COAL Update: A Year In the Life of Dan’s Cars


I’m a bit different as far as car guys go.

Most car enthusiasts I know in my station in life have one or two nice cars that they keep all shined up in the garage and they come out on nice weekends for a car show, ‘cruise’ night, a trip with the family for ice cream or maybe they are the occasional racer, and the car could be a classic or a late model.  Their daily driver is usually a late model pickup, or maybe some kind of small sedan if they have a commute.

And then there’s me.  I own and manage a fleet of 15 cars, all of which have been documented through my COAL series here in 2018-19, and all of them rotate through my daily routine.

That magic 15 does include the cars that belong to my wife and kids, so, while technically not all of them are mine, I still assume all of the maintenance and driving duties.  I take a lot of pride in keeping them all road ready and able to be driven long distances and/or in heavy traffic at any time as I have always wanted a garage full of cars that I could drive anywhere, anytime.  Winters here in the Tidewater area of Virginia are pretty mild and I am lucky to be able to drive them all year, though I generally don’t drive the nicer ones in bad weather.  They may not all be pretty but they are mechanically sound, and even though most of them are exempt, they can all pass a state safety inspection.

Maintenance can be challenging.  Every car gets an oil change at least once a year, and they all get cleaned and detailed (by me) at each service.  Every year I usually buy at least one battery and a set of tires.  Since most of my cars were supposed to be in the scrapyard decades ago, there’s almost always a repair to be made, and I keep a running status board in my garage on who needs what.  Depending on what my schedule allows, the complexity and expense of the repair, or whether I just plain want to do it or not, factors into whether I do the job or if I decide to support the local economy by sending it to a shop in town with a mechanic that I know and trust.  I’m also connected to a hot rod shop when I need specialized attention.

So after a year on the road, how did they do?

My 1969 Charger is a rock, my personal Cockroach of the Road.  In the 11 years and 40,000 miles that I’ve owned it, I could count on one hand the number of repairs I’ve done to it.  It starts every day, every time, even in -1 degree weather while most other 1968-70 Chargers have long been taken out of circulation and are living pampered lives and trailered to car shows.

This past year, I brought it to a shop for an alignment that swore they could properly align an old car without a computer after I rebuilt the front suspension last year.  While I couldn’t feel it in the way it drove at first, I noticed the left front tire was wearing unevenly so I brought it in.   It pulls to the right now and the right front tire toes in badly.  When I get the time, I’ll bring it back.  Otherwise, it runs fine after I put about 2000 miles on it this year, mostly highway miles to work, a few trips out to visit my daughter at college 100 miles away (its her favorite car) and a few local car gatherings, and needs nothing other than a new pair of front tires and a correct alignment.

The Road Runner ended up being my unplanned big project of the year.  Last spring, not long after I wrote the COAL article, I had taken my daughter and her boyfriend out to a cruise night in it.  Pulling into the show, one of the spectators told me there was smoke coming out of the tailpipes.  Sure enough, it was blowing a huge plume of blue smoke out of the driver’s side exhaust pipe and the rear bumper, trunk lid and under the car were covered in oil.  Leaky valve guides?  No, it wouldn’t make this much smoke.  A blown head gasket?  No water in the oil.  A broken piston ring was my ejumacated guess.

A few weeks later, I had some time to pull the cylinder head off of the engine and examine it; turns out a broken rocker arm on cylinder #5 shot 2 pushrods up out of their galleys and they were lying inside the valve cover.  That could have ended badly.  I pulled the engine, brought it to my favorite machine shop, and had them autopsy the short block for any damage.  The block itself was OK but when he got to the bearings, they and the crank journals were badly worn so I had him replace all the bearings and turn the crank; the crankshaft had already been turned and was out of tolerance so I needed to replace it.  Luckily, I had one in my shed.  Interestingly, I never noticed a serious drop in oil pressure.

