COAL: 1969 Dodge Charger – Musclecar of a Lifetime

In 1995 I had just purchased the 1969 Dodge Charger you see above for $1960.00, as detailed in my last COAL, and I was heading back up the Peninsula to San Francisco in my new-to-me car, enjoying the 383 V8s easy power and throaty exhaust note as I motored up Highway 280. Unfortunately, I had my first breakdown within hours of buying it.

The fuel gauge was heading towards “E” and I pulled off the freeway to gas up. I popped the spring-loaded cap on the car’s flank and pumped in a tankful of premium. My Charger had been fitted with a locking gas cap under the flip-top lid much like the one below but I believe originally the lid itself had a seal.

After refueling, I noticed the car needed a lot of persuasion to start – it would crank for quite a bit, catch, and die. After some effort, I got it started and headed back onto the freeway. I was a little concerned but figured I was still getting to know the Charger and wasn’t familiar with the starting drill.

I pulled off the freeway in Pacific to stop by a friend’s house and show off my new car, but when I tried to leave, the car would start, run for a minute or so, and die, and after limping the car to a parking spot I ended up catching a lift back to the Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station and glumly rode home on public transit.

Returning the next day with some tools & basic parts like new plugs and a fuel filter, I tried to diagnose the problem. It seemed to be getting spark, it seemed to be getting fuel, and I couldn’t figure it out. The car had a somewhat oddball aftermarket Holley carb, and an acquaintance who had stopped by my friend’s house showed me how to check the floats on a Holley  – unscrew a sight plug and gas should be level with the bottom of a hole. On my car, when the plug was unscrewed, gas gushed out. The problem seemed to be that the car was getting too much gas – the floats didn’t seem to be shutting off the flow of gas into the carb.

At the time, carbs were still largely a mystery to me (I’ve since done several carb rebuilds, and the old adage that carburetors and toilets work very similarly is apt). I did, however, know someone in SF with considerably more Mopar and general automotive knowledge, and the Charger was limped to his place, making a few stops to drain the carb.

The guy was a guitarist of some note who ran an ad-hoc Mopar repair business out of the back of a motorcycle shop. He swapped on a spare carb which solved the problem. He said the quickest way to fix my car was to put on a new carb rather than trying to troubleshoot and rebuild the existing Holley, which was a somewhat oddball older model. I asked if I could just buy his spare carb off of him but it was earmarked for another project. He recommended I pick up a Holley 1850 – Holley’s basic 4-barrel carburator, rated at 600 CFM, with vacuum secondaries and a manual choke. I phoned in an order to the now-defunct Performance Auto Warehouse as they were in California and could ship quickly.

When the carb arrived, he installed it, and took care of a few other issues– he’d noticed a leaking exhaust manifold and that the transmission kickdown wasn’t properly connected. He also found the original air cleaner in the trunk and recommended I use that rather than the small aftermarket chrome open-element cleaner it was sporting. He wired the choke wired in the off position, telling me he thought a choke wasn’t really needed in the mild California clime.

My Charger’s 383, now running the stock air cleaner that was in the trunk when I bought the car.

Once those issues were sorted, the Charger was a strong driver. The next order of business was a new set of tires. The tire dealer looked up the stock tire size for my Charger and suggested the nearest metric equivalent- I think the 70×14 stock size translated to 215/70-14. I regretted not going for an upsized tire, as the Charger had ample wheelwells to hold larger rolling stock and the stock tires always looked a little small. It did also have a propensity to spin the rear wheels on even moderate applications of the throttle, and wider tires may have helped it hook a bit better. Even with radials in approximately stock size, it had decent road manners and handled surprisingly well — a big factor here was likely the suspension which felt a bit firmer than typical for a 1960s American car.

My Dodge, parked in front of a now-defunct Volvo shop near where I lived.

Some time after putting on the tires, I noticed an alarming metallic “clack clack clack” noise at low speeds. It almost sounded like a severely warped brake disc, though the car had drum brakes on all 4 wheels. It turned out that the center caps for the Rallye wheels were loose- I could jiggle them with my finger and reproduce the sound. Pulling a wheel I saw there were screws on the back of the wheel that retained the caps, and several of the screws were loose or missing.

Rallye wheels, with the center caps that came loose on my car.

I stopped by a Home Depot to pick up screws to fit the center caps. Returning to my car, I realized my car was parked on a flat surface and under good lighting in the store’s parking lot. The lot seemed as good a place as any to tighten down my center caps — I was parking the Charger on the street in SF, and finding a level spot to work on it was far from a sure thing. Jacking up a corner of the car at a time with the bumper jack, I removed each wheel in turn, secured the center caps, and before long drove away with clatter-free rallye wheels.

