, I might find myself in a tie and shiny black shoes, filing medical records or answering the phone in some grim, fluorescent-lit veal-fattening pen… and the next day I might be stacking boxes of laundry detergent at a soap factory. For one two-week period, I drove fresh-from-Japan, plastic-wrap-protected 1992 Honda Del Sols the two miles from the Port of Richmond docks to the yard where they were loaded onto train cars and transporter trucks. Hundreds, thousands of Del Sols; I became expert in filling the 30 seconds while the other temps climbed into their Del Sols by finding the radio security code (remember those?) in the glovebox, entering it into the stereo, and finding some gangster-rap or metal song to blast during the five-minute drive from the docks.
The Impala didn’t cause any real problems when I showed up for light-industrial temp jobs, since most of my fellow temps drove equally grimy-looking machinery, but managers at office-temp gigs usually ordered me to park my car far, far from the premises. That meant that I didn’t have time to walk to and from my remotely-parked car to enjoy some blissful solitude during lunch breaks; instead, I had to endure the slow death of office gossip in the break room. Fortunately, most office lifers ignore temps and I wasn’t required to participate in conversations.
Around this time, I obtained this very expressive Richard Nixon hood ornament (originally intended for installation over one’s shower nozzle, so that a shower feels like Nixon is spitting on you) and wired it to the Impala’s grille. I’ve spent most of my life obsessed with the Son of Orange County (a digression far too lengthy to get into here), and so the Tricky Dick hood ornament just felt right.
The Impala had become an excellent long-distance road-trip car, comfortable and reliable. Late in 1991, I headed south on Interstate 5 in order to do some sort of meta-art-car installation with a much more famous work of public art.
On October 9, 1991, Christo and Jean-Claude’s 3,100 gigantic umbrellas were opened up along inland valleys, one in Japan and one in the United States.
Christo’s American umbrellas were set up along the Grapevine portion of Interstate 5 (immortalized as the setting for “Hot Rod Lincoln”), about 75 miles north of Los Angeles.
At the time, you could still get 126 film, and I shot a lot of grainy, blurry photos on 50-cent-at-yard-sales Instamatic cameras. Nowadays, you just use an app in your phone’s camera to get terrible shots like this.
But you can’t get Flash Cubes for your iPhone!
After visiting the Christo Umbrellas, I headed south to visit my friends at UCI’s Irvine Meadows West trailer park.
Incomprehensible rituals were still the order of the day at IMW.
The Impala’s back seat, a ’66 Caprice unit I’d found in near-perfect condition for cheap in The Recycler, proved to be most comfortable for road-trip sleeping.
On the way back north, I visited The Umbrellas again. By this time, high winds had toppled some of the umbrellas, killing a woman and injuring several others, and Christo dismantled them soon after.
Time to head back to The Downpresser Man’s offices and warehouses. Next up: Shoulder belts, bailing from academia.

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7 • Part 8 • Part 9Part 10
92-TurnSig_Markers_Frt 91-AC_Blockoff 91-BackSeat 91-BenTrailerNastyPhotos 91-ChristoUmbrella-2 91-ChristoUmbrella-4-126Film 91-ChristoUmbrella-5-126Film 91-ChristoUmbrella-126Film-3 91-ChristoUmbrellas_w_EuroCars 91-ChristoUmbrella-wCar-1 91-ChristoUmbrella-wCar-2 91-ChristoUmbrella-wCar-3 91-Engine_Firewall 91-Grapevine-126Film-2 91-Grapevine-Umbrellas-126Film 91-Impala_on_I5-foggy 91-Paul_Homemade_Mustang_AC 91-Quadrajet-On-Fender-Pieces-1 91-Quadrajet-On-Fender-Pieces-2 91-Rear-126Film 91-SelfPortrait-I5 92-3223-Garage-DoorGone 92-3223-Impala_Driveway 92-Alternator 92-AntennaHole 92-Battery1 92-Battery2 92-DeadShowTripRanger 92-Driveway_w_Urinesport 92-Frt_RH_High 92-FuelFilter 92-GrapevineTraffic 92-Grille_w_Nixon 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-1 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-2 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-3 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-4 92-HeaterBlowerInstall-5 92-HirsuteHeadragged-ChicoTrip 92-HOP200-Front 92-Impala_w_Pinto 92-ImpalaFender3223 92-ImpalaRoofPinto 92-LH_rr_quarter 92-NimitzAtMarina 92-NixonHead 92-OaklandAirport2 92-OaklandAirport 92-OaklandDriving1 92-OaklandDriving2 92-OaklandNightScene 92-Pinto_Rainstorm 92-PontiacWheel 92-RaceCarChico 92-Radiator 92-RearShock 92-RearWindow_TrunkLid 92-Skylark_GasStation Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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1965 Impala Hell Project Part 7: Disc Brakes In, Massive Slacker Couch-Surfing Expedition Enabled! Tue, 02 Aug 2011 23:30:50 +0000
IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6 • Part 7 • Part 8

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
Impala7-54 Impala7-01 Impala7-02 Impala7-03 Impala7-04 Impala7-05 Impala7-06 Impala7-07 Impala7-08 Impala7-09 Impala7-10 Impala7-11 Impala7-12 Impala7-13 Impala7-14 Impala7-15 Impala7-16 Impala7-17 Impala7-18 Impala7-19 Impala7-20 Impala7-21 Impala7-22 Impala7-23 Impala7-24 Impala7-25 Impala7-26 Impala7-27 Impala7-28 Impala7-29 Impala7-30 Impala7-31 Impala7-32 Impala7-33 Impala7-34 Impala7-35 Impala7-36 Impala7-37 Impala7-38 Impala7-39 Impala7-40 Impala7-41 Impala7-42 Impala7-43 Impala7-44 Impala7-45 Impala7-46 Impala7-47 Impala7-48 Impala7-49 Impala7-50 Impala7-51 Impala7-52 Impala7-53 Impala7-55 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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1965 Impala Hell Project Part 6: Gauges! Switches! Buttons! Fri, 22 Jul 2011 14:00:28 +0000
When we last saw the 1965 Impala Hell Project, it was the fall of 1990 and I was installing headers, dual exhaust, and a TH350 transmission in place of the original Powerglide. The car drove pretty well with those upgrades, but the fact that the entire instrument panel (except for the oil pressure idiot light) was kaput became quite an annoyance. Was the engine running hot? Was I going 80 in a 45 zone? How much gas do I have? Those questions remained mysteries, and finding functioning replacement parts for a then-26-year-old car in the junkyard would be tough. I had a solution, however; scavenging Pick-Your-Part for instrument-panel components on Half Price Day weekends and building my own instrument panel from scratch.

