COAL: 1962 Dodge Lancer, Part I – A Start

In the middle of November 1990 two things happened almost simultaneously: the Stinkoln Clown Car finally wore out its welcome (there wasn’t much else left on its list of things to wear out), and my first issue of the Slant-6 Club of America’s excellent quarterly magazine arrived late.

On the first page of the classified ads, I saw it. I wasn’t (yet) very knowledgeable about the early A-bodies, but the picture in the ad below it reminded me intriguingly of a Citroën DS in side view:

Things that made me go H’mmmm: dad needed a new car, right? Right. And he drove American-made 4-door sedans, right? Right. And his first car had been a ’62 Plymouth with Slant-6 and pushbutton automatic, right? Well, then! With all the hubris I could muster (more than plenty; I was a mouthy, cocksure 15-year-old) I set about campaigning for dad to replace the Stinkoln with this what sure sounded like a creampuff of a low-miles ’62 Dodge Lancer. Mmmm, creampuffs.

It was an uphill campaign, to be diplomatic about it. He was an excellent trial lawyer; he argued adeptly for a living. More, he’d already begun shopping round for a car; he’d gone test-driving a new Mercury Grand Marquis (jeeziz, dad, after that Lincoln, really‽).

I begged. I pleaded. I reasoned (in childishly spurious fashion). I cajoled, I stamped my feet…no good, any of it; clearly my kiddie-toolbox was the wrong one and this, to invoke Bugs Bunny, would call for some more grownup kinds of stragety—that’s a central lesson of the teen years, I guess.

Hey, I know…I’ll use research and evidence! I went to the downtown Denver main library and found this Popular Mechanics review of the new-for-’61 Lancer (click the cover to get the whole article as a PDF):

He read it, so that was promising, and he made notes in the margins, which I took as an encouraging sign of maybe a leetle wiggle in the boulder I was trying to move. But he was still of a fun-idea-but-that’s-all-it-is mind until I took up a new tack. The ’84 Caprice ate its water pump, and I leveraged the high cost of the repair (A/C, etc) to babble about $20 Slant-6 water pumps changeable in minutes with a box-end wrench. “We could work on it together…!”. That was enough to get dad to say “Well, maybe”. Aha!

Bob (he from whom I’d bought the ’64 Valiant ) had a friend in the Orinda area, who checked out the car for us. Meanwhile, mother and sister tried driving Bob’s ’64 Dart, to get an idea what the Lancer would be like. Mother was indifferent; 18-year-old sister was…er…not in favour. Bob’s friend called in and gushed about the car. Came right out and said “Buy it, or I will!”. Mother got onside and transferred some money from the left pocket to the right, making it a nominal anniversary present. Transport was arranged with an outfit called Sierra Mountain Express, and about a week later—we were into late November—I was sitting at the dining room table when a giant truck came stopping outside; the car had arrived! All by its lonesome on an enormous transport truck:

I ran round with my old screwmount Pentax—it was about the same age as the car—taking pictures as the driver offloaded the car:

I handed off the camera to mother and gave the car an eager (understatement -ds) inspection, starting with the most important part…

…then I fetched the barely-unfrozen garden hose, and my pile of hair and I washed off many states’ worth of road dirt before dad got home:

I was freezing and wet, but you want to believe I didn’t feel a bit of it.

By and by, dad got home. Maybe he caught the bus, I guess. Note his briefcase and stuff tossed aside in the bushes (and faded, chalky paint on the car):

Shortly after, the weather turned sharply; we had a cold snap and temperatures dropped to -25°F (-32°C). This introduction to Denver winter came as a rude shock to the car, accustomed as it was to California.

When I went to start the Lancer, it made its opinion known: the starter emitted an electrical whine of high current, but exerted no motion. I got out a spare battery and hooked it in with jumper cables. It cranked, very slowly, but still no vroom. I gave up, but I was still worried; the ad had mentioned a need for radiator work, and that part of California doesn’t freeze, so I was guessing it was all (or mostly) just water in the cooling system. And there aren’t any frost plugs in an aluminum Slant-6, not that they’re of dependable preventive help anyhow.

