By on November 18, 2011

After getting the car to run 13s in the quarter-mile with the new engine, I found myself— at age 33— in a sort of “what am I doing with my life?” period of agonizing reappraisal. Ten years of the Impala Hell Project absorbing most of my creative horsepower, and what had I really accomplished with all that work?
By this point (late 1999) I’d blundered into a fairly successful career as a technical writer and (thanks to the dot-com boom) was raking in good money— such a contrast to my starving, couch-surfing lifestyle of the early 1990s. In my mid-20s, the idea was that I’d work whatever jobs I could and write novels as my “real” work. However, even with a thousand pages of notes and outlines, I couldn’t get the fiction projects really rolling… and then the Impala project was always there, hungry for my time and more fun to mess with than a keyboard. Meanwhile, my wife— who had been a teenage runaway and high school dropout— had started law school at a high-powered East Bay joint after 20+ years of of up-by-boostraps struggle, which intensified my sense that I’d made the easy choice too many times.
Also bugging me was the vague feeling that my love of wrenching on hooptie-ass cars had derailed me from what could have been a very interesting right-place-at-the-right-time career in the software business; at age 15 I’d picked up a Sinclair ZX81, learned BASIC in one all-nighter, and wrote a series of dumb games (the only title I remember is “Tinhorn Dilemma,” a very slow side-scrolling bombs-dropping-on-blocky-animals game). By 16, I’d arm-twisted my parents into buying an Apple II Plus (which took real persistence during the early 1980s recession) and took to spending 48-straight-hour stretches writing code— Applesoft BASIC at first, then right into the hexadecimal world of 6502 processor machine language. I had no friends who were into this stuff, and 1982 was about a half-decade before you had any kind of computer classes in high school; everything I learned came from weird Xeroxed manuals I picked up at weird electronics stores in Berkeley. My big obsession during those days was to write a program that would generate rhyming poetry in a pure gibberish language of assembled syllables (I’d like to claim that I was inspired by the Talking Heads’ I Zimbra, but I didn’t discover that song until a couple years later), the sort of thing that was hard as hell if you’d never heard of a database and required all your code to fit on a single 5-¼” floppy disc.
I was on the same path that led a lot of Bay Area kids to later wealth and 200-proof creativity… but then I started messing around with cars. First, a 1969 Toyota Corona I got for 50 bucks. The amount of stuff to mess with you got with a car was incredible— take it apart, find junkyard parts, mess around with big satisfying slabs of metal and bundles of wires. It was the same sort of feeling I got from solving a code problem, but even more fascinating.
And cars were cheap! It wasn’t long before I had a truly wretched (but fast and Hurst Dual-Gate-equipped) ’67 GTO and the car that really got me hooked: an incredibly dangerous ’58 Beetle. I spent less and less time in front of the computer and more and more time spinning wrenches, hanging out with scurrilous car buddies, and lurking at various low-life Oakland junkyards. By the time I got to college, I retained enough code-writing ability to master FORTRAN with zero sweat for my engineering classes, but by then I’d made my choice at the fork in the road that led to Code Geekdom on one side and Car Freakdom on the other.
So, back to 1999: I’d put so much work and love into the Impala Hell Project that I felt an increasing sense of obligation to tell its story in some artistically fulfilling and— ideally— writing-career-enhancing manner. For that, I would need a full set of high-quality photographs of the car, shot in an ironic-yet-picturesque setting on Fujichrome Velvia.
So, I dragooned a friend with some decent photography skills, handed him my AE-1, and headed over to the recently-closed Alameda Naval Air Station.
Some of you may recognize this setting from my Fiat 500 Sport review in April. These days, the Area Formerly Known As Alameda Naval Air Station (AFKAANAS) is all full of businesses (including an outfit that makes damn good booze) and fairly well populated, but right after the Navy left it was a ghost town. Perfect for burnout photos!
And so that’s what I did. In fact, the western edge of the AFKAANAS was still technically on the San Francisco County side of the county borderline that crossed San Francisco Bay (said borderline being irrelevant during the period in which the landfilled-in-1940 base was federal property), which meant that the Alameda coppers couldn’t do squat about some primered-out beast’s Exhibition of Speed violations; they’d have to call the San Francisco cops, who would have to drive across the Bay Bridge and down the Nimitz Freeway, a 15-minute drive even with no traffic.
After a bunch of burnouts, I killed yet another junkyard TH350 transmission— the fourth or fifth since I’d built the new engine. the car still drove, but the tranny slipped like a sumbitch. I headed over to the hangers for some more still shots.
Man, I loved this car. What was I going to do with it? Next up: The End.

IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18 • Part 19 • Part 20

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42 Comments on “1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 19: The Road Not Taken, Final Photo Session...”

  • avatar

    I am totally hooked on your cliffhanger ending. I’m going through a similar bit of self-examination, since I’ve been meaning to progress my life and career for a few years, but instead have built a race car.

    Great entry, just like all the others in the series.

  • avatar

    Next up: The End?!
    I don’t want this to end… and I’m admittedly a bit worried for the car as we near the end of this tale.

  • avatar

    A life gone down the wrong fork of the technological path: wrench-twisting vs code-writing. A very ironic work of art all by itself.

    Sure do enjoy this series, and will be sorry to see it end.

  • avatar

    Ha, this kills me. I taught myself BASIC on a ZX81 too, and it led to further programming malfeasance and a tour through engineering school. I even ended up a technical writer for many years. But debugging held more sway than wrenches for me, and here I am still in the software industry at age 44. I’ll have to be satisfied to live vicariously through your automotive tales.

  • avatar

    You know, this is a car I would have given up on before I ever started! Simply due to the fact that it was not a hardtop – the sedans of this era weren’t designed to be sedans – the posts and frames all were an afterthought. Plus, how in the world could you put up with being seen in this car? Not my cup of tea, that’s for sure, but still a fascinating account of a lot of – what you seem to be indicating – as years of wasted and/or lost time. If not, my apologies!

  • avatar

    I sense the car is buried nose first in the desert somewhere as a symbol. We will see.

  • avatar

    I saw that the next installment in the series was posted at the top of TTAC and went there first!

    Maybe I enjoy this so much as I grew up same era, same age. First computer was an appleIIc and did games, etc. Wrenched on cars, dirt bikes, snowmobiles in HS and college. Ended up doing SW on cars, Indy Cars, and now Hybrids… it’s been a great ride.

  • avatar

    I, too dread the ending. And Murilee has gone from ‘that crazy dude in the pics of LeMons’ to being my favorite writer since the great Gordon Baxter wrote in C + D and Flying magazines. It also reminds me that the ’65 chevy is one of my favorite cars, and I have never owned one, in the 100+ cars i have owned. (Mostly junkers and hideous but lovable beasts.)

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan


    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    The king (1965 Impala) must eventually pass on. But I shall be sorry to see it’s passing.

  • avatar

    I want to see this thing in the Museum of Modern Art

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    Just getting a game to run on a ZX81 (or kit ZX80) is an accomplishment. Most of the time you were working with memory measured in hundreds of bytes. The Timex Sinclair, as I recall, offered something like a whole KByte for the adventurous.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, you either needed the patience to type it in on a keyboard much like you’d find on your iPad, or load it from tape and hope it didn’t get corrupted on the way in.
      A Timex 1000 had 2K of RAM, but if you owned one you bought the 16K expansion pack, and that was enough to do anything you’d want to with the thing.
      Got mine in ’83 when I was twelve, learned to program on it, used it constantly when I was a teen, still have it. It’s broken, but you can get one cheap on eBay any time.

    • 0 avatar

      My first computer was a Timex Sinclair 1000 with the (fist sized) 16k expansion module. I sold it about a year ago on eBay.

      • 0 avatar

        “Trash-80” all the way! My first computer in 1988, $50 bucks. Radio Shack TRS-80. I was relatively late to the game simply because I had no need for one until I started using a computer at work at that time.

    • 0 avatar

      I got the 16K memory upgrade for my ZX81, because I’m gangsta like that.

  • avatar

    Great articles!
    But I love the shots at the Alameda NAS. Flew and sailed in and out of there many times.
    Keep ’em coming.

  • avatar

    Most of us are viewing this from the other path taken: responsibly pursuing a rewarding career in [not cars].

    …and every time I pass a vacant service station or dealer lot, my brain starts scheming for how it could turn it into a auto parts/classic car dealership/service station.

  • avatar

    And when you reach the fork in the road, take it!

    Wonderful series Murilee, built for both vicarious transport of the imagination as well as provoking pensive reflection.


    Funny thing, my parents were warned not to let me own a car as it would swallow both money and time. Kinda ironic how I’ve ended up with a long career in the auto industry.

