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

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.

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