COAL: 1965 Valiant, Part IV – Self-Own Service and Naming Names

Spring break ’96 came round, and I was booked on a flight home to Denver leaving Eugene at 6:29 AM on Thursday, so Wednesday afternoon I packed my two carry-on bags and drove out to the airport to try my luck with flights at easier hours. I went up to the United gates and asked; no standby seats available on the first flight, but come back in 25 minutes, the gate agent said, and we could try for the second flight. I kept an eye on my wristwatch while I went browsing magazines—the pocket monolith (smartphone) was still over two decades in the future—and went back to the gate at the appointed time. The agent took my name, said pretty good odds I could get on the flight, and advised me to come back in 45 minutes.

That struck me as plenty of time for a burger or something downstairs at the restaurant, so down I went. A combination of things upstairs moving a little faster than scheduled and my being unreasonably literal about the 45 minutes missed me my standby seat. So no soap, it was gonna be the crack o’ dawn flight I had booked in the first place. Oh, well, at least the cheeseburger had hit the spot. I drove back to town, noticing a ’66 Barracuda and a ’64 Dart in a small wrecking yard along the way, already closed for the day; I made a mental note to check back another time.

So. What to do? I didn’t have any classwork or anything; it was Spring Break. The grad students in the other half of my rental duplex were having a standard-issue party: music, snacks, assorted kinds of alcohol, chit-chat, y’know. They saw me pull the Valiant into the garage and invited me to join in. Not really my thing, usually, but—eh!—why not; it was Spring Break! I didn’t get falling-down drunk or anything, but I certainly did participate in the party. I dimly recall we wound up at Max’s Tavern (not very reputable, but walk distance away) after the party wound down, and I was handed a shot-type drink called, I was told, a Stumblefuck. Googling now, I see it’s a 1:1:1 mix of Jägermeister, Rumplemintz, and Aftershock. I have a bare sketch of an idea what the first of those ingredients is; the others I know from nothing.

Et cetera for however long we were there. As Max’s was walk distance from home, it was stumble distance back, so that was fine, but by the time I got home I was completely outta spoons. Didn’t even have it in me to shuck off my clothes; I just set my alarm for 4:45 AM (not terribly far in the future) to make sure I’d have plenty of time for a shower, a coffee, and breakfast before heading out to the airport, and flopped into bed.

Or at least I thought I set the alarm. I guess not, though, for the next thing I knew I was blinking awake and looking at my watch. It said 6:09. My first thought was “Oh, dear!” [not a direct quote -DS] The second was “It is a 23-minute drive to the airport from here”.

It took me about 30 seconds to throw on my shoes and get downstairs to the garage; I didn’t bother with such niceties as socks or shoelaces. The Valiant, which normally required 10-15 seconds of cranking to wake up first thing in the morning, must have sensed the urgency of the situation, as it fired on the first compression. I just about did a garage burnout in reverse.

I made that 23-minute drive in about twelve minutes, including parking, aided and abetted by empty early-morning streets and the simple yet powerful technique of dispensing with speed-limit formalities. Grabbed my bags out the trunk and ran, with no socks and untied shoes, through long-term parking (6:25), through short-term parking (6:26), and across the traffic lanes in front of the airport—without looking both ways, tsk!

Dashed into the terminal and threw my bags on the security conveyer belt (6:28), tossed my car keys over the metal detector and caught them on the other side. Grabbed my bags off the conveyer. No time for escalators; I ran up the stairs, nearly mowing down a hapless third-grader (6:30). Through the corridors leading to the gate; when I reached it, speaking was out of the question. All I could do was wave my ticket around. United’s habit of being a little flexible about closing the door on their early-morning flights and Eugene being a friendly, small, informal airport meant I made the plane with about 70 seconds to spare, gasping and sweating. My seatmate seemed certain I was having a heart attack or something.

It never dawned on me that the emergency didn’t really exist; all that would happen if I missed the flight was a bit of inconvenience and rescheduling. Nobody would’ve died or anything. All week long I kept wondering if I had locked the car and shut off the headlamps.

