By on May 26, 2011

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

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

23 Comments on “1965 Impala Hell Project Part 1: So It Begins...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Wow, you’re lucky you didn’t die from a case of hepatitis after sitting in that sucker. Of course out here in the Southwest we would have wondered about hantavirus from possible rodent infestation.

  • avatar

    Now THIS is gonna be a fun read!

    Tired car or no, glad it still could move under its own power with decent ooomph.

  • avatar

    Do we get a Part II?

  • avatar

    Now THIS is a project I’ll be interested in!

  • avatar

    There are so many reasons that I admire your project but I will refrain from a lengthy list because you have a lot of work ahead of you and don’t need to read lengthy posts. I salute you.

  • avatar

    This art car rocks it for me

  • avatar
    Spencer Williams

    Wow, this is like a VH1 Behind the Music, except it’s actually interesting. Love it.

    I also love how the old guy in video one rides a scooter.

  • avatar
    dc doug

    This reveals more about you than anything you’ve previously written (except, maybe, the porn novella). That you passed on the ’65 Impala SS w/ Powerglide for $500 and went w/ the ’65 Impala 4dr body/int rough for $375 all makes sense now!

  • avatar

    Oh man, I’ve owned some cars with rough interiors, but that Impala looks fully rotten. I think the worst I’ve had was an auction bought Ford Escort (£100 bargain!) with only the front seats still vaguely intact, no door trim on any door and at least half an inch of ash over every interior surface. It reminded me of those historical docu-drama’s of Pompeii, except with yellowy tarred up windows and no bodies set in plaster lying around. But unlike your Impala – this moving piece of archeology only managed 15,000 miles before my contempt for the clunking engine mounts made one of them snap. Now there’s an experience I don’t recommend to anyone – having ones engine trying to twist its way out of the car.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      At least you didn’t attempt to secure the engine in place with a chain. I have only seen such carnage once, but as it was performed by a race-built 455 in a ’68 Firebird the aftermath was one more than I ever want to see happen again. On a full-throttle launch at the local drag strip, the motor mounts snapped and the engine spun in the bay, which pulled the chains inward. As the chains were shackled to the frame rails, this immediately narrowed the front of the Firebird in addition to twisting the frame around the engine.

      And that’s why you always use large triangular steel (or a good aluminium alloy) plates bolted to the frame rails to secure high horsepower engines in the engine bay.

    • 0 avatar

      I need an explanation here. My Corvette broke engine mounts, usually on the drag strip. I do not recall any collateral damage.Chevy’s heavy duty big block mounts worked fine as replacements.

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        Did you use any additional engine bracing? While the practice originally began with Chrysler’s hemi-head engines used in drag racing in the 60s, it has since spread to cover many other high horsepower applications where a shifting engine is a Very Bad Thing. The term I’m accustomed to seeing in use is “elephant ears.” You’ll sometimes see a racing engine with an additional support plate or pair of brackets mounted at the front of the block, and the ends of the plates are bolted onto large tabs welded to the frame rails. This adds another point of safety in case an engine mount does break, in addition to further helping locate and support the engine within the frame. I haven’t checked the NHRA rule book in a couple of years but I do recall several of its competition classes require the use of such engine block bracing.

        Some racers, be they on a budget or not understanding the concept of that type of engine brace, will occasionally bolt a heavy chain to the block, using an unused mounting boss and a huge washer, and repeating the procedure where the chain meets the frame rail. While this can prevent the engine from doing bad things outside of the engine bay should the motor mounts break, the flexible nature of the chain ensures the engine’s twisting motion turns into a strong inwards pull on the frame rail, usually with catastrophic results for the frame.

      • 0 avatar

        I do not recall any bracing . The big block mounts never broke with my 327.
        I am pretty sure my B Gas Olds (late 50s) had nothing also, but it was an automatic, B & M.

      • 0 avatar

        GM put crappy 6-cyl engine mounts on the small blocks, putting stress on the driver side mount when accelerating. I owned a ’65 Impala with the 283, and at 65k miles, I accelerated from a light while turning left, the mount broke and the engine lifted up, pulling out the throttle linkage. Fortunately, it was a huge, empty intersection and I was able to straighten out the wheel and turn off the engine. I limped to my mechanic who modified a mount from a big block to assure no more near-death experiences, at a cost of $29.50. That was GM’s big recall of ’65-’71 models. The dealer charged recall victims $40 to put a metal bracket on the bad mount so when it broke the engine wouldn’t lift up. I’d driven that car from San Diego to Boston and back, twice, and I’m fortunate the mount broke two miles from my mechanic.

  • avatar

    I remember learning about Chris Burden in college, but had no idea he (or you)had a connection to UCI. Casts my one good UCI-alum friend (“I’m a loyal Anteater”) in a different light.

    Ah, Huntington Beach…that place never really changes, does it?

  • avatar

    Looking at the “art car” pics again brought back an interesting memory; A guy that was in one of my art classes at college after I left the air force had a VW bug. He “paved” it – covered his car with asphalt – the old type using yellow gravel! That car had to weigh at least 500 pounds additional curb weight. It could barely get out of its own way, too – I saw it up colse and the guy drive it around campus a lot! Always cracked me up.

  • avatar

    1965 Impala Hell Project Part 1: So It Begins

    Last Sentence:
    Next up: Part Three: The Modifications Begin.

    There should be a “What’s Wrong With This Picture” in there somewhere…what will we miss in Part Two?

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    “… and the oil-pressure light flickered ominously at idle. …”

    Anyone who’s wrenched on one of the Big 3’s V8’s from that era knows exactly what was causing that. The HDP-clad camshaft timing gear had shed its teeth and they were all caught up in the oil pick-up screen. Making for a hard suck at idle.

  • avatar

    The gal should have been included with the vehicle’s purchase.

  • avatar

    Stories like this and Top Gear USA still can’t come up with good content….

  • avatar

    @ John. Ford and chrysler V8’s still used steel timing gears in the 60’s. It was not uncommon in those days for the oil light to flicker at idle. It could have been from a number of factors, like bearing or oil pump clearances, type and weight of oil used, low idle speed or even an over sensitive oil pressure switch.
    @Murilee, while I agree that the 283 was a pretty long wearing engine by small block chevy standards, especially compared to the later 305 and 350, I highly doubt that 283 had 300k on it.

  • avatar

    Wow I already can’t wait to see the finished project!

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Lou_BC: @WalterRohrl – Prior to this huge jump in fuel prices, the Kia dealer my son works at has had one EV...
  • Oberkanone: EVs now account for 4.6% of all passenger vehicles being sold in the U.S. 4.6% is an important number....
  • Lou_BC: @Jeff S – congratulations. I’ve had a nightmare experience finding a diesel ZR2. GM had shifted...
  • EBFlex: “ Have you taken care of the three decals out for the Escape pickup yet?” My mistake. Autocorrect is...
  • buzzyrpm: City and street design in the US makes the majority of roads extremely dangerous. Particularly when there...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber