The Truth About Cars » Project Car Hell The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 28 Jul 2014 21:27:46 +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 » Project Car Hell ’41 Plymouth Hell Project Puzzle Piece Scored Via Craigslist: Corvette ZR-1 6-Speed! Fri, 19 Jul 2013 13:00:46 +0000 02 - ZF Transmission Purchase - Pictures courtesy of Murilee MartinThe 1941 Plymouth Special Deluxe sedan Junkyard Find that I bought from the Brain-Melting Colorado Junkyard last fall now has the body off the frame and is awaiting a Lexus SC400 suspension subframe swap. After much debate about what engine/transmission combo to use in this Hell Project (the plan is to build it to Pikes Peak International Hill Climb specs, while retaining a grimy-looking rat-roddish character), I decided to go with the GM Vortec 4200 aka LL8 L6 engine, with turbocharging added, and that meant that I’d need to find a manual transmission that can withstand at least 400 ft-lbs of torque. Since the Vortec 4200 never came with a manual transmission, and the pseudo-bolt-on Aisin-based 5-speed out of the Solstice and Colorado can’t take the sort of power I’m hoping to get (thus forcing me to go the machine-shop bellhousing-adapter/custome-flywheel route), I was looking for a Borg-Warner T-56 out of a fourth-gen GM F-body, or maybe a Tremec TKO out of a fourth-gen Mustang. Then, an ad for a ZF S6-40 6-speed showed up on Denver Craigslist, with a very reasonable asking price.
14 - ZF Transmission Purchase - Pictures courtesy of Murilee MartinKnown as the “Black Tag” ZF transmission, this rugged German 6-speed was used in C4 Corvette ZR-1s and is rated for up to 450 ft-lbs of torque. Thanks to its square-cut gear teeth, this transmission made more noise than many Corvette buyers could tolerate, and so GM went to a quieter gears and (if you believe the rants of detail-obsessed Corvette freaks) less strength for the 1994 model year.
03 - ZF Transmission Purchase - Pictures courtesy of Murilee MartinThe seller of this transmission had purchased it out of a wrecked ’93 ZR-1 for use in this beautiful ’57 Chevy project, which is getting an LS swap, but the ZF turned out to be too big to fit in the Chevy without major transmission-tunnel hackage.
06 - ZF Transmission Purchase - Pictures courtesy of Murilee MartinI brought along Rich, the guy I’ve hired to do the engineering and fabrication work on the ’41 Plymouth project, to check out this transmission and say yea or nay on the possibility of using the ZF. He’s the captain of the Index of Effluency-winning Rocket Surgery Racing Checker Marathon 24 Hours of LeMons team, and he managed to get a small-block Chevy engine to bolt up to a Ford Toploader transmission and then stick the resulting mess into the Checker using all manner of garage-expedient cheap technology The ZF transmission came with all the little bits and pieces that make a Frankensteinian swap like this a lot easier, including the shifter, clutch master/slave cylinders, bellhousing, flywheel, even a bag full of fasteners. Looks good!
08 - ZF Transmission Purchase - Pictures courtesy of Murilee MartinSo, into the hatch of my cargo-hauling, thief-magnet ’92 Civic with all the goodies.
07 - ZF Transmission Purchase - Pictures courtesy of Murilee MartinDid I mention that the transmission seller owns the nicest Jeepster Commando I’ve ever seen?
13 - ZF Transmission Purchase - Pictures courtesy of Murilee MartinI haven’t bought the Vortec 4200 yet (the plan is to buy a wrecked Trailblazer or Envoy donor vehicle, so I can get all the harnesses, computers, and maddening little bits needed for the planned swap), but we’ve got this block and pan to enable Rich to move forward on the necessary fabrication on the Plymouth’s frame.
IMG_3240For now, the Plymouth’s body sits on wood blocks in the yard, awaiting its modernized frame.

