By on July 22, 2011

When we last saw the 1965 Impala Hell Project, it was the fall of 1990 and I was installing headers, dual exhaust, and a TH350 transmission in place of the original Powerglide. The car drove pretty well with those upgrades, but the fact that the entire instrument panel (except for the oil pressure idiot light) was kaput became quite an annoyance. Was the engine running hot? Was I going 80 in a 45 zone? How much gas do I have? Those questions remained mysteries, and finding functioning replacement parts for a then-26-year-old car in the junkyard would be tough. I had a solution, however; scavenging Pick-Your-Part for instrument-panel components on Half Price Day weekends and building my own instrument panel from scratch.

The factory instrument panel looked cool, but there was no way I’d be able to buy new replacement gauges on my recession-grade office-temp wages. Once I had all the parts I needed, a “DIP” street sign I found somewhere (no, I didn’t steal it) donated some high quality aluminum sheet and I was ready to go.

The car was developing some nice patina at that point; I’d taken to hitting it with black or gray spray paint whenever I spotted any sort of scratch or blemish in the gloss-gray industrial paint that the previous owner had hosed over the original Tahitian Turquoise paint.

After determining that just about all GM cars of the 1960s shared a common speedometer-cable connection, I scored this speedo out of a late-60s Buick. A Wildcat, perhaps? In any case, it was round, it looked cool, and the donor car had a similar differential gear ratio to the 3.31 in my Impala’s 12-bolt.

This is the only photo I can find of the aluminum panel that became the new dashboard (damn pre-digital photography era!).

However, I do still have the original diagrams I drew up to help with the wiring. They’re pretty thrashed, because they spent 10 years in the car’s glovebox. I got a lot better at this sort of thing a few years later, when I became a technical writer, but at least these diagrams are quasi-intelligible.

I used junkyard connectors scavenged from Toyota and Nissan wiring harnesses, with surplus wire bought cheap at the legendary (and now defunct) Mike Quinn Electronics. Quinn’s, as San Francisco Bay Area electronics geeks recall, provided much of the raw material for the Grateful Dead’s scratchbuilt sound system in the mid-1960s; a decade later, Jobs and Wozniak bought many of the components used in the prototype Apple I computer there. That gave my Impala provenance!

Most of the toggle switches also came from Quinn’s, but I decided to go Italian with the warning lights. Fiats used these beautiful metal-and-glass units in their cars for years.

Back in 1991, it was pretty easy to find Fiats in self-service junkyards, so I gathered a good-sized collection of stylish indicator lights. In fact, I still have a stash of them to this day (even after using many of them in the Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox a few years back).

When it was all assembled, my car had a cockpit that looked like something out of the Space Shuttle: Voltmeter, vacuum gauge, tachometer, speedometer, transmission temp, oil pressure, water temp, fuel, clock— everything from the junkyard. For switches, I had just about everything possible wired up, including a James Bondian taillight-cutoff switch and wiring for five separate horns (inspired by the multiple horns in my ’58 Beetle; unfortunately, I never did get around to installing additional horns in the Impala). The speedometer was mounted to the back of the instrument panel with a plywood spacer, and I installed red and green speedo-face lighting in the spacer (with a three-way switch to control lighting color).

The Kienzle clock came from a 1966 Opel Kadett, featured an Opel emblem and was the gauge that pleased me most. I’d found it in U-Pull-It Auto Wrecking in Oakland during my earliest junkyard expeditions, installed it in my Beetle during high school, and hung onto it long after the Beetle got crushed.

The factory AM radio was long dead, and I needed to listen to my collection of Motörhead and Public Enemy cassettes at all times behind the wheel. So, I broke out the plywood and the jigsaw and made this removable console unit to sit beneath the dash and atop the transmission hump (held in place with a couple of brass deadbolts). With eight junkyard speakers (four in the rear package shelf, two in each front door) driven by a pair of four-channel Brand X equalizer/amplifiers fed by a not-too-terrible Sony cassette deck (veteran of at least three of my previous vehicle dashes by that time), I had serious sound for next to nothing. Because I was parking the car in a lot of sketchy rip-U-off neighborhoods of San Francisco and Oakland at the time, I rigged my semi-unwieldy pull-out stereo with quick-disconnect harness connectors salvaged from junked Corollas. To remove the unit, I just pulled a couple of deadbolts and disconnected four harness connectors; it made for quite a conversation piece when I’d set it on the kitchen table at parties. I wish I had a photo of the front of the unit, but… damn pre-digital photography era once again.

