The Truth About Cars » Impala The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:33:07 +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 » Impala Reuters: GM Ignition Woes Came As Early As 1997 Fri, 04 Jul 2014 12:00:29 +0000 GM RenCen Downtown Detroit

It may have taken nearly 14 years for one ignition switch issue to finally find attention, but General Motors’ ignition woes go as far back as 1997, when Chevrolet Malibu owners had their own switch problems.

Reuters reports one of the earliest complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was in April of that year, when a New Jersey woman said she had been stuck on the road seven times with her new Malibu due to the switch’s inability to turn and the key stuck in place. The defective part was replaced twice, but to no avail. Other complaints include the key being easily removable while the power was still on, and power suddenly cutting out.

By 2001, when the 2000 Chevrolet Impala experienced its own ignition issues similar to those in the Malibu and, further on, the Cobalt and Saturn Ion, GM sent a pair of service bulletins to its dealership network, offering potential solutions to remedy the problems in both vehicles. However, no recall would be issued until Monday’s order of 8.4 million vehicles.

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Barclays: GM Recall Parade To Last Into Mid-Summer Fri, 23 May 2014 10:00:04 +0000 Blurry Renaissance Center

Automotive News reports General Motors’ recall parade could, according to Barclays Capital analyst Brian Johnson, last well into the middle of the summer season. The data mining conducted by the automaker’s team of 60 safety investigators on 10 sources reporting potential problems — including consumer complaints and reports from its dealership network — will likely bring more recall requests before GM’s senior executives. Johnson adds that the investigators are working on likely defects on a per-issue basis instead of per-vehicle, which may mean a number of vehicles will be called back multiple times as the recall parade marches on; he also notes that its hard to discern if recalls of past vehicles have already peaked.

Detroit Free Press says GM product chief Mark Reuss will be leading a new team of five execs in choosing who all will be on the parade route, determining when and if a recall should be issued on any given vehicle with a potential problem. The team’s creation aims to accelerate the automaker’s response to said safety concerns, as well as better enable communication with its consumer base and the federal government. In addition, the 60 investigators, led by global safety boss Jeff Boyer, will comb social media to gather evidence of problems that haven’t been found from within.

Over in Canada, Reuters reports government officials are investigating GM Canada over the possibility that, much like the mothership across the border, it, too, delayed product recalls. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt instructed her group of officials to ask GM Canada “when did they find out” about the out-of-spec ignition switch, proclaiming that if they knew before the recall was issued, the Canadian subsidiary “could be in violation of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act.” If found guilty, GM Canada could be fined anywhere between $100,000 and $1 million CAN depending on the conviction issued, far less than the $35 million levied against GM by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration earlier this month.

The Detroit News reports those affected by the recalls of newer vehicles, including the 2014 Cadillac CTS and 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe, are receiving free loaner vehicles much like those affected by the February 2014 ignition switch recall. In the case of Cadillac, however, the free loaners are standard practice for recalls related to the brand’s products, as they fall under warranty. Meanwhile, the Chevrolet and GMC loaner programs, according to spokeswoman Ryndee Carney, was at the automaker’s discretion; as the recall involves tie-rod defects — including a park-it-now notice — GM made the decision “to offer owners of those trucks courtesy transportation.”

Finally, Automotive News says those who purchase a 2015 Chevrolet Impala with the base 2.5-liter four-cylinder will include stop-start technology as standard equipment, which aims to boost the engine’s fuel efficiency by 5 percent. According to spokesman Chad Lyons, the stop-start tech “will become more prevalent in GM vehicles” as time goes on; the 2.5-liter Impala is the second to have the tech standard, after the 2014 Malibu. Those who prefer their Impala to come with more power via the 3.6-liter V6, stop-start won’t be available standard due the engine’s heavier weight negating potential fuel savings.

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Junkyard Find: 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Tue, 18 Feb 2014 14:00:19 +0000 10 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinAs most of you know, I have some history with the 1965 full-sized Chevrolet. Back in 1990, when I bought mine, these cars were still very common in high-turnover wrecking yards; this was the result of high production (in fact, more 1965 full-sized Chevrolets were built than any other single year/model of American car in history) and low scrap value. Today, however, shredders that turn scrap cars into quick cash (I recommend this book to anyone curious about the recent technological advances in the scrap-metal field) mean that beat-up old Detroit heaps that aren’t worth restoring get funneled right into The Crusher‘s voracious maw. I find the occasional 60s full-size Chevy in wrecking yards these days, but 25 years ago they were as common as are Chrysler LHs today. That makes today’s find, a rust-and-Bondo-nightmare ’65 Bel Air coupe, even more special.
31 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinI found evidence of several distinct applications of body filler on this car. It’s like counting tree rings.
33 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinBecause these cars all leaked around the rear window and trunk weatherstripping and the water ends up pooling here, even the ones from dry Western states rust like this. My ’65 sedan spent lived most of its life in Southern California and had similar rot.
09 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinJust for fun, I decoded the cowl tag. This car was built in the Janesville, Wisconsin plant in the second week of March 1965 (which happens to be the same week the first large contingent of American combat troops arrived in Vietnam). The paint color was Madeira Maroon Metallic, the interior was Fawn cloth and vinyl, and the car came with tinted glass, Powerglide transmission, and padded dash.
18 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThe sticker on the inside of the glovebox door indicates that the car was sold by George Irvin Chevrolet in Denver. A little research shows that this dealership— which still used alphanumeric phone numbers after all-numeric dialing became standard— was located at East Colfax and Gaylord, which is just a few miles from the wrecking yard in which I photographed this ’65. The great circle of automotive life, nearly complete.
11 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThe fenders came from some other ’65 or ’66 full-size Chevrolet, but chances are this car was built with a 283-cubic-inch small-block anyway.
08 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinA really resourceful Junkyard Finder would have scraped the yuck from this engine and obtained some block and head casting numbers. It’s a 283 or a 327 if it’s original… which it probably isn’t
24 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinRather than research the 197 trillionth small-block Chevy engine built, however, I became much more interested in what was in the trunk.
27 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinDenver newspapers from 1982! Poor Marty Feldman— he died so young.
28 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinMeanwhile, the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union was brewing in Poland.
25 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinHowever, the Cold War was getting scarier and scarier during its final decade. Those MX missiles loomed large when Able Archer 83 freaked out Brezhnev’s equally doddering successor.
30 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinMitsubishi started selling trucks under its own name (instead of with Dodge badging) in the United States in 1982.
29 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinSo, our car-trunk history lesson tells us that this car got parked for the last time in the early 1980s, then sat outdoors in Colorado for the next few decades before getting sold for scrap.
19 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThat optional padded dash doesn’t look so great after 32 years at 5,280 feet.
32 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinTwo-door big Chevrolets are cool, but you’d end up paying ten grand to make this one worth maybe four grand. A factory 409 or 396 ’65 Impala two-door with some weird options, sure, that’s worth restoring from basket-case condition. This car… well, let’s hope its few remaining usable parts get grabbed before it gets crushed.

This swift, silent, jet-smooth Chevrolet spreads whole mountains, meadows, vales, and streams before enchanted eyes. There’s no way some spacy-ass commercial like this would get by GM’s marketers today, because they know that Americans hit ‘em hard!

01 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 02 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 03 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 04 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 05 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 06 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 07 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 08 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 09 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 10 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 11 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 12 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 13 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 14 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 15 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 16 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 17 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 18 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 19 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 20 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 21 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 22 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 23 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 24 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 25 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 26 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 27 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 28 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 29 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 30 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 31 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 32 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 33 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 34 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 35 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 36 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 37 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 38 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 39 - 1965 Chevrolet Bel Air Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin ]]> 52
Capsule Review – 2011 Holden Commodore, Pontiac G8, Chevy SS, Chevrolet Caprice Tue, 26 Nov 2013 16:01:28 +0000 Courtesy of GM Middle East

Courtesy of GM Middle East

My boss and I drive the same style rental slug Toyota over here, but when his was due for service, instead of a replacement Fortuner, I spotted a 2011 Chevy Caprice in his parking spot. Having spent almost a year without a proper V-8 under my foot, I convinced him we needed to take that one out.

I also introduced him to a new term…hooning. Mental's Abu Dhabi Dispatches

The staff and contributors here get a fairly standard rash of comments about perceived anti-GM bias. I don’t think it’s accurate, but it’s hard to not get annoyed with GM. Not because of their vehicles, but what they do with the good ones.

You can't control me! I'm a hoon!

You can’t control me! I’m a hoon!

This car is maddening. It works, and it works very well. When GM recognized the need for a RWD platform for LEO sales, they imported this version after Pontiac and its impressive G-8 left the landscape. Bark M recently pointed out the god-awful job GM has done to promote this car, even after it became their primary NASCAR platform.

This particular sedan was a 2011 with just over 54,000 kilometers (33,500 miles) on the clock. 2011 was the introduction of a “new” interior and standard features. This base model had the standard rental quality plastics and faux wood but Bluetooth stereo and dual climate controls are standard features. Both are excellent, once I realized the volume was on the other side of the stereo (Australian, remember?)

No seriously, how do I turn up the radio?

No seriously, how do I turn up the radio?

Without the leather interior, remote start or full integrated navigation system; stateside this would be a great mid-priced sedan. Given the NASCAR tie in, this car would sell itself, not just to rental fleets, but to GM loyalists who believe they don’t need leather and fancy interiors but do absolutely need a V-8. Trust me, those customers are out there, I am related to a lot of them. The fact that Chrysler sells a ton of non-SRT/8 Chargers underscores my point.

I showed my southern roots very quickly after slipping behind the wheel, I had deftly turned off the stability control before making the hard 90 degree right onto the expressway. Exiting the turn I planted the throttle and was rewarded with a proper growl from under the bonnet and controlled wheelspin until the transmission shifted. My boss held the syllable he was speaking at the time as the big sedan pulled. By the time I let off he was giggling with me.


Oh Blessed Lady of Acceleration, please forgive me. I did not mean to stray from your house, I was pulled away kicking and screaming into a midsized SUV. I have missed your song and your touch. It’s so pleasant to speed up without downshifting. Just a toe prod onto the pedal and off she goes. The LS series is such a wonderful engine.

An airport pickup left me with the chance to sample the traffic manners of the big Chevy. It was fine, this is not a BMW or a Mercedes but it’s a solid platform and well mannered. It is what a RWD Caprice has always been.  Here, you can option these cars to the stratosphere or just get the trim level you need. The seats are comfortable enough but not side bolstered. The driver’s seat will extend far enough back to pull my feet off the pedals completely, the rear seat is usable and I haven’t seen a trunk as big in any of my beloved German offerings. This is why it’s maddening as a fan of GM. Why does this car start in Cadillac pricing territory? Why can’t I just order a mid-level trim car?


After dinner I gave the keys back to my boss, who took the chance to mimic some of my shenanigans. Rolling slowly through a puddle from a sprinkler he floored it. Dual wheelspin and a delightful sound had all three of us grinning.

When the G8 was introduced, I was impressed but not interested. But before it all came crashing down, there was talk of the Aussie-designed ute coming to US shores. For the first time in my life, I began to save for a down payment for a new car. When it all went wrong, I was heartbroken.

The G8 was not the strong seller it should have been for a variety of reasons, and now GM is making the same marketing mistakes with this car.

On the way home, the excellent Bluetooth was streaming iTunes top downloads. Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” came on. A 550 AMG passed us, and with the slightest prod the LS put us in its wake, drafting the big German saloon without breathing hard.

“I’m feelin’ electric tonight, Cruising down the coast goin’ ’bout 99”

The next morning, it was back to the Toyota.


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Review: 2014 Chevrolet Impala (With Video) Mon, 26 Aug 2013 12:30:15 +0000
2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior-001
I have this feeling that our most impressionable automotive years are our high school years. Maybe it’s because I was so eager to drive that I noticed anything with wheels. Maybe it’s that auto shop class where I got to wrench on a Wankel (that sounds wrong doesn’t it?). Whatever the reason, it seems many of my brand and model name identities were formed in the mid 1990s. For me, “Impala” doesn’t conjure up the W-Body abomination GM has been selling for the past 13 years. Instead “my” Impala has always been the 1994-1996 Caprice Impala SS with the 5.7L Corvette LT1 engine. This is my benchmark on which every Impala must be judged.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Before we dive in, it’s important to know that for 2014 there are two Impalas. Say what? In a stroke of genius (honestly) GM decided to keep selling the old Impala as a fleet only model. This isn’t the first time GM has done this, the Chevrolet Captiva Sport is a fleet only version of the defunct Saturn VUE. By offering a one car to the public and the other to rental and government fleets, one can logically conclude the used market will contain fewer white Impalas with tan cloth interiors over time. This can only be good for resale value.

The fleet-Impala continues on the ancient W-Body first used in 1988 while the new Impala rides on the same Epsilon platform bones as the Cadillac XTS and Buick LaCrosse. If you had hoped the Impala name would be tied to the RWD Caprice like it was in 1994, you aren’t alone.
2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior, Grille, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes



If you recall my review of the Cadillac XTS a year ago:

Engineers took the Epsilon II platform (shared with everything from the Opel Insignia to the Roewe 950), stretched it to 202-inches long and hey-presto, the XTS was born. Unfortunately Cadillac wasn’t allowed to change the platform hard points, so the same 111.7-inch wheelbase and 62-inch track as the rest of the Epsilon rabble remains. With the wheelbase staying the same, the cabin had to be pushed as far to the wheels as possible to maximize interior space. The result is a sedan with awkward proportions.

When I first saw photos of the Impala I was worried the same awkwardness would translate to Chevy’s flagship, but it turns out the XTS’s proportion problem is mostly caused by the Art & Science design theme. When you dress the platform in super-sized Camaro clothes, things turn out better than expected. The slot-like grille, wide headlamps and plenty of horizontal chrome make the Impala look wide while the XTS’s grille makes it look narrow.

Chevy penned a side profile with a bit more visual interest than most of the competition (I admit that isn’t saying much) thanks to the “haunches” designed into the rear doors and quarter panel. Sadly the designers opted for roof-line that starts lowering at the front doors making the car look better but reducing rear accommodations. Speaking of the rear, the 2014 backside is more exciting than before, but that’s not saying much. Things change a little if you step up to the LTZ model which gets integrated trapezoidal chrome exhaust tips. Still, nobody seems to be spending much time on their back bumpers and trunk lids these days.

Overall the Impala is attractive but I think it slots behind the Chrysler 300 in terms of style and I don’t think it will age as well as the more “generic luxury” lines of the Kia Cadenza. Parking the new Impala next to a 1996 Impala I ran into at the grocery store, I have to admit my high school memories are rose-colored as the 1996 Impala SS looks frumpy in comparison. I can’t end this section without commenting on the 2014 Chevy SS, AKA the Holden VF Commodore, AKA the Chevy Lumina (Middle East), AKA the refresh of the Pontiac G8. Yes, it’s back. While I have no doubts a rear wheel drive sedan with a 6.2L V8 will be a blast to drive, the SS looks like the fleet Impala with some makeup and loses the Impala v SS aesthetics battle.

2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


The Impala’s interior elicited more polarized reactions than I had bargained for during my week. While I’m a fan of the overall style, I can see how the flowing shapes may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The Impala’s build quality has certainly improved over the last generation and comparing the Impala to the Toyota Avalon can now be done with a straight face. Sadly in that head-to-head the Impala comes up short. The problem isn’t panel gaps or seams, it’s certain design choices coupled with plastics choices. The air vents you see in the center if the dash and the climate control bank are cast out of hard plastic and look cheap nestled between the attractive stitched upper dash and soft molded lower dash. My cynical side thinks this was deliberate so that Buick could have something to improve on. Test driving the Impala at night reveals the cabin’s party trick, chrome that glows blue/green when darkness falls. It looks a great deal less gimmicky than I assumed it would and the light strip is totally invisible by day. The light-up chrome is part of the $1,140 premium audio and sport wheel package.

Base LS models get cloth seats, LT models start with a leatherette and fabric combo, but most Impalas on the lot will have either the LT’s leather/alcantara combo (*bumping the base price to $32,695) or the LTZ’s “premium” leather seats which swap the faux-suede inserts for real cow. Regardless of the seat covering the Impala’s thrones are big and soft and 12-way power adjustibility. Unlike the seats in the Chrysler 300, you sit in the seats, not on the seats, a considerably more comfortable proposition. GM includes a 4-way adjustable lumbar support in all models and many of the Impalas I sampled had the optional 12-way seats on the passenger side as well, something you won’t find in the Azera or Cadenza.

