By Brian Earnest
Mike Saskowski hasn’t driven his 1963 Chevrolet Impala to any demolition derbies yet. Someday, though, such a trip might be a nice “come full circle” moment for the Impala fan from Milwaukee, Wis.
Saskowski’s lovely red hardtop apparently attended a demolition derby at least once in its previous life, and it almost turned out to be the end of the line for the Impala. A couple of young fellows from the state of Washington had slapped a lucky number “13” on its doors and were reading the Impala its last rites when fate intervened. A spectator somehow figured out — or was told — that the car was a matching-numbers 409, and before the clueless youngsters could smash the Impala to pieces, the man made a quick offer and ponied up enough money to buy it from them.
The man ultimately planned to bring the car back to its former glory and restore it himself. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see the car’s complete comeback, but he’d no doubt be glad at the way it looks today sitting in Saskowski’s driveway.
“It was two teenagers, apparently, who just didn’t know what they had, and they had no idea when a 409 engine is in this car what it would be worth,” chuckles Saskowski, who has photos of the car when it was painted up for the demolition derby. “That was like 30 years ago … The man who got it from the kids started working on restoring it. He had it all disassembled. It took 22 years. He had the frame and drive train all done, but he didn’t get to the body before he died.”
The man’s widow sold it to another man from Boise, Idaho. He finished the restoration on the Impala in 2009 and owned it for a time before eventually selling it to a collector. That owner had the car until last year, when Saskowski found it listed on a dealer’s website in Georgia.
“The gentleman with the car had an astronomical price on it. I think he was basically just having them store it for him,” Saskowski said. “They told him to either lower the price or get it out of there. I didn’t go down to Georgia … I had an inspector who looked at it for a couple hours and he called me and said, “Mike, buy this car now! You’re not going to find a car like this for this money.”
Saskowski had the car shipped north to Wisconsin in May. It arrived late on a Saturday night, and he was not disappointed. “I was very happy, yes,” he said. “I had to wait until morning to drive it. I had a couple cocktails that night, so I couldn’t take it out. I had to wait until the next morning!”
A few more hours weren’t a big deal for Saskowski, though. The full-time firefighter had been waiting for a chance to own such a car for almost as long as he could remember. He could have had other collector cars over the years, but he wanted a 1963 Impala. He wanted it to be red, and he was willing to wait as long as it took to find the right car, and one that he could afford.
“My best friend’s dad had one since I was about 8 years old, so I have been looking for one for about 38 years,” he laughed. “I was pretty specific on what I wanted. I wanted it to be the original red color… and I really wanted the 409. In my price range it wasn’t happening …
“I just loved the styling of the ’63. It’s not so boxy, like the ‘64s. I think all the impalas are nice, but there’s something about the ’63 — I just love it.”
The Impala was Chevrolet’s top line and was in its fifth year when the 1963 models were rolled out. The handsome ’63s had a longer, lower look with distinctive lines and more pointed fenders.
The Impala’s upscale trimmings included bright aluminum front seat end panels; patterned cloth and leather grained vinyl upholstery (in color-coordinated materials); extra thick foam seat cushions; tufted grain and cobble pattern vinyl door and side panels; and a Sport-style steering wheel with half-circle and thumb control horn ring. Other extras included an electric clock; parking brake warning lamp; glovebox lamp; bright metal, and textured instrument cluster accents and dashboard face panels. Exterior bodyside trim included front fender accent bars; stainless steel belt moldings with stainless steel drip caps (except convertible); a full-length lower body molding with colored insert; and Impala lettering on the rear quarter section. An Impala emblem also appeared high on the rear fenders. The rear cove was filled with satin aluminum finish and trimmed by bright metal outline moldings. Triple unit tail light groups also served as back-up lamps.
The Impala was among the country’s most popular nameplates in part because of the variety it offered. It was available with a base 230-cid straight six-cylinder, or with a variety of V-8s, starting with the base 283-cid, 195-hp power plant. Buyers who wanted more cubes and ponies could opt for the 327-cid V-8 with either 250 or 300 hp, or pick from 340- or dual-quad 425-hp versions of the 409, which was Chevy’s top engine offering from 1961-’65.
A total of 16,920 Chevrolets were ordered with the 409s that year. Most of the 409s went into the RPO Z03 “Super Sport” Impalas, but Saskowski’s car was one of the stealthy regular Impalas carrying the bigger engine. “I’m wondering if this wasn’t bought by a grandma who didn’t know what a Super Sport was,” he jokes. “Usually that 409 got put in a Super Sport. Mine has the 340 horse, not the dual quads, which would have been super sweet!”
Saskowski’s car was also outfitted with a column-shifted automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes, but not much else from the factory options list. It still carries its factory AM radio. He hasn’t had to do much to the car in the past year aside from swap in a new water pump and a new heater core.
“I like ’em stock. I don’t like to change ’em up. I like them just like they were,” Saskowski said. “The guy who restored it even put bias-ply tires on it, and I’m going to leave them on it.”
The 409 Impala had been driven very little in the previous five years since its complete frame-off rebuild. The previous two owners only put 3,000 miles on it. Saskowski added about 1,000 in his first year with the car. “It had been a trailer queen,” he said. “I do the cruise-ins during the week, and on Saturdays and Sundays I try to find cars shows that are judged. I did pretty well last year. I won probably 10 ‘Best In Class’ trophies but no ‘Best In Shows’. Usually the convertibles beat me out.”
Untold thousands of full-size Chevy’s probably met the end of the road in the demolition derby ring. Saskowski is certainly grateful that his lucky red hardtop avoided the automotive grim reaper. He never got to meet the man who saved his wonderful 409, but Saskowski appreciates him every time he takes the car for a ride.
“It had been 30 years since I’d been in a ’63,” he admits. “A lot of stuff stays with you when you’re a teenager — usually girls and cars. This was just like 30 years ago in my friend’s dad’s car. The first time I drove it, it was awesome.”
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