I still had my Honda Civic, and fell into using both cars as regular drivers. The cars couldn’t have been more different. The Honda was efficient, reliable transportation, but felt a bit like an appliance. The Charger was a rolling sculpture that frequently encouraged bad behavior, but it frequently had minor mechanical problems, consumed gas at an alarming rate, and in many ways wasn’t very practical as an actual car. I remember once doing an oil change on my Civic and noticing the unusual layout of the rack & pinion steering – the steering rack was attached to the firewall, with a  long input shaft running vertically up the firewall to the steering column which joined the input shaft at a sharp angle via a U-joint. It struck me as a clever solution – by having the rack at the very back of the engine compartment, it avoided the need to route other components around the steering shaft and rack. By contrast, my Charger was completely conventional in engineering, and having worked on other V8 American cars I felt very much at home.

When choosing between the two, though, I frequently drove my Charger just because it was so enjoyable to drive. It was also better for hauling musical equipment in, as I could easily lock a guitar and amp in the trunk, which seemed more secure than leaving them on display in my Civic’s hatchback. I once even used it to haul a carload of wood to a bonfire on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, throwing a blanket over the back seat and stacking old pallets and scrap wood in the passenger compartment as the trunk was already full with a cooler & beach chairs. Driving a Charger in the SF Bay area did also get me very good at parallel parking into spaces not much larger than the car itself.

My Charger’s interior, showing off the missing front carpet, the vinyl split-back bench seat, and random clutter behind the seat.

At one point the alternator went bad. Street parking required me to move my car every few days, and until I replaced the alternator there was a period of time where I would pull the battery, carry it in a milk crate up to my 3rd-floor apartment, charge it on my bedroom floor, and carry it back down to move the car. I replaced the alternator before long and looking back it strikes me that there were a number of ways that charging a battery not far from where I slept could have gone wrong in a number of unpleasant ways.

I’ve written earlier about how I used to own a 1969 V8 Barracuda and found the drum brakes on it barely adequate. My Charger had manual drums, and the brakes on it by contrast seemed better up to the job. I’ve sometimes wondered why the two cars seemed so different given that they had similar brakes (I think they were both 10″ drums) and given that the Charger was a heavier car. It could be the brakes weren’t properly set up on the Barracuda, it could be the manual brakes on the Charger gave more feedback compared to the power ones on my Barracuda, so they at least felt stronger It could also just be that I was just more familiar with how older American cars drove and felt at this point in my life. The fact that I wasn’t doing a daily commute on a mountain highway likely also played a part.

And much like owners of Chrysler Cordobas have to endure jokes about Corinthian leather, owning a ’69 Charger brought out all kinds of comments and jokes about the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard. People would quip that I had one of the few Chargers that weren’t crashed on the show, ask me if the doors were welded shut, or suggest that I should make it into a General Lee replica.

While my original plan was to sell my Honda once I got the Charger sorted out, I ended up keeping both cars, and tended to use the Honda for longer trips, as the Charger, while an immensely enjoyable car to drive, also had an immense appetite for premium gas and tended to have frequent minor mechanical issues.

On one such trip, I had driven my Honda to LA over a long weekend. Checking my answering machine messages from out of town (remember when that was a thing?) I was informed that my Charger had been involved in a mishap back in SF. I believe what had happened was that my car had been bumped fairly hard while it was parked, and it somehow rolled over a shallow curb and into a small tree on the sidewalk. As the messages played back, I heard the situation play out in real-time. First, my housemate saying “Hey — your car is on the sidewalk, is there a set of keys somewhere so I can move it back?” followed by “Hey – your car is being towed” timestamped a few hours later.  He did look in the car’s window while it was still on the sidewalk and confirmed that the car was in gear and the parking brake looked to be on, so I’m still not sure exactly what happened.  He also documented the incident with a few photos which I’ll share below.

When I returned to SF, it cost me several hundred dollars and a cab ride to the Army Street Pier impound lot to reclaim my car.

The Charger was a car that encouraged spirited driving, and taking off from a stoplight with a bit of vigor one evening I heard a loud bang followed by a buzzing/grating sound from under the hood. Pulling over and popping the hood, I noticed a chunk of the fan shroud was missing. Moving the throttle linkage I saw the engine lurch in the engine compartment. It was evident that I had cracked a motor mount and the fan had hit the fan shroud. The car could still be driven at low speeds, but it took a very light touch on the throttle to prevent the engine from jumping forward into the radiator.

