COAL: 1965 Valiant, Part II – The Oregon Trail

In March of 1995, with my first Spring Break approaching, I persuaded my parents to let me fetch the Valiant from Denver and drive it back to the University of Oregon. They adjudged my grades good enough and my plans sound enough, and said okeh as long as I planned my route in advance and called in every night by 10:30.

I guess I’d adequately honed my persuasive skills convincing them to buy the Lancer.

For reasons I no longer recall, I took about an 1,830-mile route through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Weather might have factored in, though I don’t recall how I would have checked it at that time. And once I did have my route picked out, I wrote out my directions in longhand on a yellow legal pad which I kept on the seat next to me.

The car still had its cheesetastic “LearJet Stereo” FM-AM-cassette, a cheaper model than this shown here; mine didn’t have preset buttons. I never did change it for something better. But it was better than nothing, and so I had some choosable tunes; mostly the selection I’d been listening to in that car since I’d bought it: Men Without Hats (Rhythm of Youth), a good lot of Beatles albums, The Police (Synchronicity), Wang Chung. At one point I couldn’t eject a slightly warped tape, but I—motivated by dread of having only the one tape to listen to—pressed a plastic knife into service as a repair tool.

Despite whatever weather-related concerns might’ve gone into the route plan, I woke up to find myself snowed into Billings, Montana: highways all closed.

So I entertained myself by going to the local Dodge dealer and trying out one of those big new ten-cylinder Ram trucks. The salesman surely knew I had utterly zero intent to buy, but the store was empty, and he had nothing better to do, either.

I watched “Fletch Lives,” I had dinner at the Olive Garden, et cetera. There was a hot tub at the place where I was staying. So eh, whatever, no big deal. Eventually the roads opened up and I left Billings.

By and by I had a blast eating up 200 miles of curvy road out of Missoula, Montana at 75-85 mph in the dark; this was illegal and foolish. I was 19, though, and the part of the mind that handles risk assessment and long-term linkage of actions to consequences doesn’t properly come online until the early-mid 20s. About 10pm I pulled in at a motel in Spokane, and noticed a distinct clunk as I would steer to the right. In the next morning’s light I squatted down and had a look under the car while reaching up and moving the steering wheel. The clunking was the idler arm, flopping up and down more than half an inch. Eep!

There was a garage just down the street and around the corner from the motel. Taking the car there was traumatic for me, for I hated letting other people touch my car (did I mention I was 19?), but they didn’t ruin it or anything—hey lookit there, an object lesson! They put it on the hoist and found that tech who’d installed that idler arm about a year before at Colorado Chry-Ply had not installed the cotter pin in the retainer nut (hold the phone on that object lesson…), and the nut was now finger-loose. Had it backed off much further while I was bombing around at speed the night before, I would have lost all steering control and likely wound up as a fine red mist amidst a pile of metal and rags.

And speaking of the steering linkage, this trip made me truly detest the power steering in the Valiant. Oh, sure, it was nice when I was parking the car, but awful on the freeway: no road feel, no torque resistance, no self-centring action, and so dead and light in the centre that at the end of the driving day my arms and shoulders ached from constantly trying to find the centre. I resolved to ditch the power assist, which could have gone just fine—more about that another time.

I rolled into Salem, Oregon at 10:30 at night and dutifully found a payphone to ring mom and dad, who were in the middle of melting down. I’d forgot about the time zone border, and it was 11:30 their time. They had been about to ring the Oregon State Patrol. I’m not sure how much good it would have done to report a tan Valiant an hour late calling in, but we never found out because eventually I did. Oops, though.

Once I arrived in Eugene, there was some adaptation required: no intersection clearance interval; the traffic lights in one direction went green at the same instant as the cross direction went red. Low highway speed limits, aggressively enforced. And no self-service gasoline, which peeved me because I really didn’t like others touching my car (sloshing gas on the paint, dropping/losing the gas cap, having to wait in line because fewer attendants than pumps, etc). I’m sure my whingeing about it was just as tiresome to Oregonians’ ears as their lame excuses were to mine—it’s a fire hazard, eww I don’t want to get icky gasoline smells on my hands, etc—and as often as I could get away with it I just stepped up and operated the pump myself, waving away the indignant attendants with “It’s okeh, I’m from out of state so I know how to do it” types of smartass remarks.

