COAL: 1965 Valiant, Part I – Verschlimmbesserung

I turned 16 early in 1992, and about half a year later I spotted a text-only ad in the back of Cars and Parts magazine:

1965 Dodge Valiant Custom 200 sedan, low miles, never winter driven, excellent condition, $3,000.00 OBO. Stoney Creek. Ont, Canada 416-(nnn)-6609

There’s a feature article on Canadian Valiants in one of the back issues of the Slant-6 News in the complete collection I’d bought, so I knew straight off this “Dodge Valiant” was probably no misprint or clueless-owner fumble. The American Valiant had been its own make only for 1960, its introductory year, before becoming a Plymouth model for ’61. But in Canada, Valiant carried on as a make, rather than a model, all the way through 1966. The ’61-’62 Lancer and ’63-’66 Dart weren’t sold in Canada; Chrysler’s compacts were all Valiants in that market, and they were sold at all Chrysler Corporation dealers.

I called and was soon speaking to the car’s original owner: Mr. Moffat, a recently-retired longtime Chrysler dealer mechanic. He had good answers to all my questions, and promptly sent a stack of photos. Those looked good, too; a whole lot better (and more forthrightly and completely presented) than the red 1961 Valiant. It wasn’t what I originally had in mind—not a ’60-’62, no pushbuttons—but it really did look to be a creampuff (mmmmm, creampuffs).

My sister was in the middle of a summer stock theatre thing in upstate New York, very close to the border with Ontario, which in turn is very close to Stoney Creek. And we were already planning to go visit her there. H’mmm…! A plot hatched, as plots are wont to do; in the middle of our New York visit, mother and dad and I crossed the border in the rentcar and went to see the Valiant. Left to right here are Mr. Moffat, me, the car, and my dad:

In the seller’s driveway we had our first encounter with the notion and actuality of a “winter car”: a ’79ish Diplomat or Caravelle that was just moth-eaten with rust. Even the vinyl top appeared to be rusting! It was a sort of remote sacrificial anode for the Valiant, which was in astoundingly solid, clean, well-kept condition. A ding here and a scuff there, and the bumper chrome wasn’t the world’s shiniest, and there was a sheetmetal screw drilled through the left “Custom 200” nameplate-cum-fenderside-trim to hold it on. These were the kinds of picky little faults I was finding.

The car was very well kept as close as practicable to original, too, with Chryco and Autopar replacement parts widely in evidence. Those were how “Mopar” was translated into Canadian for many years; I think Mopar was phased into Canadian use very gradually starting maybe in the ’80s, finally shoving the other two brands aside in the early-mid ’90s or so.

The seller didn’t budge much on the price; I don’t (and didn’t) blame him. I think we agreed $3,000 including his trove of parts. He let me dig around his grudge in a kind of impromptu Easter egg hunt. And boy, did it ever yield! Lots of maintenance parts—fuel and air filters, points and condensers, caps and rotors, spark plugs. Many repair parts like voltage regulators, switches, gaskets, a new-in-box carburetor for a later-model Slant-6 car (but not late enough to suit the ’79 Caravelle). He was selling the Valiant because he’d got a new 3-season car just before he retired, a 1990 Caprice Classic (“Chrysler wouldn’t sell me what I wanted any more”), and three cars were one too many.

While I was rooting and pawing around on his upper shelves, separating out the Slant-6 gaskets and other flat-pack parts, I –came– happened upon his porn stash. He and his wife were standing outside the grudge keeping an eye on me, probably chuckling at my enthusiasm. I think he saw me reaching for that shelf, and I think he was trying to think how to steer me away without calling additional attention to what he was trying to distract from, and I think he saw the moment it was too late to try. He and I made an instant eye-contact pact: I’d pretend not to have seen anything, and he’d pretend not to have noticed me not seeing what I didn’t see.

Mother and dad drove the rentcar and I followed in the Valiant, down the highway back toward the States. I don’t recall any substantial hassle at the border, except the Customs agent scoffed that I’d paid more than the car had cost new. We turned in the rentcar and used the Valiant for the rest of the New York visit, and—the second half of the plot—my sister’s friend’s brother and his buds, who needed a ride back to Denver, would have it in the form of driving the Valiant.

