By on August 2, 2011

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6 • Part 7 • Part 8

After installing a junkyard-centric, street-sign-based instrument panel and 20-pound “pullout sound system,” I hit the streets on my post-college-graduation job search. After all, with a newly-minted degree from the University of California in hand and the Bay Area from San Francisco to Concord, Santa Rosa to San Jose as my search area, I’d soon be raking in sufficient Benjamins to install a 6-71-blown 427 in my Chevy, right? Short answer, learned after several hundred increasingly grim job interviews: no. I really feel for today’s recent college grads, since I had it easy compared to what you poor 22-year-old, in-student-loan-debt-up-to-your-nodules bastids are facing… but still, with no income other than the occasional junkyard-wrenchin-fer-cash gig and death-to-soul office temping (more on that later) showing up for me, I felt the abyss (i.e. graduate school) looming ever closer. What to do? Hit the highway!

It was about this time that I became completely addicted to Peter Bagge’s brilliant Hate Comics, which seemed to capture the sense of diminished expectations and ironically-waiting-for-the-apocalypse mindset of my alleged generation a lot better than did Douglas Coupland with his much-hyped-by-mainstream-media novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (note: not that I have anything against Coupland; I’ve since become a serious fan of his work and recommend his novels without reservation). I suggest that you head over to Fantagraphics and buy everything published by Mr. Bagge immediately, pausing only to read his excellent editorial cartoons at Reason.

Just like the characters in Hate, my friends and I spent a lot of energy pretending that our educated poverty somehow made us cool, like we’d choose to live with 5 flatulent hipsters in a two-bedroom apartment in the Western Addition and drink Milwaukee’s Best-grade suds if we actually had, like, real jobs. My love of cars and junkyards bought me exactly zero coolness points in this crowd (some things never change), though my Impala was certainly well-suited to survival in the ghetto neighborhoods I found myself frequenting. While it did get broken into and searched for valuables every so often, and its complement of dents and dings appreciated rapidly, no meaningful damage was ever done to it during my travels about the bohemian Bay Area of the early 1990s.

It was a great real-world daily driver, but for one small detail: the brakes. Even after I’d replaced the shoes and adjusted everything with obsessive attention to detail, the Impala’s four-wheel drums were frighteningly inadequate for any speeds above about 20 MPH. Yes, yes, cranky old geezers, our forefathers did fine with drum brakes, but that’s because they didn’t know any goddamn better! I do know better, and after I came upon stalled traffic on the Nimitz Freeway and had my brakes fade to nothingness when attempting a looks-like-I-got-plenty-of-space stop from 60 (I nearly had to resort to scraping the guardrail to avoid hitting other cars), I decided to invest a few bucks in some junkyard upgrades. Full-sized Chevrolets from the 1965 through 1970 model years have full bolt-on interchangeability when it comes to front-suspension and brake parts, and the disc brake option became fairly common on the ’69 and ’70 models. In 1991, old Impalas and Caprices were just about as common in junkyards as are Tauruses today (as you can see from my extensive collection of early-70s Impala door emblems), so it was no problem to grab the master cylinder, lines, proportioning valve, rotors, calipers, spindles, and so on from a ’70 Caprice at Pick Your Part in Hayward. By waiting for Half Price Weekend (which used to take place every couple of months in those days), I scored all the parts for not much more than a C-note.

Once again, the inherent technological suckiness of the Allegedly Good Ol’ Days comes into play here; because I was documenting the project with 35mm film and not a digital camera, major milestones in the Impala Hell Project’s progress went undocumented. Such was the case with the brake upgrade, which was your usual weekend-long thrash and would have produced all manner of grainy, artsy-looking Plus-X black-and-white images… had I not spaced on shooting photos in the first place, or screwed up developing the film in the bathroom sink, or lost the negatives, or whatever the hell happened. In any case, the brakes from the ’70 big Chevy, which scaled in at 400-800 pounds more than the ’65 due to the inevitable process of Model Bloat, transformed my driving experience from terrified nostalgia to totally pleasant, just like that. One weekend of bolting on parts and my car stopped just as well as modern-day machinery. Hooray!

