(Welcome our newest COAL series writer, Nelson James. Thanks to our recent appeal for new COAL writers, we now have two new series underway, one that started last Sunday (Matt Spencer) and this one by Nelson. The response was very strong, and we have several other COALers in the wings, and there will also be some one-time COAL posts. Thank you all for your response. PN)
Like most teenage gear heads, I began the countdown to the day I got my driver’s license early. I had introduced myself to mechanical repair by fixing up discarded bikes and even a beat-up old Ski-Doo. Okay, so maybe I found the bikes in the garbage, there had to be some perks to waking up at 6 am to deliver newspapers. Bicycles and Ski-Doos can be fun and do allow a bit of freedom for a teenager but the real goal was a car of my own. So at the ripe old age of 15, I pooled together the funds from my various (awful) part-time jobs, obtained the necessary parental permissions, and embarked on my first car search.
My first car couldn’t just be any old beater. I had been car crazy from a very young age and could spot and identify pretty much any old car from the age of 8. My car had to be American, from the 50’s or 60’s, have some power and of course be a stick shift. I had smoky burnouts and big fishtails to do. Given my limited bank account it would have to be very affordable but that wouldn’t be a problem as I would restore it to showroom condition in no time. If I ran into issues (financial or otherwise), I’d just ask my Dad and a solution would be found. As I have a January birthday, I would be one of the first kids in school to have a driver’s license and I would roll into the high school parking lot with my very own classic car.
The search my Dad and I undertook turned up a lot of rotten hulks, southern Manitoba isn’t the kind of place where you find pristine rust-free “barn finds”. The only car other than the Barracuda that sticks out in my mind was a ’53 or ’54 Studebaker coupe that was very clearly not for sale, despite looking like it hadn’t moved in a decade. I still want that Studebaker, it’s been at the top of my list for a while now.
So eventually we looked at a ’65 Barracuda at a dicey looking place in the country with about 20 random vehicles lying around. It had everything I was looking for; V8, 4 speed with Hurst shifter, manual brakes and steering and just the right amount of weird for me. I probably should have had more prerequisites. The freshly rebuilt 273 ran like a top! Unfortunately it didn’t move as the clutch was completely worn out. Sure it had a bit of rust here and there but it wasn’t that bad. The driver’s seat was pretty worn and the carpet very faded, but other than that the interior looked good.
My teenage mind could instantly see the benefits of the rear seat and trunk partition folding flat. How many jokes do you think were cracked as the engineers designed that practical 7 foot cargo area? Pretty sure most minds drifted off to where Paul went in his Barracuda experience. Rambler practicality combined with Mopar muscle, this was the car for me!
So after a lengthy deliberation, my Dad and I decided it was time for negotiations. Unfortunately, the nice guy selling the car had suddenly received a phone call from another interested buyer that wanted to hear it run over the phone. He rushed out of the house to the car to start and rev the engine for the (imaginary) buyer. The pressure was on and our bargaining position was weakened by the fact we actually fell for the ruse. I can’t remember what we paid, but I’m sure it was more than we should have.
So enough of the back story, how did it drive? I have absolutely no idea as it never moved under it’s own power. Our first clue to the problems ahead arose when the tow truck dragged it forward so it could be loaded easier. The left front wheel suddenly showed a serious amount of negative camber as the right one stayed straight. Guess I was going to have to learn to fix suspensions too. Reality proved much harsher as when we got it home and up on jack stands, I could see the upper control arm mount had completely rotted off, allowing the control arm to float around at will. Not good. Also, once I was able to scrape of the layers of leaked oil that coated the underside of the car, the frame rails and floor were also rotted through. Things were getting more involved.
Undeterred, my Dad and I pressed on, seeking out the advice of a welder and frame specialists. Naturally, most wanted nothing to do with us, but we did find a sympathetic chassis shop that would weld on a new front sub frame (suspension, inner fenders, frame rails) if we could find it.
image via cardomain.com
The search was now on for a parts car, any Valiant of that vintage would do. A suitable candidate was found at a “junk farmer” out of town. This guy was the hoarder type that loaded up with parts cars to sell and keep his habit going while he hid the gems he would one day fix up and become rich. Fortunately the ’64 Valiant V-200 4 door we found was not among the gems and he was willing to part with the front half of it for a reasonable sum. The operation to remove the slant 6 and Torqueflite, and hack off everything forward of the torsion bar control boxes and cowl down happened in one very productive Saturday. An uncle, my younger brothers, my Dad, and I borrowed a generator, an (off-road modified) engine crane and the necessary tools. Looking back I’m amazed we pulled it off, I really wish I had pic from that day.
The Barracuda and it’s new front bit was then sent out to the shop to be very slowly mated together. Seeing as I was still very much on a budget, the chassis shop was kind enough to take on the project on a “back burner” basis, only working on it when there was nothing else to do and therefore giving me a nice discount on the labour. This would prove to be the demise of the whole project. Time was marching on, I already had my driver’s license for months when it was towed home with it’s new front end expertly fused on. Pretty much every other system in the car with the exception of the motor needed to be replaced and I needed (wanted) a car now.
The whole project was therefore put on the back burner while I bought next week’s COAL and quickly put it on the road. The Barracuda’s floors and trunk extensions were welded up but financing was cut before work began on the tetanus-inducing quarter panels. A deal was eventually struck with my Dad whereby he would buy it and continue the restoration but the project remained at a standstill. He sold it a year or two later to someone else who intended on finishing it, I don’t know if that ever happened.
I feel I can’t finish this article without addressing this car’s unusually long name. Did Chrysler Canada really think it was a good idea to have a nine syllable name that ties its compact car to its pony car? While the U.S. model Barracuda was originally introduced in 1964 1/2 as part of the Valiant line as well, it never had the large VALIANT rear badging, opting for a more demure Valiant in script on the lower rear panel. But any reference of the Barracuda being in the Valiant family was (wisely) stopped for 1965.
Not so in Canada where Valiant continued to operate as a stand-alone make sold by both Dodge or Plymouth dealers; very similar to other uniquely Canadian cars covered here at CC like the Meteor, Monarch, Mercury Truck, Cheviacs, Plodges and Fargo Trucks. Valiant seems especially confusing as they kept grafting Dart rear-ends on (Plymouth) Valiants; it was hard to wrap my head around these mash-ups as a kid. At any rate the Valiant make was done in Canada by 1966 thanks to the U.S – Canada Auto Pact.
While I never did drive my first car, at least I had something to play around with before I got to drive. Sure, time and money were lost but at least I got to learn some valuable lessons. I’ll never ever buy another old car without crawling underneath to see what’s left under there. Surely there are other CC readers with similar experiences, right?