  • avatar

    @ Murilee….I’m hoping you have read,or at least seen “Misery”… I would be your biggest fan….. Dude….. You cannot kill the 65 Impala. If you do, don’t go driving in a snow storm,after a couple of beers.

    Just kidding….This whole series, is one of the best that I’ve read at TTAC. Considering I’ve been here since about a week after RF created TTAC ,thats quite an acomplishment.

  • avatar

    “1982 was about a half-decade before you had any kind of computer classes in high school”

    In 1971 I took a “Computer Math” class in High School. I learned Basic and Fortran on a time-share system using a KSR-33 teletype (just like the one in my Dad’s office) over a 110 baud modem. That class started me in computers. Four decades later, I’m still at it.

    • 0 avatar

      The “Teletype” or as we called them, the Teletoilet. When I visited what was to be my junior/senior high school in about 1973, we were brought to the “Computer Lab”. In the lab were two computers, a Digital Equipment PDP8E and a PDP8I. There was also a dual tape drive and three Teletypes. When I entered 9th grade I took computer math I, II, and III which was just BASIC programming. I remember thinking wow, what high tech equipment. I managed to “earn” a key for the panel lights so I could watch them dance to the computer’s execution of the code. By 1978ish the “toilets” were replaced by Hazeltine 1500 CRTs. Boy were we living large!! Then the PDPs were replaced my some DEC minicomputer in 1980. Talk about stone knives and bearskins!!

    • 0 avatar

      My first computer course was a bootleg one taught by one of my classmates. It was 1970 and he had returned from a two year stint at IBM finish his high school diploma so he could go to university for a degree. We used the official staple bound IBM language manual for FORTRAN. All programming was done on IBM KP-026 or KP-029 key-punch machines. The KP-026 has no edge printer, so you need to be able to read the holes to find typos. There was no computer at the school, so we sent the cards in an envelope to the Board of Education central computer downtown. You got back your output printout two days later with all the error messages.

    • 0 avatar

      I went to South County Technical School in Sunset Hills, MO. in 1967 for my junior and senior HS years, took Commercial Art. The school had Key Punch classes. The computer filled an entire wall! It was amazing what you could do with that old tech back then, in spite that your bottom-feeder, cheapest laptops can blow all that stuff away tens of times over!

  • avatar

    Atari 400 here. Upgraded to 32K, circa 1982 ?. And don’t forget that the Space Shuttles each had three 180K (Yes, K) computers onboard, for flight sequencing, clear up to and including the last Atlantis mission. (Glass cockpit displays additional.)

    • 0 avatar

      Another atarian. The real killer was the cassette recorder. The thing ran at 600 baud (imagine … downloading … everything …. at … 600 … baud … only … to … get … error 138.). Floppy drives tended to be pricy enough to hold off a few years.

      Time to load a 32k program via cassette: 30 minutes.

  • avatar

    SUCH a great series there MM.

    I’ll be around to read your final installment and yes, it’s been a fantastic read.

    As you’ve done with your reflections of where you needed to move towards, I’ve done that and am STILL doing so at 46 (will be 47 early next year) and it’s leading towards a more creatively rewarding path. Like you in some ways, I’ve struggled with sh*t jobs and poor pay for too long and still make less than $13 an hour now. I’ve been at my current employer for about 4 years and not sure how much longer I’ll stay with them but for now, I have a job, which in this economy is saying something.

    I’ve been through a TV broadcast tech program and later a video communications program and that lead me nowhere and since then, I’ve discovered more of me by coming out but the decently paying jobs still elude me.

    Today it’s looking like my path is something akin to home economics, domesticating, interior design, residential design, design, photography (in conjunction with other related fields such as graphic design) and finally upgraded my computer to a Windows based Core i7 desktop PC with the 64 bit version of Vista (plan of replacing Vista when I can afford to) and found a copy of Adobe’s Maser Suite CS4 on Ebay (originally it was CS3 but the seller discovered I had a 64 bit computer and for $50 more sold me a copy of CS4 and an unused license for $300 off Craig’s List [he had a business copy] and he’s a local guy too so now I know some InDesign, some Illustrator, have Photoshop pro (cut my teeth on an old version of PS 5.5) and a bunch of other programs to help make my goals a possibility.

    Now I just have to narrow it down and have an opening statement that is so damned vague.

    I got my first start in computing with a Texas Instrument’s TI-99/4A that Dad bought on a super sale in 1982-83 and it was the black/chrome model, just the keyboard/CPU only and bought a B&W TV to go with it and I learned a smattering of BASIC on it.