Naturally, a project of this magnitude never goes completely according to plan. While the complete everything-from-ball-joints-out assemblies from the ’70 bolted right into the ’65, the hub centers ended up being about 1-1/2″ lower relative to the suspension than they’d been with the drums. That jacked up the front of the car enough to reduce its mean-looking rake. I wasn’t about to hose my comfy ride by chopping the springs, so I decided to live with the change. At the same time, my 14″ wheels wouldn’t clear the disc brake calipers, so I had to grab some junkyard 15s immediately. Fortunately, I scored a set of Pontiac Rally wheels from El Pulpo at half off.

These wheels were once dirt-common at wrecking yards and they’ll bolt right onto a Chevy. To geeks who knew enough about old GM products to identify my wheels, I’d be committing a mild breach of some unwritten GM-fanatic code. To all my Generation X friends, however, I’d just upgraded my ride with the same wheels that came on Hot Wheels cars. Finally, a tiny vestige of hipster coolness for my car!

I was also lucky enough to score an HEI distributor at Pick Your Part around this time; this electronic distributor design was so many orders of magnitude superior to the original points ignition that came with my engine that it was like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when I stumbled upon a late-70s El Camino with this distributor on Half Price Weekend. Chevrolet HEIs would last about 17 minutes in a self-service junkyard before getting snatched in those days, and the going swap-meet rate was still something like a hundred bucks. Ever seen the sequence in Slacker in which the junkyard scroungers score an HEI and stuff it through a hole in the fence? Whatever that film’s numerous flaws may be, that part was dead-on accurate.

I also did some tweaking of the transmission kick-down linkage, since the linkage on my Quadrajet had been intended for a ’69 Eldorado and never quite worked right on my TH350. After much futzing with junkyard linkage bits from a wide assortment of GM machinery, I came up with this low-buck drill-some-holes-in-scrap-of-metal fix.

The 350 seemed to run a little hot in traffic with the clutchless stamped-steel fan and washtub-influenced fan shroud that The General probably spent $1.24 to manufacture back in 1964, so I obtained an electric “pusher” cooling fan from an early BMW 7 Series.

Some plumber’s tape, a few homemade brackets, and wiring to the Space Shuttle-style instrument panel and I could drop the coolant temperature 25 degrees with the touch of a finger. That BMW fan drew more amps than the rest of the accessories, headlights included, combined, but you can always count on German overengineering to more than get the job done.

You don’t really need a heater in coastal California, but it is nice to warm up on a gloomy 45-degree February day. After donating the air-conditioning hardware to my engine-swap assistant, the Impala had a gaping hole where the evaporator coil housing had once lived. Since air destined for the heater core had to pass through this housing, I wasn’t getting any heated air in the passenger compartment… until I tin-snipped and hammered a piece of sheet steel into this block-off plate. I’d been trying to find a non-AC-equipped car in the junkyard, so I could use the correct factory piece, but it appears that most California full-sized Chevy buyers preferred their cars with 150 pounds of Frigidaire gear in the engine compartment, even in the 1960s.

After a winter and spring of bouncing between the home of my long-suffering parents on the Island That Rust Forgot and various flaky living situations in Oakland and San Francisco, I decided that perhaps a trip back to the car’s home turf would be just the thing: time to get over to I-5 and head south.

I’d made a few bucks replacing the entire clutch hydraulic system on an acquaintance’s Mazda 626, after she’d poured transmission fluid in the clutch master cylinder and ruined all the seals throughout the system. Paying me to replace everything with Pick-N-Pull components was way cheaper than what the dealership wanted (which shocked nobody), but it put enough gas and food money in my pocket for a lengthy Los Angeles-Orange County-San Diego journey.