2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior, Night View, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

The fleet-only Impala has a wheelbase just one inch shorter than this new consumer model, but due to its 1980s era platform design the space isn’t used efficiently. This is most evident in the back seat where this Impala delivers nearly 6 inches more rear leg room bringing this big boy up to a hair under 40 inches. This make the Impala the largest overall in the segment with front legroom higher than the former winner the Hyundai Azera and legroom nearly tying with the Chrysler 300′s 40.1 inches. At 18.8 cubic feet the Impala’s trunk is four cubes bigger than the Avalon, two cubes bigger than the 300 or the Korean twins and just 1.2 cubes smaller than the Taurus’ cavernous booty. Like the Taurus the Impala’s rear seats fold but it is worth noting that GM’s pass-through is larger and “squarer” than the Ford and the seat backs fold nearly flat with the load floor.

If size is what you demand, the Impala wins the battle with the most overall space. If however quality is more your bag, you’ll find higher quality parts in the Avalon, Azera, Cadenza, LaCrosse and in many ways even the Chrysler 300. The Impala fights back with supremely comfortable seats, but thanks to GM’s parts sharing the same can be said of that Buick.

2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


If you’re a regular reader, you will know that I have recently praised GM’s low and mid-range touchscreen systems as some of the best in the business. The IntelliLink/ChevyLink system in the Chevy Volt and Buick Verano ranks second for me below the latest version of BMW’s iDrive. This is not that system. I an odd twist of infotainment badge engineering, the Impala (and the 2014 LaCrosse) uses a modified version of Cadillac’s CUE software. For Chevy duty GM swapped out the expensive capacitive screen (looks like a modern smartphone) for a resistive unit and added a few physical buttons to improve navigation in the system. Sadly all of CUE’s flaws are present including: random crashes, general sluggishness, unintuitive menu layouts and old-school mapping software. Like CUE some multi-touch gestures are supported but the cheaper touchscreen has troubles deciphering your intent. The system is hard to avoid as every Impala I could find had the system and the only way to escape it is to buy an absolutely base Impala LS as it is the only one without the 8-inch system.

On the bright side, some of CUE’s selling points remain. The system’s voice command system recognized more natural speech commands than the Kia/Hyundai or Toyota systems do and the media library functionality is excellent. Instead of treating the three USB ports as separate inputs, the system aggregates them into one large music library allowing you to voice command songs without specifying the device. The base 6-speaker system has an oddly hollow sound, but the up-level 11-speaker Bose branded system would be competitive in any near-luxury sedan. To get that sound system the Impala will set you back $33,835 as you can’t select the $1,140 sound and wheel package without a number of other options packages.

2014 Chevrolet Impala Engine, 3.6L V6, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes


Under the hood you’ll find the same three engines as the Buick LaCrosse. Things start out with a 2.5L direct-injection four-cylinder engine good for 195 HP and 187 lb-ft of twist. This isn’t the engine you want. Not listed on the Chevy website yet due to its late introduction there is a 2.4L “eAssist” drivetrain that GM has stopped calling a hybrid. Delivering identical performance numbers to the 2.5L four-banger, the mild hybrid system delivered 29.8 MPG average during our week with the nearly identical LaCrosse. If fuel economy is your thing, stop here.

Although my soul is sad there is no Impala SS model for 2014, the 3.6L direct-injection V6 delivered better performance than in every situation except for the 2006 Impala SS which barely beat the 2014 in the 0-30 run but was still slower to 60. The reason isn’t just the V6′s 305 horsepower (2 more than the 2006′s 5.3L V8) or the respectable (for a V6) 264 lb-ft of torque(59 less), it’s the 6-speed automatic. The Ford/GM unit is closely related to the transaxle found in the Taurus but GM’s programming results in shifts that seem slightly faster and a hair firmer. The high revving six, weigh reduction vs the Cadillac XTS AWD and Chevy’s tire selection enabled our Impala tester to wheel-hop its way to 60 in a scant 5.52 seconds. This number was met with some head scratching on our Facebook page but I tested the number three times with the same result. It is worth mentioning that the Acura RLX posted similar numbers and a 5.52 second run isn’t out of the ordinary for a 305HP sedan that weighs around 3800lbs.

Need more performance? There have been persistent rumors about an Impala SS coming at some point and Cadillac has decided to drop their 410HP twin-turbo V6 into the XTS, will they offer a similar powerplant for the 2015 Chevy? It’s hard to say with the 2014 Chevy SS positioned as the performance sedan with a bow-tie.

2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior, 19-inch wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. DykesDrive

The Impala benefits from Buick and Cadillac’s noise reduction efforts and it shows on the road with easily the quietest ride in the bunch. My snazzy new noise meter proved more complicated than I wish to admit and as a result I erased the readings, however the Impala was quieter than the active noise canceled Acura RLX, Kia Cadenza and Lexus ES350 I tested.

The Impala has a unique suspension setup that uses neither the Hi-Per Strut (HPS) suspension from the LaCrosse and XTS, nor the magnetic ride control from the Cadillac. Instead we get a traditional MacPherson strut arrangement with a redesigned strut tower for improved rigidity and rebound springs tuned to keep body-roll from turning into body-wobble. This is important because the Impala is a softly spring sedan in the classic American tradition. The combination works better than it looks on paper despite the loss of the HPS design which was created to vanquish the torque steer demons. Speaking of torque steer, there wasn’t any in the Impala during our tests. So much for that Hi-PerStrut. There’s still plenty of tip, roll and dive on winding mountain roads but the new Impala never felt sloppy or uncontrolled. Broken pavement was a problem for the Cadillac XTS with the suspension paradoxically feeling both too hard and too soft at the same time, the Impala’s traditional setup never exhibited this problem. If you jump up to the 20 inch wheels, be warned they have a negative impact on the serene nature of the Impala’s ride transmitting more road imperfections into the cabin than I thought possible.

2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

When it comes to the competition, the Cadenza feels slightly unsettled at times but is nearly as competent. The Azera’s chassis and suspension tuning aren’t quite up to snuff. Toyota’s Avalon gives the Impala a run for its money with similar road feel and a slightly sportier tune to the dampers. The Chrysler 300 is a tricky comparison since it’s the only RWD sedan in the bunch, but the 300′s driving dynamics are superior to the Impala despite being slower to 60. The lack of AWD is disappointing in the Impala leaving the Buick LaCrosse to be the better handling twin thanks to its slightly more precise suspension knuckles and available AWD.

Without a doubt the 2014 Impala is the finest Impala ever made and perhaps the finest large sedan to wear the bow tie. The base 2.5L four-cylinder Impala snags a 0-60 time only a few tenths off the 1996 Impala SS with its 5.7L V8 while delivering 31 MPG on the highway. The eAssist delivers a similar experience with a surprising 35MPG highway score and 29MPG combined, a 60% increase in fuel economy vs “my” Impala. The 2014 V6 model may not sound as good as that 1996 LT1 but the numbers can’t be denied, the new Impala is the new Impala benchmark. But is it the best full-size American sedan? Not quite. A fully loaded Impala manages to be $2,000 more than a comparable Taurus Limited and about the same price as a similarly optioned Taurus SHO. I’d take the Taurus SHO. The Chrysler 300 is about the same price, but brings superior dynamics, a ZF 8-speed automatic and you can get the 5.7L V8 for not much more. Even the Avalon, which ends up being slightly more expensive than delivers comparable handling a nicer interior and a nav system that doesn’t crash randomly. The Impala’s biggest problem however is the 2014 Buick LaCrosse. In typical GM fashion, there is little daylight in pricing between the sister-ships and the Buick delivers a nicer interior, a few improved features, slightly better dynamics, optional AWD and a slightly more premium brand. Just like the Impala SS vs Roadmaster debate in 1996, you just have to get past the Buick’s looks.


Hit it or Quit It?

Hit it

  • Aggressive styling.
  • Ginormous back seat.
  • Cadillac for Chevy prices.

Quit it

  • Some interior plastics are underwhelming.
  • CUE based infotainment is slow and buggy.
  • The Buick LaCrosse has a better interior for almost the same price.

Chevrolet provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Specifications as tested:

0-30: 2.33 Seconds

0-60: 5.52 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 14.33 Seconds @ 97.5 MPH

Average Observed Fuel Economy: 22.5 MPG over 549 miles

2014 Chevrolet Impala Engine 2014 Chevrolet Impala Engine, 3.6L V6, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior-001 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior-002 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior-003 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior, 19-inch wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior-005 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior-006 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior, Grille, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior-008 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior, Leaping Impala, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior-010 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Chevrolet Impala Exterior-012 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-001 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-002 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-004 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-006 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-007 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-008 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-009 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-010 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-011 2014 Chevrolet Impala Interior-012 2014 Chevrolet Impala Trunk 2014 Chevrolet Impala Trunk-001
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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.

]]> 3
Review: 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited (Video) Mon, 22 Apr 2013 18:00:05 +0000 The Avalon has been something of a caricature since it wafted on stage in 1994. The stretched Camry was low on soul, devoid of style and soft of spring. In short, it was the Buick that wouldn’t leave you stranded. Since then Toyota has struggled to divine a mission for their full size sedan, a problem complicated by the re-invigoration of the large sedan market by the American brands. In hopes of resurrecting sales numbers, which have slid to 25% of their 2000 year shipments, Toyota has injected something hitherto unseen in an Avalon: style. Is it enough?

Click here to view the embedded video.

Before we dive into the Avalon, let’s talk competition. Back when the LHS and Park Avenue roamed the land, the Avalon’s competition was easy to identify and easy to overcome. Nearly 20 years later those shoppers are in a nursing home and Toyota is hunting for younger flesh in a more competitive market. We now have the larger-than-ever Taurus, a new Impala that doesn’t make me want to put my eyes out, the Azera/Cadenza twins, Nissan’s Maxima and the less-Bentley aping 300.

But wait, I’m forgetting one. The “elephant in the room” that is the Lexus ES. You see, the kind of shopper that needs a new car and immediately thinks “Toyota Avalon” is far more likely to cross shop the Lexus ES than the gangsta 300 or the Impala. (You know I’m right.) After spending a a week with the twins back-to-back, this comparison is even more valid.


While the “I’m a bigger Camry” look is still going on, Toyota has injected enough creases and curves that my 33 year old eyes gave the Avalon a second look (of course, I did buy a 2000 LHS new in 2000, so…) It’s not as exciting as the new Cadenza, but Toyota’s efforts look better thought out than the 11/10ths Cruze grille Chevy put on the Impala.

The new rump features more chrome, dual exhaust tips and tail lamps that wrap well around the side and thankfully share no styling cues with the Camry’s funky “apostrophe” shaped lights. The engineers stretched the greenhouse over the trunk to increase the visual length of the car, a trick that worked on me until I looked at the spec sheet. At 195 inches, the Avalon is 6-inches longer than the Camry, but it’s several inches shorter than the Chrysler, Chevy and Ford. Since the ES and Avalon are now twins separated at birth, most of the dimensions are common except that the Avalon gets a bigger booty (and more trunk space in the process) and has a lower ride height giving it a more aggressive stance.


The exterior looks like a Toyota product. No news there. Inside is a different ball of wax. The interior is why you may have heard people saying they prefer the Avalon to its Lexus sister. If you recall from our review of the Lexus ES 300h, there were plenty of hard plastics within reach of the driver, and instead of a leather dash (like the 300 wears) or stitched pleather goodness like the competition is wearing, the ES stuck with an injection molded dashboard “faux-stitched” with real thread. In an unexpected contrast, the Avalon’s interior has a more premium feel, thanks largely to heavy use of (you guessed it) stitched pleather. The faux-cow in the Avalon may not be hand-sewn (Toyota is mum on the subject) but its liberal use on the doors, dashboard and center console beat every competitor (except for that Chrysler with the leather dashboard option.)

My lunch group was divided about the styling, some feeling that Toyota had gone too far and the rest thinking it was a bold choice for Toyota. I fell into the latter camp. Yes, there’s an enormous driver’s window defogger vent (in the picture above), but I appreciate the fact that a styling direction was chosen rather than just repeating the same “beige” the Avalon has been known for. That a group of adults in their 30s were arguing the merits of an Avalon interior is nothing short of revolutionary.

Compared to the Avalon’s Lexus sister, the interior has a more expansive and harmonious feel despite the heavily styled parts. I think I chalk some of this up to the tan-on-black color scheme our tester sported, but plenty of it has to do with dashboard shapes. Lexus’ two-tier dashboard and the “high and centered” position of the infotainment screen make the dashboard feel more imposing than the Avalon’s sweeping forms and less “bulky” dashboard on the passenger’s side.

The front seats are functionally identical to those in the ES with the exception that the number of power-motions varies by the trim level. The thrones are thickly padded and comfortable for long journeys but larger shoppers should know that they are more “bucket” shaped than previous models. Taller drivers and passengers will appreciate the largest cabin Toyota has ever built, including the LS 600hL. With 42.1 inches of legroom up front, 39.2 in the rear, and class leading headroom, the Avalon swallows those tall kids of yours more easily than any front driver this side of the Cadillac XTS. How does Toyota do this with a shorter sedan? They “skimp” on trunk space. Our tester’s 16 cubic foot trunk is nearly 25% smaller than the Taurus and 18% smaller than the Impala.

Infotainment & Gadgets

The Avalon comes in four trim levels, three of which have no available options for the picking. Things start with the $30,990 XLE which comes well equipped with 8 speakers, a touchscreen audio system, Bluetooth integration, dual-zone climate control, keyless go, and a heated 8-way power seat for the driver. The $33,195 XLE Premium tosses in a moonroof, backup cam, an extra speaker, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. For $35,500 the XLE Touring adds navigation, shift paddles, driver’s seat memory, fog lights, 18-inch wheels with 225-width rubber, and Toyota’s Entune data services. Our tester was the top-of-the-line Limited which starts at $39,650 and gets auto-dimming side mirrors with puddle lamps, HID headlamps, 11 JBL speakers, rain sense wipers, three-zone climate control, heated rear seats, ambient lighting, a color HVAC control panel, and a passenger seat with eight powered directions instead of four. Limited buyers can further option their car with two technology packages, for $1,750 you get radar cruise control with pre-collision warning and automatic high beams and for an extra $200 Toyota will integrate a wireless charging mat into the console.

On the infotainment side it is important to remember that Toyota makes two different systems that share nothing with one another. The picture above is the 7-inch system in our Limited tester and the picture below is the 6.1 inch “display audio” system in lesser Avalons. The 6.1 system has more basic graphics but is more responsive and is designed around an “app” model where things like navigation (available only on the Touring trim) are just another “app” available via the “apps” button on the dash. The 7-inch system uses XM Satellite data services while the 6.1 uses your paired smartphone for dynamic content. The 6.1 provides a fairly basic navigation experience, but it is easy to use and very responsive. The 7-inch system (only on Limited) is the familiar Toyota/Lexus system that’s been around for several years that has been updated with Entune data services, smartphone app integration and voice commands for controlling your media device ala Ford’s SYNC. This is the same software used in the Lexus, except without the atrocious “Remote Touch” joystick.

Going back to the ES comparison, since the Limited model uses essentially the same system, driving the ES and Avalon back to back served to solidify my dislike of the Lexus pain stick. The exact same interface is considerably easier to use, less distracting and more intuitive when you can glance at the screen and stab the option with your finger.


The 3.5L V6 is buttery-smooth, but churns out a less-than-thrilling 268 HP and 248 lb-ft of twist. For reasons I don’t understand, Toyota has yet to fit their D4-S direct-injection system which would make it more competitive on paper (the competition are all around 290 HP). (Ford of course still offers the insane 365HP twin-turbo V6.) Proving that horsepower isn’t everything, the Avalon’s light 3,461lbs curb weight allows it to scoot to 60 in 6.25 seconds, among the fastest in the group behind the 365 HP Taurus SHO and the 290 HP Maxima (thank the Nissan CVT). While we haven’t been able to get our hands on the new Impala, expect it to be fairly quick thanks to its low curb weight as well. Meanwhile the 300 V6, LaCrosse, Azera, MKS and plenty of others will be seen in the Avalon’s rear view mirror.

The only major change for 2013 is the fitting of paddle shifters to the 6-speed automatic transaxle in Touring and Limited trims. With the paddles comes revised software that blips the throttle on downshifts. Don’t get too excited, since this cog swapper is just as up-shift-happy and down-shift-resistant as it was before.

