By on June 15, 2011

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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26 Comments on “1965 Impala Hell Project Part 4: Saddam Chooses My New Engine...”

  • avatar

    That awesome story gave me flashbacks. Thanks!

  • avatar

    George bush war 1 gas in Aussie hit 86cents per litre nearly $4 per real gallon cost me $ 450 to drive from Cairns to Sydney in my old Valiant wagon $1 per us gallon is peanuts The previous year I did the same trip in a dieing Falcon begging old sump oil all the way ,that car did 120mpg oil every 60miles the light would come on signaling a stop and 2litres into the motor but it made it nearly 4000 klicks and ran untill 2 days before I picked up a $150 replacement 250cube 6 changed over in my usual caravan/trailer park and back on the road again. A kangaroo hit at 70mph ruined the radiator 6 months later and cooked the motor so the swap was a waste of time in the end as I abandonned the Ford and bought a cheap Val to replaceit.

  • avatar

    Ah, yes, Adventures in Recession Underemployment–I remember it well. To those recent grads suffering from the 2011 version of this, the good news is, it should get better. The bad news is, you may be 30+ before it gets that much better.

    I’m really enjoying this series–reminds me of many of my own misadventures, given that we are apparently contemporaries.

    • 0 avatar

      2011 is way rougher than 1990, unfortunately.

      • 0 avatar

        And yet exactly the same. We still think the oil fields are about to suddenly disappear, and are making the same automotive decisions based on the same unshakable view that things are different this time.

      • 0 avatar

        Can’t disagree with you there. When I started college, I started learning Japanese, with the idea that this would be a valuable language to have for the Japan-centric future we would have. Then, by the time I graduated, Japan was in recession (and has never really crawled out), we were in recession, and I eventually wound up doing OK, but not in my original field of choice. However, I may yet get to experience post-1990 Japan–but the multi-year economic stagnation part, not the actual Japanese part. :(

      • 0 avatar

        No kidding. 2010 was a bad time to graduate with an aerospace engineering degree. Everyone wants Electrical/Software/Computer engineers, but no one’s hiring recently graduated Aero/Mech engineering majors.

        You’d think building two solar cars and racing them across 4 countries on public roads with public traffic would count for something… But it turns out spending all my time on that rather than “networking” with internships may have been a poor chose, career-wise.

        No regrets, though!

  • avatar

    Whoa. This story just gave me a flashback to ca 1980. A buddy and I built a V-8 Vega over a weekend at his grandparents trailer park while they were away. Damn near got them evicted. The beer of choice in that time and place was O’Keefes Extra Old Stock (high test), which was cheap, crude and potent. Much like the car we built that weekend.
    Great series of stories.

    • 0 avatar

      The phrases “V-8 Vega,” “over a weekend”, “grandparents’ trailer park”, and “while they were away” make for a great story no matter how you combine them.

  • avatar

    I don’t remember if I went to summer school in 90 or 91…but I did, and I lived in those apartments that were close to the trailer park…damn…if I had know, i would have gladly helped out in exchange for a burgie or two

  • avatar

    Never done an engine swap but DID spend HOURS with my ’68 Chrysler back in HS in the very early 80’s doing things like strapping old coffee cans to the disintegrating muffler, rewiring the rear blower adding in an AM/8Track stereo, stuff like that, good times!

    Sadly, lacking parts for the rare front disc brakes, an accident and not able to find a simple 4 door sedan door rather than the hardtop versions bid the car farewell to the junkyard the summer of my graduation (1983) and to this day, I STILL have a soft spot for those old concave Chryslers.

    Good series! Loved how you managed to get the engine swap done just in time. :-)

  • avatar

    During the post-’73 oil crisis, I found myself forced to sell my ’68 Montego MX and buy a ’63 Chrysler Newport that had been salvaged from a junkyard. It had dozens of dents and the rear window was rusted out, but the 361 V8 and push button torqueflite were bulletproof. As with the ’65 Impala, the Chrysler’s non-power drum brakes were exciting. Fortunately, by ’75 I was living in a 2-bedroom apartment two blocks from the beach in SoCal, my landlord accepted partial rent payments, and he had a bumper crop of eggplant that he would leave at the door. The cheapest beer around was Lucky Lager, and if you brought your own to his TV repair shop, dominated by a pro-style pool table, and shot pool with him, he’d spike your beer with scotch or vodka while you weren’t looking. He always won.