I’d been experiencing some culture shock in the San Francisco Bay Area, after five years in Southern California, so it felt comforting to be back beneath the white sky, inhaling deeply of the petroleum-enhanced air down south.

Nothing but an endless grid of freeways and mysterious adventures to be had. I’d been reading Mike Davis’s City of Quartz in obsessive detail, so it seemed that I was encountering revelatory experiences on all sides.

My first stop was in Santa Ana, where some friends rented a big decaying Art Deco house. My friends in Southern California were just as broke and underemployed as their counterparts up north, but rents were cheaper and the recession’s teeth less sharp behind the Orange Curtain. Santa Ana is the city in which Philip K. Dick was living at the time of his death, having fled there from Berkeley in order to live in the least freaky region of California that he could imagine. I felt like I had come to the right place when I saw this ’65 Impala coupe in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood was one of those formerly prosperous suburbs that had been drifting in a gentle downward spiral since about the end of World War II; decaying 1920s crypto-Mission-style houses with a few hints of splendor here and there, but gang graffiti and boarded-up windows also demanding attention. Southern California has many such neighborhoods. My car didn’t attract much attention.

I drove around, chowed down at the taquerias, and shot a lot of photographs. This was the summer of 1991; Ice-T’s O.G. Original Gangster and the Butthole Surfers’ Piouhgd had just come out, and I listened to both tapes non-stop on my all-junkyard, eight-speaker Impala stereo. I started hearing more and more about the upcoming Lollapalooza Festival, some sort of Jane’s Addiction farewell concert tour that would feature Ice-T, the Butthole Surfers, and a bunch of other bands I liked. I forget how, but a friend in San Diego scored a bunch of tickets for the San Francisco show…

…and it made perfect sense for the Orange County contingent to head 80 miles south to San Diego, pick up some folks there, and then cruise 500 miles north for the show. My Impala seemed like the perfect vehicle for such a slacker hegira.

Better still, my friend Jeff had a rich girlfriend, and her arms-trader dad was overseas making Stinger missile deals with Adnan Khashoggi. His brand-new Mercedes-Benz 560SEL was just sitting there, all lonely in the driveway of its guard-gated McMansion, and so it was decided that a caravan consisting of my hooptie and Papa Stinger’s Benz would make the trip north. Fortunately, I thought to load a point-and-shoot camera with Tri-X 400 and hand it to the W126’s occupants, in order to photograph my car in its highway glory.

By this time, I’d installed a nine-foot whip CB antenna on the trunk lid, which didn’t do much good when attempting to communicate with the hardwired car phone of the Mercedes but allowed me to hear garbled smokey reports from truckers on my 23-channel Sears CB.

The level of luxury was somewhat lower in my car, what with the lack of air conditioning in the triple-digit Central Valley heat coupled with the howl of the headers and cheap 275-width rear tires, but we compensated with enhanced American Road Trip authenticity.

Still, I must admit I felt a bit of envy for the occupants of that gleaming black German luxury machine. Would I have traded places? Hell no!

I knew that it wouldn’t be many years before The Man had me chained into a veal-fattening pen in his cubicle farm, and that I’d be remembering my aimless Impala road-tripping period fondly as I smelled the burned microwave popcorn of Office Despair and waited for Death’s comforting arms to release me from the nightmare of the American white-collar workplace (I’d figured out by that point that the idea I had of making a living as a performance artist wasn’t exactly going to pan out). So, with that cynical Generation X perspective in mind, I was determined to have as good a time as possible.

Feet out the window, Midnight on cassette, the Gulf War over with no apparent nuclear annihilation in sight, and a Benz and an Impala full of real-world-avoidin’ types on their way to some sort of Gen-X mecca.

Lollapalooza #1 went all right; while I was somewhat disappointed by the performance of the Butthole Surfers in a big venue, the Rollins Band and Nine Inch Nails were pretty decent live. Time to head back south!

