At first glance, it’s the simple story of a man inspired to rebuild a classic car. Looking under the hood? It’s a story of facing challenges through almost insurmountable odds. Of how a passion project brought a son closer to his father. Of a little good luck and a lot of hard work and the power of believing you can do anything. This is the story of Eric Bates and his 1967 Chevy Impala, and just like Supernatural, the show that inspired it, it is ultimately a story about family.
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Sweatpants & Coffee: What inspired this project? Are you a car enthusiast in general, or was it inspired by a love of the show?
Eric Bates: My oldest daughter Abbey, now 16, was the first person to get sucked into Supernatural. She went on a Netflix bender with the show starting in 2012 and was obsessed and constantly tried to get the rest of the family to try it out. My younger daughter and I finally relented, and I remember watching the first episode with both of them in very early 2013. The Impala features prominently in the first few episodes, and by the end of that night I knew I had to have that car. I really enjoy the show—but I love the car. There is just something about it. I’ve always been a fan of classic cars, but I’m not what you would call an enthusiast. I knew absolutely nothing about rebuilding a car going into this, but I have a character flaw where I think that I can do anything. “How hard can it be?” is something I say a lot, despite the fact that I should know better at this point in my life.
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S&C: What condition was the car in when you first got it? Tell me how you felt when you first saw it.
EB: These cars literally do not exist. They are the magic flying unicorn of classic cars. Not that many were built in 1967, and cars that did survive the 60’s-80’s were largely sold for scrap because they were worth more as scrap metal than they were as vehicles. When I began searching, it became clear very fast that finding this car was basically an impossible task. The only hope was one enterprising family in rural Tennesee who saw this coming and started hoarding these cars—they had 4 of them in various states of disrepair as of early 2013. Unfortunately, their best car was in bad shape and they wanted a very large sum of money for it. I knew at that point how much work it would take to get the car where I wanted it, so I flew home empty handed and disappointed. During my brief layover, I checked Craigslist in LA—the previous night, someone had listed a 1967 Impala 4-Door Hardtop Sports Sedan (my car!) in Valencia. The Valencia car was in terrible shape inside and out, however, John, the seller and now my friend, had already completely re-built the engine. I bought the car for less than 1/3 of the TN car price—but knew there was much more work required to get this one drivable. “How hard could it be?”
S&C: Do you consider the car “complete”?
EB: The car is 100% complete and 100% screen accurate—down to the model of the cassette player in the dash and the army man in the back ashtray. There is a person named Rick in Kansas who is the worldwide expert on all things Supernatural—particularly all things Supernatural Impala. EVERYONE who is building one of these or who has ever considered building one knows “Rick from Kansas”. I say that my Dad and I built this car—but Rick (via email and telephone support) was the 3rdmember of the team. He got me through more than a few jams.
S&C: Does the car get recognized often? Do you enjoy sharing it with other fans?
EB: The car is appreciated as a classic car everywhere I take it. When a Supernatural fan recognizes what it is, though, the reaction is priceless. I’ve seen cars flip sudden U-turns and follow me with their camera phone video rolling. I’ve heard random screams of “I love your car” as I drive through town. I’ve walked out of Starbucks to people posing and taking pictures with it. I love it. Taking it to Burcon from Folsom is going to be hard—but I’m dying for a wider audience of Supernatural fans to see what my Dad and I have done. I built this for a lot of reasons: for my kids, for myself (just to see if I could do it), to spend time with my Dad. Another factor, though, was knowing how rabid Supernatural fans are and knowing that they would appreciate this effort.
S&C: What would your ultimate dream be for the car? Would you like to share it with the SPN cast? Do you plan to keep it or sell it?
EB: I’ve got no intention of selling because the monetary pay-out would never match the value of the car in terms of the 8 months of my life that went into that build. I’d love for the cast members to see it, but I know they have seen other cars at other cons—I’m not the first to do this. The entire cast did sign the car already—albeit they did so by signing the glove compartment door that my daughter Abbey carried around during the entire 2013 Burcon. For some reason we missed Matt Cohen, though! My mission during Burcon 2014 is to get Matt out to add his signature to all the others—so I guess you could say the car is not complete after all!
S&C: You built the car with your father. Tell me about that.
EB: My Dad worked constantly when I was growing up, sometime on shifts where I wouldn’t see him much. We didn’t have a bad relationship when I was living at home, we just didn’t have a deep relationship. I moved out when I was 18. I basically split off from the rest of the family and sort of did my own thing. Went to school somewhere else, built a career and a family somewhere else—just geographically separated myself. It wasn’t out of spite or anything like that, it just worked out that way. I worked my “real job” every week during that period and generally drove 2 hours to my parent’s house every Friday afternoon. My Dad and I would then spend the entire weekend chipping away at whatever issues we were dealing with at the time. I’d usually stay out in the shop until 1 to 2 AM each night just trying to cross one more thing off—working by flashlight, drinking Corona Light J and listening to a local classic radio station that basically plays the Supernatural soundtrack from the first several seasons. The honest bottom line is that my dad and I spent more time together building this car then we had probably spent collectively over the past 40 years. Literally. It changed the nature of our relationship—we were never “not” close, but it seems different because of the concentrated time we spent building the car. We really got to know each other. I absolutely could not have done this without him—that goes without saying. He has skills that I just don’t have. But I also would not have wanted to do this without him. I could have dropped the car off and paid someone to do everything we did. Doing the build with him, the way we did it (one excruciating weekend after another) was something I’ll never forget and wouldn’t change for the world. The first drive together was awesome, but the journey to get to that point was way more awesome in retrospect.
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S&C: Do you have a funny/interesting anecdote to share about any parts of the job?
EB: The challenge of the project is that you can’t find parts for this model car and nobody really makes aftermarket parts. Craigslist was my friend, but that resulted in some crazy situations. I remember squatting down in a backyard to look at a replacement fender and turning to my left and seeing a pit bull’s face two inches from my face. As I froze, he basically lick-attacked me. Sweetest mean-looking dog I’ve ever encountered. I met all kinds of interesting people including a Berkeley grad student who sells used Impala parts on Craigslist as his primary job. He and I disassembled an Impala dash together and discussed political theory one morning (mainly Machiavelli as I recall). I bought a $100 trim component from a guy in S. Carolina that I found on Craigslist. Something got mixed up with the box dimension entry when he shipped it, and FedEx charged my account $2,200. They wouldn’t back down until I provided them with surveillance camera footage of the delivery which proved that the package was not as big as a VW Bug. Everything was impossible with this car—but somehow we worked through everything.
Note to Supernatural writers – THIS is the backstory we want for Dean and John Winchester in an alternate reality.