By on November 3, 2011

After dropping the hopped-up 406 small-block I’d built from scratch in place of the worn-out 350 I’d swapped in 1990, I was geared up to take the car to the dragstrip and see if I could better the high-16-second ETs I’d managed in Atlanta; an important part of this process involved stripping a lot of unnecessary weight out of the car. At the same time (early 1999) I was reevaluating the Impala Hell Project’s role in my life, and thinking about how I might best realize my original vision for the car which had gone from art project to daily driver.
I decided the Pontiac Rally wheels, which I’d installed in order to clear the disc brakes I’d installed in 1992, weren’t really in keeping with the car’s hooptie/official vehicle/street-racer American car-archetype trinity, so I gave them to a neighbor who was restoring his ’72 Firebird. In their place, I got some 15×8 factory steel wheels from a junked Caprice cop car and added mid-70s Chevy van dog-dish hubcaps. I painted the dog-dishes flat black with primer-gray centers, and they looked mean.
The rear wheelwells had no problem fitting 275s, so that’s what I got.
Around this time, I was getting a little bored with my lifer job writing manuals for transit buses. It wasn’t long before I solved the job-boredom problem by crossing the Bay over to Multimedia Gulch, diving right into the frenzied maelstrom of the Dot-Com Boom (more on that in the next episode), but what I really wanted to do was write some sort of article about the Impala Hell Project and sell it to a magazine. Art magazine, car magazine, I wasn’t quite sure which, but somebody would be interested in the story, I felt. That meant that I needed some photographs showing the car in each of its three archetypal guises.
So, for the “drive-by-shooting hooptie” part, I shanghaied my sister and her boyfriend into donning ski masks and brandishing a deuce-deuce pistol for my photo session.
What I really needed was some assistants that looked like the cast from Boyz N The Hood and a bunch of TEC-9s to wave out the windows, but you work with what you’ve got.
Hmmm… not really what I had in mind. Putting the Three Archetypes photo-shoot project on hold, I decided that the car would need to lose a few hundred pounds for its new engine’s dragstrip debut.
First to go was the heavy steel heater/blower unit. Since I was no longer depending on the Impala as a daily driver by this time, luxuries such as climate control seemed frivolous.
Likewise, who needs carpeting or a glovebox?
The truck tiedowns I’d installed for my move to Atlanta back in ’95 didn’t weigh much, but every ounce counts. The bike rack on the trunk lid also had to go.
The galvanized-plumbing-pipe-based trunklid bike rack ended up getting repurposed as the carrying handle of the 91-pound Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox eight years later.
Interior trim, door panels, inner fenders, speakers, climate-control parts, and so on. If the car didn’t need it to run, stay legal, or keep the rain out, I removed it. I sold the very nice rear seat for a C-note to a guy restoring his ’66 Impala, making my car a sporty two-seater.
This experience served me well 9 years later, when I helped gut a Volvo 244 for race duty.
With a completely uninsulated interior, a high-compression engine with lumpy cam, and two-chamber Flowmasters, the interior of the car became markedly less luxurious. I never did weigh the car (the dragstrip scale was on the fritz), but I’m guessing I cut 300 pounds from the original 3,595-pound curb weight. That’s pretty close to second-gen Camaro weight, and about the same as a late-60 V8 Chevelle (or ’12 Camry).
As I went to job interviews at excessively exuberant San Francisco dot-coms (coming close to joining Mike Bumbeck at the gradual-downward-spiral-doomed Ask Jeeves), I thought about all the thousands of hours I’d put into goofy car projects. Thousands of hours I might have put into other creative projects, writing in particular; were those hours justified, long-term? I’d need to do something with the Impala story, use it to get myself some paid writing work that wasn’t instructions for bus mechanics or junk-mail copy.
It was still bugging the shit out of me that Bay Area hipsters and artist types— the majority of my friends since I’d been in my early 20s— still thought that an “art car” was supposed to be a sneer at the very concept of the automobile, reclaiming the car for the forces of peace and love rather than incorporating the canvas itself into the painting; these folks were drawn to the Burning Man milieu. The flip side of this attitude, found among my artistic-minded friends who’d drifted into the Yunnie (Young Urban Nihilist) embrace of Survival Research Laboratories and the like, involved flooring the irony gas pedal and driving apocalyptic creations straight into a really cool self-immolation. I needed to wrap up the concept of my not-particularly-ambitious art car project and package it in a way that would make the piece accessible to non-car-geek readers and, ideally, get my foot in the door of a more satisfying writing gig. For that, I’d need a complete set of high-quality photographs of the car in its final, drag-race-ready guise, so I loaded up the AE-1 with some high-buck Fujichrome Velvia and took the Impala to a parking lot with a neutral background.
The 360° circle-the-car set of photographs I shot that day in June of 1999 became the template for my photographs of street-parked cars in Alameda nearly 10 years later.