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Behind the Garages At Sears Point: Treasure Trove of Hell Projects! Thu, 28 Mar 2013 13:00:25 +0000 I visit Sears Point aka Sonoma Raceway a couple times a year as part of my gig as Chief Justice of the 24 Hours of LeMons Supreme Court. That means I do a lot of roaming around the facility, in search of vantage points to shoot photos of the action. Last weekend, while covering the fourth annual Sears Pointless race, I stumbled on a parking area outside a line of race shops just on the other side of the wall near Turn 10. Inside these shops were all manner of high-buck machines, but the get-to-it-someday stuff sitting outside was pretty interesting.
A well-weathered Lotus Europa with tags expired only six years— how hard could this project be?
Or a BMW 850 with peeling clear-coat and some body damage. Depreciation hasn’t been kind to these cars.
As a matter of fact, there was a LeMons 850 racing at Sears Point at the very moment I was admiring the potential project 850. It got stomped by a Buick Skyhawk and an MGB, among other glacially slow “race cars,” but it was still quite luxurious-looking on the track.
Guys that work at race shops cannot resist buying a Yugo when the opportunity presents itself.
This mean-looking Maverick Vega drag car looks like it has run fairly recently.
The kids these days, they like those Nissan Silvias.
This car sure looks familiar! This Plymouth looks like it might even be a runner (in stark contrast to my car, which has been dismantled down to the molecular level).
BMW E9 projects are always so tempting, though I’ve heard the horror stories from those who have attempted to fix up a non-perfect E9. Run away!

01 - Sears Point Hell Projects - Picture courtesy of Murilee 'Judge Phil' Martin 02 - Sears Point Hell Projects - Picture courtesy of Murilee 'Judge Phil' Martin 03 - Sears Point Hell Projects - Picture courtesy of Murilee 'Judge Phil' Martin 04 - Sears Point Hell Projects - Picture courtesy of Murilee 'Judge Phil' Martin 06 - Sears Point Hell Projects - Picture courtesy of Murilee 'Judge Phil' Martin 07 - Sears Point Hell Projects - Picture courtesy of Murilee 'Judge Phil' Martin 08 - Sears Point Hell Projects - Picture courtesy of Murilee 'Judge Phil' Martin 09 - Sears Point Hell Projects - Picture courtesy of Murilee 'Judge Phil' Martin 591-UG-Pointless13 ]]> 30
G-Body Project Car Hell Part 2: Grand National Time Sat, 24 Mar 2012 14:00:09 +0000

After Joey and I sat down and tallied up all of the costs of our proposed Monte Carlo G-Body project; crate motor, upgraded cooling system, differential, engine accessories, transmission not to mention bodywork, interior refurbishing, brakes, suspension and all the other fun expensive stuff, we decided to abandon the project. Instead, Joey’s getting a Grand National.

Murilee himself advised that a GN might be the most cost-effective way to big power. The project in mind is to have a cool street car that looks and sounds good while still going fast. Most Monte Carlos are oxidized junk around these parts. Grand Nationals, on the other hand, are well cared for, and the $10,000 asking price for even a somewhat tired one is much more appealing than paying a couple thousand for a regular G-Body and then having to perform tons of work to bring it up to decent condition. A GN, while more expensive at the outset, is much more cost-effective in the long run, since we’re starting with a well-cared-for and capable car from the outset.

Anyone with turbo Buick experience is welcome to chime in with comments, suggestions, things to avoid and look out for. Ideally, I’d like to know what would be a good compromise between power and everyday driveability. The GN should be able to cruise on weekends for a few hours, but stock power levels won’t be adequate. At the same time, going with something severe like standalone engine management is too extreme. Any turbo upgrades would ideally improve throttle response and do away with the old school turbochargers. Coming from an import background, my knowledge of Turbo Buicks is weak. A rough goal would to eclipse the power of a stock GNX. Any good upgrades to the brakes, suspension, cooling system and any other important areas are also welcome. Joey and I will be going to look at Grand Nationals (hopefully by the time you’re reading this) and we’ll keep the B&B updated on the project. In the mean time, your collective wisdom and guidance is called upon!

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

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

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1965 Impala Hell Project Part 5: Three Speeds, Two Exhaust Pipes Sun, 03 Jul 2011 16:00:12 +0000
In the last episode of the Impala Hell Project story, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 made me choose a small-block engine instead of the big-block I’d originally planned as a worn-out 283 replacement. I was still running the factory single exhaust and two-speed Powerglide transmission at that point, so some more upgrades were in order.