For $2,360 on XLE Premium and $1,750 on Touring and Limited you can opt for Toyota’s 200 HP hybrid system. This is the same setup under the hood of the Camry and ES 300h and increases the Avalon’s MPGs from 21/31/25 (City/Highway/Combined) to 40/39/40 resulting an a savings of $900 per year at $4 a gallon. The trade off is the loss of one full second on the run to 60, well worth the cost in my book.


For 2013 the Avalon has ditched the wallowy ride synonymous with the model in favor of stiffer springs and a more buttoned down demeanor. Thanks to the new found corner carving skills and a curb weight that is 600lbs lighter than the Taurus, the Avalon is more engaging, composed and nimble than the heavy Ford. Notice I didn’t say “handles better.” The reason the Taurus clings onto first place in our road holding test is down to rubber, seriously wide 255/45R19 rubber (Taurus Limited.)

The Hyundai Azera and its Kia cousin are well-priced alternatives. While the Avalon beats them handily in terms of interior refinement, the Koreans have plenty of power (293 HP) and coupled with a curb weight that’s only 150-200 lbs more than the Avalon they are quicker off the line. Thanks to more aggressive rubber and excellent suspension dynamics the pair is also faster around a track. Of course, shoppers in this segment don’t really care about handling limits and that’s a problem for the dynamic duo because their refinement quotient is still a notch below the new Avalon.

Nissan’s Maxima is fairly light at 3,565lbs and has one of the more powerful engines at 290 HP and 261 lb-ft of twist. Thanks to the low starting ratio and step-less nature of the Nissan CVT, the Maxima burns rubber on its way to the best 0-60 time in this bunch of 5.6 seconds. Of course I can’t talk Nissan without admitting that the CVT isn’t the “sporting” choice because of the “rubber-band” like feel they impart but I don’t think its much of a problem in this segment. On the down side, the Maxima is starting to show its age in a stable of products shifting to a new design language.

The Chrysler 300 is the odd man out. I’m including it because some of our readers would have complained if it had been left out. The problem is the 300 appeals to an entirely different sort of person, both because of its aggressive looks and its RWD drivetrain. Still, the 300 V6 would be my personal choice in this shootout, but I have to acknowledge that a bold RWD American sedan isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Chrysler’s smooth 292 HP V6 and the slick ZF 8-speed automatic are no match for the 300′s higher curb weight making the 300 slower to 60 by nearly a full second. Although I prefer the RWD dynamics of the 300, the heavier curb weight means the Avalon is the nimbler choice. On the flip side, the 300 Luxury Series (the most appropriate cross shop) has a gorgeous full-leather dash and the ride of a full-sized luxury sedan.

That brings us full circle to the elephant in the room: the 2013 Lexus ES. Our Avalon Limited tester has so far knocked the ES to its knees by delivering a better interior, nearly identical feature content, and an easier to use infotainment system. Of course, siblings fight dirty and the Avalon kicks her sister while she’s down by handling better thanks to stiffer springs and wider rubber. When you factor in the Avalon’s lower sticker price and the reality that the Avalon and ES are likely to be as reliable as one another and cost essentially the same to maintain, you have to ask yourself how much that Lexus logo is worth to you. Even outside the direct Toyota vs Lexus comparison the Avalon is highly competitive with an excellent interior, plenty of power, huge back seat and a price tag that isn’t as frightening as the “luxury” alternatives. I never thought I would say this about the Avalon: it’s the aggressive sister that knocks down her stuck-up twin and steals the boyfriend by promising to be a cheaper date. Since I like my women cheap and feisty, I’d take the Avalon up on her offer and only think about the ES once a year at family reunions.


Hit it

  • The best interior with a Toyota badge.
  • Never thought I would call an Avalon “nimble.”
  • “Better” than the Lexus for less.

Quit it

  • No ability to add navigation to the base display audio system.
  • 268 HP is nothing to brag about in 2013.
  • Smaller trunk than the competition.


Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.55 Seconds

0-60: 6.25 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 14.51 Seconds @ 98.8 MPH

Average Fuel Economy: 23.2 MPG over 534 Miles

2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Rear 3/4 View, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Side, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Front 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Wheels, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Daytime Running Lamps, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Headlamps, Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Front Overhang, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Rear, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Rear, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Avalon badge, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Rear, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Rear 3/4, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Trunk, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Gauges, Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Rear Climate Control, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Rear HVAC, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Door Stitching, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Passenger Dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Front Door, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Steering Wheel Buttons, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Steering Wheel, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Heated and Cooled Seat Controls, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Memory Buttons, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Rear Seats, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Premium Navigation, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Premium Navigation, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Premium Navigation, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Premium Navigation, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Premium Navigation, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Premium Navigation, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Premium Navigation, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Infotainment and navigation, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, HVAC Controls, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, HVAC Controls, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Infotainment Controls, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Infotainment Controls, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Interior, Driver's Window Defigger Vent, Dashboard, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Engine, 3.5L V6, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Engine, 3.5L V6, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2013 Toyota Avalon Display Audio System with Entune and Navigation, Picture Courtesy of Toyota 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited, Exterior, Front, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 99
Hammer Time: What Recession? Thu, 14 Feb 2013 18:13:57 +0000

I live in a nice quaint small town called Powder Springs, Georgia.

The sidewalks are paved downtown and even partially bricked for artistic value. Thanks to a generous donation by the taxpayers. The streetlamps are ornate and well lit thanks to the same contributors.

The old closed down ACE hardware store is now the new police station. The old city hall has been replaced by the new city hall.  Even the vehicles that get too old to keep get replaced with shiny new ones thanks to American taxpayers far and wide.

How many miles do you think would it take to replace a car owned by the local city government?

How about less than 50,000 miles?

This 2005 Chevy Impala has all of 49,974 miles on it. Like any other vehicle that has the agony of driving in what many view as the smoothest roads in the country, this Impala is ready to be put out to pasture.

For some reason, this Impala wasn’t much loved in the city vehicle pool.  7000 miles a year for a non-police unit likely means that this ride didn’t have to go past too many closed down businesses to get to the Waffle House a mile down the street.

What? You want me to get interior pics? Fat chance on that. This is all you are going to see of a car that was made possible by you alone, Mr. John Q Public!

Yawn! You want me to write a description of this car too? Okay, fine then! I’m taking an early lunch after that!

Year Make/Brand Model VIN/Serial Miles
2005 Chevrolet Impala 2G1WF52K059385392 49,974
Condition Category
See Description Automobiles
2005 Chevrolet Impala Base SEDAN 4-DR, 3.8L V6 OHV 12V.2007 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor SEDAN 4-DR, 4.6L V8 SOHC 16V.2001 Ford Crown Vic info

I did mention it was a SEDAN. So as far as I’m concerned, my job is done here.

Here are a few other prized jewels for the offering.  I do have to confess that this is not anywhere near the worst presentation of government vehicles that I have ever seen. In fact, I do have to offer kudos for the lady who came back and answered questions about this vehicle.

But this does bring on an important consideration. If a state government is issued approximately 10,000 vehicles every year, wouldn’t it make sense to either…

A) Enact some minimal standards on how these vehicles are marketed so that the taxpayers get a fair return? I mean for cryin’ out loud, the 2007 Crown Vic Police Interceptor has only one picture. With all the time cops have to spend in those things, wouldn’t it make sense to at least open a door, sit in a seat, and click a button?


B) Let someone else do it. No, I wouldn’t encourage some gypsy auction company to come by and quick hammer the vehicles to a few of the connected locals (and Lord knows we have plenty of those.) The site is fine. It’s the presentation that needs work.



I don’t know about you guys but this one is on my short list. You can find the rest of the vehicles here. Please bid. I want my taxes to go down for once.

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Chicago Auto Show: 2014 Chevrolet Impala Thu, 07 Feb 2013 18:56:05 +0000
So you want a Cadillac XTS but think the price tag is too dear? Chevrolet has an answer with the 2014 Impala, the Caddy’s kissing cousin. By all appearances, the main-stream model is the more attractive and sensible model as well. In between stuffing my maw with leftover breakfast muffins and a Kia sponsored mimosa I tripped across Chevy’s full-size sedan. No, this isn’t the RWD Chevy we’ve longed for, this is Malibu to the max.

The Impala isn’t vastly different from the rest of the Chevy lineup in style, but on first glance it seems to have pulled the best styling cues from Chevy’s design bag and placed them all on one car. GM had two top-of-the-line Impala LTZ models on display (complete with booth babes) and one cloth-seat equipped model for our perusal. In addition to the cohesive design, the Impala doesn’t come off strangely proportioned like the Cadillac XTS did when we last reviewed it.

 I still don’t understand why Chevy is going premium when Buick exists, but that’s a story for another time. Despite the logic of the lineup, the Impala wears the best Chevy interior in terms of quality. All the interiors on display dripped with stitched pleather, plenty of cow-hide and lots of convincing faux-wood trim. As nice as the new Toyota Avalon on display next door was, the Impala beat it in terms of style, feel and parts quality. Whoda thunk that? How does it drive? You’ll have to wait or the Truth About That for a while.

Shoppers will find GM’s 2.4L Ecotec engine with eAssist from Buick’s lineup, GM’s new 2.5L 195hp four-pot or the ubiquitous 3.6L 303HP V6. There will be no fire-breathing Taurus SHO competitor we’re told. Pity.

2014 Chevrolet Impala 2014 Chevrolet Impala-1 2014 Chevrolet Impala-2 2014 Chevrolet Impala-3 2014 Chevrolet Impala-4 2014 Chevrolet Impala-5 2014 Chevrolet Impala-6 2014 Chevrolet Impala-7 2014 Chevrolet Impala-8 2014 Chevrolet Impala-9 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 118
Junkyard Find: 1969 Chevrolet Impala Wed, 07 Nov 2012 14:00:47 +0000 By this time, everyone knows I have a soft spot for the 1965-70 full-sized Chevrolet, and there was a time when every self-service wrecking yard I visited had at least a dozen of these things in stock. Now a year of more can pass between sightings. Here’s a rather weathered but reasonably non-rusty ’69 I spotted in a Denver yard last week.
More than a million full-size Chevrolets were sold for the 1969 model year, and most of them were Impalas (cheapskates got the lower-end Bel Airs and Biscaynes).
Here’s one of the umpteen gjillion small-block Chevy engines built since 1955.
Ah, the good old 327!
No, wait, it’s the good old 350! To complicate matters further, this junkyard— which is one of those operations that has its act together— says this is a 1970 model Impala. It’s possible that it’s a ’70 with ’69 fenders and bumpers, or that it’s a ’69 with swapped-over ’70 VIN plate from another car.
If one is to believe John Delorean in On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, dealers that dared to install cheaper Motorola radios instead of marked-up factory-issue Delcos were punished severely.

23 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 01 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 02 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 03 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 04 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 05 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 06 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 07 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 08 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 09 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 10 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 11 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 12 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 13 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 14 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 15 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 16 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 17 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 18 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 19 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 20 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 21 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin 22 - 1970 Chevrolet Impala Sedan Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 55
Piston Slap: 38,000 Impala Police Cars Recalled, Chevrolet Claims Victory? Tue, 14 Aug 2012 18:44:39 +0000


TTAC commentator Sinistermisterman writes:

Why isn’t Sajeev all over this one like a rash? GM recalls 38,000 cop cars.



Sajeev answers:

Well, I do have a job outside of TTAC!  But you have a good point. To wit: OMG SON PANTHER LOVE FTW!

The obvious “niche” rant about the need for a proper American sedan with a proper frame aside, there could be a bad batch of parts and not a failure of the entire platform.  Cop-spec Impalas have unique control arms, since the civilian version is just fine.  But this shows the value (or lack thereof) in a wrong-wheel drive, fleet specific application.  Time is money, and the Impala just wasted a lot of time for fleet managers around the country. But the Impala is history, there’s no more FWD in GM’s cop car coffers.

So who is the real loser?  Ford.  The Crown Vic killers are the only folks offering a wrong-wheel drive cop car, so the writing is on the wall:  spindles, ball joints, half-shafts and control arms in a FWD platform are a big threat to Law Enforcement.  No matter how you beef ‘em up!

And who is the winner?  Chevy.  But not the Caprice, the Tahoe. When the dust settles on Panther Love in the next 2-3 years, there will be another clear winner in Cop Car land: a durable, versatile, comfortable and fuel-efficient body-on-frame Chevrolet Tahoe.

Don’t buy the fuel efficiency comment?  I suspect many fleets are used to budgeting for 4-speed automatic Panther levels of gas suckage, so a lateral move to the 6-speed Tahoe won’t raise eyebrows in their communities.

And if they do? Well, have a look at the alternative’s lack of control (arm). Off to you, Best and Brightest!


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Hammer Time: And Now For Something Completely Different… Mon, 23 Jul 2012 15:58:39 +0000  

This 2009 BMW 535i has 45,000 miles and looks absolutely drop dead gorgeous. It offers nearly the same acceleration as a 550i, and far more space than the 335i, which is more sought after in the enthusiast world.

To me, if you’re a true keeper, all of this is good news. The better news? It’s a lemon!

Specifically, this late model BMW is a lemon law buyback. It happened back in the first year of its existence, due to BMW’s chronic fuel pump issues when it was first released. The recall has since taken place. The part has been over-engineered and the problem solved and warrantied for the life of the vehicle.

As for the title, it will be branded as a ‘Lemon Law Buyback’ until either the end of the time or the moment it’s exported.

These common 5-series models are not particularly popular in the export market either. So the question now becomes, “What is it worth?” The rough book on this model came down at right around $22,500. With the branded title and the bad history of way back when, it sold for only $17,300 at this morning’s auction.

There were two other vehicles that I ended up finishing in a firm but profit vaporizing second place.

This 2010 Impala LS has the tried and true 3.5 Liter v6 and 28,000 miles. The bidding went all the way down to $9000 and I jumped in at $9100. Once the price hit $10,400, a few hundred below the rough book, that’s where it stood. The auction fee probably put it right around $10,650.

Then there was a 2010 Honda Insight LX, which I still kind of regret not holding on to the bidding. The unpopular hybrid had some dings and small scuffs, but only 9,700 miles and a perfect Carfax history. Rough book was $12,800. I jumped in at $11,000 and walked off at $11,900.

Part of the reason was because we are getting right near the model change and 1 to 2 year old vehicles can take some nasty hits during this time period.

The other issue is the vehicle in question.  Unpopular models can be hard to unload and experience has lead me to be more of  a hedger than perhaps I should be in my daily life. I am more willing to bid up a low cost car than a high cost one due to the fact that it’s easier to finance on the lower end.  There were a whole lot of second place finishes today and I deeply hate the fact that some potential deals slid right by my eyes.

However, the higher end of the used car world can be a tough market. Some folks try to wholesale the inventory and let that be that. But I’m always wanting to retail vehicles like the Impala and the Insight. My overhead is far lower than the new car dealers and I’m still of the persuasion that a good presentation can always beat up a big bowtie or giant H on the front of a building.

We’ll see. In the meantime, if you folks want to enjoy the sweet lemonade of a killer deal, you often have to throw some lemons into the mix. Branded titles and the unpopular ‘retail’ car are just two ingredients I try to throw into my personal recipe.


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Junkyard Find: 1969 Chevrolet Impala Sat, 05 May 2012 13:00:44 +0000 GM made immense quantities of full-sized Chevrolets in 1969. How many? According to the Standard Catalog, the total production of ’69 Biscaynes, Bel Airs, Impalas, and Caprices was 1,168,300 cars. Well into the early 1980s, these things were as commonplace on American streets as mid-2000s Camrys are today. Given that nobody with the money to restore a ’69 big Chevy is going to waste time on a non-hardtop four-door (what with the large quantities of restorable coupes and convertibles still extant) we can assume that the few remaining sedans will be flushed out by $250/ton scrap-steel prices and crushed during the next few years.
This one is fairly rough, though not rusty, and it looks like many of its pieces have been grabbed for other cars.
I can’t decode Fisher cowl tags by heart, but I believe the “JAN” means this car was built in the Janesville, Wisconsin plant.
As a former 60s Impala sedan owner, it makes me a little sad to see another one get eaten by The Crusher. However, there’s no way I’d pay even scrap value for a beat example like this, so I can’t be too sad.

