Auto-Biography: 1968 Dodge Dart 170 Two-Door Sedan – The Neurologist’s Car Of Choice

Dodge 1968 Dart driver side

(first posted 6/21/2015)     There are a number of chapters of the Niedermeyer Auto-Biography still unwritten. Some of you might greet that news with yawns, groans, or worse. But I consider it a familial obligation to document all of the Niedermeyer-mobiles, real or imaginary. My father’s 1968 Dart falls into the former category, a bit too much so. I groaned (or worse) when he first drove it home, but came to respect it, and even managed to wring out a certain degree of sportiness from it.

So why has it taken so long to write up this chapter? Because I could never find a 1968 baby-shit (“Medium Gold Poly”) stripper two-door Dart like his. But Google is casting an ever-wider net, and last night, I found one just like it; well, almost. Needless to say, my father’s Dart did not have white wall tires. 

In Iowa City, we only had one car, as my father walked to the EEG Labs at the UI hospital; something he did with relish, as he was an inveterate walker/hiker, that being the one (and only!!!) characteristic that we shared.  In 1965 he was recruited to Johns Hopkins Hospital, to be the head of the EEG Laboratory and a professor of Neurology.

Opel Kadett A green

Not surprisingly, he was advised to settle his family well out in the suburbs (Towson), as Baltimore’s white flight had become a full-scale exodus, and Johns Hopkins Hospital was/is located in one of the older parts of the city, which had become very run down.

So he needed a commuter car, and bought his first GM product, one of only two he would ever buy from the General. It was a 1965 Opel Kadett A sedan, in this color of green, sans whitewall tires (of course). I thought he would have been better served by a VW Beetle, but my father was always cold (literally), and he wanted a car with a good, strong heater. And the Kadett did have that.

Rightfully, I should tell the whole Kadett story before the Dart, and just recently, I was telling Stephanie the rather unorthodox sole camping trip my father and I made in the Kadett, in our first exploration of the Appalachians to the south, and ending up in North Carolina. In addition to the new scenery, we provided some to the folks in the hollers and hamlets down there, who stared at the Kadett as if it was an extraterrestrial alien, which it might as well have been. Or maybe it was us they were staring at. The 40 hp 993cc Kadett would not have made a good moonshine runner, despite its relatively big trunk, except for maybe escaping the law by driving off the road between narrowly-spaced trees.

Opel Kadett A

Let’s just say that this bucolic picture of a father and son fishing does not represent our experience on a number of levels; those are the Not-Niedermeyers; the Niedermeyer’s don’t go fishing, for starters.  When I find a suitable Kadett A, I will tell you just how I came to have a scar across my wrist, and other fun tales of that trip, being my father’s…um…full-time attendant. He hadn’t been camping since WW2, and swore he would never again, but this was the only way to explore the Dolly Sods, and I was (conveniently) a 12 year-old Boy Scout. So I procured the tent, folding cot, and all the other supplies, was put in charge of their use, organized the meals, and cooked them. Is supper ready yet, Paul? Is my camping bed set up yet, Paul? Shall we stay another day, Paul?   NO!!! 

Anyway, the Kadett only lasted three years (I told you to buy a VW); well, it was still running, but had already required a valve job and was feeling a bit prematurely aged. It was a very light but rather flimsy car. My older brother’s endless red-line speed-shifting while shutting down VW’s in stop-light drags and other hijinks likely contributed to its issues.

Dodge 1968 Dart front view

I strongly suspect the timing of trading in the Kadett for a new car coincided with my brother getting his own car, a 1957 MGA whose terminal rust issues could be monitored on an almost daily basis, if not quite hourly. That sad chapter has been written already. No more sharing the car…time for a new one.

So off he went one day, once again failing to consult with me. And he drove home in this: a base Dart two-door stripper without a single option, not even an AM radio. This was his pre-car radio days, but soon after he got the Dart, he realized that the 45 minute commute through the city was much less tedious with news and talk radio, so took to carrying a cheap little AM portable transistor radio on the dash. Pimp my ride.

