COAL: 1962 Valiant, 1964 & 1970 Dodge Darts – Hot Dogs and Mustard

Old cars and stashes of old car parts go together like Calvin and Hobbes or hot dogs and mustard: the one doesn’t function well without the other. So! Zero auxiliary backups for two old cars in daily service; how was one eager, perfectionist Slant-6 freak to keep them that way? Why, with a complete parts and service literature library, a passably decent collection of tools—not a set, because I couldn’t get myself to store them neatly, so individuals went missing all the time—and a large collection of parts.

I made frequent trips to wrecking yards; yarding was high-quality recreational fun. I dragged home lots of parts from CAP, but that surely wasn’t the only one. Just up the hill from CAP was Svigel’s New and Used Auto Parts, who didn’t employ non-Svigels (I asked). They had a big yard—eight acres, so they said—accessible by permission subject to revocation at any moment, full of ’40s-’70s cars, plus a warehouse full of pulled parts next door to another full of new old stock. Cars tended to stay in the Svigel yard for many, many years; there was a television repair van from the mid ’50s, with its hand-painted signwork faded but still visible. There was a ’75 Valiant 4-door built with a 225 Slant-6 and a 4-speed overdrive transmission. And there were a couple of early Valiants, the shell of a ’61 right next to a ’62 about the same colour(s) as this one:

Not long after dad bought the Lancer, I took a closer look at the ’62 Valiant at Svigel’s, and I went on a feeding frenzy: trim, lights, grilles (plural because there were really nice ’60 and ’61 grilles stashed in its trunk, plus the ’62 item on the car itself), and on and on. Aside from a few dashboard parts, none of this stuff would fit the Lancer, but shush; I was collecting !

Every nearly-never in my poking and prodding at old cars in wrecking yards—or driveways, for the matter of that—I would encounter a very old, very high-miles car with virtually all original working parts: distributor (cap and rotor and all), spark plug wires, heater hoses, starter and alternator, carburetor, fuel pump, and so on, crusty and caked with decades of dirt, but still working fine. This ’62 was such a one, last registered eleven years prior, and it had an aluminum 225 like the one in dad’s Lancer. I put a battery, cables, spool of wire, toolbox, a few quarts of oil, a gallon can of gasoline, and a wheelbarrow in the trunk of the Valiant; my dad in the passenger seat, and off we went. Battery in the tray, oil in the crankcase, wire to the coil, a glug of gasoline down the (original!) carburetor, a screwdriver across the terminals of the (original!) starter, and it didn’t take much cranking for the (original!) engine to start and run on all six.

There was a pressurised oil leak somewhere near the oil pump—probably the pressure sender, or maybe the filter gasket, or one of the pump gaskets—but I’d already heard what I needed to hear. I pulled the battery and threw tools back in the box. As we wheeled the barrow back up the hill, dad said he was impressed with how easy I’d made it look to wake up an engine left outside for over a decade. I arranged with the Svigels; they’d pull the engine for me. That engine eventually came to rest against the side of our house, covered by a tarp, and it stayed there through a few more Colorado winters. We haven’t heard the last of it yet, but that’s all for now—except to note that many years later, Old Man Svigel saw a nice sheet of plywood fall off a truck driving past. He dashed through the traffic gap, picked up the wood, and lifted it up perpendicular to the road. This turned it into a very efficient sail, which the wind pushed (with Mr. Svigel still attached) into the path of a big truck in the far lane of fast-moving Santa Fe Boulevard; so much for Old Man Svigel.

So yeah, that was me: hauling parts home from all over the place. Usually I went out seeking them, but sometimes they sought me instead. The Denver Post piece had my phone number in it, and aside from people interested in the club I got other calls, too. One of them came in from a lady who wondered what to do with her Dart which she said had been hit. I told her I’d come take a look at it. She wasn’t far away, and there in the car park behind her apartment house sat a blue 1970 Dodge Dart Custom. I have no images of a worn metallic blue ’70 4-door Dart; this nice green one will have to stand in.

