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.
Excellent article! Love the Early A-Bodies. My Dad bought a 65 Dart new a week after I was born. My Grandmother bought a 66 Dart that she bought new in September of 1965. She drove it till 1987! My first car in 1982 was also a 66 Dart then I upgraded to 75 Dart. Glad to see your trying to use the Lancer as a “Daily Driver” and reminding us of how much maintenance the older cars were. We come a long way with cars but they aren’t the same. The older cars seemed to have more of a personality and variety in styling. The first Lancers and Valiants had shall we say “unique styling” and in a way “looks only a mother could love”. The slant six was also new in them Thanks for the great read early this Saturday morning!
You’re welcome, and thanks for the thanks!
I learned about magnetic heaters when we lived in the Middle West and I needed to start my 1950 Ford 8N with original 6v electrics in sub-zero temps to plow snow off the driveway. As long as the power stayed on, they worked great. I’d stick one under the tractor on the hydraulic sump and one on the intake manifold. Worked a treat.
And the OCD in me needs to point out that “Welch,” or core plugs are not designed to relieve pressure due to freezing coolant. They are simply plugs to seal the holes in the block that are used to remove sand used in the casting process. They have no other function and by the time they get pushed out due to ice, you likely have other, more serious, problems.
Of course you are right about “frost plug” or “freeze plug” being about as (in)accurate a name as “shock absorber”, but I wanted to show the seed point of my ignorant guesses and assumptions about why it was necessary to start the car.
A magnetic heater on the oil pan would’ve helped quite a bit, and surely one on the intake as well. Probably would’ve preserved the piston rings and cylinder walls, and we wouldn’t’ve frozen our toes or endangered our eyebrows—but then I wouldn’t’ve been able to tell this story!
Great series from Mr. Stern, and these pictures are priceless. I wish I had more candid shots of cars (and just life in general) from growing up.
My dad gave me a camera when I was about six. A Kodak Ektralite-10, a pocket Instamatic that took № 110 drop-in film cartridges. I took it to school (first grade) at least once, and somewhere there are pictures, colour prints of the playground, classmates, faculty and staff, I think some elements of a bus ride, etc. I have a dim recollection of removing them from a decidedly-not-archival photo album and putting them in a box, but I fear the box might’ve got lost in a move; I haven’t seen them in many years.
But yeah, I have often wished we’d had today’s high-quality pocket cameras (our phones) back then, or, in my more fanciful fantasies, a way to travel back in time discreetly and take high-quality pictures and videos.
Indeed! But then again, I did so many stupid/immoral/illegal things as a teen, I am glad there weren’t smart phones and the like to archive my every decision…..
There’s certainly that!
I took lot of photos over the years, first with Kodak Trimlite Instamatic 48 camera (why my parents picked this expensive one for a 11-year-old boy is beyond me) then Olympus XA2 (which faithfully captured the awesome photos for 20 years). I had amassed a large collection of photos over three decades. Unfortunately, the self-storage centre manager in Boulder erred with the bookkeeping and auctioned my stuff for a palty sum of $145. So, I don’t have anything other than the box of photos of my first overseas solo trip to Australia in 1987.
You’re one of the most fortunate to have lot of stuff from your life in 20th century packed away…do keep looking through your boxes.
I thought I was the only one doing this! I had a ’62 Comet as a daily driver from 1984-89. Had very few problems. Only got stuck once (clogged fuel filter). Like you and your dad, everyone took notice of “my car” and got a real kick out of it. It was so different from the typical flimsy, boxy ’80s stuff. I also drove a ’72 Mercedes as a DD from 1989-98. Also very reliable.
I like the looks of that ’62 Lancer in green. Lots of space age character. Virtually unknown today.
I spent a lot of time behind this dashboard:
Under/behind-the-dashboard work was easy and fun when I was a teenager. Neither half of that statement endured!
As one who DDd a 59 Plymouth in 1979-80 and a 66 Fury III in 1987-91, I understand all you say – there were fabulous things about those cars and there were issues not experienced by those with modern stuff.
On the safety thing, you are absolutely right. But being a bit older, all I can say is that we were all used to this. Everyone I knew when I was growing up drove cars from that period. Had I known someone who got screwed up in a bad accident, I might have responded differently. But nobody in my extended circle of family, friends, neighbors did, at least as far as I was aware. We grew up in an era when everyone was in those cars, and those were the 10-15 year old cars all my high school friends and I drove.