But as it was, I made it home to Denver, and dad asked if I would have a look at his Lancer, because he thought he detected a slight miss, so I took it for a test drive. Woof, “slight miss”? It idled okeh, but try to accelerate and it felt as if 3 cylinders had gone on strike. Back home to tend to the poor Dodge, after a run to the parts store. Hey, where’s my NAPA? Grr, they’d moved—now 25 minutes away instead of seven.

Start with the obvious, let’s have a look at the points. (I asked dad if he wanted an electronic conversion and he said no, just put in another set of points.) Let’s see here, I’d installed the existing set in…high school, about 2½ years before. They were quite pitted, but the bushing was still in good shape, the rubbing block didn’t show much wear, and they were obviously still making and breaking to some degree. They were Standard Ignition’s premium Blue Streaks with the metal-to-metal bushing and integral cam lube wick, a good product at that time.

But I bought the other kind I liked: Echlin’s unpierced ones. Chrysler had introduced ventilated breaker points for 1962, and the claim was that the open-and-close action of the movable contact fanned air through the pierced fixed contact. I guess maybe so, and they’d lasted well enough, but I liked the idea of the greater surface area available from a same-size contact without a hole; hence the Echlin unpierced points.

The shopping list also included a new rotor and distributor cap—a Blue Streak item, because much though I liked Echlin’s points, I hated their distributor cap. Had a good reason for it, too: a few years before, in the middle of Winter, I’d put a new Echlin cap and rotor in the Valiant and gone about my driving, but the car wasn’t running right. It didn’t take me long to find the cause: the contacts on the underside of the cap had been ground off-centre. All of them were meant to be semicircular, but on this cap some of them were almost a whole circle while the ones opposite were just a slim crescent. I sent the cap and an explanatory letter to Echlin, who sent back a reflexive blurb saying Echlin products meet all applicable OE specifications, along with a new cap, also ground off-centre. Last time I checked, many years later, Echlin caps for the Chrysler 6- and 8-cylinder distributors were still being ground off-centre. It’s probably down to there being no money in caps and rotors any more, so no incentive to take much care in their production. There’s a very detailed thread on the Slant-6 board about how to countervail the sloppy cap-to-rotor distance with currently-available parts.

So, a Blue Streak cap for the Lancer. A new PCV valve, as well—I’d written to Fram when I saw their № 163 valve, the metal one with the curved nipple for ’61-’69 Chrysler products, disappear from one edition of their cattledog to the next. In response they sent me all 300-some they still had on hand, in a small, heavy UPS box. The Lancer got new air and fuel filters, as well, and the oxygenated fuel Denver had pioneered the use of had turned the fuel hoses all soft and gummy. Eep! I went through and replaced ’em with them with fuel injection hose (SAE 30R9, versus the lower-spec 30R7 stuff often still to this day sold generically as “fuel hose”.

Distributor back in the engine, filters and hoses and PCV valve installed, timing set; back out for a test drive. Now we had much of our acceleration back, but it still surged. Off to the parts store for a carburetor kit and a set of spark plugs. Dad watched as I rebuilt the Carter BBS carburetor, doing Bob Vila “This Old House”-style narration all the while Since I’d had the throttle shaft rebushed a few years ago, it was just a clean-and-regasket job. Dad helped change the spark plugs, asking questions about correct installation torque and which wire went where. The old plugs, while worn, all had a uniform tan appearance (some of them had oil deposits clogging the space between the insulator and the shell—”New valve stem seals when you get a chance, please!”). Back on the road, the car ran smoothly and accelerated properly.

Good thing, for the next night it was peak viewing on Comet Hyakutake, and made plans to go way out to an old abandoned missile silo sight, out of the way of city lights and after the moon went down. We loaded up my 1961 Heiland-Honeywell Pentax H2, a tripod, and a few rolls of Fujicolor 1600 film and set off for the 35-minute drive. Empty, remote roads by high beam—suddenly the headlights went out. Pitch black for a scary second, then they came back on. A few minutes later, it happened again. We switched to low beams and the problem stopped. This was one of the early experiences that led me to get into selling unusually good lighting upgrades for old cars.

