Looking for someone to turn those COVID-19 lemons into lemonade? Jason Prince is your man. Prince, a middle-school math and science teacher, was looking for something to do with his extra time after the pandemic closed schools and classes were moved online. He found the needed occupation in a 1962 Chevrolet Impala, much to his wife’s chagrin—at first.
Prince, who teaches at Highlands Middle School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hoped the shutdown wouldn’t last long, but with the situation in limbo he began looking for something to do, just in case.
“When the stay-at-home orders came down, I had to find a project,” Prince says. “I’m not a sit-around guy; I have to be doing something.”
And that something, he decided, should be restoring a car. His wife, Lynn, wasn’t so sure. We’ll get to that.
As a teenager growing up in Southern California in the early 1990s, Prince learned bodywork skills at Cerritos Community College in nearby Norwalk and put that education to good use by rebuilding a “rust bucket” 1966 Mustang convertible. He also worked for his then-girlfriend’s father, Ron Kunkle, who built 1962 Chevy 409 clones.
Prince eventually sold the Mustang and enrolled at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, a cross-country move that paid off in more ways than one. Not only did he earn a teaching degree, he met his wife there. The two married in 1998.
Fast-forward to March 2020 and Prince’s interest in a project car. In Lynn’s defense, no one could blame her for wincing at the thought, since Jason had been there and done that—and it hadn’t ended well. He’d owned a black 1960 Impala and was fully intent on restoring it, but … “That thing was so rusted—rockers, frame—it was never going to be a show car. I kind of got bored with it and sold it 7–8 years ago.”
Motivated to do something productive in the face of the COVID stay-at-home orders, Prince scoured Craigslist and found what he thought was the perfect candidate: a 1962 Impala that the previous owner had already started to restore.
“It was pretty solid, and it had been stripped down so you could see exactly what you were getting,” Prince says. “It had all the interior and chrome pieces; it just needed bodywork. I thought, ‘I can do bodywork. I think I remember how to do that.’”
That was on a Monday, and the asking price was $5000. Jason approached Lynn with the idea. Nope, not happening. He looked again on Tuesday. The Impala was still available for $5K. No again. Ditto on Wednesday. “I couldn’t believe it was still there,” Prince says. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone snatching up this car? It’s a steal!’”
Then Thursday arrived. To his surprise, the price had been slashed to $3000.
“I told Lynn, ‘This is a blessing from God,’” Jason says. As it turns out, so was her reaction: Go for it.
“I called the guy, Don, and asked to see the car, and then he started interviewing me,” Prince says. “I could really tell he cared a lot about the car. He asked if I had bodywork experience. He listened to my story. Then he asked if I had a trailer or access to one. I told him I didn’t, but I’d rent one. Instead, he volunteered to trailer it to me—and he lives in Portland (Michigan, about 45 miles away).
“Come to find out, he thought he’d sold the car to someone else the day before, but when the guy got there, he tried to sneak under the dash and pull some wires, maybe hoping to make sure it didn’t start so he could get it for less money. Don told him to take off.”
When the price dropped, Prince pounced. And after Don graciously delivered the Impala, Jason wasted little time in getting to work.
“It’s such a huge car [that] I had a lot to do,” he says. Each morning he would watch a YouTube video to prep for whatever task he wanted to tackle, teach his classes (via Zoom), and then work on the car.
“I worked on it every single day except Mother’s Day. I’m not an idiot,” Prince says, only half-joking. “It was fun being outside while everyone else was cooped up inside. And I felt like I was making really good progress. Every night I’d look at it and think, that looks so much better.”
Lynn also grew to appreciate the Impala and the impact it was having on her husband. “She liked knowing that I was out there doing something positive instead of getting exposed [to the virus],” he says. Prince’s neighbors, on the other hand, didn’t know what to make of it.
“They’d take a walk around the block, they’d see me out there, and they’d give me feedback … at first it was, ‘Why did you buy that piece of crap?’” Prince says with a laugh. “People are blown away by it now.”
Actually, some of those same neighbors were more than willing to help with the project. “Within a block of my house there are two other guys with ’62s, so whenever I got stuck I had those cars to look at,” Prince says. “And one of my neighbors, Darian Thompson, did all the paint work. He painted it in pieces … I’d put the trunk lid or the hood or a door into our Honda Odyssey and drive it down to him, then I’d wait until he was finished to pick that up and drive something else over.”
It was a time-consuming process, if you can call an astounding three-month restoration time-consuming. “I was kind of thinking two months when I started,” Prince admits. “It took a little longer than I thought. I had a few delays.”
Brief ones. Prince was determined to stay on-track so that he could be finished by the end of the school year. A friend stopped over and asked if he could photograph the car when it was completed—“in what, about a year?” Prince told him he’d be finished in weeks, not months.
The project gave Prince an opportunity to introduce his 15-year-old son, Noah, to the joy of restoration, but it didn’t exactly light him up—the same can be said for Noah’s 18-year-old sister, MaryHelen. “My love for cars has not been passed down,” Jason jokes. “Noah helped sometimes, but he didn’t love it. I took pictures every time so at least I have that.” There’s also photographic proof that Lynn lent a hand.
Finally, on June 7, Prince unveiled the near-complete restoration project on the last day of school.
“I had it all done except the windows,” he says. “My father-in-law (Jay Smith) loves puzzles, and the carpet and windows were like big puzzles that we had to put together.”
Now complete, the two-tone Chevy wears Silver Blue paint and a white top, as well as all of its original chrome except the front emblem. Under the hood is an upgraded 305-cubic-inch small-block V-8, and Prince also swapped out the Powerglide transmission for a Turbo 350. Among his other upgrades: a front disc brake conversion from Classic Performance Products, polished billet aluminum wheels from Vision, new steering bushings and linkages up front, and air bags. He also cut 6 inches off the rear springs to create a “California low look,” a nod to his Southern California upbringing.
“I’m pretty happy with it. I think it turned out pretty cool,” Prince says. “My wife loves it now. She calls it our marriage saver, because I would have driven her crazy if I’d been just sitting around.”
Hindsight is a beautiful thing. So is the Impala.