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.

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