COAL: 1962 Dodge Lancer, Part III – Nothing Is Permanent

[Part I is here. Part II is here.]

After I went off to university, dad carried on driving the Dodge every day, to and from work and wherever-all he wanted to go. Everyone loved it—people waved at him with an open palm or an upraised thumb (not the other kind of finger) in traffic. In parkades and at gas stations and curbsides and at red lights they’d ask what year it was, and he always went “Guess!” I came home on holidays and saw to whatever it needed; in between I provided guidance by phone and newfangled email.

After two years at the University of Oregon, I decided I wanted better academics. I think I was actually after better excuses; I remember myself as a lazy, mediocre student. But since then I’ve had several of my UO professors say I wasn’t, and when I look at some of the work I handed in, it’s really pretty good. And there was some kind of a squeeze on that made it harder to fill up a courseload; I think the state was slashing education funding or something like that. So I can’t say what the real story was with me. Maybe it had nothing to do with academics; it could easily have been an attempt at running away from my closeted self (this didn’t work; wherever I went, there I was). Whatever the real reason/s, I decided to take a year off from school and see about transferring elsewhere.

I drove D’Valiant back to Denver by way of Ventura, spent two or three weeks with a temp agency learning I wanted to never work in an office space with coworkers, and got a job as a cater-waiter. The day after my last assignment at that job, and a few days before I started at the wrecking yard, the Lancer went in for a repaint. Its original paint, dull when we got the car in 1991, had been polished to its last possible thinness, and dad finally decided to spruce it up. No Earl Scheib or Maaco slop-job, either. Here’s dad just home after picking up the car from the paint shop.

That pic was taken before the car’s original windshield took a rock. I still remember the ’60-’62 Valiant windshield is a NAGS № DW-591—National Auto Glass System—and the new one had a blue-green sunshade strip at the top. Neither windshield was cleared very effectively by the 12″ opposing-sweep single-speed wipers!

The car’s first- or second-ever muffler went soft at some point, and a much less underspecified exhaust system was installed: 2¼” headpipe (instead of 1¾”), a muffler that I wouldn’t buy again, and a 2″ tailpipe (instead of 1½”). The car had a quietly authoritative mutter at idle, and sounded spectacular revving up through the gears. A highway onramp manually shifted with the buttons, 1-2-D, with the windows down: ohhhhh, yeah! But the muffler giveth, and the muffler taketh away; there was an obnoxious drone that would slice right through you, which came in at about 55 and didn’t quiet down til a tetch over 70. That wouldn’t do. We had a resonator put in the tailpipe and that helped some, but it wasn’t long before we just had to go back to a regular ol’, normal ol’, boring ol’ stock-type muffler. Not the miniature wheezer specified for the car; we (i.e., I) picked one for, I think, a late-production 318 A-body. It matched up to the upgraded pipes and quieted things down quite a bit, but no more rapture-spec onramps, sigh.

Bitchin’ wheels!

Shortly after the (first) repaint, it finally came time to replace the tires we’d put on back in Autumn 1991 when the car first arrived from California. They were Arizonian Silver Editions—a Discount Tire house brand, P185/80R13s on the original 13 × 4½” wheels. They’d held up quite well, but finally came due. I plotted for a set of Cragar S/S chrome 14 × 5½” wheels and P205/70R14 BF Goodrich Radial T/As, and I might’ve stealthily borrowed the car one day to have this upgrade swapped on. What did dad think? He came outside, took a walk around the car, and for the first and only time I ever heard, exclaimed “Bitchin’!” At my suggestion he had good quality Llumar window tint applied. Not limo-dark or full-mirror or anything like that; it was much more subtle, but from the outside it seemed to reflect a greenish black. Ohhhhh, yeah!

Mostly my memory is pretty good for what got done to which car, how and when and where and by whom. But, like certain other historical records, this tape has something of an 18½-minute gap, a jumbled mix of blank and scabs. Dad was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma not very many months after that home-from-the-paintshop picture was taken. It knocked us all sideways; he had no known risk factors and kept himself in excellent health, though I daresay multiple decades of keeping his emotions lockboxed had something to do with it. Nothing even a little bit like this had happened in our family. My unstable mother especially did not cope, and it fell to me—24 years old, with no prior experience of real loss—to keep her propped up and putting one foot in front of the other. So I can tell you this repaint was the car’s first of two, but I don’t recall why. I can tell you dad and I made another road trip in the green ’62, to Grand Teton (we split the driving that time), but I can’t recall when. Sorry about that.

Jud McCranie photo from Wikipedia

For awhile, in between all the trips to doctors and specialists, dad carried on driving and working and biking, determined to show the world he would not let this drag him down. But gradually it all grew to take more effort than he could muster; his bike and his Dodge stayed in the garage more and more. Except when I would use the car to escape my crazed mother; she was perpetually enraged and in need of a target. Dad was obviously not an appropriate target, though that didn’t stop her, even when he had no voice; more than once she screamed and berated him while he sat there with pad and pen responding in longhand—I still have some of the pages; what’s written on them, ah, strongly suggests she didn’t even have provisions for a hinge. Sister was conveniently off living her life in New York, occasionally playing seagull—fly in, make a lot of noise, crap all over everything, fly out—so she wasn’t available to kick around.