Being older and wiser today, even the cheapest 25 year old shitbox is far safer than anything built before, say, 1974. And now the guy in the old car is all alone in terms of safety – if some other car hits you, you pay the physical price and the other guy likely skates. But for all that, there are still days I would love to DD a Lancer like this.
That’s it exactly—everyone was accustomed to the level of (un)safety of cars and driving when the ’62 was a current/recent model; the options were to suck it up and hope for the best, or walk. What made for the questionable choice and cognitive dissonance was the ready availability in 1990 of vastly safer cars.
In a perfect world where crashes don’t happen and old cars are always in perfect tune…welllll…it would also have to be a perfect world where defoggers aren’t necessary. So I guess someplace like Orinda, California. 😁
I used to live in Lafayette, CA which is the neighbor town to Orinda, both just east of the Caldecott Tunnel off Hwy24 in NorCal. It’s not exactly Orange County in terms of climate although it gets hot in the summer. Trust me, the defroster and the heater are both used regularly. Temps in the upper ’30’s and low ’40’s are not at all unheard of on some winter mornings. It rains too. Sure, it gets a lot colder in Denver but once you live in a warmer climate for a while the whole perspective/tolerance changes.
Truth; in San Francisco 60°F is considered a polar freeze and 80° a tropical heatwave!
I imagine many CCers are familiar with the video of a 1959 Chevy being crashed into a 2009 Chevy, but here’s the link. Hint: You’d want to be in the newer car.
The most amazing thing about that crash video is who many old kooks claim the test was somehow “rigged” to make the 1959 car look bad. The seat separating from the floor and the steering wheel piercing the dummy’s test must have been “fake,” too.
I mostly wondered how corroded it was. I’ve seen frames I could crush with my hand and seats that came out without unbolting on rust belt cars of that era!
It wasn’t rusted. This has been debated endlessly, but it was proven to be a very sold car. Just accept the fact that it was designed in a different era.
I inherited a ’62 Dodge Dart from my dad as my first car in ’72. It was a four door, 440 hardtop, with the 318 poly engine. It got me started on my amateur mechanical learning/wrenching career, and even body work, as I repaired it after an encounter with a drunk driver! 🙂
I’ve picked up snippets about this legendary Lancer over the years, but here’s the full story at last. And what a story! I am deeply impressed that you got your dad to do this; My dad? Out of the question.
Of course he drove a ’68 Dart slat six, but that was bought new and it was his choice of car.
Very touching, and very real, in terms of the joys and hassles of running an old car as a DD.
Oh, this is just the start—there’s a whole lot more to it, to be continued.
Although I pursued it with zeal, I was shocked to “win” on this one.
That PM owners survey was a real eye opener about public expectations of technology a few generations ago. Detroit promised an American alternative to the VW and under delivered in gas mileage and workmanship.
I wasn’t then, but having read a mountain of tests like this of cars like these, it seems to me there were unrealistic expectations, fed by advertising and even more by salesmen, of American-car room and power with VW Beetle fuel economy. The workmanship thing is really unfortunate. These cars could’ve been put together so much better—they were, as built in Switzerland!
I have a soft spot for the first A bodies, their distinctive styling made them among the first cars to imprint themselves on my young mind in the late ’60s – early ’70s. In contrast, my folks had the competing early Falcon, and when it was gone, Falcons were out of sight and out of mind, despite undoubtedly being more prolific.
You had the one I would have wanted to have. The ’62 Lancer front end is handsome, and maybe a bit bland, but it tones down the car compared to the first Valiant version, and works very well. The relatively high level of trim on yours – especially the greenhouse makes these look much better, and that Lancer script on the door is awesome.
Fascinating that your dad was willing to take the plunge professionally in his parking garage, not everyone could make that work, his ability to enjoy the attention and probably some ribbing would not come naturally to some of the snobbier in his cohort.
Right you are; most of dad’s colleagues couldn’t’ve and wouldn’t’ve. Though most of them, if they had a kid into cars, he had a poster of a Countach or a 959 above his bed—not a bookshelf full of Slant-6 Dart and Valiant stuff.
Come to think of it, if a hassle-by-hassle and cost-by-cost comparison were to be made between tinkering with dad’s old Dodge and the Benz-Bimmer Brigade’s dealer $ervice trips…!
I have long had a preference for the high-trim models. A Valiant V-200 over a V-100, a Dart 270 over a 170, this Lancer 770 over the 170.