We ran jumper cables from the Caprice (my opinion of GM’s side-terminal batteries wasn’t any more favourable then than it is now) to the Lancer, revved the Chev, and cranked the Lancer. No go. Bugs Bunny again: “This…means war!” We patched in the spare battery as well, so that’s a total of three batteries in parallel, plus the Caprice’s alternator, all offering up the amperes for our poor, frozen Dodge. Still no go, but at least now we were up to maybe a little over half of this cranking speed:

I disconnected all the jumper cables, put a 100-watt light bulb under the engine; went inside, and thawed our fingers a little. We went out and bought a dipstick heater and some starting spray, reconnected the jumpers to the three batteries and alternator, squirted in some starting fluid, and cranked. Nope!

I advanced the distributor, ran the vacuum advance hose directly to the manifold (I didn’t know what I was doing; all this accomplished was breaking the heater-control rubber tube), ran the Caprice up to about 3,600 RPM, and let it charge the three batteries for 10 minutes. I had Dad aim a hair dryer on full hot into the carburetor, while squirting short bursts of starter fluid—what could possibly go wrong?—then I jumped out of the Chev, into the Dodge, and turned the key, pumping the accelerator madly, while Dad worked the hair dryer and the starting fluid. It fired a few times (okeh, I’ll take it) but wouldn’t stay running. I turned the key again, and there was a loud popBANG!. A yellow-orange flash reflected off the garage door. We hurriedly put out the merry little carburetor fire; dad said he missed it keeping his eyebrows warm.

The engine still wasn’t running, so we charged up the batteries with the Chevy’s alternator again and repeated our little dance routine…five times…before it finally started…and promptly died.

On try number six, remembering the escapade with the ’78 Caprice, we put a stick in the choke. Again (and again and again) it started, and again (and again and again) it stalled. Lather-rinse-repeat.

We put back the air cleaner—it was held on by a lamp harp base, that is the bottom part of the dingus that holds a lampshade; I guess the original wing nut had gone missing and the previous owner just used what came to hand and fit. Eventually it started, and stayed running! I quickly adjusted the idle to keep the RPM’s up, and we let it warm up, pounding each other on the back. I put newspaper in front of the grille and we, having been at it for three hours’ time, went back in the house to defrost the frozen toes and water pipes.

In retrospect, we (that is, I; the buck stops with whoever was calling the shots) did just about all of this exactly wrong. Seriously, what good was a light bulb on the driveway below the engine going to do in -25°F weather? A dipstick heater? C’mon. What we should have done was drained the cooling system and left the car alone. Or if it absolutely had to be started, we should’ve put some kind of a heater on the bottom of the oil pan, drained the (20W-50, per the door sticker) oil and run in some 5W-30. Or just added a quart of kerosene to the 20W-50. It probably would have started up right then and there, without brutalising the engine. I should’ve left the distributor alone, or if anything maybe retarded the timing a bit. I sure as all hell shouldn’t’ve used starting fluid; those poor cylinder walls were dry enough as it was, and here I was washing off what little lubrication they had. And I bet I melted half the starter brushes’ life off of them with that three-batteries-and-an-alternator stunt. Ackthpthpthpth.

And speaking of the distributor: true to the ad’s word, this really was a very original car—the Shell (as in gas station) 6.50 × 13 tires were probably the car’s second-ever set; the original Goodyear whitewall spare was still in the trunk. And under the hood was all original componentry. The original carburetor, original distributor cap with a Forward Look logo moulded in…

…the matching rotor, the original spark plug wires, original starter (first year for the Chrysler gear-reduction starter), and maybe its second set of spark plugs and breaker points, but could easily have still been its first. The car was built in late 1961, about a year before these 14 pages’ worth of three TSBs were published, and none of them had been done (here again, click for a PDF):

So yay, the engine didn’t freeze to death. We went to Discount Tire for a set of their house brand Arizonian Silver Edition whitewall radials, P185/80R13; those tires worked well. They wore well, too; they wound up lasting something like nine years, though dad did swap them off for four studded snow tires every winter. We had the radiator re-cored. We put in a cap, rotor, and plugs, but the car seemed to run worse. We replaced the carburetor with a remanufactured unit (oops, that was not a good idea), and then managed to buy the core back from the shop where we’d turned it in. Still worse, not better.