With my new college degree in hand, I figured I’d drive 430 miles north to the parents’ place on The Island That Rust Forgot and crash there until I landed a high-paying job and scraped up enough cash for a nice apartment in San Francisco. Sadly, the early 1990s recession (while laughably mild by Great Recession standards) meant that fresh college grads in California were getting laughed right out of job interviews. My parents weren’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of all their unemployed University of California-graduate offspring coming back to the nest, but what really bummed them out was the prospect of the fleet of wretched hoopties that tended to accumulate around their once-dignified Victorian when I lived there. They’d managed to dispose of my ’58 crypto-Baja Bug, which I’d unwisely left behind when I went down south for college, but I could acquire beaters much faster than they could get rid of them.

Making matters worse for them, but better for me, my sister’s boyfriend Chunky (of “Oh Lord, Stuck In The Lodi Volvo Again” fame) was staying in a brain-shaped trailer in the back yard, and he already owned several terrible Detroit heaps. “Let’s drop a Turbo 350 in that thing!” he suggested. I agreed. In fact, I agreed so wholeheartedly that we pulled the old Powerglide before I’d even obtained a replacement.

The amount of property-value devaluation caused by the two of us was so devastating that we made a comic strip entitled “Econoline Hi-Jinks With Phil & Phil,” showing what we imagined to be the neighbors’ perception of the scene in the Martin household’s back yard. Someday, “Econoline Hi-Jinks” will be a full-length animated feature film. Someday.

I thought about getting a junkyard TH350, but Chunky had a transmission-shop-employed friend who could get me an alleged recent rebuild for cheap— one of those “customer wrecked the car and gave it to the shop” deals. Sounds good to me!

The Powerglide ended up in the driveway, right next to the not-so-drivable ’71/’72/’73/’75 Firebird/Camaro that ended up being sold at a huge profit to some sailors at the Navy base on the other side of the island (home to Bob Lutz and Richard Nixon at various stages of their respective military careers). As I recall, the forgotten Powerglide then sat in my long-suffering mom’s rose bushes for another 10 years after that; eventually, she found it while weeding and demanded that I come over immediately and make it go away, forever. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be gearheads! Actually, my mother grew up in a racing household and had come to accept the sight of busted-ass car parts as normal.

Meanwhile, I was feverishly mixing-and-matching various Quadrajet components, in an effort to make the 350 run just right; I’d swapped in a junkyard HEI ignition as soon as I could find one at U-Pull-It (because points ignitions suck), and I figured I should be able to get the fuel-delivery system working well enough to make the car purr. Eventually I came to accept that any functioning Q-Jet should just be left alone.

Swap-meet headers for small-block Chevy engines are ridiculously cheap, and most of them will fit the full-size Chevy. Here I am installing a $25 pair of Hedmans.

Time to install the new transmission! I videotaped the TH350 installation, but I no longer have a version with the original sound. Instead, here’s a Murilee Arraiac music video, featuring the 1989 Japanese-college-radio hit (and by “hit” I mean “a couple of Japanese college DJs played it at 4:00 AM and sent me bewildering postcards about the experience”) “Hajoi Hotai.” It’s sort of like a transmission swap in a 24 Hours of LeMons paddock, only with more beer and less panic.

Once the transmission (but not mufflers) was installed , we couldn’t wait to test it out. We’d fabricated some brackets to make the Powerglide column-shift linkage work with the TH350, and there was no telling whether the thing would actually go into gear (the shift indicator marks didn’t line up once the shifter went past R, so from that point forward I had to count the number of detent clicks to determine what gear I was in).

Reluctantly, I decided that open headers would attract too much attention from the APD, and so I got some muffler pipe, clamps, hangers, and junkyard mufflers. No tailpipes— it sounds better if you dump the exhaust right in front of the rear axle! While I had the car up on jackstands, I replaced the sagging rear springs with some very affordable JC Whitney “heavy duty” replacements.

