By on August 25, 2011

Last week, the Impala roared into 1992 with more refinements and spun quite a few digits on its Buick odometer. Late in ’92, with Bill Clinton packing up his Astroturf-enhanced El Camino and heading for the White House and the days getting shorter, I decided to celebrate my escape from the looming menace of an academic career by tricking out the Impala’s hood with some Fiat X1/9-sourced scoops… and getting back to Interstate 5, where I belonged.
The car was really starting to look the way I’d envisioned the project by this time, with random application of primer paint, greasy handprints, and road dirt giving it the proper finish, but I felt that was coming up a bit short in the jacked-up-street-racer portion of its image. I asked myself what a young Bill Clinton would have done to, say, a beater ’51 Olds Super in 1965 to impress the young ladies of his fevered Arkansas fantasies. The answer came immediately: Hood scoops!
I thought about going with one of J.C. Whitney’s fine selection of fiberglass scoops, but didn’t see one that really seemed right for the Impala. What I needed, I decided, was a pair of junkyard scoops, something made to mount on a flat surface without too much hassle. First-gen Toyota MR2s had pretty interesting square air-intake scoops, but Pick Your Part didn’t have many 8-year-old Toyotas on the yard in 1992. The choice was obvious: Fiat X1/9!
The X1/9 was a common sight in California self-service junkyards of the early 1990s; the little mid-engined Fiat (and, later, Bertone) had been quite popular during the Late Malaise Era. The plastic side scoops (which, if I recall correctly, were used for carburetor air intake and engine compartment cooling) mounted using two screws and required about 15 seconds apiece to remove from a junkyard specimen. Five bucks each from El Pulpo.
A few minutes’ work with a metal-cutting-blade-equipped Sawzall, two trapezoidal holes in the hood, a couple of screws per scoop, and I had hood scoops that had a vaguely ’64 GTO-ish look about them. I wish I had better photos of the installation, but one works with the photos one has on hand.
The scoops were “functional” in that they weren’t blocked off, but they simply directed air downward, into the engine compartment. I thought about rigging up a cold-air intake for the carburetor, fed by dryer hose to the scoops, but the scoops had square outlets and I couldn’t figure out an easy way to route the hoses so that they’d have enough slack to allow the hood to open. Anyway, they looked good; here’s a view of the back side of the scoops from the driver’s seat, while rumbling through the Fruitvale BART Station parking lot in East Oakland.
By early 1993, I was living in East Oakland, near the intersection of Seminary and MacArthur. This meant that I spent a lot of time driving up Seminary from the Nimitz Freeway, and I shot quite a few Seminary Avenue photos out the window of the Impala during this period. Here’s what the scene in this photograph of Seminary near Foothill looks like today.
The crazy clown face on this long-boarded-up candy store on Seminary was the stuff of nightmares.
Having grown up on an island just off the “coast” of Oakland, I was quite comfortable living in the home of Jack London and Gertrude Stein. Unfortunately, the early 1990s weren’t the best time to be living near Seminary and MacArthur; gun battles over prime crack-dealing turf broke out, on what seemed like a nightly basis, within a few blocks of the crowded slacker house I was renting. First you’d hear a lot of shouting, followed by one or two lone gunshots, followed by a couple of minutes of a half-dozen combatants spraying bullets, followed by screeching tires… and then, much later, ambulance sirens.
The Impala seemed properly apocalyptic for this environment, and it seemed to inspire respect in the ‘hood. Other than the occasional kid yelling “HOOPTIE! HOOPTIE!” as I drove by, nobody in East Oakland seemed to notice my car.
Most of my Bay Area friends were living in similarly rough neighborhoods across the Bay in San Francisco at the time, and the Impala turned out to be admirably suited for climbing SF’s steep hills and squeezing into tight parking spaces. Perhaps because so many mid-60s big Chevrolets were sold to police departments and taxi companies, GM designed the car with a very tight turning radius. As an added bonus, the hordes of San Francisco smash-window-grab-glovebox-change thieves stayed away from my car when it spent nights parked in the Lower Haight or Western Addition. Strangely, my 28-year-old sedan had turned out to be an extremely practical daily driver for a Generation X slacker on a tight budget (had gas prices been higher at the time, of course, it wouldn’t have worked out so well for me).