It took almost a month to get the engine back and a few more weeks to put it back in the car so I was without the Road Runner for a good part of the year and pretty much the whole car season.  Sadly, the ‘Bird only got a few hundred miles added to the odometer this year and that was mainly break-in miles on the new engine.

The ’71 Satellite is following in the Charger’s tire tracks as a Cockroach of the Road.  The 318 starts every day, never complains, runs the way it should, and does whatever I need it to do and I have only replaced a water pump in the 5 years I’ve owned it.  Back in July, I was planning on taking it on my annual Chryslers at Carlisle trip, about 6 hours each way, because it gets decent mileage, rides and drives really nice, the trunk is an epic size for car part purchases, and the old R12 air conditioner is truly beautiful.

I preemptively rebuilt the Carter 2 bbl just before the show as the accelerator pump had developed a dead spot, causing the car to stumble on hard acceleration, but now it runs great.  However, the day before the trip, while test driving the car after the carb rebuild, the A/C started blowing hot air, despite my having driven it on a 120 mile trip the week before with no A/C problems.  The near 50 year old system had developed a leak and I lost about 2 lbs of R12 Freon, which is hard to find and expensive when it is, and I only have a few cans left.

I was battling a virus all summer that kept me cranky and irritable so I didn’t feel like fighting an old car on a 700 mile road trip and wound up taking my late model Challenger instead.  I did otherwise manage to add about 3000 miles on it this year and I still need to chase down the A/C leak.  I hope its a simple fix, like a leaky valve or something because I would like to preserve the original R12 system for as long as I can, but if it needs major repair, I will convert it to R134.  Later this year, if there are no other major life distractions, I’m going to try and get it into the paint shop.

I picked up my ’73 Duster in September.  With only 61000 original, well-cared for miles, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of mechanical trouble but about 2 weeks after I got it, the fuel pump quit in a grocery store parking lot which required a tow home (thank you tow insurance)  A quick trip to the local box parts store had the car running again that afternoon with a new pump but within a few days, the car started running horribly and stalled out every time it stopped and came to an idle.

I could hear the gas draining out of the carb, there was a heavy gasoline smell, the bowl was overflowing.  I got out my fuel pressure gauge and took a reading – it was 20 psi.  Top Fuel cars probably don’t run that high.  A stock 318 with a 2 bbl carb should only need about 6 or 7 psi; race cars only need about 12-13.  I took the pump back and exchanged for another one from the same (made in China) brand because that’s all they had in stock and I had the same problem with that one.   I returned that one for a refund and ordered one online from a more reputable name brand and it works fine but the pressure from the other 2 pumps was so high, it knocked the settings for the floats and jets off.  I reset the floats and replaced the jets from another carb I had in my shop and was back in business.   The Duster is happily chugging along at about 18 mpg and I may enter it in the Survivor Class at a major national car show next year.  I put about 800 miles on it since last September.  It needs a couple of minor repairs though; a speedometer cable, a windshield wiper motor and the brake light switch just went bad.

I just posted about my recently repainted 1977 Grand Prix.  I didn’t drive it a lot this year because, quite frankly, it just didn’t look good.  But, after spending a month in the body shop for its makeover, I’m making up for it now, mileage-wise.  I only put about 1000 miles on it last year but there will be a lot more coming.  Mechanically, no repairs.

The ’83 Malibu encountered a cooling problem this year.  As I was driving home from work one afternoon in the spring, I watched the temp gauge start to climb up and over the 200 degree mark; the car has a 180 degree thermostat and never goes higher than that, even when sitting in traffic.  The car has a pro-built stroked 383 small block so overheating was a bit of a concern.  I was only about 15 miles from home and there were only 2 traffic lights between me and my house and it only climbed as high as 220 degrees and stayed there so I decided to risk it; it doesn’t have aluminum heads and traditional Chevy small blocks are pretty resilient.

