By on June 11, 2011

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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24 Comments on “1965 Impala Hell Project Part 3: Lowering Property Values...”

  • avatar

    Having owned a ’65 Impala, the first thing I thought of looking at the picture behind the wheel was, I sure miss those huge, skinny steering wheels! Then I thought about the legroom, then the ability to slide over to the passenger side, and the ability to open the quarter vent windows to make up for the lack of air conditioning, and then I realized it’s all gone forever. I can understand how you became attached to it. When I got mine it was four years old. I could drive it with the window down and my left hand holding down the roof, and still hear the Beach Boys and the Beatles on the radio. Did you ever realize you were driving a time capsule?

  • avatar

    I’m going to be weird and ask it: is that a M-14 rifle? I do agree with your assessment of the Powerglide. My ’69 Camaro had one hanging behind a gutless 327 2 barrel with a 3:00-1 rear end. I quickly grew tired of only having a modicum of torque from 0 to 30 mph, then nothing until it upshifted, then another “powerband” from 40 to 55 mph, then agonizingly slow acceleration after that.

  • avatar

    That is one ugly rifle. Since you are Russian, it should’ve been an SVT-40!

    Show some class, for goodness’ sake!

  • avatar

    I loathe living in those horrible controlled communities big time. I was scolded for changing the battery in my father’s Avalon…you are not allowed to have your hood up. Can’t use a jack, either. If you get into a fender-bender, you have 30 days to fix the damage or you must garage your car. My dad loves it…he is now on the board and helps write the restrictions…ugh.

    • 0 avatar
      Bill Wade

      We lived in one of those communities when I was in high school. They FREAKED when I showed up with my olive drab military Dodge Power Wagon. It seems the covenants and restrictions didn’t cover these type of abominations.

      I irritated the neighbors for 3 years with that thing.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah, real funny to irritate the neighbors. At one time people took pride in their communities and being respectful to their neighbors and their property. I doubt you are missed.

      • 0 avatar

        I have plenty of respect for my neighbors and my property. Yet I’m sure there are some who don’t like my historic four color palate that we chose when we lovingly restored our 1876 home, just like I turn up my nose at their beige vinyl clad developer-built box. Point? Different strokes for different folks. If we are talking taste, variety is good. Disrepair is something else…and I sure don’t mind somebody working on their car in the driveway…

  • avatar

    As for planned communities with covenants,I despise them with a passion as it means you have to conform to what I call the busy bodies and THEIR views on how things should be and if you have to change a tire or simply replace a battery, haven forbid.

    But as far as your recalling the project car, I love this series and it shows a side of you that we’d probably never get to have known otherwise.

  • avatar

    Keep ’em coming Murilee! It’s nice to know that 15 years later I was wreaking the same sort of havoc in suburbanite paradise. Myself and a group of friends managed to rent a house in the ‘nice’ area of the town we lived in (no stupid rules though, everyone just obeyed the middle class idea). My 1986 Ford Escort was perfectly serviceable and dent free, but the multi-coloured body panels and copious rust upset absolutely everybody on the street, whilst the fake blood covered chainsaw in the front window of the house (again – no rules which said we couldn’t!) almost made some of the faint.
    Needless to say, when one of their Audi’s decided to dump transmission fluid all over the road I reported them to the council to ensure they were ticketed correctly.

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    Yeah, real funny to irritate the neighbors. At one time people took pride in their communities and being respectful to their neighbors and their property. I doubt you are missed.

    I HATED my neighbor. If our Frisbee or ball went over the fence he would take it and not give it back. He poisoned (couldn’t prove it) our dog. Endlessly called the police for anything. I had the police at my door virtually every single day for riding my street legal motorcycle for “those damned kids and their dirt bikes” and on and on. I wouldn’t have kept the Power Wagon except for the fact this old coot was absolutely outraged over me having it. Every neighborhood meeting he’d complain. He’d call the police. He’d scream at me, it was endless.

    Actually there were a few of the other neighbors that found it quite amusing, he’d been an abject ass to them too. The police were sick and tired of it but they had no choice, they were required to respond to every call, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day to different neighbors. As callous as this sounds there weren’t a whole lot of tears shed when the man passed away. The ratty old Dodge went away shortly thereafter.

    Never assume, sometimes things aren’t as they seem.

    • 0 avatar

      “I HATED my neighbor. If our Frisbee or ball went over the fence he would take it and not give it back. He poisoned (couldn’t prove it) our dog.”

