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

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.

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