14 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 01 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 02 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 03 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 04 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 05 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 06 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 07 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 08 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 09 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 10 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 11 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 12 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 13 - 1969 Chevrolet Full-Size Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 30
New or Used: “Ja-nee” on short term Rentals? Mon, 30 Jan 2012 07:34:08 +0000


Cody writes:

Dear Sajeev and Steve,

I work as a research scientist, and currently we have a visiting scientist from South Africa working with us for six months. Normally visitors stay in university housing and are able to take the shuttle bus to our lab, but our current visitor is bringing her husband with her and staying in a house they found themselves. She should have about a 30 minute 20 mile drive to the lab and just looking for reliable transportation around a medium sized city, and maybe the occasional weekend sightseeing trip. She does already have a rental scheduled at the airport for the first week (probably an Impala), but for more long-term what type of newer car should she be looking for that will retain its value when she goes to sell it at the end of her stay, or would it be more reasonable to rent for six months? I will mention she drives a Land Cruiser most of the time in South Africa and seems to like it a lot.

Steve Answers:

The question for your friend may not be ‘the car’… but ‘the owner’.

Forget about rental. If she wants to make a mid-four figured donation to the nearest automotive for profit that’s fine. In the world of dollars and sense long-term rentals simply don’t make sense.

What she needs is a well maintained vehicle in the $4000 range. Let them spend a few weekends shopping among private owners, or, they can go on Ebay and find a nearby seller with strong positive feedback and a vehicle that they would likely enjoy.

Good luck!

Sajeev Answers:

Steve, as per usual, is right.  My father is a professor/research scientist, and it seems that the PhD/Post-Doctoral lifestyle is far from platinum grilles and Bentleys. Honestly, it’s also far from buying a late-model family sedan for short-term use, either. Someone in your friend’s shoes needs a short-term vehicle that’s cheap to purchase, have close to no depreciation, and mainstream enough (no finicky European whips) to guarantee a quick sale on Craigslist when the sabbatical ends.

She likes her Land Cruiser?  My advice is to get a sub $10k Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Tacoma/4Runner, Ford Ranger, 1st-2nd Gen Explorer, Nissan Hardbody/Pathfinder, Jeep Cherokee, Chevy S-10…or any other cheap to own, easy to sell trucklet. No Suzukis or Isuzus, please: they seem fairly hard to re-sell in a hurry. The smarter money is on a 5-10 year old W-body/Panther, older CamCord or anything else Honda or Toyota, but they aren’t teenagers with no finances to speak of.  Spending a few hundred extra for a non-Impala is understandable, and acceptable.

My fav of the bunch would either be a 5.0 Explorer or a nice V6 Tacoma with a stick. Both are a definite Ja-Nee given the circumstances.

Need help with a  car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to , and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make  the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.


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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 20: The End Fri, 13 Jan 2012 16:00:36 +0000 More than a month has passed since Part 19 of the Impala Hell Project series, partly because I’ve been getting sliced up by sadistic doctors and flying on Elvis-grade prescription goofballs but mostly because the final chapter has been so difficult to write. Here goes!
By the year 2000, I’d accomplished most of what I’d set out to do with the Impala Hell Project. I’d started as a stone-broke performance/installation artist with an ambitious vision of a real art car, to show that the artist who works with the automobile as a medium isn’t required to disrespect the canvas.
I never lost touch with that vision, even as I turned the car into a bulletproof daily driver and traveled California looking for slacker thrills in it.
As I matured, the Impala stayed with me. It moved me and all my possessions from San Francisco to Atlanta, then served as my foot in the door for my first automotive writing job.
In my 30s and finally having achieved a toehold in the middle class, I built a potent 400-cubic-inch small-block to replace the 350 I’d installed in 1990. My goal was to get the car to break the 14-second barrier at the dragstrip, and I succeeded in the summer of 1999: 13.67 seconds.
Then I found myself asking Now what? I hadn’t used the Impala as a daily driver since I’d discovered the quick, reliable, gas-sipping ’84-87 Honda Civic/CRX upon my return to California in 1996, and having two or three Civics plus a big, seldom-driven Detroit monster was proving to be a real parking headache in my crypto-urban neighborhood on the Island That Rust Forgot.
No car had ever held such emotional significance to me, and I felt certain that no future car ever would come close. I’d put more creative energy and sheer work time into the Impala Hell Project than I had for any project I’d ever worked on… and I was beginning to recognize that as a problem for a man who really wanted to put those creative energies into fiction writing. I was pushing 35 and feeling increasingly chained to a 3,500-pound link to my lifetime-ago early 20s.
Having moved 13 times during the decade of the 1990s, I’d gradually learned to pare down the possessions in my life to the bare minimum. Tools, sure, keep ‘em… but after having packed, lifted, and unpacked all my crap all those times I’d developed a horror at anything that resembled hoarding of possessions for sentimentality’s sake. But the Impala was special. Surely I could start a new project with it, maybe make it into a road racer, or an electric car, or… something. For the time being, I avoided any decision with the Impala, moving it enough to keep ahead of street-sweeping tickets and driving it to work every few weeks.
Then I dove headlong into a real Hell Project: a 900-square-foot cottage on Alameda’s main downtown drag, built sometime between the Gold Rush and the late 1870s. A seriously cool structure, built of massive hand-hewn redwood beams and sweating Bay Area history, but battered by 140 years of hack-job repairs by cheap-ass absentee landlords. My new house had just two off-street parking spaces, accessible down an easement-ized driveway on the next block over (though a third car could be made to fit, barely, provided it was an Austin-Healey Sprite). Now all my spare time was being taken up with carpentry and wiring and plumbing, I still wasn’t advancing my fiction-writing skills, and the Impala was just sitting there as a sort of souvenir of the previous ten years of my life. The dilemma!
My friend and future 24 Hours of LeMons teammate Dave Schaible, who went on to create the incredible Model T GT, had given me a lot of very useful advice about building the Impala’s new engine, and he was always building some street rod project or other in his shop. I knew he had a ’32 Ford in the works, and that he’d been so impressed by the performance of the Impala’s engine that he wanted to build one just like it.
I decided to cast the die. I made an ironclad resolution: No more fun car projects until I write and sell a novel! I meant it, too; to rip off my favorite Knut Hamsun phrase, my eyes were like two knife points. I was as serious as an Old Testament prophet on the subject. There was no way I’d be able to sell the Impala to anyone who would keep driving it; it had a lot of good parts, but the battered shell of an incredibly plentiful mid-60s full-size Chevy was essentially scrap metal. None of my hipster friends wanted anything to do with the car (such would not be the case today, what with all the 24 Hours of LeMons freaks who groove on this sort of absurd machinery), so I called up Dave and offered him the whole mess for not much more than the money I had in the engine. “I’ll take it!” he said.
Dave pulled the engine, the Powertrax locker differential, and a few more bits and pieces.
The 406 got a paint-and-chrome job and looked great in the ’32. I never rode in this car, but I assume it was a handful with that uncivilized, lumpy-cammed engine in place.
I was too heartbroken to ask what happened to the rest of the Impala for a few years. Later, I found that Dave sold the shell to a guy in Hayward with a shop specializing in Impala lowriders. I’d like to think that some pieces of my car now live on in a candy-apple-red Impala coupe with hydraulics and a mural depicting an Aztec sacrifice.
Starting that day, my only car projects were those that made money— no fun projects until I sold a novel, remember? I’d go to the San Francisco towed-car auctions, located at Pier 70 (not far from my dot-com tech-writing job) every month or so and buy Tercels, Civics, or Sentras for $100 each. I’d sell whatever stuff remained in the trunks after getting picked over by the tow-truck drivers (one time I got a few hundred bucks for a bunch of water-ski gear I found in a Sentra’s trunk), fix whatever needed fixing, and turn the car around for a grand or so.
Then, between software jobs in 2004, I got a call from a friend-of-a-friend in London who worked as an editor for the “erotic fiction” division of Virgin Books. He’d pay me good money, in genuine pounds sterling, for 70,000 words of high-class smut, he said. I did it, the book sold 5,000 copies (and still sells today, as a Kindle edition), and I got paid. The smut scenes were nothing special— what can any writer do with a schtup scene that hasn’t already been done ten thousand times?— but I remain proud of parts of the novel. So proud, in fact, that I’ve created a quasi-de-pornified, still-probably-not-quite-safe-for-work excerpt for your reading enjoyment (PDF). Crafting a novel, even in such a disreputable genre, gave a much-needed boost to my writing skills and confidence, so the “no more fun car projects” vow I’d made was worth it. On a related note, the pseudonym I used for Torment, Incorporated turned out to be quite useful; here is the entire complicated story of How I Got This Silly Name.
Of course, selling that novel meant that I could resume wasting time on fun car projects; the first one was the Black Metal V8olvo 24 Hours of LeMons car in 2008, followed by the 20R Sprite Hell Project, the Dodge A100 Hell Project, and whatever I buy next; right now, I’m torn between a Leyland P76, an early Toyota Century, a ZAZ-968, and a ’71 Chrysler Newport coupe with 6-71 blower and manual transmission. Do I wish I still had the Impala? Yes, every day. Am I glad that I forced myself to write that first novel? Yes, every day. The next Murilee Martin novel is in the works for 2012, by the way.

Alameda house. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1932 Ford with Chevrolet 400 engine. Courtesy of Dave Schaible. 1932 Ford with Chevrolet 400 engine. Courtesy of Dave Schaible. 1932 Ford with Chevrolet 400 engine. Courtesy of Dave Schaible. 1932 Ford with Chevrolet 400 engine. Courtesy of Dave Schaible. Cover of "Torment, Incorporated" by Murilee Martin. Courtesy of Nexus Books. 1965 Chevrolet Impala. Photograph by Phillip Greden. 1985 Toyota Tercel engine swap with 1990 Toyota Tercel in foreground. Image by Phillip Greden Cover of "Torment Incorporated" by Murilee Martin. Image courtesy of Nexus Books. 1965 Chevrolet Impala Driving Into Mushroom Cloud. Image by Phillip Greden.

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 19: The Road Not Taken, Final Photo Session Fri, 18 Nov 2011 16:00:57 +0000 After getting the car to run 13s in the quarter-mile with the new engine, I found myself— at age 33— in a sort of “what am I doing with my life?” period of agonizing reappraisal. Ten years of the Impala Hell Project absorbing most of my creative horsepower, and what had I really accomplished with all that work?
By this point (late 1999) I’d blundered into a fairly successful career as a technical writer and (thanks to the dot-com boom) was raking in good money— such a contrast to my starving, couch-surfing lifestyle of the early 1990s. In my mid-20s, the idea was that I’d work whatever jobs I could and write novels as my “real” work. However, even with a thousand pages of notes and outlines, I couldn’t get the fiction projects really rolling… and then the Impala project was always there, hungry for my time and more fun to mess with than a keyboard. Meanwhile, my wife— who had been a teenage runaway and high school dropout— had started law school at a high-powered East Bay joint after 20+ years of of up-by-boostraps struggle, which intensified my sense that I’d made the easy choice too many times.
Also bugging me was the vague feeling that my love of wrenching on hooptie-ass cars had derailed me from what could have been a very interesting right-place-at-the-right-time career in the software business; at age 15 I’d picked up a Sinclair ZX81, learned BASIC in one all-nighter, and wrote a series of dumb games (the only title I remember is “Tinhorn Dilemma,” a very slow side-scrolling bombs-dropping-on-blocky-animals game). By 16, I’d arm-twisted my parents into buying an Apple II Plus (which took real persistence during the early 1980s recession) and took to spending 48-straight-hour stretches writing code— Applesoft BASIC at first, then right into the hexadecimal world of 6502 processor machine language. I had no friends who were into this stuff, and 1982 was about a half-decade before you had any kind of computer classes in high school; everything I learned came from weird Xeroxed manuals I picked up at weird electronics stores in Berkeley. My big obsession during those days was to write a program that would generate rhyming poetry in a pure gibberish language of assembled syllables (I’d like to claim that I was inspired by the Talking Heads’ I Zimbra, but I didn’t discover that song until a couple years later), the sort of thing that was hard as hell if you’d never heard of a database and required all your code to fit on a single 5-¼” floppy disc.
I was on the same path that led a lot of Bay Area kids to later wealth and 200-proof creativity… but then I started messing around with cars. First, a 1969 Toyota Corona I got for 50 bucks. The amount of stuff to mess with you got with a car was incredible— take it apart, find junkyard parts, mess around with big satisfying slabs of metal and bundles of wires. It was the same sort of feeling I got from solving a code problem, but even more fascinating.
And cars were cheap! It wasn’t long before I had a truly wretched (but fast and Hurst Dual-Gate-equipped) ’67 GTO and the car that really got me hooked: an incredibly dangerous ’58 Beetle. I spent less and less time in front of the computer and more and more time spinning wrenches, hanging out with scurrilous car buddies, and lurking at various low-life Oakland junkyards. By the time I got to college, I retained enough code-writing ability to master FORTRAN with zero sweat for my engineering classes, but by then I’d made my choice at the fork in the road that led to Code Geekdom on one side and Car Freakdom on the other.
So, back to 1999: I’d put so much work and love into the Impala Hell Project that I felt an increasing sense of obligation to tell its story in some artistically fulfilling and— ideally— writing-career-enhancing manner. For that, I would need a full set of high-quality photographs of the car, shot in an ironic-yet-picturesque setting on Fujichrome Velvia.
So, I dragooned a friend with some decent photography skills, handed him my AE-1, and headed over to the recently-closed Alameda Naval Air Station.
Some of you may recognize this setting from my Fiat 500 Sport review in April. These days, the Area Formerly Known As Alameda Naval Air Station (AFKAANAS) is all full of businesses (including an outfit that makes damn good booze) and fairly well populated, but right after the Navy left it was a ghost town. Perfect for burnout photos!
And so that’s what I did. In fact, the western edge of the AFKAANAS was still technically on the San Francisco County side of the county borderline that crossed San Francisco Bay (said borderline being irrelevant during the period in which the landfilled-in-1940 base was federal property), which meant that the Alameda coppers couldn’t do squat about some primered-out beast’s Exhibition of Speed violations; they’d have to call the San Francisco cops, who would have to drive across the Bay Bridge and down the Nimitz Freeway, a 15-minute drive even with no traffic.
After a bunch of burnouts, I killed yet another junkyard TH350 transmission— the fourth or fifth since I’d built the new engine. the car still drove, but the tranny slipped like a sumbitch. I headed over to the hangers for some more still shots.
Man, I loved this car. What was I going to do with it? Next up: The End.

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18 • Part 19 • Part 20

13-99-WindowNumber-200 01-99-JBWeld_Patch-Close 02-99-NAS-03 03-99-NAS-05 04-99-NAS-06 05-99-NAS-07 06-99-NAS-08 07-99-NAS-Burnout-01 08-99-NAS-Burnout-02 09-99-NAS-Burnout-03 10-99-NAS-Burnout-04 11-99-NAS-Burnout-05 12-99-Scoop-Close 82-Me_AppleII 82_Toyota_Corona 83-GTO_LH_Rr 11_Fiat_500_Review-12 99-NAS-Burnout-04-close ]]> 42
1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 18: Back To the Dragstrip, Website 1999 Thu, 10 Nov 2011 15:00:58 +0000 Summer, 1999: I’d managed to get the Impala into the 14s, barely, with a screamin’ 406-cubic-inch small-block under the hood, but I knew the car would do much better with more traction. Meanwhile, my desire to tell the car’s story coincided with a job move into the maelstrom of dot-com madness.
I’d enjoyed writing manuals for transit buses, but a lifer job in an office full of well-adjusted, wholesome coworkers wasn’t really right for me. Once I figured out that HR goons at wild-eyed dot-com boom startups in San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch would kill puppies with pinking shears if that’s what it took to find tech writers to document their no-chance-in-ever-being-profitable software, I was able to more than double my salary overnight. Thanks, dead-broke-by-2002 investors! Even better, I’d gone from being the weirdo of the office, the one whose everyday conversations caused a lot of nervous laughs and edging away in the break room, to fitting right in. Above is a photo of my new cubicle in a hip SoMa building, the San Francisco office of mighty, global, founded-18-months-back (name changed because the mysterious corporation that bought their assets would have Yakuza thugs break my kneecaps if I used the real one). had offices in Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Guangzhou, New York, and probably Nunavit, and their frenzy to steal all “the good employees” away from the competition (i.e., all the other doomed dot-coms) meant that our office full of code geeks and marketing pukes had all manner of employee-spoiling perks the likes of which The Man will never permit again. For example, the “break room” was something like an upscale convenience store with huge sliding-glass-door refrigerators full of every high-end snack and drink that Webvan could deliver, and if your optimum work efficiency depended on a steady supply of organic, squeezed-under-a-full-moon citron juice from the Holy Land, why, they’d get it for you. When the clock hit 12:01 PM, my boss would mix a round of margaritas for all of us in the MemoCranker™ 3.0 Development Team, using the blender that lived in the middle of her desk. Naturally, the MemoCranker™ folks did a lot of “team-building” at the foosball table.