On the plane to New York I’d found and circled a Hemmings ad for a complete factory A/C setup out of a ’65 Dart in Texas. At the airport to head back to Denver, I called the seller in Texas and said I’d take it—$300 plus shipping, I think, about 10% of the purchase price of the car. Not a self-contained knee-knocker add-on, this; it was the whole integral HVAC-D system, complete with all underhood and in-car parts. ’65 was the first year it was available in the A-bodies, and it was a late-availability item at that; not many cars were equipped, and a small proportion of those had the six-cylinder engine. So that was quite a find and I added its fortuitous timing to the list with the others as favourable omens.

The drive to Denver went fine, except the brake pedal gave way when they pulled in for gas at one point. They’d been going slowly enough that they could stop the car with the handbrake and the parking pawl; adding brake fluid to the master cylinder brought the pedal back up and they carried on with no further incidents (whew). It wasn’t long, maybe about a week, before the gang arrived in Denver, and the 15-minute trip from our house to theirs felt like it took at least 15 years. But we eventually got there, and smiles were smiled.

I hadn’t had the three kilodollars to buy the car, so my folks bought it for me and we arranged monthly car payments. I was working at a print shop (offset presses, not photocopiers) across from my high school, so it didn’t take too long to pay off the loan. I do kind of recoil in retrospect that my folks let me drive this car. It had safety glass and (front) lap belts, and Chrysler’s “safety rim” wheels that did a better-than-average job than of keeping hold of a flat tire, but beyond that it had absolutely zero safety engineering. No collapsible steering column, no shoulder belts, no crumple zones, no head restraints, no roof crush strength to speak of, no side-impact guard beams, a minimally effective defogger for the windshield and none at all for the rest of the glass, all kinds of severe injury threats in the interior (the door handles and window cranks would’ve finished off my left knee, for example), and I could go on and on. Anyone who knew anything about traffic safety would have rightly called it unsafe and a negligent, especially hazardous choice for a new driver. But while they’d nixed my idea of importing a right-hooker Valiant from Australia, mom and dad had no qualm about my driving a car most of three decades behind the state of the safety art. I got away with it unscathed, but only by luck. I guess we’d had no difficulty registering the ’62 Lancer in the state of Denial, so it was even easier the second time round.

The ’64 Valiant had been a learning machine, and this one was that, too, but it was also a driving machine. For the matter of that, forget BMW; to me this was the ultimate driving machine. No, it didn’t have pushbuttons or swoopy Exner styling, but it was the platonically perfect exemplar of Car. Of course it was; everybody with half a brain knew a Slant-6 A-body was inherently perfect, and could be made even more perfect (ahem) with innumerable upgrades.

Sister’s friend(?) Courtney, one of the wealthy kids at our high school, got a replacement brand-new Audi from money and daddy when she crashed the first one, and I didn’t care; I had not just a Valiant, but an unusual Canadian model: Dodge Dart body and interior, Valiant badging, and specification differences sprinkled interestingly throughout. For example, the car was built with a direct-drive starter from the Canadian branch, in Sarnia, of Auto-Lite (the company that later renamed themselves Prestolite, not the spark plug brand spun off from Ford). This was similar—but not identical, my detail-fixated eye and ear detected—to the starters on ’60-’61 American Slant-6 cars. And this kind of starter took a different kind of control circuit, so the wiring and relay setup was different, and that meant other knock-on differences down the line, and so on. There was also an Auto-Lite distributor: same cap as the American Chrysler-built dizzy, but a different rotor. And otherwise like that.

So here I was with my first actual, real, running, driving car, and it was a Slant-6 A-body just like it says in Scripture, but the starter made a conflict for me: on the one hand, different and unique. On the other hand…no gear-reduction starter sound! Here’s what it sounded like cranking (recorded up by the engine) and starting (recorded back by the tailpipe):


Mine wasn’t the only Valiant at school, either. There was a girl in my art class who had a ’63 convertible, same cherry-red as that ’61 I’d returned to sender. And there was a besideburned redheaded dude with a halogen smile, a workout body, and a metallic purple ’65 Valiant V-100 2-door with a beige interior and a 170 Slant-6 engine, but I don’t remember any details. We exchanged a couple of words every odd and then, but I viciously stomped down even the shadow of a crush or any clever ideas about striking up an actual conversation—far too dangerous.