The lady was a retired schoolteacher, she’d bought the car new, and she was sad that some bozo had run a red light and slammed into her Dart hard enough to take it off the road for good. She took a liking to me (perhaps I reminded her of some of her students?), and solace in the existence of a club for Dodge Dart enthusiasts, and wondered if anyone could use any parts off the car. I looked closer: it had one of those screwy bent engines with half its too many cylinders on the wrong side of the car, but with great effort I forgave that. This car had been specced way up, and was a parts bonanza! Trailer tow package (big radiator, 8¾” rear axle, bigger torsion bars), power disc brakes, factory air, etc. She gave me the car to take whatever parts I wanted from. I removed a bunch of parts over several visits, including one accompanied by Bob when he stopped in on one of his cross-country road trips in his 4-speed ’64 Valiant wagon; he was somewhere south of amused and north of worried about cops when I steered us into what must have seemed like a random apartment lot, pulled up to a random Dart, and started pulling random parts off it.

Compared to back when I started out with the ’64 Valiant, I was much better able to dismantle a car so as to gain knowledge and working, intact parts. Chrysler had upgraded the air conditioning system versus the ’65, I learned, for example. I don’t recall the logistical arrangements, but onehow or another—perhaps with help from CAP, because I know I didn’t pull them myself—I got the rear axle, the front disc brake system (with booster and brackets, etc), and the HD torsion bars.

I’d long wanted rid of the underspecified 9-inch drum brakes in the Valiant, so I set about refurbishing the discs off the teacher’s Dart. Those Kelsey-hayes 4-pot calipers—the same kind used on ’60s Mustangs—had something of a reputation for the seal boot getting holed, water getting in, and rust seizing the pistons. I used brute-force techniques to take the calipers apart: I weighted them down, put one foot on the weight, the other foot on an unauthorisedly-longhandled socket wrench, and broke loose the bolts that held the two halves together. Then I levered two screwdrivers in the grooves of one piston at a time and stood on the handles to prise the stuck pistons out the bores.

New pistons weren’t hard to get, and neither were seal-and-boot kits. I took the disassembled calipers to G&S Auto and Machine; they had a Federated parts store in front and a machine shop in the back, run by a couple of machinists whose skill and talent were all kinds of fun to watch. The kind who could measure, machine, precision-fit, and assemble components as easily as I might use a can opener; I guess my reaction to their work was comparable to my dad’s reaction to mine under the hood of that ’62 Valiant.

The guys at G&S spent quality time with those caliper halves in their blast cabinet, which shot not sand or glass beads but grindings from their brake lathe. Perfect! The iron frass removed all traces of rust and crud, without pitting the surface. Parts came out of that cabinet looking not just clean but newly-made, with none of the gritty, sandy texture seen on parts hit with less thoughtfully chosen media. I reassembled the brake calipers, bought new rotors and pads and hoses and a new master cylinder…now I had all the parts for a disc brake swap.

The summer of 1993 came not long later, and the Valiant went to Body Builders, an auto body-and-mechanical shop out in Commerce City run by two brothers into Mopars; Mark liked A-bodies and Carl liked B-bodies or vice versa. A pile of parts also went along with: that factory aircon system I’d bought out of Texas, the disc brake setup entire, the big (recored) radiator, and a lot of miscellany. The idea was for them to merge the parts pile with the car while I was in Illinois at a programme for high schoolers at Northwestern University’s journalism school, learning to do like this:

It was a rigourous programme, but there was a Barnes & Noble bookstore, which was air conditioned, a few blocks away from the dorm, which was not. That alone was reason to spend off hours at the book store, which also had a terrific selection of car books and magazines. I used to pore through Hemmings and copy down part numbers from ads, then use the payphone to dial the toll-free number for PartsVoice, a voicemail-like interface for a dealer inventory network useful for tracking down obsolete parts. Even from my summer activity thing, I was still collecting parts! I remember a new old stock carburetor was one of them.

