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 at me 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. 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!
Your parents were incredibly understanding to enable you to do that Daniel.
Mine were perhaps slightly less understanding but slightly more safety conscious, my mother bought me a proper niosh respirator when I started painting on a large scale. Teenage me cared not one bit about safety labels, although adult me does worry about the long term damage I did.
You offer some good advice on those chemicals and how not to use them. I am fortunate that I did not get seriously into car tinkering until I was somewhat older.
And I think everyone should start with the kind of car you describe – like a tinkertoy set for learning how things work, and without one whit of expectation that the thing will ever move on its own again.
I am rubbing my hands in anticipation of the deep dive into slant-six-dom I think may be coming.
Great story Daniel! Again we have some more parallels in our stories. When I was around the same age as you, I went to a farm of a family friend that was loaded with old cars. I ended up “car shopping” and found a ’72 Chevelle that was the one of the best of the lot, albeit, it was still rough. Like you, I had it hauled back to my house on tow truck, got it running and disassembled it in a haphappless manner. I had ideas of grandeur to restore it and modify it into a high performance machine, with what money and skill I am not sure. In the end, my result was about the same as yours, and I ended up selling it to a family friend mechanic, who was a bit of a mentor for me. I am sure you learned a lot from your Valiant, I sure did from my Chevelle. I’d still like to one day own a ’72 Chevelle, but the prices are crazy now.
My dad, unlike yours, was originally a tradesman (what was called a gasfitter, or fitter and turner), so he was good with tech stuff and advice or help. But they’d never had much money, so he’d spent far too long keeping old crocks alive with inadequate tools, space and time. Lots of greasy, back-straining lying-in-the-dirt stuff, so by the time I arrived, his enthusiasm for my enthusiasms was most limited. Besides, he wasn’t a car nut. No-one in the entire family was (or is).
So, unsupervised, I too took some god-awful decisions regarding pollutants and safety generally, not that that stuff was much worried about then anyway. By far the worst is the one where I decided to make recalcitrant brake shoes fit by filing them. Asbestos, ofcourse. Shudder.
I’m a bit jealous of your Bob. My dad was and is a beautiful and kind human being, but he didn’t own a wrecking yard and wasn’t a Bob!
Oh, don’t fret too much about it; I’m sure you did asbestos you could!
No, I never filed any ducks, and I didn’t know they were toxic anyway.
I’m down with your philosophy; one has to feather their own nest.
Brings back memories of working at the Ford garage in high school. Apprentices like me got simple & dirty work like brake jobs. We used Raybestos brake linings. Good heat resistance. The name suggests how this was achieved. Before installation, we blew out old brake dust with an air gun. In the poorly ventilated corner of the shop reserved for brake work, it took a few minutes for the dust to settle. My respirator was the filter of the Marlboro reds I smoked in high school. I’ll probably pay a price for my teenage apprenticeship. So far I’ve been lucky enough that the memory has had no physical effects.
As a young man, I had an experience using a cleaning solvent that convinced me that safety precautions are to be taken seriously…it advised using plastic gloves, but “manly men” don’t need gloves! Later, when my hands started shedding skin like a reptile molting I figured they must have been right! Oddly, enough years later, while setting off insect foggers, I used one that had a different chemical than what I’d used previously. I accidently got a whiff of it, and the resulting eye watering, coughing, retching, vomiting that ensued reminded me to treat ANY chemical with respect! 🙂
LOL, my brother and I had a car we used for such a purpose about 15 years ago, except it was – a 1990 Jetta! It was given free on Craigslist by the owner with a nonfunctional transmission who’d left it at the local VW dealership, and we found out it actually had reverse. It was a Jetta Carat, top of the line as I recall but didn’t seem to have much except alloys and a manual sunroof. We didn’t fix it and it stayed in our carport for several months until someone paid near scrap value for it. Nice interior though!
I would have died to be able to do the same at age 14. And I might well have, from the chemicals.
Yes, it’s painful to ponder all the nasty stuff I exposed myself to, even in more recent years from old-house renovations which invariably involve lead paint. I tried to be “careful” (respirator) but my procedures were not up to proper standards. During the renovations of the last of my moved houses, in about 2000 or so, which involved removing the old lead paint from all the vintage doors, windows and trim, I started having very severe back aches at 5AM in the morning, while in bed. I could hardly get out of bed, although getting up and moving helped some. Very odd; not like the usual strained lumbar muscles that I had had before.
I also felt really crappy, and somewhat depressed. I finally went to my doctor who diagnosed me with ankylosing spondylitis, an auto-immune disorder affecting the back. The immune system attacks the fine cartilage and ligaments in the sacroiliac joint (hip) and then works its way up the spine, resulting in eventual fusion of the whole spine into one rigid member. That was a rather ugly diagnosis.
Like all auto immune disorders, they come in various degrees, and mine turned out to not be very severe, and eventually became increasingly mild and petered out.