The layers of vendor-sample primer paint applied during my Mad Max In Georgia era had faded to exactly the texture and color blend I’d had in mind when I started the Impala Hell Project.
In the nine years since I’d bought the car, it had never been washed, nor had it ever spent a night in a garage. If greasy handprints, blobs of Form-A-Gasket, spilled Schlitz, or seagull poop happened to get on the car, I painted over it. Like the coating that builds up on a good cast-iron frying pan, the patina on my Impala had taken nearly a decade to achieve. Rat-rodders, take note: it takes dedication to apply the years of neglect and abuse needed to get this look.
Because I still wanted to lock tools and a jack in the trunk, I left the cross-country-move-security padlock hasp installed. The extra ounces might slow the car down 0.00004 seconds in the quarter-mile, but I was willing to make that sacrifice to keep my toolbox in my possession. Note the Stanford sticker in the back window; a friend in grad school there applied it on my car in order to, in her words, “Lower the property values of the place and make my tuition cheaper.”
In spite of the many layers of black paint on the bumper, you can still make out the Negativland “No Other Possibility” bumper sticker I applied soon after buying the car in 1990.
Even though the process ate up expensive film, I bracketed the hell out of these shots; you’re only seeing about a quarter of them in the gallery. I wanted the art directors at Car Craft, or maybe RE/SEARCH, to have their choice of images. Look, the three-year-old window numbers from the car’s last Georgia dragstrip trip are still visible!
I had to remove one of the Fiat X1/9 hood scoops I’d installed in 1993 in order to clear my dryer-duct-hose cold-air-induction system.
My plan was to saw off the underhood portion of that scoop to make it clear the ducts.
But at this point, the monoscoop look worked fine.
They say California cars don’t rust, but give a GM car a sufficient number of California rainy winters and eventually the water that gets past the leaky rear-window seal and pools in the trunk will make this happen. Air-cooled VWs have the same problem, only the water leaks past every seal and the process happens three times as quickly.
OK, enough of this artsy gibberish. Let’s go racing! The 406 was making frightening amounts of power; after putting 1,500 low-stress break-in miles on it during months of work commuting, I was finally able to really get on the gas. It became clear that traction was going to be the limiting factor at the dragstrip, with the 3.31-geared open differential sending all the power to the tire with the least traction. The Powerglide-optimized gear ratio was acceptable, and the good ol’ GM 12-bolt could handle the power without breaking, but I was getting absurd amounts of wheelspin under acceleration. It was so bad that the car would spin the right tire forever when shifting into second gear, unless I backed off the throttle. Sometimes it would get rubber going into third, which didn’t bode well for my dragstrip ETs. I’d thought that I could keep the project below two grand by omitting a limited-slip or locker differential (I’d had this crazy idea that the car’s weight coupled with fat tires and a rear swaybar would keep the wheelspin under control), but it looked like I’d be investing another few hundred bucks in the near future.
I’d heard that the dragstrip tech inspectors at Sears Point were real ball-busters, so I decided to make Sacramento Raceway Park the site of the new engine’s drag racing debut. Since the Sacto dragstrip was just under 100 miles from my Alameda home, I got a AAA roadside-service policy that covered four 100-mile tows per year; I figured I might need a tow home if I blew the fragile TH350 transmission at the strip (I’d already fried one $45 Half-Price-Day junkyard-special transmission doing parking-lot burnouts).
The Test-N-Tune crowd didn’t pay much attention to the Impala, except for a few approving nods at its evil-sounding cammy idle. Time to line up!
I’d learned from my freeway-onramp adventures with the new engine that I’d need an extremely delicate touch on the throttle to avoid a humiliating sit-&-spin one-legger non-launch my first time out. I contemplated strategies as I waited my turn.
Perhaps a super-gnarly burnout will help make that all-important right tire gooey enough to grab some pavement when the light goes green!
Well, probably not. But it’s still fun.
My plan was to baby the car off the line, then mash the pedal once it got rolling.
Here we go! The driver of the Fox Mustang next to me must have been slow on the draw, because the Impala jumped ahead even at quarter-throttle. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any grip whatsoever off the line— it felt like I was driving on ice— and the first-to-second shift was a tirespin disaster.
Still, it felt great hearing that glorious engine roar. The result: 15.479 seconds. That was a full second-and-a-half better than my best ET with the old engine, but the lack of traction was costing me plenty.
After nearly a dozen passes, I finally cracked the 14-second barrier… barely.
Back home, I decided to toss the two-grand budget out the window and fix the differential problem before returning to the quarter-mile. I’d also try to sell the Impala’s story. Next up: My first website, return to the dragstrip.