The comet was spectacular; we could see a huge, long blue streak (speaking of which) across the sky. Having loaded the camera, we pointed it at the comet and opened the shutter. 40 seconds later we released the button, and the shutter stayed open; in the subzero cold, the camera had frozen! We had to keep the car running; every two pictures, the camera had to come inside the car and go in front of the heater duct to defrost—not to mention the same necessity as regarded our fingers, toes, and butts. The engine had reached normal operating temperature on the drive, but as we sat there idling in
the crackling cold for 2 hours, the temperature gauge reading gradually dropped lower and lower, even while the car was running. I mean it was cold!

In the end, it was worth it, because we got phenomenal pictures of the comet. Here’s one of them::

So that was about it for car adventures over the Spring break. I had, after all, locked the car and turned off the headlights. It started with about 10 seconds of cranking and came to life with the red light on, pistons slapping, and rods knocking until the oil pressure built up. Then it was just pistons slapping for the first little while on the decidedly-less-speedy drive away from the airport. The knocking and redlighting reminded me the Valiant’s original engine was a tired pony, enough so to inspire thoughts of renewal…and upgrades, of course!

I’d been thinking those thinky thoughts for awhile; vis-à-vis that aluminum 225 I’d got from Svigel’s some years before. I’d taken it apart, called up the machine shop I liked in Denver, told them I had a 225 Slant-6 to bring in for machinework…then walked in the front door carrying the (76-pound) block in my two hands: “Here’s that Slant-6 I called about; where should I put it?”. That was a favourite party trick of mine.

The block was in great shape; it just needed honing, not overboring, and the deck flattened. I had the rods reconditioned, got new bearings and gaskets, had the head rebuilt with hardened exhaust valve seats. New oil pump, new water pump, new fuel pump. I had the oil pan and rocker cover powder-coated yellow, a few shades more vivid than the yellow Chrysler applied to 225s in trucks from ’63-’69. I had the crank turned and polished, and I got a very fancy set of Total Seal rings (gapless second ring) made out of moly-coated, gluten-free, artisanal, shade-grown, dew-harvested forged nodular iron. Double-roller timing set, Dutra custom camshaft I got for a sweet price because Doug didn’t recall its specs and couldn’t find the card for it. I had an Australian 2-barrel intake manifold with a brand-new Carter BBD export-spec carburetor. I bought an expensive ring gap grinder to make certain the ring end gaps were set exactly, precisely right.

Contains 100 per cent of your recommended daily intake! ( )

I boxed up all these parts in Denver over break, and sent ’em to Oregon. The idea was a bunch of us from a Mopar listserv would gather at the home-and-shop of one of the listserv members and we’d build and install the engine. I was at home in Eugene, drinking orange juice and paying bills, when the UPS lady rang the doorbell. She glowered at me and said “You’re going to have to help with these”, then backed the truck into the driveway and opened the rear gate.

The boxes looked to have been kicked around quite a lot. They’d held up, but taken an obvious beating. We got them into the garage, and the UPS lady tartly advised wooden crates next time. I’m sure she was right. Battered boxes aside, there was my engine block, surrounded by foam noodles and wrapped in bubble wrap. It was fine.

The other carton, the one that weighed 115 pounds, was full of miscellaneous parts as previously listed. Metal parts with edges and corners and heft, so the cow count climbed as I recalled having put a very rare gasket set for the aluminum engine, together with a very rare extra head gasket, at the bottom of this box. Fortunately it came through okeh.

Dude with the shop lived some two hours north up in Oregon City, so I commuted over several weekends around the end of the school year (not good for my grades) and then for longer stretches once classes stopped for the summer, and the engine got built. The team approach never materialised; it was pretty much just shop-owner Steve and me. It all seemed to go together fine, and we got the engine installed, and started. Yay, it ran! Boo, it wouldn’t run at all below about 900 RPM and was rough and choppy below about 1100. At higher engine speeds—like if I left it in second gear—it made a throaty new growl and seemed to wake up briefly before then running out of breath. And the exhaust was smoky.

This was…very disappointing. I’d had such grand IMAX surround-sound THX mind-movies of this lovely, unusual aluminum engine running so picture-perfectly; it was jarring and bruising when the results in reality didn’t measure up to the fantasy. I had hair at the time, and there was much tearing of it; rending of garments, too. I chased after what seemed like they had to be vacuum leaks and timing problems, but never really got anywhere.