    I soon lost interest but eventually, in the 1990’s would begin to learn computing when my Dad bought their first REAL PC, a Packard Bell 386 SX box with the same maker laser printer and monitor, which ran DOS at first and it would become my first PC mid decade. I would get his then 486 DX box in 1997 and would replace that with a used P133 box from AST that I bought at a used PC place and it would crap out on me in 2001 with a bad HD and I would build my first PC, based on an Athlon 800MHz processor and 512MB of RAM that I bought from a buddy and that box got “upgraded” in 2004 and finally, I replaced it with the current PC.

    I have the technical ability, it’s not where my interests lie, I’m more a bout USING software for creating beautiful things if nothing else.

    • 0 avatar

      got my first start in computing with a Texas Instrument’s TI-99/4A
      Ah, the TI-99/4A. A bit of automotive trivia about the 99/4A. GM Assembly Plants in the late seventies/early eighties had a monitoring system consisting of 99/4a based remote systems networked together with a sort-of prehistoric ancestor of a cable modem. The 99/4a system would monitor points along the line and if something went wrong, they’d notify a central PDP 11/34 computer (via a central Zilog Z80 system IIRC) that would display the problem on an early touchscreen monitor. An operator would then dispatch a repair crew to check out the problem.

      With the exception of Fremont, the systems used a loud compressed air system for cooling. Line workers would get annoyed at the noise and shut off the air to the 99/4a nodes. The node would go down and someone would have to go back out and turn the air back on. Fremont was water cooled and didn’t have that problem.

      I’m currently using a system with similar functionality with a WiFi card and/or a fast serial bus for communications that could fit inside a hotwheels car. Instead of monitoring auto plants, I use these guys to control small sub-sections within a robot. In the robot, the human at the console has been replaced by an NVidia GPU based supercomputer with thousands of core processors.

  • avatar

    If it helps you feel better: I’m 68 and still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. I have had three careers and am pretty happy sitting around the house, playing on my mac, and taking care of the animals.

    I did two art cars while working for an adaptive behavior center. Can’t say any of them were as good as yours but the 77 impala wagon might have been close. Love your writing. Keep it up.

    • 0 avatar

      Ha ha ha! I’m going to be 61 in a few months, and I’ve been wondering what I’m going to do when I grow up, too! Although I’m still working and thoroughly enjoying (yeah, right) a 100-mile daily commute, this is not what I really want to do, but I haven’t a clue what it is that I really want to do. What I do more than pays the bills, but I’d like a car I could restore and waste too much time on like Murilee Martin did with that ’65 heap.

      I tried restoring a ’57 Chevy 37 years ago, but being young, single, not yet working at a career job axed that! I’d like to try it again, however.

      When you figure out what it is you want to do, please let me know?

  • avatar

    So you built a POS just like a bunch of 11th graders did when I was a kid in the late 70s.

    Well. Bully for you and your pathetic outcomes. 13s? I made an 84 Honda Civic do that pre-90. Let alone our Opel Manta Rallye road car…

    So what?

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Those hubcaps really gave the last style touch that car needed.

    IIRC correctly I saw those in C-20/30 Chevy trucks in my country, the ones that had the 8 bolts hubs.

  • avatar

    Porschespeed, judging by the times this car turned I would say the engine was making over 400 horses and well north of 400ft.lbs. It was built for just over 2k, which is less than some turbo units alone cost, and probably less than a valve job on a porsche costs.
    And a small block chevy, ford or chrysler can still be built at similar cost today. You don’t have to throw a ton of money into a V8 to make power, at least not a mainstream V8 like the ones just mentioned. All it takes is careful parts selection. A V8 does not need a turbo, supercharger or nitrous to make power when properly built. The engine in this car is a perfect example, it was a mild build.

  • avatar

    I feel the same way about the priority of car projects, which is why I never started one until getting a good paying job. There’s a difference between a hobby and an obsession. If I had started one earlier, it would have ended up on sale at a distressed price or scrapped due to lack of funds. If I had bought something other than a beater, it would have ended ruined because I would have been forced to do things like deliver mail in it, daily drive through salt, and not fix anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary to keep it running (in fact, I was given a 1983 Honda in 2002 that was in perfect condition having been garaged that whole time, and that’s exactly what happened to it).

  • avatar

    I’m actually kind of sad to see the next post to be the end. I have enjoyed every post so far. Haha and the impala is still blowing transmission like a boss!

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