By on January 13, 2012

More than a month has passed since Part 19 of the Impala Hell Project series, partly because I’ve been getting sliced up by sadistic doctors and flying on Elvis-grade prescription goofballs but mostly because the final chapter has been so difficult to write. Here goes!
By the year 2000, I’d accomplished most of what I’d set out to do with the Impala Hell Project. I’d started as a stone-broke performance/installation artist with an ambitious vision of a real art car, to show that the artist who works with the automobile as a medium isn’t required to disrespect the canvas.
I never lost touch with that vision, even as I turned the car into a bulletproof daily driver and traveled California looking for slacker thrills in it.
As I matured, the Impala stayed with me. It moved me and all my possessions from San Francisco to Atlanta, then served as my foot in the door for my first automotive writing job.
In my 30s and finally having achieved a toehold in the middle class, I built a potent 400-cubic-inch small-block to replace the 350 I’d installed in 1990. My goal was to get the car to break the 14-second barrier at the dragstrip, and I succeeded in the summer of 1999: 13.67 seconds.
Then I found myself asking Now what? I hadn’t used the Impala as a daily driver since I’d discovered the quick, reliable, gas-sipping ’84-87 Honda Civic/CRX upon my return to California in 1996, and having two or three Civics plus a big, seldom-driven Detroit monster was proving to be a real parking headache in my crypto-urban neighborhood on the Island That Rust Forgot.
No car had ever held such emotional significance to me, and I felt certain that no future car ever would come close. I’d put more creative energy and sheer work time into the Impala Hell Project than I had for any project I’d ever worked on… and I was beginning to recognize that as a problem for a man who really wanted to put those creative energies into fiction writing. I was pushing 35 and feeling increasingly chained to a 3,500-pound link to my lifetime-ago early 20s.
Having moved 13 times during the decade of the 1990s, I’d gradually learned to pare down the possessions in my life to the bare minimum. Tools, sure, keep ’em… but after having packed, lifted, and unpacked all my crap all those times I’d developed a horror at anything that resembled hoarding of possessions for sentimentality’s sake. But the Impala was special. Surely I could start a new project with it, maybe make it into a road racer, or an electric car, or… something. For the time being, I avoided any decision with the Impala, moving it enough to keep ahead of street-sweeping tickets and driving it to work every few weeks.
Then I dove headlong into a real Hell Project: a 900-square-foot cottage on Alameda’s main downtown drag, built sometime between the Gold Rush and the late 1870s. A seriously cool structure, built of massive hand-hewn redwood beams and sweating Bay Area history, but battered by 140 years of hack-job repairs by cheap-ass absentee landlords. My new house had just two off-street parking spaces, accessible down an easement-ized driveway on the next block over (though a third car could be made to fit, barely, provided it was an Austin-Healey Sprite). Now all my spare time was being taken up with carpentry and wiring and plumbing, I still wasn’t advancing my fiction-writing skills, and the Impala was just sitting there as a sort of souvenir of the previous ten years of my life. The dilemma!
My friend and future 24 Hours of LeMons teammate Dave Schaible, who went on to create the incredible Model T GT, had given me a lot of very useful advice about building the Impala’s new engine, and he was always building some street rod project or other in his shop. I knew he had a ’32 Ford in the works, and that he’d been so impressed by the performance of the Impala’s engine that he wanted to build one just like it.
