Remember your first car? Sure you do. It was your ticket to autonomy, your highway hall pass. It didn't even have to be anything exceptional for it to be noteworthy. Just the ability to take you places was enough to make it cool.
Of course, some kids started with things cool by their own standards. Like what would it have felt like to roll a '64 Impala SS on your sweet 16? Greg Sparks can tell you. But there's one thing that makes him different from the majority of the other lucky kids who got cool first cars: he kept his. In fact, he's technically just the second owner.
"My parents originally bought the Impala from Sunset Chevrolet in Sumner (Washington)," he begins. Even though they bought it in 1968, they were technically the first to put their name on the title. "It was actually the (dealership's) owner's personal car," he explains. "They got it in '63 and kept it til '68 when Mom and Dad rolled into the dealership."
Naturally, he formed a lot of his earliest memories in it. "My two younger brothers and I traveled around in it beatin' each other up in the back seat, our dad threatening to pull over," he recalls. Dad even put a hitch on the car and toted a travel trailer behind it.
"I had my eye on that car," Greg says. "My dad was into street rods at the time. He told me I could have it if I worked two summers mowin' lawns and deliverin' papers. The fun part of the story, my very first job at 15 when I got that car was washing cars at the very dealership where that car came from." Greg remembers it as 1977 or 1978.
"I made a few changes through high school," he notes. He breathed on the 300-horse 327ci, took off the clip to detail the engine compartment, clipped the springs, and even re-sprayed the original Goldwood finish. His wheel of choice? Cragar SSTs, "the chrome Centerline-looking wheels with the gold centers," he muses. "I ran the gold knock-offs." Hey, that was the thing to do in the early '80s.
In fact, so nice was Greg's tuned-up hand-me-down that he bought a '70 Nova to spare the Impala the abuse of daily driving. "So I beat around in this car that was like three different colors," he recalls.
But the honeymoon didn't last forever. A relocation in the mid-'80s made the car sit. Only when he started to make the car right again did he discover it was rust and not mounts that made the body sag. "I figured I had to sell it or strip it down and restore it," he says. He chose the latter, hiring Restorations and Reproductions in Gresham, Oregon, to hydroblast the bottom of the car and repair the damage. But the car still sat.
In fact, it sat until half a dozen years ago when Greg returned in earnest. "I still had the idea about stock but came to my senses that it probably wouldn't be that much fun. Plus, I saw the value of those cars when they were stock and it just didn't seem exciting to me. Coming from a hot rod family I figured I had to do something different." He hooked up with another hot rodder, Dean Olson at Dean's Hot Rod Garage in Edgewood, Washington. "He was breaking away and starting his own business and my car was his first project, something to show what he's capable of doing."
It's safe to assume that Greg Spark's first car is a keeper. To get rid of it nearly 40 years later, especially after putting it through such a transformation … well, that would be just plain foolish.
"Originally, I had a ZZ383 with a 700-R4 but that morphed into the 540 with the TH400," Greg notes. Bill Green at Bill Green Enterprises in Kent, Washington, built both. He based the engine on a Big M block. A Scat Performance 4 1⁄4-inch-stroke crank swings Scat I-beam connecting rods and JE flat-top pistons. The 110cc chambers in the Dart Pro 1 heads give the engine a 10.15:1 static compression ratio. By design, smaller oval intake ports build explosive torque on big-inch mills and Bill capitalized upon that with a relatively short-duration hydraulic-roller-tappet cam, COMP Cams' Xtreme Energy XR276. COMP roller rockers transmit the profile to Manley stainless valves. A pair of AFB-style Edelbrock carburetors on an Edelbrock oval-port manifold feeds the engine. Sumner Top Gun Muffler and Brake fabricated the exhaust system. It consists of 1 7⁄8-inch Sanderson headers, 3-inch pipes with Quick Time wireless cutouts, and Flowmaster Super 40 mufflers. That system flanks the TH400 Bill Green built. It sports heavy clutches and a TransGo Performance 400-2 shift kit. Inland Empire Driveline equipped the aluminum slip-yoke driveshaft with one of its urethane center-support bearings.
"We wanted something subtle so if people know that type of car they'd notice a few tweaks," Greg says. "You know, nothing major." Dean Olson at Dean's Hot Rod Garage in Edgewood shaved the door handles and filled the seams and cowl vent. As part of shaving the firewall, he replaced the pedal assembly with a Kugel Komponents 90-degree unit that mounts the master cylinder under the dash. Dean also replaced the hinges with Eddie Motorsports billet pieces and fabricated inner fender panels and a smoother upper radiator-core support. Dean's sprayed the PPG global base/clear urethane system. Believe it or not but it's a two-tone job. The Subaru Sage Green Poly along the top and GM Silver Birch Metallic split along the SS side trim. But rather than the engine-turned appliqué, the side trim and the rear cove inserts bear a color reminiscent of Frog-Tape green. He replaced the three-piece front bumper with a one-piece Carolina Smoothie. Eric Hayes Fine Metal Polishing in Edgewood polished the aluminum trim and prepped the steel parts for plating. For a slick-but-subtle trick, the stock taillights sport '61 inserts.
Beyond repairing damage from things like the old tow bar and dressing a few nasty looking production welds, the frame remains basically stock. The front consists of tubular control arms and Shockwaves plus an aftermarket antiroll bar. Even when aired up, the front rides 2 inches lower due to Fatman Fabrications' dropped knuckles. Dean replaced the clumsy ram-assist steering system with an integral-assist 12:1 Saginaw 605 steering box. Stock 10-bolt axles can hardly stand up to a 283 much less a 540, so Larry Rebsamen at Performance Fabrications in Spanaway welded tabs to a 9-inch rearend from Currie Enterprises. In light of the engine's extreme torque capacity Greg laments the 3.74:1 screw in that axle. Like the front, the rear sports tubular arms; however, it rides on double-convolute air springs and separate Bilstein dampers.
Rollers & Stoppers
Greg's wheel choice comes straight from his family's street-rod heritage. The Boyd Coddington Junkyard Dog rollers measure 17x7 and 18x10. Both sizes have a 4-inch backspace and wear Nitto 555 hides. The fronts wear 255/45; the rears, 275/40. The roller package bolts to Wilwood 13-inch diameter vented rotors and four-piston calipers.
Tony Miller at Stitches Custom Upholstery in Bremerton earned the credit for the trim job. But before Greg delivered it, Dean Olson wired the car with an American Autowire Highway Series harness and automated the doors with Dakota Digital actuators and Nu-Relics power windows. Greg says he prefers conventional gauges, a tall order in light of the short opening. Larry Rebsamen reshaped the opening to take Speedhut's Revolution gauges, a package that runs a GPS speedometer. Dean installed the Vintage Air Gen II climate-control system and the billet aircraft-style vents. Rather than a conventional dash-mounted head unit Greg uses an iPod run through a Parrot Asteroid head unit in the console to drive his audio system. That system consists of JL Audio amplifiers, Focal component drivers, and a JBL 12-inch subwoofer in a trunk-mounted enclosure. Tony Miller fabricated the center console around the B&M Sport Shifter and the panel that conceals the climate-control system. He also made the trunk panels and sculpted the door and kick panels. The floors and trunk wear gray Essex Super Plush pile carpet. For the seats he used a combination of green and greenish-gray leather. Greg crowned the shaved tilt column with an Intro Wheels 14-inch three-spoke Frisco 3D tiller.