We went on a parts-changing goose chase, eventually diagnosing a faulty manifold gasket. We replaced the original metal gasket with a composition item from NAPA—not so good as today’s Remflex items, but they immediately cured the misfiring, gasping, and skipping, but wait…now there was a leaky intake-to-exhaust manifold (heat riser/hotbox) gasket, which made the project into a manifold-stack R&R&R&R&R&R, if I’m counting all the offs and ons correctly, but in the end the engine ran smoothly and there was no more exhaust leak from between the manifolds; woot.

The car had an AM radio with vacuum tubes inside: turn it on and let it warm up and it would begin to play. Not a whole lot available locally on AM, but the car had this amazingly tall extensible antenna. It had to be more than six feet, and we could pull in stations from many states away in the right conditions. That was fun.

It came to us without an operable heater—who needs a heater in Orinda, California? The core and valve had gone leaky, so they’d just looped the hose from inlet to outlet on each end to seal it off. A good core and valve were obtained, in good used condition, via another classified ad in that same issue of the Slant-6 News (and/or maybe one or the other core was re-cored), and—from the same seller—a Neutral pushbutton to replace the missing one. We referred to the service manual—an original bought over the phone and/or by paper mail; reproductions didn’t exist yet, and neither did any internet to speak of—and replaced the heater core and connected and adjusted the heater control valve and cable, and put it all together in the car. The light had gone by the time we finished, so we were working by drop light, but then we got to start the car and hey, it worked, it’s putting out warm air! That was fun, too.

Old brake hydraulics and oil and grease seals all over the place that had been steeping idly in California’s ozone for decades, then suddenly put into real service, did not last long; that was not as fun. We found out the axle bearings on the ’60-’62 cars weren’t the same as the readily-available ’63-up bearings, and quickly learnt the value of Svigel’s New and Used Auto Parts, which surely warrants its own CC entry one day. Also, the hard truth confronted us early and often that it was not possible to attain or maintain modern-car starting, idling, and driveaway manners despite constant effort and meticulous adjustment (this was a very difficult lesson for me; it took me many years and a great deal of expense and hassle to finally learn it. But I overtake myself; more later).

When it was correctly determined the Lancer would need a complete brake job less drums, mother screamed and raged about it. Not because we couldn’t afford it, nor because it inconvenienced her or anything, just…because. The brake job got done by an olde-tyme tech—Maynard, I think—at a near-enough Dodge dealer. His own daily driver was a ’66 Barracuda, an entirely suitable daily driver for a knowledgeable car buff and talented mechanic with ready workspace and extensive tools who happened to like A-body Mopars.

But hang on a sec, that’s the weird thing about dad’s ’62 Lancer: it was bought not as a good match for dad’s work and/or hobby, not as a father-son project on the side (while dad has a newer-model car as a daily driver); no, it was bought and put into service as dad’s daily driver. Dad knew very little about cars. He could drive one fine, and check and add oil and coolant and screenwasher fluid, check and adjust the tire pressure…replace a sealed beam or a windshield wiper blade, maybe, but beyond that, nope. He was a lawyer, working in a downtown office tower. Hobbies: bicycling, gardening, and fishing. Which wouldn’t’ve been any particular impediment in the car’s own day, when service stations abounded; all parts were readily available; the knowledge to efficiently and correctly service the car was widespread, and in general the needs of a car like this were well catered-for.

In the 1990s, though…? If the goal (however unrealistic) was anything like modern-car levels of prolonged proper operation, every day and in all weather, as a dependable daily driver…that would require an on-site mechanic, almost. Which means dad picked his car, on which he would depend, on his 15-year-old’s say so. In retrospect that kinda boggles me. Getting the Lancer for primary-car use was kind of a nutty thing to do, but it was really a loving act of parental warmth: we didn’t have a lot of interests in common, and emotional expression was almost impossible for him (similarly-disabled father; unpredictably crazy mother), but he found a way to connect with me and he did it, despite costs and hassles and being uninterested in the subject at hand.

When the car was running well and all perfectly tuned up in every respect, it ran and drove very nicely. Not a racecar, but certainly peppy enough. But keeping it in tippy-top tune was much more work, more constantly, than with a newer car. The Lancer was in just lovely condition, but old cars’ state of tune—in everything from engine adjustments to hinges and latches and seals and transmission linkages and all the rest of it—deteriorates faster and in more ways than on newer cars. Even if the old car in question has low miles.

