Curbside Classic: 1965 Dodge Coronet 500 – Family Carma

We’re on the homestretch of a family hike in the Appalachian mountains, the way so many fall Sundays were spent. I’m running ahead, and there it is, sitting by the side of the road in the leaves…the old family chariot, the Dodge Coronet wagon, enjoying its peaceful repose  in the sun before it goes back to work while we rest. How many outings and family vacations has it faithfully hauled us on? How many times did I hot wire it and drive it illicitly? And yet what did I do every time I arrived back at the car ahead of the rest of the family? Find a way to snub my father for his choice of the Coronet.

By 1965, there were no less than seven Niedermeyers. Trying to squeeze us all into the little black ’62 Fairlane was now risking the wrath of the Child Protective Services. In a somewhat rare show of facing the facts of his reproductive prowess, as well as facing a family rebellion, he relented and went car shopping for a three-seat wagon in the summer of 1965. Typically, he didn’t heed my advice and recommendations:


Or this:

No, my father was not going there, despite all my lobbying. I could just see myself watching the Rockies go by from that forward-facing third seat with those panorama roof windows, as well as being able to keep up my distant car spotting across the plains of Nebraska.

As if in revenge, he was determined to banish me to rear-facing hell, forced to watch the same stupid car dawdling behind us for an eternity, as well as a vista that never seemed to change. He was only encouraging my inevitable rebellion.

The only two wagons he looked at was a ’65 Fairlane and the Coronet and its Plymouth sister, the Belvedere. The Coronet was chosen because there was a nine-seater available on the lot. I nursed my grudge, and learned to make the most of it, in more ways than one.

One of the goals of CC is to find the cars of my past. I can’t consciously remember seeing a ’65 Coronet wagon since my parents’ neighbors finally gave up on ours (like this one, but cream colored), after having bought it in 1973 when my Mom got her second Coronet wagon. The ’65 must have survived until 1980 or so. Lets just say Dodge Coronets, especially wagons, have never exactly made the collector scene. They were dull and stodgy cars, period; despite Dodge’s racing successes on the NASCAR ovals and NHRA strips. But they were long-lived.

Dodge and Plymouth were just a tiny bit late to the muscle car party that was getting under way. Not that they didn’t have the muscle; perhaps more than anyone. But the presentation was a bit lacking. This Coronet 500 was the “sporty” top of the line, comparable to the Malibu SS. Let’s just be charitable and say that the Dodge’s best assets were under its sheet metal.

The positioning of the Coronet, and its Plymouth Belvedere counterpart was a bit curious to start with. These B-Bodies were direct descendants of the ill-fated full-size cars that appeared in 1962 (above). Chrysler finally got back on the bandwagon with brand new real full size cars in 1965, so the old Bs were just kept on as Chrysler’s competitors against GM’s and Ford’s new mid-sized cars. Convenient, more or less. Thus, the 1965 Coronet and Belvedere were a bit bigger than the competition, and also looked a bit dated and dull. That’s the second time I’ve used that word; maybe not the last.

I went along with him and looked at both Coronets and Belvederes, and the Coronet was chosen purely because a nine-passenger one was in stock. I actually thought the Belvedere looked just a bit less…dull.

Let’s get back to the Coronet’s under-the-skin assets. I would have bet a Benjamin as to which engine I would find under the hood of this 500 coupe, bucket seats and all. The old polyspheric 318 was technically an option, along with the 361, 383 and 426 wedge, but I have never seen a ’65 B-body with the so-called standard 273 LA V8. The 225 slant six was highly popular with taxis and cheapskates, but other than that, the old 318 ruled.

When I say “old” or “polysphere” 318, that’s to distinguish it from the more modern LA 318 that appeared in 1967. The old poly engine A-block engine first appeared in 1956 Plymouths in 277 CID form. Chrysler hemis, as well as the “baby” hemis in Plymouths and Dodges were too expensive to produce to compete in cost against the wedge-head V8s from GM and Ford. So the polysphere head appeared, which required only one rocker but still allowed some of the benefits of a hemi, by canting the intake and exhaust valves in their respective directions of their ports.

