COAL: 1965 Valiant, Part III – Making Friends and Bucking Entropy

I felt no longer like just a visitor, but a proper resident once I brought the Valiant out to Oregon, and so I started to explore. I was happily astonished to find the mild climate and favourable registration fees made it easy to keep a car good shape and on the road, so people did, so there was robust infrastructural and commercial support for old cars.

There was just about every kind of repair shop. Across Franklin Boulevard from the main UO campus entrance, not far from Track Town pizza (which I still crave, after all these years) there was a BP service station with a friendly, good mechanic (Chet) who did my oil changes and other suchlike.

I easily got my speedometer calibration checked at a place just over the bridge in Springfield with a speedometer dyno out front of their shop. Could’ve got the speedo rebuilt, too, if it’d needed it, or the radiator re-cored, or the springs re-arched. I kept thinking it’d be cool to get a new battery built on site at Mac’s—still in business, as it seems—but never wound up needing one. When the vinyl’s seam let go, It wasn’t hard to find a shop to rebuild the front seat with new springs and foam and correct new vinyl perfectly fitted to the original cloth. The car (and I) flourished in this environment. It reached its peak condition, and it ran and drove really quite well.

Also in Springfield was Brooks Cut Rate Auto Parts, one of those family-owned parts stores in business since forever.

A little further afield were even bigger treasures. I found (in the White Pages!) a business called Elderly Auto parts in Jasper. The name caught my attention, and the friendly phone call made it official; I had to check the place out. The drive took about 20 minutes, but when I crossed the river into Jasper and passed the water tower, it seemed as though I’d zoomed back 30 or 40 years. The density and development was much less.

Jasper felt and looked like those kids’ town in Stephen King’s “The Body”, the story basis for the movie “Stand By Me”—some scenes in which were filmed elsewhere in Oregon. Elderly Auto Parts was like Svigel’s in Denver: a big warehouse full of goodies for old cars. Tin roof…rusted! I went there often and bought many parts, at least as often (probably more often) because they were nifty and I wanted them as because I needed them. The second-or-so time I came asking after Slant-6 and Dart/Valiant stuff, the easygoing owner Doug showed me a new-never-tossed Mopar frisbee that looked a lot more like a vintage item than a modern reproduction: “I want forty dollars for it now, but gimme some time to show it to people who’ll get a kick out of seeing it and then I’ll drop the price down where it should be.” I eventually bought it, don’t recall for how much, and kept it for 24 years before selling it on—still never tossed.

There was a Chry-Ply or Dodge dealer in Creswell, 20 minutes down I-5 from Eugene, with a goodly stash of old-stock parts up in the attic. Think I bought a never-filled windshield washer bag for dad’s Lancer there, for some small number of dollars. There were dozens of successful local treasure hunts like this.
The ’94-’95 school year ended, and I shoveled my half of the dorm room into the car, pointed it eastward, and left for Denver. It had been a long day, and I didn’t have it in me to go very far, but I didn’t have to: in the middle of the forest I was driving through, I saw a roadside sign advertising cabins to let. More than fifty cents, but the price was reasonable enough that I went for it, so the first night of my second road trip I was serenaded to sleep and the next morning awakened by river sounds. The cabins had obviously been there for many years, but they were sturdy, clean, and well-kept. I looked, but never again found them; perhaps they were in Brigadoon.

I stopped at Oñati in Boise for supper, and eventually wended my way back to Denver for the summer. A few months later, I packed up the car to go back to school. Timed the driving so I could have supper in Boise at Oñati again.

While my folks were on sabbatical in New Zealand, I plucked dad’s 1954 Norman bicycle out the garage in Denver and put it on a rack on the back of the Valiant, for Blue Heron bicycles to give it its first-ever overhaul in Eugene. I can’t work out exactly when this would’ve been; it wasn’t Spring Break, I know that, because I do remember how Spring Break went that year. I’ll tell that story, but not now.

Whenever it was, I stopped at Oñati for supper again. Don’t quite recall the details of how I stored the bike or how it was unveiled to dad—might’ve been they landed home from NZ somewhere on the West Coast, and took a detour to visit me at school. Yes, I think that’s about how it happened, and dad got to ride the freshly-overhauled bike and meet the Blue Heron crew. I brought the bike back to Denver on the back of the Valiant at the end of that school year (supper at Oñati again) and dad rode it quite a lot—happily until his health began to fail, then doggedly until the lymphatic cancer took bike riding out of the question.