The factory instrument panel looked cool, but there was no way I’d be able to buy new replacement gauges on my recession-grade office-temp wages. Once I had all the parts I needed, a “DIP” street sign I found somewhere (no, I didn’t steal it) donated some high quality aluminum sheet and I was ready to go.

The car was developing some nice patina at that point; I’d taken to hitting it with black or gray spray paint whenever I spotted any sort of scratch or blemish in the gloss-gray industrial paint that the previous owner had hosed over the original Tahitian Turquoise paint.

After determining that just about all GM cars of the 1960s shared a common speedometer-cable connection, I scored this speedo out of a late-60s Buick. A Wildcat, perhaps? In any case, it was round, it looked cool, and the donor car had a similar differential gear ratio to the 3.31 in my Impala’s 12-bolt.

This is the only photo I can find of the aluminum panel that became the new dashboard (damn pre-digital photography era!).

However, I do still have the original diagrams I drew up to help with the wiring. They’re pretty thrashed, because they spent 10 years in the car’s glovebox. I got a lot better at this sort of thing a few years later, when I became a technical writer, but at least these diagrams are quasi-intelligible.

I used junkyard connectors scavenged from Toyota and Nissan wiring harnesses, with surplus wire bought cheap at the legendary (and now defunct) Mike Quinn Electronics. Quinn’s, as San Francisco Bay Area electronics geeks recall, provided much of the raw material for the Grateful Dead’s scratchbuilt sound system in the mid-1960s; a decade later, Jobs and Wozniak bought many of the components used in the prototype Apple I computer there. That gave my Impala provenance!

Most of the toggle switches also came from Quinn’s, but I decided to go Italian with the warning lights. Fiats used these beautiful metal-and-glass units in their cars for years.

Back in 1991, it was pretty easy to find Fiats in self-service junkyards, so I gathered a good-sized collection of stylish indicator lights. In fact, I still have a stash of them to this day (even after using many of them in the Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox a few years back).

When it was all assembled, my car had a cockpit that looked like something out of the Space Shuttle: Voltmeter, vacuum gauge, tachometer, speedometer, transmission temp, oil pressure, water temp, fuel, clock— everything from the junkyard. For switches, I had just about everything possible wired up, including a James Bondian taillight-cutoff switch and wiring for five separate horns (inspired by the multiple horns in my ’58 Beetle; unfortunately, I never did get around to installing additional horns in the Impala). The speedometer was mounted to the back of the instrument panel with a plywood spacer, and I installed red and green speedo-face lighting in the spacer (with a three-way switch to control lighting color).

The Kienzle clock came from a 1966 Opel Kadett, featured an Opel emblem and was the gauge that pleased me most. I’d found it in U-Pull-It Auto Wrecking in Oakland during my earliest junkyard expeditions, installed it in my Beetle during high school, and hung onto it long after the Beetle got crushed.

The factory AM radio was long dead, and I needed to listen to my collection of Motörhead and Public Enemy cassettes at all times behind the wheel. So, I broke out the plywood and the jigsaw and made this removable console unit to sit beneath the dash and atop the transmission hump (held in place with a couple of brass deadbolts). With eight junkyard speakers (four in the rear package shelf, two in each front door) driven by a pair of four-channel Brand X equalizer/amplifiers fed by a not-too-terrible Sony cassette deck (veteran of at least three of my previous vehicle dashes by that time), I had serious sound for next to nothing. Because I was parking the car in a lot of sketchy rip-U-off neighborhoods of San Francisco and Oakland at the time, I rigged my semi-unwieldy pull-out stereo with quick-disconnect harness connectors salvaged from junked Corollas. To remove the unit, I just pulled a couple of deadbolts and disconnected four harness connectors; it made for quite a conversation piece when I’d set it on the kitchen table at parties. I wish I had a photo of the front of the unit, but… damn pre-digital photography era once again.

Overall, this setup proved quite reliable, although I had to replace a few of the cheapo gauges over the years. At this point, the only real problems with the car, from a daily-driving perspective, were the four-wheel drum brakes and the lack of a heater. I solved those problems soon enough, as we’ll see in an upcoming episode of this series.

The skills I learned from this project proved useful in later years; when it came time for me to build the instrument panels for the Black Metal V8olvo race car, I was up and running in a hurry.

This setup remains in the car to this day, just awaiting its new owner to fly to California and get behind the wheel. Yes, I mean the legendary donk-racin’ Speedycop.

My 20R-powered ’67 Sprite, which now sits in the Evil Genius Racing on-deck-projects yard awaiting a narrowed RX-7 rear, also benefited from my instrument-panel-creating experience. See, working on Hell Projects pays off! Next up: Disc brakes, Generation X road tripping.
1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup

Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Photograph by Phillip Greden Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 20
1965 Impala Hell Project Part 5: Three Speeds, Two Exhaust Pipes Sun, 03 Jul 2011 16:00:12 +0000
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.

1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup

Impala-Part5-TransExh-10 Impala-Part5-TransExh-01 Impala-Part5-TransExh-02 Impala-Part5-TransExh-03 Impala-Part5-TransExh-04 Impala-Part5-TransExh-05 Impala-Part5-TransExh-06 Impala-Part5-TransExh-07 Impala-Part5-TransExh-08 Impala-Part5-TransExh-09 Impala-Part5-TransExh-11 Impala-Part5-TransExh-12 ]]> 23
1965 Impala Hell Project Part 4: Saddam Chooses My New Engine Wed, 15 Jun 2011 21:00:46 +0000
When I bought my Impala, I knew that its 300,000-mile 283 engine wasn’t long for the world, what with the near-nonexistent oil pressure, clouds of oil smoke under acceleration and deceleration, and fixin’-to-toss-a-rod sound effects. Still, due to thin-wallet limitations, I was determined to squeeze one last year of property-value-lowering 283 driving before obtaining a junkyard replacement engine. This plan went well until I decided to seek chemical assistance for the oil-burning problem.

By the summer of 1990, I’d already graduated from college but planned on staying in UCI’s students-only trailer park until forced to leave its 75-bucks-a-month utopia by the beginning of the fall quarter. A summer of leisure and Murilee Arraiac gigs before being dumped into the no-jobs-nohow grinder of the (laughably mild by current recession standards) early 1990s recession.