Dodge 1968 dart int seats

The featured Dart two-door does not have its original interior anymore, so I had to do some Googling to find something close. Oddly, this Dart 270 hardtop has the very same thin and cheap-feeling vinyl that belongs in the base Dart, and in my father’s car. Hmm. Which was also all-black, as in a cave, unbroken only by the chrome door pulls and a few miserly touches of plasti-chrome on the dash. But!! In a classic case of assembly-line mix-up, the rear seat in his Dart was not at all the same as this base upholstery in front.

Dodge 1968 dodge_dart-pic-3023772965191911699

His car’s rear seat was from a deluxe 270 model, like this green sedan, nice tuck-and-roll vinyl of a decidedly higher grade. Whoa! Where did that come from? Maybe it should have gone in the 270 hardtop pictured above, along with someone else’s mismatched front seat. Ah, the good old days.

Dodge 1968 dart_4_door_7_lgw

This shot is from yet another ’68 Dart, and it has an automatic and air conditioning. Perish the thought! Well, until 1978, when Pop finally got tired of riding through Baltimore’s famous summer humidity sitting on hot smooth black vinyl, and bought himself an air-conditioned Mercury Zephyr. But that’s another story.

I’m showing this shot because it’s the only one I could find with the base steering wheel. And I’m here to tell you it was a miserable thing. Chrysler changed the plastic formulation in ’67 or ’68, and now it felt perpetually greasy, and had a gray film on it. Or it seemed that way. And of course it was hot. Yuck.

Dodge 1968 Dart engine

This Dart proudly shows of its “Charger 225” slant six, which undoubtedly powered the vast majority of Dart sixes. But my father’s stripper, true to the name and concept, had the little 170 cubic inch (2.8 L) version, which as of 1967 was rated optimistically at 115 (gross) hp. The 170 used to be rated at 101 hp; I defy anyone to tell me what changed from the 101 hp version to the 115 hp version other than…the PR Department’s optimism.

Slant six 1965 170

The only picture I could find of a red-painted stock 170 was this fuzzy picture. The only visual difference is that the 225 block is a bit taller, and I think there’s a little hose or something from the water pump that might be correspondingly longer. But the real difference is in the one inch longer stroke on the 225. Yes, the bores of these two sixes is the same, at 3.40″. But the 170 has a modest 3.13″ stroke, while the 225 swings a mighty 4.13″ stroke, making it very undersquare, and a real torquer, in relative terms.

Meanwhile, the little 170 is willing to rev; one in a really good state of tune can be made to turn 6000 rpm. I don’t know if Pop’s would do that, since it lacked a tach, obviously, and he got his cars tuned up at a little gas station whose mechanic “Woody” was…all-too obviously not very sharp. But my father was loyal to a fault, and he got tune-ups on his Dart quite often, and would come home and say enthusiastically: I got a really good tune up this time!  Well, Pops, getting a tune up shouldn’t have to be like gambling…

Dodge 1968 Dart rear view

The Dart sported a three-on-the -tree, and a miserable thing it was. These three-speeds that Detroit was still sticking into many of their cars were totally 1930s technology: no syncro on first gear, which sucked in typical big-city traffic. Who wants to stop fully, or is good enough to double-clutch to get a clean downshift? Or just grinds the gears?

And they all were missing a gear, literally. First and second were ok, ratio-wise, but the jump to third (direct) was way too big. That worked half-assed with a big six or better yet a lazy V8, but the little sixes were strangled by these gearboxes. Especially if one wanted to have some fun. Never mind the slow and balky column shifter.

The countryside to the north of Towson, heading up towards Pennsylvania, is a driving mecca: endless old country roads that constantly wind through creek and river valleys, shoot up over hill and dale, and with straightaways connecting them, often with abrupt little rises perfect for catching air. Or thinking so. It’s like rural England, and there’s a reason sports cars were so common there.

My high school buddy had his family’s brand new Datsun 510 with which to get endlessly lost on these maze of roads. And with which to actually catch air. It was the perfect back-roads bomber, with its lusty OHC four and slick four speed stick.

