(by Gary Dulude) Here’s the story of the ’64 Impala I grew up with, which led to the ’64 Impala I’ve owned for nearly fifteen years.
My parents bought a 1964 Chevrolet Impala four-door sedan in December 1966 when I was six months old. I believe my Dad paid about $1,800 for it, trading in a ‘59 Ford Galaxie that was such a lemon he switched to Chevrolet. My Mom named the car Nellie after Roy Rogers’ jeep. Nellie was Meadow Green with an Ermine White roof, 283 V8, Powerglide, power steering, power brakes, AM radio and factory air. Being stationed at Dyess AFB in Abilene, Texas, having air conditioning was a big deal, especially since the cloth seats with their cool 1960s pattern were promptly covered with clear plastic seat covers from JC Whitney. This picture was taken shortly after we got the car.
This picture of me with Nellie in the background was likely taken in late 1967 or early 1968. Until 1975, Texas issued new license plates every year, and you usually had until April 1 to get that year’s plate:
And this picture was taken in late 1970, just before my Dad left for a year in Vietnam. My parents are from New Hampshire, so we moved back to be close to family while my Dad was overseas. I still remember looking down that long green hood as we crossed an enormous bridge over the Mississippi River. I also remember trips to the car wash in the dead of winter with my Mom scrubbing off the salt because, “If your father comes home and finds rust on this car, he’ll kill me!” Nellie emerged from a New England winter pretty much unscathed, although a small spot of rust started showing on the fender in the late 70s.
We had Nellie for 17 years, and I eventually learned to drive in that car in the spring of 1982. I have loved cars for as long as I can remember, and I had been longing to drive for at least a decade when my time finally came. I can still vividly recall my very first time behind the wheel of that Impala. Everything was so smooth and easy. In that car, driving felt like the most natural thing in the world. I aced my driving test, including parallel parking. Big as it was, you could also see all four corners, so parallel parking wasn’t hard.
My Dad sold the Impala when I was in high school. I had wanted a car of my own and bought a ‘74 Toyota Celica with a 4-speed that was fun and sportier and much better on gas. After a rebuild, the 283 drank gas like a B-52. I offered to buy Nellie, as did my older sister, who also learned to drive in the car and loved her as much as I did. But he was tired of working on it, and sold it to an airman on base for $500. I washed Nellie one last time and took her for a final spin the day before her new owner picked her up.
I had vowed that one day, I would have another ‘64 Impala. After years of looking off and on (mostly off), I got a phone call out of the blue from my younger sister in February 1999. She was looking for a first-generation Firebird, and saw this ad:
I called up the owner. I was living in Phoenix at the time, and factory air was a must. It didn’t have to be working; it just had to be there. So I asked if the car had air. The owner said, “gee, I don’t know.” The car was in San Luis Obispo on the central California coast, so he never needed air conditioning. I asked if there were little chrome balls on the corners of the dash; only 64 Impalas with factory air had them. He said yes. So I bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and a AAA membership and went to look at the car.
It looked rougher than I had hoped. Lots of bondo and surface rust. But the car was complete and unmolested. It was even Meadow Green, which was a happy coincidence. And the four-door hardtop was my favorite body style, too. When I got behind the wheel, everything was exactly as I remembered. While not as distinctive as the Chrysler hummingbird starter, this Impala sounded just like Nellie did when I turned the key. The 327 V8 in this Impala had that same cheerful burble. I shifted the Powerglide into Drive and was sold before I had even left the parking lot. It was as smooth and easy as I remembered from the first time I drove 1982. I had gotten my past back.
On the way to the bank to do the cashier’s check, I asked the owner if the car had a name. He said her name was Betty. I thought it was perfect.
Driving Betty home, I called my Dad. Considering he had sold Nellie for $500 in 1984, I told him he owed me $2,500. He laughed. But a few days later, I got a check for $500 — and his old Chilton shop manual. He had kept it all those years. I told him I would have another ‘64 Impala. He’s happy I have Betty.
I’ve had Betty for nearly 15 years now, and driving her always puts a smile on my face. I’ve restored her gradually — a paint job in 1999, engine rebuild in 2000, OEM-style seat covers in 2002, an upgrade to a THM700R4 4-speed automatic in 2010 and all new wiring in 2011. Everything works, including the A/C and the clock. There’s always something more I want to do, but mostly, I enjoy driving her — 80,000 miles so far.
This is from the Car d’Lane show in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with my dog Hoover, who loves to go for rides in Betty.
And this is from a Labor Day weekend trip to the Long Beach Peninsula in southwest Washington.
We stayed at the Sou’wester Lodge in a vintage travel trailer.
Betty officially turned 50 last Monday. When I was looking her over in that parking lot in San Luis Obispo, I opened the glovebox and found the original owner’s manual, still in the plastic pouch.
But tucked inside was the build sheet indicating she was built on November 4, 1963. I always make it a point to drive Betty on her birthday. This year, there will be cake to celebrate the milestone.