The Truth About Cars » 1965 Impala Hell Project The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Jul 2014 15:46:48 +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 » 1965 Impala Hell Project Ten Years In the Life of My Greatest Car: The 1965 Chevy Impala Hell Project! Sun, 30 Jun 2013 02:03:23 +0000 Since it took me so many months to scan the hundreds of 35mm, 126, 110, and Super 8 negatives and slides that went into the telling of the 1965 Impala Hell Project Story (tip for time-travelers: if you’re going to document a project like this, wait until digital photography becomes cheap and easy), I figure it makes sense to put together a single roundup page with links to all 20 parts in the series. For those of you unfamiliar with this series, it tells the story of a 1965 Chevrolet Impala sedan that I bought in 1990 and spent a decade daily-driving and modifying into, among other things, an art car and a 13-second drag racer. Here’s your portal to each chapter.
1. So It Begins.
1990: My high-concept performance/installation art piece takes the form of a full-hooptie, 25-year-old Impala sedan.
2. The Modifications Begin
1990: Fat tires, de-chromification, de-trimization.
3. Lowering Property Values
1990: Where art becomes The Realtor Man’s Nightmare.
4. Saddam Chooses My New Engine
1990: Forced to ditch my plan for a 454-cubic-inch big-block swap by Saddam’s gas-price-jacking invasion of Kuwait, I replace the tired 283 with a 350 small-block.
5. Three Speeds, Two Exhaust Pipes
1990: The Powerglide gets replaced by a TH350, while a homebuilt dual-exhaust system increases the volume.
6. Gauges! Switches! Buttons!
1991: The factory dash gets ripped out and replaced by a handbuilt Space Shuttle-style instrument panel.
7. Disc Brakes In, Couch-Surfing Expedition Enabled
1991: The brakes from a 1970 Impala add stopping power, an HEI distributor enhances reliability, so I take off on a month-long couch-surfing trip up and down the state of California, culminating in a road trip to the first Lollapalooza Festival.
8. Refinements, Meeting Christo’s Umbrellas
A heater and new springs makes the car much more daily-drivable, and so I visit Christo’s pedestrian-killing umbrella art installation in Southern California.
9. Fastening Shoulder Belts, Bailing From Academia
1992: Three-point seat belts added, I drive the Impala to grad school.
10. Fiat Hood Scoops, Endless Ribbon of Asphalt
1992: Fiat X1/9 hood scoops add menace, zero function. North-to-South California road trips continue.
11. Son of Orange County
1993-1994: Generation X ennui, pilgrimage to the birthplace of Richard Nixon upon learning of his demise.
12. Next Stop, Atlanta!
1994-1995: Packing up, moving from San Francisco to Atlanta.
13. Mad Max At the Confederate Mount Rushmore
1995: Writing for Year One, getting a new nickname.
14. First Taste of the Quarter-Mile
1995-1996: Running 16s at the dragstrip.
15. No Replacement For Displacement!
1996-1998: Back to California, building a healthy 406.
16. Another Heart Transplant
The new engine goes in.
17. Crash Diet, Frying Tires At the Dragstrip
1999: New engine installed, interior gutted, one-legger differential becomes limiting factor.
18. Back To the Dragstrip, Website 1999
1999: Locker differential leads to 13.67 run at Sacramento Dragway.
19. The Road Not Taken, Final Photo Session
1999: Thinking I might write about the car someday, I shoot some nice portraits at the ex-Alameda Naval Air Station.
20. The End
2000: Time to let go.

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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.

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