It drove very well and sounded even better. As an added bonus, the 3-speed transmission and free-flowing exhaust improved my fuel economy from about 12 MPG overall to 15 or so (any owner of a 60s-vintage full-size Detroit car who claims 20+ miles per gallon with a carburetor is being somewhat less than truthful). Not bad for a great big carbureted boat. Next up, a new instrument panel and 20-pound pull-out stereo.

1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup

Impala-Part5-TransExh-10 Impala-Part5-TransExh-01 Impala-Part5-TransExh-02 Impala-Part5-TransExh-03 Impala-Part5-TransExh-04 Impala-Part5-TransExh-05 Impala-Part5-TransExh-06 Impala-Part5-TransExh-07 Impala-Part5-TransExh-08 Impala-Part5-TransExh-09 Impala-Part5-TransExh-11 Impala-Part5-TransExh-12 ]]> 23
A100 Hell Project: Finally, the Right Tachometer Thu, 30 Jun 2011 18:00:49 +0000
The thing about my ’66 Dodge A100 van project that makes it a challenge is that I’m going for an early 1970s customization job, not the far easier late 1970s routine. My van won’t have Aztecs On Mars airbrush murals or a wood-burning stove (not that there’s anything wrong with those things), but it does have a telephone-handset-style 23-channel CB radio, (faux) Cragar S/S wheels, and now it has a Watergate-burglary-era cheap aftermarket tachometer.

You could buy this type of no-name tach from J.C. Whitney or Manny, Moe, and Jack for at least two solid decades. It’s got the right blend of 50s industro-chic and Early Malaise Era plasticky cheapness to go with my Sportsman Custom’s instrument cluster, which probably cost Chrysler about $4.17 to make. It will look just right bolted to the steering column.

I’m pretty sure the 4-6-8 selector feature on generic tachometers didn’t appear until the 1980s, but the Japanese factory that made these things probably didn’t change the essential design from its early-60s original until Gulf War I.

I picked up this gauge at the same yard that gave me the TBI intake for my van’s eventual Megasquirt conversion. Right now, the fuel tank is getting cleaned and having a return-line fitting added, so an EFI 318 should be powering my van in the not-incredibly-distant future.

VanTach-4 VanTach-1 VanTach-2 VanTach-3 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 16
1965 Impala Hell Project Part 4: Saddam Chooses My New Engine Wed, 15 Jun 2011 21:00:46 +0000
When I bought my Impala, I knew that its 300,000-mile 283 engine wasn’t long for the world, what with the near-nonexistent oil pressure, clouds of oil smoke under acceleration and deceleration, and fixin’-to-toss-a-rod sound effects. Still, due to thin-wallet limitations, I was determined to squeeze one last year of property-value-lowering 283 driving before obtaining a junkyard replacement engine. This plan went well until I decided to seek chemical assistance for the oil-burning problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or this.

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

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

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

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

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

Ready for the heart transplant!

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

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

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

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

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


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1965 Impala Hell Project Part 3: Lowering Property Values Sat, 11 Jun 2011 19:00:09 +0000
In Part 2 of this series, I began the process of modifying my newly-obtained ’65 Impala sedan to suit my concept of a true art car. Once I’d sprayed the chrome flat black, replaced the skinny back tires with fat Radial TAs on universal slot mags, pried off most of the emblems, and torn out the mung-saturated carpeting, the big Chevy was ready to start its first high-concept performance/installation art piece: lowering property values in the heart of the world’s first and most intensely micromanaged Master-Planned Community: Irvine, California.

Irvine makes the most uptight, looking-down-the-barrel-of-the-Homeowners-Association, cul-de-sac-heavy, parody-of-the-American-Dream suburban enclave you could possibly imagine looks a filthy postapocalyptic hobo jungle of tarpaper shacks and heap-leach mercury tailings ponds. If you feel like taking fish-in-a-barrel shots at the emptiness of American suburban life, a ten-minute drive around Irvine will provide you with a lifetime of ammunition for your tedious screeds. Step out of line in Irvine— say, leave your garage door open for more than 15 minutes, paint your house any color other than the one specified in The Master Plan, or in any way attempt to drag your neighborhood into the jaws of anarchy— and The Man will come down on you. The Master Plan was drawn up in the 1950s, not coincidentally at the same time Walt Disney was drawing up the plan for nearby Disneyland, and it was still in full effect in 1990.