Eventually I arranged to head down the 5 to noted Chrysler tech Hemi Andersen’s, in southern California. This was not really on the way between Western Oregon and Denver, but…off I went! Me and my Valiant crammed full of not only the possessions I was moving back to Denver with because my lease had ended, but also a whackload of carp arts; heavy ones made of metal. About 850 pounds of stuff, all in all.

The trip down to California was troublesome. The carburetor I’d installed to replace the one I’d had to repair temporarily with JB-Weld flooded and vapour locked numerous times and the choke didn’t work right. The fast-idle cam dropped off and jammed the throttle linkage closed (better than open, I’ll grant). This amplified whatever was making the engine run wrong, and so the drive was unpleasant. At least I had my air conditioning, right? Well, yeah, until about a quarter of the way through the extremely hot San Joaquin Valley. A brand-new seal gave out where the refrigerant line attached to the compressor. PFFSSSSHHHH, smell of mineral oil, no more car cooling, and the ozone layer took a hit.

But I did make it down to Ventura County. Hemi and Eva very graciously opened their home to me for the duration, and I enduringly wish I’d had the maturity to be a better houseguest, but experience is knowledge we get just after we needed it.

Anyhow. Hemi and I worked on the car together, which I wish I had treated as the rare apprenticeship position that it was; I would like to have paid better attention. Every morning early we got up, ate breakfast, and went off to work at Hemi’s Independent Chrysler Repair. We determined that the camshaft was much too big, causing the low-RPM problems even though it was 4 degrees advanced. This high-RPM cam would have needed at least a 2-barrel and preferably a 4-barrel, higher-flow exhaust, etc. The 1-barrel carburetor and near-stock exhaust on the car couldn’t come close to flowing enough to support the RPM range of the camshaft; it was a bad mismatch of parts.

We yanked the engine and pulled it down far enough to change to a new stock camshaft. We put it back together with the 2-barrel setup. While we were at it, we (finally!) evicted the power steering and installed a 16:1 quick-ratio manual steering gear. This was an item offered by Chrysler in ’65-’69 or so on the Darts, Valiants, and Barracudas. It gave 3½ turns of the steering wheel from left lock to right lock—much faster than the regular production 24:1 box, with 5¾ turns.

I got impatient while putting the hood back on. It bound up at the left rear corner when I went to close it, and got bent, right before my eyes. Ouch! I was able to undo about 80 per cent of the deformation with judicious hammering, but it left a sour feeling; every time I looked at every part of this car, it seemed, something about it reminded me of my failures!

Okeh, now we had a reasonably smooth idle, but big clouds of oily blue smoke coming out the tailpipe. Oops, looked like that stock cam was making a whole lot more vacuum, hauling more oil past what I guessed to be piston rings that hadn’t bedded. More work would’ve been needed, but I had already stretched Hemi and Eva’s hospitality; time to pay and go. The rings still hadn’t bedded once I was back in Denver: it smoked lightly at idle, and accelerating away from a stop left behind a big blue cloud. I found 140-145 pounds in every cylinder, so at least the compression rings had certainly bedded. Hemi suggested making up some “ring seating compound” by putting some Bon Ami powder in a small can of gasoline and pouring it down the carb while the engine ran fast. No apparent effect.

Now here’s the weird part: we seemed to have solved the vibration problem, which just seemed to go away by dint of engine swap magic or drivetrain gnomes or thoughts and prayers or something. We hadn’t done anything to try to fix it, and while it was gone, the car was amazing. Smooth and quiet no matter whether going 50, 70, or 110 miles an hour, ahem.

Until it came all the way back. I was driving along at 80-85 mph, doing just fine, enjoying the lack of vibration. All of a suddent, I started hearing alarming chip-chop-clank-grind noises from what seemed to be the right front. I got off the road and felt the right front wheel: didn’t seem at all hot, but just to be sure I jacked up that corner of the car (with a bumper jack, eek) and spun the wheel, which turned smoothly. There was a bit more play than I like in the disc, so I removed the centre cap and cotter pin and readjusted it. Back on the road, though, the noise was still there. I got off at the next rest stop. As I pulled in, a guy said he thought the noise was coming from my right rear wheel. Okeh, so I jacked up that corner of the car while the guy in the Volvo next ot me said, in a thick Eastern European accent, that he used to have a Valiant and begged me not to get under a car supported by a bumper jack.

