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

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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