The early A-bodies were (and remain) polarising. The first time I saw a pic of one, my reaction was “COOL!”, so I guess we know my polarity on the subject. The new ’63 Valiant sold much better, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world where it had been introduced as the ’60 model.
As a grade-school-age gearhead, I liked the A-bodies. As an adult, I still do. I saw a print ad or a brochure (of which I had quite a collection) for the ’60 Valiant that said something like, “Valiant has a clean, lean $6000 look but lists for less than $2000.”
The ideal A-body for me would have the Valiant front clip (European-looking grille) and Lancer rear clip (less outré tail lights, no toilet seat).
Regarding lawyers and cars as status symbols, I’m reminded of a passage in one of Henry Gregor Felsen’s books, I forget which one. The teenage protagonist’s father is saying that if a fool buys a car or whatever, he’s still a fool, only with possessions.
Mr Stern’s articles are such a complex fascinating blend of personal insight and refreshing approach to automotive tales, I’m rendered almost speechless.
I suspect your teenage enthusiasm for these cars had a more profound effect on your father than you credit. Perhaps your arguments didn’t sell him on the idea of the vintage car as a daily driver as much as your personal enthusiasm for the concept and your confidence that it was the right thing to do. Well done.
As for automotive safety in older cars, I’ve long suspected the average old car motorist would benefit from personal protective gear. A helmet with suitable coverage would reduce head injury, which, according to Car & Driver 40 years ago was responsible for over 80% of fatalities. It needn’t be a big heavy race car helmet either. A lightweight BMX helmet with side and face protection would go a long way. Similarly, a lightweight motocross chest and shoulder protector would help for torso injury.
This notion may seem ridiculous, but so did bicycle and ski helmets, decades ago. Now they’re ubiquitous. And imho for truly old car operation, (no airbags) some PPE, might just be the thing for peace of mind.
Thanks kindly! This weekly storytelling exercise is a shift for me; I spend most of my days and nights doing more purely technical writing.
You’re surely right that PPE would help, but there’s only so much personal gear and only so much bolt-on retrofitting that can be done to countervail the inherent lack of safety engineering in an old car. A helmet would probably help with head impact, but its mass would probably aggravate an already-dire whiplash hazard, for example. Three-point seatbelts could have been added—doing it properly would’ve called for more than just drilling holes; the B-pillar would need a reinforcement bar inside it—but this would do nothing about that malevolent spear of a solid steering shaft aimed square at the driver’s heart.
And so on. I’ve done quite a lot of nooding on the subject over the years, in part because my work involves traffic safety. You’ve got me thinking up a CC post on the subject!
I see it had the aluminum block–any idea how many Valiants/Lancers were so equipped?
I can imagine how you felt when you got those back issues of the Slant 6 News. In 1990 I decided that my next car would be a Peugeot 504, and I began subscribing to The Lion of Belfort, a Peugeot owners’ newsletter. In October 1990 I found a ’71 gas 504 in great shape at a fair price. Even better, it came with a thick binder of back issues of The Lion of Belfort.
Edited to add: Now that I know 50k aluminum slant 6s were made, what was that as a percentage of total slant 6 production?
There were somewhat more than 50,000 aluminum-block 225 engines made between late ’61 and early ’63. Most of them went in ’62 Valiant-Lancer cars; some in ’61 Lancers, a few in ’61 Vaiants and ’61-’62 Plymouths and Darts, and a few in ’63 Darts and Valiants, with a small sprinking of other applications. It is a fascinating engine, and at the peak of my involvement I had five of them counting the one in the green Lancer (and could’ve had three more, had I been quicker on the jump). My favourite trick: call up a machine shop and say I was bringing in a Dodge 225 engine, then walk in the front door of the shop carrying the block in my two hands and say “Here’s that Dodge 225 I called about”.
Wow, I’m another one who is amazed at your persuasion skills and the agreeableness of your father. My 15 year old public opinion campaign was for my parents to keep our 1975 Vega for me instead of trading it in on the new 1981 Impala.
My campaign failed, but in hindsight that was a very good thing.
And now we know where you got your beard growing skills from too!
Dad first grew that beard in 1979 as a quiet “Eff you” to the stuffy, awful stuffed shi(r)ts at the law firm he worked for in Philadelphia, once he’d secured a position with a firm in Denver. With the Western less rigid adherence to formality he kept the beard, sometimes longer and sometimes shorter. It had the interesting tendency to go snow-white when he was under a stressful workload, then return to coal-black once things were less hectic. We didn’t see his chin again until chemotherapy took away all his hair in the late ’90s.