Speaking of gasoline, I was tickled to be able to buy leaded. There wasn’t actually much lead in it; the phasedown begun in 1977 was almost complete, and leaded motor fuel would disappear completely from the American market on 1 January 1996, but for most of 1995 I happily bought the leaded. Not because my car really needed it or ran better on it, nor because it was less expensive—by that time, it wasn’t—nor for any other good reason. No, it was just because I was a nasty little mealymouthed reactionary, and I thought I was pissing off eco-weenies with every gallon of leaded gasoline I burned, hurr hurr hurr (have I mentioned I was 19?). And even after leaded went off the market at the first of the year, I could and did still buy bottlecans of tetraethyl lead, sold “for marine use” at GI Joe’s, a now-defunct Oregon-based sporting goods and auto parts store. Like the aggressive solvents I unwisely fooled around with, I fervently wish I hadn’t sloshed around with hideously neurotoxic, readily-absorbed-through-skin liquid lead like that. Sigh. If youth only knew; if age only could.

I also found Oregon’s roads underlit and poorly signed, and it kept occurring to me that I really ought to be able to see better at night than I could. Dad’s high/low beam demonstration 12 years before had planted the seed, and now here was what pushed my nose into the vehicle lighting field. There’ll be more about that eventually, too.

I bought a campus parking pass, which came with a neat little map showing me all two parking spaces I was eligible to use on odd Tuesdays of even months under full moons when the barometer was at 30.12 and rising with winds out of the northwest at 3 to 3.12 miles per hour, assuming I got to one of them before the other 7,750 undergrads with cars. I exaggerate, of course, and I don’t recall having much difficulty parking the car a couple blocks from my dorm. The lot was convenient in other ways, too. It had these high concrete curbs, which I figured out I could carefully reverse up onto when I needed to change the speedometer cable so there was enough clearance for me to get under and do it, and the nose-down tilt of the car kept the transmission fluid in the transmission, out my eyes, and off the pavement.

A few days before my birthday in early 1996 I found myself standing in the rain, in the dark, with the car’s hood up and the engine inoperative. The chain of events leading up to that unhappy situation had been set in motion the previous year, when I drove up to see my grandparents in Seattle. On the way I stopped at the home of a fellow Slant-6 club member, who had worked out an early version of the HEI swap. Together we replaced the points-condenser ignition with a Chrysler electronic distributor and a GM HEI ignition module. Hey, cool, the car was running without breaker points!

We also made provisions to install an MSD box he sold me. MSD stands for “Multiple Spark Discharge”, and the claim was better performance by dint of firing each spark plug a bunch of times in a quick row instead of just once. A few weeks later, I bought a bunch of wires and terminals, and wired in the MSD box. I used the same cruddy consumer-grade crimp terminals as had been used in wiring up the rest of the system, and that’s what came back to bite me.
When I left the car at Eugene Airport to fly home for Thanksgiving, I opened the hood and pulled the feed wire from the ballast resistor shunt to disable the ignition so roving bands of Valiant thieves would have to go “Curses! Foiled again!” or something. HEI and MSD don’t use a ballast resistor, so we’d just made up a little wire shunt to connect the two wires originally on either end of the ballast, with a tap wire out the side to power the MSD box. As I pulled it at the airport, the wire pulled out from the terminal. “Geez, I’d better fix that” I thought as I hurried to catch my plane. But other things occupied my mind, as other things are notorious for doing, and the car started right up on my return and ran fine until that day in January when I went to NAPA for a fuse puller and six spark plugs. Figured I’d do some recreational spark plug changing and install that headlamps-on reminder buzzard I’d picked up.

At NAPA I recalled that loose wire, so thought I’d get the replacement terminal and install it at home. But when I just barely touched the old terminal, it fell off the wire and wouldn’t go back on. Oops, that wouldn’t wait til we get home. So I bought the new terminal, came out and installed it.

