Ron Cherry: Beautiful bubble-top Chevy Cruiser
Special to The Union
There are cars that are restored for beauty, to have trophy-winning looks and have that “wow” factor. And there are cars that are restored to take on road trips, to cruise the highways and byways of America. There are very few that are both, but Deane Wilson has one. It’s his ‘61 Chevy Impala bubble top.
While the bubble top Chevys were built from 1959 until 1962, the iconic one is the 1961 Impala. With an outward-curving rear window and narrow roof pillars that created an airy bubble-like cabin, it has become a very collectible car. That is why Deane Wilson was so surprised when he heard one for sale on KNCO’s Swap Shop in 2006.
He was working on restoring a ’69 Pontiac Catalina and laid down his wrench to pick up the phone when he heard the price. Having wanted one since he was in high school, it sounded too good to be true. He asked if it were “in a bucket or a box.”
“Needless to say, the guy was a little annoyed and said ‘no’ to both,” he recalled. “He said, ‘You can drive it home.’”
After telling the guy, “Don’t hang up,” he handed the phone to wife Robin to get all the info while he hurried to the bank for the cash.
When he got to the car in Auburn, he wasn’t disappointed. It was a one-owner California car with the original 283 CID Power-pack engine and Powerglide auto trans. Although there was some rust in the body, it was a drivable, presentable car, so Deane happily bought it and, as promised, was able to drive home.
Although the Impala was in fair condition, it was far from being a dependable ride. So Deane decided to embark on a full, frame-off rebuild.
“It was my first and I went head over heels,” he said. “Instead of a ‘frame-off’ it was a ‘brain-off’ restoration.”
At first, he was able to work in a friend’s shop. He readily admits making a few mistakes, one that had serious consequences. Since there seemed to be enough clearance for the distributor, he decided to smooth the firewall, taking out all the indentations and holes.
However, it did change the transmission clearance, the mounting of the brake cylinder and the wiper motor.
After reworking the firewall for the transmission, he opted for a 90-degree master cylinder that fits under the dash and an aftermarket wiper motor that doesn’t work that well.
“Thank God for Rain-X,” he noted.
But you have to keep up your speed for the Rain-X to clear the windshield, which can be a problem in rainy weather. Then he decided to move the 2002 Corvette LS1 365 HP engine he was installing forward 1 1/2 inches. While that may not sound like much, it changes oil pan clearances, header routing and such.
Then he had a falling out with his friend and had to bring the Impala home. The interior was installed, the car had been painted LeMans Blue with a Dove White strip and the engine would run, but the car was a long way from drivable. It was at that point, his bubble almost burst.
“I was ready to give up,” Deane remembered. “But my wife supported me like crazy. She said, ‘Well, it’s not worth much the way it is, so you might as well finish it.’”
Deciding it was time to “call in the cavalry,” Deane started looking for a professional to finish the Impala, but could not find anyone who was willing to take on a half-finished project.
Then a friend recommended Bud Root of Bud Root’s Hot Rod Hobby Shop in Grass Valley. Bud took on the Impala and finished the job beautifully.
Deane smoothed the hood, radiator support and bumpers of his Impala as well as the firewall. It has a Hotchkiss suspension with tubular A-arms and QA1 adjustable shocks, plus Corvette Grand Sport 4-wheel disc brakes.
For a trans, he went for a 4L60E 4-speed, overdrive auto with a Lokar shifter. Admittedly a lover of “creature comforts,” Deane struggled to cool the interior, going through three aftermarket air conditioners before finding one that was powerful enough to overcome the greenhouse-like windows.
However, the 2005 Caddy seats with heaters and air conditioning help. With an ididit steering column, a custom console, Painless wiring, iPod sounds and much more, after five and a half years the Impala was finally on the road.
And it’s been on the road a lot since then, like 27,000 miles.
Robin told Deane, “If you’re not going to drive it, you need to buy a house with a big enough shelf to put it on.”
Instead, Deane and Robin have gone on a number of interstate road trips. He gleefully recalled a recent Good Guys trip to Nebraska and Texas with cars worth up to a half a million dollars.
“Mine was a home-built,” he said, “and mine was the only one that didn’t break down.”
As long as Robin is willing, Deane plans to continue long cruises.
“There are some beautiful cars out there that have never seen the light of day,” he said. “I like to drive mine.”
Besides, a shelf big enough to hold it would just cost too much.
Ron Cherry’s three books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. For more about his writing, go to http://www.rlcherry.com.
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