By Jim Kerr
Winter is the time I tinker with my hobbies in the shop, so I am back to work on my classic ‘64 Impala. Much of the bodywork has been done, and now it is time to work on the chassis. During the earlier part of the winter, I spent time getting suspension pieces off parts vehicles; these have been cleaned, painted, zinc chromate-plated or powder-coated. After ordering some new parts and selecting a few aftermarket parts that will make this classic ride and handle more like a newer car, many of the suspension parts have been partially assembled and are waiting to be bolted on. Now comes the fun part.
The Impala uses a body-on-frame construction typical of old vehicles and still in use on most trucks today. While it is possible to replace suspension pieces one part at a time, rebuilding a complete vehicle needs a different approach. In this case, the body will be separated from the frame, the frame will be stripped of all parts, cleaned, detailed, powder coated (I would paint it if powder coating wasn’t available at a reasonable price) and then all the new suspension parts will be installed before the body is lowered back onto the frame. It sounds like a lot of work, but planning, preparation and a little practice will make this all occur in less than a week. The key is to have everything ready.
Separating a body from the frame isn’t a bad task. At the manufacturing plants, vehicles are assembled by lowering the body onto the chassis or frame. We just do the reverse. In fact, on some vehicles (certain years of Ford pickups and Chev Blazers come to mind) it is quicker to lift the body off the frame to do major engine work such as remove a cylinder head. It may look difficult, but it can take less than an hour and this time is saved many times over by the ease of working on the engine when the body is out of the way.
A 1964 Impala is a simple car by today’s standards. In less than half an hour, parts like fuel lines, parking brake cable, speedometer cable, heater hoses, radiator, brake master cylinder and steering shaft can be disconnected. Ten bolts hold the body to the frame and the body is ready to lift off, complete with hood, front fenders and grille as one assembly. A hoist makes it simple, but a crew of friends can do it too.
In rebuilding the chassis, wear parts like ball joints and tie rod ends will be replaced. Rubber suspension bushings on a car nearly 50 years old need to be replaced too. The stock rubber bushings work fine but aftermarket performance polyurethane bushings will provide better handling with a little firmer ride. New coil springs will replace the sagging old ones and upgraded gas-filled shock absorbers at each corner will help smooth out bumps.
One of the biggest improvements will be the addition of front and rear sway bars; these connect between the suspension and the frame and are made out of spring steel. When the body leans or rolls on a corner, the sway bars will work to keep the car level by transferring the downward force on one side of the body to the other side as well. The stock ‘64 Impala has a front sway bar about the size of your little finger and no rear sway bar. A set of matched front and rear bars are ready to be installed and both bars are about four times the diameter of the original front bar. Stronger sway bars will keep the car level but still allow a comfortable ride.
The rear axle on this car is a one piece or “solid” rear axle unit. Simple to build, maintain and install, I have a spare one completely assembled and ready to replace the one now under the car. The simplicity of these units is their greatest advantage, but they don’t handle as well as independent rear suspensions. When a solid axle tire hits a bump, it makes the tire on the other end of the axle move too, and traction and handling are decreased. On an independent rear suspension, one tire can hit a bump and the other side isn’t affected at all. Perhaps in the future I will build an independent rear suspension that will bolt under the car, but for now it will remain quick and simple to work on.
New brake hoses, rebuilt brakes, including modern disc brakes for the front, and a rebuilt power steering box complete the chassis, and make it ready to meet the body again. Seeing the big things go together is the fun part of this hobby and it makes all the hours of preparation in cleaning parts, restoring threads and getting the odd bang or bruise all worth while.