I decided to cast the die. I made an ironclad resolution: No more fun car projects until I write and sell a novel! I meant it, too; to rip off my favorite Knut Hamsun phrase, my eyes were like two knife points. I was as serious as an Old Testament prophet on the subject. There was no way I’d be able to sell the Impala to anyone who would keep driving it; it had a lot of good parts, but the battered shell of an incredibly plentiful mid-60s full-size Chevy was essentially scrap metal. None of my hipster friends wanted anything to do with the car (such would not be the case today, what with all the 24 Hours of LeMons freaks who groove on this sort of absurd machinery), so I called up Dave and offered him the whole mess for not much more than the money I had in the engine. “I’ll take it!” he said.
Dave pulled the engine, the Powertrax locker differential, and a few more bits and pieces.
The 406 got a paint-and-chrome job and looked great in the ’32. I never rode in this car, but I assume it was a handful with that uncivilized, lumpy-cammed engine in place.
I was too heartbroken to ask what happened to the rest of the Impala for a few years. Later, I found that Dave sold the shell to a guy in Hayward with a shop specializing in Impala lowriders. I’d like to think that some pieces of my car now live on in a candy-apple-red Impala coupe with hydraulics and a mural depicting an Aztec sacrifice.
Starting that day, my only car projects were those that made money— no fun projects until I sold a novel, remember? I’d go to the San Francisco towed-car auctions, located at Pier 70 (not far from my dot-com tech-writing job) every month or so and buy Tercels, Civics, or Sentras for $100 each. I’d sell whatever stuff remained in the trunks after getting picked over by the tow-truck drivers (one time I got a few hundred bucks for a bunch of water-ski gear I found in a Sentra’s trunk), fix whatever needed fixing, and turn the car around for a grand or so.
Then, between software jobs in 2004, I got a call from a friend-of-a-friend in London who worked as an editor for the “erotic fiction” division of Virgin Books. He’d pay me good money, in genuine pounds sterling, for 70,000 words of high-class smut, he said. I did it, the book sold 5,000 copies (and still sells today, as a Kindle edition), and I got paid. The smut scenes were nothing special— what can any writer do with a schtup scene that hasn’t already been done ten thousand times?— but I remain proud of parts of the novel. So proud, in fact, that I’ve created a quasi-de-pornified, still-probably-not-quite-safe-for-work excerpt for your reading enjoyment (PDF). Crafting a novel, even in such a disreputable genre, gave a much-needed boost to my writing skills and confidence, so the “no more fun car projects” vow I’d made was worth it. On a related note, the pseudonym I used for Torment, Incorporated turned out to be quite useful; here is the entire complicated story of How I Got This Silly Name.
Of course, selling that novel meant that I could resume wasting time on fun car projects; the first one was the Black Metal V8olvo 24 Hours of LeMons car in 2008, followed by the 20R Sprite Hell Project, the Dodge A100 Hell Project, and whatever I buy next; right now, I’m torn between a Leyland P76, an early Toyota Century, a ZAZ-968, and a ’71 Chrysler Newport coupe with 6-71 blower and manual transmission. Do I wish I still had the Impala? Yes, every day. Am I glad that I forced myself to write that first novel? Yes, every day. The next Murilee Martin novel is in the works for 2012, by the way.