Overall, this setup proved quite reliable, although I had to replace a few of the cheapo gauges over the years. At this point, the only real problems with the car, from a daily-driving perspective, were the four-wheel drum brakes and the lack of a heater. I solved those problems soon enough, as we’ll see in an upcoming episode of this series.

The skills I learned from this project proved useful in later years; when it came time for me to build the instrument panels for the Black Metal V8olvo race car, I was up and running in a hurry.

This setup remains in the car to this day, just awaiting its new owner to fly to California and get behind the wheel. Yes, I mean the legendary donk-racin’ Speedycop.

My 20R-powered ’67 Sprite, which now sits in the Evil Genius Racing on-deck-projects yard awaiting a narrowed RX-7 rear, also benefited from my instrument-panel-creating experience. See, working on Hell Projects pays off! Next up: Disc brakes, Generation X road tripping.
1965 Impala Hell Project Roundup

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20 Comments on “1965 Impala Hell Project Part 6: Gauges! Switches! Buttons!...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Sweet Man. That’s pretty freaking cool. If I was just within walking distance of Murilee, once I got a project car, I’d keep the man in pizza and beer for years.

  • avatar

    Brings back memories of my old cars and the modifications made. I like the dash better than the original.

  • avatar


  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Good looking mod. And, you’ve now got real gauges, not the plastic, plus/minus 50%% accuracy junk GM was putting into cars back then. (And that was when they had two whole engineers working there.)

  • avatar

    So…what will be the ultimate fate of this car? LeMons?

    I sure wish I had the time, tools and my buddy back in Missouri to help me build an old car again. As the song said: “Those Were The Days…”

  • avatar

    This is very cool and a great write up. It does remind me a of a quote from the movie Airplane II…

    Oh, cut the bleeding heart crap, will ya? We’ve all got our switches, lights, and knobs to deal with, Striker. I mean, down here there are literally hundreds and thousands of blinking, beeping, and flashing lights, blinking and beeping and flashing – they’re *flashing* and they’re *beeping*. I can’t stand it anymore! They’re *blinking* and *beeping* and *flashing*! Why doesn’t somebody pull the plug!

  • avatar

    I’m really enjoying this series Murilee, however I’ve got this sinking feeling that the story of your Impala will end with it either being sold, crushed or crashed…

  • avatar

    Looks kinda cool, actually, like the cockpit of a WWII plane. Kinda remind me of the dashboard of a 80’s Citroen GS, with round gauges of various size scattered about seemingly haphazardly.

  • avatar

    Might’ve looked even cooler if the yellow side of the “DIP” sign had been facing out (although I understand the gray-black-and-steel aesthetic as well).

    What a glorious sh*tbox you created! I should’ve made my dad hang on to his ’68 Impala, I could have done something similar (and annoyed the neighbors to no end).

  • avatar

    I’m kind of sorry to see the original spedometer go. I liked watching those horizontal bars move while accelerating. I don’t know how troublesome they were, but I had one in my ’65 Impala and in my ’62 Buick Invicta, and I had to replace both. The Buick IP was much easier to work on: the entire padded cowl was held on with six screws and came off the top in one piece. About 40 lbs of steel with foam and vinyl attached, and once removed, EVERYTHING was laid out in front of you.

  • avatar

    Awesome. I did much of the same type of stuff with cars, lawn tractors, bikes, etc. You either get this or you don’t. For those who do, I say you did really well!

  • avatar

    Couldn’t you have just tried to find a functional cluster from another impala?
    And why weren’t there any lucas gages up in the dash????

  • avatar

    As far as gauges are concerned, depending on the shape of the car – here’s what I would do: for any two door, whether hardtop or sedan, or 4 door hardtop, you use the factory cluster. For full instrumentation, you buy those aftermarket gauges that you used to screw under the dash. They came in threes – temp, oil & amps – all in a little metal panel covered in walnut-grain contact paper. For this four-door sedan, what Murilee did is exactly what you do! Nobody will care – not even me!

