COAL: 1981 Chevrolet Impala – B is for Broom Handle


Here at CC we normally have a high regard for the GM B-bodies that appeared in 1977, but my own B-body tale is a bit uneven.

In 1981, Mom was still driving the workhorse 1972 Matador, Dad’s commuter car was a 1974 Vega, and it was pretty clear that new vehicles were soon required in the JackD household. In hindsight my father’s plan was clever; our Vega wasn’t too terrible yet, and could be traded in with a straight face on a suitable GM workhorse. Therefore, the Matador replaced the Vega as commuter, and the Vega got traded in on a brand new 1981 Chevrolet Impala.

This was a milestone vehicle for the D family. First brand-spanking-new car. First car with luxury options like air conditioning, power brakes and AM/FM/Cassette. It was from lot stock, and Dad had specified a small V8 for towing our small camper trailer. I went along for the last ride in the Vega, and took a photo of Dad accepting the keys at Nethercott Chev-Olds in Hamilton.


Although our new car was brown, and a 4-door, I will admit that it was a handsome machine. The well integrated chrome bumpers and lack of gaudy trim gave it a sort of square jawed purposeful look, and the brown velour bench-seat interior was plain but tasteful, mercifully devoid of pillow cushions or other brougham-y flourishes.

I was positively salivating on that first ride home: A V8, finally! I begged Dad to floor it at a stop sign, he hit it, and…. nothing really happened. The Impala gathered speed but there was no perceptible sense of acceleration. I was mystified; even the Vega had more poke than this.

Sadly, the base V8 in 1981 was the infamous 267, the small block that Chevrolet didn’t build enough torques into and often considered the worst SBC ever. Strangled down to 115 hp with emissions control equipment, it could barely get out of its own way, yet retained a prodigious appetite for fuel. On our next family vacation we found that the fully loaded and trailer towing Impala was hazardous to drive on the Interstate because of its inability to climb grades at a reasonable speed. Fuming truck drivers hung inches off the back of the camper as we chugged up hills at 40mph with the A/C off, then they blasted us with the horn as they passed on the downhill.


Having cheated death again, Dad goes for a stroll at the Piggly Wiggly

Once I got my driver’s license, one of my Chevy-driving friends had me bring the Impala over to his house for a tuning session; he confidently assured me that bumping up the ignition timing and blocking the EGR valve would bring Dad’s Impala to life. What this actually accomplished was to make the engine detonate like shaking a coffee can of hardware, so we returned the engine to stock settings and broke out his copy of “How to Hot Rod Small Block Chevys”.

how to

Once we checked the VIN code and learned the awful truth about the 267, we turned our attention to the rear end, jacked up one wheel and checked the final drive ratio. I don’t recall the number we arrived at I do recall repeating the test three times because it seemed impossibly low, lower than the 2.73:1 in my friend’s older Impala, so it was probably 2.41:1. Thus ended the Impala tuning session, and all thoughts of Impala performance ended there too.

1981 Specs
Quality-wise, the Impala had a split personality: It simultaneously managed to be staggeringly reliable and yet drive me crazy with failure.

Generally the car was an anvil of reliability. It didn’t break, rust or wear out. It never needed a major repair, ever. Never needed a tow truck or a rescue in 12 years, just tires, brakes and exhaust. It brought us kids to college, brought me and my wretched TR4 back from college, and it was my Sister’s wedding car. If you needed a job done, the Impala would do it without drama or complaint.


Off to College, 1986

But, after a few years the gas struts retired from trying to hold the trunk lid up, and thereafter we employed a broom handle. This was a bit risky, as a carelessly applied stick would slip, and the 900 pound trunk lid could have severed an arm. Later the foam in the seats totally collapsed. Riding in the Impala was like sitting atop a layer of potatoes on the floor. It was a literal pain in the butt, and it was hard to see over the dash.

At some point the signal stalk wouldn’t return in one direction. My Chevy-driving friend told me how to fix it, and with a 30 cent spring from the dealership and a borrowed steering wheel puller I made it right. My parents complimented me on this fix; I think it was the first repair I’d ever made without creating either a colossal mess or another problem.

The Impala had a few quirks, one being the windshield washer mechanism. It was a mechanical pump driven off a cam on the back of the wiper output shaft. Touching the washer button resulted in multiple massive squirts of fluid being deposited on the windshield. It was important to carry a jug of washer fluid in the Impala, as driving in slushy weather would quickly deplete the small reservoir. The powerful vacuum-assisted brakes caused me grief on a couple of occasions, as I was accustomed to driving a car with manual brakes. One day I made the mistake of adjusting the front bench seat as I was slowing down, the seat instantly slid all the way forward on its tracks as all four wheels locked up and I was crammed against the dash and steering wheel while the horn blew. Luckily there was no one around to witness my display of driving prowess.

By about 1991 a new Dodge Grand Caravan appeared in Dad’s driveway, and my brother began to drive the Impala to University. Like me he was not much of an Impala fan, but as an English major he was a more effective complainer than I was. He was later presented with a 1992 Mercury Tracer LTS which was a vastly superior student car. It was left to me to dispose of the Impala, luckily a co-worker had mentioned that he was looking for a cheap reliable car, and we sold it to him for $150.

As I type this I’m about the same age Dad was when he bought the Impala, would I have bought a similar car under the circumstances? Probably, but with over 30 years of hindsight, it still bothers me a bit, and I ask myself what I might have done differently with that car. The big stick answer would have been to ditch the 267 and drop in the much more capable 305 cubic inch V8, but my parents would never have taken that suggestion after the car was bought, particularly from a 14-year-old kid.

No, I should have encouraged my Dad to get the rear gears changed out, a much more affordable proposition. With a 3.08:1 gearset the Impala would have had 28% more torque at the wheels, which would have made a big difference in drivability. Sure it would pull more RPM on the highway, but we wouldn’t have been risking our lives on vacation and it may well have gotten better combined mileage since it didn’t see much highway use.

Although I was knee deep in my own vehicular problems in those days, I should have taken the time to do something about the trunk struts, and replaced the potato seats with benches from a newer Caprice, anything up to 1990 would have bolted right in. With a little attention and a few tweaks it might well have been a vehicle that I looked forward to spending time in. I might have even started driving it in 1991 instead of my AMC Concord and become… a GM guy.

the end

Last Photo before delivery to new owner – 1993

Related Reading:

COAL – 1972 Matador – I saved it and it saved me

The GM B-body:  A Love Song in B Major