And yes, he was my inspiration on the beard front; here’s a pic from a trip up Kenosha Pass when I was 16—you have to look hard to see this first beta version of my beard, but it’s there.
I have gone hot and cold on the looks of the original generation of Valiants and Lancers, liking what I see in pictures but occasionally recoiling when I’ve seen one, particularly the Valiant, in the metal. I must say, though, that I really like this Lancer, in that green, and in the higher trim level. The chrome accents on the window frames and around the wheel wells, on the rocker panels and on the front fender blades really bring out some of the best angles on this car. You picked a fine specimen of the genus, Daniel!
The campaign you mounted to bring the Lancer into the family fleet is truly unprecedented, in my experience: I’ve never known any 15-year old car expert who was similarly successful, least of all myself. To that, I salute your father, and perhaps it demonstrates that the apple never falls far from the tree.
I always liked the first generation Chrysler A-bodies, but my first Valiant (I never had a Dodge version) was a 1968 Signet four door, a loaded one with air conditioning. I have looked fondly on those 1960-1962 ones ever since. But then I realized that one of my daily drivers, in fact the one parked outside at work right now, is only two years younger now than Daniel’s Lancer was when he bought it!
Not everything got better at Chrysler over the years, though. The 1962 Dodge Lancer had better headlights.
I like this kind of “that 1962 car was the same age then as a 1993 model is now” thought exercise, but there are confounds that complicate the matter, notably the steadily-rising useful lifespan of vehicles over the years, so the effective age of a 1993 car in 2021 versus a 1962 car in 1990 is not a straightforward versus. Tough to find data as far back as 1962. This table and this one cover 1970 to 2016, and the current figure is 11.9 years.
So in 1990 when we bought the Lancer, at 28 years old it was 3.68× the age of the average passenger car on American roads. And in 2021 your 1995-model is 2.18× the mean age. A car as “effectively old” as the ’62 Lancer was in ’90 would be something like a 1977 model today, or a car as “effectively old” in 1990 as your ’95 is today would’ve been a 1973 model or thereabouts. Whee!
Headlamps: Yeah, there were a lot of lousy ones on American cars of the early-mid ’90s, and Chrysler products had some of the worst—easily capable of making the driver yearn for old pre-halogen sealed beams.
Good series. I love the slant 6 angle. When I was young everyone’s opinion was v8 or nothing. I recall back in the middle of the ’70s my dad was looking at a ’72 Country Squire as the next family car and working on negotiating a price while I was trying to convince him that the 57 Nomad on the same lot was the better deal. Fed up with my interruptions he finally shut me down with “Nobody wants an old car like that!” Papers were signed, cheques written and we drove away in the Ford. At home we all piled in for a “Victory drive” to show off the new car. Not 10 miles away it died in spectacular fashion with smoke belching and steam everywhere. Exploded rad and all. A call to the dealer got a simple response “It’s your car now. Not our problem.” Dad always said that only stupid people swear. My comment that you should have bought the Nomad sure didn’t help the situation. Thankfully a stop payment on the cheque voided the sale and nobody spoke a word about the Country Squire Nomad incident ever again.
The outcome wouldn’t necessarily have been better with the Nomad.
And likely would have been worse because it would all have been 510Longroof’s fault. 🙂
While the body is still the original, goofy Exner design, it’s remarkable how much the Lancer grille and taillights otherwise improve the first generation Valiant.
It’s kind of a shame Dodge didn’t stick with the quad headlight grille on the next generation A-body Dart instead of schmucking those bug-eyed, Turbine Car headlights on it.
Ooh, I disagree. I think the ’63 Dart front end looks pretty close to optimal the way it was; the only real downside is the headlight bezels stuck out far enough to be easily damaged.
What a great story. I cannot imagine getting my dad to purchase a car like this let alone driving it to work. You certainly learnt a lot about cars this way! I hope this isn’t getting too personal but I wonder if he acquiesced as a counterweight to your mother’s difficult behaviour.