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16 • Part 17 • Part 18

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29 Comments on “1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 17: Crash Diet, Frying Tires at the Dragstrip...”

  • avatar

    What an unbelievably sketchy looking hooptie– I love it. I’m really enjoying this series, by the way… But how can it possibly end well? I await a sad ending.

    • 0 avatar

      I think it wound up being wrecked, perhaps deliberately.

      Love the Stanford sticker, BTW–perfect touch.

    • 0 avatar

      All car stories must have a sad ending, there’s no other way it can end. From what I’ve seen, there’s plenty of material for a copiously-illustrated art car book that would look good on any coffee table. Just don’t expect Disney to bid for the movie rights. Oh wait! They did several Herbie movies, and this could be the new “edgy” version.

  • avatar

    You have to admire a chronicler who saves cash-register-style flimsies from the dragstrip runs of 12 years ago. Not sure what the target market for the book this yarn should become will be, but I’m in it!

  • avatar

    It’s beautiful, the Impala, after an unwashed 9 years. I’m going to need to go back over this. I hadn’t read the first installment, and I got stuck on “Our Friend the Carburetor.” Shades of Zippy the Pinhead, Dingburg, and “the funniness of the unfunniness of radial tires.” Maybe Bill Griffith cribbed that from you.

    You’re inspiring me. Maybe I’ll put the cruiserline ventaports back on the Accord.

    Since I didn’t read the early installments, I do’nt know what your prof ever did in terms of grade, etc., but I think you deserve at least a Masters in art for what you did, since, in these installments, you’ve written your thesis.

  • avatar

    2.7 second sixty foot time? Jeesh, you could have PUSHED it out of the hole faster.

    Love the series. Brings back Memories of driving my $500 1975 Coupe DeVille coast to coast after graduating in the late 90s. My Dad insisted that I take the title with me and to simply leave it under the windshield wiper if the car ever broke down on the side of the road (which it did, many times).

    Keep up with the good stories please.

  • avatar

    I thought I had probably established a record of some sort for keeping a car without bathing it. I take my hat off to you. The prior strips numbers still on the car make me know that you are the king.

  • avatar

    This car belongs in the Smithsonian!!! Or, well, there must be some literary museum.

  • avatar

    Cool, Murilee!

    My ’66 two-door Biscayne is still sitting in a friend’s backyard awaiting its transformation froma botched lowrider project to a street / strip beast. At least now I know that 275s will fit back there!

    I plan on putting the car on a diet while retaining its street civility, thanks to generous applications of fiberglass and lexan in the body and aluminum in the engine.

    Speaking of engines. The late model 350 / Powerglide combo is out, and a 454 / Turbo 400 is going in.

