COAL: 1962 Dodge Lancer, Part IV • A Stop

Now, reading this post (and my others, and my comments) might have given you the idea I had a thing for the ’60-’62 Valiant-Lancer-Rebel cars. I thought that, too, for many years. And I did, I suppose—still do, if I’m honest, though now from greater distance. But it’s nothing compared to a particular Australian who started flying to the states in the 1980s and collecting these cars and their parts and stuff. In 2009 he put out a 120-page coffee table picture book called “Yard Tours”, showing early Valiants and Lancers in wrecking yards and that kind of thing.

And in 2012 he put out a 240-page book called PushButton Matic Deluxe full of ads, promos, toys, models, brochures and information these cars, from all over the world (…the Japanese brochure…the Hebrew brochure…the plastic cereal-box toy…the Pepsi giveaway sweepstakes…).

It seemed clear to me this guy was the car’s ideal next owner, and I set about getting him onside with my thinking. We had an email conversation at an unhurried pace, and it ran in multiple directions concurrently; I’d bought those books from him in 2013, and I had literature to put toward whatever would be his Volume 3.

Our talks slowly took root. By and by it came time for me to swallow hard, commit, and spit out a number, and we came to terms. In April 2018 (keep track of the timeframe as it goes along here) I took an early-morning flight from either Vancouver or Seattle, I forget which, through Chicago-O’Hare to Traverse City, Michigan. From there I made my way from there to where the car was, and had a few days to freeze my parts off and maybe do a last little bit of wrenching on the car.

Wrenching there was none; the winter storm had not only subfrozen the whole place but also socked it with 25 cm / 10 inches of snow all over everything. A few days later the Australian flew halfway round the globe—good job he works for an airline, eh!—and arrived in shorts and a tee-shirt from his Western Australia home climate of year-round warm, sunny weather. He had no experience with anything like this Northern Michigan end-of-winter lashing. Did he shiver and shudder and suffer? No! He fairly dove out the airport to go check out this “snow” stuff.

We trucked and tromped through the snow to where the car was stored. He inspected the car and liked it. Papers were signed and the deal was done, then he flew back to Australia (would’ve been a bit of a long drive) and the car stayed right where it was.

A funny thing happened on the way to the sale. About a week beforehand, I had an email come in from another guy on the Slant Six and A-body boards. He was having trouble figuring out what to do with his negative feelings toward his Dart in particular and the hobby in general. I wrote back:

• • •
I am keenly familiar with this what you’re experiencing, the conflict that bounces back and forth like a rubber ball: “I’m into old cars, but old cars are a constant nuisance and hassle and expense that are holding me back and dragging me down, and I can’t remember the last time I really enjoyed my old cars. But I’m into old cars, but my newer car is more dependable, doesn’t require constant messing with, it’s more comfortable, more convenient, safer, can get worked on anywhere, I don’t have to hoard parts and service information, I don’t have to worry about finding a hard-to-find part in case something breaks or gets hit…but I’m into old cars, always have been!” For those of us who put a big chunk of our identity into being into old cars, it is difficult and jarring to realise that old cars just don’t fit in our life the way they used to.

Other things in life come to take priority over old cars; we have grown older, and so have the cars. You and I aren’t 20-some years old any more, and neither are our cars. Playing with old cars as a 30-40-50something is a very different proposition than playing with old cars as a teenager or 20something, and playing with 20-year-old cars is also a very different proposition than playing with 30-40-50-year-old cars. It was one thing when we had all the time in the world to go hit the wrecking yards on a Saturday and grab parts left and right from a bunch of Darts and Valiants. Now we don’t have the time, and the cars aren’t there any more anyhow. The inevitability of this shift was easy to ignore for a lot of years because the Darts and Valiants were so popular and so unusually sturdy and durable, but they really have crossed over the line and are now vintage cars, with all the attendant scarcity and difficulty in getting parts and service and keeping everything repaired and keeping the car on the road in daily or even semi-regular usage. Even if it weren’t for those difficulties, think of the driving experience. Plus or minus depending on where you are, the lack of things like fast/effective defoggers (and rear defoggers at all), sideview mirrors large enough and windshield wipers big and fast enough to be useful, seats better than a bus stop bench…really starts to get noticeable and bothersome. Rain and wind leaks start to get unacceptable. Vague steering starts to get tiresome. Yeah, you can fix it by pouring a few thousand bucks into steering and suspension upgrades…and then you’ll notice the next deficiency, and the one after that, and the one after that.

And even if we can put up with the deficiencies, we don’t have enough time to keep the car up, so we always feel rushed and under the shadow of the never-ending list of stuff that needs doing, especially if we don’t have a big, beautiful, well-lit shop with all the tools we could ever need..

And it’s no good just taking it to someone else’s shop, because most of the knowledge needed to repair and maintain these cars properly has passed out of general distribution. Specialists? Sure, but unless you have a wallet that opens wide enough to rain big money on the car (and even sometimes then) you are at the mercy of people who can’t, won’t, or don’t share your priorities, so you can easily wind up with a stalled or half-done project.

Mine was a long, drawn-out, slow, expensive process of coming to acknowledge these realities. I bought and sold somewhere between three and five A-bodies, depending on which ones I count, none of them really grabbing my heart and making me happy like my previous ones had, before it dawned on me that the problem was more basic than this car versus that car versus some other car, it was that I had moved on—I just hadn’t yet perceived or acknowledged or admitted it.

Here’s the thing I finally figured out that allowed me to be OK with steering out of the old-car hobby: I get to keep the memories and experiences and stories even though I won’t have the car any more. I can bring ’em up and smile whenever I want, at zero expense, without the grease and aggravation, and the best part is that the frustrations and annoyances fade from memory much faster than the good times, so very soon the recollections are much superior to the actuality. The net result isn’t a hundred per cent better, but it’s better on average, most days.
• • •

The Lancer was my last Slant-6 car. I took my driving licence test in it. I taught my father how to change spark plugs on it. I have a lot of fine memories with it. For the first time since I began playing with cars as a 14-year-old, I no longer owned any Chrysler products. With the exception of a 12-year gap between 1978 and 1990, all my life there had always been at least one Slant-6 car; now I’d drawn that era to a close. I had a lot of fun, took on a lot of free work, and made a lot of friends (and a few sworn enemies).

To friends unsure what to say in reaction to my news of having sold the Lancer, I said I’d take a small side dish of condolences, but make the main dish of congratulations much bigger: I saw the car to its ideal next loving owner. My bank account could catch its breath a little. Biggest of all, though, I figured out how to let go and look forward. Took me a lot of expensive, difficult years between realising I was constantly grasping backward for a do-over that couldn’t be had—probably on account of my unhappy childhood—and beginning to steer my gaze forward instead. Selling the Lancer didn’t suddenly mean I was optimally applying all my time and energy, but the trend was in the right direction. This way was clearly better than before.

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