COAL: 1963 Valiant (+ the Spirit R/T Goes Away) – Planes, Trains and Automobiles

That ’63 VW I referred to before was in fact a Valiant wagon. Beyond that, gosh, what’s to tell? Everyone who visits California from Colorado gets a free ’63 Valiant station wagon—at least that’s how it was a couple of decades ago. Or maybe it was just me. Yeah, come to think of it, I guess it was just me.

My father died in March 2000, a month and a few days shy of 58 whole, entire years old; seriously raw deal. At least I got to spend his last days with him when I wasn’t simultaneously propping up and fending off my mother, whose already-difficult behaviour did not improve with pressure, stress, and grief. I jetted to San Francisco in early July on excuse of a meeting, but actually to get away from her and try to collect my wits in the company of friends before I would resume school in September. Flew into Sacramento, public-transported to San Francisco—fine, but I had some friends to visit in Los Angeles and San Diego, and some sights to see that would be easier with a car. Renting one as needed wasn’t a practicable option, as I wasn’t (quite) yet 25.

Not long after arriving in the Bay Area, I headed down to Sunnyvale to spend a few hours with noted Slant-6 guru Doug Dutra. He picked me up at the railway station in his ’66 Dart wagon with the stroker 260 cubic inch Slant-6, and we headed (torquily!) to his home in Sunnyvale.

He mentioned an elderly lady in Santa Clara had rung him a few days before and wondered if he wanted her ’63 Valiant wagon; her husband had died some months back and she herself was in ill health and no longer capable of driving a car with nonpower brakes and steering. Doug had installed a good used 225 in it some years before, replacing the original 170. We swang by her house and found nobody at home, but the car was parked on the street. It was that orangey-red colour they came in, chalky as they grow in the sun. Like the old red lead primers, but five or ten notches brighter.

We flipped open the hood to find everything looking pretty well intact. Grabbed a screwdriver and arced the starter: sounds of compression on all six.

You sure she’s not home?

Yep, I rang the doorbell a few times and gave it a few minutes.

Doug suggested we hotwire it. No wire, per se, but he had a set of jumper cables. Awright then: high-performance hotwiring with a giant low-resistance cable between battery + and the ballast resistor. Arced the starter again and the engine started pretty quickly. No cloud of smoke, no rattly valves. So far so good!

Hey, lookit, the left rear door is unlocked, I said.

Let’s take it for a test drive!, said Doug.

I just assumed this was part of the famous California car culture, so…sure! In we hopped, engine running. I kicked the gas and it settled down to a smooth idle; stood on the brake pedal and it was high and solid. Beeped the horn (no ignition key meant no turn blinkers, so I wanted to know the horn worked). No excessive play in the steering wheel. I lifted the Park lever and thumbed “D”: clickCHUK. Thumbed “R”: clickCHUK. It was all systems go from where I sat. I clickCHUKked back into Drive and off we went. A few blocks this way, a few blocks that way…hey, this is a terrific car, especially at the low, low ask price of $0.00!

I played some phone tag with the owner, and a day or two later a date was arranged. By that time I already had three people saying “ooh, meee!” for when I would be done with the car in a few weeks’ time.

I picked up the car on my mother’s birthday—a fine way to celebrate, I thought. The tires looked ancient, so I got new ones—four BRKs (the Black Round Kind), $22.50/ea from Discount Tire, non-brand American-made P185/80R13s. A new fan belt took me 90 seconds to install. I also got a new air filter (Fram, but I was not in a mood to quibble) and two new Sylvania halogen sealed beams (ditto) and a set of wiper refills. So my free car was no longer technically free, but it got to San Francisco from Santa Clara without any scary incidents. The temp gauge always read “H”, but I decided that was a shorted sender/wire rather than real overheating, for there were no other signs of overheating at all, and promptly ignored the gauge.

I spent a remarkably short time at the DMV transferring the registration, and had running transport for the duration of my trip. Really, it wasn’t a rolling wreck. It had the optional variable-speed wipers, and they worked at whatever speed I dialled in. The heater/defog worked on both speeds, though the left underdash vent was missing its door. All the (factory-tinted) glass was good, and the power tailgate glass worked. All four door armrests were in lovely condition. The engine ran well; clearly Doug had picked a good one and tuned it skillfully, and the car had a surprising amount of pep. The tailpipe rattled against the floor because it was hung with a nonstock hanger—perhaps also a side effect of the engine swap; a 225’s block deck is an inch higher than that of a 170, so a 170-to-225 swap raises the headpipe closer to the floorpan.

The upholstery was getting ragged, and there was wear evident throughout. It was a warhorse: largely unbent and rust free, but the paint was oxidised, it was missing any driver’s door weatherstrip, needed a new driver’s door lock cylinder and passenger’s seat belt; the engine mounts were okeh but flabby, the exhaust manifold was cracked. Y’know, it was old, sort of in drivable-project condition, considerably better than that ’64 Dart wagon I got (also free…h’mm…) from JoAnne. The car ran and drove well enough, though it did manage to scare the piss out of a friend I picked up from work one day, just because he had no experience with old cars of any kind, let alone worn ones like this. Or maybe it was because of that nonfunctional passenger seat belt.