A 28 year old car now as pointed out wod be a 1993 model and have fuel injection, safety features, and was engineered for more durability than a 62. Sure, the 62 was easier to service but it needed more constant servicing and none of the 62 designers and engineers expected the thing to last 10 years. Cars were designed back then for this year’s showroom advantage and not for longevity. Nowadays the word that uncle henry bought a taurus back in 1995 and it has 283000 miles and is still going sells cars. (Just not to uncle henry)
Age and neglect kill more car parts than mileage does; a 20 year old car with 300000 miles is likely better maintained, serviced, and in better shape than the 20 year old car with 100000 miles on it which great aunt Lucy took to the store and church. When great aunt Lucy’s car “makes a funny noise ” she may not notice it or waits until she feels like fixing it. Fluids don’t get hot and circulate and keep seals sealing. Gaskets dry out and with great aunt Lucy driving so little, she’ll never notice a problem. It may not overheat until you get it in heavy traffic, etc.
As for safety features, the automakers and buff books kicked and screamed about guvmint regulation and throttling cars and expense, but even from my political standpoint (please excuse me!) These were necessary things. Most People will pay for $1000,stereo but not door beams and safety cages unless you’re an early Volvo customer. But Laura Bush was in an accident way back in the late 50s which killed the other driver. What we consider a minor fender bender today was frequently fatal.
Not at all too personal; you’d have to work a lot harder than that to offend me on the subject. I’ve never thought dad got the car to try to balance out, compensate for, or otherwise ameliorate mother’s defective behaviour (which was a lot like his own mother’s defective behaviour, because that’s how these things often work). Interesting idea. I’ll never know; he’s been dead 21 years.
It’s tempting to agree the ’62 car was easier to service than a ’93 car, but I’m not sure I can. Compare the ’62 Lancer with the optional bigger engine (225 instead of 170) to, let’s say, a 1993 Dodge Spirit or Shadow with the optional bigger engine (2.5 instead of 2.2). There’s usually a list of jobs that are a royal pain in the tuchus to do on any given car, so let’s assume those more or less cancel each other out, ignore them, and focus on routine maintenance and expected repairs. More or less equal ease of work on both cars, only the Spirit needed much less frequent maintenance; we certainly agree that the older car needed a lot more fiddling, a lot more often.
Also agree on the short design life of ’60s cars. The Valiant-Lancer-Dart cars developed a reputation for being unusually sturdy and durable because they were exactly that: unusually sturdy and durable.
You’re also right about regulations. We don’t have to take any particular political view about it; it’s just plain fact to say that regulations exist to manage important aspects of whatever subject is at hand that market forces can’t, won’t, or don’t address. Sure, everyone wants to breathe clean air, but not many people were going to volunteer to pay extra for a cleaner car on their own, and clean air wouldn’t happen unless more or less everyone gets a cleaner car, so…regulations. Same with whatever aspect of car safety we might want to discuss.
Great work Daniel.
Another great article, _four_ pages no less ! .
I’m a reality denier too, I drove a 1928 ‘A’ model Ford Tudor as a daily driver including L.A.’s notorious freeways….
There are some things one can do to older vehicles to make them more reliable (breakerless ignition is the very best bang for buck you’ll ever get !) but in the end, they do require far more touching even if they don’t break down .
Great story, you can see the joy on your face when it arrived, it certainly was in great condition.
It brought back memories of getting my first car, 1969 Valiant Regal Hardtop 318 V8 that I talked my parents into letting me buy in 1979 a year about a year before I got my license.
Dad used to drive it to work at least once a week, I know he used to enjoy that, a bit of a change to his car, a 1976 Volvo 244, That Valiant coupe was quite a special car for its time.
You were driving your Lancer with French selective-yellow ECE headlamps the day we met in person for the first time in the late 1990s.
Reading this article brought lot of memories of me and my father when I was growing up in Texas and learning the mechanical side of cars. He was sort of high strung when it came to me trying to fix the cars myself because he was afraid I’d do the Verschlimmbesserung (the precise German word meaning the fix that makes things worse. Here’s the British guy explaining perfectly what the word means: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSVNyPEQqxg ). My brother was half patient and half frustrated with me. I ended up visiting my brother’s classmate, Kenneth, in Plano, Texas since he was very patient and explained everything I needed to know about fixing and maintaining the cars. Eventually, I became adept at fixing cars (no thanks to my father and brother).
Fast forward to 2010s: my father couldn’t do lot of work around the house and with the cars due to his age. I started to fix his Mercedes-Benz E 280 (W210) more and more, learning the techniques from the YouTube videos and owners forums. That saved him a lot of money and made him realise his mistake of not trusting me back then.
Anyway, I look forward to more of your articles!