  • avatar

    Having spent my HS years working on my first car, a ’68 Chrysler Newport, I know how it feels to work on a car for hours at a time, even if to fix things that are broken on an old car. :-) This was in the early 80’s mind you so the car was about 14 years old at that point.

    I love how your Impala was to be a short term car project, but ends up being a near decade long daily driver, which says something about our circumstances in life and how some things just end up working out much better than previously anticipated.

    I have a similar situation with my current ride, I bought a nice running 92 Ford Ranger and had intended to keep it about 2 years or so and then replace it with something much newer. Today, I’ve had it over 5.5 years and if I still have it in February of next year, it’ll be 6 years of faithful ownership, outside of the master and slave clutch cylinders needing replacement at 2 different times (once each) and a new thermostat and that’s been the big things with this old beast and have, so far accrued roughly 46K miles in that time to the tune of 235,700+ miles and it still runs great for its age.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    You know what would have helped with that traction a little bit? Stripping some of those parts off the front end and putting them in the trunk for traction. ;)

  • avatar

    It’s sad that you dropped the Richard Nixon hood ornament. I thought it was a good touch. Surely it didn’t weigh that much ?

  • avatar

    I am wondering at the MPG found during those 1500 easy peasy break-in miles. If I remember you were getting decent mileage on the 99/I-5 corridors to SoCal.

  • avatar

    Those are interesting trap speeds for the ET. Should be about 8-10mph higher. And .321 reaction suggests you were getting gun shy on wheelspin or else it was late in the day and you were waiting for someone to say “you can go now”.
    Big chevy’s of that era could be made to run but traction was always the biggest issue. With those numbers I’m betting you had barely hooked by the 660 clock. There used to a ’66 that ran in the pacific northwest back in the early 80’s. He started with a 427/auto and got into the low 12s. When the homebrew “L-88” cratered he went with a very wild 327/4 speed and actually got a little quicker eventually, mostly due to a better launch.
    I’m predicting you got into the high 13s if you got lower gears and sorted out the traction issues. Drag racing is addictive. I’ve been “clean” for 20 years, but this story takes me back to my early days. Looking forward to the next session.

    • 0 avatar

      The thing had so much tirespin that I was launching about as hard as a six-cylinder Granada towing an Airstream, and if I gave it more than about half throttle anywhere in first gear it would lose the right tire again. Just goes to show that you should listen to the old guys when they warn you that you can’t put that much power in front of a one-legger.

  • avatar

    Like TOM said there’s a lot left in the car based on your 60′ times. If you got those down I’d say you could run a 13.7, maybe better if you got sticky tires.

  • avatar

    Still not bad at all for having no grip! Can’t wait for the next part and see what you can put out with some grip.

  • avatar

    That car is one bad mutha, I bet prii pee themselves in their dreams over this thing.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Murilee, check out this almost-twin to your car:

    (Matter of fact, I suspect you’ll like a lot of the cars in this gallery!)

    • 0 avatar

      Whoa, that thing is beautiful!

      Strangely, of all the 60s Detroit cars I’ve owned, the Impala isn’t the one that most makes me want to buy a replacement now. I had a series of late-60s fastback midsize Fords (Torinos and a Cyclone) in my late teens/early 20s, and I still find myself hunting for a clean ’68 or ’69 Cyclone. Beautiful car. I’d put a 428/4-speed in it.

      • 0 avatar

        My parents had a orange Cyclone like yours. I would like to just drive one once, I’d be happy with that. 390 4V C6 driveline is good enough.

        I liked it better than the Torino style wise.

  • avatar

    Coincidentally, I was just looking into electric cars and found out that the Nissan Leaf weighs 3354 pounds. That’s barely less than your big hoopty once you stripped it. Are they making cars out of lead these days?

    • 0 avatar

      Because automotive journalists gripe about the slightest bit of road noise, all cars sold in America must now have hundreds of pounds of sound-deadening material. Then there’s the normal process of model bloat (compare, say, the ’12 Fit with the ’77 Accord). Then there’s all the stuff that was considered a luxury option then but it de facto standard now (e.g. power windows, AC), and safety gear adds even more weight.

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