Since I lived on the campus of the University of California Irvine, in the Irvine Meadows West RV park (bulldozed by The Man in 2005, for the crime of not conforming to The Master Plan; this community of engine-swappers and weird artists now provides parking for several dozen students), I lived on what was technically California state property and thus not subject to the direct diktats of the Master Plans apparatchiks. My home was a ’69 Roadrunner camping trailer, to which I added a very comfortable plywood shack and painted in a sort of school-bus-yellow-with-lavender-stripes Fear and Loathing theme. One of my neighbors was a drag racer who had a couple of Hemi Darts in the gravel in front of his trailer, another had built a 5,000-square-foot dance studio out of scrap lumber behind his trailer and operated a dance school, and yet another had thrown together a geodesic dome out of particle board. Pets were OK, you could be part of the community or left alone as you saw fit, and the rent was well under 100 bucks a month. Utopia!

The university seemed unaware of the existence of its trailer park for my first few years there, but eventually The Man caught on and started sweating IMW residents. It wasn’t long before ominous demands that we paint all our trailers in Irvine-approved earthtone colors and tear down all our buildings and landscaping started coming from The Man’s toadies in the campus housing department. In an attempt to conform to The Man’s demands, I upgraded my trailer’s sewage system with this Orange County Health Department-approved setup. Thing is, once you’re on The Man’s radar, you’re going to feel the heat. As a card-carrying performance artist, I felt that I had no choice but to launch my latest piece, entitled “Lowering Property Values.”

First, I grew out my hair and beard and cultivated an appearance even more scurvy than my semi-dirtbag baseline look at the time. I’d already had plenty of unpleasant encounters with the Irvine law enforcement community, thanks to the Competition Orange, Cherry Bomb-equipped 1968 Mercury Cyclone that I used as a Pizza Deliverator whilst working at Sergeant Pepperoni’s, so I figured the Impala coupled with my newly scurvified style would trigger cavity searches by the law every time I ventured off state property… but if UCI performance art hero Chris Burden could take a bullet for the sake of art, I could deal with a few cop hassles.

“Lowering Property Values” was a pretty simple piece: On Sunday mornings, I’d get into the Impala with a couple of my sleazier-looking friends and we’d cruise around to new Irvine subdivisions. While the wholesome families looking to purchase a very expensive slice of the Dream rolled up in their BMW 5 Series and Volvo 740 wagons (wholesome families weren’t yet driving 8,000-pound SUVs in 1990) admired the way the brand-new houses’ rain gutters matched the color of the trash cans, we’d park the Impala, get out, pop the hood, and proceed to drop tools, exclaim “Looks like she done sucked a valve!” and in general behave like we’d just stepped out of a squalid Oildale honky-tonk bar.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any surviving photos of one of the Lowering Property Values pieces in action (damn pre-digital photography era!), but the whole thing actually turned out to be fairly anticlimactic; other than a few horrified stares from realtors and some desultory “move along” demands from the cops, there was no awesome mushroom cloud of outrage rising over the 92715 zip code. Still, the UCI Art Department gave me my Independent Studies graduation credits for the project, and driving a beater Impala around beats the hell out of grinding out a couple of art history classes.

And the credits I got for “Lowering Property Values” put me over the top for my degree. June of 1990, the UC Regents shot me a diploma (just to make you current UC students cringe, tuition at the time was about $1000/year for California residents, making my education an even better deal than my Chevy). My family drove 450 miles from the Island That Rust Forgot to watch the ritual, and here they learn why I went to college.

What I didn’t expect, when I bought the Impala, was that I would fall in love with the thing as a daily driver. The suspension was loose, the engine was clearly not long for the world, the Powerglide transmission sucks for real-world driving, and it drank gas, but it just felt right. I sold my ’73 MGB-GT for a decent profit and committed myself to the Impala as my primary means of transportation. The first of many comfort-related upgrades was the front seat; the one that came with the car was dis-freakin’-gusting, so I hit the junkyard and found this bench seat from (if I recall correctly) a ’68 Olds 88. I replaced that seat with Escort buckets a couple years later, so this is the only photo I can find that shows its luxurious texture.

