Impaladventure Part 1: 905 Miles Overnight, Just Three Mechanical Issues

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
impaladventure part 1 905 miles overnight just three mechanical issues

Drive an ’81 Impala across half of the country? What a great idea! Do most of the driving in a single stint, after spending the day flying out to Maine? Not so great!

83,022 miles: This morning, I took a pair of Southwest 737s from Columbus, Ohio to Portland, Maine, to meet “Mark In Maine”. Well, I left in the morning, anyway. After the transfer in Baltimore, it ended up being nearly seven o’ clock in the evening when I actually get to Mark’s house. He’s pulling his third-generation droptop Camaro RS behind a U-Haul; his wife is in his high-mileage, manual-shift Outback wagon. We’re heading for Greenville, Indiana, about 1,168 miles away.

First impressions of the Impala: it’s honest and sound, but rougher than the pictures showed. This is truly a base-equipment car: the only options I see are a cloth bench seat that doesn’t adjust far enough back to fit me and a right-side rearview mirror that isn’t working. There’s no rearview mirror on the windshield, but that isn’t because it didn’t originally come with one. This is a replacement piece of glass. Luckily, there’s a replacement mirror left on the seat. Unluckily, it’s there because it was glued together incorrectly. Time for duct tape. Now I can see behind me. Something’s weird: the view is like, REALLY clear behind me.

Oh. No defroster. Funny. You don’t realize that the lines are there until they aren’t. The Impala starts with a single twist of the key and settles into an odd truncated-musclecar rumble. The transmission shift indicator is broken, but every Gen-Xer knows the PRND23 column shift on these cars by heart, right? Off we go.

83,042 miles: Alternator light’s on already. We come to a halt, make a few calls ahead to make sure there’s another alternator available at a place that will stay open for a bit, then proceed. But not before we realize that the big coupe is seriously leaking gasoline. Like, a five-foot puddle in a minute. This is the first time Mark’s filled the tank since buying the car. Looks like we can’t do that.

“I guess we have to turn back,” Mark offers.

“Nonsense. Tell my son,” I say, swinging the wide door open with what I imagine to be a flourish, “I loved him.”

83,055 miles: The O’Reilly guys think the battery is bad. We swap it. No change in the light. But it’s charging fine. A bad ground? We buy an extra alternator just in case. The circle of stinking fuel is almost as big as the car by the time we leave. The engine smells hot. This is remarkably like a Lemons race. There might be weather ahead, and I want to beat it, so I push the 229 V-6 until the speedometer is pegged and drop Mark’s U-Haul.

83,284 miles: How fundamentally different this is from a modern automobile. It’s hideously sensitive to crosswinds, it requires a sort of tacking motion with the steering to keep it going straight, and despite its size there’s less available space for the driver than my Accord offers. I have a little “Jambox” on the dashboard, but it can’t keep up with the roar from the lowered windows. If I roll the windows up, the fuel fumes are intense. Still, by the time I do the first fillup, it’s not leaking any more. I fill it to the 3/4 mark, at which point it doesn’t seem to leak.

83,449 miles: I’m genuinely tired by now. It’s way past midnight and I’m still in New York. Finally able to roll up the windows, I put an old 10,000 Maniacs record on the Jambox and think back to my 1980 Marquis. It wasn’t a direct competitor to this Impala, not with its full complement of equipment, its 302 V-8, and its luxurious velour interior. Still, dynamically… Hate to admit it, B-body fans, but you’re right. This is a better car than the early Panther. By some distance. Even on three different kinds of tires, even with 83k miles and thirty-three years on it. It’s more connected to the road, the packaging is marginally better. Boo hiss.

83,630 miles: I think we’re doing nearly 23mpg on the trot here, but I’m driving as conservatively as I can. Time to short-fuel yet again. Briefly, I imagine that I’m an F1 driver. Ross Brawn is on the radio: “Now, Jack, we’re going to short-fuel you to get you ahead of Alonso in the rotation. But we need the maximum. Ten qualifying laps.”

“Ross,” I reply, “for sure.”

83,801 miles: The speedometer cable whines and wobbles the needle and sometimes, according to my imperfect GPS app, 85mph indicated is really 68mph and sometimes it’s 90. I become paranoid about police, slow way down, and wind up getting buzzed by a few trucks, which blows the Impala all over the place.

