1976 Impala Revival Build

Ask any old timer who’s been around the sport for many years and they will tell you stories about scrapping cars with running 350 motors and transmissions, bumpers, and rear ends, perhaps even after just one run. I’ve even seen stories of guys pulling the front clip off a car and scrapping the rest. They might also tell you how they got as many cars as they wanted for fifty bucks or even for free. I feel a bit of a gut punch when I think of all that good iron and parts getting scrapped, and by derby guys no less. It’s hard to blame anyone though in the context of the time. Cars were plentiful, builds were lighter, and I doubt many guys were thinking of stockpiling to keep their derby inventory strong for the next 30-40 years. A lesson has been learned from the past, and scarcity of cars and parts is a driving factor in the derby market. While my Dad may have had a stable of 5-7 cars at one time in his prime derbying in the 90s, between my brothers and Dad we now have accumulated a stash of more than 25 fresh cars waiting to be built on the farm. They are mostly panthers of various years, with a few metric GM’s and 70’s iron sprinkled in. Back in my first few years of derbying, we did not have this accumulation built up, but there were two pre-ran cars from the 90’s behind the barn that had managed to avoid getting crushed; a 76 Impala and a GM wagon I haven’t yet tried to identify further. The resourceful and optimistic builder that I am, I decided that the ol’ impala had at least one more in her, and drug it out of the row in 2011 to build for my Dad to run again.

The first challenge in reviving this car was removing all of the scrap that had been thrown in it. This would have been a tedious endeavor if not for the three foot long snake that was living in the trunk popping up to say hello. My brother introduced the snake to Mr. Browning and we had the car cleaned out in a few hours.

The next item on the agenda was to fix the rear end. While inspecting the car, we discovered that the rear end was broken (10 bolt c-clip). Upon taking the cover off, I found that the welded spider gears had disintegrated, but the carrier, axles, pin, and gears were all still in tact. I happened to have the carrier still from my 10/12 bolt hybrid rear end, (never throw parts away!) so all I had to do was swap in the spider gears from the spare carrier to the existing rear end. I then welded up the “new” spider gears and this rear end was functional again.

The front end was evenly but mildly snooted at the firewall, so we needed to find a way to pull it back down. This was the first real attempt my brother and I had ever undertook to pull a front end back down, and we fumbled our way through it. We hauled the car to a friend’s house because he had deadmans installed when he poured the floor of his shop. The issue we ran into was not having enough blocking, chains, or proper equipment to lift the back of the car up. We lifted the back end up as high as we could with the little tractor he had, and then chained the front end down. We set what blocking we could come up with near the frame at the firewall, lowered the car, and jumped on the back end. We ended up only being able to do one side at a time and alternating back and forth, definitely not ideal. By the time we left some hours later it appeared marginally straighter than when we came.

This is where I slightly regret that we weren’t more experienced builders when we revived this car, because knowing what we know now we could have done a much better job. That’s life and derby though I suppose, live and learn. This revival car was put together with just a dash and behind seat bar, and inadequate frame plates on the s curves. I shake my head looking back at thinking a 2″x5″x1/8″ strap welded to the firewall S-curves was going to strengthen where it had bent before. Of course I don’t remember the exact rules we had to work with, but I’m sure it was underbuilt.

The only thing left to put this car together was the drivetrain and brakes. We reused the existing suspension, front and rear bumper mounting, steering column, and body mounts. I think we ended up putting a new master cylinder and wheel cylinders for the brakes, and the stock brake lines and calipers were still good. The drivetrain as I remember it was a borrowed 305, turbo 350 trans, and a stock driveshaft cut to length.

After Linn and on the way to Minneapolis Derby

I wish I could say we had better luck running this car. Dad ran it at Linn, KS and made the feature but was the first or second out. The stock rear trailing arms broke and the driveshaft fell out. The rear end was about to fall completely out of the car when the loader was setting it on the trailer. We patched it up with new beefed up trailing arms for its next run at Minneapolis, where Dad insisted that I run it instead of him. I let the car down, though, by getting high centered on someone else’s loose wheel in the feature. After Minneapolis, the front end had snooted back up to where it was before, and we weren’t ready to attempt pulling it back down again yet, so it got disassembled and put back in the row behind the barn for another 10 years before finally getting scrapped for good in 2021.

Pits in Minneapolis

The wagon is in a bit rougher shape but is still behind the barn. It has settled down into the dirt over the years even though way back when I believe it was set on some rims. At one point, a tree had begun growing through the engine compartment, but that has been cut down. The bumper was also cut off the front end with abandon and we have robbed the spindles from it. If for nothing else but nostalgia I think it would be cool to clean the scrap out of it as well and give it one more run. With the scarcity and prices of wagons these days, it may be the only one I’m ever willing to build.

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