COAL: 1962 Dodge Lancer, Part II – Go West!

With the ’62 Lancer registered and insured, tuned up and shod with tires from 1990 rather than 1963 or so, dad and I started having fun with the car when he wasn’t busy commuting to and from work in it.

The weather didn’t stay below zero, and air conditioning was not something dad was willing to go without in his daily driver, so Bob (he who’d sold me the ’64 Valiant) installed a Mopar Airtemp setup out of a ’64 Dart. Just like this de luxe unit, except ours was the plain model without the chromed faceplate, without the backlit controls, and without the round side air outlets:

The under-dash evaporator unit wasn’t quite compatible with the ’62 dashboard; it blocked the glovebox from opening more than a scant couple of inches. The ’62 originally would’ve used a bracket that spaced the A/C box down away from the bottom of the dashboard, but none of us knew that, so we just lived with the blocked glovebox. The original-type horizontal filter-dryer couldn’t be had, so an upright one was bolted to the inner fender; for years it got in the way of spark plug and oil filter changes. All plumbed in with flared copper lines and a couple of hoses; that’s how it used to be done when Freon leaks were a shrugging matter.

The system cooled very well, as those Mopar under-dash units were known for. It stands to reason: they had a powerful fan and a very thick evaporator. And they drew in only interior air; there was no fresh air supply, so the same air kept getting cooler and cooler (and staler and staler). No fan shroud was installed on the radiator, nor a larger or more-bladed fan—I don’t know why not; Bob had those parts—so at red traffic lights it became a matter of habit to punch Neutral and goose the gas a bit to pull more air across the radiator. Also to quiet down the compressor drive belt, which at idle speed with the compressor engaged made hair-raising noise like a yappy little dog.

But the car had cool air inside, good enough for dad and me to set off on our very first road trip. And boy, did we jump in with all four feet and all four tires! Dad was a travel-planning wizard; I’ve often wished I were even half as good at it. We’d go up to Wyoming (Yellowstone), to Oregon (Salem to meet the owner of the Slant-6 club, Sandy to see Wildcat Auto Wrecking; Bonnevill Dam) on our way up to Seattle (dad’s folks)…and then back to Denver. That’s roughly 3,200 miles (5,120 km).

Our first day involved about a 550-mile, over-nine-hour drive from suburban Denver to Yellowstone. That’s well more than nothing in a rather loud car with a bench seat. But let’s hear it for bench seats; we put a battery-operated cassette player just like this one—I’d saved up $27, I think it was, to buy it at McDuff Electronics when I was nine or ten—on the seat between us and switched off picking tapes. Dad’s favourite was Horowitz in Moscow.

I probably brought along some Beatle tapes; I had a real thing for the Beatles at the time. The tape player’s single 4″ speaker was just about adequate, given the road and engine din.

By and by, we got to whatever lodge it was. There were two restaurants in the place. We looked at both, and dad proclaimed “Been a long day. We made it! Let’s go to the fancy one.” Yes, it had been a very long day, especially for him—I was still too young for a licence, so he did all the driving!

Yellowstone was marvellous. We saw Old Faithful, of course, and were as amused by the sea of camcorder lenses following the geyser as we were amazed by the geyser itself.

The boiling-mud Paint Pots and steaming, brilliant blue and orange pools and hissing, fulminating fumaroles were apparently routine sights to the big and little wildlife ambling around, but it was our first time seeing them—what a knockout!

The whole thing was especially spectacular as this was not long after severe fires had been through; we didn’t know how much there’d be to see, but there surely was plenty. The Lancer drew crowds, too, in the parking lots; we arrived back at it from a walk round the Paint Pots to find two tourists standing behind it and discussing it animatedly. One of them, in an accent I couldn’t place, tried sounding out the DODGE callout on the trunk lid: “Dode-ghhey?”.

The car did fine, pretty much. The cheap chrome tailpipe tip I’d installed, the kind held to the pipe with two screws, came loose somewhere along the way; it hit the pavement with a ching-ding-denk! and was gone forever. That A/C belt did its yappy-little-dog thing every time we forgot and let the engine drop to idle speed with the compressor engaged. Above idle it did fine, though, and on the long, hot stretches one of us would pull the vent knob under his side of the dash every now and then to let in some fresh air.

