By Brian Earnest
There are countless reasons for a car lover to buy an old car. Pity usually isn’t high on the list, but it was a good enough reason for Bob Thorpen of Serena, Ill.
Thorpen drove a 1965 Chevrolet Impala SS when he was a teen, and years later he spotted a similar car in an unlikely spot. “It was sitting so forlornly in the back corner of a Ford dealership,” he recalled with a laugh. “I looked at it and it looked kind of OK. I thought I’d go and deal with the people, because being he was a Ford dealer he seemed like he wanted to kind of get rid of it. I think I only paid $2,500 for it.
“I drove it around for a while not knowing what I wanted to do with it. Then I decided to fix it up, but I had no intention at the time to make it as nice as it turned out to be, and certainly no intention of keeping it as long as I have.”
That ownership has stretched to 29 years now, and Thorpen and his beautiful Mist Blue Chevy won’t be parting ways any time soon.
“It was just a used car at the time, and unfortunately at the time, I didn’t think about doing any [research] on it … I don’t know much about the car before I had it. It had a Kansas title when I bought it and had no idea at the time I’d keep it as long as I did so I didn’t even make a copy of that title. I know it was a Kansas car, but don’t know if it spent its whole life there. I do know it’s a real SS by the VIN number … But yeah, I’m surprised I’ve had it this long. But here we are almost 30 years later and I still have it and it’s still pretty nice.”
Even Thorpen can’t pinpoint why, but the ’65 SS has stuck with him while many other Chevrolets have come and gone. For a while, his driveway needed a revolving door for all the 1960s Chevys that were passing through. Somehow, the blue 1965 Impala SS hardtop always stayed around. “I had a ’66 Impala a few years back and it turned out it wasn’t really my favorite, so I didn’t have it long,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of Chevelles. I currently own a ’64 Chevelle…. A ’64 Chevelle was my first new car when I was just past 19 years old. [I’m Chevrolet] through and through. Back in the ’60s, when I started buying new cars, four years in a row I had new Chevelles: ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67. Boy, don’t I wish I had all those now. Back then to trade for a new Chevelle after a year probably only cost you 700 or 800 bucks, and payments were only about 100 bucks a month. I just had the itch back then. I’ve had the ’65 SS and I had a 1966 Chevelle for a while. It was a nice Chevelle but it just wasn’t like my ’65 SS and I decided I wanted to just concentrate on [the SS].”
Thorpen is far from alone in his affection for one of Chevy’s biggest hits of the 1960s. An entire generation of bowtie kids grew up on the sporty Super Sport, which offered an attractive blend of pizzazz and performance in a big-car package. GM couldn’t produce them fast enough throughout much of the decade after the Impala Super Sport’s debut in 1961 model year. Thorpen has owned two of the 243,100 copies built for 1965, when 239,500 V-8 versions and 3,600 six-cylinders were minted.
During its first three years of existence, the SS was an option package for the Impala, but for 1964 it became its own model. For 1965, the Impala was redesigned with a sleeker, less-boxy look, and the Mark IV 396-cid V-8 was added to an engine menu that included the now-legendary 409. The 283-cid V-8 with a two-barrel carburetor rated at 195 hp was the standard V-8 Impala SS engine, but buyers could go up the ladder and choose from two versions of the 327, the 396 or one of two 409s.
Base Impalas were available as two- and four-door hardtops, four-door sedans, station wagons and convertibles. The hot SS models were offered only as hardtop coupes and convertibles, which numbered about 27,000 for the model year production run.
In addition to the 283 V-8, standard goodies included Super Sport badging on the front fenders, grille and rear cove; signature wheel covers; wheelhouse brightwork; carpeting; and vinyl bucket seats. Of course, there were a zillion add-ons available, from Positraction and a heavy-duty clutch, to power windows, brakes and steering, to fancy wire wheels.
A “plain Jane” 1965 Impala SS hardtop with a six-cylinder listed for $2,839. The base V-8 bumped up the price about $110. Convertibles were about $300 more than the hardtops.
Thorpen’s first 1965 SS was black, but his second one was Mist Blue. He decided to get some body work done and repaint his second SS its original color, and, as the old story goes, one thing led to another. “I had it in the body shop in 1985 and ’86, and the guy who did the bodywork and painting did such an absolutely wonderful job on it. It was really, really nice, so I decided to keep going on the interior and engine.
“At first, the body didn’t look bad, really. It looked pretty nice, but when I decided to have the body redone, one of the first things he wanted to do was have the body blasted right down to bare metal, and then we discovered lots of Bondo and body filler in the rear quarters. So I started searching, but in 1985, a ’65 wasn’t really old enough where they were really reproducing anything and the junkyards had junk. I wound up buying some quarters in California and had them shipped to Illinois. The shipping cost me more than the quarters did, but they turned out to be really, really nice quarters — really clean and really straight. Now you have to look really, really close to see where they were welded in. If you didn’t know where it was welded on the roofline, you’d never be able to tell.”
From there Thorpen, with plenty of help from friend Brett Miller, gradually worked his way through the entire car, including putting in a new interior and swapping in a rebuilt period-correct 327 for the “tired” 350 that was in the car when he bought it. The transplant engine was then mated to a similarly rebuilt four-speed manual transmission and four-bolt Posi rear end.
“I did the chrome pieces and rechromed the bumpers, and that really did a lot for it,” Thorpen noted. “Being it turned out as nice as it did, I started going to car shows, and I decided that I really liked the car, and just kind of kept going. Basically, it’s equipped the same as my first one: a 327 four-speed, buckets, Posi … My first one was black, and this one is blue, but I love the blue. I think it’s a really neat color. I like red, but I decided I didn’t want this one to be red.”
With drum brakes and no power steering, the big Impala SS won’t win any awards for its agility. Radial tires have made “a whole world of difference,” though, and Thorpen never needs an excuse to take off for a drive. He guesses he’s put about 20,000 miles on the car since its makeover was completed. At least a few of those miles were done at top speed. “I took it to a drag strip only once, just for the fun of it,” he laughed. “I had to do it once. It didn’t set any records, of course, but it was fun. It was just a hair over 15 seconds, which isn’t great by today’s standards. It had to be just a shade over 90 [mph] in the quarter.
“Occasionally they’ve been known to go faster than that! You’ve gotta blow the cobwebs out once in a while.”
These days, Thorpen is more likely to take his Impala SS to a cruise night than he is to bring it to a weekend show. He simply enjoys driving it more than looking at it, and “I’ve got a shelf in my garage here that’s full of trophies.
“I just love driving it. People’s heads turn and I get a lot of thumbs up,” Thorpen says. “People still admire it and walk over and talk to me about it if I’m at a gas station, or wherever. I love that. I like it when people come over and say things like that. It makes me feel good.”
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