My cube-mate was a pink-haired web designer who taught welding at an Oakland artists’ collective at night (later, after we all got laid off and plunged back into the torment of The Man’s harsh salt mines, she joined the Metal Maidens and won the Junkyard Mega Wars “Great Race”). It had only been a half-decade since I’d been a starving tropical-fish delivery driver, and now I found myself getting paid big bucks to work with genius freaks who cranked Renaldo and the Loaf at their desks and would gladly drop a boring discussion of the latest MemoCranker™ memory leak in order to debate over the merits of Bulgakov‘s work. This environment made me even more resolved to do something with the project that had consumed so much of my creative energy over the previous decade.
I really wanted to write the Impala’s story and sell it to a car magazine that could tolerate artsy gibberish, or maybe an art magazine that could tolerate grease-stained gearheadery, but first I decided to warm up with The Next Big Thing, according to late-1990s wisdom: a website about the car. It took about an hour for a couple of my coworkers to teach me sufficient HTML, after which I scanned a bunch of my Impala photos and got to work writing up the site on my ancient Centris 650 Mac.
It was all no-frills, hand-coded HTML with minimal formatting, made to load quickly for users on dial-up modems. I kept the “Anti-Restoring a 1965 Impala” site on my ISP’s 10MB of free web-hosting space; the tiny images were made so small as much for storage reasons as for download speed. For those of you who’d like to see the earlier version of the Impala Hell Project story, I’ve reconstituted it on In 1999— before Google made internet searches easy— it was tough to get your personal site noticed, but eventually I started getting emails from readers who’d found my story and enjoyed it. I wasn’t getting paid, but I was writing about cars!
While I refused to use the cheezy-ass marquee or blink tags in my site (and let’s not get into the even more horrible MIDI sound files that were so popular, circa 1999), I did add a cheezy-ass animated GIF. Hey, it was the 90s!
I felt that I’d be moving on to the next project soon, but there was still some unfinished business with the Impala: I needed to get it to run a 13-second quarter-mile. The engine had more than enough power, but there was no way to get the open differential in the car’s 3.31 12-bolt rear to put any power to the ground; launching at more than quarter-throttle simply blew away the right tire, I couldn’t get past about half throttle anywhere in first gear, and the first-second shift resulted in another space-saver-spare-on-ice-style, zero-grip nightmare. Clearly, I had to throw some money at the differential problem. I debated the pros and cons of finding a decent factory Positraction unit, but limited-slip differentials still allow a certain amount of right-tire spin. I’d already made the car fairly uncivilized with its cammed-up engine, so I decided to put a locker in the 12-bolt.
I settled on the Powertrax locker. I can’t recall how much I paid for it in ’99, but Summit sells the 12-bolt Lock-Right for $348.81 nowadays. It was a fairly simple installation (the Powertrax unit replaces the entire spider gear assembly, so you don’t have to futz with ring and pinion backlash adjustment), but it involved a lot of super-stinky 90-weight saturation. The difference between the one-legger and the locker was impressive as hell; the 406 still made so much power that launching was tricky (now instead of spinning one tire, it would spin both tires and get sideways), but I could pretty much stand on the gas once the car got rolling. It clicked and clanked when I drove around corners, and I dreaded the coming of the rainy season, but so what? Time to return to the dragstrip!
Even with 92-octane pump gas, I had to add octane booster to avoid pinging. I suspect that my compression-ratio calculations may have been off; I’d been shooting for 9.9:1, but the big power and tendency to detonate seemed to indicate that I’d gone higher. Here’s my convenient octane-boost bottle storage location.
Back at Test-N-Tune Day at Sacramento Raceway Park, I removed the spare tire, jack, and tools from the trunk, and handed the camera to my ’51 Chevy daily-driving friend, Anthony. If I managed a 13-second run, I wanted it documented.
Watching all the 13- and 14-second Mustangs and Chevelles making their passes, I suddenly realized that my trusty old daily driver might be able to keep up with the hairier muscle cars. A good feeling.

I’d decided I wasn’t going to give a damn about reaction times, because this was all about the car. All I cared about was launching the Impala as hard as it could manage, avoiding any guardrail-bashing, and keeping the revs below the 400-destroying 5,500 RPM limit.
Here we go! The car didn’t hook up very well, but it was orders of magnitude stickier than my last quarter-mile attempt. My ET? 13.983 seconds. Yes!
Getting into 13-second territory on my first try was somewhat anticlimactic, but the car still had plenty of power that wasn’t making it to the asphalt. How about 13.5 seconds? Hell, how about 12 seconds?
I tried and tried, using every trick I could think of to keep wheelspin to a minimum, but I couldn’t get the thing to really dig in at launch. I did, however, manage to do a bit better than 13.983…
A real-world 13.67-second quarter-mile run out of a four-door full-size Chevy with a low-buck small-block engine, which I think is pretty respectable.
That’s me on the right. 13.677 seconds at 100.735 MPH, and pay no mind to the Slow Loris-grade reaction time; this is about the car, not my (lack of) driving skills. I was about to see if I could talk some other racer with Chevy-bolt-pattern wheels into loaning me a pair of slicks for just one pass when a couple of angry Sacto Raceway tech guys stopped me on the return road. “Helmets are required for anything quicker than 14 seconds!” one shouted. “You don’t have a helmet! You’re outta here!” And that was the end of my Test-N-Tune Day fun. Next up: Agonizing reappraisal, serious photo session.

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17 • Part 18 • Part 19

Rotato 01-99-OctaneBoostInTrunk 02-99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout11 03-99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout12 04-99-SactoDragstrip-ET-Close 05-99-SactoDragstrip-ET 06-99-SactoDragstrip-FinishLine 07-99-SactoDragstrip-Imports 08-99-SactoDragstrip13 09-99-SactoDragstrip14 10-99-SactoDragstrip15 ImpalaWebsite-RHRearCorner-550px ImpalaWebsite-WelcomeImage-550px 99-Diff_Cover2 ImpalaWebsite-RHRearCorner-550px ImpalaWebsite-WelcomeImage-550px DotComCube Powertrax 13SecondPassTimeslip ]]> 23
1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 17: Crash Diet, Frying Tires at the Dragstrip Thu, 03 Nov 2011 18:30:59 +0000 After dropping the hopped-up 406 small-block I’d built from scratch in place of the worn-out 350 I’d swapped in 1990, I was geared up to take the car to the dragstrip and see if I could better the high-16-second ETs I’d managed in Atlanta; an important part of this process involved stripping a lot of unnecessary weight out of the car. At the same time (early 1999) I was reevaluating the Impala Hell Project’s role in my life, and thinking about how I might best realize my original vision for the car which had gone from art project to daily driver.
I decided the Pontiac Rally wheels, which I’d installed in order to clear the disc brakes I’d installed in 1992, weren’t really in keeping with the car’s hooptie/official vehicle/street-racer American car-archetype trinity, so I gave them to a neighbor who was restoring his ’72 Firebird. In their place, I got some 15×8 factory steel wheels from a junked Caprice cop car and added mid-70s Chevy van dog-dish hubcaps. I painted the dog-dishes flat black with primer-gray centers, and they looked mean.
The rear wheelwells had no problem fitting 275s, so that’s what I got.
Around this time, I was getting a little bored with my lifer job writing manuals for transit buses. It wasn’t long before I solved the job-boredom problem by crossing the Bay over to Multimedia Gulch, diving right into the frenzied maelstrom of the Dot-Com Boom (more on that in the next episode), but what I really wanted to do was write some sort of article about the Impala Hell Project and sell it to a magazine. Art magazine, car magazine, I wasn’t quite sure which, but somebody would be interested in the story, I felt. That meant that I needed some photographs showing the car in each of its three archetypal guises.
So, for the “drive-by-shooting hooptie” part, I shanghaied my sister and her boyfriend into donning ski masks and brandishing a deuce-deuce pistol for my photo session.
What I really needed was some assistants that looked like the cast from Boyz N The Hood and a bunch of TEC-9s to wave out the windows, but you work with what you’ve got.
Hmmm… not really what I had in mind. Putting the Three Archetypes photo-shoot project on hold, I decided that the car would need to lose a few hundred pounds for its new engine’s dragstrip debut.
First to go was the heavy steel heater/blower unit. Since I was no longer depending on the Impala as a daily driver by this time, luxuries such as climate control seemed frivolous.
Likewise, who needs carpeting or a glovebox?
The truck tiedowns I’d installed for my move to Atlanta back in ’95 didn’t weigh much, but every ounce counts. The bike rack on the trunk lid also had to go.
The galvanized-plumbing-pipe-based trunklid bike rack ended up getting repurposed as the carrying handle of the 91-pound Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox eight years later.
Interior trim, door panels, inner fenders, speakers, climate-control parts, and so on. If the car didn’t need it to run, stay legal, or keep the rain out, I removed it. I sold the very nice rear seat for a C-note to a guy restoring his ’66 Impala, making my car a sporty two-seater.
This experience served me well 9 years later, when I helped gut a Volvo 244 for race duty.
With a completely uninsulated interior, a high-compression engine with lumpy cam, and two-chamber Flowmasters, the interior of the car became markedly less luxurious. I never did weigh the car (the dragstrip scale was on the fritz), but I’m guessing I cut 300 pounds from the original 3,595-pound curb weight. That’s pretty close to second-gen Camaro weight, and about the same as a late-60 V8 Chevelle (or ’12 Camry).
As I went to job interviews at excessively exuberant San Francisco dot-coms (coming close to joining Mike Bumbeck at the gradual-downward-spiral-doomed Ask Jeeves), I thought about all the thousands of hours I’d put into goofy car projects. Thousands of hours I might have put into other creative projects, writing in particular; were those hours justified, long-term? I’d need to do something with the Impala story, use it to get myself some paid writing work that wasn’t instructions for bus mechanics or junk-mail copy.
It was still bugging the shit out of me that Bay Area hipsters and artist types— the majority of my friends since I’d been in my early 20s— still thought that an “art car” was supposed to be a sneer at the very concept of the automobile, reclaiming the car for the forces of peace and love rather than incorporating the canvas itself into the painting; these folks were drawn to the Burning Man milieu. The flip side of this attitude, found among my artistic-minded friends who’d drifted into the Yunnie (Young Urban Nihilist) embrace of Survival Research Laboratories and the like, involved flooring the irony gas pedal and driving apocalyptic creations straight into a really cool self-immolation. I needed to wrap up the concept of my not-particularly-ambitious art car project and package it in a way that would make the piece accessible to non-car-geek readers and, ideally, get my foot in the door of a more satisfying writing gig. For that, I’d need a complete set of high-quality photographs of the car in its final, drag-race-ready guise, so I loaded up the AE-1 with some high-buck Fujichrome Velvia and took the Impala to a parking lot with a neutral background.
The 360° circle-the-car set of photographs I shot that day in June of 1999 became the template for my photographs of street-parked cars in Alameda nearly 10 years later.
The layers of vendor-sample primer paint applied during my Mad Max In Georgia era had faded to exactly the texture and color blend I’d had in mind when I started the Impala Hell Project.
In the nine years since I’d bought the car, it had never been washed, nor had it ever spent a night in a garage. If greasy handprints, blobs of Form-A-Gasket, spilled Schlitz, or seagull poop happened to get on the car, I painted over it. Like the coating that builds up on a good cast-iron frying pan, the patina on my Impala had taken nearly a decade to achieve. Rat-rodders, take note: it takes dedication to apply the years of neglect and abuse needed to get this look.
Because I still wanted to lock tools and a jack in the trunk, I left the cross-country-move-security padlock hasp installed. The extra ounces might slow the car down 0.00004 seconds in the quarter-mile, but I was willing to make that sacrifice to keep my toolbox in my possession. Note the Stanford sticker in the back window; a friend in grad school there applied it on my car in order to, in her words, “Lower the property values of the place and make my tuition cheaper.”
In spite of the many layers of black paint on the bumper, you can still make out the Negativland “No Other Possibility” bumper sticker I applied soon after buying the car in 1990.
Even though the process ate up expensive film, I bracketed the hell out of these shots; you’re only seeing about a quarter of them in the gallery. I wanted the art directors at Car Craft, or maybe RE/SEARCH, to have their choice of images. Look, the three-year-old window numbers from the car’s last Georgia dragstrip trip are still visible!
I had to remove one of the Fiat X1/9 hood scoops I’d installed in 1993 in order to clear my dryer-duct-hose cold-air-induction system.
My plan was to saw off the underhood portion of that scoop to make it clear the ducts.
But at this point, the monoscoop look worked fine.
They say California cars don’t rust, but give a GM car a sufficient number of California rainy winters and eventually the water that gets past the leaky rear-window seal and pools in the trunk will make this happen. Air-cooled VWs have the same problem, only the water leaks past every seal and the process happens three times as quickly.
OK, enough of this artsy gibberish. Let’s go racing! The 406 was making frightening amounts of power; after putting 1,500 low-stress break-in miles on it during months of work commuting, I was finally able to really get on the gas. It became clear that traction was going to be the limiting factor at the dragstrip, with the 3.31-geared open differential sending all the power to the tire with the least traction. The Powerglide-optimized gear ratio was acceptable, and the good ol’ GM 12-bolt could handle the power without breaking, but I was getting absurd amounts of wheelspin under acceleration. It was so bad that the car would spin the right tire forever when shifting into second gear, unless I backed off the throttle. Sometimes it would get rubber going into third, which didn’t bode well for my dragstrip ETs. I’d thought that I could keep the project below two grand by omitting a limited-slip or locker differential (I’d had this crazy idea that the car’s weight coupled with fat tires and a rear swaybar would keep the wheelspin under control), but it looked like I’d be investing another few hundred bucks in the near future.
I’d heard that the dragstrip tech inspectors at Sears Point were real ball-busters, so I decided to make Sacramento Raceway Park the site of the new engine’s drag racing debut. Since the Sacto dragstrip was just under 100 miles from my Alameda home, I got a AAA roadside-service policy that covered four 100-mile tows per year; I figured I might need a tow home if I blew the fragile TH350 transmission at the strip (I’d already fried one $45 Half-Price-Day junkyard-special transmission doing parking-lot burnouts).
The Test-N-Tune crowd didn’t pay much attention to the Impala, except for a few approving nods at its evil-sounding cammy idle. Time to line up!
I’d learned from my freeway-onramp adventures with the new engine that I’d need an extremely delicate touch on the throttle to avoid a humiliating sit-&-spin one-legger non-launch my first time out. I contemplated strategies as I waited my turn.
Perhaps a super-gnarly burnout will help make that all-important right tire gooey enough to grab some pavement when the light goes green!
Well, probably not. But it’s still fun.
My plan was to baby the car off the line, then mash the pedal once it got rolling.
Here we go! The driver of the Fox Mustang next to me must have been slow on the draw, because the Impala jumped ahead even at quarter-throttle. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any grip whatsoever off the line— it felt like I was driving on ice— and the first-to-second shift was a tirespin disaster.
Still, it felt great hearing that glorious engine roar. The result: 15.479 seconds. That was a full second-and-a-half better than my best ET with the old engine, but the lack of traction was costing me plenty.
After nearly a dozen passes, I finally cracked the 14-second barrier… barely.
Back home, I decided to toss the two-grand budget out the window and fix the differential problem before returning to the quarter-mile. I’d also try to sell the Impala’s story. Next up: My first website, return to the dragstrip.