No smartphones, no internet, no Yelp, no Google Maps—we had our AAA TripTik strip map and state-by-state guidebooks with restaurant listings. Some towns had longer lists than others, but virtually every restaurant had (steak, chicken) after its name and address, though a few had (chicken, steak)—that was almost exclusively what passed for variety. So when we were approaching Boise, Idaho and found a (Basque) hiding in the list, that was a natural pick. Basque food? Never tried it! The place was called Oñati. It was at the junction of Orchard and Chinden streets in the back of a not-too-reputable-looking tavern. Our meal there went well beyond a welcome respite from (steak, chicken); it was objectively just astoundingly good. I don’t remember what I ordered as a main course; dad ordered lamb shank, a favourite of his. There were numerous side dishes and a terrific flan for dessert—dad asked how it was made, and the waiter started and ended his answer with “Start with 72 eggs”. The place no longer exists, for the chef went back to Spain, but file this away anyhow; it’s not the last I’ll be writing of Oñati.

We rolled on into Oregon. At a scenery stop, I discovered the kickdown linkage was hitting the transmission cooler line, which blocked the throttle well short of full open (also no kickdown action). That made the car’s performance up the hills all the more impressive. We made our way into Salem and to the home of the owner of the Slant-6 Club, and in his driveway we bent and tweaked the cooler line to get it out of the way of the kickdown.

The owner himself…well. I mean, I hadn’t gone into this totally ignorant or anything; I’d spent a great deal of time on the phone with him—once a conversation was started, it was nigh on impossible to end. And of course I’d read his editorials in the Slant-6 News; these were angry rants about rectangular-rather-than-round headlamps; social and legal disapproval of cars with smoky exhaust and used oil dumped in the ground, and restaurants other than Wendy’s. To him, Archie Bunker wasn’t a caricatured embodiment of mealymouthed bigotry and ignorance on a weekly sitcom called “All in the Family”, he was a stand-up guy, a real American and real man who said funny, clever things and told it like it is on a weekly documentary called “All in the Family”.

Onward. Wildcat Auto Wrecking was (and is) a giant collection of old Mopars up on a mountain in Sandy, Oregon. We didn’t actually need any parts, but I’d read about this place described in terms kind of like heaven, Valhalla, or Sto-vo-kor, and I had to see it. I bought the six chrome sergeant-stripes off the tailfins on a ’61 Valiant V-200; I think one of them is still in one of my toolboxes. That wasn’t the only yard we visited on the trip; there was one thickly paved in pea gravel, where the yard operators drove visitors out to look at particular cars, and I think I mooned over a ’61 or ’62 Valiant there, too, though I don’t recall buying parts off it.

Bonneville Dam was as impressive as it had every right to be. We stayed long enough that the parking lot had emptied out by the time we got back to the Lancer. Even better than than any part of the dam, dad let me drive the Lancer around the lot. It was a driving lesson of sorts, adding the first bits of practical experience to my already-extensive theoretical knowledge. What a thrill to be able to actually push the buttons and handle the steering wheel and make the car go and stop! Even dad’s clipped, almost military announcement that I’d just plowed into two cars—we were pretending there was a car in every space—couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm.

We drove up into Washington, up to Seattle. Pulled in where dad had grown up, at grandma and grandpa’s house: a magical avant-garde midmod they’d put up in 1951-’53, with a spectacular panoramic view of Mount Rainier and Lake Washington. Grandma had been creating grand feasts in that kitchen for many years, and this visit continued that tradition. Grandpa, for his part, had long been catching salmon for the said feasts. Dad, too, was an avid salmon fisherman when he got the chance. Not much salmon to catch in landlocked Denver, but out here…! Our next stop after his folks’ house was camping on the Olympic Peninsula. Lots of magically green hiking in the rainforest! We got up well before sunrise—even the Lancer’s starter sounded like it was objecting to such an early getup—and headed out onto the water with a group (on a boat, not in the car).

