“It has a 409 V-8,” former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves says about his 1964 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport convertible. “That’s the important part.”
He got the red convertible 15 years ago — a car he had to have, he says, because of a used 1963 Chevrolet Bel Air four-door sedan that he drove to high school in Salina, Kan. Back then, he desperately wanted a 409-cubic-inch V-8 engine in a car with two fewer doors and a top that went down, but his father thought otherwise, Mr. Graves said.
By 1986, the high school Chevrolet was long gone, and Mr. Graves held the office of Kansas Secretary of State. Upon being re-elected in 1990, he told his father he was thinking of making a gubernatorial run. His father sprang into action, purchasing the red 1964 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport convertible in 1992 for Mr. Graves to use while campaigning.
“He bought the car I always wanted,” Mr. Graves says.
Whether the electorate would have voted for him without the Chevrolet is unknown, but he did become governor in January 1995 and served until January 2003. The car didn’t get much use during those years in Topeka — Mr. Graves discovered that his dream car didn’t withstand close scrutiny. It had been quickly put together and made beautiful in order for a quick sale at an auction.
He rectified the situation by sending the 171/2-feet-long car to a restoration shop in Hutchinson, Kan., for a complete mechanical overhaul. Now, Mr. Graves says, “the motor is a thing of beauty.”
The car was then trucked to Kansas City, where the cosmetic flaws were addressed. When it rolled out of that shop on its 119-inch wheelbase, it looked better than new. “They made it whole again,” Mr. Graves says.
On Jan. 11, 2003, Mr. Graves participated in the ceremonies as his successor was sworn in. The next day, he flew to Washington with his wife, Linda, and daughter, Katie, to report for duty as President of the American Trucking Association in Alexandria. His treasured Chevrolet came later, in the same moving van as their household goods.
The restored Chevrolet stands 55.8 inches high and is 77 inches wide, easily fitting inside the mover’s trailer. Upon its arrival, it was temporarily stored in the garage where Mr. Graves is employed. After the trip, the fluids were replaced, which meant filling the 20 gallon gasoline tank, adding five quarts of oil to the engine and 22 quarts of coolant to the radiator.
Now that the Graves family is settled in McLean, Mr. Graves and his car have been reunited. He reports that he has driven the rebuilt engine a mere 2,417 miles. With a four-barrel carburetor feeding premium fuel to the big engine, it develops a muscular 340 horsepower.
Records indicate that only 3,555 Impala Super Sport models were manufactured during the 1964 model year. Each one carried a base price of $3,196.
Only one of the radio antenna on the rear fenders is operable. The fixtures are mounted on either side of the trunk lid. “There’s room to run in the trunk,” Mr. Graves observes. That is where he stores the red boot when the white top with the clear plastic rear window is folded and lowered.
“It is so thin,” Mr. Graves says about the two-spoke steering wheel. The wheel features an equally thin chrome-plated horn ring. A built-in tachometer nestles where the steering column meets the dashboard. The handsome Chevrolet features disc-front brakes and, typical for the era in which it was built, no air conditioning because it is a convertible.
Full wheel covers dress up the wheels, which are shod with 7.50x14-inch white sidewall tires. The rear tires are barely up to the challenge of transferring to the pavement all the power produced by the big engine. A four-speed floor-mounted Muncie manual transmission keeps the torque under control.
To make life easier — at least while driving — Mr. Graves has added power steering to his Chevrolet. As a concession to safety, especially when his daughter is a passenger, seat belts have been installed. Occasionally, he will pick up his daughter at her school while driving the red convertible. “It makes quite an impression in the car-pool lane,” he concedes.
A reverberator on the radio was a popular addition when the car was new. Mr. Graves has resisted the urge to add one to his radio, preferring the music provided by the 409-cubic-inch V-8 engine. “It’s all about the sound,” he says, smiling.