The speedometer and gas gauge were the only functioning instrument cluster items, so I added some swap-meet gauges to the dash. Hmmm… 2 PSI oil pressure at idle can’t be good.

I really enjoyed driving the Impala around Southern California’s highways, a task it had accomplished with great competence since the day in 1964 that it rolled off the assembly line at the South Gate (Los Angeles) GM plant. However, even a 283 can’t live forever, and the rattly, oil-burning small-block under my hood was clearly getting ready to spin a bearing or worse. Next episode: Engine Swap Hell!
1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

The addition of some JC Whitney backup lights and the “No Other Possibility” bumper sticker from Negativland’s A Big 10-8 Place and my Impala was ready for its first real-world performance piece: “Lowering Property Values.” You can see the effect on UCI’s upscale parking lot already!
Next up: Part 3 — Lowering Property Values
1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup
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1965 Impala Hell Project Part 1: So It Begins Fri, 27 May 2011 01:00:58 +0000
As I explained in the introduction to this series last week, I’m finally tackling the story of the most significant car I’ve ever owned. This ’65 Impala went through ten years, 100,000 miles, and many conceptual shifts during its time with me, but it all started out as my attempt to make an art car that wasn’t A) lame and B) contemptuous of the idea of the car itself.

Let’s face it: most art cars are attempts by the artist to spit on the canvas they’re using, to subvert the paradigm represented by the evil chariot of sprawl, pollution, and oppression, blah blah blah. Even if you agree with that view of the automobile, art cars tend to be no more than poorly— if earnestly— executed hippie doodles, the kind of thing that requires only time and a willingness to piss off the neighbors.

Which isn’t to say that all art cars suck; the amazing Sashimi Tabernacle Choir, for example, makes up for all 10,000 Tauruses with plastic action figures hot-glued all over their flanks.

Back in the pre-Internet Dark Ages of the late 1980s, however, the only art cars I’d seen were pretty weak. At that time, I was an art/English major living in a middle-class shantytown at an image-obsessed Orange County (California) university. Obsessed with the work of UCI product Chris Burden and under the influence of various crypto-nihilo-miscreants ranging from Laurie Anderson to Survival Research Laboratories, I developed the delusion that I might manage to make a living creating weird art. My band, Murilee Arraiac (yes, that’s the source of my pseudonymous first name; more on where the Murilee Arraiac/Martin name came from later, if anyone cares), a sort of cut-rate Negativland/Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV-style difficult/noise outfit, played gigs in which my “instrument” was a police scanner feeding three OD-1 overdrive pedals and a Maestro “Wow-Wow” pedal.

I made Murilee Arraiac music videos with Super 8 cameras and tube-based thrift-store video cameras.

Meanwhile, I was abusing my privileges at the Art Department’s darkroom and metal shop, plowing through vast quantities of photo chemicals and welding supplies. Here’s a shot I made for a series of no-commercial-potential Christmas cards, entitled “Chicom Junky Santa Cookin’ Up Skag For The Holidays.” Note the cotton-ball beard.

Of course, UCI being a performance art powerhouse, I put together some performance/installation pieces. Here’s a 1988 piece entitled “Our Friend The Carburetor.” Clearly, I was a decade or two too early to be an “interdisciplinary multimedia artist,” but I still felt that I was going somewhere with my work. What I really needed, I decided in late 1989, was a piece based on a car that I’d buy and modify entirely for the sake of my art. Dropping in on a particularly bewildered art professor, I convinced him to sign off on some sort of “Independent Studies” sculpture piece, essentially granting me graduation credits for doing… something with a car. The question at that point was: what kind of car? I had a $400 tax refund to work with, plus a bunch of random Ford parts left over from the ’68 Mercury Cyclone and ’69 Torino fastback I’d owned in the recent past.