Meanwhile, Mark and Carl were fighting a difficult battle. Air conditioning had been a late-availability option on the ’65 A-bodies in the States; probably not offered at all in Canada that year, and there were no provisions for its installation. No drill-here dimples, no knockout plugs, nothing. They had to improvise from scratch every step of the way, and there were an awful lot of steps. The firewall hole for the blower motor had to be enlarged. Components had to be mocked into place multiple times. There were endless little picky compatibility problems—the rod-type throttle linkage and its accelerator pedal or the A/C housing could be installed on the car, but not both; they had to source a cable-type setup from a V8 A-body (which required different floorpan holes) and kickdown linkage from a Slant-6 B-body. That linkage required a different carburetor. And so on. There were numerous phone calls with the shop, and then with mom and dad once they got the car back. The brake pedal was way too high and touchy (different mount points versus the ’70 Dart), the A/C shop couldn’t find the low-side service port to charge the system (hidden in plain sight on the compressor’s cylinder head), and so on. Mark and Carl vowed never again to try installing factory air on a car not originally equipped, and years later I came to wish I’d listened better to that vow.

At the end of the summer I got back to Denver. It was strange to get back in the Valiant, because it was a different car. The cable-type accelerator felt different, the brakes sure as hell felt different, the dashboard looked different with the A/C controls…it felt like the car had undergone surgery and would take awhile to heal. I wound up fixing the high-and-touchy brake pedal by deleting the booster altogether; much better. The A/C…well…it blew cold air, but not in great volume. I hadn’t tinted the windows or seen to the car’s poor insulation, so the underspecified system was trying in vain to cool a solar oven. All in all it wasn’t very effective and I should’ve gone about things differently. Mark and Carl surely agreed.

But progressively, a bit at a time in fits and starts, the car (was) healed up from its operation. Sometimes steps went in the wrong direction, though, on account of thoughtless laziness on my part. I spent most of a very hot, thirsty day at CAP pulling a 2.93 centre chunk out of an 8¾” rear axle in a ’65 Plymouth. I barrowed it out to the trunk of the Valiant…and left it there. Dad borrowed the car and wondered what all the commotion was from the trunk; that’s how a collection of weird outward dings appeared in the quarter panels. Oops…sorry, old friend.

That schoolteacher’s ’70 wasn’t the only old Dart that found its way to me, either. I had spotted a tired, rusty, smoky old soldier of a ’64 Dart wagon behind the Belcaro shopping centre. I found it belonged to Joann, a nice older lady who worked very competently in the Ace hardware store, by parking in my Valiant next to the wagon; when the store closed and she went for the Dart we swapped stories about our cars. The Dart had a 225, pushbutton automatic, and a Mopar Airtemp knee-knocker air conditioner which didn’t work; she said she wasn’t going to charge it up because of the environment. Along with the aircon came factory greentint glass. It also had an almost new power steering pump, only ten years old! It needed a valve adjustment, a radio antenna, and a choke thermostat. We talked about a deal whereby I would fix the antenna and the choke, and in return I’d get the air conditioning system, but she decided not to do that because if she ever sold it, she wanted it to be original. Over the next couple years, I saw the Dart a few times. It accumulated more rust, and dents, and it grew smokier, but it kept taking Joann to and from work.

And then, while I was finishing up one or the other year at the University of Oregon, my folks relayed a message from Joann: “Come get the Dart; I’m done with it!” She’d bought an ’85 Colt and was finished with the Dart after 31 years (her father bought it). As far as she was concerned, she said to me, “it’s your car.” She came and picked me up in the Colt and just as it began to pour down rain, we got to her house. There it was—I’d never seen it anywhere other than behind the Belcaro Ace. Or, as she said, there he was. He was “Hud,” as in the movie.

It was dark out. Joann held my flashlight as I opened the hood and took stock. Lookit there, it was another of those old-old cars with many original parts still in place! Original starter, carburetor, A/C compressor, distributor, and other stuff. It had an underhood insulation pad (ooh, de luxe!). The brake fluid was a bit low, so I topped it up. The oil was right up there at the Full mark.

I had brought along my Mopar manifold heat control valve solvent—now called “rust penetrant” because heat riser valves are a thing of the distant past, but still the same formula. I still don’t know what’s in this stuff. It’s nothing like Liquid Wrench or other penetrants; it smells chemically different and has worked magic for me with little mess or hassle. That valve wasn’t going to come unstuck, though, so I put it away and reached for the carb cleaner. Joann didn’t like that. With an indignant look on her face, she admonished me “Put that away, dangit! Just get in the car and turn the key! You have no faith!”

