Buying a 64 Impala SS on eBay, a Personal Account
Road trip pics, April 2010
Tale of a very fast road trip.
In 1986 my family moved from Washington State to Abilene, Texas. There were a number of reasons for the move, but one was to be nearer my grandmother. My grandfather had recently died and my aunt and uncle lived a couple of hours away from her.
Grandmother loaned my parents the money to start a small tire store. We suffered from the same problems any small business does at the beginning—the Catch-22 situation of knowing that you’re offering a valuable service, but rarely getting the chance to show it being the major problem.
During the first month in business someone came in and offered to sell us an old car. Dad looked at the car; saw that mechanically it was useless, but that it had a set of nearly new bias tires on it. He bought the car, took the tires and wheels off, and began to systematically strip the car of anything useful. The rearview mirror became the washroom mirror in the warehouse and various useful bits and pieces ended up here and there throughout the building. The hubcaps ended up getting hung on the wall in the first service bay.
Within a few weeks one of our used tire supplies, John Perotti, noticed the hubcaps and offered to sell us a bunch that he had on credit. Dad told him that we really didn’t have any money to spend and that what little we had really should be spent on our main products—tires and batteries. John explained that he really had no use for the caps. If we would just come and pick them up, he’d take 25 cents apiece for them, and we could pay for them when we’d sold a few.
I talked my dad into taking the deal. It ended up being my deal. At 14, I was the proud owner (when I paid for them) of a pile of old hubcaps and wheelcovers. I cleaned them, hung them on the walls, and gradually began to sell a few. While the business never became a great financial success, it gave me spending money. I guess the best gauge of its success was that my parents helped my go to the courthouse and set up my business because my profits were beginning to be enough that they didn’t want to pay my taxes!
The next year one of our other used tire suppliers, Dave Massey, showed up with a for sale sign in the window of his truck. It was a 1950 GMC ½ ton, but he had put a 235 6-cylinder engine, 3-speed transmission, and differential out of an old Nova in it. Somehow when he hooked up the shift linkage, he got it hooked up backwards so that reverse was where 1st should be and 2nd and 3rd were also reversed. He explained that he’d never changed it because someone had tried to steal the truck at one point, but they were unable to figure out the gears and get away.
With the odd shift pattern explained to us, dad and I took a short test drive. It was raining a bit, so I turned on the windshield wiper (it only had one on the driver’s side) and watched as the arm threw the blade off on the first pass. We slowed down, turned around, and I agreed to buy the truck.
We didn’t see Dave for a few days and I thought that he’d backed out on the deal. Eventually he showed up and explained that he’d never had the title to the truck transferred. He’d been hunting down the previous owner so he could get the title transferred directly to me. I paid him, got the title, and dad and I started down the road to the closest gas station. About a block out of the gate, we ran out of gas.
We walked back to the store, grabbed a gas can, poured it in the truck, and headed to the gas station at the end of the block. I filled the truck and we headed back. It kept sputtering and dying. When we finally made it back and got it pulled into a bay, we pulled the fuel filter out and changed it. It worked ok for a few minutes and started acting up again. We pulled the new fuel filter and saw that it was already clogged. As far as we could tell no one had filled the tank in ages and when we filled it, all the rust, dirt, and accumulated crud in the tank broke loose and started working its way down the fuel lines.
While pulling the tank and having it cleaned would now be the obvious answer, we didn’t realize how much crud was in the tank. We eventually added two in-line fuel filters in addition to the filter where the line went into the carburetor. While most of the junk eventually worked its way out of the system, I did carry several spare filters and a tool kit with me as long as I owned the truck.
Shortly after I bought the truck, David Rios, one of the guys that worked for one of the state highway department’s mowing crews showed up with a trunk full of hubcaps he wanted to sell. While I was looking over the caps, he mentioned that he’d been thinking about selling his car. I had dad take a look at with me. It was a 1964 Impala SS that had been turned into a low-rider. David had had hydraulics on the car, but had already removed them since he thought that they were worth more than the whole car.
Although he’d melted the springs, chopped up the frame to install the hydraulics, and cut the dash to put a newer radio in the car, he had kept it as close to close to stock appearing as he could (other than being an inch off the ground and being able to drive on three wheels). It had the original wheelcovers, trim, and interior.
He offered me the car for $800, which dad and I thought was a good deal. I went to get the money out of the bank and he went to get the title. Once again, it took a few days before he came back and I began to wonder what was going on. I think it was another one of the title things, but really don’t remember. When he returned he apologized for the delay and knocked off $50, since the tags were about to expire.
While the car had some rare and interesting options—tilt wheel, tach, remote-control driver’s side mirror, and dual rear antennas—it had plenty of problems. The engine smoked (enough that it was embarrassing to drive), the original 327 was long gone and it had a 350 out of a pickup in it, the tach didn’t work, the car was primer red, and the suspension was totally shot. You had to leave the gate at an angle to keep from dragging the mufflers.
Between the GMC and the Impala, I did more walking than driving though high school and college. While it forced me to be somewhat of a mechanic, it also forced dad to act as my personal tow truck. Both vehicles were so unreliable that I needed both so I would have one running at any given time. I finally tired of the truck and sold it, but kept the car.