I plugged the feed back into the shunt, thinking to myself that maybe the improved contact would make the engine run better; the gods heard this and laughed: plenty cranking, but no fire. Back under the hood, I spotted the problem. When I was plugging it back together, one of the shunt terminals had pulled apart, speaking of cruddy crimp terminals.

How courteous of the car to fail in a NAPA car park, eh! I went back inside and bought another new terminal, installed it, plugged the shunt back together, and…still plenty cranking, still no fire. H’m, that other shunt terminal didn’t look so good; maybe I knocked it loose as well? Oh, the hell with it, I’ll drink the pieces!

Back into NAPA again for a roll of black 14-gauge wire and more of the fancy non-cruddy terminals with heat shrink tubing attached ($4.49 apiece in early 1996) and a new wire tap. I made a whole new shunt, installed it, and very quickly found myself separated by the car’s firewall from exactly zero internal combustion.
It was getting considerably darker and wetter—ideal conditions for underhood electrical work. My mind began torturing me in that sadistic way it does, coming up with conclusive, sturdy, highly plausible explanations (in Technicolor IMAX THX surround) for what surely must be causing the trouble—perfect and airtight in every way except that they were wrong.

I tightened every connection I could reach, which wasn’t all of them because some of them were, erm, wrapped in, um, duct tape (go right on ahead and judge me; I sure as hell did!). This time I thought I was finally getting somewhere, because the car began acting like it had a dead ballast resistor: it would kinda try to fire with the starter engaged, but die as soon as the key was released. Gotta be that shunt! And here I’d thought I was so superior, not having to worry about a ballast resistor.
Back inside to NAPA, buy more terminals, repair old shunt and reinstall, which resulted in plenty cranking, but no fire no mo, not even with the starter engaged. I was well past exasperated sighing and into grim-determination territory, certainly glad I’d installed a very good battery, very thick battery cables, and a very good alternator, and beginning to wish for my breaker points back.

I wheedled one of the NAPA countermen into coming out to the cold, dark, wet car park to crank the engine for me; while he did so, I ripped the brand new $4.49 terminal off the feed wire and touched it to the shunt terminal to see if maybe the tap wasn’t tapping. No such soap.

It was 7:52, and NAPA closed at 8. Counterman had to go in and start shutting stuff down. Crankity-crankity-crankity-crank: denial is an anagram of my first name, but enough was enough; it was just not going to start.

Sigh. Curse. Close hood, wheedle back into NAPA, call AAA, get told by a cheerful computerised voice that my call is very important,but all agents are assisting members like me. Lather, rinse, repeat-repeat-repeat; it is now 8:07. The NAPA guys begin turning off the lights. Agent comes on, tow arranged, but no guarantee of when it might happen. Rest of lights go out at NAPA.

It’s dark, it’s raining, and the car won’t start. And worst of all, it’s my own stupid fault. If not for putting in the MSD in the first place, then for doing a cruddy job on the wiring. Hey, waitamin…the wiring! That GM HEI system was still all there in the engine compartment, just not hooked up!

Roll up sleeves. Sheeyoot, cruddy terminals on the HEI job, too; half of them have gone missing. Unplug MSD feed from shunt. Unplug MSD trigger signal 2-way disconnect from distributor. Plug HEI trigger signal 2-way disconnect into distributor—or try to, anyway; one wire has no terminal, and it’s a tiny little flat blade I’ve got to connect to. But it’s a tiny little blade with a hole in it, so I grab the wire crimper-strippers I’d borrowed from NAPA—I said I’d bring them back, I didn’t say when—and strip an inch of insulation off this tiny 20-gauge wire. Twist strands, cram through hole, wrap.

Unplug coil leads from MSD wiring. Hello, what’s this? Oh, lookit there, that had to be the problem all along: one of those wires had come out of its terminal, too. Musta been making intermittent contact with its mate an hour ago when it was spluttering with the starter engaged, and now it’s pulled clean out. Okeh, well I can (»snap!«) DANGit! This coil lead’s terminal just broke off, too!
Grab wire strippers, strip an inch off this 12-gauge household wire (did I mention this wiring was not done properly?). This time it was a ¼” blade, with a hole. Attempt to cram wire through hole: nope, too big, won’t fit.