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16 • Part 17 • Part 18

99-Tire_Rear-1280px 98-HeaterOut-1280px 98-Pinhole_ValveCover-1280px 99-360View-Front1-1280px 99-360View-Frt_RH1-1280px 99-360View-Frt_RH5-1280px 99-360View-LH_Rr-1-1280px 99-360View-LH_Rr-2-1280px 99-360View-Rear1-1280px 99-360View-RH1-1280px 99-360View-RH2-1280px 99-360View-RH3-1280px 99-360View-RH_Frt3-1280px 99-360View-Rr_RH-2-1280px 99-BatteryHoldDown-1280px 99-Criminals-02-1280px 99-Criminals-05-1280px 99-Criminals-10-1280px 99-Criminals-15-1280px 99-Criminals-18-1280px 99-Dash2-1280px 99-Dash_Gutted-1280px 99-Diff_Cover-1280px 99-DogDishes-JackStands-1280px 99-FuelPump-1280px 99-Gutted_Interior-1280px 99-Gutting-Glovebox1-1280px 99-Gutting-Glovebox3-1280px 99-Gutting-PartsOnGround2-1280px 99-Gutting-PartsOnGround3-1280px 99-Gutting-PartsOnGround4-1280px 99-Gutting-PartsOnGround7-1280px 99-Gutting-PartsOnGround8-1280px 99-Gutting-PartsOnGround9-1280px 99-Hood_No_Fiat_Scoop-1280px 99-HoodScoop-LH-1280px 99-JBWeld_Patch-1280px 99-LH_Rr_Flank-1280px 99-OaklandToilet2-1280px 99-QuarterRust-1280px 99-RH_Rr_Flank_w_350_on_Ground-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip01-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip02-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip04-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip05-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip08-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip09-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip10-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip16-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout1-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout2-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout3-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout4-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout5-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout6-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout7-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout8-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout9-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Burnout10-1280px 99-SactoDragstrip-Launch-1280px 99-Taillight_Rust-1280px 99-Tiedown_Holes-1280px Boombox_Top 99-Dragstrip-Timeslip2 99-Dragstrip-Timeslip1 ]]> 29
1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 16: Another Heart Transplant Mon, 17 Oct 2011 18:30:31 +0000 After painstakingly building a medium-hot 406-cubic-inch small-block engine to replace the Impala’s very tired 350 (motivated by the car’s lackluster quarter-mile performance), 1998 became 1999. Finally the New Engine was ready for swapping.
The old 350, which I’d bought as a long-block from a cheap rebuild shop in L.A., had served me well, but its power output probably wasn’t much over 150 horses and it was starting to smoke under heavy throttle.
While the car was getting a power upgrade, I had some other plans for it. The Pontiac Rally wheels, which I’d had in place since my 1991 Generation X couch-surfing expeditions, would be replaced by something more in line with my original artistic vision for the car.
There was no way the worn-out Turbo-Hydramatic 350 transmission I’d installed in 1990 would survive more than a couple of pedal-to-metal beatings behind the new engine (it was slipping pretty badly on the second-third shift), so out it came.
I know how to swap transmissions, but there be monsters inside them— I don’t have the faintest idea how to go about messing with the deep innards of an automatic transmission, and I wasn’t about to start learning at this point. I thought about buying a TH350 rebuilt with drag racing in mind, but the price tag on such a transmission was sort of a budget-nuker. Instead, I went to Pick Your Part on Half Price Day and bought several maybe-recently-rebuilt-looking TH350s from six-cylinder Novas for $40 apiece. That way, I figured, I could just keep blowing up transmissions and swapping in “new” ones as needed. Hey, a transmission swap in a 60s GM B Body takes about 20 minutes, even at my slow wrenching pace.
I picked up a B&M Shift Improver Kit and installed it in the first of my junkyard transmissions, choosing the “Stage 2″ U-joint-bustin’ options.
I had a patriotic Lydia Lunch portrait watching over this process. If you’re going to have a pinup, do it right!
I’d installed an Addco sway bar in the front a couple years earlier, thanks to my Year One employee discount. I’d bought a rear bar at the same time, but installation required drilling honkin’ big holes in the rear control arms and I didn’t get around to doing that job until it was time for the new engine to be installed. I figured the rear bar would help limit wheel-lifting tire spin when launching at the drag strip, plus make it easier to spin out when getting on the throttle in turns.
Unfortunately, I didn’t think to photograph the process of mounting a rear sway bar on my Impala, so you’ll just have to imagine the sight of a 1/2″ drill bit chewing through big-ass control arms.
I removed the carburetor, disconnected the headers, tied the power-steering pump out of the way, and all the other little jobs you do when pulling an engine. Hook up the chain, start lifting!
More than eight years of service from this engine, but it was time to go.
As was not the case with the rear swaybar installation, I felt the need to document the hell out of this moment. I shot the 350 extraction from many angles.
Including the view from behind the wheel.
Out! And my long-suffering parents (whose back yard I’d commandeered for this project when my own driveway on the other side of The Island That Rust Forgot proved too small) experienced a flashback to my high-school years, when all manner of horrible, parts-shedding hoopties and associated components lowered their property values. Yes, the 350 sat there for a few months prior to me finding a buyer, I’m not very proud to say.
I painted the 406 flat black, after an old racer told me that it helped with engine cooling. Actually, I did it because it looked cool.
By the late 1990s, my income had risen to the point where I was no longer forced by poverty to swill terrible piss-yellow beer while working on cars… but here’s a can of Pabst on the fender. I must have been raiding my dad’s beer stash that day; his Minnesota-ized tastes die hard.
Installed! The whole swap took just a couple of hours, an experience that Those Kids These Days with their finger-bustingly-tight Civic engine compartments will never know.
I pored over the J.C. Whitney hood scoop selection, thinking I’d rig up a seriously redneck-looking cold-air-induction system, but finally settled on the much more functional grille-mounted-ducting solution. I grabbed another air cleaner at the junkyard, grafted its snout onto the existing air cleaner, and ran dryer ducting to home-heating vents on either side of the radiator. Unfortunately, the left-side duct interfered with one of the Fiat X1/9 scoops I’d installed in ’93, so I had to remove the scoop.
I figured that this setup should be good for force-feeding a good supply of cold outside air into the Quadrajet (which I’d pulled from a ’70 Eldorado with a 500, on the assumption that the jetting for a 500 ought to be about right for a cammed-up 406). I’d also modified the HEI distributor with high-performance advance weights.
For cooling, I added a fan clutch to the factory engine-driven fan and retained the BMW 7 Series fan I’d been using for auxiliary cooling since the early 1990s.
The BMW E23′s electric radiator fan is by far the best pusher-style unit you can find in the junkyard. It forces a typhoon of air through the radiator (caveat: it also draws ridiculous power— 15 amps, if I recall correctly— so you can’t run it with the headlights at the same time if you’ve got a small alternator). I used a pair of these fans a decade later, when attempting to rig up a rear-radiator setup in a V8-ized Volvo 240 race car).
My long-term plan was to see if the car could stay cool on junkyard electric fans alone (dispensing with the horsepower-sucking engine-driven fan) so I also purchased a W114 Mercedes-Benz fan.
Yes, it ran. Oh, did it run! Next episode: Glorious return to the drag strip!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15 • Part 16 • Part 17

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 15: No Replacement For Displacement! Thu, 06 Oct 2011 15:00:12 +0000 Before packing up the Impala and leaving Georgia in the fall of 1996, I took the car to Atlanta Dragway and ran some semi-disappointing low-17-second quarter-mile passes. Back in California, I resolved to make some improvements to the car’s running gear. After 15 years as a cheapskate, junkyard-centric gearhead, I was finally willing to spend substantial cash for new aftermarket performance parts. The main question was: what kind of engine would I build?
My plan upon returning to California was to find a place to live in San Francisco, but the first stirrings of the dot-com boom had sent rents in non-crackhouse neighborhoods to worse-than-Manhattan levels. So, I went to the other side of the Bay and rented a Victorian in my old hometown, the Island That Rust Forgot. Though I had left Atlanta, I remained a part-time employee of Year One, going to California car shows and photographing “correct” GM and Chrysler cars, then sending the film back to Year One HQ. That meant that I still enjoyed YO’s generous employee discount, which enabled me to keep my T-shirt collection 100% Rat Fink. This was a photo I shot for a passport application, by the way.
I’d also taken full advantage of S-K’s vendor status at YO to replace my crappy Taiwanese tools with the real stuff. When I decided on what I’d be building for the Impala’s new engine, I’d be using the same discount to score parts for the project.
I toyed with the idea of building a Cadillac 500, an engine that doesn’t weigh much more than the small-block Chevy yet grunts out battleship-grade torque, but the connecting rods can be weak in performance applications, plus aftermarket parts were way too pricey for me. After endless calls to my friends at Year One HQ in Georgia (thanks to their toll-free work number) and debating the pros and cons with them, I decided to stick with the small-block Chevrolet engine family for my project.
The decision to go with an improved small-block Chevy still left me with an absurd number of options. Build a small-displacement engine with good-flowing heads and spin the hell out of it? Get a stroker crank and build a 383? In the end, I decided to go for torque. I found a dirt-track racer near Sacramento with a fully-machined, 0.030″ over, four-bolt-main 400 block and crankshaft, and that served as the starting point for my project. I decided I’d try to keep the whole thing under $2,000 total expenditure, which meant I’d be using factory cylinder heads and stock connecting rods. I wanted it to run on pump gas, so I needed to keep the compression ratio below 10:1. The heads would determine what pistons I’d get, so I started hitting the swap meets (though Craigslist was in full effect by 1996, car guys hadn’t really discovered it yet; to buy used car parts, you had to seek them out the old-fashioned way).
In early 1997, I got a job as a technical writer for transit-bus manufacturer Gillig Corporation, in Hayward. Gillig has been building excellent buses since about the time the New Testament was written, and the assembly line was manned by legions of tough old wrenches who’d been putting together Phantoms and their predecessors for decades. My job was to write all the shop manuals and driver’s handbooks for each custom-ordered series of buses. They were just getting geared up to start producing the Low Floor when I showed up, so things were quite hectic in the office.
Even though I spent a lot of time climbing around half-finished buses in the factory, the job of actually producing the manuals took place in a veal-fattening pen in the Parts Department building. I’d gotten into pinhole photography at the time, and I think this image captures the fluorescent-lit/smell-of-burned-microwave-popcorn essence of cubicle life.
In spite of a certain amount of Cubicle Ennui (exacerbated by the fact that I was forced to do my job on an elderly System 7-equipped Centris 650 running PageMangler), I enjoyed my new writing gig. Moving up from copywriter to tech writer was a positive step, and the infinitely customizable Phantoms and Low Floors meant that every customer— whether it was Seattle ordering 2,000 units or Tyler, Texas ordering four— got a set of manuals custom-written for their bus order. I geeked out on creating a modular system to speed up the process of manual creation… but thoughts of the Impala’s Big Engine sometimes preoccupied me on the job.
My coworkers were very nice, but most of them were on the normal side and I’m sure they thought I was a little odd, what with my tirades about Enver Hoxha and my hideous hooptie of a daily driver out in the parking lot. Fortunately, the guy in charge of the Gillig parts-sales team was a fellow car freak. Not just any normal car freak, mind you; this guy has several orders of magnitude more car knowledge and fabrication skill than I’ll ever possess. Yes, LeMons fans, this is where I met future Black Metal/Death Cab V8olvo and Model T GT mastermind Dave Schaible.
Dave was the only guy whose commuter vehicle gave my car a run for its money in the property-value-lowering department, and his sense of humor helped relieve some of our workplace’s Cubicle Ennui. His Cadillac 331-powered ’27 Model T was a rat rod before anyone had heard the term (sadly, this car— including the ’49 Cad engine— got destroyed in a wreck a few months back). With Dave giving me engine-build advice, I set my sights on a certain type of swap-meet cylinder head.
And, soon enough, I found them! A pair of the “Camel Hump” aka “461″ aka “fuelie” heads from high-performance Chevrolet 327s built during the 1964-66 period. Corvettes got them, Nova 327 SSs got them, they were seriously cool, but their value had dropped a lot by the late 1990s, thanks to all the superior aftermarket small-block heads that had become available. These were the less desirable heads with the small (1.94″ versus 2.02″) intake valves, but Dave assured me that they’d work just fine on a low-revving 406. $150 and they were mine. Dave recommended nearby Al Hubbard Machine Shop as the correct old-school shop to rebuild and drill my heads for the required 400-block steam holes (Al Hubbard was Vic‘s brother, for you Bay Area racing-history buffs), and I paid $465.04 to get the job done. That included new valves, springs, hardened exhaust valve seats, and a three-angle valve job.
About this time, I picked up an ’85 Honda CRX to use as a gas-saving daily driver while reworking the Impala into its next incarnation. It was cheap because the engine was bad, but that’s no big deal.
Not when Pick Your Part Hayward is having Half Price Day on New Year’s Day 1998 and you have a big Detroit car with vast trunk space. Complete D15A2 engine, air cleaner to oil pan, for about 100 bucks.
Of course, that engine had a bad head gasket, but an afternoon’s work fixed that. Now I could yank parts off the Impala and not worry about being able to get to work the next day; it was sad to end its 8-year-reign as my semi-daily-driver (I owned many other cars for brief periods during this time, but the Impala got 95% of the miles). Doubling the horsepower would make me feel better, though.
The CRX proved to be a pretty good parts hauler itself, as I found when I couldn’t resist grabbing this 200R4 transmission on another Half Price Day sale at the junkyard (it didn’t take me long to figure out that The Big Engine would vaporize a stock 200R4 in seconds, and I ended up selling it to some guy with a Camaro).
I had the block, crankshaft, and heads, which meant I could go ahead and order an employee-discount $325.91 Engine Master Kit (including L2352F forged TRW pistons and Speed-Pro moly rings, giving me 9.9:1 compression) from my friends at Year One, for whom I was still shooting car shows on weekends. I also ordered a Competition Cams 280H Magnum from Summit for $82.95. Other parts followed those (I’ll provide a complete parts breakdown with pricing later in this episode). But I still needed to get connecting rods, flexplate, harmonic balancer, and a bunch of nickel/dime small parts. The easiest way to do that? Back to Pick Your Part for a Half Price Day 400 long block! Back in 1998, you could still find a few 400s in every California self-service wrecking yard (those days are long gone), and so I had a choice between a couple of GMC pickups and this 1975 Caprice wagon. They were all two-bolt-main engines, so I went for the vehicle with the lowest mileage on the odometer.
My friend and future brother-in-law Jim, who’d accompanied me on my scouting-out-Atlanta mission a couple years before, volunteered to don his “Steal Your Face” SF Giants shirt and help with the project.
Pulling an engine from an old-time GM wagon is pretty simple, but it’s still a sweaty, filthy task.
I got under the car and disconnected the torque converter bolts, admiring the Olds sedan next door as I did so. Chevrolet small-blocks tended to leak oil like crazy, and this Caprice was no exception; the wagon’s underside had a thick coat of road-dirt-fortified oil crust all over everything.
This sort of thing goes a lot quicker nowadays, with the advent of battery-powered impact wrenches, but having four hands makes the job take less than an hour. Since I only wanted to pay for a short block, I had to remove the intake and cylinder heads before bringing the engine to the cashier’s counter. More bolts to turn!
Voila! One V8 short block, $60 out the door.
It should go without saying that a 400 short-block fits just fine in a ’65 Impala’s trunk.
We’re outta here! Note the classy red satin sunvisor covering.
The easiest way to get at the rods turned out to be disassembly with the whole mess still in the trunk. I had no problem finding a buyer willing to pay a C-note for the crankshaft and 2-bolt block, which enabled me to turn a profit on the short-block-purchase transaction. From there, the rods went to Al Hubbard for rebuilding, which set me back $79. The newly rebuilt rods and my nice new forged pistons went off to EMOS Machine Shop in Alameda, a few blocks from my house, to get the rods pressed onto the pistons. Price tag for that: 40 bucks.
The car was getting closer to getting its new powerplant, so I drove it the two miles to the home of my long-suffering parents. My rented house across town didn’t have a garage, so I managed to talk the long-suffering parents (or LSPs for short) into allowing me to build my engine in the two-story former 1870s stable in their back yard (this in spite of the LSPs having endured every manner of wretched, hooptie-ass, property-value-obliterating heap on their property during my teenage years).
The stable made for a great engine-building facility, except for the indifferently-repaired-with-cheap-plywood-in-1960 creaky 120-year-old floor, which threatened to collapse under the weight of heavy engine parts.
The last thing you want with the short connecting rods and funky balancer on a 400 (actually, a 406 in this case, due to the .030″ over bore job) is for the rotating assembly to get out of balance at speed, so I brought the crankshaft, rods, pistons, flexplate, and harmonic balancer to Ashland Grinding & Balancing in Hayward and gave them $100 to do a top-notch balancing job on the works.
I was still experimenting with my pinhole camera around this time, so the gallery for this episode is full of artsy pinhole shots. Here’s a shot of the rods in a box.
And the old valves and springs in another box.
I degreed the camshaft, hand-filed the piston rings for the obsessively correct ring gap, checked all the bearing clearances with Plastigage, and did all the geeky stuff that supposedly makes the engine fail to blow up when you beat the hell out of it at the dragstrip. The rods went in with a set of ARP bolts. The classic guide, How To Rebuild Your Small Block Chevy, became my Bible during this period.
The car was still drivable at this point, but I was getting closer to pulling the cheap rebuilt 350 I’d installed in 1990; with close to 100,000 miles since that swap, the 350 was getting very tired. Check out the Ford Escort buckets, plywood “center console,” and beige household shag carpeting in that luxurious interior!
I used Summit hydraulic lifters and a set of Crane roller-tip rocker arms ($32.95 and $109.50, respectively). Since I planned to use a Quadrajet carburetor (plucked from a 500-equipped ’70 Eldorado), I got the Quadrajet-compatible Edelbrock Performer RPM intake manifold for $149.69 at Summit (I think the intake in this photo may be an SP2P I had lying around; the Performer RPM went on during final assembly).
During the engine build, I listened to just two cassettes— which happened to be in the Impala’s glovebox when I dropped off the first batch of parts at the LSPs’ stable— on the garage boombox, over and over. One was Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and the other was the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Not really my favorite albums at the time (or now), but they became the strangely appropriate theme music for 406 Building Hell.
For those of you who want to see a real-world parts-price breakdown for a project that took place 13 years ago (according to the CPI Inflation Calculator, $100 in 1998 is worth $135.98 now, though many of the parts in my build are cheaper today), here ya go; click on the gallery image (below) for an easier-to-read version. Total cost was $2,105.81, minus what I made from selling off duplicated parts and the old 350 (we’ll get to that in a later episode).
Eventually, the 406 was assembled and ready to swap. I immobilized the Impala by preparing for the swap. Next up: Engine swap!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14 • Part 15 • Part 16