So there was a lot of tinkering around. I got the factory service manual and parts cattledog, and collected every bit of relevant literature I could hoover up. Old magazines with road tests, old ads, technical service bulletins, sales brochures (one came in the glovebox, stamped by the car’s selling dealer, J.E. French). I began hunting and stashing new-old-stock parts in addition to the good used ones I dragged home from the yard. I taught my dad how to change spark plugs and install breaker points.

Mother and sister were never more than barely tolerant of the car. I don’t know that sister ever drove it, but on the occasion mother had to, her tolerance wore out quickly. Still, there was some family fun. At least one Christmas night we piled in and drove around looking at coloured lights under perfect snow. The car’s thin pillars and big glass area gave a panoramic view, and the Slant-Six more or less idled along while the studded tires surefootedly chewed up the pavement. And dad did quickly come to enjoy being the guy with the cool car. Everyone else in the firm— everyone else in the whole parkade—had a Mercedes or a Bimmer or a Porsche or a Laannnnnd Reauvaaaah, and nobody cared about any of those, but Ed Stern had the cool old green Dodge. People smiled and waved and thumbs-upped. He’d get phone calls, “Hey, Ed, you left your lights on”. Clients got a kick out of it—flimsy lap belts and all. Someone posted this on his office door one day, with “Ernie’s ’57 DeSoto” crossed out and “Ed’s ’62 Dodge” written in:

Still, though, this car really was a rolling box of hazards and had very damn near zero safety engineering in it. It pre-dated the first Federal safety standards by most of a decade. It had non-self-adjusting 9″ drum brakes at all four wheels, with a single-pot master cylinder; useless front seat belts and none in the back; a solid steering column; bumpers not capable of absorbing any impact without damage; no head restraints; not much of a sideview mirror to speak of; no breakaway rearview mirror; no minimally-adequate windshield wiper coverage; no failsafe throttle linkage; no crashworthy fuel system, no side-impact guard beams, no side marker lights. and door latches made before the improved 1964 latches shown in action here:

Compared to a 1990, 1980, or even 1969 car, the ’62 Dodge was really, objectively unreasonably and unnecessarily unsafe. So how did we cope with that? Well, “Denial” ain’t just a river in Egypt; it’s also an anagram of my first name. That’s it; it wasn’t a reasoned decision to accept greater risk, we simply…denied it. Dad’s entire life it had been beneficial, adaptive, and protective for him to box things off and just disregard the cognitive dissonance. It’s a very useful trait for an attorney. And me, I was closeted, so already very well practised at walling things off and tamping them down and denying reality.

So neither of us had much difficulty disregarding the very settled science and the extensive data and favouring instead these dumb whoppers we told each other—the other car will be the crumple zone, the older car’s sturdier metal would even out the odds—that were utterly delusional and easily debunked, but we clung to the fiction and simply declared it reality. Such an alien mindset to look back on now.

I developed the pictures in this post myself, even the colour film, in one and the other of the high school’s excellent darkrooms. Printed the black-and-white ones, too, including some fun experiments in solarisation.

I reckon that’s a fair start; enough of Chapter 1. There will be more, for this car was with us for three decades and many significant events. For now, though, a couple of postscripts.

The classified ads section of this same issue of the Slant-6 News was a real bonanza. A few pages after the Lancer ad was this one:

Um, yes. »POUNCE!« and I soon had a full collection of Slant-6 News and Slant-6 Quarterly. Gold mine!

On the same page as the Lancer ad was this one:

That car was advertised in those same terms for several more quarterly issues of the magazine. I hope somebody picked it up, but I have my doubts. Can you imagine an ad like this for a car like that today?

And a few inches above the Lancer ad was this one:

Ooer! I started making a case with my folks to replace the learning-machine ’64 Valiant with this what was surely far more car than I needed. I probably would’ve had a lot of fun and got in a lot of trouble with it, but onehow or another it was not pursued. I wound up getting in a different kind of trouble with a different red ’61 Valiant, more about which in next week’s instalment.

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