COAL: 1964 Plymouth Valiant – Some Disassembly Required

By the time I was 14, I’d pretty much outgrown monkeying around with small engines, except for my fastidious upkeep of the family lawnmower. It was bound to happen sooner or later; a mower having four wheels and an engine just didn’t suffice for me any more.

One day in a book I saw a picture of a Slant-6 engine, and it struck me as kind of nifty. I liked the bunch-of-bananas intake manifold, and I liked the leaned-over packaging of the whole thing. I knew not a whole lot about car engines, but this one struck me as intriguingly unusual. And any doubt vanished immediately I learnt this was the kind of engine in many Plymouth Valiants and Dodge Darts. Dodge Darts, hey? Why, I’d been liking Dodge Darts since before I could talk!

A Dart, then, or a Valiant, sure! I don’t recall encountering much parental resistance to the idea of my getting a car to work on, even though it would still be a couple of years before I could legally drive.

Somehow or other, I got the name of a guy who lived not far away and owned Darts and Valiants. Bob had a fenced yard located remotely from his house where he stored his own—and for a monthly fee, others’—extra cars, and one day my mother drove me over to meet him there. The yard was medium-full of cars and trucks, mostly Chrysler products. Some in various stages of that’s-my-project-car-I’m-gonna-finish-it-someday, some in various stages of that’s-a-parts-car. But also some in quite fine condition, just being stored. I opened and sat in a great big ’60-’62 Chrysler and marvelled at its Amaze-o-Dome-o-Rama instrument cluster (okeh, fine, AstraDome). I didn’t realise it had a live battery in it; Bob saw its stop lights come on and helpfully advised me it wasn’t a Dart or a Valiant.

Eventually we kicked our way through the waist-high weeds to two Valiants: a faded, chalky light beige one and a faded, chalky turquoise one. Both were four-door cars, and that suited me just fine; even at 14 I knew I didn’t like two-doors. That preference was probably a result of too many big choreographed productions to get out of the back seat of one: whoever was in front had to unbuckle and get out, fold the seat forward, then the unlucky back-seated passenger had to climb through an odd-shaped space to get out of the car, or into it. None for me, thanks; make mine a four-door.

Which one? I took my time choosing. Both of them were equally foreign to my experience; the dashboards and steering wheels, seats and door handles didn’t look anything like the ’70 my folks had when I was born, or the ’72 my mother’s father drove. So neither spurred much nostalgia along that line (though the dome light was the same). Huh…interesting: a glovebox door on an overcentre hinge spring—never seen one of those. And where’s the shift stick? Pushbuttons?! Cool! Dad had told me of his first car, a ’62 Plymouth with pushbuttons! Perfect!

Back and forth I went between the two cars, the used-chewing-gum beige ’64 and the swimming-pool turquoise ’63. I think what decided me against the turquoise one was that its engine was severely dead, and so I picked the ’64. It had a 170 engine that “would run”, Bob said; a dead transmission; power steering; bent and missing trim (one smashed and one missing headlamp “door”, as Chrysler called them; where I’m from people say “bezel” or “ring”); extensive see-thru crumbly crusty rust in the quarter panels and sills and lower fenders; a generically-reupholstered front seat, and a piece of copper tubing crudely drilled through the dashboard panel to substitute for the missing Neutral button (none of the pics in this post are of my actual car).

The Valiant showed all twenty-six of its hard years, but it was mostly complete and seemed a good match to what I was after: not something to drive any time soon, but something to wrench on and learn from. We agreed $300 or $350 including a good transmission Bob would provide and help me install, and not long after that the Valiant came home behind Bob’s ’56 Dodge wrecker truck. I would love to show you the picture from that day; I like to hope I’ll eventually find it with the missing pic of the ’90 Jetta.

The Valiant was really not presentable, so it went straight into the left half of our two-car grudge; it had to be pushed there on account of the inoperative transmission.

And not too much longer after that, Bob came back over and we set to work waking up the engine. The effort involved a charged battery, some oil in the crankcase, some gasoline down the carburetor, miscellaneous ministrations I no longer recall, and a great deal of cranking. That was my favourite part, because I hadn’t heard a gear-reduction starter cranking a Slant-6 engine since sometime before grandpa’s Dart got totalled three years earlier. Eventually and reluctantly, the engine woke up. Uncatalysed exhaust from an engine running on varnish (with a side of crankcase fumes) smells like nothing else. But look here, it runs! By and by we finished up for the day and pushed the car back into the grudge.