And then there was me. Mother developed a habit of emitting showers of sparks and flinging molten lava and boiling bile and flaming poo at me, then kicking me out the house at whim, at any hour of day or night. I had keys and standing permission for two friends’ apartments for when I suddenly had noplace to sleep (or finish sleeping).

She’d always ring my phone the next morning: Hi, sweetie, how’re you? When do you think you’ll be home? The worst of it was…no, actually, there was nothing such as the worst of it. It was all the worst of it. Dad saw what was going on and couldn’t do anything about it; he had no strength and couldn’t afford to attract any more of mother’s unhinged wrath by telling her to be a goddamn grownup. One time (at least) she refused to drive him to the hospital for an appointment, so he dragged himself into the Dodge and drove himself. When he got back, I asked him if it was at least nice to go for a drive. He grimmaced and shook his head.

At some point very roughly around this time—that memory gap is telling on me again—we took the car down to Sedalia, Colorado, to a shop called Persistent Enterprises Restoration. It was aptly named; the owner, Joe Schubarth, held himself to very high standards of craftsmanship. Some rust got taken out the sills, the car got repainted again, the engine got rebuilt with a few strategic improvements here and there but nothing even remotely extreme. The mildest Chrysler Direct Connection camshaft (an optimised version of the marine/’67-up export 2bbl/’71-up domestic production cam), electronic ignition, that kind of thing.

You can see here the new paint was a more saturated, slightly bluer green than the original. That was my fault, not the painter’s.

It got a set of ’66-’72 factory disc brakes and (finally!) a dual master cylinder, a 2-barrel intake and carburetor—I went through several before winding up about 90 per cent happy with a very nice NOS Bendix Stromberg item meant for a ’66 318. The worn ball-and-trunnion front U-joint went away in favour of a heavy duty cross-and-roller conversion, that kind of thing. The factory reversing lights were the same ones used with amber lenses on Australian ’62 Valiants, so I got a set of those lenses, added American ’62 Valiant reversing lights under the bumper, and reworked the wiring to match. I still have the work order, and for the amount of work done, the amount of money charged was unreasonably low.

My folks had the resources to marshal a team of outstanding doctors and go through with all the treatments they suggested, but all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. Dad died in March 2000, thirty-six days shy of 58 whole, entire years old; he didn’t survive the bone marrow transplant. I left the hospital that day in his Dodge and drove downtown to get away from mother and be with people who cared. I kept my composure, almost Spocklike, until I got to a red light on Lincoln Street. The guy in the car next to me called out “Hey, what year is that?” I reflexively called back “Guess!”, and immediately lost it; I could barely see my rest of the way where I was going.

The ugliness didn’t stop. There was a meeting round the dining room table to plan his memorial service. Mother tried to exclude dad’s parents and his sister from speaking (she’d always hated them for imaginary reasons), I stood up for them, the clueless sycophant of a rabbi took mother’s side and said “Now, Daniel, we probably shouldn’t have too many speakers”, I reminded him what his job wasn’t, mother banished me, I got in the Dodge, and as I was backing out the driveway, she flew out the front door and hollered YOU GET BACK INSIDE RIGHT THIS MINUTE! Um…no. I punched Drive and headed downtown for the night.

The service itself was something of a happening. So many people attended that the synagogue was quickly overwhelmed; another synagogue graciously made itself available on instant notice. I parked the Dodge in the front-corner space of its car park, and it stood there all glittering green and gleaming chrome to signal this was the right place.

The ugliness still didn’t stop. Some time later, mother dangled the keys in front of my nose, snatched them away, and hissed That car isn’t yours now, it’s mine now. I get to decide what happens to it. Maybe you can have it, and maybe I’ll get it crushed while you watch. Don’t believe it? Try me. By and by (and by), she resumed emulating something approaching human decency, and I wound up with the car. I prepped it for the trip as best I could, seeing to neglected wear-and-maintenance points throughout the car. I drove over to Bob’s house and had supper with him, his wife, and their 18-year-old kid, who’d been six when I first met Bob, yipe!

We removed the Lancer’s leaky 3.23 rear axle with the worn-out brakes, and swapped in an unleaky 2.93 assembly with new brakes—a ’64-up item with the bigger and more available wheel bearings. This would ensure I could stop, and the taller ratio would get me better gas mileage. Then all that really remained was to fix the turn signal switch so that those behind me, too, could see my left signals (got done); adjust the valves (didn’t get done), and maybe fix that manifold leak (didn’t get done either). I arrived back at mother’s house late that night, sweaty and covered with grease.I’d be driving a lot at night, so I put in a set of the best-in-the-world headlamps in that size, the Cibié CSRs (no longer made, sigh).

Then I packed the car as full as I could with belongings and parts, shipped what I couldn’t fit, and discarded what I couldn’t ship, which was a lot, but what price distance?

I’ll tell the story of this unusual starter, but not now.