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61 Comments on “1965 Impala Hell Project, Part 20: The End...”

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    I met Murilee more than three years ago at an Audi event. From the moment our eyes met across a crowded room full of lifestyle journalists chattering like outlet-store Furbys about food and football, I knew we would be together. This was a man with a story to tell. I am so happy he is here at TTAC I just could totes die.

  • avatar

    And that, my friends, is the end.

  • avatar

    Glad I stumbled upon your old DOTS posts on Jalapnik and you’ve inspired me to do my own version of that for my own online journal, but the goal there was to find as many cars between my apartment and the grocery store here in Seattle that dated from whenever to about 1992.

    And in the 5 blocks or so, I found something like 15-20 such finds in various states of condition that day.

    This whole story of your Impala hell project has been very interesting to read and of how it served you in ways unexpected at first and how it saw you go from a broke college student to a middle class guy along the way.

    I’m at a crossroads myself now in my late 40’s though for the past 4 years, I’ve managed to survive with a job that barely pays enough to pay rent and bills most months.

    Great job Muralee.

  • avatar

    Loved the story.

    Happy I do not live in a 900 square foot cottage that limits my junk because I still have the 57 chevy 210 I picked up 38 years ago. I don’t know what I would/could do if I had to dump it.

    Glad your engine lives on but mostly glad you are here writing. You keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

  • avatar

    Well done, sir. Excellent and entertaining series.

  • avatar

    I eagerly await the Cameron Crowe treatment of your Impala story. Like ‘Almost famous’, I think it would be highly watchable!

  • avatar
    Mark in Maine

    Thank you for that whole story, Murilee. I looked forward to each installment, as did many others on here. As an expat Midwesterner, it was also neat to learn more about the non-mainstream art & music scene on the left coast during that time period. My prior knowledge of the art car world was limited to a guy one town over who did fun things with Tin Snails a few years back, so the saga of your evolving build was an entertaining one. Thanks again!

  • avatar
    Jetstar 88

    You didn’t at least keep the custom dash you made? That was a work of art.

  • avatar

    Truly enjoyed this series, Murilee. Somewhat sad for it to come to a close, but glad things worked out how they did for you – we’re all benefiting from the role it played in getting you here.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • avatar

    I get you on that project car linked back to your early 20’s Dilema.

    I got a old CJ7 I bought in my first year of college, and have so mane good times associated with it. I put a lot of money and time into it, but for some reason it just doesn’t that something special it use too. The most use I’ve really gotten out of it for the past year is pulling century-year old farm-implements from the behind our barn, which literally, where forgotten about a few decades ago.

    With other old cars, a new house, greater responsibilities; I’ve thought of selling it, but the wife actually talked me out of it. A lot of it was a learning experience, so I’ve thought about starting over on something else; but I think now I’m going to stash it and rebuild it, ground up, when I hit my mid-life crisis in the next 15-20 years.

  • avatar

    Thanks Murilee for sharing your story!

    I can relate very much with the emotional bond to a car into which one has poured countless hours of work and has been there through many life experiences. I took ownership of our family’s 1971 LTD in high school; I remember the ride home in it when I was 5. Grew up in that car, all family vacations to grandma’s, scout outings, learning to drive in it. Drove it from WA to IN for college and back, and then post-college I modified it to cop car specs (429 w/D0VE heads, Holley ProJection TBI, limited slip, ’79 T-Bird steering box and sway bars, Mopar cop car rims with 60-series tires, and so on).

    Near the end of the 30-year period in our family, it had received accident damage on the LF and LR (with the LR damage permanently ending my dreams of “restoring” the car), and I traded the car for $500 worth of tools to a friend from work. He eventually sold the engine to his friend, and it still lives on in some 1950s FoMoCo product (panel wagon or something like that). The rest of the car I’m sure is now part of somebody’s LG front-loading washing machine.

    I really didn’t want to get rid of it either, but it was time to move on. You are one rare bird in your prescience on having taken so many photographs while doing your work. It didn’t even occur to me to do so while I did my projects on the car, I only have the memories.

  • avatar

    So sad to see this run of posts done. I loved every single one of them. It was quite the trip no doubt!

  • avatar

    This was worth the wait. I’m happy to hear your Impala still lives on in spirit, and I look forward to more crazy, fun projects from you, including your new book.

    To the late, great Impala Hell Project! Cheers!

  • avatar

    What a GREAT series of stories. I grew up during the same period and was one of the only gearheads amongst my group. I identify with so much of what you’ve written here–in fact I had forgotten just what that period felt quite like until I read your series.

    Neat story about how the impala was recycled for its engine and potentially the body. My ‘hell’ project was a 7-year affair with a ’63 Valiant. It took me on countless adventures and was my canvas and learning platform during my formative gearhead years. I too outgrew it and let it sit not able to make a move on it’s final chapter in my life. One day we were drinking beer in my friends driveway, where the car was sitting and this German man and his two sons pull up. He tells me his story of restoring a ’63 4-door, we make a deal and the car moves on to donate it organs to another rusty mopar A-body.

  • avatar

    I for one am very excited for the next Murilee Martin™® lifestyle novel. If I might axe, is this one going to involve a Richard Nixon sex machine as well?
    Thanks for the great story. The end was well worth the wait.