I’d already found that I loved driving my ’65. Even in its worn-out state, it was comfortable and handled quite well. The four-wheel, single-circuit drum brakes were scary, but they were good enough for our forefathers.

The smokescreen behind the car when gunning it up a freeway onramp was fairly alarming; I could see behind the car, sort of, but it’s no fun driving one of the smokiest cars in already-smoggy Southern California. The 283′s thirst for oil was a bit of a problem, too: a quart every 100 miles. That meant that the car drank about three quarts of oil per tank of fuel. A mechanic friend suggested that I try some of that magical “engine rebuild in a can” engine-flush treatment. “The theory is that the stuff will dissolve the crud on the oil rings and let them expand to fit the cylinder bores,” he told me. “Most of the time it doesn’t do much, but it can’t hurt to try.” I pictured “Pop,” the crusty Guadalcanal vet teaching Intro To Auto Shop at Anaheim High in 1981, brandishing a can of Groundwater Contamination Plus™ Engine Flush at the students, including my friend, and rasping in his 4-packs-of-Pall-Malls-a-day voice: “If the Studebaker is burnin’ oil, why, ya just dump a can of this in her! Works every goddamn time, I tell ya!”

Well, “Pop” was full of shit. I added the engine flush to the oil, ran the engine for a while, then changed the oil. Disaster! It turned out that my engine’s rings were made of crud, and dissolving the stuff turned my engine from a medium-grade oil burner that could still be driven to an apocalyptic smoke machine that burned a quart of oil per mile. The billows of blue smoke were so bad under acceleration that cars behind the Impala had to pull over and stop due to lack of visibility. My girlfriend at the time lived a couple miles away, and rather than walk (unthinkable in Southern California) I took to gunning the car up to about 90 on University Drive, relying on the half-mile of completely opaque smoke to render me invisible to John Law, then cutting the engine and coasting the rest of the way to her place. Clearly, this was not a viable daily-driver situation, so I was forced to dig into my meager funds and push my engine-swap timeline forward.

In 1990, you could buy gas for just over a buck per gallon, so my plan was to find a junked GMC truck, pull its 454 big-block engine, throw a low-budget rings-and-bearings (plus headers and lumpy cam) rebuild at it, and drop it into the Impala’s big-block-ready engine compartment. This would be in keeping with the Hillbilly Street Racer facet of my American Automotive Archetypes Trinity concept, and if it got single-digit fuel economy, so what? Then, just days before I was to start scouring junkyards for a 454, Saddam’s armies rolled into Kuwait. On August 2, 1990, I was sure that the country was about to experience a repeat of the gas lines and surging prices of the ’79 Iranian Revolution energy crisis, and so I downgraded my engine plans from big-block to small-block. I’d make do with a less thirsty 350 until the inevitable couple of years of gas-station madness passed by (as it turned out, the spike in pump prices caused by Gulf War I wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, but all the war scenarios I imagined involved Saudi Arabia’s oil fields getting destroyed, which didn’t happen).

The Man had discovered that I was no longer a UCI student, having finally gotten around to cross-referencing the graduation list with the student-housing list, and— like Saddam and his tanks— was about to crush me and my trailer home. This meant that I didn’t have time to do a junkyard-engine-rebuild project, so I scrounged up a few hundred bucks and bought a long-block 350 from one of the dozens of cheapo rebuild shops in Los Angeles; a friend with an Econoline wanted a 302 long block as well, so we found a place with a discount for purchases of two or more engines. Smog heads and two-bolt mains, but I knew it would keep me mobile until gas prices dropped down to big-block levels; replacing the two-speed Powerglide transmission with a three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic 350 would give the car an off-the-line performance boost that would feel like another 100 horses, anyway.

Here we are, a beautiful summer morning behind the Orange Curtain, and I’m violating just about every regulation, restriction, and bylaw in the Irvine Master Plan. Trailer, primered-out Detroit barge on jackstands, engine sitting in the gravel. It’s good to be on California state property and out of reach of The Plan.

There are some things I remember fondly about my early 20s, but being limited to terrible beer by lack of funds isn’t one of them. Still, there’s something right about a cold Burgie on a hot engine-swapping Southern California day.

It goes without saying that removing a V8 from a 1960s full-size Detroit car is very, very easy (unless it’s a Toronado or Eldorado, of course). The 283 was out and on the ground after a couple of hours of very leisurely work.

I moved the 283′s valve covers to the 350, to keep the dirt off. Note the old-fashioned canister-style oil filter on the 283.

The Irvine Master Plan has no provisions for a scene like this.

Or this.

I was trying to do the swap as cheaply as possible, but I couldn’t resist dropping $35 on a Quadrajet and intake off a 1970 El Camino at the Wilmington Pick-Your-Part. The cast-iron exhaust manifolds would have to do until I could get to a swap meet for some low-buck headers.

Paul (aka the Chicom Junky Santa), the guy who advised me to try the engine-killing oil flush felt guilty about his advice and came by to help with the swap. We decided to dismantle the 283, just to see how worn out its innards were.

Yes, a thoroughly tired engine. 283s were a dime a dozen then (and, probably, still are), so I didn’t feel any need to save the innards. I donated the crankshaft to a trailer-park artist who wanted to use it as part of a very heavy wind-chime. Clank!

The old oil pan would be swapped onto the new engine, along with all the accessories, timing cover, distributor, etc.

Southern California trailer park tradition mandates storing all your car parts outdoors.

Ready for the heart transplant!

Such an easy swap, with all that room under the hood. Even a 454 transplant would have been no big deal. In fact, the only real snag was the flexplate-to-torque-converter spacing with the 350 and Powerglide; for some reason, the flexplate on the 350 mounted about 3/4″ forward of its location on the 283 crank, which resulted in a gap between the flexplate and the mounting bolts on the torque converter.

By this time, I was down to a few days before The Man’s deadline to leave the trailer park. Fortunately, my friend Chunky (of “Oh Lord, stuck in the Lodi Volvo again” fame) drove down from the Bay Area to pitch in. He had a good fix for the flexplate-gap issue: since I’d be installing a TH350 soon enough, using a bunch of Grade 8 washers as spacers with Grade 8 bolts 3/4″ longer than the factory torque-converter-to-flexplate bolts should hold together long enough for me to drive the car 430 miles north to Alameda. For some reason, I didn’t take photographs of this LeMons-style fix, but it looked pretty dicey. Worked fine, though!

Since the AC system was deader’n hell, I donated the components to Paul, who later used them to build the world’s most hoopty air conditioner in an F-250.