I spent enormous amounts of time, energy, and effort improving the Valiant. Some of the improvements were real; many of them were experimental, and quite a lot of them were imaginary. I reconfigured the air cleaner and got my first traffic ticket.

One day the car began misfiring and bucking on my way to school, worsening by the minute. The engine hiccuped, coughed and sputtered the remaining 1/4 mile; I coasted to a stop in the car park. I don’t recall how I diagnosed it, but I do remember how I fixed it. No auto parts stores within convenient distance, but there was the auto shop. Come lunch period, I rummaged around on the classroom shelves and found a condenser for a Tecumseh lawnmower engine. I liberated it, wrapped a few turns of bare wire around its cylindrical body, grounded the other end of that wire, and put the condenser’s lead wire on the coil negative. The car started and ran fine and got me home, where I installed a correct condenser.

I got it in my pointy little head that the timing chain needed replacing, and decided to do this job in the driveway, starting at about 3pm in the middle of a December schoolweek. I think I did get a new chain installed, and a new cam sprocket, though the original crank sprocket stayed put. I got to bed around 2:30 am, frozen and sore. The car started for me to get to school not many hours later, but it ran very poorly. On my off-period I borrowed the timing light from the auto shop, found the ignition timing to be way off, reset it and adjusted the choke, and that made the car run, ah, just about exactly the same as it had before my ill-considered timing chain job.

Let’s see, what else? Ooh, I know! The time I noticed the rearmost exhaust manifold nut was loose! I waited until the engine was completely cooled down, put a wrench on it, pressed lightly, and the stud broke off as though made of butter. I used another car to go get an Easy-Out (of all the false and misleading product names), then I tried to drill the stud for it with the manifold still installed. The drill bit promptly snapped off in the stud stub. I’m sure the gory details of what happened next would make a terrific story, but all I remember is that it involved a jigsaw, a hammer drill, a massively oversized hole, JB Weld, a strip heater, and a great deal of gasket sealer. In the end, I wound up with a new rear exhaust manifold stud and without a coolant leak, and I used the opportunity to swap on an aluminum intake manifold off a 1976 Feather Duster or Dart Lite. But what a pointless exercise in masochism! There hadn’t been an exhaust leak or a coolant leak or any other kind of problem, it was just a loose nut and it wasn’t hurting anyone or anything, but I just had to go picking at it. The ability to recognise well enough and appreciate its merits enough to leave it alone came very hard for me; I had to repeat that lesson many times over many years before it sank in. I’m sorry I can’t tell this particular story in Technicolor, but I promise there’ll be many others before I’m done with my COALs.

And the Valiant was just one of two Slant-6 cars on site; there was also dad’s Lancer. Dad wasn’t into cars and didn’t know much about them beyond what I taught, but we worked on the Lancer as a son-and-father activity that also kept his daily driver going. One of the car’s two horns stopped working, so I grabbed a yardpulled one off the garage shelf, tested it on the workbench with a reasonably well charged battery, got some noise out of it, figured it was good, and dad and I proceeded to do the simple swap.

Once the “new” horn was in place and hooked up, dad put the battery cable back on. I leaned in the passenger door and touched the horn ring. The new horn began to emit a mix of squawk, quack, and wail which didn’t stop when I jerked my hand away from the horn ring. After what could not have been more than one second, there was a giant puff of smoke, a loud frying sound, and the horn stopped making noise. All of this right in front of my completely stunned father and me. I scooted fast round to the battery and yanked the cable off, but I might as well have taken my time and stopped for a coffee on the way. The entire engine wiring harness was charcoal, burned beyond recognition in two or three seconds that went by in super slo-mo.

We stared at the smoke still curling up from the ruined wiring, and stared at each other, and stared back at the wiring, and back at each other. Obviously, the horn wasn’t as good as I’d assumed based on my quickie bench test. I started apologising, but he waved it away and said “Dan, I think if you’d done something damn-fool, we’d both know it.” It was just one of those things.

But fault or none, we were still faced with a garage monument where dad’s transport had been a moment before. The next day on my lunch period I drove my Valiant down to Santa Fe Boulevard where there was a little-known wrecking yard. It’s long gone now, but it was set back from the road and sunk down to a level well below it. I knew there was a ’62 Valiant there (it contained one of four or five aluminum 225s around the Denver area that I kept meaning to go get and never did). The yard was fully staffed with scary dogs and even scarier goons. I asked about the ’62 Valiant and one of the goons chewed on his wodge of tobacco and said “I donno, twenny bucks for however much wiring you want out of it”. Working quickly and carefully, I removed the engine wiring harness and a goodly portion of the dash harness, paid my $20, and gave the dogs wide berth on my way back to my Valiant.