I’m finally in Pennsylvania but I’m beat. The sun’s up but I’d prefer to be asleep. Two cans of NOS energy drink aren’t keeping my eyes open or on the road. I make an executive decision: this trip will end in Powell, Ohio today. That will mean I’ll only be awake thirty hours in a row. I call Mark to tell him the decision and find out that due to issues with the U-Haul he’s seven hours behind me.

83,920 miles: Fuel economy’s dropped through the floor and the Impala’s become genuinely unstable in crosswinds. Something’s wrong. But I’m almost home. It’s noon and I’ve arranged for a lunch date at a sandwich shop down the street. When I walk into the place, I’m frankly filthy from sixteen hours driving a car with a dirty interior and having my hands under the hood. The khaki-clad sausage-festers having their business lunch are visibly uncomfortably standing next to me.

What a surprise for them, then, to have a six-foot redheaded Dutch girl come in and give me a big hug all over my dirty self.

“You look, um,” Kiki says.

“What you’re supposed to say,” I cut her off, “is…”

“Hmm,” is all she can muster. “Your tire’s flat.” And it pretty much is. The left rear is way down. Explains the low economy and the handling problem. There’s something very entertaining about having lunch with a very corporate-looking girl in a very corporate-looking place full of corporate-looking people while wearing the Hidden Part Of Icebergs shirt and stinking of hot oil. Everybody looks at us. Maybe they think she’s my GRE tutor.

On the way out, as I’m driving the flat-tired Impala past a group of incredulous khaki-clads, I yell back at Kiki, “I’M SORRY I DON’T HAVE A JOB!” Then I go in search of a place to put air in the tire. The only gas station with an air hose has three cars waiting. The driver of the second car in line gives me an obviously contemptuous glance as I cruise by. He’s sixty-five years old and is seated behind the wheel of a Chevy Venture. Not even an Uplander. This is what my life’s come to: being dissed by old people in the worst minivan of all time. The hell with this. I’ll drive it home flat.

83,927 miles: In the Ohio summer heat, the burble of the Chevy 229 is decidedly uneven and once or twice it seems that we might stall. Up the long hill of Powell Road, some Boomer in a CR-V honks impatiently because I’m doing 15mph. A funny thing: when I was a kid, old people drove Impala coupes. Now old people drive CR-Vs and Ventures and all this high-seat low-power no-style utter garbage. As I stick my middle finger out of the rolled-down left window, I think this: old people were cooler back then.

Finally, I’m home. Time to sleep for one million years. Tomorow, I’ll take her the rest of the way. But first, a session with the air hose. Likely the first of many.

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2 of 151 comments
  • -Nate -Nate on Jun 27, 2014

    I'm still doing the cross country road trips in 50 year old vehicles thing , none are restored so problems occasionally crop up . Jamming straight through and not taking the time to rest and keep after the rig , guarantees road trips from hell every time , I fail to see why anyone would deliberately set out to have a bad time . -Nate

  • Texan01 Texan01 on Jul 01, 2014

    I drove my 77 Chevelle on the PowerTour last year, from DFW to Charlotte, back home along the Gulf for a 4,000 mile round trip back to Dallas. The car got a very close inspection by 3 of my friends, we overhauled the braking system, new hoses and belts and it was deemed good to go, with all systems functioning including the A/C system. On the way there, the only things I did was check the fluid levels, and found the fluid level was low for the transmission in Memphis due to a slight pan leak, tightend that up, and added a quart of oil every other tank of gas, It drinks oil at about a quart every 700-1,000 miles on the original and untouched 305 so it's acceptable to me still. On the way back in Biloxi MS, the starter died in front of the lighthouse on the beach parking lot. I had all my tools with me, so I replaced the starter while the now ex-GF wandered the beach for two hours. That was the only malady that struck that car on that trip. It averaged 19mpg for the trip, with a couple highs of 22mpg and a low of 12 idling in traffic. It's tossed a timing chain on a trip before, and ate a blower motor relay before, but overall it's been a reliable car. And since the 77-96 B-body chassis is virtually identical to the 73-77 A-body chassis it also suffers from the crosswind tracking issues. We made lots of trips growing up in my parents then new 84 Olds 88... when it was new it was trouble free, and a good driver, as it aged, it aged poorly and ate several TH-200C transmissions, and by 130,000 miles was completely done at aged 13. It wasn't all that roomy with 5 of us, all getting into pre-teens. I rode up front most of the time because the girls crowded out the backseat with all their crap, so I got to control the radio, and the A/C, and play driving games with mom and dad.

  • Jeff S The Cybertruck is one of the most hyped vehicles in decades.
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