The 283 block ended up as a sculpture in the Irvine Meadows West Sculpture Garden. As far as I know, it was still there when The Man bulldozed the place 15 years later. Maybe it’s now buried under the asphalt of the parking lot that replaced the trailer park.

And that was that. The new engine ran fine, the Powerglide was perfectly happy with the increased torque, and the buyer for my trailer was ready to move in. Time to head north, for Adventures In Recession Underemployment! Next up: three speeds, two exhaust pipes.
1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup


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1965 Impala Hell Project Part 3: Lowering Property Values Sat, 11 Jun 2011 19:00:09 +0000
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

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1965 Impala Hell Project Part 2: The Modifications Begin Wed, 01 Jun 2011 20:45:55 +0000
In Part 1 of this series, I described the purchase of a 1965 Chevrolet Impala in early 1990, for use as the raw material in a complex performance/installation art piece. Within a single day of taking ownership of the car, I began the process of modifying it to suit my artistic vision.

In harsh daylight, the body damage on the left rear door looked about right for the menacing appeal I had in mind, but those skinny bias-ply tires and Artesian Turquoise 14″ wheels just looked wrong.

The three dog-dish van hubcaps that came with the car added a certain goofy appeal, particularly in the context of UC Irvine’s bulldozed-by-The-Man “middle-class shantytown” trailer park, but they didn’t fit my idea of a car that touched each of the three automotive archetypes I had in mind (cop car/ghetto hooptie/hillbilly drag racer).

Identifying emblems also diluted the generic-steel-boxiness of the car’s image, so I enlisted the help of a cutoff-saw-equipped friend and we removed all but the small leaping-Impala-in-a-circle fender emblems. I thought about ditching the distinctive Impala circular taillights for something more generic (in 1990, 99.99% of ordinary people wouldn’t have recognized the profile of a post-’64 Impala), but didn’t have the heart to remove a styling feature with so much cool.

Flat black spray paint took care of the emblem holes and anything shiny on the car. I added some cryptic serial numbers on the doors, inspired by the numbers I painted on the Phone Police Enforcermobile.

The skinny-tire problem needed a very cheap solution, since I’d spent nearly half of my $400 budget purchasing the car. Fortunately, the friend to whom I’d sold my ’68 Mercury Cyclone still had the universal slotted mags with 295-width Radial TAs that I’d put on the car years before, and he sold them back to me for $50. A quick coat of flat black over the faux-gold coating, and the car looked orders of magnitude better.

The addition of some JC Whitney backup lights and the “No Other Possibility” bumper sticker from Negativland’s A Big 10-8 Place and my Impala was ready for its first real-world performance piece: “Lowering Property Values.” You can see the effect on UCI’s upscale parking lot already!
Next up: Part 3 — Lowering Property Values
1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup
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1965 Impala Hell Project Part 1: So It Begins Fri, 27 May 2011 01:00:58 +0000
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
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Art Car to Daily Driver to Drag Racer: 10 Years of My 1965 Impala Hell Project Thu, 19 May 2011 21:00:28 +0000
I put in four years and thousands of posts at Jalopnik, writing about most of my formative cars… but never once did I write the story of the car that served me longest, gave me the most miles, endured the most engine swaps, and generally laid claim to a bigger piece of my heart than all the rest of my motley lifetime fleet combined: a 1965 Chevrolet Impala sedan, built at the long-defunct South Gate Assembly Plant in Los Angeles, equipped with a 283/Powerglide drivetrain, and painted Artesian Turquoise. Today, at last, the story begins.

I bought it with tax-refund money during my senior year of college, with the idea that it would serve as my canvas for a high-concept mixed-media performance/installation art project (don’t worry, my version of an art car isn’t a ’79 New Yorker with plastic army men hot-glued all over it). This it did, helping pry loose a degree from the Regents of the University of California, and then it— totally unexpectedly— won me over and became a more-or-less bulletproof daily driver that put 100,000 miles under its wheels during the following decade. It moved me and all my possessions across the country and back, earned me the nickname “Mad Max” from my coworkers at Year One, survived the rigors of living on the streets of San Francisco, and accepted parts from hundreds of junkyard donors. By the end, it sported a three-dimensional patina that would make the most inked-up Billetproof hipster swoon with envy, and it was knocking off mid-13s at the strip with a low-buck small-block. It’s going to take a while to relate the entire story, so check in after this weekend’s LeMons race (part of the six-races-in-seven-weeks 24 Hours of LeMons Springtime Death March) to get the next installment.
Next: The Purchase.

1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup

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Not Exactly Hard, Sweet, and Sticky: Sammy Hagar’s First Rock Star Car Purchase Sat, 02 Apr 2011 22:30:49 +0000
I ended up with a copy of Sammy Hagar’s memoir as reading material for my last air-travel adventure, and found it quite entertaining (in spite of the tedious anti-David Lee Roth/Van Halen brothers diatribes). His tales of being the son of Fontana’s town drunk are worth reading, but the only real shocker came when Hagar describes the car he bought in 1973 with the first real money advanced to Montrose. You’ll never guess what type of vehicle the Red Rocker bought with his first rockstar-grade paycheck!

That’s right, a Citroën 2CV! Perhaps this car was the real inspiration for “I Can’t Drive 55″ (“I Can Only Drive 55 Downhill” didn’t have quite the same ring to it). In his words: “…and I bought a car. Not just any car, of course, but a Citroën Deux Chaveux, the most uncool car on the planet— a French car that looks like a sardine can. I thought it had class.” For what it’s worth, his next car purchase was a right-hand-drive Ferrari 330GT 2+2.

All right, let’s all crank up the song Mr. Hagar wrote for his very first album, a song that makes up for all that hot-selling-yet-forgettable stuff he did with the post-Roth Van Halen. Truly one of the greatest— if not the greatest— beer-soaked-burnouts-in-the-convenience-store-parking-lot anthems ever recorded

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Welcome To The Future: Needle In a Haystack, Long Grade 8 Bolt In Denver Fri, 11 Mar 2011 00:30:15 +0000
The Home Depot-ization of all forms of hardware retailing continues unabated, as I found out this afternoon. I needed a pair of 7″ long 1/2″ Grade 8 bolts, today, so that I could get my Dodge A100 Hell Project back on the road. Easy, right? Maybe ten years ago it was. Not today.