  • avatar

    You make me feel like I’m 21 all over again. Thanks so much for sharing and for your God-given story telling abilities Gene Shepherd would be proud of you.

    • 0 avatar

      For those who are interested, you can get podcasts of Jean Shepherd’s radio broadcasts. Just do a search in iTunes and “Mass Backward” will pop up which rebroadcasts tapes of his shows.

      Murilee, being compared to Shep is fine praise indeed. For almost 30 years Shep told stories six nights a week that kept us glued to the AM radio. There was no better storyteller.

      For those not familiar, he wrote the story that “A Christmas Story” is based upon. Shep did the voice over narration and appeared as the adult admonishing Ralphie that “Kid, the line to see Santa starts back there”.

  • avatar

    Man this all brings me back…..I’m a decade or so younger, so it was the late 90’s when I was in college, back at RPI in Troy, NY. I decided I needed wheels, scoured the newspaper classified, and rode my bicycle up the Hudson a few towns to see a fellow who had a 1977 GMC 2WD Suburban listed for $750. We dickered back and forth for a while, and I pedalled home with my last offer of $550 still on the table. He called me the next day and agreed to my price, and the day after that, after getting a temporary tag at the DMV, a friend of mine drove me up to get the ‘burban in her ’88 Celebrity wagon. Yeah, we all drove junkers.

    I remember that old ‘burban with much fondness. It had so much rust- I ended up replacing the floor in the back with marine plywood and 2×4’s and 4×4’s so I could transport my lawn tractor that I used to earn gas money with around. I remember the tractor steering wheel being just alittle too high to clear the Suburban top, so I left the nut off and would pull off the wheel as I was loading the tractor.

    I remember painting the truck Rustoleum black, with a roller and a trim brush. I scoured junkyards endlessly for rust-free doors, hood…I replaced the bench seat with buckets out of a Jimmy. The old bench seat became my apartment couch, then later a front porch couch (it might still be on a front porch in Troy, NY somewhere…

    Most of all, I remember that unkillable 350. I remember installing a 2-1/2″ straight exhaust, rebuilding the quadrajet, replacing the timing chain on a cold winter day in an ex’s garage. Having to use SAE 50W oil to keep it from burning a blue smoke screen behind me. But most of all I remember that glorious sound of opening up the secondaries in 2nd gear to merge onto the highway, my homebrew cold-air intake making a sound like a jet taking off as the BF Goodriches prayed for traction.

    Alas, I donated it a few months after I graduated and got a job in NJ in 2000. The truck HAUNTED me though- I received a parking ticket from somewhere in Delaware a few months later from whoever got the truck from the Salvation Army. I went back and forth with Delaware for months before I got that straightened out. Even now, I always feel uneasy driving through that state…

  • avatar

    I used to drink Burgie! in the service, in NoCal in the early 70’s.

    So, have you bought yourself a “proper” Russian weapon like an SVT-40, yet? Otherwise, I’ll legally sell you my 1895 Nagant pistol! After all, I’m at least half Russian by birth!

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Wow. Great story man.

  • avatar

    Things were doing much better in 1990 compared to the malaise era of 2001-2011 with 2008-2011 being the absolute worst years I can remember.

  • avatar

    “…430 miles north to Alameda.”

    Did you moor next to a nuclear wessel?

    I sit here within the shanty hoping the in-the-wall insulation and multiple bought-on-sale moving pads stapled to the walls successfully insulate the shanty innards and me from intruding excessively-heated outside atmosphere.

    The cooler outside air from when the sun says hello to Asia cools the abode until I close ‘er up.

    Noted those adorable hood hinges.

    We saved all those big-hood hinges and door hinges “in the day.”
    The two-door BIG car hinges were guaranteed sellers.

    They sold regularly and didn’t hang around long before making a customer giggly with glee.