Google Translate comes through succinctly for us; it translates Verschlimmbesserung as disimprovement. 🤪
Incidentally, “Lancer” in French is the verb “to throw / launch”. So in France, with them yellow headlights, you’re driving around in your Dodge Throw. Hehehe.
Great post, Daniel, by the way. I don’t always read COALs, but yours are delightful. Awaiting the next installment eagerly.
Thanks kindly! I’ll try to keep ’em readable.
I eagerly read COALS, LT Dan’s and RL Plaut’s were standouts to me, and yours are excellent Daniel Stern.
‘preciate it, Lee!
We GearHeads appreciate good writing, I imagine we’d read whatever you wrote about Mr. Stern….
The only Lancer I ever experienced was the metallic purple respray over red, with original red interior, one that an acquaintance drove. Quite a sight. He worked at Sears auto center, so it was well maintained with plenty of Sears replacement parts. The car was barely over a decade old, so it was just cheap transportation.
Thanks oliver!! I now have a new word which is very useful.
My EE engineer uncle drove a ratty unrestored ’29 Model A coupe to the IBM labs for years. His boss liked it so much that he bought a restored one and started collecting them.
Our neighbors had a ’62 Lancer GT in lt. blue, circa early-mid ’60s. I always preferred it’s slightly toned down design to the Valiant’s, and loved the buckets and the thin dark blue contrast stripe around the beltline. Their other car was a ’60 DeS Fireflite, traded in ’65 on a new Polara. Real Mopar folks, he was a Westinghouse EE.
“If they’d hit the 59 straight on the engine, it would have punched through the Malibu.”
My first car, purchased in 1967, was a 1962 Lancer 4 door, base trim, white with red interior, 170 cu. in. iron block, 3 on the tree. Always had to crank it a lot to get it to start. I learned how to reshoe brakes, how NOT to rebuild a carburetor, and how to grease all the lube spots, and oil and filters, etc., on that car. It was an education. I’ll never forget it.
New for sixty-two: 32,000-mile chassis lube intervals!
Better than needing to replace parts because they CANNOT be greased.
Also better than the ’61-and-previous 4,000-mile intervals.
Meh. I’m under there every 5-8K anyway.
excellent my friend, very nice memory, I look forward to your next note !!!!
Yet another enjoyable article, Daniel.
Mom had a ’65 Dodge Dart sedan which my grandfather got for her as my parents were divorcing in 1969, and the ’63 Ford Fairlane Ranch Wagon had terminal rust. It had the 225 slant 6 and TorqueFlite automatic, so the drive train was pretty reliable and actually the right car for her. It’s the car I learned to drive and it was our only car for my teenage years. My brother did it in 10 years later with his patented L turn into opposing traffic. It had no A/C (my mother was hypothyroid in some way and was always in a sweater in 90 F+ heat) and AM radio. It was a very tolerant car for me to drive. Your Dodge brings back a few memories. Did the Lancer leak like a sieve?
An acquaintance of my from another HS drove a Valiant, which I thought was a weird style of a car.
When my professional life hit another nadir forcing me to return home from the northern latitudes to Atlanta, my dad–under severe duress from my stepmom–let me have his ’78 Datsun 810 sedan (I6/4sp manual, so worthy of a COAL) in early 1999 instead of donating it. That would be my DD for the next 2+ years. His neglect of routine maintenance periodically came to bite me. No one ever praised that car, it was largely seen as an unsafe (“no air bags!”) jalopy even though I liked it (it was probably the best highway car I ever had). After getting a job again, I bought a house and a new 2001 Nissan Frontier, and turned it back to him in better shape than he lent it. (If it wasn’t such an ordeal to get it to pass the yearly emissions test, I probably would have kept it longer.)
Of all the cars my parents ever had, these are the only two I wished I could have inherited.
Hello again Dan, I have now spent the whole evening reading your Lancer story and a whole lot of the replies. It does remind me of my dear Uncle’s 1962 V100 that he bought new. He previously had a ’55 Plymouth Savoy with a 270 V8.
Somehow I managed to persuade him to buy a used 1971 Valiant Scamp with a LA 318 V8. That was his last car and fortunately it served him well until the day he died. It is interesting how automobiles affect the lives of ‘us guys’ to the point that we have to ask, “What would we have done or been if it wasn’t for those cars we loved and fussed with as youngsters. I have only to look at my life and career with all the MOPARs that I have dealt with, right up to one of the most famous….