It seemed that no matter how much money I poured into the car, it was never enough. I had the suspension rebuilt, but the hack-job that had been done to the frame to make it a low-rider was never really fixed. I had the engine rebuilt (it actually turned out to be a fairly high performance engine when all was said and done…until it was stolen/swapped out by a mechanic I had working on it) and then later tracked down a high-performance 327 (375HP) that was in pieces and had it rebuilt and installed. I had the transmission rebuild twice, but never got it to where passing gear would kick in correctly. I had it painted twice, each time was a disappointment and the money I spent twice trying to get the car painted cheaply would have been enough for one great paint job.
I eventually drove the car over 100,000 miles before the wiring in the tilt wheel shorted out and fried most of the wiring in the car. I got about 80% of the rewiring job done and got busy with other projects. Basically the car was worn out. When I got it, it probably had well over 200,000 miles. I added another 100k and the car was basically a nice body on a worn out chassis. It stayed parked for about 10 years. During that time the trunk floor rotted out, the back fenders started bubbling from rust, and I’d managed to leave the air cleaner off of it.
Since the motor wasn’t original, the frame was hacked, and everything on the car was worn-out, burned-up, or broken, I finally accepted an offer on the car. I figured that it would take more money to make the car drivable than it would ever be worth. While it had a lot of options that made it fairly rare, I figured that the things that had been done to the car more than cancelled out any value that they added to the car. Really, if the A/C will only blow out of the floor vents, does having the factory air really add much value?
I didn’t miss my car as much as the memories of when my car was running. It may have been a pain to keep between the ditches on the best of days and I may have walked more miles than anybody else my age, but it was still a car that got noticed and people would always walk up and talk to me about it.
My wife recently began to look for another car for herself. She and a friend were looking at the cars offered locally on eBay and my old car showed up. When I looked at it, I got rather nostalgic. She offered to buy the car back for me, but I really didn’t want the old car back. It was and will always be a piece of junk unless you spend a fortune on it
But I started looking at other auctions for ‘64s across the US. I finally found one with fairly low original miles, it was the same color as I’d eventually painted my old car (bronze/gold), and had been owned by the same family since 1966. While it had drawbacks—it didn’t have power brakes, or A/C, and it only had a 283—but it looked really good and I am way past the day where I need to go 140MPH.
I looked at what similar cars had been going for, examined the online Hemming’s Motor News, and figured that the car should be worth about $15,000. My wife said she’d buy the car if I really wanted it, so I put a bid on it. Of course, no matter what the auction says and no matter how great the pictures are, you really don’t know what you’ve bought until you show up to look at the car. Because of that I started getting cold feet and began to hope I’d be outbid. I wasn’t.
If my old car was represented as being ready to take out and cruise (and I could tell the nothing had been done to the car—they hadn’t even put an air cleaner on it!), what was I getting myself into? I was in Texas and the car was in a suburb of Seattle. Luckily, my friend Sean Hastings (who rode to High School with me in my old Impala) works close to where the car was. He was able to go by, look at the car, and he let me know that it looked far better than my old one ever did.
I’d been at my job just a few months, so haven’t got any paid vacation time yet, so I arranged to have a few extra days off to go get the car. My dad and I flew into Sea-Tac, Sean picked us up, we had a quick lunch, and went to pick up the car. Sean was right. The car looked great. Dad agreed that it looked ready to make the 2000+ mile trip back home (within reason, I mean, a 46 year old car is still not my first pick for world’s most reliable car).
Since the weather was looking like rain, we headed out immediately. We stopped around the block from the dealer where we picked up the car, filled with gas, and started testing the lights. One of the high-beam lights was out. As we started testing the turn signals, they broke. When I got home and took the steering wheel off I learned that the cam had broken before and been glued together. Since my corner parts store was able to get one the next day, it makes me wonder why you’d glue together a fairly inexpensive part that was a whole lot more work to install than the part was worth.
We originally planned to go through Colorado and visit my sister in Denver, but we got word that it was snowing from Colorado Springs to Denver and decided that we’d better head south quickly. We went almost to the Idaho/Oregon border the first night. The second night we were going to stay in Green River, Utah, but all the hotels were booked. We looked at the map, figured that Moab would be a good bet, and started south again. We pulled up to a motel, I went in to check in, and learned that all of the rooms in town were booked…because of a car show.
We were probably the only guys in town in a classic car who were a bit torqued because there was a car show going on. We started out headed south and were finally able to get the last room at the Four Corners Inn down in Blanding. We got up early the next day and headed out. When it looked like we could be home by about 2AM, we kept going. We left Seattle at 4PM on Thursday and pulled into Abilene, Texas at 2:30AM on Sunday morning.
The biggest problem we had was a minor electrical problem we found (and temporarily fixed with some band aids) when we were nearly home. Basically, we’d fill the car and drive until both of us were too tired to keep going. The car made 16 (nearly 17) MPG most of the trip and its best mileage (from Amarillo to Abilene) was 18MPG.
I did notice a few things I need to take care of: the intake gasket seems to have a minor leak, the heater core smells like it has a leak, I have to replace the band aids with some real electrical tape, and the headlight and turn signals had to be fixed, it’s still pretty amazing that you can buy a car on eBay sight unseen and drive it 2200 miles in three days!