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1961 Chevy Impala - Practice Makes Perfect

And Woody's Had A Lot of Practice!

Joe Greeves Jan 15, 2014
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When we asked Keith (Woody) Helvey from Jacksonville, Florida, how many cars he's owned over the years, he smiled and said, "I gave up counting once the number passed 100!" His hobby of fixing up old cars and reselling them began at the ripe old age of 14 and has been going strong for the last 40 years. In addition to making a profit, each car always turned out a little bit better than the one before and honed the collection of skills necessary to create his latest rolling masterpiece. The 1961 Impala Bubble Top has always been one of Woody's favorite cars and when he located this one in a salvage yard in Virginia, he jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, it was in a very rough shape but he was up to the task, thanks to those hundred or so cars we mentioned in his past. Woody has a well-equipped garage at home and began the process by completely disassembling the car, separating the body and chassis. While the frame was out being powdercoated, he turned his attention to the body. Although it took a while, he decided the best approach would be to replace virtually all the exterior sheet metal, including new fenders, hood, trunk, rocker panels, and floor pans. Just about the only thing left of the original car is the roof.



When the chassis returned from powdercoating, it was the perfect time to install the RideTech air suspension system. "Cars look really good when they are slammed down like that so I decided to try it. It wasn't any problem putting it on with the body removed but I wouldn't want to do it with everything in place." Preferring a package deal where everything fits and is an easy bolt on, Woody purchased the Level 3 package that included tubular upper and lower A-Arms, 2-inch drop spindles, and ShockWaves for the front. The rear was modernized with their sway bar and air springs for the car's trailing arm suspension. Heavy duty Monroe shocks snub all four wheels. Activating the system is their AirPod package that includes twin compressors, a 5-gallon reserve tank, and solenoids, all in a custom unit that Woody installed in the trunk. The quick ratio Saginaw 605 power steering box brought the once lumbering Impala closer to autocross-level handling.



While the body and chassis were apart, it was also the right time to begin work on the power train. Woody and his wife Jeanne called Indiana home for many years and when a friend located a 1998 Z28 Police Interceptor motor in an Indiana salvage yard, Woody knew it would be the perfect fit. The LS1 engine was another long time favorite, reinforced by the fact that modern fuel injected motors are comparatively trouble-free. The low mileage V-8 was in good shape so changes were confined to cosmetics and making it work with the vintage chassis. The original bottom-mounted, alternator and air-conditioning compressor were relocated up top to eliminate interference with the crossmember. A chrome pulley system simplified the changes. An auxiliary fuel pump in the new fuel tank created the 50 pounds of pressure necessary for the fuel-injected motor, now controlled by a new throttle cable linkage. Sanderson headers dump spent gasses into a 2.5-inch exhaust system with dual Magnaflow mufflers. Keeping everything cool is the combination of a SPAL electric fan and 3-core Griffin aluminum radiator. Adding to the look are the Corvette-style engine covers with custom Impala logos and the K&N air filter. The 4L60E 4-speed automatic came with the motor and uses a column-mounted shifter. The police cruiser also donated the rear end, now 3 inches narrower to accommodate the wider tires and running 3.55:1 gears and Moser axles.


Rollers & binders

Transforming the Bubble Top into a roller is the set of chrome C5 Coys, 18-inch versions up front and 20s in the rear, wrapped in Nitto NT555 Extreme ZR rubber, 235/40ZR18 up front and 255/35ZR20 in the rear. Hauling the high performance Chevy down quickly are the 12-inch, four-piston caliper, disc brakes.


Once Woody had the car the way he wanted it, he trailered it back home to Indiana for paint and interior work. During the next year, Rex Carpenter in Portland, Indiana, began the refinement of the sound-deadened interior with Woody choosing the style, colors, and designing the ‘SS' embroidery in the seats. Rex rejuvenated the original seats, covering them in black and Light Oyster Ultra Leather, then created matching panels for the trunk. The Custom Autosound radio looks vintage but it has all the modern connections for an MP3 player or iPod. Four Sony speakers fill the cab with sound while the Vintage Air keeps passengers cool and comfortable during Florida's warm summers. Auxiliary gauges include white-faced Equus instruments on the dash to monitor water temp and oil pressure along with the air suspension control module that's mounted on the transmission hump, near the driver's right hand.



The beautiful lines of the car are what attracted Woody to it in the first place so the exterior was brought back to factory original. The black and Oyster theme inside was repeated outside with Johnny Mort from Eaton, Indiana spraying the DuPont Black on the car, accenting it with the Light Oyster insert in the side trim. The build took almost six years and it was a great day, picking up the completed car for the first time and heading straight to a local car show. Dozens of trophies later, Jeanne and Woody are still having fun with their Bubble Top. Were there any lessons learned on this build? Two weeks after they got the car back from paint, a wire shorted out and started a small fire under the dash. As a result, Woody rewired the entire car using a Ron Francis wiring package. Smiling, he told us, "The next car I do, that will be the first change I make!" Woody sends special thanks to his wife Jeanne, along with Johnny and Rex for their help in creating the best in a (very) long line of cool cars.




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