COAL: 1971 Dodge Dart • Chase, Chase, Chase, POUNCE!

In May of 2002, on my first venture out into traffic after my primary (before my secondary) battle with some godawful strain of flu, I spotted an alien. At first I didn’t realise it was an alien; it was doing a very good job of blending in, looking normal, and acting casual. And it wasn’t green or grey the way they’re supposed to be, don’tchyaknow. It was red. It gave every appearance, from about a half-block back in the rearview mirror of my 1992 LeBaron, of being a sharp red ’71 Dart with what looked like a single yellow frog lamp installed on the bumper. “Probably a Swinger”, I thought.

The Dart passed me shortly later. No, not a Swinger, but a perfect-lookin’ 4-door. Slant-6 engine, by the exhaust note. No, not a yellow frog lamp, it was a yellow driving lamp, a Cibie type 45, second version.

And amber rear turn signals, looking very much like factory equipment. WuhTuhFuh…?! I couldn’t think of any version or variant of the ’71 Dart that might’ve come with those. The South African cars had US-type red ones, and that body wasn’t sold in Australia or any other places that required amber. The car got away from me, and I wished I’d made an effort to catch up to it, wondered if it was a right-hand drive car, and hoped I’d see it again (…hoped it belonged to a willing seller, etc).

Careful what you wish for; the gods hear you and laugh. Three and a third years later in September 2005, I was walking along Bloor St when I happened upon the same Dart parked at an expired meter. The parking warden was waiting to cross to our side of the street, so I tossed a quarter in the meter and waited for the owner to show. By and by, a couple of elderly ladies with European accents of some kind approached the car. We had a brief chat, I had a brief look at the car, and I gave my name and number in case they ever needed parts or advice or anything.

In March 2006, just as I was about to turn off the phone and eat lunch, a call came in from the Dart’s owner: the car’s for sale, might I be interested or know someone who might be? I said I’d certainly like to take a look at it, at least, and laughed that I’d seen the car from time to time in traffic but had never been able to figure out where it lived. “Oh, it’s easy to find, right off a major road,” he said. “Do you know where Bloor Street and High Park Avenue is?”

I’m looking out my office window at that intersection. Turns out the Dart lived one whole, entire block away. Took me four minutes to get there, on foot, including waiting for the notoriously slow lift to take me down to street level from the 21st floor.

Guy was a mechanical engineer, an Austrian one. Bought the car new in November 1970. He considered the lighting system inadequate—my people!—so he made the rear directionals amber by grafting some truck/van marker lenses over what were originally the reversing lamps, before he cut away most of their lenses, inboard of the brake-tail lights. Hosey? Yeah, kinda, but they were good enough to fool me in traffic’s brief glance. This had deleted the reversing lamps, so he put a small rectangular fog lamp for that purpose under the left side of the rear bumper. He added turn signal repeaters on the fenders above each front wheel; by the time I came along the driver’s side had a Lucas L734…

…and the passenger side had a similar but not identical English Ford item:

He installed that one yeller driving lamp I mentioned (inoperative, and the reflector was corroding), and perched a little round sideview mirror atop each fender, just above the repeater. These were just as useless with as without the stick-on convex mirrors; too far away and too small.

The purchase price included the horsepower chicken shown here.

The car was a base-model Dart, not a Custom. The only options were the big Six (225 instead of 198), and automatic transmission. It was FE5 Bright Red outside, black inside. Lots of empty real estate on the fender tag:

The headliner was in good condition; grab handles had been added. Door cards were nice. There were were homemade covers over the low-line black vinyl front and back seats. I really, really dislike black interiors, but I really, really liked Darts!

It had 142,000 miles on it, and ran and drove credibly. The steering seemed reasonably responsive, suspension seemed fine, engine ran smoothly with no noise a valve adjustment wouldn’t fix and no smoke, transmission shifted just as it was supposed to, and the 9″ drum brakes stopped the car as well as that sort of brake ever stopped that sort of car. The speedometer had a carefully handmade metric calibration overlaid on it. I drove the car for about 10 minutes, and it put a smile on my face. All the right sounds and shapes! (wait, there’s someone else who would do these kinds of lighting mods?).

Rust, it looked like there was almost none (yay) by Ontario standards (boo). The trunk floor looked as new.