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 14: First Taste of the Quarter-Mile Thu, 29 Sep 2011 18:30:30 +0000 After I moved from San Francisco to Atlanta and then got a job writing Year One’s catalogs, rubbing elbows with all those drag-race-crazed Southern gearheads on the job meant that it wasn’t long before I took the Impala to the dragstrip.
Back in 1996, Year One advertised pretty heavily at nearby Atlanta Dragway, and so we often made “field trips” to the track. You know, for work. My coworkers drove some pretty quick machinery, with plenty of 12-second Detroit bombs and the occasional excessively boosted Omni GLHS. I refused to run the Impala down the quarter-mile the first couple of Test-n-Tune Day visits, because A) I’d never run a car at a dragstrip before and B) I knew the Impala would be humiliatingly slow. Instead, I drank Schlitz in the paddock and kibitzed as my coworkers readied their cars.
This was fun, of course, but the peer pressure continued to build.
Finally, my coworker Clint— who spent his spare time finding correctly-date-coded U-joint end caps for his numbers-matching, 383/4-speed Road Runner— picked up a Poly 318-powered early-60s Belvedere and brought it to the track. It completed the quarter-mile in a stately and dignified 21 seconds. I figured that my car, with its smog-headed, Quadrajet-and-headers-equipped 350, should be able to beat that time!
So, I got the car through the tech inspection and lined up. I was a little nervous, but I figured I’d escape the ruthless ball-busting of my peers as long as I didn’t redlight my first time out. Screw the reaction time, I figured.
With 3.31 gears and an open differential, I decided to skip the burnout completely. The car didn’t have enough power to do much more than chirp one tire at launch, anyway.
I had Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” on the cassette deck for this historic moment, because its combination of lines from Georgia native Flannery O’Connor’s second-best novel, drag racin’ imagery, and Gibby Haynes vocals seemed right for the occasion.

But, really, why settle for a rubber-burnin’ song with Gibby as a mere guest vocalist when you can hear him on a genuine, 200-proof Butthole Surfers track? Electriclarryland came out a few months after my first dragstrip visit, so I had to wait until a later dragstrip visit for this more appropriate musical accompaniment.
Dreading a redlight foul and resulting derision, I waited for the green light before I even thought about launching. Here we go!
The Impala is #111, on the right. 17.278 seconds, which turned out to be pretty much right in line with the “low to mid 17s” prediction of my coworkers. The 1.201-second R/T is a bit on the, er, conservative side, but I’ve gotten a lot quicker since that time.
After more practice and some engine tuning, I was able to crack the 16-second barrier— just barely— on a later visit to the strip, but I knew that I’d need to add another hundred or so horsepower if I wanted the car to live up to the original art-car concept I’d had for it. Meanwhile, as the spring of 1996 became another hot Georgia summer, my girlfriend decided that she wasn’t happy at Emory, or in academia in general. While I enjoyed hanging out with my new Southern friends, I didn’t like the hyper-suburban-sprawl that lay at the heart of the Atlanta way of life (captured fairly accurately, a couple of years later, in Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full), and so we decided to pack up the Impala and head back to California in late August.
As was the case with the trip from California a year earlier, the drive was hot and stressful and I didn’t shoot many photos. In fact, I shot a grand total of two photos on our journey, which took us on a southern route in order to visit relatives in Austin, Texas, along the way (and both photos were taken in New Mexico). Here’s an end-of-film-roll shot of our motel in middle-o-nowhere New Mexico.
And here’s a shot of the Impala in front of the UFO Museum in Roswell. The car ran perfectly, and we were back in San Francisco a few days after leaving Georgia. I knew that the Impala would be getting a power upgrade in the very near future, once I’d settled down and found a job. Next up: More bad influences, building the New Engine.

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13 • Part 14 • Part 15

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 13: Mad Max At the Confederate Mount Rushmore Thu, 22 Sep 2011 14:30:53 +0000 After I hauled all my stuff 2,500 miles in the Impala and settled in Georgia, it was time for me to go job-hunting. After a few boring office-temp jobs, I spotted an ad that got my attention: Copywriter needed to write catalogs for large auto-parts company. Must know classic American cars. Within minutes of showing up for my interview at Year One, I had my first full-time writing job… and a nickname inspired by my car: Mad Max.
The Impala didn’t exactly fit seamlessly into its new neighborhood in Decatur, which was populated mostly by fairly refined CDC and Emory University employees, but it was very well-suited for trips to nearby hipster-centric Little Five Points and jaunts to Deliverance country in the northern part of the state. I got used to the lack of air conditioning in the car, which never overheated even in stop-and-go traffic during triple-digit heat waves.
The beer-can-and-JB-Weld patch I’d put in the corner of the rear window finally solved the car’s chronic rain-leakage problem.
In addition to the heat, I also had to get used to Georgia-style rain. In California, it only rains in the winter and you get plenty of warning when rain is coming. That means you can count on not getting soaked when you start an outdoor wrenching project. It doesn’t work like that in the South; I had to replace a water pump in the parking lot one sunny afternoon, got halfway through, and then an Old Testament-grade thundershower got me. Here I am test-driving the car while filthy and soaked.
It got a lot easier to fix up my car once I started working for the Year One Graphics Department, since my coworkers were a bunch of super-obsessed Detroit-iron fanatics and I could get just about any ’65 Impala part (not to mention tools and Rat Fink T-shirts) on my employee discount. The parking lot was always full of wild, daily-driven drag-race cars, hooptied-out parts cars, and everything in between. Normal people don’t drive, say, 12-second Buick Skylarks or primered-out Slant Six Coronet 440s to work, but these were not normal people. The Graphics Department, which created all the various YO catalogs and publications, was home to a half-dozen or so designers, photographers, and writers. Hardcore Southern gearheads, every one, and probably the sharpest, funniest group of coworkers I’ve ever had. Everyone had a Graphics Dude nickname; the tall skinny writer was Ichabod, the black-bearded designer was Chong… and it took only one glance at my Impala for them to assign my name: Mad Max, or just Max for short. To this day, my former Year One coworkers (including South Carolina LeMons hero Walker Canada) all call me Max.
At that time, the company would put out a fat glossy-covered catalog for each line of GM or Chrysler car every six months or so, and as new parts came in they’d be added to the “New Products” catalog, which would be shipped to customers as an addendum to the big book. Eventually, the contents of the New Products catalogs would be added to the big catalog… but they’d been short a writer for many months and the backlog of un-catalogued parts was enormous. My job was to grab a new part, find the photograph of it, write up a description that combined useful specs and information with a bit of humorous ad copy, and incorporate the whole mess into the catalog layout. Repeat. Endlessly.
The three writers were seen as being even weirder than the rest of the Graphics Department crew, so we had our own corner of the office. Black-light posters, thrift-store lamps… and, if you look closely at this photo of my desk, you’ll see the drawer full of 8-track tapes. Yes, we had an 8-track-only music policy, which kept us all hitting the thrift stores in search of new tapes; while I never was able to get the Holy Grail of 8-tracks (the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind The Bollocks”), I did manage to find some good Shocking Blue tapes. I did my work on a Quadra 950 Macintosh with a whopping (for 1995) 20 megs of RAM, and I learned to hate the evil and crash-prone Aldus (later Adobe) RageMaker and its enabler, the equally evil and crash-prone System 7 operating system.
So, I’d get a new product— say, an oil pump— and use the Paths tool in Photoshop to knock out the background of the photograph shot by our overworked photographer on the fantastically expensive digital camera in the Year One photo studio. Then I’d try to find some way to liven up a bunch of application specs with some entertaining copy.
Multiply this by eight catalogs, several of which were still laid out using the prehistoric waxer-and-process camera method, and I faced a several-month period of 16-hour days spent chained to PageMangler. It was very stressful— I’d shoot bolt upright in the middle of the night, sweat-soaked and hallucinating Chrysler A-body door panels and the System 7 Bomb Dialog.
Fortunately, my boss was this Firebird-racing Tennessee madman, Keith Maney. Some of you may be familiar with Keith from various muscle-car-centric TV shows (My Classic Car, Dream Car Garage, American Muscle Car, Hot Rod TV, MuscleCar TV, and Horsepower TV, among others), but I saw him as a great example of what it means to be a deadline-hitting, quality-prose-every-time, professional writer. I learned more about the craft of writing from this guy than I ever did from any college class. Someday he’ll finish the Not Too Sharpe Racing Datsun roadster and we’ll see him run in LeMons.
My wrenching skills and general car knowledge also underwent great improvement during this time, thanks to my immersion in Southern Gearhead World; here’s a lesson from a coworker in Full-Size Chevrolet Rear Control Arm Bushing Replacement. Once things calmed down on the deadline front, we’d take regular field trips to the dragstrip, where I received yet more crucial education (more on that in the next episode).
One thing nobody told me about Atlanta was that it snows there in the winter. Worse yet, sometimes it rains and then the rain freezes, rendering road travel very difficult for a large rear-wheel-drive sedan with an open differential and torquey V8. How is this possible in the Deep South? So, one December morning I woke up to find the car completely covered with a thick layer of ice. The door locks were frozen completely solid, and I had to call my Minnesota-native parents for advice (pour hot water over the locks, they suggested). All the advice in the world couldn’t prepare this soft California boy for his first-ever snow driving experiences, however.
Then it turned out that the door latches would freeze in the open position, once I got the car moving, which resulted in a huge, primered-out Chevy sliding all over the road with its doors flapping open and shut. Other drivers gave me a wide, wide berth. Fortunately, my years of experience with parking-lot donuts and related hoonage in rear-drive Detroit bombs made me reasonably skilled at recovering from skids, and I hit nothing.
But, damn, it just wasn’t fair, this weather! The Impala’s heater, and particularly its defroster, proved inadequate under these conditions, but our forefathers survived just fine with cold car interiors and frosty windows.
In spite of the crazy writing workload, I was enjoying my job. My coworkers drove silly cars and were excellent storytellers in the Southern tradition; I argued politics with them constantly— inevitable with the San Francisco/Deep South culture clash— but we hung out, played poker, drank whiskey, and wrenched on cars together. Meanwhile, my girlfriend was hating every minute of her Southern experience; she’d gone from being a respected chef and restaurant manager in California to an ivory-tower academic at Emory University, and the bullshit was getting to her. On top of that, neither of us dug the relentlessly suburban/exurban, mall-centric sprawliness that was the Atlanta metropolitan area.
Then there were all the echoes of the Civil War and Civil Rights Era, which Georgians saw as different battles in the same war. In California, history is sort of unreal and distant, like Disneyland, with all the victims hidden safely from view… but in Georgia, you can just about see heaps of Gatling-gunned CSA soldiers and lynched sharecroppers bleeding on the asphalt of the mall parking lot, and that makes for a lot of tension. Just down the road from us was Stone Mountain, aka “The Confederate Mount Rushmore” and the ceremonial birthplace of the 20th-century Klan, where you can see a laser light show projected onto the stone faces of Confederate heroes while Lynyrd Skynyrd plays on the loudspeakers. Naturally, my Nixon obsession led me into frequent rants on the Southern Strategy, which didn’t go over so well in Gingrich country. With my girlfriend’s increasing unhappiness with her academic career, it was looking as though our stay in Georgia might not last quite as long as we’d planned.
But I did like deep-fried okra, Georgia junkyards, going to the dragstrip, and shooting the shit with my coworkers. I used my Year One employee discount to get my first really good tools, full sets of S-K sockets and wrenches, and I started planning a bigger and better engine for the Impala. In the meantime, though, I slapped a 327 sticker I found in my desk onto the car’s air cleaner. 327 is just a cooler number than 350.
We’d get all sorts of sample cans of spray paint from manufacturers hoping to sell their products in our catalogs, and so I established a policy under which any sort of primer paint could be tested on my car (provided the paint fell somewhere on the black-and-white continuum). This resulted in a sort of “concrete camouflage” effect.
The car was looking meaner than ever as a result of this treatment, and so it became the inspiration for the photographers and designers, who were working on a new publication.
The Graphics Department would be putting out a slick car magazine entitled Restoration Review, and the designers decided to use photos of my car for the original concept mockups. Here I am, the genius who created Super In-Destruct-O Paint!
My girlfriend and I took the Impala on trips to Savannah, Lexington, Chapel Hill, and Nashville during late 1995 and early 1996, and it proved a great Southern road-trip machine.