But I’ve overtaken myself; there’s a lot more to tell about that school year. Having been to Wildcat Auto Wrecking up in Sandy on the road trip with Dad five years before, I was eager to go again. After days and weeks of putting off the trip in service to such noisome bothers as classwork, I decided it was finally time to go one afternoon around 2 o’clock. Now, Wildcat was 2½ hours northeast in clear traffic and good weather. I guess my impatience clouded my thinking; even if conditions had been good I would’ve had what, maybe an hour there before closing time would make me turn around. As it happened, conditions were very ungood: the rain turned into freezing rain, and then quickly deteriorated to an all-out ice storm; the highway became a slick, slow slide show. I kept throwing bad minutes after good, but eventually reason came up for air and I decided to cut my losses and head back home.

Getting turned around on an overpass demonstrated just how slick the roads had become, and the trip home was a matter of keeping the car moving and pointed straight ahead. As long as I did that, I was more or less okeh, but any lateral movement felt like tempting death, even just drifting out the ruts in the built-up ice. Traffic had slowed far down, and it took multiple hours to get back toward Eugene.

Now, I was studying linguistics because I liked words and my mother had suggested it. I still didn’t know linguists don’t really deal in words, and it hadn’t yet dawned on me mother damn well didn’t necessarily know best (that course of study ended one day when I walked into the department office and saw a poster advertising a lecture entitled “Four Centuries of the Umlaut”). There was to be a social event that night, a dinner or something at the home of the head of the UO Linguistics Department—another sturdy reason for a 5-hour round-trip drive bisected by an hour getting grimy in a wrecking yard, no? It had only been getting frozier as night fell, so I figured I had exactly one shot at reaching his house near the top of a hill. I made my way to the street, built up as much speed as I could at the bottom of the hill and headed on up. My traction, iffy at first, quickly deteriorated; I racked it into first gear and clawed my wheelspinning way up the hill by intermittently melting little patches through the freezing slush. I’d melt down to pavement, the car would jerk forward then lose momentum, then melt another patch and jerk forward, and so on and on slowly up the hill until I managed to reverse-jam the wheels against the curb.

I went in and schmoozed for the obligatory hours, unsure the whole time if I’d leave to find the Valiant at the top of a pile of cars at the bottom of the hill; no, it was right where I left it. I don’t remember how or when I got the car home, but I do remember my headlights revealing a couple of early A-bodies off in the distance. By and by the weather cleared up, and I went to have a closer, better-lit look. Yep, a ’61 Dodge Lancer for sale whole, and a ’66 Plymouth Valiant being parted out. The Lancer was tempting, for obvious reasons, but I wasn’t in a position to buy another car.

I was, however, increasingly sick to damn death of the FrankenTorqueflite transmission in my ’65. The car had an obnoxious droning vibration at high freeway speeds, strong enough to make the rearview mirror blurry. I’d taken it to a transmission shop in town where the guy diagnosed a faulty tailshaft bearing and put in a new one without changing the vibration at all. His next guess was a torque converter problem, but clearly he was grasping at random straws. I decided I’d had enough, so I made a deal with the ’61-Lancer-and-’66-Valiant guy: I paid him $30, had his ’66 towed to the BP station, Chet swapped its transmission into my ’65 and vice versa, and I had the ’66 towed back to the guy’s place. I don’t remember the whole dance costing very much; I had AAA and they were less stringent back then about investigating the reasons behind the tow.

With the ’66 transmission in my car, a lot of aggravations went away. First gear sounded correct again (sweet relief and music to my ears!), the car would once again shift 2-3 even if I had the accelerator on the floor, and most of the rest of the irritants of my badly-specced trans were history. There was one new issue, though: a weird fluttering/groaning/low creaking noise while stopped in Drive, which could be silenced by edging forward just slightly (but not too much, or it’d resume). I didn’t like it, for obviously something was the matter, but I was tired of messing with transmissions and it didn’t seem to affect the function of anything, so I just turned up the radio about it; overall this decades-old transmission worked better. Years later I learned what the noise was. The Torqueflites were extensively re-engineered for ’66; the governor was fed from the front pump (spun by the engine) rather than by the eliminated rear pump, which had been spun by the output shaft of ’65 and older transmissions. A minor flaw in the new system affected early-built ’66 transmissions. The noise sounded bad, but didn’t hurt anything and was easily fixed either as a standalone service operation or during a routine overhaul, neither of which had been done on this particular transmission.

Also, that high-speed freeway vibration was unaffected by the transmission swap. Dammit, but at least now I could eliminate the transmission as a cause, and I guessed that was progress. And I didn’t need to drive at high speeds to motor around town, like for dinner with the only girlfriend I ever had. I hadn’t—believe me, I hadn’t—gone looking for a girlfriend; she just sort of…happened. I met her in one of UO libraries while I was trying to scan that Mopar frisbee I’d found in Jasper. I had no experience with scanners, which in those days were as bulky, clunky, and temperamental as the computers they were hooked to.

