1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 15: No Replacement For Displacement!

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

Before packing up the Impala and leaving Georgia in the fall of 1996, I took the car to Atlanta Dragway and ran some semi-disappointing low-17-second quarter-mile passes. Back in California, I resolved to make some improvements to the car’s running gear. After 15 years as a cheapskate, junkyard-centric gearhead, I was finally willing to spend substantial cash for new aftermarket performance parts. The main question was: what kind of engine would I build?

My plan upon returning to California was to find a place to live in San Francisco, but the first stirrings of the dot-com boom had sent rents in non-crackhouse neighborhoods to worse-than-Manhattan levels. So, I went to the other side of the Bay and rented a Victorian in my old hometown, the Island That Rust Forgot. Though I had left Atlanta, I remained a part-time employee of Year One, going to California car shows and photographing “correct” GM and Chrysler cars, then sending the film back to Year One HQ. That meant that I still enjoyed YO’s generous employee discount, which enabled me to keep my T-shirt collection 100% Rat Fink. This was a photo I shot for a passport application, by the way.

I’d also taken full advantage of S-K’s vendor status at YO to replace my crappy Taiwanese tools with the real stuff. When I decided on what I’d be building for the Impala’s new engine, I’d be using the same discount to score parts for the project.

I toyed with the idea of building a Cadillac 500, an engine that doesn’t weigh much more than the small-block Chevy yet grunts out battleship-grade torque, but the connecting rods can be weak in performance applications, plus aftermarket parts were way too pricey for me. After endless calls to my friends at Year One HQ in Georgia (thanks to their toll-free work number) and debating the pros and cons with them, I decided to stick with the small-block Chevrolet engine family for my project.

The decision to go with an improved small-block Chevy still left me with an absurd number of options. Build a small-displacement engine with good-flowing heads and spin the hell out of it? Get a stroker crank and build a 383? In the end, I decided to go for torque. I found a dirt-track racer near Sacramento with a fully-machined, 0.030″ over, four-bolt-main 400 block and crankshaft, and that served as the starting point for my project. I decided I’d try to keep the whole thing under $2,000 total expenditure, which meant I’d be using factory cylinder heads and stock connecting rods. I wanted it to run on pump gas, so I needed to keep the compression ratio below 10:1. The heads would determine what pistons I’d get, so I started hitting the swap meets (though Craigslist was in full effect by 1996, car guys hadn’t really discovered it yet; to buy used car parts, you had to seek them out the old-fashioned way).

In early 1997, I got a job as a technical writer for transit-bus manufacturer Gillig Corporation, in Hayward. Gillig has been building excellent buses since about the time the New Testament was written, and the assembly line was manned by legions of tough old wrenches who’d been putting together Phantoms and their predecessors for decades. My job was to write all the shop manuals and driver’s handbooks for each custom-ordered series of buses. They were just getting geared up to start producing the Low Floor when I showed up, so things were quite hectic in the office.

Even though I spent a lot of time climbing around half-finished buses in the factory, the job of actually producing the manuals took place in a veal-fattening pen in the Parts Department building. I’d gotten into pinhole photography at the time, and I think this image captures the fluorescent-lit/smell-of-burned-microwave-popcorn essence of cubicle life.

In spite of a certain amount of Cubicle Ennui (exacerbated by the fact that I was forced to do my job on an elderly System 7-equipped Centris 650 running PageMangler), I enjoyed my new writing gig. Moving up from copywriter to tech writer was a positive step, and the infinitely customizable Phantoms and Low Floors meant that every customer— whether it was Seattle ordering 2,000 units or Tyler, Texas ordering four— got a set of manuals custom-written for their bus order. I geeked out on creating a modular system to speed up the process of manual creation… but thoughts of the Impala’s Big Engine sometimes preoccupied me on the job.

My coworkers were very nice, but most of them were on the normal side and I’m sure they thought I was a little odd, what with my tirades about Enver Hoxha and my hideous hooptie of a daily driver out in the parking lot. Fortunately, the guy in charge of the Gillig parts-sales team was a fellow car freak. Not just any normal car freak, mind you; this guy has several orders of magnitude more car knowledge and fabrication skill than I’ll ever possess. Yes, LeMons fans, this is where I met future Black Metal/Death Cab V8olvo and Model T GT mastermind Dave Schaible.