Make primitive noise. Seize wire cutters. Cut five strands off wire. Cram the wire, now it fits. Push it through, wrap it. Remove duct tape from dangling lead adjacent to coil. Plug it in to lead 3 off the positive side of the coil (which I had provided with a plug-in to use in just such a case).

Wipe greasy hands on soaked lawn. Hop in car, turn key. We’re cranking—noticeably slower now than however many hours ago when this whole fiasco started—and…that’s all we’re doing. Cranking, no fire.

Inhale deeply through nose in an effort to stop myself breaking something. Smell gasoline strongly. Oh, hey, now this one I’ve known since I was four: put a stick in the choke!

Hold accelerator to floor, turn key. Crankity-crankity-crankity-oh-you-have-got-to-be-kidding-crankity-crankity-crankity-Putt-crankity-PuttPutt-crankity-CoughPuttPuttPutt-crankity-PuttPuttPuttPuttVROOM! Big cloud of black smoke out the tailpipe, primal yell of victory out of me.

Ammeter said CHARRRRRRRGE!!, which I took as a directive and get going. I left the car in 2nd gear for about a mile to keep the alternator speed up for the benefit of its charging and cooling. Eventually the gauge centred and I dropped back into Drive. Red light: car idled as smoothly as always. Green light: car accelerated normally. Returned home with no incident, paused in driveway: engine still ticking over smoothly.

I was soaked and greasy, I had missed The Simpsons and the State of the Union Address, and I was multiple hours behind on homework and housework. Also, I learned a few object lessons: wiring is worth doing properly, aftermarket “upgrades” don’t necessarily live up to their extravagant marketing claims, wiring is worth doing properly, and wiring is worth doing properly.

The UO had a terrific craft centre on the bottom floor of the student union. It was really intended and configured more for pottery and suchlike than for any kind of car repair work, but it had a sandblaster I used on multiple occasions. One of those was when I finally, after a great deal of trying and waiting, got my paws on a South African 2-barrel Slant-6 intake manifold. The sandblaster did a fine job of removing the factory orange paint to reveal the manifold’s bare cast iron, and an equally efficient job of removing the grease and carbon to reveal the manifold’s fatal cracks. There was also a bench grinder fitted with buffwheels and a variety of compounds—I brought in the Valiant’s taillight lenses one day and buffed them to a glossy sheen.

And there were well-lit workbenches just perfect for whatever which projects might come to mind and hand. I don’t imagine many carburetors got built there, but I built one. In Part I of this set of stories I mentioned a new-in-box carburetor in the parts stash that came with the car, and the necessity of replacing the complete throttle linkage to accommodate the retrofitted –factory– aircon. The former met the need of the latter, and so the car had a Holley 1920 carburetor on it. Not my favourite carburetor; it has some fairly serious design flaws, like carburetor bowl gaskets below the fuel level and a side-hung float notorious for causing stalling in hard left turns, but it was a new carburetor with the needed linkage hookup, so that’s what I’d installed.

It generally ran reasonably well, but it suddenly began to run much better, which is not usually a thing, at least not the way entropy works in this universe. Nevertheless, there it was: a ’65 Valiant behaving like a fuel-injected late model with perfect driveability, starting immediately on the first try every time, even from dead cold, without the choke. It came at a steep cost, though: 9.8 whole, entire miles per gallon (24 litres/100km). Not sustainable! I pulled the carb apart and found two shiny little ball bearings and two little brass rings on the float bowl floor. The “economizer” (power) valve ball retainer rings, poorly staked at the factory, had fallen off the end of the metering block. This left the power valve wider-than-wide open full time, hence the E-Z starting and rotten mileage.

So I built a more thoughtfully designed Carter BBS for it, on one of those well-lit workbenches at the craft centre. I think I probably got the throttle body rebushed at one or another machine shop, and really went to great effort to get everything exactly right. The car got less warmblooded; now I had to engage the choke and feather the throttle a little until the engine warmed up, but the fuel consumption dropped just about in half.

And I guess that sets the table pretty well for the next batch of stories, so…tune in next week!

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