I spun the rear wheel, and thought I could feel/hear something, but I wasn’t sure. So I removed the wheel and the drum, right there in the rest area car park, but didn’t find anything out of place. I reassembled and reinstalled and got back on the road. The noise got louder and louder, and then it went chenka CHENK kachuck! and stopped. In my rearview mirror I saw the new Chev pickup behind me swerve to avoid the triangular piece of metal that had fallen off my car and was now spinning across the road into the median weeds.

It was my pinion snubber and plate. Plain stock equipment, bolted insecurly to the final drive unit. Just dropped right off. I guess the noise was the plate hitting the universal joint yoke as the bolts backed off and the plate nosed down. But although the noise was gone, now the vibration was back. Aha! When I’d swapped in the 8¾” rear axle and the different type of transission, I’d upset the balance of U-joint angles such that the vibration was coming from the U-joints. The car had been so loaded down with stuff that the snubber contacted the floor pan, which tipped the nose of the final-drive down, which lessened the pinion-driveline angle, so the noise stopped. Once the snubber went away, the springs rotated the pinion back to its original angle, and the noise resumed. I never did get round to getting the pinion angle corrected.

I couldn’t just spend all my endless hours faffing around with the car, though; I had to go to work, especially if I wanted to be able to carry on paying for car parts and labour! That summer I was working for a temp agency; I got sent to this, that, and the other office in the Denver Tech Center to try to look busy despite not being given any actual work to do. I drove the Valiant around as an old smokey; people at traffic lights would honk to get my attention, then hold their nose and make a face at me. I don’t blame them.

A friend in Utah, Carl, offered the use of his shop there to replace the newfangled gapless rings with oldfangled original-type rings. I wasn’t yet grown up enough to consider the costs, risks, and hassles of these kinds of long-distance road trips, sooo…Labor Day weekend; time to do some labor!

I awoke early Saturday morning and packed the trunk with all kinds of necessary parts. Piston rings, head gasket, 45 cans of Copper Cote (well, okay, two) one can of Led Plate, 3 bottles of root beer, 2 air conditioner compressors, 7 air cleaners, a spare dipstick and tube, a ’63 Dart shop manual, the Solid Gold dancers, etc. I pointed the car westward on I-70 and flew along at 15 or 20 miles an hour, because Labor Day is a very popular one for driving on the highway. I hadn’t planned to spend hours creeping along in bumper-to-bumper traffic and fumigating all the people’s lungs with oily smoke from my malodorous motor.

I arrived at the shop in Orem, Utah at about 6:30 in the evening. Carl and friend Dempsey set upon dismantling D’Valiant’s engine compartment…

…Oh yeah, I left that out. I never had a name for my Valiant until its time at Hemi’s, when he christened it D’Valiant (or perhaps Dvaliant; we never discussed it), because Dart-shaped Valiant.

Orem, Utah: the three of us took apart the engine comparment in preparation for hoisting the engine, and tripped on the minor problem of having no engine hoist. We kicked around ideas—unbolt the K-frame; lift and roll away the body, wheelbarrow style, leaving the engine on the pavement?—and eventually elected to purchase, perhaps on a short-term basis to assess whether it did the job satisfactorily, a hoist from Sam’s All-U-Can-Eat Warehouse Club ‘n’ Heavy Duty Lawnmower Boutique. They had a hoist, great, but while Carl had a membership, he hadn’t any suitable money. Dempsey had a Visa card, but Sam’s took only Discover. I don’t recall what combination of didn’t-haves prevented me buying it, but I couldn’t.

So there remained no engine hoist, and it was already 2PM on Sunday. I had to drive back (9+ hours) on Monday morning, because school on Tuesday. Fortunately for all of that, we decided we didn’t have enough time or equipment to do the piston rings. So D’Valiant would remain a smoker, but Carl had an idea: let’s reassemble D’Valiant’s engine compartment and go 4-wheeling in Carl’s open-top (I forget the official name for this configuration) ’74 Dodge 4-wheel-drive pickup. I’d never been 4-wheeling before, so if we couldn’t replace the rings, let’s have some fun, eh! After a drink stop so Carl could buy 13 gallons of gas and half a gallon of raspberry iced tea (or vice versa?), we headed out.