A couple of world-roaming Brits I met at the concert decided they needed to ride to the Mexican border in my “authentic” American hot rod (I didn’t want to disappoint them by admitting my engine probably made barely 220 horsepower), and so they dropped a couple of C-notes in my glovebox to pay for the trip back down I-5. I crashed at a friend’s place in San Diego for a while. Then I fell into some sort of deal with an art gallery in a crack-saturated ghetto on the edge of Old Town San Diego, in which me and my scurvy artist friends would do a live performance “every hour on the half hour” in the gallery.

We were called “Nureochiba and the Lizards” and we were terrible. The less said about our shows the better, I think.

I recall needle-tracked arms snaking in between the gallery’s window bars, trying to steal our effects pedals, and thousands of empty tiny plastic bags and burned-out lighters in the alley behind the joint, and tackling some junkie who’d grabbed an amplifier and attempted to run out the door with it. Gunshots and screams in the neighborhood every night. Oh yes, the crack cocaine epidemic was in full fucking effect; clearly, the collapse of Western society that would follow the end of the Cold War was just beginning.

I was certainly driving the right car for the Mad Maxian world soon to be upon us; the Impala always started, managed a steady 17 MPG on the highway if I kept my foot out of it, and could be parallel-parked in a shockingly small space (its turning radius was much, much less than that of my old MGB-GT, which should tell you something about the depressing limitations under which British Leyland had to build its cars). Even the most desperate crackhead’s theft antennae indicated “move along, nothing to steal here” when encountering my parked car, and I could sleep in fairly low-compromise comfort in the back seat if it came to that.

Even on my extremely tight budget, I could afford a few luxury upgrades for my car. A can of white spray paint, a junkyard mercury tilt switch, and an old taillight socket and bulb gave me this handy automatic underhood light. Just the thing for late-night fan-belt adjustments and the like.

Around this time, Nirvana dropped their album “Nevermind” on the world, and— seemingly the same day— the Red Hot Chili Peppers released “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” I had done my best to avoid damn near all vestiges of popular culture up to that point, sort of a combination of snobbery and just being too damn lazy to keep up, but these two cultural artifacts swept all those principles aside and immediately became the endless soundtrack of our no-doubt-wasted lives. Give It Away and Smells Like Teen Spirit emitted from every amplified device in the world, sort of like Wolfman Jack coming from all the AM radios in American Graffiti, only without the optimism of 1961 Modesto and with the sense that life would always be getting worse from this day forward. Yeah, that was Generation X in a nutshell. I decided that maybe graduate school wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and that I could avoid both the uranium-factory Reeducation Center of all my dystopic-future tirades and the far-more-likely ennui-in-office-cubicle-land by getting a master’s degree and becoming a teacher of writing in some backwoods junior college. Plus, I still sort of had a girlfriend up north (actually, I was mistaken about that, but such are one’s 20s), so I figured I’d put the car back on I-5, crank Cobain’s voice on the cassette, and go back to the Bay Area. Next up: More primer, more junkyards, more art, more trips.
1965 Chevrolet Impala Hell Project Roundup

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37 Comments on “1965 Impala Hell Project Part 7: Disc Brakes In, Massive Slacker Couch-Surfing Expedition Enabled!...”

  • avatar

    DUDE… would have won major cool points with my ass for being up on all the junkyard info…Damn dude…you write really well in a way that sums Gen X brilliantly. I will be looking forward to the Murilee novel, and eventual movie.

  • avatar


    Greatly enjoyed the observations, etc.

    Mine from Concord, CA were of a Baby Boomer who would obtain a useless AS in Marketing in 1992 at Modesto’s MJC then a move to Nebraska in 1993 with a BS in Communications then Education then two teaching certificates; for Nebraska then Missouri.

    Best I could grab was part-time no benefits substitute teaching.

    Pigeon-holed by corporate USA for my decades of blue-collarness all attempts to advance failed.

    At least I re-entered the USA upon departing California.

