COAL: 1964 Dodge Dart – Greasing the Grief

Around 2004 I spotted this tooth-enamel white ’64 Dart, an eight- (or three-) minute walk uphill from (or downhill to) my grandfather Stern’s house in Seattle, or a 1-minute drive either way. Whenever I’d visit, I’d see it and glance approvingly in its direction. One day I happened by while a guy was washing it, and he gave me a quick tour: 273-2bbl, pushbutton automatic, ’76 Dart front disc brakes and matching big-bolt ’76 7¼” rear axle with 2.76 gears, rallye wheels, a sturdy welded trailer hitch, a modern stereo under the dash with amp under the front seat, and otherwise stock. Nice. I resumed glancing approvingly, because, y’know, Sixty-fowur Dodge Dart!

Grandpa died in early May of 2009, having outlived his son—my dad—by a little over nine years, which is not the sequence things are meant to go in. Grandpa was a hell of a fine man, and Bill and I looked after him right to the end. He left this world smelling lilacs from the garden he and grandma planted in 1953 once the house was built; hearing his favourite opera, The Barber of Seville; and with me holding his hand. I was demolished when he went away; he’d been my best remaining link to dad. There was a lot of work to do to get the house* in shape for his memorial, but the logistics and housework didn’t quite occupy me enough—if I wasn’t carefully strategic I’d fall completely apart and be useless.

So I set about paying some more attention to that ’64 Dart. I got out my camera and hiked up the hill one sunny day to find the car parked with its nose very close to the back of a ’68 or ’69 Mustang convertible, so I rang the bell of the house it was in front of. A nice lady came and answered the door: yes, it’s her Dart. Oh, neat, another Dart lover, c’mon in. Sure, she’d be glad for me to take pictures. It was her first car, bought in California when she was 16. Still had all the original glovebox literature and a meticulous logbook kept by its engineer original owner (how does this keep happening to me?). Oh, my grandfather’s house is right over at 68th and 52nd? We’re neighbours! Matter of fact, it’s kinda cool I should come round just now, because she’s about to sell the Dart.


Oh no she didn’t just say that! (oh yes, she did.)

A few days later I went back and got a closer tour and test drive. The car started and ran well, front end and rear springs were all rebuilt, bunch of new body seals, Pertronix ignition, etc. This wasn’t actually quite his wife’s first car, he said; that car—a ’64 Dart 270, built with 225/auto—got hit badly enough to take it off the road permanently, so they found this car—a ’64 Dart 170, built with 273/auto—with no engine, bought it, swapped all the 270 trim parts and complete interior into it, transferred the drivetrain from the hit car, and drove it that way for 10 years. Restored it and decided to put a V8 in it; bought a ’71 318 and couldn’t make it quit overheating at idle and low speed. Found a ’64 273 in a Valiant, put that in instead; transmission rebuilt at that time.

The garage contained extremely numerous spare parts, including a complete power steering setup with rebuilt steering box and correct shorter steering shaft, not on the car because correct bracketry wasn’t forthcoming at the time of the engine swap, so nonpower parts were installed to get the car on the road. Extra pushbutton boxes, extra remote sideview mirrors, much extra trim, and a whole lot more. Price discussed, fair deal quickly reached for car plus all parts except the ’71 318.

It was not perfect; it did have some quirks and flaws. The transmission upshifted far too late; the brake pedal was effective but low and soft; a moderate water leak into the right side of the trunk persisted despite new trunk lid and backglass gaskets and dual drain tubes added by a body shop to the cavity below the backglass gasket, and attempts at using RTV silicone wherever it seemed like it might help. The biggest issue, to my mind, was under the hood: this weird bent engine with half the cylinders on the wrong side of the car, and two too many of them at that. But every bit of metal seemed completely solid, and the spare tire was on another big-bolt rallye wheel.

I drove the car all sixty seconds home a few times to shuttle all the parts over. Adding more stuff to the garage and basement worked against the goal of getting the house ready for an incoming family swarm, and that threatened to cause some friction. Dear, may I see you in the kitchen for a moment? A friend and fellow A-body freak about 15 minutes’ drive away volunteered garage-attic space for the plastic totes full of parts; friction averted.

We used the Dart for our comings and goings around town. For the most part it was fine, though the iffy brake pedal seemed like something that ought to be seen to, and it had some bigger-than-normal driveability faults. The previous owner had put some effort into solving them, as evidenced by the variety of removed carburetors in the parts totes, but cold starts and warmups were troublesome. I figured out the intake manifold heat crossover was clogged, and really didn’t want to mess with a manifold R&R, so I put in an electric choke kit—it came with a heat sensor so the choke would gradually open up despite the nonfunctional crossover, but there was still no manifold heat under the carburetor, and that lack made itself known.

