By Cam Benty
First cars are always better in hindsight than in reality. While on paper my ’65 Chevy Impala SS was a pretty rare find, complete with original 396/325 horsepower big block, it had plenty of issues. I believe, with all certainly, that the used car lot in Stockton California which sold me the car was more than happy to see it leave their lot in the summer of 1974.
Harley Davidson, the name of the sales man (no lie – it was on his license so it had to be the real deal, right?) sold me the Impala for the fine sum of $525. While the car was straight as an arrow, I returned two days after the sale due to a dead battery and pleaded with him to install a new one. Thankfully, he complied and I was on my way.
The car had two very interesting issues: first, it would only go about eight miles before overheating. Second, a the speed of 32 mph, the front suspension would go into a low speed wobble that was enough to jerk the wheel violently from side to side. To cope with this problem, I treated it like the sound barrier – either I cruised below that threshold or blasted through to higher speeds where the wobble was not present. I was living dangerously during those days.
With little money to spend on making things perfect, I headed down to the wrecking yard and pulled the tie rods and center link from a similar car and installed the “new” pieces in the front suspension. The repair worked beautifully and I was certainly prideful of my handiwork.
Next, was the overheating issue; frankly, I ignored the problem for a while since it was seven miles from my home to work at the time. With eight hours to cool down while I was in the job, the Impala never left me stranded. After about two months, I tired of the overheating issues and pulled the heads using a Husky tool set that I had purchased to work on my bicycle. Once the heads were off, I was greeted by head gaskets that were not only leaking, but all of the coolant holes were sealed shut with rust.
I cleaned and flushed out the coolant passages and took the heads down to the machine shop to have a three angle valve grind completed – something I had read about in a magazine. The estimate, to make them right (which naturally included new valves and springs) was a whopping $230. For a kid just making ends meet while attending college, that was not budget friendly so I ended up chucking a wire wheel into my aging Black & Decker drill and knocking the big hunks of carbon free from its surface. When the drill expired in a puff of smoke, I called it good, installed a set of new head gaskets and bolted the engine back together. A fresh thermostat and some Prestone and it was good to go.
After fixing the technical difficulties I had encountered, the guy across the street from my grandmother offered to paint the white Impala any color I wanted for $100. I picked out this gaudy GM green that was excellent contrast to the chrome reverse wheels and L60 radials that held up the rear.
The Impala SS was to serve me well for the next 18 months, until I purchased a 1970 Plymouth Duster 340ci with 4-speed transmission for $1100. With only 34,000 miles on the odometer, the Mopar served through the rest of my college days in the California central valley before getting a job in Los Angeles with NHRA in the summer of ’78.
But that cool Impala – I miss it to this day!