Over the river and through the woods, past Robert Redford’s land, up hill, down dale, through water, over rocks. Lots of fun, pointing and laughing at drivers of stuck lesser vehicles (including an actual, real Cadillac Seville). We drove up the mountain, without benefit of road, until we came to a hill covered in powdery dirt, so steep it looked sheer.

Carl shifts into Low Lock, guns it, and we do a four-wheel powerslide, clawing our way up the hill, until we get stuck about halfway up. “Oh, fiddle de dee!”, says Carl [also not a direct quote -DS]. Dempsey climbs out the truck and immediately gets dive-bombed by an owl.

We dig the truck out the dirt and start back up the hill. We make it about half the rest of the way up when the truck stalls dead. Sounds of Highland Park Hummingbird singing fruitlessly in the night—for it is night; we are looking at the stars through the windshield, without craning our necks.

Carl backs the truck, without benefit of power steering or brakes, down to a semi-level position below where we’d got stuck the first time, and tries again without success. The three of us confer under the hood until we hear a suspicious noise.

Lashing out in the woods in all directions with a high-power spotlight that might could start fires, Carl announces that we have company of the furry, 4-legged, carnivorous, less-than-jolly variety. H’m. Anyone armed? Well, there’s a screwdriver that’s kinda sharp in the toolbox.

We turn our attention back to the problem at hand: the truck’s previous owner installed a big, showy fuel supply system full of ersatz braided stainless aircraft fuel line with the red and blue aluminum ends, a fuel pressure gauge (exsqueeze me…?), a great big replaceable-elephant Fram gasoline filter bolted to the inner fender, and a pressure regulator. All this in conjunction with a regular mechanical fuel pump, to feed a regular 4-barrel carburetor. All completely pointless—ordinary fuel hose, filter, and hose clamps would’ve been just fine—and in describing this now, I clearly see it as representative of many of the pointless, poorly-conceived modifications I made to my own cars. This is the kind of connection one makes when writing memoirs, as it seems.

The fuel line from the pump to the filter had come uncrimped, and no fuel was coming from it when the engine was cranked. So that looked like two problems for the price of one. Did we have a bad fuel pump? Trying to blow through the broken line and finding pressure blocked said the output valve on the fuel pump was fine. Smelling the dipstick and not smelling gas told me the fuel pump diaphragm was okeh, but sucking on the broken line told me that the pump had lost its prime, probably through a leaky inlet valve. I sucked on the line long enough to pull gas up to and through the pump (and probably within walk distance of my mouth).

Now there was fuel when we cranked, but how to get it to the carburetor? Bypass all the fancy fuel frippery and run directly from the fuel pump to the carburetor. But how, without any spare hose? We would have to cut the line from the gauge to the carb. Of course the material broke on its own but took us three entire hours to cut deliberately with our meagre tool kit: half and nine-sixteenth wrenches, very dull lineman’s pliers, and a large socket extension. No razor blades, no slip-joint pliers, no Vise Grips, no duct tape. Be prepared!

The three of us took turns chewing at the braided stainless line with the pliers, until Carl came up with the idea of clamping the line in the pliers, putting the pliers on the fenderwell, and beating on the handle with the socket extension. Once we’d whacked the crap out of our hands, we went back to the chomp-n-bend-n-flex method, stabbing our hands continually with evil little pointy strands of stainless steel.

Finally the line gave. After some further trimming of the stainless steel covering, we had two hoses to splice together. But with what? The straw from Carl’s tankard of raspberry iced tea wasn’t gasoline-proof.

The light went on above my head, or maybe it was a beam from Saint Gus of Wilson smiling upon me: I seized the carburetor-to-canister rubber bowl vent hose and yanked it off the AFB carburetor. Hitting the carb’s vent nipple fitting a few times with the socket extension loosened it from its hole, and I removed it from the fuel bowl with the pliers. Now we had a splicer! After some false starts, both hoses fit onto the splicer. Now, where to get some clamps? We stole them from vapour hoses.

After a nerve-wracking several attempts—the battery was audibly flattening—the truck started and ran, with no fuel leaks.

