When Taylor Swift's "You Belong To Me" single topped out at number 2 on the Billboard charts a few years back, Don Vtipil and his friends probably heard that tune more than once when they were working on this 1959 Impala in his garage. The popularity of that song struck a chord with a lot of people, but it also rang true with these guys, as what they were looking for had been there virtually the whole time. Unlike some who have to conduct a national search to find a restorable 50-plus year old Chevy, Vtipil found this running project car almost next door.
"My father had owned a 1965 Impala, so we wanted to stay in that category when we started looking for a project," Vtipil said about the thought process that led to this beautiful two-tone monster. "My step-mother had owned a '59 Impala and it was her favorite car also, so when we found this one less than five miles from my house, we decided this was the one we wanted to put together.
"The owner at that time only brought the car out about once a year, but I caught a glimpse of it at a small show about five years ago," he continued. "I gave him my name and asked him to contact me if he was interested in selling it. Two years later he gave me a call and told me he was ready to let it go. I purchased the car knowing it had some work to be done on it, but it sported a very clean white paint job, was powered by a 327, and ran very well."
The '59 Impala was a significant departure from that first '58 model, which helped push Chevrolet to the top in sales ahead of Ford. Being longer, lower and wider than its immediate predecessor (or anything else from the Tri-Five era), the '59 model Impala was a head turner that brought with it a look of modern luxury. While the horizontally spread rear fins, cat's eye taillights and dual air inlets above the grille were considered to be radical styling in their day, people have warmed up to the look over time, especially when compared to the more conservatively styled 1960 model. With the top-of-the-line 348 cubic inch Super Turbo Thrust Special tri-power carb engine, the two-door Sport Coupe had options like a power seat and cruise control that fit in well with the premium interiors that came with these cars.
Of course, "good lovin' gone bad" is another theme that's heard in popular music—and that's what began to emerge when Vtipil (with friends Ed Howell and Roland Burton) got to know this Impala a little bit better. Ah, the joys of old project vehicles.
The discovery of a fist-sized hole in the trunk near the wheelwell showed there were some skeletons in the closet. The hole, which had been covered with fiberglass, bondo and duct tape, led to his discovery of new floor pans which had been welded in over the originals. That, along with the discovery of homemade quarterpanels constructed from flat sheetmetal, some hidden rear wing damage and other assorted issues, led Vtipil to realize there weren't going to be any quick fixes.
"I have to admit the car was straight as an arrow when I bought it, so they did a great job," Vtipil admitted, "but I decided the Impala would need a complete makeover. When we first started on the car I had anticipated about a year to finish it, but 30 long years later, it finally came together.
"My biggest issue during the build was finding the parts that weren't remanufactured," he continued. "I know of at least 25 different pieces that we had to dig out of junkyards and search on eBay for. The front fenders came from Seattle, and the driver's side rear wing is from an old wreck in Minnesota. The hunt for parts was almost as much fun as putting the car together."
While the basic chassis of this X-frame car was okay, the accumulation of dirt and mud seemed to indicate that this car spent a lot of time in a rural setting. Both of the rear inner wheelwells were replaced with salvaged parts. New floors in the passenger compartment and the trunk were installed along with new front inner and outer fenders. The horizontal wing on the driver's side was also replaced. Removing the paint down to the bare metal provided an opportunity to discover and repair a lot of rust issues.
The suspension was modified with spindles, A-arms, shocks and air bags from RideTech in front, which helped drop the ride height by a full eight inches at its lowest setting. UMI Performance had extra goodies in the form of rear trailing arms, while Performance Online provided the massive 11-inch diameter drilled and slotted rotors. Seventeen-inch American Racing rims shod with Riken rubber make up the rolling stock.
When it came time to reassemble the car, Ebert's Classic Chevy Parts supplied the re-anodized grille, while straightening and polishing all of the assorted trim pieces. Tri City Plating Company of Elizabethton, Tennessee, and Paul's Chroming in Evans City, Pennsylvania, made the bling shine. Ed Barrell of Barrell's Collision in Petersburg, Virginia, did the custom, two-tone paint work with Inferno Red and Omini White to help accentuate the low slung, long and lean look of the car.
In the passenger compartment, Freddie Stell of Stingray's Upholstery in Prince George, Virginia, assembled the interior with components from Spalding International and Auto Custom Carpets. Additional enhancements include Auto Meter instrumentation installed in place of the stock gauges, an Eckler's 15-inch steering wheel, and a Hurst competition shifter. A Custom Autosound head unit with an iPod connector hidden in the ashtray is used with Pioneer speakers to make up a vibrant sound system.
Real hot rod aficionado's like the tunes that Vitpal's 348 cubic tri-power engine puts out the best, however. Rick Eley of Rebco Engine City in Petersburg rebuilt the 348 to stock specs. Introduced in 1958 with its trademark scalloped valve covers, the 348 was the predecessor to other better known W-series engines, such as the 409 and 427, which were both famous in their own right. With its three high performance Rochester 2GC carburetors, the Super Turbo Thrust Special 348 was at the top of the food chain in Chevy performance at that time—and good for an advertised 335 horsepower. Additional goodies include a Pertronix ignition, Ledfoot Racing aluminum 3-row radiator, a 7-quart deep oil pan for plenty of lubrication and a set of Sanderson ceramic coated headers which dump into twin 40-series Flowmasters.
"What I love about the car is how we designed it to be a true street rod, while keeping all of the body styling intact," Vtipil exclaimed. "It's been modernized with all of the right parts while not being over the top. I love that you can look the car over four or five times and still find something new or different. From an extra gauge pod on the dash to an overhead console to an air ride suspension, it just shows what the result can be when the right parts come together."
Apparently, everyone loves Don's '59. It won the Super Chevy AMSOIL Best of the Best online voting competition in 2012 and 2013 from the Virginia Super Chevy Show, and the Impala was voted the top fullsize car in the national competition in 2012. Time will tell if it can back that up this year.
With the right car and combination of friends, suppliers and parts, Don Vtipil proved that you don't always have to go too far from home to find the love of your life.