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    not a happy ending, but 4 door Impalas rarely have happy endings. This should be required reading for brides who ask “why do you keep that old piece of junk around?”

  • avatar

    One hell of a ride!
    Thanks for the lift!

  • avatar

    I lucked out, my college-era cars got stolen (3 of them in 3 years), preventing me from clinging to a project car for too long. I can only imagine what 10+ years of ownership would’ve done for either of those two 4Runners.

  • avatar

    I’ve faithfully read every Impala installment (and every Junkyard Find, LeMons, and A100 posting), and greatly enjoyed them all. You’re an excellent storyteller, and your pictures are very much appreciated. It seems that every oddball car has a story, and you excel at finding and telling them. I haven’t done anything as crazy^H^H^H^H^Hawesome as your Impala, but I wish I had more pictures of the beaters I’ve had over the years.

    As the saying goes, “All good things must come to an end.” I’m sorry the Impala ended, but we’ve all enjoyed the ride, and I hope the gratitude we’ve expressed encourages you in future, similar endeavors.

    Please keep telling those stories,


  • avatar

    13.xx seconds for any “muscle car” especially from prior pre-modern type “muscle cars” (hey, modern tech. versus “old days tech”) is a respectable memory.

    Alameda… Old Man pondered, visited (we along for the ride) then turned down fire chief job offer.

    Off to Squaw Valley ski resort. Yeah!!!!!

    “No thanks.”

    Back to “the Lab.”

    A year later he resigned chief position and plummeted to hoseman, lowest rung on the ladder; but he was happy.

    Squaw Valley woulda’ been groovy, though.

  • avatar

    Your next novel, a sequel to Torment Incorporated, should tell the story of how the 99 percent get screwed – and how much they love it!

  • avatar

    The more you write, the more I read. Gonna hit Amazon after work and download the full-smut version of your first novel.

    Thank you for such an entertaining (and inspiring) ride.

  • avatar

    OK, I was hoping for something a LOT more epic, like something out of “The Right Stuff.” To wit:

    Murilee goes for top speed at Bonneville but augers in, with only a huge smoke plume to mark the spot of his apparent demise. Rescue crews rush out to rescue him…we ride with one, looking through the windshield at the onrushing desert…and in the distance, with the smoke plume rising, we see a figure walking towards us.

    The driver asks, “Is that a man?, and his companion, smiling, says, “you’re damn right it is!”

    Cue epic triumphant music and we see Murilee, holding his helmet in his hand, the smoke plume rising behind him, battered but unbowed.

    Fade to black.

    (With respect and love to Philip Kaufman.)

  • avatar

    Hey, does anyone other than me and Jonny Lieberman think that there’s a certain resemblance between my “Road To Victory” image (top) and the image from this recent Jalopnik post(bottom)? Sincerest form of flattery, I guess!

  • avatar

    Very well done, Murilee – and thanks for all the Nixon stuff how many installments ago?

    Next project? How about that Cimarron that you could make what it was meant to be – whatever that was…

    Anyway – great work all around. We do want more!

  • avatar
    Carl Kolchak

    I loved this series because it made me think of the two 65 full size Chevys that were part of my life as a kid. One, my grandfather’s white Impala sport coupe, makes me think of my grandparents taking my Mom and me out to lunch every week and how big that back seat with the chrome speaker grill in the middle was. It was the car I had the most contact with as a child and probably caused my lifetime “car fever”.
    The second one was a light green (probably the same as the car in the story) Bel Air wagon. It had the pie plate wheel covers and always looked kind of sad. like its owner, one of my Dad’s best friends. I do not remember the last time I saw this car, but I remember the last time I heard of the car. My dad’s friend was found dead in the front seat, car running, a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. Not sure if it was a suicide or accidental death, but I remember the family got rid of that car immediately.
    Reading this series made me realize how our vehicles are a touchstone for the places they take us and the lives we live while owning them.