I caught the first fish of the day, a sizeable salmon. That was a fine and fortunate thing, because very soon after we got it in the boat, I got thoroughly, violently, desperately seasick. Look at the horizon, breathe deeply and slowly, take small sips of water…none of these sure-fire remedies helped. I had the usual amount of experience with stomach upset, but I hadn’t known—not even a corner of a clue—that it was possible to be this sick. One in the group was smoking one cigarette after another, and the wind kept sending the smoke at me. I wanted to toss his smokes and/or his ass overboard, if I could’ve mustered the strength, which I sure as all hell could not. Head back to shore? Not til the quota was caught; there was a whole, paying group here. Dad used all his expert tricks to haul fish out the water to rack up the count; I think he caught three or four. Later that day, after what felt like decades, we finally put in back at shore. About twenty seconds after stepping on solid ground, I was fine. I wrung an essay out of the experience, which I think got me some points in a writing class the next year in school.

All in all, it was a terrific trip and I still fondly remember the bits I remember. By and by it was over, and we were back in Denver. We gradually made improvements to the Lancer. Its chalky paint got a professional polish job, which left it shiny but noticeably thin in places. The cloth parts of its cloth-and-vinyl seat upholstery quickly wore without support from the dead foam below, so new foam was put in and covered with cloth which wasn’t the original stuff, but was at least passably close to the right colour.

I found a new old stock seat improvement kit and bought it…

…along with a new old stock Mopar windshield washer package. The latter contained everything needed to equip a ’62 Valiant or Lancer: a sturdy plastic bag-type fluid reservoir, a cap with a built-in check valve and dip tube, bag bracketry, a rubber squeeze bulb pump for installation inside the car where the floorpan becomes the firewall, a pair of nozzles, hoses of the correct lengths, and full instructions. That was an easy and fun installation. There was a perforated rectangle in the firewall insulation; removing it revealed two dimples in the sheetmetal, placed and spaced to accept, once drilled, the mount screws for the rubber bulb.

While tinkering around under the hood one day, I figured out the yapping A/C belt when I saw there was an adjustable idler pulley meant to set the belt tension. Just a V-groove pulley with two bolts through its bracket. Both the pivot bolt and the slider bolt were loose, so there wasn’t much belt tension, and with each of that giant cast iron lump of a 2-cylinder A/C compressor’s very peaky torque loads, the belt would slip a little: Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap! Not much room to get at the bolts, but I managed, and I was very proud to be able to do a nice show-and-tell for dad: start the car, let it idle, turn on the A/C, and the only extra noise was the compressor’s normal chugga-chugga-chugga; I’d managed to silence the yapping.

I had to get up early every weekday, because they hadn’t yet figured out that high school-age kids really need to sleep in—they aren’t just being lazy—and dad started his day early, as well. I tried to get up in time to hear him start up the car to head out. The Lancer lived on the left side of the grudge, and the floor was angled juuuuuuuuust right so he could release the parking brake and the park lock, wiggle-waggle the steering wheel a couple times, and the car would roll backwards out the grudge all on its own. From upstairs near the washroom window, I’d hear the BOOM! of the parking brake release—that Popular Mechanics test of the car had mentioned the loud release—then the »cleck!« of the choke closing, and then the morning cry of the Highland Park Hummingbird (i.e., the Chrysler gear-reduction starter) followed by the growl of the 225. Not only did I get my daily hit of those sounds I loved so much, but it’s also how I kept an ear on the condition of the car. Was the crank time excessive? Did it stay running on the first try? Was the fast idle too high or too low? Any misfire or other unwelcome sounds? That kind of thing.

On weekends dad and I we sometimes loaded both our bikes into the car—my 1986 Raleigh 12-speed and his much more interesting original-owner 1954 Norman 3-speed—and head up to Waterton Canyon or someplace else for a bike ride.