There were squeaks, creaks, and rattles, and that water leak into the trunk was aggravated by parking in the back-down driveway. Everything in the trunk was damp, and there was a great deal of condensation on the inside of the trunk lid and quarter panels, all the way forward and all the way back. I didn’t find puddles of standing water—I shoved wads of paper towel down into the side gaps between the trunk floor and the quarter panels, but they didn’t come back up soggy. But the left side of the carpet was soaked clear up past the front seat, and there was always condensation on the inside of the glass, which made the defogger’s job even harder; clearly there was a lot of water getting into the car. The consensus on the Slant-6 board was there were probably rust gaps and holes in the backglass aperture, enough that even a nice new gasket couldn’t keep out the water. Or maybe the seam sealer along the rain channel had failed (or been insufficiently applied, allowing water to leak down the inside of the C pillars. One and/or the other of these was probably right, but I (still) didn’t want to know about rustwork, and I never pursued a repair.

To avoid losing my Daniel Stern licence, I installed a new old stock set of Cibié Z-Beam headlamps, which were quite nice to drive with at night. If there had been more headlamps like that in the 1970s and ’80s, on both sides of the Atlantic, things would’ve been better.

In June (still 2009) we drove down to Oregon and spent some time in Portland, then I left Bill to his own devices there while I drove down to Eugene and vicinity for a couple of days. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but that was to be the last time I saw Mike before he died:

From Mike’s I drove to the Halsey home of CJ, a fellow moderator on the Slant-6 board, who had a pole barn and a race car and a bunch of tools and such. It wound up being a bit of a gathering; Richard came over in his ’63 Dart with its sextuple carburetors, which was a very capable runner to and from the parts store…

…Dennis drove down from Salem in one of his Dusters when we put out a call for a vacuum advance…

…and the lot of us worked on my Dart; here’s Richard doing his part during a tactical brake-bleeding operation:

While I did mine:

The inferior quality of Fram oil filters probably didn’t matter enough to warrant my rabid refusal to tolerate them. Here I’m grinning because I’ve removed the offending filter-shaped trinket (and because I knew when I posted this pic they were gonna give me guff on the board):

In for a penny, in for a pound:

“Torque the spark plugs to 7 zebra-inches”? What?

We got a lot of work done on the car that day. By suppertime, it no longer had an all-but-dead master cylinder, blown vacuum advance, manual coolant thermostat, spongy coolant bypass hose with bizarre restrictor clamped in, or pretend oil filter. Fixing all this involved two nontrivial trips to CarQuest and a hand-delivered vacuum advance, which was why Dennis drove down. An interesting discovery, too: no manifold heat control (“heat riser”) valve was present in the starboard exhaust manifold. There was no evidence a valve had ever been there, nor any apparent casting provision for one. Must’ve been something other than the intended manifold, and I surely was glad I hadn’t gone taking off the intake manifold to find the heat crossover not clogged, but abandoned.

On the trip back up I-5 to Seattle, I stopped being able to convince myself the car was enjoyable to drive. The rattles and creaks were irritating, though I quieted some of them with folded bits of paper stuffed between interior trim and the metal it wasn’t quite secured to. But although this car was substantially similar to the ’65 D’Valiant I’d happily driven for many miles, certain that it was the best car ever (and working to make it even better, though sometimes my efforts landed well wide of the mark), I really didn’t like driving it in highway traffic. I’d become professionally involved in traffic safety research, and this car’s near-total lack of crashworthiness was no longer something I could blissfully ignore—especially not with all the death and loss on my mind at the time. The car had no head restraints, no side-impact guard beams in doors barely held closed by Chrysler’s improved-for-’64 door latches, which can vividly be seen doing their not-good-enough best here at 1:32:

No crumple zones, a marginally effective defogger, a small area swept by the windshield wipers, a small left sideview mirror and none on the right. Only lap belts, so in a crash perhaps my bottom half might stay more or less put while a solid steering column speared my upper half. And more important than my lower half or my upper half was my other half, whom I was subjecting to my choice of car with all its implications. There hadn’t been that to consider when I was driving D’Valiant.

So in 2010 I sold the car to a college professor in Oregon, who, with his son, drove up to Seattle to fetch it. I met them downtown, pulled the plates, swapped keys and title for money, and off it went. That set the stage for something of a complicated international game of musical cars, which will take several instalments to describe—starting next week!

* Whether you wondered if I’d ever get around to explicating that asterisk in the second graf of this post, or you forgot it, here I am. The house, which my grandparents put up between 1950 and 1952, and where my father and aunt grew up, was a magic midmod on a hill. There are four multi-page galleries here; Before and After refer to its 2013 exterior colour change, the first since about 1965. Toxics Gallery is the home and garden chemicals grandpa sequestered in the garage because household hazmat wasn’t a thing yet and he wasn’t about to pour them down the drain or on the ground. Go see the galleries if you like; it’s going to be a long time before I can bear it. I bought the house from grandpa’s estate in 2011, and Bill and I split our time first between Toronto and there, then between Vancouver and there. This had its delights and rewards, but it was costly and exhausting. We came close to moving in full-time, and started getting a Green Card for Bill, but then events made Canada our wiser choice. That, in turn, made it clear we couldn’t keep the house or it would drag us down and drown us. A developer bought it, subdivided the lot, bulldozed the house and gardens, and put up two vulgar McMansions for vulgar McPeople. This felt just like losing grandpa and dad; I’ll probably not ever get over any of it. This has been an unusually sadness-heavy post; sometimes life’s been like that.

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