One of my fellow YO Graphics Department writers was a musician who’d been knocking around the Atlanta music scene for many years, and I started joining him to see bands at various scurrilous dive bars. I became a fan of Smoke (I recommend the excellent documentary film about Smoke’s late singer, Benjamin Smoke) and I went to some great country/punk/rockabilly gigs during this era. I also had the opportunity to see Doc Watson in a small venue at Little Five Points.
I put my improved wrenching skills and access to wholesale parts to use by replacing the remaining original suspension components. Still not satisfied with the car’s handling, I splurged on a set of decent tires and a fat Addco front swaybar. This brought the car up to late-20th-century handling standards. All it needed was more power… and that was in my plans.
The real question was: What would the Impala do in the quarter-mile with its mildly upgraded, smog-headed 350? Next up: The dragstrip!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12 • Part 13 • Part 14

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1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 12: Next Stop, Atlanta! Thu, 15 Sep 2011 21:00:36 +0000 After the Nixon-head-hood-ornamented Impala’s pilgrimage to the birthplace of Richard Nixon in the spring of 1994, I left Oakland and moved across the Bay to an apartment on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District, home of the best burritos in the world. Little did I know that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be packing all my possessions into the Impala and blasting 2,500 miles to the southeast.
By early 1995, I’d settled into a routine of office-temp work in the Financial District, cheap burritos for dinner (El Toro and El Farolito were— and still are— my favorites), and evening drives over Twin Peaks to see a girlfriend who lived about 50 yards from the Pacific Ocean (this was only a five-mile trip on paper, but a grueling 40-minute/thousand-stop-sign slog by automobile; San Francisco makes blocks seem like miles). I used BART to get to work, because only Daddy Warbucks can afford to park in downtown SF, so the Impala spent its days parked near the corner of Valencia and 24th. In those days, back when this part of the Mission was cheap and not yet fully hipsterized, any car parked in my neighborhood had about a 100% chance (per week) of being broken into, vandalized, or bashed into by a drunk in an Electra 225 running three space-saver spares. Actually, the gentrification of the Mission hasn’t changed a damn thing; the cars are nicer today, but they still get just as trashed on the street.
But my car didn’t get touched. Even the most desperate crackhead could sense that it wasn’t worth smashing a side window with a chunk of spark-plug porcelain in order to rummage for 16¢ in the glovebox. Parallel parkers with 11 sloe gin fizzes under their belts exercised unprecedented caution when squeezing 18 feet of car into an 18.5-foot space bounded by my car. It’s possible that my car got key-striped or tagged, but I wouldn’t have noticed. I’d remove my 20-pound pull-out octophonic sound-system rig, leave the glovebox door open to show its emptiness, and the car would be left alone.
In short, my Impala turned out to be not only an ideal long-distance road-trip machine but a perfect urban survivor as well. About the only drawback was its size; the big Chevrolets of this era have a surprisingly tight turning radius, but in San Francisco you’ll find a lot of spaces that only a CRX or smaller can squeeze into.
Everything was going fine. I’d settled into a decent-paying long-term temp gig with a junk-mail-mill of an environmental charity I won’t name because they’d probably sue me out of existence, removing the names of dead donors from the mailing list and answering angry letters from live donors upset about said charity taking money from Pollutco, Inc. (by the way, I learned that gluing a junk-mailer’s Business Reply Envelope to a chunk of 2×4 or stuffing the envelope with lead plates from a car battery totally works, or at least it worked in 1995; I was the one who threw out such objects every day). As winter became spring, my coast-dwelling girlfriend’s graduation from San Francisco State loomed. In spite of my warnings about the perils of academia, she decided that she really wanted to pursue a PhD in American History. Emory University near Atlanta offered her a fat fellowship— in essence a free-ride tuition deal with a juicy stipend check on top— and it was an offer she didn’t refuse.
So, the decision had to be made: dump her or move to Georgia with her. All I knew about Georgia came from obsessive reading of Flannery O’Connor’s work, supplemented by Eric Foner’s no-punches-pulled history of Reconstruction, and I was uneasy (to put it mildly) about moving there. This sort of dilemma calls for a road trip!
My friend— and future brother-in-law— Jim was itching to drive a circuit of the country in his much-traveled ’88 Toyota pickup, and I figured we could visit Atlanta on the way and see if I could stand living in the place. I put together a special mix tape, we loaded up the camping equipment, and we hit the road.
Our route was a circuit around the perimeter of the country: up to Idaho, across the Upper Midwest to New York City, down the Atlantic coast and then west across the Deep South, Texas, and the Southwest. We’d sleep in campgrounds or on friends’ couches at various cities along the way, cook our own meals, and do the whole trip in 22 days. It was a blast, but The Man kept sweating us (I’m pretty sure the Toyota’s California plates and Grateful Dead stickers contributed to John Law’s low opinion of the vehicle). The South Dakota Highway Patrol pulled us over outside Rapid City, put us in the back seat of the Crown Victoria, and dumped the contents of the truck onto the shoulder in a quest for nonexistent drugs and guns (“There’s a regular traffic in stolen firearms from California to Minneapolis,” one cop grated, “and you boys fit the description perfectly”). We got hassled at rest stops, where the cops were doing random warrantless searches of vehicles with dogs, and we happened to be entering Atlanta during Freaknik, a gathering of black college students that had every law-enforcement officer in Georgia roaring about the highways in a heavily-armed frenzy… and then some nutjob mass murderer went and blew up the Federal Building when we were a few hours east of Oklahoma City. We heard reports on the radio that “two men in a blue pickup” were seen fleeing the scene and we figured we’d be arrested and/or lynched any minute. To us, the best move seemed to be to continue to drive toward OKC, because that’s the one direction the perps probably wouldn’t be going. We were spared a nightmarish experience with law enforcement and/or vigilantes when McVeigh and his beater ’77 Marquis made the world’s lamest getaway, and we passed through Oklahoma without incident (other than being freaked out by the horror that had taken place).
The upshot of all this was that I figured Atlanta looked interesting as a place to live, and that cross-country driving in a sketchy-looking vehicle with California plates is extremely stressful. What the hell, I thought, it will be an adventure. We’d leave San Francisco in August.
I wasn’t sure how well we’d be able to fit all our stuff inside the Impala (even after ruthless culling of our respective book collections— including most of my first-edition Philip K. Dick paperbacks— we still had hundreds of pounds of the things), so I screwed some junkyard-sourced tie-downs on the trunk lid and rear quarters. That way we’d be able to travel in true Joad Family style, with crates of squawking chickens and kitchen utensils tied to the outside of the car, though we’d be leaving California instead of fleeing to it. Too bad about the Doll Hut sticker, but I’d get a new one during my next Orange County trip… whenever that might be.
It appeared that the only way to haul our bicycles— which were worth more than the car— would be on the trunk lid, so I devised this trunk-mounted bike rack to keep them secure from motel-parking-lot thieves. We’d lock the bikes to the bar— which was a galvanized steel plumbing nipple with a few hacksaw-jamming 283 pushrods inside— using our San Francisco-grade U-locks. This bar now lives on as the grab handle of my Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox, which provides tunes when I’m working in the garage. As it turned out, the disassembled bikes fit inside the car, stacked on all the boxes in the back seat, so the trunk bar served only to confuse onlookers.
I felt confident that no thief would be able to figure out the bewildering array of dash switches and hot-wire the car, but what about battery thieves? Cutting a few bars of grille out of the way and attaching a chain to a carriage bolt through the hood solved that problem.
And I didn’t want the same motel-parking-lot thieves who’d be frustrated by the locked-down bicycles to have a shot at the valuables in the trunk, so I added this hasp and bolt-cutter-proof padlock. I thought about adding hasps to the doors as well, but decided we’d just keep the not-worth-stealing boxes of books in the back seat and put everything else in the trunk. Just as well, because I wouldn’t have wanted my car to look like this Cadillac.
The plan was to drive I-80 through Nevada and into Utah, then turn right at Salt Lake City to visit some relatives in southeastern Utah. From there, we’d take I-70 east, visit some more relatives in Kentucky, then head south to Atlanta. Driving a 30-year-old car loaded with a half-ton or so of cargo across the desert in the height of summer seemed like a bit of a gamble, so I invested a couple hundred bucks in a new Modine radiator (the old one had a JB Weld patch about 4″ wide, from a baseball-sized rock that had bounced off a gravel truck and put a huge hole in the radiator a few years earlier, and I didn’t quite trust the patch) and added a junkyard transmission cooler. All my tools would be on board, and I figured I’d have no problems finding parts in the event of a mechanical failure. Pack it up, move it out!
At this point, we run into the limitations of the pre-digital-camera era again; this cross-country drive was so hectic and stressful that I managed to take only a handful of photographs, all on a point-and-shoot camera loaded with color print film (yes, the old days sucked in so many ways). The car made it to Moab just fine, with the only incident being a busted tailpipe caused by the car bottoming out in a gas-station entrance. A little beer-can-and-hoseclamp work fixed the tailpipe, and the car kept rolling. Note how low the rear of the loaded-down car is in this photo; I considered adding some JC Whitney overload springs before we left, but ran out of preparation time.
The mercury hit 115 degrees on the day we left Utah, and it stayed above 100 for most of the drive to Kentucky. We were sweating like crazy with no air conditioning (rolling all the windows down and spraying our faces with a plant-mister bottle helped some), but the engine never came close to overheating.
While the Impala got a lot of double-takes from the Smokeys, we didn’t get pulled over even once. My assumption is that the car was just so shockingly blatant in its California wretchedness that the law figured “Damn! Anybody this obvious couldn’t be doing anything illegal.” Such a relief— I’d counted on having to unload everything for police searching on a scorching road shoulder while 18-wheelers blared by, at least a couple of times.
The stop at the Kentucky in-laws’ place was a nice break, and then we turned south. Tennessee was my first real experience with the Southern flavor of surrealism. We started seeing stuff like this more and more frequently the further south we went. Tin Can Baby… Test Tube Baby… Stick Baby… Just Say No!
I wasn’t one of those Yankees (are Californians considered true Yankees?) who based his entire conception of the South on “Deliverance” and Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, but coastal California is full of ex-Southerners who fled the place and then scare the shit out of Californians with endless horror stories about their homeland. I was nervous. So when I stepped out of our room at the Stonewall Jackson Motor Lodge in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and found a couple of overalls-with-no-shirts-wearin’, tobacco-chewin’, toothless, gristly, possum-innards-eatin’ cronies leaning on the Impala’s fender and drinking tall cans of Colt .45 at 8:30 in the morning, well, I didn’t know what to expect. The tall skinny one looked at the short fat one, took a swig of Colt, then looked at me. “You gwine pint thet car?” he asked. Why, no, I wasn’t. “I like the way it looks right now,” I replied. That seemed to satisfy them, or at least that’s how I interpreted their nods.
Atlanta was a very weird place in the summer of 1995. The Olympics were coming the next year, and the whole state was wild-eyed with excitement about Atlanta emerging from the games as a “World Class City,” a destination for international dealmakers and tourists from all corners of the globe. The Olympics would change everything!
At the same time, the screaming matches over the state flag— which had received its Confederate-ization treatment in 1956, as a response to the Civil Rights movement— were freakin’ deafening, what with the international attention it would be receiving as soon as all those Olympic visitors showed up. Atlanta’s unofficial slogan, “The City Too Busy To Hate,” seemed pretty defensive, and also a dig at archrival Birmingham, which Atlantans sneered at as “The City of Lazy No-Goodniks That Always Have Time To Hate.” This Olympics-fueled civic pride translated into landlords believing they’d be rich once the athletes showed up (apparently believing that high-buck renters would start showing up six months before the Games), and it was a real challenge finding a place to live at a price we could afford.
After a week or two of living at a crackhead motel, however, we found an apartment just off Ponce de Leon (that’s pronounced “Ponse duh LEE-on”) in Decatur, walking distance from Emory.
I roamed around exploring the area and looking for jobs, and found that a non-air-conditioned car in dark primer paint was not ideal under conditions of hundred-degree heat and 98% humidity, especially when wearing an interview suit.
It felt cool getting some Georgia plates for my ride— the peach color looked great in contrast with the grim grayscale look of the car— and I enjoyed eating biscuits and gravy in old-time Southern diners full of chain-smoking 100-year-olds. Other than the interior temperature, the Impala was well suited to its new home.
We took a brief trip south to visit a relative near Talahassee and a turn down the wrong dirt road led to a long Heart of Darkness-style drive on muddy trails in the jungle. I never did find Mistah Kurtz, but I did find the long-sought Refrigerator Graveyard, a swamp where thousands of dying refrigerators and other large appliances crawl off to die. The Impala turned out to be an excellent dirt-road machine, even with its open differential. I wish I had more Heart of Darkness Impala photos from the jungle expedition, but this is the only shot that came out.
I found plenty of interesting cars during my travels, including this “ran when parked” Cad, and Georgia junkyards were great (more on them later).
I also found plenty of historically interesting stuff as I roamed in the Impala. Here’s Martin Luther King’s church, located a few miles from my apartment in Decatur. General Sherman’s headquarters during his stay in Atlanta— or, rather, what was left of Atlanta after he got through with it— was also near my place, and the locals had allowed it to become completely buried under tons of kudzu.
The Impala’s leaky rear window (a GM trademark for decades), which I thought I’d fixed forever with silicone and roof cement, became a real problem during Atlanta’s torrential summer-afternoon thunderstorms. The right rear corner was the main trouble spot, with California-style rust-through where water had sat for months at a time during 30 years of West Coast winters. I decided to get serious, ground away all the rot with a wire wheel, and applied large quantities of JB Weld to the problem spot. It worked perfectly.
My employment search turned up nothing but more office-temp work for the first month or so of Georgia residence, but then I stumbled into the perfect job. Next up, Mad Max at Year One!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11 • Part 12 • Part 13

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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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Piston Slap: RTFM FTW Tue, 06 Sep 2011 19:38:24 +0000

It actually comes with a little book too!

Patrick writes:

Hi Sajeev,

Avid daily reader of the site but infrequent commenter… Pony Cars and old Volvos sometimes drag me out of my shell but I have a couple questions about my wife’s car and I wanted to see what you and others might think.

We’ve got a 2007 3.5L Impala with 60,000 miles on it and it is due for an oil change and checkup:

1. Am I crazy for trusting the car’s computer to tell me when to change the oil? The car monitors oil life and reports a % of oil life remaining and nags me when it’s time for an oil change. The owners manual doesn’t specify a mileage interval instead advising to change it when the car’s info center says it’s time. It typically runs from 8K to 11K miles between changes so far.
The dealer would rather us get it changed at every 3K and are so desperate to get their fix of oil change traffic that they offer a “free tires for life” deal if you stay on the 3K schedule with them. Factoring in the cheap tires they get at cost that they’d slap on there, they’re most certainly coming out ahead (which is why they do it, of course); factoring in the extra services and the mounting and balancing fees for those free tires, it’s probably a wash for me so I’ve declined and followed the car’s schedule instead of there’s as
I’d rather save up for that next set of tires than have to go in to the dealer 3 or 4 times as often.

Now, I know I don’t have to take it to the dealer and while I do almost all of my own service, repairs and upgrades on my car, wrenching on our utilitarian transportation-mobile isn’t nearly as rewarding and I don’t mind throwing the Chevy place a bone every once-in-a-while, especially since their service isn’t much more than the quicky oil change places and, theoretically at least, they should be intimately familiar with this generation of Impalas – plus if and when it comes time to trade it in or sell it, I’ll have nice official looking dealer records to go with it.
I figure GM did their homework with the oil monitoring system and I’m comfortable with longer oil change intervals – I do 6K ~ 7.5K on my Mustang (’96 GT) which has 130K+ on it and oil still comes out clean and when I had the valve covers off last year, the top of the heads were clean as a whistle. With the Impala PCM monitoring temps and driving usage and whatever other variables it factors in, I’m willing to let it ride a little longer if GM says it’s OK. Have you heard anything that would give me reason to believe otherwise?

2. When I realized 60K was coming up, I rushed to the owners manual to see what expensive work the dealer was going to want to do – then I remembered this wasn’t a European car and there was nothing other than greasing door hinges and locks and inspecting a few wear items that needed to be done. I did notice that the book calls for a fluid replacement at 150K miles for the 4T65-E transmission (or at 75K for severe duty). After reading some of auto transmission horror stories here but not being aware of any endemic problems with GM’s transverse V6 transes is 150K too long to go, should I plan on doing that sooner? 100K, 125K, if we still have the car that long or is GM pretty close to the mark on that?

Sajeev answers:

I never thought that answering a GM W-body question would be a breath of fresh air in my Piston Slap queue, but well, here we are. Patrick has valid and relevant questions to  anyone with a less than desirable ride that does the job and keeps you mobile. You know, cars for the vast majority of us!

So let’s do this thing:

Question 1:
by all means, ignore the dealer when they pull the “free tires for life” and 3k oil changes. Like you said, I wouldn’t leave them entirely, as their pricing should be comparable to the quickie oil change places, but you need to get the playing field level: remind the service writer that you’re familiar with the phrase RTFM. And you expect them to treat you accordingly. The “do this to be more proactive” tactic you mentioned works on some people, and that’s fine. But that’s obviously not you or anyone else here. It’s all about treating the customer with respect.

I trust that oil life meter after years of questioning it via dipstick eyeballing. Now that I run synthetic oil (in cars that never officially required it), I change the oil after about 180% of its life: that is, resetting it once and then changing it when its 80% used. It seems like the smartest way to not waste good oil, and my driving conditions merit it: lotsa traffic, heavy engine loads (aftermarket stereo, A/C) and brutal Gulf Coast summers. The 180% mark turns into 6000-8000 miles of my commute. Which is fair for synthetic oil.

It works for me, maybe I should take my used oil examined to a lab to prove it to everyone…but I don’t really care since it’s been working for well over 175,000 miles on my very, very healthy Lincoln Mark VIII motor. Healthy enough to let me (cautiously at first) trust the life meter on other cars too. More to the point, your driving conditions can and will vary.

Question 2:
there are no endemic problems with this GM transaxle that I know of, but I would still change the fluid before it hits 100k out of principle alone. Again, this depends on your driving/climate conditions, but my gut tells me you should change the fluid according to the severe duty schedule in your owner’s manual. Transaxles in general deserve the “severe” fluid service schedule, and this Impala sounds worth it. Be it a flushing machine or the conventional drain and filter replacement, just make sure all the fluid is changed…don’t let old fluid rest in the torque converter and mix in with the new stuff.

Send your queries to Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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