But an even bigger problem arose.  At the same time, my wife was at a doctors appointment getting a round of allergy shots.  She had a reaction to one of the shots and passed out in the doctors office and to add to the situation, she had our 1 year old daughter with her.  Luckily, a friend of ours is a nurse manager at a neighboring medical facility and she came over to the doctors office that was treating my wife and took my wife’s Durango to drive her and the baby to the nearest hospital.   Naturally, I turned around and met them at the hospital.  After I got there, our nurse friend left to meet up with some friends to go dinner and a movie.  Along with the keys to the Durango.

We tried calling and texting but she didn’t answer; she was at a movie and her phone was off.  It was only about a 20 minute drive home so while the hospital started the discharge process, I drove home in the overheating Malibu and got the spare set of Durango keys and came back in another car.  At first, I thought it was a plugged radiator in the Malibu; with a 4 core radiator, I only saw water passing through 2 tubes, so I put a new radiator in, as well as a new fan clutch as the old one was seized.  Nope, still running hot.  The hoses were fine and full of water and the fan was pulling plenty of air through the radiator; that only left the water pump but I had initially ruled that out since it wasn’t leaking nor was the bearing or shaft making any noise.

I was wrong the whole time; I pulled the water pump and the impeller blades had almost completely disintegrated.  A new Delco water pump later and it was back to 180 degrees.  That was an expensive. time consuming misdiagnoses.   Later, in October at 5:30 in the morning while driving to work, I could smell antifreeze and then I heard a loud pop and the windshield got soaked with water but it wasn’t raining.  The heater control valve under the hood had basically exploded.  I once again drove the car home watching the temp gauge rise but luckily I was only 4 miles from home.   Such is life with old cars…  Right now the brake pedal is getting spongy and starts to settle to the floor while stopped for a light so I may be ordering a new master cylinder pretty soon and its due for a new set of tires this year.  I put about 1500 miles on it this year.


My Delta 88 started the year out in body shop hell.  In the summer of 2018, I was rear ended in that car by a logging truck.  Damage wasn’t terrible, but I spent months trying to get paid from the insurance company to make the repairs.  I didn’t get the car back until the summer and it still wasn’t finished but the major work was done and I wanted the car back.   I still need to order a rear bumper filler extension panel.  The Olds’ most significant even this year didn’t even pertain to the car itself.  I had a built 403 for it sitting in the garage that I wanted to put in the car.

While it was at the body shop, a friend was building a G-body ’87 Cutlass and was initially going to “LS-it” like everyone else is doing now but along the way had decided to keep the car 100% Oldsmobile and asked me if I would sell him the 403.  I said sure, since I wasn’t doing anything with it anytime soon and I,d rather see it go to someone that was actually going to put it to use.  He has it in his car now and it runs great, very torquey.

What was funny about that was, not even a week after I sold the 403, another friend, who is a mechanic at the hot rod shop that I patronize, was building a ’68 Cutlass S for a customer and had swapped an LS engine into that car.  He offered me the original ’68 Rocket 350 from the Cutlass for free just to get it out of his shop.  I loaded it up that day.  He said it had a rod knock and needed a rebuild but it only had about 90K on it and had never been rebuilt before so it still has all of its original tolerances.  While it may be 53 cubic inches smaller than the 403, it has a stronger block and better heads so it may even itself out in terms of power and longevity, and besides, it’s an Oldsmobile Delta 88, not a Hellcat Challenger, I’m not looking to break any speed records with it but I do want it to be fun to drive.  The 350 will be going to the machine shop soon and I look forward to de-malaising this car in the same way I did with the Grand Prix and Malibu.  Despite its stay at the shop, I still knocked out 1000 miles on the Olds and it got a new set of tires this year.