The same guy who’d replaced the carb earlier now helped out with a new mount. He had an assortment of motor mounts in the accumulation of parts at his shop, and ended up swapping in a solid motor mount on the driver’s side and a rubber mount on the passenger side, saying that the driver’s side was always the one that broke. With one solid mount, the car had only a little more vibration than before, and revving the engine made the body rock sideways in a very impressive fashion.

At some point, the starter went bad, and after replacing the starter I also put in a choke cable for the Holley carb’s manual choke. With a refreshed starter and a working choke, the motor would quickly start on a turn of the key, whereas before it had taken several seconds of cranking and a few pumps of the accelerator to get it to catch. Surprisingly to me, the car passed California’s smog check with the non-stock Holly carb and a manual choke, although I hid the existence of the choke knob with a strategically placed bandanna around the steering column before taking it in for the inspection.

After a year or so parked on the street, the primer on the roof began to fade. At one point, as I was spraying the door weatherstripping with silicone spray in an effort to restore some life to the decades-old rubber and hopefully help it seal the windows a bit better, I noticed that some silicone overspray had hit the primer on the roof, and where it had landed, the roof looked dark and shiny. Impulsively, I sprayed some silicone on a rag,  wiped down the roof, and it looked pretty good – almost like a vinyl top. I did this a few times during my ownership of the car, and while it quickly restored the appearance of the roof, it wasn’t until some time later that I understood the havoc that silicone contamination can cause if one tries to paint over it. I’ve since wondered if a subsequent owner tried to repaint the car and was vexed by a constellation of fisheyes all over the roof.

Not a great shot of the engine compartment, but it does show the fading primer on the roof, as well as damage to the grille from careless SF parkers.

While my neighborhood had permit parking, and I had permits for both the Charger and my Honda, parking two cars on the street in SF was a constant chore. I became very familiar with the parking and street cleaning schedules throughout my neighborhood. In the photo below you can see a residential parking permit on the bumper. The Westlake Dodge license frame likely indicates the car was originally sold by this long-gone Daly City dealership, so the car quite possibly spent much of its life in the Bay Area before I bought it.

Parking on the street also meant parking in the rain, and I went through two exceptionally wet winters with the Charger. The hardtop gave a wonderful sense of airiness when driving with all four windows down, and doing so on a pleasant day made me understand the appeal of pillarless roofs — one that’s sadly gone from motoring these days, but the lack of a B-pillar or window frames also meant that the windows were prone to leaking. I soon realized why the carpet was missing in the front — water would get into the car and pool on the floor – primarily in the front. I got in the habit of keeping a tin can under the seat to bail out water before I drove. The indentations stamped in the hood looked great (and I was always fond of the hood-mounted turn signals they held) but they also collected a half-gallon or so of rainwater each, and lifting the hood after a rainfall would dump this water down the firewall – with the voltage regulator right in the water’s path.

The trunk also leaked, and in wet weather, a bloom of rust grew on the tools I kept in there. When I bought the car, the trunk floor had surface rust and a number of rust holes in it, and as I owned the car, the rust grew worse. In the words of Neil Young (quoting Rustoleum), rust never sleeps, but I kept procrastinating on addressing it. Immediately after buying the car, I’d pondered a number of ways to repair the trunk floor. A friend from high school suggested having a muffler shop (rather than a body shop) cut out the rust and weld in sheet metal — they’d done this on some Mustang floopans some years back and while the results weren’t all that polished, my friend was happy with them. If I wanted to keep things looking original, Year One had started reproducing Charger trunk floors. I had recently become aware of rust converter products like POR-15, which could have at least arrested or slowed the spread of rust (I’ve since used POR-15 in several such applications with fairly good results). I even vaguely wondered about using newly-available panel adhesives to bond in a new trunk floor. Instead, I did nothing and the rust slowly spread, hidden out of sight under the trunk mat and the assorted junk that lived in my trunk. The photo below was taken not long before I sold the car and shows the extent that the trunk rust had reached.

The lower edges of the door were also starting to show large bubbles in spots – it seemed evident that they had been repaired with body filler which was absorbing water and swelling. It was clear the body had a number of issues that needed attention. The car still looked fairly good, though having seen other rusty B-body Mopars, I knew what was coming.
What I needed was a place to take the car off the road for a while and really address all the body issues, but garage space was rare and expensive in my neighborhood. I only had street parking which meant I could only tackle repairs I could complete in a day or so, as I had to keep the car drivable to avoid tickets or towaways.  It also meant that even if I did the bodywork, the car would still live outside and I’d just have to deal with rust again sometime down the road. After some thought, I decided it was time to sell my Charger while it wasn’t too far gone.