It’s impossible to say, but auto-immune disorders are commonly triggered by a range of possible events, including environmental issues like heavy metals (lead). i’ll never know for certain, but I strongly suspect that it was what triggered mine.
I made a point to avoid any further exposure, which is why I built a new house on my last open lot, and did not move in an old one. And increased the quantity and quality of vegetables and fruits in my diet, which helps absorb lead and remove it (scientifically proven, not a fad diet).
The bottom line is that although folks love to bitch and moan about all the regulations of environmental hazards, they exist for a very good reason.
Thanks for another excellent chapter, Daniel. I’m really loving it and very pleased that you’re sharing it here.
That instrument binnacle would appear to be from one of 1,212 1960 Chrysler 300Fs, judging from the lack of ribbing on the dash upholstery. It’s sad to think there was ever a time they were neglected.
My chemicals exposure was slightly different, as I was reasonably careful with chemicals and exposures in the garage or shop from day one. But Saturday night circle track racing, almost every Saturday in a row for half a year at a time, sent me into severe migraine headaches and depression that would extend for days after each event. It was the fumes from the race cars in that bowl of a track, I believe. The NASCAR driver Rick Mast had a similar experience. Simply stopping (as I got older and lost my reflexes, it was easier to quit) was the only solution.
To a lesser extent, each one of us driving a car is doing the same thing to everyone, though in a more dispersed way. I used to disconnect the largely ineffective early attempts at pollution control devices. Now I swear by them in the newer cars, in part because they are really good at what they do, and also because they generally don’t affect driveability or reliability. I love my vintage vehicles, but try not to drive them too much, and I make sure my DDs are newer, properly tuned, and easily pass the biennial smog checks. I am not totally sold on the global warming thing and the necessity of eliminating fossil fuels entirely from the system. I could be convinced that the changeover could theoretically work, but not with current technology, which hides the pollution sources by severing them from the actual operation of the vehicle, rather than by eliminating them entirely. But it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do what I can to minimize the exposures and damage (“I”, not “we”, YMMV).
I’m just amazed that your parents were willing to give up one of the two spaces in their garage to this. In Denver. Where it snows and a functional garage spot to avoid having to get into a below zero car in the morning is a treasure to be highly valued.
Never mind acquiring and keeping a non-functional regular car in the first place, that sort of stuff just doesn’t happen in the suburbs very much. On a farm or rural areas where stashes of cinder blocks are kept for exactly that purpose sure, but not your own neighborhood. The rest of us would have to visit a friend lucky enough to live on the other side of those railroad tracks, you know the ones…
Yeah, it’s kind of strange that they let me occupy half the garage like that (actually more than half, with parts and tools and supplies and stuff). The strangeness expanded beyond that level, as will eventually be described.
I don’t recall exactly how long I kept the car, but given the chronology of subsequent car purchases when I know the ’64 was no longer around, it can’t have been very long, and so I think there wasn’t much conflict, if any, with operational cars being out in the snow.
My ’66 Beetle sat for years in my parents’ tiny single car garage while I “got around to fixing it”.
A few weeks after I sold it for parts, I showed up with a ’72
Marathon and my mother cried. Really.
To be fair, it actually ran. Until I removed the engine.
One funny story, and a great write-up too. In essence this shows how guys learn about technical stuff; by trying. Only, and really ever only if I don’t figure out things myself, will I turn to the internet, or in yesteryears: books.
That story about the chemicals: been there. Don’t know how many of my braincells fried during comparable procedures …
Looking forward to your next story.
Great story. I’m most comfortable working outside on projects, for the ventilation benefits, even though I have a workshop. Like others here, I’ve had plenty of lungfuls solvents and chemicals and seek to avoid them. As a kid, I read the dire warnings on the cans and tried to follow their advice. “Vapor harmful ” seemed to be on every thing, so outside, standing upwind seemed to be best.
The worst shop fumes imho are from flux core welders. The fog of vaporized flux and metal contaminants goes straight into your face it seems. So outdoor welding best.
There’s the added benefit of not burning down the shop if your car catches fire.
That Chem-Dip is some serious stuff! In high school auto shop I used it to clean a 2GC Rochester carb and handled the dipped parts with my bare hands after pulling them out of the bucket with the included basket. Every class I went to after that day people around me kept asking, “What’s that smell?” It took about a week before I got rid of that smell from my hands. I, too, wish someone had at least suggested wearing gloves that day.
To paraphrase one of the more well-known movie quotes, I love the smell of toluene in the morning!”
My brother and I didn’t get into car maintenance during our teen years, but we did get the bug for building model kits (mostly AMT 1/25 scale cars). We started with Testor’s glue, brush paints and thinner, not too bad indoors, typically at the kitchen table.
However, when we progressed to the point that we felt spray painting of the car bodies was in order, we did it in the basement in winter, no respirators of course (or open windows). After that first time with the aftertaste of AMT lacquer in our lungs for sometime afterward, we decided it would be better to wait for warmer weather so it could be done outside.