I didn’t kill my Grand National this past year, and that’s saying a lot.   I’m afraid to push it hard since its proved to be somewhat of a fragile flower snowflake of a car.  It’s leaking oil at the turbo now, which I have had off of the engine a few times so I might very well be responsible for the oil puddles under the car but its not so bad that I haven’t been able to put about 2500 miles on it this year, mainly to work and to car gatherings.  I would like it to visit the hot rod shop for some tuning and general tying up of loose ends but it runs OK in the mean time.   I generally only like V8s and hate the way most V6s sound (I like a good inline 6 though,) but one night, I ran another Grand National in a friendly little stop light run and the sound of those dueling Turbo Regals was simply glorious.

My ’96 Ram knocked out 5000 miles and no repairs in the last year.   Someone posted a video here on CC of a Ram from this generation with an old Chrysler gear reduction starter retrofitted in, so guess what I will be doing the next time its due for service.    Back in 2000, the truck was my primary source of transportation when my oldest daughter was born and we spent many hours in it driving around, trying to get her to fall asleep.  This past summer, it took her and her stuff off to college 100 miles away (sniff)

I picked up a 2000 Sonoma with an unexciting 2.2L 4 cyl and 4L60 automatic that just turned 100K miles for my daughter as her first ‘car’ from a friend who bought it new as a general around-the-house pickup.  But what started out as a $500 ‘buddy deal’ purchase price turned into $2500 after finding out it needed a transmission and an air conditioner compressor.  Still, $2500 isn’t a bad investment for a safe and reliable kid’s first car.  I put a couple of thousand miles on it to keep it roadworthy until she gets her license this summer.  Why a Sonoma?  They tend to be reliable, generally do very well in a crash, she can only carry one passenger and this one, with its 4 cylinder and automatic, is really sloooooooooow.  While I dream of swapping in an LS or a small block, the 2.2 chugs along slowly and safely.

My ’02 Durango was the primary mode of family transportation until my wife bought a 5000 mile 2018 Dodge Charger Daytona last June and has since been relegated to doing SUV-only things around the house, including a trip to the Outer Banks with our two year old and 2 large dogs.  It has 199,600 miles right at this moment and I haven’t yet decided how I am going to reward it when it hits 200K.  We put about 10,000 miles on it this past year and the repairs included the master cylinder and lower ball joints, both done by a local shop.  It still looks and runs good and doesn’t even have so much as a rattle.  I thought late model Dodges were supposed to be horrible?

This might be the first time I’ve used bandwith space for a picture of a Saturn, but the 2002 SC2 that my wife bought new is still buzzing away and is the high mileage champion of the driveway with 320,000 miles on its original, un-rebuilt engine and transmission.  This year, it needed a starter, a radiator fan (I did those) and a brake hose replaced (farmed out.)   My wife drives it to work on rainy days when her Charger’s soft compound tires are like slicks on wet roads and other places where she doesn’t want to take her “orange race car” and we put about 1500 miles on it this year.

My ’04 Ram, (TBT) is still doing truck things the way a truck should.  Trailering the boat, doing horse stuff for my wife, and the occasional commute to work; 2000 miles this year and it still has the OE battery.  No repairs other than a tire plug.

Finally, my Challenger remains my primary road trip car.  It replaced the Satellite at the last minute for my trip to the Carlisle Chrysler show in July when I decided that I wanted a drama-free trip while I was sick.  It also made a trip up to New York state for a friend’s wedding on Labor Day weekend, where I was forced to endure holiday weekend New York traffic with a clutch.  I’m spoiled by my mostly rural and relatively lightly traveled Virginia Northern Neck roads.   Also in September, I had signed up for a track day at Virginia International Raceway with it but it was cancelled at the last minute and will hopefully be rescheduled soon, but I need to do a brake job on it first.  Lately, I’ve been dreaming of a 410 ci stroker engine for it…

And there you have it, that’s a typical year in my garage.  I mentioned before that I’m not a collector.  Collectors have their cars in enclosed in buildings and are curated like pieces of art, which of course they are.  And I’m not besmirching them, that’s just not how I roll, pun intended.  I’m just trying to manage a Jay Leno hobby on a public servant’s salary.