I would frequently get notes offering to buy the car, and I now started calling them back, though with little success. Some never returned my calls, and when I tossed out a $1900 asking price to one person I spoke with, he seemed to think this was wildly unrealistic and told me he’d frequently bought old Mopars like mine for six or seven hundred dollars. This was in 1997, and I silently wondered how long ago it was that he’d found cars at that price.

Under the wiper looks to be one of the frequent “want to sell your car?” notes.

I took out a classified ad in the San Francisco Chronicle asking $1900, close to what I’d paid for the car, and tried to describe it as accurately as I could in 2 lines – something like “1969 Dodge Charger, 383 V8, runs well, some rust”.

I’ve bought and sold numerous cars and motorcycles, and am used to a certain level of strangeness in such transactions, especially when it involves an older or special-interest vehicle, but selling my Charger was a distinctly odd experience. The Chronicle had a deal a the time where you could run an ad until the car sold, and it took me about six weeks to sell the car.

Many callers lost interest when I told them there were rust holes in the trunk floor – this was California and old cars with little or no rust were still not impossible to find at reasonable prices.

One potential buyer showed up in his own 1968 Charger in nice shape, painted a rather 80s teal blue. My car was parked several blocks from where I lived, and he drove me over – I remember his car had plastic racing seats and 5-point harnesses for both driver and passenger. He looked over my car, and began making me offers for specific parts. He seemed particularly interested in the hood and bumpers. I told him I’d be happy to sell him the whole car for him to part out, but he said he didn’t have space for another car and just was looking to buy parts.

Another person called and asked about the motor – he sounded like an older guy, and our conversation turned into a monologue where the caller expounded on how the 413 was an overlooked Mopar performance motor, and described how he’d built up numerous 413s. I asked if he was interested in coming to take a look at my car, but it seemed like he just wanted to talk about motors.

I received repeated calls from another individual who had countless ever more detailed questions about the car. What shape was the upholstery in? How much lining was left on the brakes? Were the shocks in good shape? Did it have a stereo? I answered as best I could, tried to emphasize that I was selling a running but far from perfect car, and encouraged him to come and take a look, but we never met up. I remember him exclaiming “let’s make a deal if the price is right” a few times in our various phone calls, though each call seemed to end with him telling me he’d think about it and get back to me.

One person brought along a friend who did the actual test-driving. The potential buyer told me he had a seizure disorder that prevented him from driving, but he owned several older cars and was looking for a Charger to add to his collection.

I got one call from out of state, and the caller asked if I could send photos. This was before email or digital photography were common (and I didn’t have access to either) so this would involve mailing actual photos. I snapped a few on my point & shoot 35mm, but the car sold before I took them to be developed. This does, however, account for why I have more photos of my Charger than many other cars I owned prior to the advent of camera phones.

Finally, a 17-year old kid agreed to buy it. I was a little apprehensive about selling it to someone under 18, imagining an angry parent demanding I reverse the sale, but all went well, and he gave me my asking price in cash. I recall him saying he was the offspring of a military family and they were moving out of state, although quite recently a friend told me he saw my Charger in the East Bay a few times after I’d sold it, looking a bit worse for the wear, so I’m not sure where it went after I sold it.

Whatever happened to my Charger, it had passed out of my life, and even at the time, I knew it would be one of the more memorable cars I would own. I snapped the picture below as the new owner drove off in what was now his car.

Many of my former cars were likely scrapped at some point after passed out of my ownership — in some cases like my Maxima I know for sure they were, but given the simple fact that this car was a 1969 Charger, it’s quite possible that it still exists out there somewhere, and I sometimes wonder if it continues to rust in a storage lot or back yard, if it managed to be restored or hot-rodded, or if it was parted out to keep other Chargers alive. And while I generally like to pass a vehicle’s paperwork on to subsequent owners, I hung on to the owner’s manual from my Charger and still have it.

The California DMV lets you look up the smog history of a car and I found the record of the last smog check under my ownership, from not long before I sold the car, and it’s the last record I can find in the California DMV’s system. At the time, California required smog checks every two years or on transfer, so presumably, my Charger either left California or stopped being registered in the state by 1999.

I’ve also occasionally run a web search on the VIN and come up blank, although that’s not all that conclusive. While my Charger was a car I look back fondly on, it’s not one I necessarily regret selling or wish that I still had. I currently own a 1965 Ford, a 2017 Subaru, and a 1974 BMW motorcycle which are plenty for me, but if someone out there still has my Charger, I hope they’re enjoying it as much as I did.