The Dart had the potential to be one of the best American cars back on those roads, except for a couple of issues. Well, the giant hole between second and third was hardly minor; it meant either revving the piss out of the 170, which never complained, or bogging it down in a more reasonable shift into third. These sixes just cried out for a proper four speed, with the third gear being heavily used.

In my ’66 F100, with its 240 six and its three speed with overdrive, my favorite gear is second/OD, comparable to third gear on a four or five speed. It’s the one I use the most around town, and the one that I can rev out to get me up to highway speed if I’m carrying a heavy load and need to merge into a highway or freeway. I can’t imagine life without it anymore.

CC 59 066 800

There is this ’68 Dart in Eugene, which I wrote up here. It’s a deluxe 270 version, but I show it because it highlights another issue with Pop’s dart: grossly undersized tires. I’m not sure what exact tire size this Dart is wearing, but they’re radials and wider than the ultra-tiny 6.50 x 13 inch bias-ply mini-donuts my Dad’s Dart wore. So if these look small…think skinnier yet.

I looked up the ’68 Dart brochure, and sure enough, those 6.50 x 13s were standard only with the 170 six; with the 225, the tire size moved up to a still-puny 7.00 x 13. My point is that reaching the maximum adhesion on those curves was all-too easy to do, and was a liberal education. But this is where the Dart’s positive side comes in: it was essentially perfectly neutral in its handling attitude.

Thanks to the little six, manual transmission, and nothing else up front over the wheels, the Dart had a very favorable front/rear weight distribution, and hence the neutrality. Throw it into a tight back road turn, and it squealed like a lanced pig, but equally from all four of the little tires; well, mostly the two outer ones, but without the terminal understeer so typical in American cars of the time.

As confidence built, little well-controlled drifts became part of the back-road diet; the Dart never stung. The suspension was reasonably firm enough, although better damping from a set of good shocks would have been nice. Dad; Woody says that the Dart needs new shocks; I found some good Konis…they’ll make it ride much better.  As if…

The manual steering was of course too slow for serious sporting, but doable. Downshifting into second on a very tight uphill turn full-out was a serious ergonomic challenge that really would have required three arms to pull off properly. At least it had plenty of genuine feedback, which is rather essential for the style of driving I was cultivating between Bunker Hill and the Pennsylvania state line. Mom’s Coronet wagon’s power steering was utterly devoid of feedback; might as well have been a remote control device.

Plymouth hyperpak 1960 .jpg image by allpar

The shitty little Dart was no Datsun 510, but with a few modifications, it could have given it a run for the money, or even spanked it. The Hyper-Pak version of the 170 was rated at 148 hp, but was alleged to give more than that. In NASCAR’s brief compact racing class, the 1960 Valiants would do 130 mph, and the engines ran at 6500 rpm. And the Valiants  utterly spanked the Falcons and Corvairs.

Swap in a four-speed, or preferably a T-5 five speed, some bigger wheels, tires, brakes and a bit of suspension tuning, and the Dart could be a killer back-roads bomber. A number of folks have done just that, and the results are impressive.

Dodge 1968 Dart passenger side


Enough MMing. I’d like to think this was actually my dad’s Dart, sporting primer on one side and some of the original paint on the other. But the 225 six and TorqueFlite make that impossible. Just as well. But I’m sure someone drove his for at least another ten years or more, as all my back-road bombing didn’t seem to faze it the slightest.

In my old age, I’ve come to see that my father was smarter than I gave him credit for, even with his choice of cars. My older brother may have contributed to the Kadett’s early demise, but my father made sure that wasn’t going to happen again. So consciously or not, his choice of car was the perfect one in that regard; I only took out the baby-shit stripper Dart when I was desperate, and it was up to any and all the abuse I could subject it to.

Learning to drive a slowish car to its limits, over and over, is the best way to accumulate real driving skills. And it improves the odds of living to tell about it. So yes, Pop, it’s probably just as well you didn’t come home with a Dart GTS 340 four speed. Not a choice he likely ever pondered, but it’s Father’s Day, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.