Life was pretty good at this time; I had a good car, I had found a way to keep office-temp jobs from driving me too crazy, and I’d found a set of housemates that didn’t make me feel like doing murder every few hours. Here’s a photograph from an early-1993 party we threw, with a “disreputable characters” theme for participants. That’s me on the left, dressed as a Lodi meth dealer. The other costumes were, left to right (if my memory isn’t too faded after 18 years): a crooked real-estate hustler from Oklahoma City, a Ponzi-scheme operator from Pittsburgh, an Earlimart junior-high dropout who’d just scratched her rival’s eyes out in the Dairy Queen parking lot, and a Talahassee strip-club owner.
Since I was doing so much driving in sketchy neighborhoods full of Olde English 800-fortified drivers in mechanically-challenged Buick Electras, I became quite conscious of my car’s difficult-to-see urban-camouflage finish. With visions of being T-boned by some bleary-eyed Chrysler Newport driver, I decided to channel the spirit of Ralph Nader and install side marker lights and more visible front turn signals on the car. I picked some lights off of Japanese subcompacts and rigged them up on the Impala; I believe this marker light— used here as a turn signal light, mounted above the headlight— came from an early-70s Datsun 1200.
For the rear flanks, I used the little square marker lights from a late-1960s Toyota Corona. A ’69 Corona sedan was my first car, and I never forgot those goofy square marker lights.
My sister went to China for a few weeks and brought back this tasseled Mao Zedong mirror icon for me; Young Mao on one side, Old Mao on the other. It seemed just the decoration for my car.
Of course, there was always the chance that some enraged survivor of the Three Terrible Years would flip out upon seeing my Mao icon, but it never happened.
Likewise, no fanatical Richard Nixon zealot ever snapped at the sight of my Tricky Dick hood ornament (in a later episode, we’ll see what happened when I drove my Nixon-ornamented Impala to Nixon’s birthplace on the day after his death in 1994).
It was fun driving the Impala to temp jobs and ironic Generation X parties, but the open road was where the car really belonged.
Even though most folks had gone to CDs for in-car music by the early 1990s, my tunes collection was all on cassette at the time. The Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head was on extremely heavy rotation for me in 1993, as were several road-trip mix tapes I created around this time; here’s my long digression on the subject.
Even though I’d left Orange County to return to my homeland 430 miles to the north a couple years back, I kept returning to visit friends behind the Orange Curtain. During 1992-1993, it was rare that more than two months passed between Impala trips down I-5.
Mostly I went by myself, but you’ve always got a pool of quality traveling companions when you’re hanging around underemployed Generation X types. Yes, that’s a taxi-fare list sticker on the rear side window; I have no recollection of where it came from.
With no air conditioning in the car, the best time to drive through the Central Valley in summer is late at night.
How many cars today have room for the driver and two sleeping passengers in the front seat? I think it’s time for the automakers to de-clutter their vehicle interiors!
The first beer after an all-night drive is always most welcome, although only dire slacker poverty could make a 40-dog of King Cobra seem like a good choice. Shudder.
The whole brigade of couch-surfing slackers would join the party when the Impala rolled into Santa Ana. Here’s a future Ivy League professor contemplating what looked like a downward-spiral future of office-temp days and King Cobra evenings… and, given our current economic conditions, she might be looking down the barrel of a similar future today.
We paid a visit to my steel sculpture, entitled “The Electric Man,” (much enlarged after my departure from UCI by artist Lars Israelson) in the Irvine Meadows West sculpture garden.
What’s that I’m standing on?
It’s the Impala’s original 283 block, now used as ballast to keep the Electric Man from tipping over. Sadly, drunken UCI frat boys kept climbing the sculpture in later years, and lawsuit-fearing university officials had it torn down and scrapped.
After a day or two down south, it’s time to pack up the gear and point the Impala’s snout north.
Palm trees and smog.
And, on closer view, a billboard hawking the execrable ’93 Pontiac Grand Am.
Goodbye, land of excellent tacos al pastor and junkyards bigger than Disneyland!
The Glendale Boulevard overpass over I-5 in Los Angeles is my all-time favorite freeway overpass in the whole world.
But the real I-5 experience starts once you get out of the Grapevine and into the Central Valley. Then you watch the number of miles to San Francisco get smaller as the cotton fields and almond orchards go by.
As Tower of Power says, Back To Oakland. Next up: getting on Nixon’s posthumous Enemies List.