    Anyway, compelling reading from one from a different era, sub-culture and socio-economic demographic.

    I immensely enjoy reading the car-related aspect of the essay along with other included topics!!!!!


  • avatar

    Thanks, man. And: more, please.

    California was a very strange place back in 90-91. I had forgotten. Older people (dads, mostly) were still making decent middle-class wages, but entry-level work was awful. I graduated in ’91, but washed dishes ’til 1995.

  • avatar

    The look on the Culligan man’s face is priceless.

  • avatar

    I’m highly impressed with your ability to properly Rube Goldberg the kickdown linkage. I tried that when I went from a 2-barrel to a Quadrajet on my ’73 Nova BITD; from what the guy in the transmission shop told me, I essentially lunched second gear from running with it adjusted wrong. No prob; it gave me an excuse to have the transmission rebuilt with a B&M shift kit. (More paper route money down the drain.) That in turn enabled my dinky 307 to rip 2nd gear with a healthy chirp at will, earning me some serious street cred with the grease monkeys in Auto Shop class…

    This installment of the saga is brilliant, BTW. Great read.

    • 0 avatar

      I am reminded of the piece I used to fabricate a clutch linkage for my old 1960 Chevy pickup. I sold the original hydraulic clutch setup along with the oil-burning stovebolt, so I had to come up with a linkage for the 283 engine and clutch out of a 57 1-ton that I installed. The stock piece was too short, and I fabricated a longer one using scrap steel and a drill press and end mill that I had access to at work. Yeah, gov’t time and gov’t materials. It worked.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    This Impala get’s more righteous with every instalment. Keep on truckin’, Man.

  • avatar

    That car is 100% motherbeautiful! Looking forward to more.

    Musical side note: I can’t envision the Butthole Surfers successfully playing anything other than a bombed-out basement (at least that’s where I always saw them in Texas). But it was mighty nice of Farrell to invite them.

  • avatar

    This is a great series. This installment has been the best yet!
    I graduated with a BS in ’96 and drove a 71 Chrysler Town and Country from 94 till 03(sub-frame rusted out). I put 80k on the T&C from 94 till 97. It was a great feeling driving around with a ton of student loans, no job prospects, no car payments, and not a care in the world! I made about 12 round trips from Michigan to Long Island in that time in it and it never let me down and returned a solid 15mpg on those trips. This series brings back a ton of memories from the 90’s and my T&C.

  • avatar

    1) This series is making me very very happy
    2) After 7 or 8 days I start jonesing for the next installment
    3) The link hopping in the articles leads to hours of entertainment
    4) Am now trying to download Slackers, torrent is slacking (are we surprised)
    5) Your prospective on the era is highly illuminating and entertaining

    Keep our Impala Hell project fixes coming! Will FedEx purloined car stereos to Denver if it speeds the process along.

  • avatar

    Some of the photography is really amazing. Weird, wild story about a very strange (to me) world. They fit together so nicely.

  • avatar

    Mr. Martin:

    As I read all these episodes, I still scratch my head in wonder, thinking “how in the world…?”.

    I went through a rough period in my life between 21-23 years old, but nothing like this! I managed to have some interesting adventures, but nothing like this! I sure had some fun, but nothing like this! (were you having fun?)

    The closest I come to the car adventures anymore is once a year when I spend a day with my friend in Missouri – whom I will see in three weeks, but nothing like you went through! Sheesh – I can’t see me ever living like you did, but sometimes I wish I did!

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    The hits just keep on comin’ . . . and gettin’ better.

    Don’t stop now; you’re on a roll! ;-)

  • avatar

    These are heating up.

    Generations X and Y aren’t so dissimilar, what with the adult cultural wasteland being our childhood stomping grounds. The cars are newer and the junkyards far less bountiful, but some of us did become just as scraggly despite the burden of our diplomas.

    Anyway, keep it up, this is great.