My daily driver at the time was a British Racing Green chrome-bumper MGB-GT, which I wouldn’t have hacked up even if it had been appropriate for the project I had in mind (in spite of being underpowered, ill-handling, and unreliable). No, what I wanted was a car that would let me riff on what I considered to be three very important American negative automotive archetypes:
1. The Official Vehicle: A boxy foor-door Detroit sedan, of the sort used by The Man’s muscle to keep order. I was thinking somewhat of American police cars here, but— this being the era of the Guerra Sucia, Salvadoran Civil War and Revolución Popular Sandinista— mostly I had in mind the death-squad enforcermobiles in Latin America. The Official Vehicle would need dog-dish hubcaps, minimal trim, cryptic numbers and emblems, extra antennas, etc. Top of the list: Ford Falcons and Fairlanes.
2. The Redneck Street Racer: Some sort of iconic Detroit mid- or full-size machine of the 1955-1973 era, featuring V8 engine with loud exhaust and lumpy cam, fat tires, and a proper butt-in-the-air rake. Imagine the kind of vehicle that would be performing smoky beer-soaked burnouts in a convenience-store parking lot in Muncie, Indiana in 1989. Top of the list: GM A-Body, Chrysler B-Body.
3. The Drive-By Shooting Ghetto Hooptie: A big Detroit luxury car of the 1960-1980 era, of the sort that Reagan Era suburban cul-de-sac dwellers imagine to be inhabited by Superfly and several Uzi-wielding gangster henchmen, while Parliament blasts from the stereo. Diamond in the back, sunroof top, etc. Top of the list: Cadillac Deville, 1961-64 Chevrolet Impala, Boat-Tail Buick Riviera.

Quite a dilemma, and no single car would be perfect on all three fronts. I scanned The Recycler classifieds every week, and finally came across this ad. The 1965 full-sized Chevrolet fit each of my three archetypes to a certain extent, junkyard parts (at the time) were ridiculously easy to find, and I could deflect criticism that I’d be “ruining” a “classic” by pointing out that the ’65 big Chevy had the highest single-year production figure for any vehicle ever made by Detroit: 1,463,200 Bel Airs, Biscaynes, and Impalas that year. I went to the bank, got 30 $10 bills (makes a fatter stack than $20 bills), and headed over to Surf City USA.

The car was located in a sketchy skinhead-infested neighborhood of HB, and the seller was a woman who alternated screaming at her many children and screaming at her many dogs as we negotiated. She kept pointing out that the high beams and low beams worked, to which I’d respond by pointing out that the 300,000-mile 283 smoked like crazy, the interior smelled like a mixture of boiling piss and burning horsehair, the tires were a mix of bald bias-plys and bald radials, and the oil-pressure light flickered ominously at idle. My plan was to drop in a junkyard 350 as soon as possible, but I still wanted to get a few miles out of the 283. The car had started life clad in Tahitian Turquoise paint, but a previous owner had applied a thick coat of some sort of industrial gloss-gray paint on it.

Flashing my fat roll of Hamiltons and standing firm on various lowball offers eventually paid off, and the car was mine for the sum of 150 American dollars. Roaring down the 405, with the smell of burning 30-weight in my nostrils, I felt excited but intimidated by the task before me.

Getting back to Irvine Meadows West, the UCI trailer park that was bulldozed by minions of The Irvine Company back in 2005, I admired the 283/Powerglide combo. The 2-barrel 283 had bad rings and valve guides, among other super-tired-engine woes, but it started readily and still offered decent power. The Powerglide worked fine, and would no doubt keep working until the day the sun went supernova, as is traditional for the venerable two-speed slushbox.