She had a point. I got in the car, stomped the gas five times, and turned the key. That original starter was tired and slow, and the battery wasn’t such a spring chicken either, but there were enough oats between the two of them to get the job done; the car started and stayed running. Wow, did the valves need adjusting; the engine sounded loud enough to be a diesel of some kind.

But it was running. She hopped into the passenger seat as I punched up reverse. Click-chuk, no problem there. Headlights, check. Turn signals, check. Heater/defog, check. Backup lights, nonexistant. Seat belts, covered by seat cover. Power steering, dead. But we were in reverse and the engine was running. So I killed the dome light and hit the gas. Backed out of the driveway and hit drive. Click-chuk, engage. It actually ran pretty well, all things considered. Joann warned me that one axle was bent due to a crunch in a snowstorm, but said it hadn’t affected tire wear.

She gave me the owner’s manual, title, and bill of sale with “NO CHARGE” written on it, and the original California black plate and I drove off into the night. As the Torqueflite smoothly shifted through the gears, this crazy grin spread across my face and I laughed and patted “Hud” on the padded (but cracked) dashboard. I went to the grocery and got two cans of Gunk, and then to the car wash and cleaned up the engine room.

The engine was tired, all right. It smoked when revved and the oil pressure light would stay on below about 1,200 RPM; above that speed the light flickered off and the steering became power-assisted. There was extensive wear and tear everywhere, and yet I found myself thinking of where to pick up a new check spring for the driver’s door. And a new right side interior sunvisor. And a right sideview mirror to match the left one. And ooh, I knew where there was a ’66 Valiant wagon in Oregon just waiting to donate its electric tailgate and straight doors. And it would need a set of headlight bezels; I wondered if that ’64 with the good bezels was still at Parkin’s yard in Cottage Grove.

I parked it alongside our house, which mother cheerfully allowed except when she used it as evidence of what a stupid, goodfernothing screwup I was, which she screamed except when she was cheerfully fine with the car there.

That wagon probably could have been yanked back from the brink with professional cubic money injection; short of that it was well used up. Nevertheless, it did run and drive, sorta. You’ve probably heard of the Doppler Effect, which is the tendency of sounds to seem higher-pitched as they’re approaching you and lower-pitched as they’re retreating. Related is the Dopeler Effect, which is the tendency of dumb ideas to seem smart when they approach you very fast. Teenagers are especially susceptible, and one day while I was at home alone it struck me as a fine idea to use the wagon to carry a bunch of stuff over to our storage locker.

There were some obstacles to this plan; the Dopeler Effect made short work of them. The expired licence plate tabs were umfixed with some white-out and a Sharpie, followed by a bit of spray glue and a handful of dirt thrown at the plate. Insurance, schminsurance—it was only ¾ of a mile; I’d be back long before either of my folks got home. I had not yet understood that “What could possibly go wrong?” is always an answer disguised as a question. No, I didn’t get in a crash or anything; I made it to Public Storage just fine, through the gate and down the hill and round the back of the third building, unloaded my junk from the wagon, and…couldn’t get the car started again. Flat battery. Had to hoof it up the hill to the office and beg to use their phone to call a neighbour’s house. The babysitter picked up; she was waiting for the kid to get home from school, and after he did, they could come help.

They did come, in the babysitter’s S-10. The Dart started just fine with jumper cables, and I drove it home without incident, but my mother had got home in the meantime, so the big spectacular crackup and fire happened after I walked in the front door. I was in very deep trouble, as mother correctly said if I’d got in a crash with an uninsured vehicle, it could’ve easily ruined us.

I don’t recall the penalties, but I lived to see another day, and my wings didn’t get clipped. Eventually my folks stopped humouring the rusty car parked beside the house. My auto-glass-guy friend DJ towed it up to his place, and he and I and a couple of his buddies stripped usable parts off it. I kept the underdash A/C box and all four doors’ worth of factory greentint glass, though I only ever got around to swapping the driver’s vent wing—the other seven pieces of glass stayed in the basement until I had to get rid of them.

That wasn’t the end of my automotive dumpster-diving, but the next stories along that line happened in Oregon, so I’ll tell those another time.

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