So now I had a running ’64 Valiant to play with, and play with it I did. It wanted to die if the throttle were opened faster than slowly, so I bought a zip kit and full-on cleaning supplies and I learnt about the Carter BBS carburetor. Bob introduced me to that wrecking yard, amongst others, all of which at that time still had scads of Darts and Valiants—with more arriving on a regular basis.

Early on I obtained a subscription to Hemmings, a factory service manual, and a factory parts cattledog, and my grandfather (the one who’d had the ’72 Dart) gave me his copies of this book and this one.

It was cool to be able to get out the car and and start it, but the car didn’t stay running very long, for I took it to pieces. Haphazardly, at that; there was no logic or order to it, I just messed with whatever caught my fleeting attention on any given day. Whether focused on the innards of that golden-voiced starter motor or on the mangled trunk trim, I had grand ideas of restoration and refurbishment to as-new standards. No idea how or where any of that would happen or what it would cost, but the mind-movies were two-thumbs-up. Grand big IMAX-surround presentations, extrapolated from those service and parts manuals, of how an old part would look and work and feel once renewed.

Meanwhile, in the real world I took no notes, and made no effort to keep parts together with their fellows and fasteners. There wouldn’t have been much point; the car wasn’t really a restoration candidate, and I broke and ruined more or less everything I touched in the process of learning how it ticked. I learned not to do all kinds of things, and how best not to do them. The steering wheel’s plastic broke in many pieces the day I learnt that a jaw-type gear puller is not a steering wheel puller, for example. Once I brought home from the wrecking yard a direct-drive starter from a ’60-’61 Slant-6 car, and swapped it in just to try it out and see what it sounded like; it sounded like a starter spinning on a bench, because it was configured for the early larger-diameter ring gear (oh, I learnt they’re different). A patch of bare metal on the right fender was the result of the day I learnt about Scotchbrite and paint stripper.

Speaking of which, I sorely wish I’d avoided the numerous car chemicals I carelessly horsed around with. Teenagers are notoriously no damn good at connecting actions to consequences or assessing risks—that part of the brain doesn’t come online until early-mid 20s. And that’s even when the consequences come immediately; when they don’t show up for years or decades after the action, there’s just nothing for it but an adult providing the missing mental resources, if only they will. Double-whammy, too; developing brains are much more susceptible to attack by neurotoxins.

Mother hollered about bad smells in (and from) the garage from time to time, but I wish my folks had forbidden me to use those chemicals, or at least had insisted on protective gear and ample ventilation and strict adult supervision—their not doing so was a major parenting failure. You’re supposed to keep your kids safe first and foremost, right? Well, they didn’t. Paint stripper is methylene chloride. It makes old paint dance and drip off like magic, and it passes directly through hand skin and lung tissue into the body to cause cognitive degradation and eventual cancer. Brake cleaner is perchloroethylene; it’s dry cleaning fluid in a pressure can. It and the spray type of carburetor cleaner (xylene, acetone, butyl acetate) likewise easily enter the body by contact and inhalation; they dissolve fatty brains just as efficiently as they dissolve greasy grime. And the dip-type carburetor cleaner I kept and used in the garage was a hideously toxic soup of cresylic acid, toluene, methyl ethyl ketone, xylol, acetone, and other severely, aggressively nasty substances that will quickly melt any part of a human being, just like what happened to that guy in that toxic-waste scene in “Robocop” (which I will not show here; it gave me the creeps years ago). The tiniest splashed droplet of that stuff on any exposed skin hurt deeply.

I wrecked my sinuses; they’ve never worked right ever since. I try not to fret about the elevated likelihood of degenerative disease I created for myself, and it’s hard to think about how much easier I could think about the other damages if I hadn’t done the other damages. Mamas, don’t let your babies pretend to be shop techs.

Bob pointed me at the national Slant-6 club, which touched off salient events to be described in forthcoming COALs. I went to his house—he’d come and get me—a few times to work on getting the working transmission out of what I think might’ve been the turquoise ’63 Valiant I’d not chosen. The shift and park cables were very fond of their home and didn’t wish to leave it; I remember a long struggle to release them. I don’t remember if we eventually removed the transmission, but I do know it never made it into my ’64. Between the books and the disassembly I was making speedy, steep progress along the left end of the learning curve, but it was really clear the ’64 was never going to be reassembled.

In the end I wound up selling it back to Bob for maybe half what I paid in the first place. Factoring in the education, I think I got a square deal.

Things are about to grow plotworthy on the car front, though we might make a stop on the way there. Tune in next week!

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