Dave was the only guy whose commuter vehicle gave my car a run for its money in the property-value-lowering department, and his sense of humor helped relieve some of our workplace’s Cubicle Ennui. His Cadillac 331-powered ’27 Model T was a rat rod before anyone had heard the term (sadly, this car— including the ’49 Cad engine— got destroyed in a wreck a few months back). With Dave giving me engine-build advice, I set my sights on a certain type of swap-meet cylinder head.

And, soon enough, I found them! A pair of the “Camel Hump” aka “461” aka “fuelie” heads from high-performance Chevrolet 327s built during the 1964-66 period. Corvettes got them, Nova 327 SSs got them, they were seriously cool, but their value had dropped a lot by the late 1990s, thanks to all the superior aftermarket small-block heads that had become available. These were the less desirable heads with the small (1.94″ versus 2.02″) intake valves, but Dave assured me that they’d work just fine on a low-revving 406. $150 and they were mine. Dave recommended nearby Al Hubbard Machine Shop as the correct old-school shop to rebuild and drill my heads for the required 400-block steam holes (Al Hubbard was Vic‘s brother, for you Bay Area racing-history buffs), and I paid $465.04 to get the job done. That included new valves, springs, hardened exhaust valve seats, and a three-angle valve job.

About this time, I picked up an ’85 Honda CRX to use as a gas-saving daily driver while reworking the Impala into its next incarnation. It was cheap because the engine was bad, but that’s no big deal.

Not when Pick Your Part Hayward is having Half Price Day on New Year’s Day 1998 and you have a big Detroit car with vast trunk space. Complete D15A2 engine, air cleaner to oil pan, for about 100 bucks.

Of course, that engine had a bad head gasket, but an afternoon’s work fixed that. Now I could yank parts off the Impala and not worry about being able to get to work the next day; it was sad to end its 8-year-reign as my semi-daily-driver (I owned many other cars for brief periods during this time, but the Impala got 95% of the miles). Doubling the horsepower would make me feel better, though.

The CRX proved to be a pretty good parts hauler itself, as I found when I couldn’t resist grabbing this 200R4 transmission on another Half Price Day sale at the junkyard (it didn’t take me long to figure out that The Big Engine would vaporize a stock 200R4 in seconds, and I ended up selling it to some guy with a Camaro).

I had the block, crankshaft, and heads, which meant I could go ahead and order an employee-discount $325.91 Engine Master Kit (including L2352F forged TRW pistons and Speed-Pro moly rings, giving me 9.9:1 compression) from my friends at Year One, for whom I was still shooting car shows on weekends. I also ordered a Competition Cams 280H Magnum from Summit for $82.95. Other parts followed those (I’ll provide a complete parts breakdown with pricing later in this episode). But I still needed to get connecting rods, flexplate, harmonic balancer, and a bunch of nickel/dime small parts. The easiest way to do that? Back to Pick Your Part for a Half Price Day 400 long block! Back in 1998, you could still find a few 400s in every California self-service wrecking yard (those days are long gone), and so I had a choice between a couple of GMC pickups and this 1975 Caprice wagon. They were all two-bolt-main engines, so I went for the vehicle with the lowest mileage on the odometer.

My friend and future brother-in-law Jim, who’d accompanied me on my scouting-out-Atlanta mission a couple years before, volunteered to don his “Steal Your Face” SF Giants shirt and help with the project.

Pulling an engine from an old-time GM wagon is pretty simple, but it’s still a sweaty, filthy task.

I got under the car and disconnected the torque converter bolts, admiring the Olds sedan next door as I did so. Chevrolet small-blocks tended to leak oil like crazy, and this Caprice was no exception; the wagon’s underside had a thick coat of road-dirt-fortified oil crust all over everything.

This sort of thing goes a lot quicker nowadays, with the advent of battery-powered impact wrenches, but having four hands makes the job take less than an hour. Since I only wanted to pay for a short block, I had to remove the intake and cylinder heads before bringing the engine to the cashier’s counter. More bolts to turn!

Voila! One V8 short block, $60 out the door.

It should go without saying that a 400 short-block fits just fine in a ’65 Impala’s trunk.

We’re outta here! Note the classy red satin sunvisor covering.

