It’s the Summer of 1978 and I am enjoying life in Vermont. As mentioned in last week’s Fiat 124 Sport Spider COAL I traded the little convertible fearing its end was near. In return I became the owner of a 1967 Dodge Dart four door sedan. If you have been following this series, you realize that a Dodge Dart is a big change from the cars profiled to date. The Renault, the Subaru and the Fiat personified impracticality and automotive whim. The Dart was just the opposite. It was a full-on 100% school teacher car. Allow me to explain.
My mother was a small town Ohio school teacher and a fair representation of the sort circa 1960s. She plied the fine line of solidly middle class, educated, eminently respectable but never flashy. Her cars reflected this. In 1968 she purchased a Pontiac Catalina sedan.
The Catalina was a pretty car. It had all the design cues that made the Pontiacs of this era so distinctive, but it was still just a Catalina. If you were the sort of person with social aspirations you would have looked at the Catalina and dismissively thought, “Nice looking, but it’s not a Bonneville is it.” School teacher cars had that effect on people.
I was the third owner of the Dodge Dart. It had spent the first ten years of its life owned by a Vermont school teacher. He and I had met earlier as I had accompanied the second owner when she purchased the car. The Dart was plain vanilla – automatic transmission, four doors, and bench seats front and back. It had been well cared for by the original owner who used standard Vermont techniques to combat the corrosive effects of the winters. The rocker panels were in good shape because he had sprayed used motor oil inside them after oil changes. When some rust had developed behind the rear wheel wells on the tail end of the fenders he had cut away the rust and pop riveted in new metal in a New England workmanlike way that L. L. Bean himself would have admired.
I think it had drum brakes front and rear but honestly, who noticed. Its key shortcoming was that it was a big (for me) rear wheel drive car so winter driving would be challenging. Some informal canvassing of the locals turned me on to the fact that there existed a thing called studded sandpaper retreads. Studded – that would take care of any ice. Sandpaper – that meant a super soft compound that would grip snow covered roads. Retreads – that meant I could afford them on all four corners at sixteen dollars per.
Mechanically everything was ace. Dependability would not be an issue but staying awake might be as there was no radio. It had the base 170 cubic inch Slant-6 engine that made 115 hp. The engine was so dependable and bullet proof that legally one cannot write about it without using the adjective venerable.
If the Dart was going to break I was going to have to do it myself and that brings me to “The Incident”.
I had met my friend Michael – henceforth to be called the Other Michael – when I was still in school in Philadelphia. We were riding and racing bicycles together and discovered our mutual interest in cars. I was now a ski bum in Vermont and he was now a young professional in New Jersey but we stayed in close touch. He liked visiting Vermont as it gave him the chance to put the three Audi Foxes he owned over (a very few) years through their paces. The Other Michael was a bit of a spirited driver and that meant that it did not end well for two of his three Audis.
So the Other Michael invited me down to Jersey for the weekend. In the era of enforced fifty-five MPH speed limits it was an eight hour trip each way but that was nothing when balanced against the fun you might squeeze into two days. As was our habit we would spend some time working on cars and what could you do with the Dart besides a tune-up. Before leaving Vermont I stopped at the auto parts store to purchase new points. As the guy behind the counter handed me the small box containing the new points he said, “Don’t drop the screw into the distributor.” Now by this time I had adjusted and replaced points more than a few times. Having been a bike mechanic I had also worked with my share of small parts without incident, but there must be a small measure of Voodoo magic in Vermont as his admonition proved prophetic.
The following Sunday in New Jersey, I removed the old points, set the new points into place and dropped the screw into the distributor. Huh. No worries, we can pull the distributor and fish the screw out. We all know that the aptly named distributor distributes electrical current to each of the spark plugs at exactly the right time and that this timing is determined in large part and can be changed by the relative position of the distributor.
Think of a clock. You have a date you are meeting at three o’clock. It’s a first date and you want to make a good impression. If your clock is properly set and you use it to determine when to leave for your rendezvous all is well. If the clock is just a little slow you will still make the date but she might be just a little annoyed. If the clock is three hours slow you will miss your date and the she may never speak to you again. Distributors work the same way.
The Other Michael and I were not completely untested. We knew that we would have to accurately note the position of the distributor’s rotating cam and the angle of the distributor itself. We carefully pulled out the distributor, retrieved the fallen screw and seemingly re-installed the distributor exactly as we had found it. After attaching the distributor cap and plug wires (in the correct firing order) we attempt to start the Dart. Nothing. We try a subtle rotation of the distributor. Again, no joy. I have an eight-hour drive home that evening. As in a bad sitcom, things quickly escalate out of control. Our subtle rotations become less so. We once again remove the distributor so that we can mentally map its features and characteristics in three dimensions. We realize we will need reason and rigor to solve the problem. We will need to apply the Double Idiot-Proof Method (DIPM).
The hallmark of DIPM is that before doing anything that might make a situation worse Idiot A must convince Idiot B that the proposed fix will in fact make the situation better. Both idiots must agree. Idiots A and B agreed several times that afternoon and into the evening, but DIPM failed us on that fateful day. I resigned myself to another day in New Jersey and a visit to a real mechanic.
On Monday morning we towed the Dart to a local gas station and explained the situation to the mechanic who we recognized as sardonic but wise. He looked and sounded exactly like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.
He pulled the distributor out and seemingly without any study reinserted it. The car instantly started. In his Humphrey Bogart voice, he said to me, “No reflection on you, kid.”
I had the Dart for a year and the rest of its time was uneventful. It started reliably every day. Nothing broke or wore out. I did not become the envy of my friends because after all, the Dart was a school teacher car.