Now, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’d been advertising the Spirit R/T without success. I’d started by putting up a web page—archived here, and if you click the link I can’t be held responsible for your eyes bleeding. This generated nothing. Who would have even seen some random page off of my University of Michigan student homepage? Eventually I forgot I’d put it up. A series of newspaper and Auto Trader ads with prices marching steadily downward to a low of, I think, $3,300 OBO followed—these, too, had generated nothing but tire kickers. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but it was just one of the many things that had to be put on hold when I fled Denver to try to catch my breath.

So there I was in the Bay Area with my free ’63 Valiant wagon, catching my breath, and one day my phone rang from an unfamiliar number with a North Carolina area code: Hi, I saw your ad for the Spirit R/T. I’ve been looking for one for quite awhile. I like yours, and the price seems fair. Is it still available for sale? Yes, it is; which ad had he seen, please? It was the web page. The one with the $7K price on it. Um…okeh!

Last-minute plane travel was easy back then with frequent-flyer miles, and our whole family was heavily into the Untied Airlines Mileage Plus program, so it was just a matter of picking up the phone and requesting a ticket: done. But now I had a problem: where was I going to put the Valiant? I drove around San Francisco for over three hours looking fruitlessly for someplace I could park for more than a few hours, let alone the three days I needed. Private vehicle ownership in that city was a giant hassle at that time; I’m sure it’s far more so now. Practically every street was 2-hour parking, metered, no parking any time, or otherwise like that. Finally I gave up and headed for the parkade under Civic Center, figuring I’d just have to pay whatever it cost to park conveniently in the middle of town. The ticket said “We’ll impound if you leave your car 30 days or longer”, so I assumed three days would be okeh. But it was gonna cost me!

I got up at 5-something in the morning, took transit to the airport, and arrived in Denver at about noon. My friend picked me up and I ate lunch (breakfast? Dinner? Donno; I hadn’t eaten the night before, either). Got to the house, got in the R/T, drove it to Grease Monkey and had them change the oil using my Mopar filter. Washed the car; touched up the paint scrape with my red Sharpie; emptied the garage of all R/T parts—into the trunk they went, collected three weeks’ personal mail and a few parcels and tossed ’em in my day bag. Drew-up an as-is, where-is bill of sale and almost managed to get out the house before my mother returned from New York, but she got home early, drat.

Subsequent-owner pic. He didn’t like the Jaguar-style tailspout I’d installed, for it wasn’t original, yet he painted the spoiler black…

Mr. and Mrs. Buyer arrived from North Carolina at 8:15 that evening; their luggage appeared at the baggage reclaim around 9:00. It was dark when we went out to the car in short-term parking. I drove, and Mr. Buyer commented on the unusually good headlamp performance. We got to their hotel, and Mr. asked me to park the car under one of the parking lot lights. He walked around it a few times, looked under the hood, got in, drove it (with me in the passenger seat) three exits up I-25 and back, parked it at the hotel, and handed over the $7k cashier’s check. All in the dark.

…installed a bra and clear-lens side turn signal repeaters…

I removed the licence plate and headed back home around midnight. Threw a steak on the grille, ate half of it, cleaned the kitchen, drove up to the King Soopers with the FirstBank ATM, deposited the check. Crashed into bed around 2:30AM. Clock went off at 6AM…got up, collected my stuff, ducked mother’s inappropriate questions, caught a cab up to friend’s, and we headed out to the airport.

…and this very high-endy steering wheel cover.

Got off the plane in SF, keyed the celphone, and the “Voicemail Waiting” light came on. Hit “retrieve” and it was…Mr. Buyer! Seems the R/T quit ten minutes onto I-70. He was able to get it restarted, but it would run only a few minutes at a time. Got it to a nearby Chry-Ply dealer, where a bad SBEC was diagnosed. The spare SBEC from the parts box was installed, and they were on their way. He made it clear he wasn’t peeved, just letting me know. Good of him. Me, I’ve bought cars long distance and had to sink $1k into them to get home safely.

I took a taxicab to Civic Center and walked into the parkade. On my way past the tollbooth, I saw a big sign:


Because I had parked for more than 24 hours, this struck me as less of a threat and more of a helpful suggestion. I left the ticket stub in my pocket, started up the car, and pulled up to the tollbooth. “Hi, sir, I’m afraid I lost my ticket.” The attendant pointed to the warning. I sighed. The car stalled—its choke wasn’t quite properly adjusted. I paid my eighteen whole, entire dollars’ worth of lost-tickets-pay-full-24-hour-charge-no-exceptions, and eventually got the car started again and drove off. I sold it for $500 to a friend who wanted to fix it up; I don’t know that he ever did, but I think he had fun with it. So did I. Parking hassles aside, it was exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.

Next week we’ll be jumping back and forth in time, but all the seat belts will work—I promise.

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