I made it back to school in time for my next class, and that afternoon I stopped at a coin-op car wash, hung the engine harness on the wall by the floor mat clips, and powerwashed the grime off. It was in basically perfect condition; score!

That night, dad and I put in the “new” harness. It didn’t take but about half an hour, working carefully; there aren’t many wires on a ’62 compared to later cars, but they’re all important. The only wire we didn’t connect was the one to the now-absent low-note horn. That harness is still in the Lancer, but now it contains some main circuit protection.

In an earlier chapter, I mentioned having copied down names off the Slant-Six engine patent and cold-called the one Directory Enquiries had a number for. That was Willem (Bill) Weertman, who was Chrysler’s chief engine engineer for many years. He and I corresponded by letter and phone, and not long after the incident with the manifold-stud-from-self-inflicted-hell, he said he’d be flying in from Michigan to come skiing in Colorado. Ooer! On the day, Dad drove his Lancer and I drove my Valiant up the highway (no mean feat in a stock Slant-6 A-body with a 1-barrel carb; let’s hear it for the 225 having been such an inexpensive option versus the standard 170!) and we had our own little two-car, three-man car show in the parking lot of the Loveland ski area:

Then Bill went off to ski the advanced black slopes. Dad and I stuck to the greens and we might’ve tried one of the easier blues. At the end of the day the lot of us went for supper. I peppered Bill with endless questions about the Slant-6’s development, and how it might be different if it were being developed then in the early ’90s…I didn’t want to stop talking any longer than necessary to hear the answers, for fear the magic would break. To me this guy was a celebrity, a rock star, a giant.

The original carburetor, still on the car, had a throttle plate anti-ice system Chrysler offered as optional equipment in Canada right from 1960: air was drawn from the clean side of the air filter via a ¼” hose and steel tube which swooped down and passed upward through the № 2 exhaust manifold runner, whence another steel tube—this one covered with woven insulation I did asbestos I could to avoid breathing bits from—emerged and connected to the throttle body. It probably served usefully with the gasoline of the 1960s and ’70s in Ontario’s winters, but with the stuff of the ’90s in Denver, mostly what it did was boil the carb like a teakettle.

I was fascinated with the variety of carburetors specified over the years, and set about reading up on the details, collecting as many different ones as I could find, taking them apart, sometimes putting them back together, and trying them out. Same with distributors, alternators, and other parts. I beefed up the brakes by installing the heavy, finned ’70-’71 drums, but they were still little 9″ drums fed by a single-pot master cylinder.

I found a big ’65 Chrysler at the yard with the same colour interior as my car, brought home its rear seatbelts, took out the stitching on the foldover part that held the buckle and tongue, put the straps through the washing machine, got my mother to sew them back together, and put them in. Better than nothing, I suppose, but that’s a lot of kinds of eek.

Mother was unpredictable, though. I took an interest in the activities of the Denver Regional Council of Government’s activities related to traffic-caused air pollution. I was more enthusiastic than knowledgeable, but I felt I had an interest at stake, as there was talk of banning the use of old cars on certain days of the week or on high-pollution days. I was on the phone one day to the administrator discussing an upcoming meeting I wanted to participatein. I’d learned by experience to take the precaution of making calls from the basement phone, out of mother’s earshot, but she picked up one of the upstairs extensions, heard a short bit of my conversation, and flew down the two flights of stairs. She grabbed the phone out my hand and—without hanging it up—at the top of her lungs she let fly with a scornful dressing-down about how I had no business with any regional council and they didn’t need Daniel Stern to tell them how to run the government. Torpedoed again.

German, because of course it does, has exactly the right word: Verschlimmbesserung. It means to make something worse in an attempt to make it better. Google translates it succinctly as “disimprovement”, and I surely made a speciality of it.