This talk of exposure to automotive chemicals I remember my first job in a shop in the 1980’s The owner was well into his 50’s and the way he normally cleaned up after a job was to walk over to the solvent tank, flip it on a wash his hands as if it was water.
Of course what sat next to that solvent tank? One of the old machines to arc brake shoes, that thankfully hadn’t been used in several years.
Go back a few more years than that and the stories run thick and heavy of washing hands in (leaded) gasoline. »shudder«
Back in the days of actual Service Stations the service bays usually had a pedestal grinder and the older ones had a little cup in the center just below the switch~ it was filled with a few ounces of regular gasoline and you’d dip the tips if drill bits you’d just hand sharpened to properly cool them off without loosing the temper…
When I worked for the Teboul brothers in an ARCO station, being the new guy my Saturday afternoon closing routine included filling a coffee can with regular and using it to clean the service bay floors and pump island concrete….
“Just a few pennies of gasoline Nate” .
Those were mostly good times .
A good story and well told Mr. Stern .
Many (? most ?) of the following comments too, I guess for some of us, owning a dilapidated old vehicle was the natural first step .
As mentioned, much was learned about what _NOT_ to do along with the useful how it works lessons….
I wish I had the writing skills as I have many such stories .
I learned as a child that having some sort of work space is critical and so managed to avoid apartment living and when I was able to look at buying a house my criteria was mostly ‘does it have a garage and off street parking space’ right after two bedrooms .
I still work out doors, the primary reason I remained in the West after being forced to move there .
In 1972 I stupidly put my right hand into a can of that Berryman’s Chem Dip after a friend dropped the ball bearings from his VW Van’s CV joints in…. my hand began to hurt right away and was bright red for weeks after, painful too .
Thanks, Nate. I’m not seeing any lack of writing skills in this what you just wrote…! Nobody says you hafta be a Stephen King to write here (and I’m no Stephen King); whyn’tchya give it a go?
My experience is similar but with a black ’61 Dauphin. 3-year-older brother developed a – Ahem! – substance abuse problem so M&D decided to acquiesce to their younger 14-year-old son’s request to buy the French car for $50 and allowed me to park it in the backyard. After removing the engine and disassembling it I of course proceeded to ignore it, instead buying and riding a Suzuki 90 in the backwoods with my buddies.
At 16 I got a part time job at an independent VW repair shop where they kept 55 gallon drums cut in half, one holding Saf-T-Clean parts wash, the other carb cleaner. No venting. My old boss at that place died at age 60 of pancreatic cancer. I’m not saying there’s a directcause/effect, but carb cleaner is nasty stuff, especially the methyl ethyl ketone component.
My Dad was a chemist, so (despite precautions which increased with time) was doubtlessly exposed to all sorts of nasty stuff in his years. He eventually passed away having had Multiple Myleloma though of course it happens to non-chemists, no telling how much his occupation contributed to him having gotten the disease. Back then they used to blow much of their own glass, and he knew lots of people who succumbed to Mercury poisoning. He got into semiconductors right out of college, transistor wasn’t 10 years old yet, and had all but 1 job the rest of his life in it…he was amused that there seemed to be a misperception that it was a “clean” industry (likely because you see people running around in “bunny” suits in clean room?) but he said it was one of the dirtiest ones he knew of, the chemicals were particularly nasty. He didn’t really work on cars much per se, it wasn’t his thing, but we did have small projects like adding electronic ignition to his ’73 Ranch Wagon. Truth be told, I did see him do some stupid things like syphoning gasoline with his mouth, granted this was 50 years plus ago and gas had different stuff in it than now, but it was also leaded back then, so probably never was good idea. His first car was a Plymouth Plaza, bought right out of school (he worked at Sylvania in Towanda, lived in a rooming house during the week and drove back to his parent’s house on weekends for about a year until he got another job in Massachusetts and married my mother..the Plymouth didn’t have any options (maybe a heater?) being manual with flathead 6, his only Plymouth (though he did buy a couple Dodges in the 80’s).
I worked for the same company as he did eventually, though not as a chemist, and not on semiconductors per se (briefly did that working for a prior company). Was in manufacturing early on, my office was in one half of a manufacturing building where we had to walk past part of the line to get from the main building to the offices…more than once I’d walk 10 feet past people in chemical suits evacuating solvent from a cleaner, with nothing but my street clothes on, but so would my co-workers put up in the same offices as I. As many mention also exposed to automotive chemicals (and briefly bicycle chemicals, not as many, but there were a few) and probably not always as careful as I should have been about exposure. Not only that, my Grandfather was a coal miner, and like many he died of miner’s asthma…at least I was never a smoker (my Dad smoked cigars in his younger days, but gave them up some 50 years ago..probably breathed in a bit of that smoke). He also was in the Army on a Howitzer crew (got to college on GI bill) and years later was almost deaf due to hearing damage, we all suffered extremely high volume on his television when at his home.
Not really complaining, he made a living, I made a living, and my Grandfather had a tough life so mine was significantly nicer, but obviously there were tradeoffs being exposed to some nasty stuff.