It all started when Ununquadium Legend of LeMons winner Rich offered to help me convert the A100 from its pre-1967 better-hope-nothing-leaks single-circuit brake system to a mandated-by-meddling-nanny-state dual-circuit system. That part went fine (more on the project later), but I figured I’d install new shock absorbers while I had the thing up on stands with the wheels off.

See the difference between the lower mount on the old shock versus the new one? That meant that the mounting bolt wasn’t going to fit. Just get one that’s 3/4″ longer and everything will be fine.

My van has an aftermarket sway bar installation (as far as I can tell, Chrysler didn’t put factory sway bars on any A100s), which uses a long bolt through the axle beam to mount the shock absorber on the rear side and the sway bar end link on the front side. I suspect that the sway bar installer used shocks with a narrower bottom mount in order to make his sway bar hardware fit… oh, and he also used crappy bolts that got bent and corroded over the years. Ack! So, I headed down to the Ace Hardware in downtown Denver, confident that I’d find what I needed. As it turned out, Ace no longer stocks nearly as extensive a selection of Grade 8 fasteners as it once did (though the store did have quite the assortment of shiny chrome bolts), and I could find only a handful of 1/2″ shoulder bolts in Grade 8, none of which were anything close to the required 7″ length. Fortunately, the hardware guy at the store knew where I might find what I needed.

Less than a mile away, AAA Metric turned out to be just the old-school hardware supplier I needed (sorry about the crappy cellphone-camera photo). A tiny office in an industrial neighborhood in the shadow of I-25, AAA Metric (which also stocks non-metric stuff, despite the name) is staffed by real parts guys, and they hooked me up with just what I needed in a matter of minutes. Two G8 bolts, two G8 nuts. $8.06, and I’ve got what I need. I hope that a few expert-staffed, independent places like this manage to cling to life. Otherwise… well, not every retail problem can be solved by a resentful $6/hour “associate” who knows how to push the button with the picture of the hamburger and nothing more.

FastenerInAHaystack-5 FastenerInAHaystack-1 FastenerInAHaystack-2 FastenerInAHaystack-3 FastenerInAHaystack-4 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 47
2000: San Francisco Tow-Auction Cars Fill My Back Yard Wed, 02 Feb 2011 14:00:01 +0000
Going through my old 2X2X2 35mm stereo slide pairs for posting on Cars In Depth (I’ve been messing around with twin-film-camera 3D for about 15 years now), I came across some shots of the ever-varied fleet of late-80s/early-90s Japanese subcompacts I owned during the heyday of San Francisco’s notorious City Tow car auctions.
City Tow has since been replaced by Auto Return, whose auctions are way less fun than the Wild West madness of the circa-2000 City Tow auctions. Back in those days, you’d show up to a grimy parking lot at Pier 70, eyeball a couple hundred towed vehicles in unknown condition (would the car start? were the seats packed with dirty syringes? Who knows?) for maybe 15 minutes, then get to bidding. Crowds of Hunter’s Point gang-bangers kept the auction proceedings lively, and 10-to-15-year-old Civics, Tercels, Corollas, and Sentras usually went for $100 to $300. I had a job not far from Pier 70, so I’d often drop by and risk a couple hundred bucks on, say, an ’86 CRX or ’90 Prizm. You’d pay your money, pay some sleazebag with a trunk full of car keys $35 to find a key that fit your new ride, then pay another dude with a car battery in a shopping cart 5 bucks for a jump start. I’d always bring starter fluid and a bare-bones toolbox, and I never once bought a Toyota, Honda, or Nissan that wouldn’t start (though I did once buy a Tercel wagon that had only third through fifth gears, which made climbing up the steep access road out of Pier 70 a real adventure.

That Tercel ended up being a keeper, after I swapped in a Pick-N-Pull transmission; I’d traded my previous Tercel wagon— that one a 4WD model— to a guy who worked at Alternative Tentacles, in exchange for a bunch of the album inserts of the controversial H.R. Giger artwork used in the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist. Hmmm… wonder if those are worth anything now? The other two cars in the top photo— a ’90 Tercel hatchback and a ’91 Nissan Sentra coupe— didn’t stick around quite as long. Still, I think the early 90s era was really the golden age of Japanese subcompacts; they all had fuel injection, got great gas mileage, and were still small.

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Ratty’s Jamaican Muffler Shop and Bar: Fix It Up, Forget It! Fri, 07 Jan 2011 02:00:58 +0000
When the 24 Hours of LeMons HQ crew left the season-ending Miami race on New Year’s Day, we didn’t go back home. No, we got right on a plane to northern Jamaica for our corporate retreat!

Of course, a LeMons corporate retreat means that we spend most of our time washing down curry goat, mannish water, and festivals with 120-proof “Jancro Batty” (warning: don’t use that term around polite Jamaicans, because it also means something intolerably obscene) which moonshine rum, which involves a lot of driving on some of the wildest not-quite-two-lane, not-quite-blacktop “highways” imaginable. More on that, and what we’ve discovered is the Greatest Vehicle You Can’t Buy In The U.S.A., later.

Driving from Montego Airport to our villa in the hills above Ocho Rios, Chief Perp Lamm ran his rented Yaris (a car not well-suited to the rigors of Jamaican roads, as it turns out) over a huge rock in the pothole-a-second Fern Gully— while dodging a stray dog— and punctured the sidewall. Fortunately, the car came with a full-sized spare.

In the Walkerswood area of St. Ann’s Parish, everyone knows that Ratty’s will take care of your vehicular maladies— whatever they may be. You roll up, chat with the guys hanging around the tubing bender, and let Ratty know what you need.

Ratty specializes in exhaust-system work, but he’s part of a huge network of savvy wrenches who can get you anything from a rebuilt engine for your Toyota Noah to tinted windows for your Suzuki Alto (99% of the vehicles in Jamaica appear to be late-model Japanese products).

Our sidewall puncture was sent out to a Ratty-affiliated tire man’s shop and taken care of, no problem. 300 Jamaican dollars, or about $3.50.

Sure, you’re not supposed to do this, but we need an emergencies-only spare for the rent-a-Yaris and we aren’t driving back to the rental agency in Montego Bay to get one.

Our Jamaican host had a burned-out taillight in his Isuzu diesel pickup, so one of Ratty’s comrades swapped the bulb for him. The price? “Just buy me one drink, mon.”

The shop is just a couple of little buildings to keep the rain off the tools and a few welded-rebar ramps for getting under cars, because that’s all you really need in a mild climate like Jamaica’s; a quick phone call from Ratty to one of his many mechanic buddies is all that’s needed to fetch the necessary parts and/or skills.