The car’s original transmission was a little slow to engage first thing in the morning. No big deal, it just took two or three or four seconds to hit Reverse the first time out of Park, especially on a cold day. For the rest of the day it was fine, and there were no other problems. It would’ve carried on just fine, and the symptom would’ve been invisible if I’d got in the habit of shifting to Neutral before the first start of the morning. But I was still many years away from leaving well enough alone, and I was a booksmart perfectionist hellbent on having a ’60s car behave with ’90s manners, so I decided the transmission needed rebuilding. And if that was the case, why, what a perfect opportunity for some upgrades: wide-ratio gears! Part-throttle kickdown! Oh, and since those are difficult and complicated to retrofit to a ’65 trans, it would have to be a ’66-’67 transmission, which would necessitate a new driveshaft, because ’65 was the last year for Chrysler’s longstanding ball-and-trunnion front universal joint. And since there would need to be a new driveshaft, well, the 7¼” rear axle was making noise and had a weepy pinion seal, so obviously it was time for an 8¾” unit, which I sourced from the yard. Et cetera.

It was a feature-creep foulup fiasco. The steering column alone tried its best to whack me upside the head with a clue-by-four, but I was oblivious and doggedly ploughed on: I had to swap in a ’66 column for the rod shifter (versus the twin-cable shifter for the ’65 trans), but the floor plate was different, so I had to take the ’66 column back apart and swap the floor plates, but the [something else] was different, so I had to swap that, which meant the [something else] wouldn’t fit, so I had to mix and match more parts.

I found a local transmission shop who said they’d build what I wanted. They didn’t, and it grew ugly; they not only tried to scam me with an off-the-shelf transmission they hyped as a custom build, but they also lifted the car by its front and rear bumpers, which came away with ugly scars. They (or their insurance) wound up buying two bumpers’ worth of chrome for me.

Then I found another shop, called A&A Transmission (as they seemingly all were; businesses tried to out-AAAAardvark each other to get to the front of the listings in the yellow pages), whose owner said yes to my specifications. I wish he’d said no; I was absolutely wrong about all of it. I regretted it a couple of minutes into the first test drive, and hated the transmission in that car for years afterward. It shifted badly, and it sounded wrong (I’d gained the gear-reduction starter, but lost that melodious first-gear whirr; the wide-ratio gears sound like a Ford AOD…uck!).

The wide-ratio gearset was intended to cope with super-tall 2.45 and 2.26 rear axles Chrysler were putting in passenger cars in the early ’80s because they didn’t have a 4-speed overdrive automatic like Ford and GM. These gears were a poor match for my ’60s 225 engine and my 3.23 rear axle. I tried to save the project by swapping a 2.76 centre chunk into the rear axle, but that just made it suck somewhat less. I’d been completely sure the 2.74:1 first gear (vs. 2.45) and the 1.54:1 second gear (vs. 1.45) would make a big ol’ improvement in the Valiant’s performance, and I’d been completely big ol’ wrong.

The A/C install was another case of ideas being much better than actualities. I ought to have just put a knee-knocker in, like the one in dad’s Lancer. That would’ve been adequately effective, minimally disruptive, and minimally difficult. But ohhhhh, no, I had to have factory air. Here too, I wish the highly competent shop I asked had said no, but they said yes (and they’d be hanging the disc brakes up front while they were at it). There are many, many different parts in Darts and Valiants with factory A/C versus without—the accelerator pedal is different, for example, because it has to be, because the rotating-rod throttle linkage on non-A/C cars would have to run right through the middle of the A/C-type heater box. So different accelerator pedal, whole different throttle and kickdown linkage, different brackets, all kinds of different parts. And factory air wasn’t even offered in Canada in ’65, so no provisions were made. No dimples in the metal for hole-drilling locations, just none of it. It wound up being an expensive job for me, a “we’re never doing this again” job for the shop, and the punchline is the system didn’t even work all that well. It was underspecified and undersized, and the poorly-insulated car without tinted glass was a rolling solar oven. But I had my factory air, by gum!

(Postscript to the A/C portion of this story: the system I bought out of that Texas ’65 Dart arrived with Dymo tape on the control panel spelling out BUILT IN DETROIT BY IDIOTS. I thought little of it until about three years ago when I was going through my long-dead father’s school papers and found notes taken one day in law school—Harvard, which he aced—when he was clearly bored. There were doodles and little sketches in the margins, and at the top of one page he wrote BUILT IN DETROIT BY IDIOTS and drew a box around it. It’s entirely possible he wrote it the very day my Valiant and/or that Texas ’65 Dart was built. Was this a thing of some kind? A saying or a book title or something like that? I’ve not been able to find anything substantial.)

