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Cruise Missile

Looks Like a Lowrider, Leaves Like a Rocket

Photography by John Nelson

"Oh, it was gonna be a total lowrider," Robert Briggs confessed when we happened to mention that his '64 Impala SS ragtop sort of looks like one anyway. Responding to the interviewer's "No, you're kidding," Briggs spilled the whole sordid tale. "Oh yeah," he continued. "I had hydraulics in it, and I was gonna slap on a set of Daytons, the whole deal. But then I thought, 'No, I need a rod, with big wheels, slammed to the ground, and with a boatload of power under the hood.'" Says the interviewer, "So, is it fair to say that you came to your senses?" Briggs 'fessed up: "Yeah, you could say that." Though we're not exactly sure what's sensible about a vintage Impy that packs a carbureted twin-turbo 400 under the hood, a mill that churns out an estimated 1,200 hp and sends this SS from cruise mode to low-earth orbit in a cloud of tire smoke in nothing flat. Oh, wait--put that way, it sounds perfectly sensible, and very cool to boot.

We came across this extra-muscular SS at last summer's California Classic car show, where Briggs and his friends sat near the car, downing a few cold ones and enjoying the spectator reaction to his creation, which consisted of mild interest until a given peruser made his or her way up to the engine bay, at which point neck-snapping double-takes were followed by frantic calls of "Jeez, will you look at this!" and lots of picture taking. Not that we found this surprising.

The entire car is immaculate, but it's difficult to draw one's attention away from the Impala's engine bay and the mechanical sculpture that lives and breathes within it. In fact, it demands our attention, the array of compressors, wastegates, lines, tubing, and big honkin' Dominator screaming "Look at me! There's some serious power being made here." Not that it started out this way. Briggs had planned on building what he terms a "fairly mild" street engine--in fact, he did build it, this same 400 block, fitted with 10:1 pistons and a 750-cfm carb atop the current Victor Jr. manifold. The plan changed at a car show in Phoenix, Arizona, when Briggs came across a mid-year Corvette sporting a cobbled together twin-turbo system. "It was ugly," he recalls. "But it looked like it was made to make power." Briggs bought the system figuring that if it worked on the ol' Vette it would work on his Impala. In brief, the transplantation wasn't quite that easy; in fact, it turned out to be quite infeasible, at least with the parts on hand.

Briggs turned his turbo system over to Ron Lummus, proprietor of Ron Lummus Racing. Some know Ron for his VW and sport compact expertise--along with that experience comes a wealth of turbocharging know-how. Lummus' first move was to junk everything Briggs brought him with the exception of the pair of RotoMaster compressors. Lummus then created the draw-through twin-turbo system around them, fabricating the necessary headers and the maze of exhaust and intake ducting, adding a pair of Turbonetics wastegastes, and fabbing the dual-outlet manifold the 1050 Dominator sits atop, as well as the dual inlet hat capping off and feeding into the Victor Jr. manifold. It's like modern art for today's gearhead, and stylish yet oh-so-practical!

Work remained to be done once the framework was laid--Briggs first got busy swapping out the 10:1 pistons filling the 400 block in favor of a set of boost-friendly 8:1 Venolias. He then tackled the network of oil feed and return lines needed to keep the turbos spinning, as well as the fuel lines to supply the voracious Holley, using braided stainless PMR line and AN fittings throughout. Now, you would think that tuning this beast so that it behaves itself in a half-civil manner would be a nightmare of epic proportions, but you'd be wrong. Briggs' friend Arman Maghdessian, who's in the machine chrome business by day but a hot rodder after hours, actually had the twin-turbo draw-through 400 in good tune in short order.

It's easy to forget that there's an extremely nice Impala SS convertible built around the high-hoopla powerplant. Briggs bought the 327-powered drop-top six years ago, the length of time it's taken him to complete the project, though he aptly points out, "Is it really ever complete?" Over this time span, Briggs had ample opportunity to ply his trade, namely body- and paint-work. The old SS was in great shape--except for the rotted-out floorpans that needed replacing and a body that needed lots of straightening. Briggs did his thing, working with the car in bare metal until it was perfect, and then some, going so far as to reinforce the framerails before reassembly and laying on the coats of Glasso Black in his own paint shop, Paint by Briggs. The Impy's incredibly well-preserved original interior digs were mostly reinstalled, excepting a new carpet kit and an Auto Meter gauge pod; the setting is as it left the assembly line, though Briggs plans to install something in the way of a block-shaking stereo sometime in the near future.

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Car Craft