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      For slightly “newer” cars they do have A-pillar mounted clusters now.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, Dan, you taught me something new! I had no idea something like those are available after-market. I think I need to look around my local AutoZone more often! Thanks!

        BTW, my three-taillight Impala project isn’t happening – no way to manufacture a rear panel to make it look like it was “made that way”. At least Mr. Lutz knows how I feel about the issue!

  • avatar

    I’ve always loved those ’67-era Toronado drum speedos. Would like to find a suitable project for one one day.

  • avatar

    I have to agree, the original instrument cluster was very cool for it’s day but sad to hear finding useable working clusters back in the early 1990’s proved to be easier said than done.

    That said, loved how you went about fixing it anyway. :-)

    While I can get rather resourceful when the shit hits the fan in cases like this, I’d have tried my damnedest to restore functionality to the original dash as best I could.

    As for audio setups, good god man,that’s ingenious. I’ve learned over the years that you should spend the most amount of your dollars to a GOOD cassette or CD head unit with GOOD amps (good name brand like Panasonic, Pioneer etc even if you have to get a less than fancy unit that fits your budget but let that be your quality unit and you can scrimp a bit on the power amps, but best not to scrimp too much with the super cheap stuff or your audio will suffer or they simply don’t last when turned up to loud volumes.

    Speakers are your one area to make it shine, but finding good junk yard brand speakers can help there tremendously.

    I love how you made your audio system a quick disconnect setup. I did something similar with a Radio Shack under dash cassette deck with auto reverse, auto music search (a rarity back in 1983 in budget decks) and had it mounted on a cleaver creation of parts from, again radio shack and a slide out mount, again from Rad Shack that I bolted to the transmission hump of my 1968 Chrysler and had cheapo 4″ surface mounted Rad Shad speakers for sound mounted in the parcel shelf’s original 609 oval speaker locations with cheap wood and wire to hold it together. Not bad but it could’ve been WAY better.

    I also learned with cheap EQ/amp setups that it’s easy to blow an amp if you aren’t careful. Did it twice with the same model amp from, again Rad Shack (tells you about the quality of their electronics don’t it?).

    Ah, those were the days when I used to listen to hard rock all the time too!

    Another nice write up there Muralee!

  • avatar

    w00t!! I have oft lamented the departure of Murilee from Jalopnik; now I find out that not only is he posting regularly at TTAC, but he has a ’65 Impala Hell series! You see, I have my own personal ’65 Impala Hell (it’s a 2-door with a 283/2bbl/PG), and I’ve done some creative dash fabricating and stereo installation myself.

    Years ago, I got tired of staring at the non-functional clock and I longed for oil pressure and water temp gauges. At the time, if you were willing to scrounge around junk boxes at Carlisle swap meets, you could score a vacuum gauge from a ’65 for cheap. They were standard in place of the clock on SS models, and apparently many got yanked out either for huge tach placement or because they started developing nasty noises. Whatever, I picked a couple up for something like 5 bucks each. I gutted one of them, and in its shell I installed a couple of JC Whitney gauges using, as I recall, an aluminum plate from an old light fixture cut to shape with tin snips. The whole assembly bolted right in place of the clock and still works today:

    When I bought the car in 1993, the previous owner had managed to hack an aftermarket radio/cassette deck into the dash without causing any damage visible with the radio trim on. I actually asked him if he had the original radio and made sure it was included in the sale. I put it back in and rocked a vintage under-dash FM converter for a few years (factory optional rear seat speaker FTW!) before I concocted this, starting with a $2 non-working 8-track bought at Carlisle:

    This has been gutted too–those dials are just glued on and the whole faceplate comes off:

    The previous owner had hacked 6x9s into the rear deck, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut up the original door panels for front speakers. I also couldn’t afford a set of original kick panels with speaker mounting provisions. So I did like Murilee and broke out the plywood to build a speaker enclosure that sits on the transmission hump. Mine, however, is finished in rattle-can black:

    Last year I went to the International Meet of the ’65-’66 Full Size Chevy Club and they were less than impressed with my handiwork, lolz.

    Anyways, I look forward to future installments of ’65 Impala Hell…


  • avatar

    Don’t even get me started on how much hassle it was to cut the STEEL back deck of my ’63 Nova to get those Jensen Triax speaker in there…

  • avatar

    Quite impressive! Can’t wait for the next write up!

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