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Building a ‘Thirty-Nine Impala’

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, August 10, 2012, at 7:46 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, August 11, 2012, at 6:32 a.m.

Being married to a car builder, JoEva Wheeler thought it would be neat to have her very own vintage car. Husband Iran Wheeler thought it would be cool to combine the styling of a 1930s sedan with the functionality of a modern car.

Their two approaches blended perfectly when Wheeler located a 1939 Chevy Master DeLuxe 4-door sedan that had been purchased brand new by his next-door neighbor, Max Bazil, when Wheeler was a youngster.

"I found it a block down the street, behind Ron Coleman’s garage. It was in pretty decent shape. It had floated around the north end all these years and Ron had bought it about 20 years ago," Wheeler said.

He recognized the car by the unique trailer hitch Bazil had installed on it, and by damage to the two driver’s side doors. Wheeler didn’t hesitate when Coleman said he would take $500 for the old Chevy, knowing he was not going to get it restored himself.

That was about five years ago, and Wheeler set to work on it almost immediately.

"He’s always said this would be to haul the grandkids around in," said JoEva Wheeler.

"We had to have a 4-door with all the grandkids," her husband said. The Chevy’s body style, with rearward-opening back doors, would be ideal for loading up youngsters.

"I wanted an old car with a 2001 drive train and electronics," said Wheeler. So he settled on the 4.3 liter Vortex V-6 and 4L60E automatic transmission and rear end out of an S10 Chevy pickup.

The old front suspension was scrapped and replaced with a Heidt’s Mustang II setup, complete with rack-and-pinion steering and power disc brakes. The V-6 engine was mounted higher in the frame to allow easy access for maintenance work. It runs a throttle-body fuel injection setup and sounds surprisingly stout, flowing through stock exhaust manifolds into dual Flowmaster mufflers.

All of the modern amenities were swapped into the vintage Chevy, including power steering, Vintage Air air conditioning, tilt steering column with cruise control and power windows, door locks and trunk release. A key fob activates the latter functions.

One of the most impressive features of the car is the dashboard, which appears to be vintage-correct, but is hard to identify. The reason being, Wheeler handbuilt his own dashboard to incorporate the full instrument panel of the S10, along with the air conditioner controls and vents and a modern AM/FM/CD sound system.

Bucket seats from a mid-sized late-model Chrysler were used in the front, with a matching Chrysler back seat installed, all covered by Downey’s Auto Upholstery in Ultraleather vinyl. Custom door panels and armrests, along with the headliner, were also stitched up by Scott Downey and John Schmidt.

Wheeler had to build his own center console with cup holders to accommodate the narrow interior dimensions of the car. He mounted factory-style shoulder harnesses to the center door pillars for the front seat passengers and installed a full set of belts for rear seat occupants.

Squeezing all the electronic control boxes into the car was a challenge, but the computer has been tucked away behind the dash, air conditioning components are mounted inside the right front fender, with a fuse panel in the left front fender and the battery mounted out of sight in the right rear fender. All of the fenders have handmade inner liners to protect components from the elements.

A master body repairman, Wheeler realized he could not repair the damaged door skins, so he made his own, from the beltline down. "Those are double-compound curves … that was really a job," he recalled.

He removed the center windshield brace and V-butted the windshield glass to improve visibility; the front vent windows were replaced by full-sized window glass. A special air dam, mounting low-set driving lights, was also constructed. Wheeler also converted the old vacuum wipers to electric by building his own linkage, which allows the wipers to operated in opposite directions, as originally installed.

Wheeler prefers finding his parts in salvage yards and this build involved bits and pieces ranging from big American luxury cars to imports. He says the guys at A&A Auto and Truck Salvage were especially helpful in locating parts he needed.

Chris Carlson and Neil Reeves at Chaotic Customs in Mulvane helped him track down the electronic gremlins that cropped up as the project was nearing completion. "I learned so much about electronics working on this car," Wheeler said.

He did all of the body work and modifications himself, including rebuilding a pair of badly damaged running boards, before spraying the car in a cream white-over- deep green single stage paint scheme.

Nadine Ward was brought in to add subtle double-line pinstriping along the body moldings and stylish flourishes to the glove box door and around the frenched-in license tag housing on the decklid. She also applied the car’s nickname, "Thirty-Nine Impala," to the trunk.

Wheeler added LED brake lights to the rear, as well as new reproduction bumpers fore and aft. He painstakingly straightened the original cascade-style grille before having it replated.

As so often happens, the project went from being a daily driver to a show vehicle. The original owner of the car, Max Bazil, now in his 90s, remembered Iran Wheeler when he came to show him the car, although he hadn’t seen him in about 50 years.

"Oh, he was tickled pink," Wheeler said. "In fact, his son drove up from Texas yesterday just to look at it."

So far, JoEva Wheeler hasn’t got behind the wheel of her car, though.

"I won’t drive it until he’s done showing it," she said. "So far only two of the grandkids have ridden in it … I asked if we had to sterilize it. They sat in there like two little soldiers," she said.

"But he has worked really hard on it and I really do appreciate it."

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