We all hop back in the truck. After allowing the alternator to charge up the battery for a few minutes, Carl turns to me and says It’s a hunnerd ‘n’ nine miles to Chicago. We’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.

What could I say? Hit it!

Carl slings it into “Drive”, and in what seems like five seconds we’re up the hill, all the way up. Yay, we made it! I’m not sure why; because it was there, I guess.

We decide the best thing to do is to get out of the woods and back to civilization for beer and pizza, and beer. But what’s this? The truck will start and run, but won’t idle. Oops, we made a vacuum leak by dinkin’ around with the vapour hoses. Dempsey hands me a drywall screw, and I cram it in the end of the unclamped hose—now the truck ticks over like new.

At the very bottom of the trail, right in the middle of the road, is a little metal pole with one a yellow sign: CAUTION: CHILDREN CROSSING. Carl downshifts to second and guns it. The pole makes this funny Peng! sound as it gets ended, and the yellow sign goes spinning and flashing way up in the air, landing on the truck’s hood. I stand up, lean over the windshield, and pick the sign up off the hood—we’re still moving—and we all start laughing uncontrollably to see the bottom of the sign has gone so it now says CAUTION: CHILDREN. I remember this wanton, antisocial destruction of public property seeming funny, but it surely wasn’t, and I can’t remember or imagine how one gets there from any reasonable state of mind.

Back to civilisation. We head to the grocery to pick up pizza ingredients and accouterments. I’m from out of state, so I think nothing of asking one of the cashiers where to find the beer. A chill seems to gust through the whole of the store, radiating out from where we stand. Beer sales are against the law on weekends in Orem, and it has to be covered up so it’s not visible—they have these corrugated plastic panels they put up. It’s not to be asked about, either, unless you want everyone to know you’re a heathen unbeliever. Oops.

We made and ate pizza. I crashed on Carl’s couch. The next morning, we put the hood back on D’Valiant and I headed back to Denver, still smoking.

It wasn’t too much longer before my interest shifted to another car, a different sort of A-body I’ll get to in the coming weeks. The Valiant mostly sat alongside mother and dad’s house for the next few years. Suffered for it, too: the windshield grew a top-to-bottom crack about a third of the way over from the left, the windshield gasket, embellisher, and lockstrip shrank and shrivelled, paint went chalky; my years of effort at beating back entropy in this decades-old car were countervailed very quickly.

2000 was a year of great and terrible upheaval, more about which eventually. I sold D’Valiant to a friendly newspaper editor and writer from a smallish town in Colorado. He wanted to return it to glory, but as John Lennon sang, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. He offered to sell it back to me in 2013; I was sorely tempted, but I passed. Last time I saw it was on the Slant-6 board in 2015-16; the new owner owned a Mopar restoration-and-build shop in Colorado. The aluminum engine got removed and taken apart—great shape inside, he said; smoke due to severely demolished valve stem seals. The car, with an iron engine, got sold to someone the resto shop owner either doesn’t remember or didn’t want to identify when I checked a couple weeks ago.

Wait, valve stem seals? That’s all? I could’ve fixed that in the driveway! Come to think of it, I did replace the valve stem seals in the driveway, but I don’t remember when and I don’t remember whether it was on the Valiant or the Lancer. I rented an air compressor and bought an air hose-to-spark plug thread adapter to pressurise each cylinder in its turn to keep the valves closed/up while I was monkeying with the valve spring compressor above. That was a noisy nuisance; I’d’ve had a better and easier time using the rope trick.

So that’s the end of the story of D’Valiant, my 1965 Canadian-market Valiant Custom 200. I left the original engine at Steve’s shop in Oregon City; someone off that Mopar listserv bought it and built it. I left the original exhaust manifold at Ed’s house in the hills of California; maybe he put it on his truck. There are a lot of things I wish I had done differently with that car, and even more things I wish I hadn’t done at all. I made it both better and worse. At its peak it ran and drove very nicely and made me smile, and that was largely to my credit. At its depth it annoyed me and reminded me of my incompetence-spectrum disorder, and that was largely to my blame. And in the end entropy won, as it always does. I’m glad that engine is still around; I’m glad it’s quit smoking and is making someone smile. It sounds like the car is probably still around, too, and that’s kind of nice.

Next week things are going to make a sharp turn in a different direction.

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