So I was having trouble, and the young lady at the next computer gave me some help. We got to talking. Her name was Jessica. She worked at the library on work-study, but wasn’t on duty at the moment, just using the computers there. Looked like she was working on a “homepage”, somehing I’d just recently learnt to do myself, and the internet archive has preserved that first page of mine so it can still make your eyes hurt, a quarter-century later:

I took a look at what Jessica was working on. It was all about Pink Floyd, a band I’d heard of by name but didn’t know anything about. I don’t remember how it was that we came to hang out again, but we did. And again. And again, and yet again. We’d exchange e-mails over the course of the day, or spend some time ntalking or ytalking, and it got so we were spending time together and having dinner on a regular basis. Scarcely ever dinner out; she had very little money. Instead, I’d drive my Valiant over to her place, park next to the Saab 96 some other tenant in her building drove, and we’d walk a few blocks to the Albertson’s, or if it was raining hard we’d take the Valiant. Spaghetti. If it wasn’t actually almost always spaghetti, it’s the spaghetti I remember: A seasoning packet, a pound of hamburg, a handful of spaghetti, maybe some garlic bread. Maybe some green Gatorade. There was something about the combination of us and that particular Albertson’s that reliably caused hilarity. We cracked up every time at products and displays or whatever. I’m sure people thought we were high. We weren’t, and didn’t care. Back at her place, we’d fix dinner together. Maybe watch some TV while dinner simmered on the stove. Maybe play with the big, skittish black cat with the soulful green eyes. Talk about the day at school and work. One evening, a collection of Weird Al videos was on TV. It was the first time either of us had seen “Smells Like Nirvana”, and we were both incapacitated on the floor, rolling around and clutching our sides with laughter.

Dinner was always so damned good. And as the TV shows lapsed into banality and the daylight failed, we’d revise the answer to that question those other Albertsons-goers had about us, and then finish off the spaghetti. Sometimes we’d walk through the moonlight across the green space and over to the park with the playground. Swinging on the swings and staring at the sky. Grabbing the handworn galvanised pipeworks of the merry-go-round, running in circles and then hopping dizzily onto the diamondplate, staring up at the spinning sky.

Sometimes we’d just stay at her place, lying next to one another on the floor or on the couch, staring at the insides of our eyelids and babbling with each other. And listening to Pink Floyd, always Pink Floyd. “Learning to Fly”, “Us and Them”. It was one such mindbent night when I heard the latter song, those opening saxophone riffs, that it suddenly occurred to me that somehow I’d inadvertently got a girlfriend.

One afternoon I picked her up at her place in the Valiant and drove us out to Florence, a little town on the coast. We had dinner at ICM (International C-food Market), dessert at an ice cream place, and then we walked along the beach in the saltspray and the fog and the moonlight, under the impossibly swift clouds. I knew the script said I was supposed to be holding her hand, and she was right there next to me. But I couldn’t pick up her hand and hold it because I knew it would be dishonest and fraudulent. I knew why, too, but I’d been safe (if desperately miserable) inside my closet fortress since age 11, and wasn’t yet ready, able, or willing to open the door. I also wasn’t willing to drag anyone else into the darkness with me, though, so I kept my hands to myself as we walked.

I went to a hippie passover ceremony—as if there was some other kind at that time in that place. when I pulled up, one of the other attendees got all excited about my car and pointed me at semi-local (Corvallis) Neal Gladstone’s relevant ode. I called up Neal and enthused about the song, but I only ever went to just the one passover thing; I’m no sedermasochist.

I drove the nine hours from Eugene down to Sunnyvale, California, a pilgrimmage for Doug Dutra’s big Bay Area Slant-6 Club meet. That’s where the pic at the head of this post was taken. Those are ’60-’61 Valiant flying-saucer hubcaps—I’ve always liked them, and now I have a clock made of such a one. The rubber-ducky antenna was ugly, but it worked okeh. That was a fine and fun trip; the meet was far bigger than my dozen-car efforts in Denver had been, and I got to drive a ’67 or ’68 Dart GT 340 convertible belonging to the guy whose couch I was crashing on. I also got a ride in Dutra’s Barracuda race car with the lightweight, high-revving 210-cubic-inch Slant-6 he’d built. Fun ride, if a loud one; I hollered “I want one o’ these!” over the engine’s roar. Without missing a beat, Doug said “No, you don’t!”.