There are many more stories like this just with this car alone. Still, it wasn’t all a shitshow fuelled by a trainwrecking mix of youthful enthusiasm, inexperience, ignorance, and delusion. I got very active with the Slant-6 club, first as a technical representative (answer man for questions sent in by members). That took quite some chutzpah, given my young age and my less-than-perfect batting average with the cars I was actually looking after in person. But on the other hand, I was keeping them running and driving, and there is some value to unusually broad and deep theoretical and specificational knowledge, and since multiple tech reps answered each question, my ability to rattle off obscure technical service bulletins and little-known part numbers was balanced by more experience-based answers from others. That’s how I came to expand my already-extensive correspondence with another tech rep out in California, name of Bob.

Bob was a very intelligent retired Navy officer in his late 40s or early 50s. Terrific writer. The bulk of our written (him) and word-processed (me) letters’ and our phone calls’ content was car-related; he owned numerous Slant-6 A-bodies, had owned numerous others, and for some years had worked as a wrecking yard. He had all kinds of good stories. The conversation strayed into countless little zigs and zags and jogs. Quotidian stuff—water heaters, college (he’d gone to UMichigan; I’d not yet), history and politics in his state of California, bicycles, popular music. He was pretty much my only connection to anything beyond the suburbs.

He drank himself to unconsciousness every night with bourbon, and he was a well-practiced drunk: functional and articulate but irrational and irrascible. And me, I was a snotty, clueless, mouthy suburban kid. We were both very adept at slinging very sharp words, so the friendship ended several times.

He had short luck with a long string of women, most of whom lived multiple states away and so could only be seen with a road trip—therefore not frequently. When he’d break up with yet another of them, he’d give me instructions for calling him—let the phone ring twice, hang up, wait 25 seconds, call again, let it ring once, hang up, wait 15 seconds, call back and then he’d answer—so he’d not pick up her calls. And there were his slightly-off-key references to boobs and chicks. And his Navy career stationed at Alameda. Oh, and that drinking-himself-to-stupor-every-night thing. The last time the friendship ended was shortly after I came out. Upon hearing the news, he said “Do not contact me again” and hung up—the only individual ever to react that way, at least out loud. 2+2=5.

He’s dead now, but he was very much alive at that time, and we used to play a game we called the Snippy Awards: which of us could give the most caustic answer to a thoughtless tech question without getting swatted down by the editor? Fun and yuks at the time, but I am surely not proud of this, and I avoid reading the Tech Q&A sections of the old magazines because I don’t care to hear from my mealymouthed past self. This is also the main reason (aside from not liking it) why I don’t drink alcohol: my mouth’s plenty damn big enough as it is; don’t nobody need it getting no bigger.

It wasn’t very long before I decided there should be an official Colorado chapter of the Slant-6 Club. All I had to do was announce my intent, and »poof!« there was a Colorado chapter, with me in charge. Once again, fortuitous timing: I spotted a snarky remark about Dodge Darts in an article in the Denver Post, and I picked up the telephone in response. Extra, extra, read all about it! (click for larger in new tab/window):

At the time I was regularly driving to Boulder and back for sessions with one of a long list of experts my mother (about whom perhaps too much more later in this series) shopped me around to in the name of doing something about my problems which were really her problems. More than once I saw a black ’62 Valiant zoom past on the other side of Highway 36, and so I paid the Boulder County clerk and recorder $40 for a list of all cars with VINs starting with particular number sequences, including the ones for ’62 Valiants. It arrived as a dot-matrix printout on fanfold, pinfeed paper, and each car was listed with its VIN, licence plate, registered owner’s name, address, and phone number. Wow, the past is a foreign country, eh! The Valiant I saw on route 36 was on the list, but—as with most of the other owners I tried to contact—I garnered not much interest. Nevertheless, the first Colorado Slant-6 meet was a fine success, all things considered…

…as was the second…

…and the third meet was also the final one.

I was headed out of state to go to university, and nobody stepped up to take over the chapter. A pity, but I had a wide world to go explore, me and my Valiant. There are more stories to tell, and I will, but next week we’ll take a bit of a detour.

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