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.

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