I never did make it back up to Wildcat, but I did go check out the Portland Swap Meet at PIR, the Portland International Raceway. More like the Portland Swamp Meet; it was pissing down good ol’ Oregon sunshine the day I woke early for the 2-hour drive. No ice storm this time, but a major traffic jam caused by swa(m)p meet attendees all trying to get off the highway and park at PIR. Eventually I made it. I can’t describe the event in detail; I only have general memories of it being enormous, and specific memories of what I bought: eight or nine new-in-box 1962 Valiant tail light lenses in very good Glo-Brite aftermarket quality (no, I didn’t have a car they’d fit, but that didn’t make any difference to me), and four slot mag wheels, 14″ × 6″, in the 5-on-4″ bolt circle that would fit my car. Not quite a set; they differed a little in detail, but close enough that one wouldn’t notice without picky inspection.

Somehow or other without drowning, I schlepslogged the wheels and my bag o’ boxed lenses however (very) far it was back to the car. I had the wheels polished at a place in Eugene, and bought a set of BF Goodrich Radial T/A tires, size 205/70R14. Compared to the 185/75R14 whitestripes on skinny 14″ × 4½” steel wheels I’d had before, the new rollers looked much stouter and filled the wheelwells better. Too much better, as it happened; I couldn’t steer all the way in either direction without a tire shoulder snagging the corner of the sheetmetal at the leading edge of the wheel arch. I checked out a tinsnips from the craft centre (or maybe it wasn’t meant to leave the premises and I snuck it out) and did a double fender cornerectomy. No more snagging, and the car felt much more surefooted, but the rear sidewalls still wanted to rub on the insides of the fenders. Sigh.

Christmas break came round, and I made that trip I mentioned to visit my sister who was working and living in London. While there, I visited a friend in Cambridge. He’d lived in South Africa and had brought cars to the UK with him: a green ’59 Chev, assembled in the RSA with green leather interior, and a 1973 Chrysler Valiant Charger 190 Sports Coupé—which is to say, an RSA-built ’71 Demon with right-hand drive, bilingual English/Afrikaans controls and displays, and a 2bbl Slant-6 rated at 190 BHP. This is me sitting behind the wheel of that car (the paint job was quite nice; this mottled appearance is caused by frost). He’d also imported a Pontiac Fiero from the States, for some strange reason. Dude had an Americana store in Cambridge town, with a taxi-yellow ’78 Caprice header panel with lit-up headlamps as the front window display. Inside were telephones shaped like ’57 Chevs, Elvis Presley on infinite repeat and suchlike. He did brisk business.

There was also a tea shop sharing the space, and eventually I grew peckish, so sat down for a bite and a cuppa. My friend came over and said he had a customer who was intrigued to learn there was an actual, real American on site and wanted to ask me some questions, if that was okeh. Sure, send ‘im over. I guess he might’ve been five or six years older than I, and he wanted to know about American television: did we get any British shows? Oh, yes, I assured him, we had PBS, which stood for the Public Broadcasting System, and they showed British comedies like “Are You Being Served”, which I enjoyed very much.

The guy was aghast “Oh, I can’t believe they’re showing that; it’s rubbish! Are You Being Served is completely crap! Oh, it’s bloody awful! ” After he’d got the bad taste of it out his mouth, he wanted to know about the American shows: “They’re still showing The Dukes of Hazzard, though, aren’t they?”, he asked in complete earnest; apparently he considered it high art.

Back in Oregon I took the Valiant to a show in Corvallis, where I got to sit in a General Lee (yes, there’s a picture; no, I’m not showing it to you). I saw a ’65 Dart GT with beautiful shiny deep metallic blue-green paint, and got the idea to have my car painted by the same guy, there in Corvallis. I wanted a metallic emerald green I’d seen on VWs during the European trip. The job was quoted at four kilodollars, and I put down a several-hundred-dollar deposit. Dates kept slippin’ (slippin’, slippin’) into the future, and explanations shifted and drifted towards excuses; eventually I had to insist on my deposit back. Bullet dodged, there; surely the job would’ve wound up costing much more than quoted, and taking much longer. The paint got left alone, Metallic Mudpuddle or whatever Chrysler Canada called it, fading and chalking and all, until some damn dillweed decided to drag a couple of keys down the driver’s side on the very last day of school. Insurance paid for the repair, which wound me up with shiny new paint above the side trim and faded/chalky still below. Better? Well…it gave me a glimpse of nice, glossy paint from the driving seat, I guess.

And there was still quite a lot of time I’d spend in that car’s driving seat, so…stay tuned!

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