COAL: 1961 Plymouth Valiant • Not My Precedent!

It was beginner’s luck, really. Had to be; the hardest, fraughtmost, uncertainest part had been persuading my dad to buy the ’62 Lancer. Maybe if things hadn’t gone so perfectly well, I’d’ve sooner developed a healthy skeptical distrust for words and pictures of distant cars.

But things had gone perfectly well with the Lancer. It was a cakewalk. Nothin’ to it: saw the ad, called the seller, had a friend-of-a-friend put eyes on it, made a deal, called a transport company, stood there lookin’ cute, and »poof!« the car arrived exactly as described, in damn near Ziploc condition. Clickety-snick; done. That first experience gave me a severely warped idea of how well and easily sight-unseen purchases of old cars from away are liable to work out.

Or not to work out, which is what happened on the second try. The idea was sturdy enough: now I’d finished dismantling the ’64 Valiant, the logical next step would be a driveable car. I’d fallen hard for the ’60-’62 Valiant-Lancer cars, and wanted one of those. Right, then! let’s find one.

Nothin’ of major interest in the current issue of the Slant-6 News. There’d been that hot rod red ’61 Valiant I mentioned last week, and I still don’t remember why I didn’t pursue that one. Maybe it sold? Donno. My complete collection of Slant-6 News had arrived, and the previous quarterly issue bore an ad for this what looked and sounded like an absolute honey of a ’60 Valiant V-200 in Las Vegas (speaking of gambles):

I called the seller; yes, he still had the car. No, it was well out of my price range. I sighed and kept looking. Nothin’ doin’ in Cars & Parts magazine, either, but I did find a juicy ad in Hemmings: ’61 Valiant V-200 4-door, low miles, excellent condition, all original, California, etc, etc. Sounded a lot like the ad for the ’62 Lancer. I called the guy, asked some questions, got him to mail me some photographs. The car’s bright red paint camouflaged the red flags: he sent six or seven 3″ × 5″ colour prints taken from some distance away, and only from certain angles. My eagerness and inexperience didn’t allow me to hit Pause, nor to arrange for an inspection. I was sure it would be fine, just like the first time.

A deal was made, and we called the same transport company who’d brought the Lancer. By and by they called us: the car was offloaded and ready to be picked up at their terminal (I don’t recall why it worked that way for this car, versus to-our-driveway delivery with the Dodge). Mom and dad and I drove out to the trucking depot—I was still too young for a driving licence or even a learner’s permit, so the idea was that dad would drive home the Valiant and mother would drive back in whatever we’d all driven out in, either the ’84 Caprice or the ’90 Jetta.

It was dark out, and not better lit by much inside the depot, so the reality of the situation dawned on me in a slow sort of time-release manner. There was an ugly crunch in the lower right front corner of the car; that was one of the angles that had—carefully, it was becoming apparent—been avoided in the pics. There was a weird dent in the roof just ahead of the backglass. The paint was orangepeely and chipping off; definitely not original. Panels and trim didn’t fit right. Engine compartment painted black (wrong), engine painted gray (wrong). The more I looked, the more I saw and the lower dropped my stomach. The pic at the top of this post is the only one that survives of that car; I’m smiling there, but the smile’s a little forced and it’s rapidly draining away.

Still, the car was ours and the truck people certainly didn’t want it hanging round their place, so off we went. The low beams didn’t work, so dad had to drive home on high beam. I tried and failed to avoid seeing and hearing a rapidly growing list of wear and faults.

Morning’s light did not improve matters; that list was growing at a galloping pace. I no longer recall most of what was on it. What were we gonna do? Mr. Schultz, the high school auto shop teacher, agreed to come look at the car; his assessment was that the ad text had not accurately described the car. Okeh…and…so…now what?

Dad and I put in a phone call to the seller, whose attitude boiled down to “Let this be a lesson to you, kid!”. Dad was an attorney, so taking the first offer was kind of automatically out of the question. He didn’t threaten the seller—that wasn’t his style. He very diplomatically, very politely, very artfully steered the conversation toward subjects like fraud, without ever even hinting at that actual word. Eventually agreement was reached to unwind the deal: the car would be taken back to the trucking depot, the company would take the car back to the seller, the seller would refund the purchase. I think we might’ve split the return shipping cost. So all in all, we got out very easily and well from under that poorly-purchased car.

But I was now back to the start of things, back to looking for a car. I’d been rapidly amassing a library of everything to do with A-body Mopars and Slant-6 engines. Input! More input!

I’d gone to the downtown Denver main library, looked up the patent for the Slant-6 engine, copied down the names on it, called 313 directory enquiries (back when that area code covered the whole of southeastern Michigan) and rattled off names until the operator said “Yes, I have a listing”.

I called and introduced myself as thinking the Slant-6 was a nifty piece of work; that’s how I met and made friends with the recently-retired Chief Engine Engineer of the Chrysler Corporation. I eventually provided some editorial input into his big, highly worthy book:

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. As I was hoovering up any and all relevant information I could get my paws on, I became aware that there were Valiants in Australia, and they were different enough to be especially fascinating. There was hefty Slant-6 club membership down there, too, and I made contacts and penpals.

I also made a very useful discovery: the Rolm PBX at my very large high school was configured to reject and block outgoing calls with a first digit of 1, unless it was followed by 800 (which at the time was the only toll-free prefix for North American telephone numbers). However, the system did not reject calls with a first digit of 0. So: zero, area code, phone number. Operator comes on the line and asks how I’d like to bill the call. “Oh, silly me, did I punch zero? Meant to hit one; I just want regular billing, not a collect call or anything; would you connect me, please?” It worked every time. And from there it was only a short little hop to figuring out the system also wouldn’t reject calls with 011 as the first three digits. As in, 011 for an international call, 61 for Australia, and then the phone number. The calls went right through, every time. There were plenty of phones all over the place, including in some nice, quiet, out-of-the-way places. I’d imagine whoever was responsible for the phone bills had no idea why there were suddenly these very expensive 50-minute-long calls to Australia, but the system never got locked down. Ahem.

So I got the big idea to import a Valiant from Australia. There was a guy running an outfit called Australian Image Automobiles. He’d found a nice first-year Valiant Wayfarer (ute) for someone I knew in Georgia, so I called him up—well more than once—and we got to talking. He found a really nice AP5 (’63-’64) Valiant in tidy condition and sent over lots of detailed pictures and…my parents said no. They had no problem with minimal lap belts, a solid steering column, no side-impact protection, small drum brakes with a single-circuit hydraulic system, or any of that, but they drew the line at a wrong- (i.e., right-) hand-drive car. So I had to call the Aussie again and call things off.

What was I gonna do, then? I wanted a low-miles, high-spec, unusual Slant-6 A-body in terrific condition so badly my teeth itched. It wasn’t long before fate smiled on that wish, so…tune in next week!