Let’s take a moment to admire the bare-bones simplicity of Ratty’s welder.

Here’s an ’81 Isuzu pickup with a replacement bed Ratty built from scratch.

Here’s an innovation that we’d like to see spread to the United States: this automotive repair shop has its own bar! Ratty’s Bar wasn’t open when we dropped by, but we hear the place really jumps when it’s in action. You see, Ratty’s isn’t just a shop– it’s a major local gathering place and socializing destination.

It goes without saying that Ratty’s Bar has become an important watering hole for the 24 Hours of LeMons HQ staff while in Jamaica.

I’ll try to get some more cars-in-Jamaica posts done while I’m here, if this brief window to the internet persists in staying open; otherwise, I’ll be back in full effect on Sunday. For now, it’s time to head back to Ratty’s for a few rum-&-Tings!
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Paul Niedermeyer Says Farewell; Moves On To The Next Curbside Classic Fri, 14 May 2010 15:02:39 +0000

Transitions are almost never easy, and leaving TTAC and Curbside Classics is downright painful. But for a number of reasons, that’s what needs to happen right now. Two of them are in the picture above.

That’s my younger son Will, who recently turned eighteen, with his just acquired ’02 Ranger. He and I are going to fix up this wreck of a 110 year-old empty former farm house that we’ve owned for years, just down the street from our place . It needs to be either saved now or be lost to the elements forever. And it’s no small undertaking. To start with, we’re going to move it (not with the Fords) forty feet, and then turn it ninety degrees, because right now it’s sitting across the line of two lots. Talk about the ultimate Curbside Classic.

I spent several years doing this kind of thing, saving houses from the wrecking ball, having them moved, and turning them into a whole little fleet of rentals. I like to photograph and write about old cars, but collecting old houses is a properly-paying proposition, unlike collecting old cars (or writing about them). Four years ago, I was ready to give it a break, and I started writing for TTAC. And for those that were around then, they may remember that I stopped for the first two summers, to keep up on maintenance and enjoy the outdoors.

Than a little over a year ago, I started Curbside Classics on a whim. It started out as a once-a-week habit, escalated to twice a week, and I never stopped last summer, despite the fact that there was no pay at all back then, and I was neglecting things at home. It had become an addiction, to find and record the old cars still on the streets of Eugene. And since my rate of finding them was much greater than the rate of writing them up and posting them, the addiction eventually became a six-times a week habit. Time to go cold turkey.

After older son Edward took over at TTAC last fall, I offered to help in any way I could, and stepped it up with a new title and writing all kinds of other articles; everything from taking apart gas pedals to histories that interested me and hopefully you. It was my dream job, and I’ve had as much or more enthusiasm about it than anything I’ve ever done; way too many late nights and weekends.

TTAC is now on solid footing, and I need to switch gears, completely. I can’t split my energy two ways; I need to focus on one main project at a time. And this is going to be a big one (close to 3000 sq.ft. with a new daylight basement under it). We’re planning to make it a model of environmentally-responsible building techniques: recycling the basic structure, turning it east-west for maximum passive solar gain, putting in new south-facing dormers and windows upstairs, making it energy efficient by sheathing it completely in foil-faced foam insulation, solar panels, a new metal roof, rain water catchment, etc..

And when it’s been moved on to the back lot, there will be room for another house on the front lot. And Will has an option to buy all of it from me. I’ve shown him how the numbers pan out so he can live in the daylight basement apartment for free and pay the mortgage out of the rent he collects from the five/six-bedroom house above him. He was very ambivalent about starting college anyway: this will be the hands-on home-schooling alternative version.  And if it works out like planned, I won’t have to ever help him find (or pay) for an apartment or house to rent (Landlords hate to pay other landlords rent).

The hard part is leaving my unwritten Curbside Classics as well as you, dear readers. I have over a thousand cars shot. And your support, encouragement and comments have been the single biggest factor in feeding my CC addiction. I can’t thank you all enough!

It’s hard for me to imagine leaving them unfinished for too long. If the past is a reliable predictor of the future, I will be back. But it’s too early to say if and when with certainty. Right now, summer’s sunshine is calling me outside. Let’s see what happens when it gets cold and dreary. In the meantime, you’ll have to be content with summer reruns from Curbside Classics Central and Automotive Histories Central.  I tried to leave them well stocked. Farewell, until we meet again!

contact PN:

]]> 99 Autobiography: Family Carma Sun, 04 Apr 2010 16:54:38 +0000

This garage holds 45 years of automotive memories. As does the house it’s attached to. I’ll spare you the memories and stories that are being shared, relived and dredged up as the Niedermeyer clan shares a get-together at my parents’ house in Towson. But let’s take a quick look at the cars that have lived here since 1965. Like families, it’s a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly (as the current occupants make it all too clear). 

Since there’s no scanner in the house, regrettably I can’t share pictures of the actual cars, so these are all stand-ins.

The 1965 Dodge Coronet 440 eight-seat wagon replaced the 1962 Ford Fairlane in the most recent CC. By far, it holds the most memories for me, given that it was the first car I ever drove. One day when I was fifteen, my parents were gone for the day in my father’s car, so I just grabbed the keys, walked down to the garage, got in and backed it out into the driveway, like I had done almost every Saturday to wash it. But this time I just kept going, through the neighborhood, out to Charles street, and when I hit the Beltway, I turned into the exit and got on the busy freeway.

The only problem I had was that I had to fight a nervous shaking in my leg, as I got up to 65 or so. But it smoothed out after a couple of miles. Having spent many summers driving old tractors in the fields of Iowa, I was surprised at how dead and lacking in feedback/kickback the Dodge’s power steering was. Welcome to the reality of Mopar PS.

I was instantly addicted to driving, and you can read all about my exploits here and here. It inevitably resulted in a fender bender (not my fault), but that exposed my exploits and postponed my license for almost two years. The effect was that it extended my period of illicit driving, and my creativity in finding the cars to do it in.

The Dodge had the old polyspheric 318 V8, with 230 hp, and the Torqueflite. It was a real challenge to get it to burn even a hint of rubber. And as much as I like to buy into the myth of Mopars handling better than average, Mom’s Coronet handled like a pig. It under steered notoriously, plowing its way through life. It wasn’t the slightest bit fun to drive. I drove it purely out of necessity to feed my habit.

To the right of the Coronet, on my father’s side, lived a bright green 1965 Opel Kadett. It was a fairly short-term visitor, staying a mere three years. And its the only car of all of them that I never drove, the Opel having left the fold before I started my driving career.

