This month’s Readers’ Forum question is all about our best car buys — those cars that were steals, deals, or just turned out to be a lot better than we ever dreamed they would. For some of you, it was a brush with an icon, like a 427 Cobra or Ram Air Firebird for a lot less than the current market level. For others, it wasn’t about rarity but instead accessibility — Cutlass Supremes, Mustangs, Corvettes, and so on.
That got me thinking a lot about my own best buy, and while I’ve had a few cars over the years that could easily qualify, when I really dug down and thought about it, I ended up way back in time in a place I didn’t expect.
B-body in the bushes
In 1966, Chevrolet built close to 1.5 million full-size models — Bel Airs, Biscaynes, Impalas and Caprices. Of those, 116,400 were Impala SS models with V8 engines. About 47,000 convertibles were sold that year — reportedly the second-most-popular drop-top in America, just behind the Mustang.
One of these cars — a special Impala SS 396/325 in Marina Blue with a white top and a white interior — wound up derelict in the blackberries near the building my father’s company moved into in 1990.
A little lunchtime trespassing led to Dad’s discovery of the Impala, and as he was a GM guy without a GM project, he couldn’t resist protracted negotiations with its owner. Eventually my family had the title to a factory SS — most of one, anyway — and third-grade Hot-Wheels-loving me was over the moon at the thought of building a real car with Dad.
That SS led to weekend swapmeet trips to the far reaches of Oregon, hunting for Impala parts that might be a little bit better than what we already had. I got good at spotting ’66 gauges, consoles, tilt columns and bumpers in piles of GM stuff. But the best part, at least for me, was the parts cars.
Buy cheap, sell cheaper
In the ’90s, quite a few of those 1.5 million 1966 B-body Chevys were still around and available for sale in the Nickel Ads or just by knocking on a door and asking about the mossy car in the yard. Most were priced anywhere from $50 to $200 each. Some were 4-doors, some were decently optioned coupes and convertibles that were at the time considered to be way too far gone to save. So we’d buy them, strip what we needed, and send them on their way to a salvage yard.
Every few months, another particularly rough example would come home on the car trailer. I remember a red non-SS convertible with no floors that donated its complete cowl and windshield, a maroon Caprice that gave up a 12-bolt and its front-end sheet metal, a teal ’65 wagon that had a sweet-running 396, and a house-paint-white Bel Air 4-door that lost a bunch of its interior bits and pieces.
One car — a black Caprice — donated only a couple of photos, including one of its transmission crossmember to help aid in proper reassembly. I kept a photo of it for a long time, and I wish I still had it, as that same Caprice ended up in my own garage years later.
For me, all this was a gold mine of fun because I got to take things apart with real tools in an environment where scratched paint didn’t matter. Dad taught me the basics of wrenching on these cars, from how to hold a screwdriver through how to remove a rusty bolt. From there, we mastered the removal of delicate trim, bulky doors, fenders, suspension components and more.
The end result of all this, other than the learning aspect, was a goldmine of parts, all stored in a shed, ready and waiting for the day of Impala reassembly — a day that’s still to come.
Parts to make a whole
It’s funny how fast the world has changed with regard to classic cars. The Impalas we parted out, once considered too far gone and only worth $100 or so, are now selling in worse condition for a lot more than we ever paid. Reproduction parts, once thin on the ground for these cars, are popping up like crazy to fill voids in the market now that originals are hard to get. A great example are Classic Industries’ all-new B-body gauges, featured on p. 24, pictured alongside some originals pulled from Dad’s parts shed this past weekend.
I’ve had some cool cars — Camaro SS, Charger SRT8, K10 pickup — but when I really think about it, they don’t truly match up to those parts cars I owned by extension. Even though those rough Impalas were bought only to donate their parts, they did a lot more, from hands-on training through simple fun with Dad. That counts for a lot more than what we paid.
So there you have it. My best buys. Yours start on p. 44.