I pointed the car west and went away. Stopped in Wisconsin to drop off some interesting starters and alternators at the home and shop of my much-aforementioned topical wizard. Took another ride across the lake on the SS Badger. On the Wisconsin side I had to show the ferry staff how to operate the pushbutton gears so they could load the car onto the boat. On the Michigan side, I was standing in queue to debark when I heard the Dodge start up—it couldn’t have been any other car in the hold—and then the »chuk!« of the Torqueflite engaging against the engine’s fast cold idle, and a few moments later I saw it driven onto the dock. Because of course the Michiganders knew how to operate a pushbutton Torqueflite!

It was 4 July, 2002, and I was depleted, but I still had two hours and half to go. It’s not very often a car without head restraints is safer than one with, but this was one such time; if I’d had something to rest my head on, I might very well have fallen asleep. As it was I had a head-jerkingly real indication that I needed to pull off and have a catnap. I took a couple of those, and eventually reached my destination. Slept for about 12 hours, maybe more, before setting about emptying the car and the trunk.

I didn’t have a what’s-next plan for the car. It settled into its new life largely sedentary, but not entirely so. I kept insurance on it (Hagerty) and a Michigan year-of-manufacture licence plate, of sorts; what are the odds I’d find a 1962 Michigan plate in good shape with legend AL-6225, kind of like Aluminum Six 225? I mean really, now, what are the odds? Such a plate would’ve looked just like this one:

Far from abandoned, the car was in loving custodial care. It got taken out in parades and to fairs.

It got patrolled by an orange kitty.

There’s a nap for that!

It got improved and spruced up and doted on. New chrome-look (mylar) lockstrip for the windshield and backglass:

Out with the old…


…in with the new!


(detail of new)


Heat hose, summer far-from-city; dressed so fine and a-lookin’ so pretty:

It got joined in its barn by a steadily-increasing trove of parts and accessories I bought and shipped there; I still had a raging case of elevated collectserall.

You name the part, and the odds are good I had at least one spare for it. Trim and emblems, front and rear bumpers, heater box assemblies and components, instrument clusters, steering wheel, a new carpet set. All manner of mechanical components and gaskets and maintenance and repair parts. I imported stuff from Australia: a backglass venetian blind.

A super de luxe trunk mat, much nicer than the ones in the American cars.

An exterior front sunshade, which I had painted to match the rest of the car. A set of weathershields: two-piece greentint plastic attachments for the front door windows, much more substantial than the trim little stainless Ventshade items we could get on this continent, though I also had a NOS set of those. None of this stuff got installed, it just got, y’know, collected.

I imported stuff from Argentina, too: a set of clever aluminum frame-and-mesh devices that attached to the top of the window glass so the windows could be down a couple of inches for ventilation without making the car a completely easy theft target. An extra-flat 2-barrel air cleaner (I never did manage to find a suitable air cleaner that would fit the 2bbl carb and clear the hood and clear the A/C compressor; what was on the car was a bodged hackup of a stock 1bbl cleaner).

A NOS front-3 exhaust manifold for the Argentinian Dodge Coronet R/T—this was somewhat like the American Hyper-Pak front exhaust manifold of 1960-’61, but more compatible with things like A/C and P/S. None of this stuff actually wound up going on the car, either.

And that was the strange sort of semi-stasis the car stayed in for most of two decades. I got to see it and drive it on the occasion I visited Michigan. It was always a fine thing to drive dad’s car—despite the two repaints and various other major refurbs, it still smelt the same inside, and of course it sounded and felt the same. It ran just great; with the slightly upgraded cam and the 2-barrel carburetor it pulled like an unladen freight train from smooth idle to 70 mph with plenty of pedal left; really, it felt like a well-tuned small V8. The unboosted disc brakes were perfect, and the 20:1 nonpower steering box—oh yeah, that was another install at Persistent Enterprises—was ideal; they all should’ve come that way. 4½ steering wheel turns instead of 5¾, with a lovely balance of effort and road feel.

The transmission had somehow managed to evade the rebuild it really needed; at the very least it wanted some seals and gaskets so it would quit leaking down and out, but that never got done. Whoever would drive it just had to add some transmission juice if the car had been sitting for more than a couple of weeks, which it usually had. Oh, and you had to know how to go under the hood and twiddle the bodged choke just right; we never got around to sorting that out.

Years passed, and then more of them, and still more. Bill and I moved out West; the Lancer stayed in Michigan. I ran mind-movies of parking it at the house in Seattle—boy, it would have looked keen in that driveway, just as it had in 1991 when dad and I made our first road trip! But I never brought it out. There was just always too much going on, and if I were to move the car, I’d have to figure out how and where to move the mountainous collection of parts, too. It gradually dawned on me that it was time to find the car’s third owner. That was a complicated, traumatic, and slow realisation for me, but it helped that I’d figured out that I could remember (and miss) dad just as –easily– far from the car as near to it; he didn’t live there.

But I wasn’t about to let it go to just anyone, and I wasn’t going to sell it for cheap money. I’ve said it before: having automotive tastes far off the bell curve means selling well takes a lot of patience. In this case it required enough years’ worth of patience to warrant their own COAL instalment, so…tune in next week!

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