Called Red Ram, by 1959 it was developing 290 hp with dual quads and 318 cubic inches. But the A engine was soon eclipsed by the new B engine, which grew into the legendary 383, and its LB variant, the 413 and 416 wedge, as well as the new 426 hemi. The two barrel 318 A engine, rated at 230 hp reverted to being the default V8 in medium and big Dodges and Plymouths of the time.

Certainly a rugged old chunk of cast iron, it was also inordinately wide, thanks to the poly heads. That was one of the reasons it was redesigned as the LA engine, to make it fit in the compact Darts, Valiants and Barracudas.

Now this may seem mighty subjective, but I had access to a new LA 318 powered ’67 Coronet taxi cab simultaneously as our poly 318 Coronet wagon, and the difference was palpable: the ’67 taxi had some genuine hint of urge to it; our wagon didn’t. Maybe it was the tiny gas station where my Dad had the Coronet serviced; “Woody” was pretty inept. I remember my Dad saying “Yes; I got a good tune up from Woody this time”.

As in, Woody’s tune-ups were a rather hit-and-miss proposition, as I found out the hard way when I took my ’62 Corvair to him when it started missing at speed on the trip from Iowa to Baltimore. I suspected burned points, and it took him half the day to come to the same conclusion, after I finally steered him that direction. No wonder my father was always thrilled when he got a “good” tune up.

Anyway, I suspect Woody never got the hang of setting the Coronet’s ignition timing, because it just lacked the punch that taxi had. Man, how I used to work at trying to get our wagon to chirp its tires. Impossible from a standing start. The only place was the the intersection of Joppa and Bosley; it was an odd reverse-camber uphill turn, which really unloaded the inside wheel to the necessary degree. But what a chore! Why didn’t my Dad order the four-barrel 383?

In previous mentions of the family Coronet, I’ve inflamed Mopar fans by my complaints about the Coronet’s handling. The power steering was of course typical Chrysler: over boosted and lacking any meaningful feedback, like twirling the helm of a cabin cruiser. My father’s ’68 Dart six with manual steering felt like a sports car in comparison, even if it did take too many turns lock-to-lock. But at least you felt something other than a greasy plastic wheel spinning freely in your hands.

That’s the steering; the handling was dominated by terminal understeer. The Coronet was a farmer at heart, trying to plow furrows in every curve or corner. I’ve been told I’m full of it for my complaints about the supposedly illustrious handling of these torsion-bar front suspension B-Bodies. What can I tell you? It was no fun at all. That’s not to say we didn’t find ways to have fun in it, but the Dodge doesn’t deserve credit for that. I preferred my Dad’s Dart, which handled quite decently with nothing on its front wheels but a 170 slant six and a manual transmission.

Maybe I didn’t get enough wheel time in the Coronet’s contemporary competitors to draw the right conclusion. Early exposure to my brother’s MGA and his friends’ various Volvos and other European cars didn’t help shape my impression of the Coronet, but there it is, vaunted torsion bars and all. But it was a solidly-built brick in pretty much every way, and was mostly trouble-free except the notorious Chrysler stalling in wet or humid conditions. It took Chrysler’s electronic ignition system in the seventies to finally cure that common malady.

I could go on all day about the memories made in that Coronet wagon, given the crucial years in my life when we had it, from age twelve to twenty. It’s probably a good thing the sun is finally out this morning, because I have more pressing things to do. But looking at it sitting there in that fall setting, with leaves all around, reminds me of so many outings to go hiking somewhere along the Appalachian trail.

I would always walk well ahead,especially on the way back. When I got back to the Dodge, I’d grab a little stick, slip it into the rubber seal of the front vent window, flip up the non-locking “lock” of said vent window, push it open, reach in and grab the inside door handle, open the door, and slide in and close the door. Couldn’t have done that with a GM product.

When my Dad appeared, I’d just be sitting in the Dodge with only a barely suppressed smirk. Oh, the looks…I knew exactly how to get under my Dad’s skin; it was one of those many little ways boys of that age (any age?) have of saying: “you didn’t make the right choice in buying this car, or this or that…”

It takes having a couple of boys to fully work off that karma. Yes, Chryslers of that vintage were the easiest cars to break into. And they weren’t exactly sexy. But I’ve long forgiven my Dad for his choice of the Coronet. Who knows; I might not have left home so soon if he’d bought a Vista Cruiser; maybe his choice wasn’t so random after all.