  • avatar

    Thanks Murilee! I remember showing the “Road to Victory” image along with the diorama to some co-workers, and they were all exclaiming how “SICK” the concept was!

    I started college in the late 90s, too young to be considered “Gen-X” but you definitely would be one guy I would have idolized in college, even envied. Sadly, the Internet was just getting started for me.

  • avatar

    Best thing I’ve ever read on TTAC or any other auto blog, and a lot of other places too. Thanks so much for this eclectic wild ride.

  • avatar

    This series of articles reminds me greatly of a certain writer for “Flying” magazine back in the late 1960’s. He marched to a very different drummer than the usual tie-clad pilots. He had an idea to re-create the barnstorming era of the 1920’s and 30’s using a vintage Stearman biplane. He ran afoul of the FAA at every stage of the project, which he found very frustrating. He wrote a series of articles for the magazine with fictional characters to represent the real people involved. He called himself Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The articles were then published in a book that became a best-seller and major movie. The origins of the story and the meanings were buried in the hoopla. His struggles with the FAA became an anthem for the desire for freedom and frustration with bureaucracy.

    The conclusion is that there could be the great American Novel hidden in this story.

  • avatar

    Seriously? 18 cents for each sale of the kindle version? That’s ridiculous, I would so much rather just PayPal you like 5 bucks and get a PDF in return, or just read the SFW version.

    Anyway… I humbly suggest the ZAZ-968 as your next ride. If you manage to import one and get it registered I’d love to know how and would probably end up getting one for myself! This summer I visited Ukraine and got to drive around a 73 968 for a week, and come to think of it the story might be interesting for the Ur-turn series. Is that still going on, and if so, how does one submit a story?

    • 0 avatar

      The way you get paid for a novel, usually, is the publisher gives you a check for X dollars (or, in my case, pounds) as an advance against royalties. Unless the book goes on to sell 100,000 copies, you don’t ever see any more money for it… which is why you treat the “advance” as the only money you’ll be getting.

      Anyway, because my contract with Virgin states that I can release excerpts of the book for promotional purposes, I have made the semi-SFW version available as a PDF download. If I started selling the whole thing as a PDF, they would sue me… and I’d deserve it. Also, my editor there is a good guy (paid his way through grad school by being “Axl Rose” in a Guns-N-Roses cover band in Scotland) and I don’t want to get him in trouble.

    • 0 avatar

      There is a LeMons racer in Houston who has some kind of car-importing business, and he says it’s not too hard to get a Soviet car through US Customs… if you’re patient and are willing to spend money.

  • avatar

    Great story, Murilee- with a rather sad but somehow fitting ending.

    Lots of eerie parallels between your Impala and my ’68 Cougar- a car I’ve owned for over 20 years but hasn’t run for ten of those. Wether I eventually restore it or it ends up a toaster is anyone’s guess.

  • avatar

    Thanks for sharing the story with us & hope your health improves.

    This has reminded me that I did upload the pick of the 65 Chev I spotted a few months ago –

  • avatar

    Loved the story. On a semi-related note, I recently ran into a guy that had the h22 I swapped into my civic in high school in his dc2 integra. He got it from a guy in Virginia so I can only imagine the cars it has been in an out of in the past ten years.

  • avatar

    Thanks for telling the tale. Really enjoyed it. Hope you’re on the mend.

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    Thank you Murilee.


  • avatar

    Shoot. Well, that was fun.

    What became of the house ?

  • avatar

    Glad to find your writing again. Jalopnik got quite tiresome for me. TTAC feels more like a comfortable crash pad than a velvet rope club.

  • avatar

    Wrapped it all up quite nicely. I’m still curious about the results/status of the Sprite and A100 projects.
    You do these crazy car projects so that I don’t have too!

  • avatar

    Nice ! .

    I’m an old geezer journeyman mechanic but I too , really like your writing style .

    I hope to find links to the A-100 stories .


  • avatar

    I found this series a few hours ago.I read it from parts 1-20 in one sitting.
    Enjoyed the journey!

    Thanks Murilee!


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