The easiest way to get at the rods turned out to be disassembly with the whole mess still in the trunk. I had no problem finding a buyer willing to pay a C-note for the crankshaft and 2-bolt block, which enabled me to turn a profit on the short-block-purchase transaction. From there, the rods went to Al Hubbard for rebuilding, which set me back $79. The newly rebuilt rods and my nice new forged pistons went off to EMOS Machine Shop in Alameda, a few blocks from my house, to get the rods pressed onto the pistons. Price tag for that: 40 bucks.

The car was getting closer to getting its new powerplant, so I drove it the two miles to the home of my long-suffering parents. My rented house across town didn’t have a garage, so I managed to talk the long-suffering parents (or LSPs for short) into allowing me to build my engine in the two-story former 1870s stable in their back yard (this in spite of the LSPs having endured every manner of wretched, hooptie-ass, property-value-obliterating heap on their property during my teenage years).

The stable made for a great engine-building facility, except for the indifferently-repaired-with-cheap-plywood-in-1960 creaky 120-year-old floor, which threatened to collapse under the weight of heavy engine parts.

The last thing you want with the short connecting rods and funky balancer on a 400 (actually, a 406 in this case, due to the .030″ over bore job) is for the rotating assembly to get out of balance at speed, so I brought the crankshaft, rods, pistons, flexplate, and harmonic balancer to Ashland Grinding & Balancing in Hayward and gave them $100 to do a top-notch balancing job on the works.

I was still experimenting with my pinhole camera around this time, so the gallery for this episode is full of artsy pinhole shots. Here’s a shot of the rods in a box.

And the old valves and springs in another box.

I degreed the camshaft, hand-filed the piston rings for the obsessively correct ring gap, checked all the bearing clearances with Plastigage, and did all the geeky stuff that supposedly makes the engine fail to blow up when you beat the hell out of it at the dragstrip. The rods went in with a set of ARP bolts. The classic guide, How To Rebuild Your Small Block Chevy, became my Bible during this period.

The car was still drivable at this point, but I was getting closer to pulling the cheap rebuilt 350 I’d installed in 1990; with close to 100,000 miles since that swap, the 350 was getting very tired. Check out the Ford Escort buckets, plywood “center console,” and beige household shag carpeting in that luxurious interior!

I used Summit hydraulic lifters and a set of Crane roller-tip rocker arms ($32.95 and $109.50, respectively). Since I planned to use a Quadrajet carburetor (plucked from a 500-equipped ’70 Eldorado), I got the Quadrajet-compatible Edelbrock Performer RPM intake manifold for $149.69 at Summit (I think the intake in this photo may be an SP2P I had lying around; the Performer RPM went on during final assembly).

During the engine build, I listened to just two cassettes— which happened to be in the Impala’s glovebox when I dropped off the first batch of parts at the LSPs’ stable— on the garage boombox, over and over. One was Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and the other was the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Not really my favorite albums at the time (or now), but they became the strangely appropriate theme music for 406 Building Hell.

For those of you who want to see a real-world parts-price breakdown for a project that took place 13 years ago (according to the CPI Inflation Calculator, $100 in 1998 is worth $135.98 now, though many of the parts in my build are cheaper today), here ya go; click on the gallery image (below) for an easier-to-read version. Total cost was $2,105.81, minus what I made from selling off duplicated parts and the old 350 (we’ll get to that in a later episode).

Eventually, the 406 was assembled and ready to swap. I immobilized the Impala by preparing for the swap. Next up: Engine swap!

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14 • Part 15 • Part 16
























Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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  • CKNSLS Sierra SLT Let me get this straight-It's OK for GM to make cars in China and ship them here-under a Buick name. But for the Chinese to directly do it is not OK.If the Big 3 had not a deserted sedans/low end of the market they wouldn't have anything to worry about.Yea...makes perfect sense.
  • Analoggrotto This must look great in your Tellurides
  • Dukeisduke Meanwhile in the EU, they're inviting Chinese manufacturers to build assembly plants there, especially in Italy. FIAT cut back production in Italy from one million vehicles a year, to 750,000, so the Italian government wants the Chinese plants for the jobs they'll create. They've contacted BYD about building a plant, but so far, BYD has only committed to building a plant in Hungary. A second plant in the EU will depend on demand for vehicles.
  • Dukeisduke Huh, that photo looks like a coupe.I wonder how many of the of the original Tesla Roadsters are still on the road? I haven't seen one in years.
  • Dukeisduke L. S. Swap. Do it.
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