  • avatar

    This is beautiful:

    I knew that it wouldn’t be many years before The Man had me chained into a veal-fattening pen in his cubicle farm, and that I’d be remembering my aimless Impala road-tripping period fondly as I smelled the burned microwave popcorn of Office Despair and waited for Death’s comforting arms to release me from the nightmare of the American white-collar workplace.

    A feeling of despair that I think inflicts every man in his early 20’s; today as much as in the early 90’s.

  • avatar

    I still can’t believe I went to the same school and had (more or less) the same stomping grounds, yet the OC experience now (“now” ~= 10 years ago for me … damn) is so different.

  • avatar

    Spectacular. According to wikipedia, gen X and gen Y have a vague crossover period that includes the year of my birth, so this saga phases in and out of the personally relevant (Ice-T, yes; job-hunting in the early ’90s recession, no). Either way this tale paints a rich picture of the times. RIP El Pulpo.

  • avatar

    Love this series and its perspective on “Gen X” suffering. I guess I’m “Gen W” (Boomer) so it’s sometimes hard to understand that period. When I was that age most of us wanted to road trip on a motorcycle but few did. You needed to get your ass to college or grad school otherwise Uncle Sam would give you an all expenses paid vacation to Vietnam. OJT the hard way.

  • avatar

    Yeah, I know where of you mean but for me it wasn’t about school, though the jobs thing, oh yes but I also had NO clue as to what I was, nor what I wanted to be so was still living at home in the early ’90’s and would finally move out on my own successfully in 1996 to a cute studio apt on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill neighborhood after 2 false starts at living on my own.

    One of those false starts was living in Medford Or working PT at a podunk TV station there in town right after graduating from Seattle Central CC with an AAS degree in Video Communications. Job didn’t last and moved back home.

    At the time, I was driving a 1983 Honda Civic 1500DX hatch that got driven all over hell and back, including MUCH commuting between Tacoma and Seattle – and of course, the 2 trips to Medford, once for the interview, the other, the actual move down (was hired almost virtually sight unseen based on my credentials at Bates Technical College at their TV Broadcast Ops program and then the video production program at Seattle Central).

    I learned something while in Medford. It’s too damned small a town for my needs.

    Since then, I’ve found myself and do OK now though not rich, live successfully in an apt in Seattle’s Capitol Hill area now and drive an old Ford Ranger truck. However, while I do OK, the pay just covers my expenses with little extra these days and though it’s not an office cubical job. I have, wanted to work in an office job with regular hours, or so I thought back in 2001. Today, I’m seeking a creative type career instead.

    This series keeps getting better and your depictions of our generation are pretty spot on. Can’t wait for the next installment.

  • avatar

    Good one, Murilee.

  • avatar

    Love every write up, can’t wait for the next one. The the paragraph about the crack era lol

  • avatar

    Enjoyed this very much, but am curious: how did you avoid or survive CHP inspections? It’s hard to imagine them letting that vehicle pass.

    • 0 avatar

      CHP inspections? They haven’t done those since the early 1970s. California has smog inspections and that’s it.

      Anyway, all the safety equipment on the car worked fine. Lights, horn, etc.

      • 0 avatar

        CHP didn’t like the way I took the front bumper off my ’62 MG Midget and wired the front license plate in place with a coathanger, but that was in…let’s see…1971. Guess things have changed a bit since I got drafted and moved away.

  • avatar

    Ha! I was at that SF Lollapalooza in 91 also. I was in the navy stationed on Mare Island when a dude dropped by my room in the barracks and offered a ticket to the show for a ride down, so we drove from Vallejo to shoreline in my primered 70 standard beetle with the weird 4 spoke cragars. It was a great day – the kind that only happens by accident. Thanks for the memory jog.

  • avatar

    It would have been better to just slap on a factory 5 blade clutch fan, or even an aftermarket lightweight 7 blade flex fan, which could be bought for about 15 bucks in speed shops back then. Either way it would have taken a big load off the water pump, belt and alternator while increasing airflow at idle and low speeds.

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