We’d had a whole lot of fun on the road trip with the AM radio’s extraordinary power to pull in far distant stations, but the options for daily listening were just about nonexistent beyond KRZN (“your one-and-oldies station!”). I found a local ad for a ’73 Dart being parted out, and called to ask if it had an FM-AM radio: Yes it did, and the woman who answered the phone was very glad I’d called, she said, because god had told her just the night before that someone would be calling to buy the car’s radio. I…uh…okeh, sure thing. But god had someone else in mind, I guess; that car had a Radio Shack item that wouldn’t suit. Not too much digging later, an FM-AM radio from a ’70-’76 A-body was found somewhere (the yard, maybe?).

It was in more-or-less usable condition, though it wouldn’t accept the Lancer’s faceplate and had to kind of be shoehorned in behind the dash, which required lowering the A/C unit. This was not so easy or fun as the windshield washer kit had been, but eventually we were successful and FM tunes could be had.

That radio stayed in the car awhile, but eventually I discovered a guy named Gary Tayman. The Lancer’s original radio came back looking exactly like it had when we sent it, only now it could do magic tricks: turn it on, let it warm up for five or 10 seconds, switch it off and immediately back on, and voilà: FM! The lack of an FM dial wasn’t really a problem; we just tuned until we caught the station we wanted, then set a pushbutton. We might’ve brought a portable radio with an FM dial out to the garage to help out. But wait, there was more! Tayman also installed a line-in jack at the end of a cord, and a pushbutton A/B toggle switch at the end of another cord. I suppose a really complete installation would’ve involved mounting the jack and pushbutton to some inconspicuous but accessible place under the dash, but we just left the cords coiled up in the glovebox. When we wanted to listen to tapes—or CDs, later—we just opened the glovebox the small amount allowed by the non-native A/C, dug out the cables, clicked the switch, and plugged in our Walkman or whatever it was, and voilà again: personal tunes through the single dashboard speaker! De luxe.

Now, my mother had a talent for cakery. When I was six I had a real thing for vacuum cleaners, to the degree all I wanted for my birthday was my folks’ old spare blue Sunbeam vacuum (which was a hell of an easy out; they simply declared it mine and it stayed in the utility closet right where it always had been); that year she made me a blue Sunbeam vacuum cleaner cake:

And a decade on, for my 16th birthday she made me a green 1962 Dodge Lancer cake. The resemblance was maybe less spectacular than that of the vacuum cake, but there’d been no tailfins or compound curves to try to replicate with the vacuum cake, so all in all I think she did a creditable job. The green icing “6” figures around the perimeter were an allusion to the engine.

I’d enrolled in the AAA driver education program, getting practise in on horrid Chev Cadavaliers and gaining praise for my driving from Mrs. Wilmoth and Mr. Brady (who’d been my elementary school art teacher). The Crimson-Runs-the-Highway types of films had mostly gone out of fashion, but we did see “Room to Live” (summary: use yer damn seatbelt!). Some of the other movies were more mundanely instructional: how to safely merge and change lanes, what to do at four-way stops, how to gauge safe following distance, and otherwise like that; while the other kids scoffed at the outdated cars and fashions depicted, I perked up at the ’71 Dart feature car.

Eventually came the big day of red letters and a green car: time to take the licence test! I breezed through the written exam, passed it easily, and then came the driving test itself. The grizzled veteran examiner, clipboard in hand, said “Let’s go” and nodded toward the door. I led the way. When he saw what car we were headed for, his demeanour changed. “Wow, my aunt had one of these!” I don’t know that he was paying a lot of attention as I demonsrated the functional brake lights and turn signals. I do know he was smitten with the car. Pushbuttons! Is this a Slant-6? Aluminum, did they really? Oh yeah, turn left at the next lights. He had me drive around a two- or three-block area, said “good job”, and gave the car a last walkaround. And I got my licence!

Cake is grand, of course—yay, cake!—but I was still in want of a running, driving car. My folks had nixed my idea to bring over an Australian Valiant, so I kept up my subscriptions to Hemmings and Cars and Parts and pored over each new issue. It was always a pretty quick and empty pore-over; there were never many ’60-’62 Valiants or Lancers, and I certainly wasn’t seeing any of what I really craved, which of course was a low-miles, high-specs creampuff like dad’s Lancer. Good job my dogged tunnel vision slipped a little, or I wouldn’t be able to write next week’s instalment!

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