    My heart pulsed with satisfaction when a customer could simply enter the yard, hand over a minimal amount of wealth (well, for some folks that $35 to 45 bucks or so “varied with various factors” back in the 1980s was “serious” money) and get what to some is a near necessity.

    Some of the local demographic relied upon a thick stick to keep their hood aloft.

    Reading the above well-written extremely interesting essay does create a flood of memories from an earlier era when this Disgruntled Old Coot was young and pretty akin to when Muhammed Ali boasted of his being prettier than you.

    I couldn’t hit quite as hard and the endurance was less.


    But, at least my brain works slightly better than Ali’s does now.

    MORE!!!!!!!!! MORE of the essay, similar and semi-similar!!!!!!

    Awesomely nifty!!!!!

    The trailer park reminds me somewhat of the small one in Empire, CA in the early 80s where, for 300 bucks, a bloke obtained a dwelling place across from the freight train switching yard (think of CLUNK CLANG TOOT TOOT TOOT of the moving of train cars assembly/disassembly into “units of travel” and train horn communication to workers 24-hours daily).

    Not quite the whisper of wind through the pine trees.

    The 28-foot travel trailer provided no impediment to outside sound waves.

    Impressive, though, was the ability of migrant workers filling the place to rebuild various vehicular units in that and nearby trailer parks.

    Preferring the coolness of night (and/or having to work around work hours) our oh-so noisy below-the-border-sourced brethren typically accomplished their goals with Budweiser their preferred beverage.

    Knowing I could not “change the world” and the situation was the only way to remain in college (affordability issues) a 9 or so mile bicycle ride away I accepted the noise from all sources, smiled and waved at the esses and vatos, and gave a thumbs up and a shout of joy when the repairs, rebuilds and various vehicular incarnations were successful.

    I became, in a strange way the “token Gringo” and was left alone.

    As new arrivals appeared as others departed I was still stared at. Ride a bicycle??!!! that was an oddity at the time in that area and era.

    But, the word got around and the new vatos and esses would accept the token Gringo.

    A great relief when pedaling like mad down the major roadways; I wasn’t a target for cars so similar to the rebuild above.

    Keep it up!!!!! More of those stories I can relate to.

    Even the bandana is groovy even though the blue color would have angered the resident Nortenos but the Surenos hadn’t commenced their invasion yet so the N crew may not have noticed.

    A USA flag motif was usually best for a Gringo to wear.




  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Murilee, the rumors are true. You are one homely chick.

    Ha! I kid. This is an epic series. Thoroughly enjoying it!

  • avatar

    I’m enjoying it too! Among other things I got a kick out of the HOP 200 plates on the ole Chevy.

    I had a red-primered ’40 Ford Standard coupe that I bought with a stuck motor. Got a ’49 flathead from the next door neighbor kid who’d stuffed his car into a dirt bank, changed the water pumps, and had it mounted in the car ready to wire. Another neighbor kid made me an offer for it, and I considered how much work I had left, and sold it to him. I still have a soft spot for ’40 Standards.

  • avatar

    I wouldn’t mind having 1990 gas prices now lol

    • 0 avatar

      If you’re going to wish for the impossible, hold out for 1969 gas prices. I drove from San Diego to Boston and back in my ’65 Impala, same drivetrain as Murilee’s original, and coming back, I kept track of the mileage and cost of gas. I got 12.3 mpg and the gas cost me $81.60 for 252 gallons. The trick was to drive past the gas stations at the offramps a couple miles, and the stations there would sell for 5-7 cents less. Otherwise, those 3100 miles would have cost me almost a hundred bucks! One little caveat: the minimum wage at the time was $1.40/hr., more than the Navy was paying me.

    • 0 avatar

      No shit and the beer price too, but the wage rate you can keep

  • avatar

    Burgie, Blatz, and the rest of them may have been bad, but at least they were cheap, and not trendy. I don’t mind PBR, but I’ve been mired in real poverty to drink it ironically like the hipsters. I miss the days when I would go to Save-on Drug, or Rite Aid and get 3 12 packs of Blatz for $10.

    This story reminds me of driving my pre-wrecked 66 Malibu, and the motor swap I did in the sloped driveway of my apartment in Venice Beach in my 1960 Chevy in 2001.

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