Minor bubbles in the very tippy-corner of the left quarter panel, and at the forward-inward corner of both front fenders— almost invisible when the hood was closed.

He’d bought the factory service manual with the coupon in the owner’s manual (oh, he’s the one!), and had repair logbooks from day one. Paging through it, I saw where one of the ladies had, in perfect proper-old-lady penwomanship, neatly entered my name and phone number in the logbook with the date and a note that I was a Dart afficionado of some kind.

He didn’t know how much to ask for it. His mother and aunt, who’d shared the car, were wiped off the road by an Eastern European truck driver while they were stopped alongside the Austrian highway trying to fix a flat tire that had been deliberately caused by a gangster tampering with the valve stem while they were stopped for fuel. This is reportedly a problem in parts of Western Europe that border the formerly-Communist parts of the European Union: You stop, they loosen your lug nuts or slice your valve stem. Down the road you have to stop, then they rob you or worse; this time it was or worse. So the guy had lost his mother and his aunt, he was moving to Alberta because that was where the engineering jobs were since there was an oil boom on, and he hated to sell it so it would have to go to someone who would care for it properly.

So you can see my dilema: this Dart really had to be saved, and I mean, come on, amber turn signals and repeaters on a Slant-6 Dart 4-door? The car might as well have been calling my full name and social insurance number, right out loud. But I didn’t need one more car, I needed one less truck. And I wasn’t sure I could trust myself to leave it alone; what if the 9″ drum brakes would have to go away, and I’d have to have the rust fixed, and, well, the car hadn’t any A/C but it did have a black interior, and…dammit. Did I ever really have any choice in the matter? By early April we’d come to terms.

Then came time to register it, which required an inspection, which the car failed. It needed new brakes like right now. I think the drums were still usable, but all the shoes were paper-thin, all five cylinders were leaky, and some of the lines were rusty. No time to gather parts for an upgrade to 10″ drums or discs, sigh. There were also worn-out steering and suspension components—ball joints, tie rod ends, idler and/or pitman arm, and assorted others. The fuel tank was okeh, but a longish section of fuel line was rusty and fuel-damp. I think the tires were also past due. So right away, there was a whackload of spending and/or a spendload of whacking at the shop conveniently located a block from home.

Fine, now I had a valid inspection, which was one piece of the puzzle. I went to the Driver and Licence office and got turned away, because I had no appraisal of the car, and no ownership slip. I didn’t even get a chance to bring up that the province had the VIN recorded incorrectly in their system, missing one character.

I thought an appraisal was going to be an enormous hassle, but foresight prompted me to ask the clerk for an appraisal form. “Oh, the appraiser will have them,” she said. “Yeah, I’m sure, but it’d be an awful shame if they’re out of them. May I have one, please, just in case?”. Yes. I swung by the garage where they’d played slow-and-expensive with my bill for installing A/C in the truck a few summers before, and the same guy was happy to “appraise” the car at $475 without seeing it. I was in the truck, and he remembered squeezing big money out of it. Said “Stop by and gimme $50 sometime” for the appraisal. No hassle at all; sometimes it’s helpful to know people whose ethics are flexible.

That afternoon I called the Licence Assistance Office and was informed that the VIN correction would require one of the following documents:

• The vehicle’s original invoice (nope!)

• The vehicle’s original Manufacturer’s Statement of Origin (LOLROFL!)

• The bill of sale from the vehicle’s original delivery to the first purchaser (I’m so sure!)

• A letter from the selling dealer confirming the VIN (Not!) or

• A letter from a police officer stating the correct VIN (Aha! much more feasible).

I went to the nearest cop shop, where Officer Friendly looked at the VIN on the dash and on the door label and wrote up a nice little signed note on police letterhead stating the correct VIN.

Drove out to Mississauga, to a different office—my experience was that unless I happened to get an unusually kindly clerk, the more times I came back to the same office/clerk, the harder they’d try to send me away without what I came for. Presented the appraisal, safety certificate, signed bill of sale, and police letter. The province’s record was promptly changed to the correct VIN, and I walked out of the office after 10 minutes with a set of plates. Total cost for “replacement for lost ownership slip” ($10), sales tax on the car ($22) plates and rego through two Januaries thence ($143) was $175.

So, now I was legal and could carry on pouring money into the car.

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