      Wow. Thanks for opening an old wound. I had that happen to me in 1966. Stuff like that stays with this, at-that-time, 15-year-old kid.

  • avatar

    Damn Murilee…Hopefully you didn’t smell like you looked in those fotos of IMW.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    Irvine was technically based on the Levittown model that William Levitt started in the late 1940s, only Irvine actually stuck to the master plan! Levittown NY is somewhat incorporated, Levittown PA (my area) is still split into four townships/boroughs one of which refuses to recognize the Levittown name, and Levittown NJ (the only one actually incorporated) reverted back to calling itself Willingboro. Levittown PA would have been incorporated if people were willing to pay a bit more on their taxes (which happened a few years later anyways when the industry left). While I’m for the master plan in some ways (it’s really annoying to see a three story McMansion on a 70X100 lot next to a single story ranch), in ways described by Murilee I’m glad it never came to be.

    Only car-based restrictions now are if it sits for too long you either have to keep it registered or get rid of it. And if it pukes oil/antifreeze/trans fluid on the street you have to call the township or face a hefty environmental fine. So just typical stuff.

    As for the Impala, I’m loving the series of recollecting it. The engine swap one should be good!

  • avatar

    Sitting at rapt attention within the shanty reading the above essay.

    Immense amounts of interest arising in the increasingly decrepit brain.

    Kudos upon thee for living and driving events in thine past.

    Bravos to the neighbors and assorted others within your past.

    I do not miss the neighborhood of yore; the mid-1972 back to hmmmmm it was what? 1966 or ,65, maybe 1964 or so when we moved into the newly-built “tract home” area where one builder erected several hundred houses of 4 or 5 different styles but all very similar.

    The working-poor class could actually afford the minimal monthly cost!!!!

    However, for various reasons (location location location) I was also in the midst of ample Chicanos who formed the requisite gangs I was forced to interact with relentlessly and in not the friendliest way.

    Being one of the few Gringos unwilling to adapt to them and to not embrace their culture or bow down to and submit to a machismo-based sub-culture, there WERE many fine times in that time and place the relentless requirement to engage in fisticuffs, etc. did, I believe, affect in not the best way, personal life “paths.”

    Those violent experiences, however, prepared me so very very well for future shore patrol duties. Grrrrrrr.

    But, the era’s cars and many of the social trends of that past era WERE groovy, boss, cool, outtasight’ etc.

    And chock-full of lust, the pure unadulterated variety, for future editions of the above essay and Coot encourages the inclusions of past life experiences and references to past social events, etc.

    Also highly enjoyed the comments.

    AND…. when folks from foreign lands, either in essays or comments, include information about their country/culture/society/etc I also revel in that!!!!!

    Even a mere paragraph while commenting on vehicle-related affairs often, to me, adds so much to the site and assists in avoiding the “same old thing” syndrome.

    Just a Disgruntled Old Coot’s Opinion ™ taking a new medicine and it sure does affect me… a little “woozy” and, interestingly, viewing the “world” in that “fog-like” manner experience those months after military discharge…. from South China Sea one day and in the USA a few days later then stumbling off base into the “real world.”

    A strange disconnected feeling in thinking but able to move the body well, drive safely, etc. Just the “thinking” aspect appears affected.


    Sorry. Rambling in my writing.

    Thanks for being patient with an old guy.

    Have a wonderful day y’all!!!!!!!!!

  • avatar

    I so enjoyed reading this. I lived in Irvine Meadows in the early ’80s and it was definitely the best place in Irvine to live. I was so sad they bulldozed it. The university was already annoyed with us then. I believe the then-chancellor referred to us as “That goddamn hippie camp.” :) I even had an Impala, albeit from the 1970s. I received an M.F.A. in Performance Art from UCI, so it was great fun reading about “Lowering Property Values” and hearing how the great Trailer Park Art Tradition lived on.

  • avatar

    I note that despite Mother Greden’s life-long experience with hoopties (yours, her’s etc…) she snatches that bag of over-priced grad photos (eff you Jostens) off the Impala’s hood mere seconds before you fire it up. Even she doesn’t trust it not to combust/eat things.

    Great series, keep it up!

  • avatar
    Mike C.

    Great story! Reminds me of a ’76 Eldorado I had with huge rust holes in the fenders and roof sails. I would get little love notes from the rent-a-cop security guys in the (semi) gated community saying ‘this car is an eye sore’, etc. It was registered and I drove it occasionally… so there was nothing they could do about it. It also made a great boat towing vehicle, if only for the stares I got at the boat ramp…

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