It was a remarkably tiny and tinny little buzz bomb. Opel’s key competitor to the VW Beetle was a flyweight, weighing two hundred pounds less than a Beetle, or just some 1500 lbs. And it never let you forget it. The tops of the doors would show daylight at seventy or so, being sucked out by the negative pressure area at speed. But with a fairly rev-happy 993cc four that put out 40 hp, it could easily outrun the ubiquitous Beetles. This is something that my older brother proved to me in numerous stoplight drag races.

In every way, the Kadett was the polar opposite of the Dodge: it was hyper-direct in all its controls, and could be made to do all sorts of interesting maneuvers, with its balanced RWD chassis. It was more like wearing a car than driving it. And its hard ride  and noisiness were more akin to a toy or a sedan version of an Austin Healey Sprite.

A baby-shit brown stripper Dart like this one replaced the fragile Opel after a mere three years of my father’s commute and my brother’s exploits. It had the small 170 slant six, three-on-the-tree, and manual steering and brakes. It lived up to its reputation, and was a loyal servant for many years. More Darts are coming soon to CC, but let me just say this: if this car had come with a four-speed stick, and the steering had been just a tad quicker, it would have been quite an effective back-road bomber. With very little weight on the front (the bane of most older American cars), it handled surprisingly well, completely unlike the bigger Dodge wagon. The little six revved more than one would expect, but the gap between second and third was a black hole that the bigger 225 six would have dealt with better with its much more ample torque.

Mom’s Coronet was replaced by a 1973 Coronet wagon, my father having taken a serious turn towards Mopars after the previous Fords. This picture is of a ’72, but that’s all I could find; but the difference was minuscule (n0 fake wood on Moms’). I had already left home by then, but the first time I came home after it appeared and I took it for a drive, I was pleasantly surprised. It handled markedly better than the ’65, and the newer LA 318 seemed to pull as hard if not more so, despite the desmogging. But the handling was the biggest surprise; this one felt so much more composed, and even the steering now had a tad of feedback. Power disc brakes added to the overall impression of driving a much more modern car.

No, that’s not my family on horses. But this Zephyr is a pretty close dead-ringer for what replaced the Dart after ten year’s of use. The Dart was actually still in very decent shape then, without rust and and as solid and hard-running as ever. But my father finally broke down and admitted that he liked the A/C in Mom’s ’73 Coronet. Baltimore summers will do that, even to a cold blooded person like him. So the Zephyr, equipped with the 2.3 L four, four speed stick (on the floor) between actual bucket seats, and air conditioning replaced the Dart.

It was an interesting car, inasmuch as it (and its Fairmont twin) were the closest thing to a Volvo 240 ever built in America. The Fox platform was a remarkable piece of work, which we’ll examine closer soon, and with the four, stick, and manual steering it wasn’t exactly fast, but a very light and neutral handling car that felt much more European than the typical fare built by Detroit. We all though that the dorky factor was high, but that just came with the baggage of it being my father’s.

My father was now back to being a Ford man, and with the family nest quickly emptying, my Mother wanted something smaller. A 1981 or ’82 Escort wagon (not a woody) with the 1.6 and automatic was very much in tune with America’s new-found love for small cars during the second energy crisis. I’ll spare my full assessment on a coming CC, but let’s just say it won’t do much to rehabilitate my growing reputation hereabouts as a Ford hater. Like almost all small cars form Detroit, the Escort started out very flawed, and eventually the worst of the warts were sanded away and they turned into half-way decent but serviceable cars. Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough, given the competition from Japan. ‘Nuff said for now.

My father did something totally out of character in 1985 or 1986. He actually called me up to get my recommendation for a new car, as long as it was a domestic. The answer was instantaneous: a Taurus. It was light years ahead anything else from Detroit, and these early versions with the Vulcan 3.0 and automatic were actually devoid of the notorious problems with the 3.8 and the later transaxles. It was a breakthrough car, and one could rightfully say it was the mold of which the whole Camcordia class has been cast from ever since. Quiet, smooth riding yet not a bad handler; for the first time that balance did not elude Detroit. He loved it and it gave him very good service. But he never called and asked me for advice again. Go figure.

Somehow, I was able to co-opt my father in the decision for Mom’s next car. Despite his rabid anti-import sentiment (he was still smarting from the fragile Opel and the crappy service he got at the utterly disinterested Buick dealer) I talked her into asserting herself and buying a Civic sedan; I’m not exactly sure which year, but one of these. And she fell utterly in love with it. It was bright red, and she called it her sports car. Without going into the unflattering details, let me just say that her innate ability to have a relationship with a car and the corresponding driving skills profoundly overshadowed those of my father. He wouldn’t like to hear it, but so it is. And he doesn’t read TTAC. Anyway, that Civic was one of the joys of her life, and she always looked forward to driving it. And it was utterly dead reliable.

By 1993, there would have been so many easy choices for my father with which to replace the Taurus. But for some  inexplicable reason, he now turned to the company I so wanted him to buy from in the sixties: GM. But he waited thirty years too late to buy the right Skylark. I couldn’t believe it when he proudly told me of his new Buick. Let’s just say it’s still in the garage, and the fact that the two of them have survived this long with each other is a minor miracle. He was always a driver who didn’t inspire confidence, and at the age of ninety, we all shudder to think he’s still at it. None of us have gotten in with him for years, unless it was absolutely essential. The truth hurts sometimes. Maybe the Buick is his good luck token.

One day a few years ago, my father took my mother’s Honda for a drive, and came back with a new Saturn Ion coupe. And she didn’t stop letting him hear about how unhappy she was about that for years. I’m sure he meant well, but…well, its probably better I just stop now. They’re old, and we’re here to celebrate the fact that they can both still (sort of) drive at all.

There will never again be any more new cars in this old garage. And despite some of the questionable choices, the cars got them through their very full lives. So I celebrate them all, and will miss them, even the Ion and the Buick. Possibly even most of all.

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Auto-Biography: Maserati Dreamin’ Sat, 19 Sep 2009 07:45:52 +0000 The stuff dreams are made of

I find myself floating above an endless sea of thimbleberry bushes. The berries are all ripe, infinite delectable crimson caps punctuating a sea of green. I can’t see the trail, but somehow distant and hidden legs carry me along and know where to go, while I gorge on the fruit. Now I’m behind the wheel of my car, watching an endless movie loop of a winding serpentine road, with a rushing river to my left and a wall of towering firs on my right. I have no awareness of actually driving; the car knows what to do while I gorge on the scenery. The road through Oregon’s deep woods is utterly deserted. Then an image confronts me, so unexpected, so surreal, that now I know I’m dreaming.

A reminder...There, on a little dead-end spur off US Forest Service Road 19, set against a backdrop of emerald firs, sits a glistening white Maserati 3500 GT with its hood open. A beautiful young woman with auburn hair wearing shorts and a summery top is peering into the engine compartment. The autopilot in my car reflexively pulls me over. The scenario is so unlikely, I simply accept it as an actor in a movie. Where are the cameras, lights and the director?

The Maserati 3500 GT is not just a truly exquisite exotic, it also has a special place in the history of its maker as well as mine. It was the car that saved the Trident from bankruptcy, and established the marque as the slightly-more “affordable” alternative to its Modena rival, Ferrari.

Prior to the 3500 GT, Maserati was struggling to support its racing efforts building small numbers of sports-racing cars. The 3500 GT was its desperate bid for survival and volume production, if you can consider some 2,000 GTs built between 1958 and 1964 as volume. Carrozeria Touring won the design contest and resulting contract to build the Superleggara (super-light) alloy bodies, draped so elegantly over the built-up tube frame. The 3500 quickly developed a reputation as an exceptionally beautiful and fast (145mph) gran tourisimo that was also solid, reliable and tractable. TTAC contributor Stewart Dean’s reminiscences of driving his father’s 3500 GT are here, although the photo at the top of his excellent write-up is not correct.

I had a very brief but infinitely vivid encounter with a 3500 GT at the age of five or six that left a permanent cleft in my heart; my first Italian crush. We were in a family friend’s Fiat 1100, on an Alpine road in Austria. Behind us, I heard the sound of a horn like none ever before: an intense command to attention; an unmistakable intonation of superiority. I turned around to see the distinctive face of this Maserati come screaming up, and then flying past us and a half dozen or more cars on the winding, narrow two-lane road.The source of joy and bewilderment

My first Baruthian encounter shook something loose deep inside me, and opened a whole new field of possibilities. I’ve replayed that very scene countless times, watching the Maserati disappear around the next bend. And now, after chasing it for fifty years, I’ve finally caught up with it, in the deep woods of Oregon, broken down from its super-automotive exertions.

As I approach, I’m overwhelmed by the radiant beauty; from both of them. “It’s not every day one stumbles on a 3500 GT in these parts” I say. Especially one in concours condition, all by itself, and driven by a girl, I think to myself. “Having a problem?”

“It’s overheating; it’s been running hot since I drove over from Bend yesterday to a car show in Cottage Grove. But then the temperature gauge went out, and now it overheated in a cloud of steam”. I looked into the engine compartment dominated by one of the most beautiful engines ever made, a detuned version of Maserati’s 350S F1 racer.

I have a really big thing about classic DOHC straight sixes. Think Jaguar XK engine, but even better: twelve spark plugs lined up in perfect two-by-two formation like soldiers at attention; three huge dual-throat Webers extending perpendicular to one side; twin ceramic-coated long-sweep headers on the other. I pry my eyes away from this cathedral of an engine to take in the cooling system: bone stock, right down to a most pathetic little four-blade steel fan. And not a coolant overflow container or auxiliary electric fan to be seen; just the original radiator.

My thoughts go to Chuck Goolsbee’s XK-E , which recently paid us a visit on its way to LA. It sported a huge custom radiator and (at least) a brace of big electric fans. When I spot the original Maserati emblem on the radiator cap, I know again I’m dreaming. “You go on long trips often?” is all I can come up with.

Relax...Yes, I’ve driven it to concours d’elegances and shows up and down the coast, from Seattle to California. Most folks trailer cars like this to shows, but I like to drive it. This was my grandfather’s car, and he took me to shows all over the West in it when I was little. I’m keeping the tradition going. And I want to keep it original. It’s never overheated before.” It was an unusually cool late-summer day, barely seventy degrees.

I lost myself in endless perfect details while we waited for the engine to cool enough for a drink. Her bottle of water didn’t begin to slake its thirst, so I grabbed my empty hiking bottles and we walked to the babbling river and filled them. It took it all and more.

She started the engine and I automatically slid under the front to look for leaks. But the symphony of fine Italian parts all working in concert kept distracting me, even at idle. As did the odd little pump hung below the crank pulley, driven by its own belt. I slid my finger along the hoses emanating from it: one to the crankcase, the other to the right of the radiator. An auxiliary pump for the oil cooler, I assume.

No leaks anywhere. The beautiful radiator cap was holding pressure. Hmm. A blown head gasket? I keep that expensive thought to myself. A discussion about the options ensues. She had pulled off Hwy 126 just before it begins the serious climb over McKenzie Pass. It’s a steep narrow road with iffy shoulders at times. It’s also going to be dark soon.

I suggest driving carefully back down to Eugene, where there is an excellent shop that she has heard of. She warms up to that idea. I tell her Some things never get oldabout my childhood obsession with the 3500 GT, and about Curbside Classics. I head for my car to get my camera. Suddenly, a stray cloud obscures the late-afternoon sun, and the sparkle on the Maserati and the trees is gone. The dream now takes an ugly turn: I don’t have my camera with me! And the driver has decided to call a tow truck to take them both back to Bend. I want desperately to hang on to this dream, this car, its driver, and take pictures to have proof that they were real. But it’s all slipping away.

I wake up in the morning grumpy; I’ve tossed and turned with the Maserati all night. But after thirty-one years of marriage, Stephanie knows exactly what I need to hear: “Paul, I understand how you feel. It was a real dream car, and she was exactly your type. If you were twenty-five years younger, and if I and her boyfriend hadn’t been there, the whole thing could have been the dream of your lifetime. I’m sorry. And I keep telling you: don’t leave home without your camera.”

Postscript: Three years ago, I stumbled unto TTAC. It would have been a dream then, if I could have seen how that fateful encounter evolved. A few months later, I tentatively sent Robert Farago a draft that became Chapter 1 of the Autobiography. With Robert’s encouragement, it took on a life of its own. And it hasn’t ended yet.

Now, Robert is moving on, and my son Edward is taking the helm of TTAC. Who could have dreamt that? The Niedermeyers owe Robert a pre-bailout GM-sized thank you, for the unwavering support you’ve shown both of us, and the opportunities to make our dreams become realities. I dedicate this Chapter of the Auto-biography to you, Robert; and may all your dreams come true.

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