The interior needed plenty of work to fit with the triple-archetype concept behind my project. Actually, it needed plenty of work just to keep me and my passengers safe from scabies, ringworm, and lead poisoning; the front bench seat was stuffed with several layers of wet newspapers and dog-juice-soaked blankets, and the back seat wasn’t much better. The weatherstripping had long since dissolved into black powder, thanks to decades of high-sulfur-and-ozone Southern California air and blazing sunlight, so rainy California winters made for soaked carpets and excellent fungal breeding opportunities. Fortunately, self-service junkyards in 1990 were bursting with big GM sedans, so I’d be able to mix-and-match interior components while engine shopping. Next up: Part Two: The Modifications Begin.
1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup
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Art Car to Daily Driver to Drag Racer: 10 Years of My 1965 Impala Hell Project Thu, 19 May 2011 21:00:28 +0000
I put in four years and thousands of posts at Jalopnik, writing about most of my formative cars… but never once did I write the story of the car that served me longest, gave me the most miles, endured the most engine swaps, and generally laid claim to a bigger piece of my heart than all the rest of my motley lifetime fleet combined: a 1965 Chevrolet Impala sedan, built at the long-defunct South Gate Assembly Plant in Los Angeles, equipped with a 283/Powerglide drivetrain, and painted Artesian Turquoise. Today, at last, the story begins.

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

1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup

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Put Up Or Shut Up Challenge: Fiat 131S Mirafiori Climatizzata Wed, 04 May 2011 20:30:04 +0000
Nobody rescued the low-mile ’66 Coronet from its date with The Crusher (though as far as I know it’s still alive), but now we’ve got a new Put Up Or Shut Up Challenge!

When was the last time you saw a car with “Climatizzata” badges? Not many 131s were sold in North America (the later ones were badged as Bravas), and this is a complete, rust-free example of that rare Italian steed. Its history? Ran when parked.

OK, a semi-orphaned Malaise Era Italian car that’s been sitting for years sounds challenging. But just look at what it could be!
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Project Car Hell, Soviet Edition: GAZ Volga 21 or ZAZ-966 Zaporozhets? Fri, 25 Feb 2011 15:00:29 +0000
I’ve already got a custom-van project and a basket-case Toyota 20R-powered Sprite project, but what I really want is a genuine, red-flag-waving Warsaw Pact machine to cruise around Denver. I don’t mean any Lada, either— it’s got to be a genuine, designed-and-built-in-the-USSR car, not a Fiat clone! Fortunately, I have a car-freak friend in the Czech Republic who can get such a machine into a shipping container in Bremerhaven for a reasonable price, so all that would remain for me would be to negotiate the Kafkaesque maze of registering the thing in Colorado. How hard could it be?

The GAZ 21 Volga is sort of the ’55 Chevy of the former Soviet Union, a real icon, the only Soviet car that might be identified even by those who don’t care about Soviet cars. They’ve become quite collectible in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, but you can still pick up a running, not-too-rusty 21 in the Czech Republic for a reasonable price. For example, this 1962 Volga 21 for 60,000 Kč, or about 3,400 US bucks. I think I might prefer a later, Brezhnev-era “box Volga,” what with all the Soviet Malaise Era connotations and all, but there’s something to be said for driving the classic Volga. Oh, sure, parts might be utterly impossible challenging to find, but the 21 was made to be operated on dirt roads in minus-60 temperatures, with little maintenance. What’s gonna break? Naturally, I’d need to get some Red Star wheels, just like the Stalinmobile, and there must be some way to obtain a genuine ZIL-41047 V8 to swap into it.

One thing the GAZ Volga 21 doesn’t have in common with the 1955 Chevrolet is its exclusivity when new; you had to have some pull with the Communist Party machine to get one back in the day. When Khrushchev and cronies decided that they’d better start getting some consumer goods to the public in the post-Stalin era, the order went down that a cheap workers’ car would be built, something like a Volkswagen but made for Soviet road conditions. That car was the beloved Zaporozhets, a rattly air-cooled heap that looks ominously similar to the Chevy Corvair. ZAZ engineers were told to rip off emulate the air-cooled VW’s engine design, but they ended up changing the configuration from a boxer four to a V4. Why? So that the valve adjustors would be more accessible when working on the car in a mud-floored garage! Needless to say, I would love to own an example of this historically significant vehicle, and the good news is that this 1970 ZAZ-966 can be had for a mere 39,000 Czech Koruna, or about two grand in US dollars. Were I to get this car, I’d make sure to obtain a Tatra V8 while I was over there, because a rear-engined, air-cooled hemi V8 in a Zaporozhets would be even better than a Tatra-engined Trabant. How hard could it be?

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