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17 Comments on “1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 10: Fiat Hood Scoops, Endless Ribbon of Asphalt...”

  • avatar

    Terrific stuff! Keep ’em coming!

  • avatar

    I’m loving this series, Murilee. Can’t wait to read the next installment.

    • 0 avatar


      Brings back hazy memories of college and my buddy’s $500 ’68 Lincoln Continental sedan. Suicide doors and intermittent brakes.

      But torque out the wazoo.

      Also a friend’s ’67 Beetle, painted in drunken fits and starts with whatever rattle-can paint was laying around.

      He lived in a particularly nasty neighborhood, and we had painted “White Riot!” (in honor of The Clash, The Only Band That Mattered)on the doors.

      Nobody ever said a word about it. I guess they figured if we were crazy enough to paint that on the car, we were too crazy to mess with.

      Ah, The Good Old Days: Cheap Cars, Cheap Beer, Cheap Women.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    You’ve inspired me Amigo. I feel like I need to find a car and turn it into a “statement”. I dig your car so much more than those “art cars” that just seem to have random crap glued to them.

  • avatar

    Loved the Seminary/MacArthur before and after photos. There aren’t many neighborhoods that could survive the last two decades in California mostly unchanged. The last thing to change in any neighborhood will always be the building with the sign that spells L-I-Q-U-O-R-S.

  • avatar

    I’ve read every word in all ten instalments, and find it riveting.

    Murilee…Don’t let it go to your head, but your writing skill is only surpassed by your knack of knowing just what is right and proper on your 65 Impala.

    Dan is right..any idiot can glue random crap on. But you have managed to make the Chevy very functional. At the same time you created the “art car” that was your original objective.

    Hats off to you Dude,…There ai’nt enough folks like you anymore.

  • avatar

    Pick your part is having a big sale Sept 2-5…SUCKA

  • avatar

    This series keeps getting better. I love reading stuff like this.

    I think we ALL have done memorable road trips of one kind or another and of the car that accompanied us on that trip.

    Over on Curbside Classics, there has been a great series of stories of just that and I read one last night of one guy who took the lonely road out to Colorado from I forget where in a 1986 I think it was Acura Integra with 250K miles on it and it finally throws a rod about 1/2 way there out in the middle of the Utah desert and had to stay in a small town until he could figure out what to do and get to his parents in CO is just one example.

    One of the respondents to that post thought it might be fun to retell the story of his long road trip in a Yugo.

    As for mix tapes/CD’s, I make them often and have plenty to choose from and they make up most of my road trip soundtracks, even if just schlepping to and from work. :-)

    Keep this series coming!

  • avatar

    Augh. Mix tapes. I have probably 10-15 driving music/mix tapes in a box in the basement somewhere, along with maybe a couple hundred other tapes, either prerecorded or one-album-each-side TDK SA90s. Too bad I no longer have a vehicle with a cassette deck in it. I’m holding on to them in case… well… I don’t know, I just can’t bring myself to get rid of them, I guess. However, my DD has a CD player that plays MP3 CDs, so I can load up a disc with 200 songs and be set for a good long time…

    • 0 avatar

      I was an active tape trader and live show recorder just before CDRs came out. I probably have 500 or more hours of live music on cassette. I’m now looking at my Nakamichi DR-3 cassette deck in my stereo and it literally has cobwebs on it. I remember finding a great deal on some Sony UX-PRO cassettes that sounded great that I used in a Pro Walkman for live recording. For most trading it was Maxell XLIIs or TDKs of the same quality. Sometimes, if the price was right, I used Denon HD-8 metal tapes with ceramic guides. I think I once even used a couple of Radio Shack high bias chrome tapes to record a Bob Dylan show. We were driving down Woodward to the State Fair where the show was and I realized that I somehow forgot to bring blanks. I don’t think I ever told anyone to whom I traded tapes of that show that the originals were Radio Shack. Tapers could be pretty snobbish and particular about which cassettes they used.

      • 0 avatar

        Maxell XLIIs and TDKs were the standard, I had a Nakamichi RX-202 that I sold during some period i was short of beer money. Still miss that deck, i’ve still got a Pioneer dual cassette auto reverse that can dub two tapes at a time, it’s gathering dust in storage… Nothing like those old mix tapes around now, used to take the phrase “two turntables and a microphone” for granted.

  • avatar

    Something about seeing “Pirelli Cinturato P3” evokes memories. Of what I’m not sure, but I seem to recall that they were the hot tip for performance tires at one time.

  • avatar

    Ronnie- the Maxell XLIIs are what I used also.

    Murilee- reading your story makes we wanna take that ’66 two-door Biscayne in my friend’s backyard and do something crazy with it!

  • avatar

    Still love the Nixon hood ornament lol

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