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.

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