COAL: 1973 Dodge Dart • Border? I Almost Lost ‘er!

At the tag end of Summer 2009, an acclaimed Canadian Chrysler historian and expert pointed me at an ad for a car; specialists in the field of addiction call this enabling behaviour. I couldn’t then and can’t now imagine what in the world might’ve made him think I’d be interested, aside from it being a sharp Dodge Dart Custom 4-door, loaded up with options. It was said to be a southern car, for sale in one of the suburbs of Detroit. I was a few hours away in Toronto, and expert-historian—K.M.—was much closer in Windsor.

Emailed pictures, questions and answers, etc. K.M. went and inspected the car for me, and the seller and I kicked things around. I think he liked me better than the other would-be buyer, who wanted to “put a big block in it and make it a sleeper” (shhh, don’t tell anyone about the big engine and fenderwell headers and giant tires and stuff; it’s a secret because this is a sleeper, you guys!).

Equipment codes…and how! Factory air, remote sideview mirror, wheel arch mouldings, lights group, roof rail mouldings, Music Master AM radio, power disc brakes, power steering, 50-amp alternator…-metallic brown– Dark Gold Poly paint…!

On Thursday 20 August I’d sold the rainleaky red ’71 Dart with no options and over 150 kilomiles, for $2,800. On Saturday 22 August I bought this rather de luxe ’73 with 44 kilomiles for $2,600.

For comparison, here’s the data plate from the red ’71: a vast swath of empty real estate.


There would of course be transport and incidentals, and obviously there’d be some fixes and tweaks and upgrades and that, but all in all I considered it a smart weekend of horsetrading. And it was, but I would come to be reminded of a basic law of buying an old car of whatever which age, kind, and price: you don’t buy it once, you buy it at least twice over.

Boy, did this car have solid metal everywhere (don’t mention the tailpipe)!

Logistics were arranged, with K.M. facilitating. He drew up a list of parts and supplies he reckoned I ought to bring when picking up the car. I arrived at the seller’s house to find the car substantially as he and K.M. had described it. Except as we stood there talking in front of the idling engine, it became steamily evident the top tank-to-core solder joint no longer existed along a long stretch of the front of the radiator. The seller obligingly knocked a chunk off the agreed selling price, I loosened the radiator cap to the first stop, hoped for the best, sank down near unto the floor (seat foam? Uhhhhh…I think we used to have some of that…there might still be some in the back) and headed for the upper extent of the lower peninsula. I tried to keep on top of adding water, but between watching to stay on the right roads and watching to stay on the road at all by the feeble light of the uselesser-than-usual sealed beam headlamps—oh yeah: I was first driving this unfamiliar, long-stored old car 300 miles after dark—I let it get away from me. Around 11:00 at night, not far from Kalkaska, the radiator ran outta water. There was no dashboard indication, for the factory temperature gauge didn’t work (and neither did the dashboard lights) and the sensor for the aftermarket gauge slung under the ashtray was tapped into the block drain, which never ran dry or heated up especially much. The car had been running fine, but began to ping and lose power, then it seemed like it was raining on my half of the windshield—that was the side with the working wiper; perhaps if the other one had been working I’d’ve noticed it was dry over there. Once I pulled off the road and stopped, the “rain” turned out to be blowback from the underhood geyser. Clouds of steam so big they engulfed the whole car and most of the 3-lane highway; it was boiling hard. There were a few modest homes not far away. I hoofed it to the nearest trailer with lights on and knocked on the door. Mrs answered and got Mr, who said “No problem, my ol’ Saturn has a bum rad, too, I’ll getchya some jugs of water”. The first batch of water flash-boiled into steam immediately it touched the radiator; it took lots of jugs before the water would stay put. But by and by it did, and I pressed onward with no further underhood fulminations, and with another tally mark under those sociology lessons I’d learnt at the wrecking yard.

I made it where I was headed, sometime between late night and early morning. The next day, the overheating shifted from under the hood to under the credit card. No new radiator was readily available, and I was on a tight schedule—which always makes it faster, easier, and less expensive to get parts and service, no?—so the one in the car went to Grand Traverse Radiator for a costly but extremely freaking necessary overhaul. Here’s the old rotten-to-the-core, lookin’ a little wavy on account of less-than-perfect photo stitching in 2009:

In the light of day and the glare of ownership, the car overall was certainly one of the nicer Dart Custom 4-doors I’d seen lately (or since), but…well…ignorance and luck and faith in old A-bodies had once again worked in my favour on that trip. If I’d really seen the condition of the radiator I’d’ve had doubts about making a 4½-hour trip. And if I’d seen the electrical, ah, “repair” I uncovered the day after that trip, I wouldn’t’ve made it at all: the fusible link had been replaced with a piece of fuselink wire (so far, so good) of too-large gauge (so far, so bad) with its bare copper strands crammed into the vicinity of the applicable bulkhead cavity and “secured” there with a drywall screw, the rest of which was a metal spike, right out in the open near all kinds of other metal—directly and unprotectedly connected to battery positive (so far so OMGWTF). The heat from that high-resistance cram-it bodge did a real job on half the plastic bulkhead. All that got fixed properly.

…oh yeah, and the turn signal switch connector was held together with a few kitchen-duty twist-ties, tied together. Um…!

And it wasn’t just the seat foam; there was a lot of degraded rubber and plastic all around the car. It had long lived in Kentucky and seemed as though stored someplace with a lot of ozone or something. With my main mountain of parts right there at hand, and some very good parts stores in the area (Thirlby’s), I easily ran up a pretty good list: new carburetor—another Carter BBS swap in place of the Holley 1920, like on the ’71. Renewed radiator; new hoses and thermostat and belts (replacing what might’ve been originals or very old genuine Mopar replacements); new front brake hoses; windshield washer reservoir; battery cables and hold-down; idler arm; trunk mat; shock absorbers (fancy Edelbrock IAS items replacing the car’s originals).


New headlamps, but of course! Only the best: Marchal H4s, with that glorious kitty cat logo.

The car still needed a heater core, wiper bushings, some missing paint replaced on the sill panels, trunk floor and underfloor. Still needed a heater core, wouldn’t be long before it would need a new exhaust system including the manifold (heat riser valve was broken). Bunch of miscellaneous stuff.

The spare tire was the car’s original bias-ply item. The four on the ground looked almost new, but they were no-name Chinese-made “Runway Enduro” ones. The FTS tire fiasco was still recent, and just…no. I’m not a spendthrift, but tires are on the shortest version of my buy-the-best-I-reasonably-can list; along with shoes, eyeglasses, and brakes. A shop in Traverse City provided a set of really good Vredestein Quatrac 2 all-seasons.

There was an excellent body shop across the street from the workshop where all the repairs were done, so I took advantage of the much more affordable rates and had the bodywork seen to: trunk floor closed up, sill and quarter rust eliminated, other stuff tidied up, a proper underseal, the whole car buffed and shined, all to a very high standard of craftsmanship. Even the spare tire well was clean and shiny as new when they were done working on the car. They put on new bodyside mouldings, terminating well before the front of the fenders. A bit of an unusual installation, but I think it looked quite fine and intentional.

A new reproduction right-side mirror was installed, too, the kind that’s manual but looks like the left remote mirror. This was a disappointment; it was poorly made in China, and its slimy vendor in America knew it—to the extent of suddenly pretending not to speak English or remember how to answer phone calls and emails. Also, as a small flat mirror all the way over there on the other side of the car it was substantially useless. But it looked nice until the chrome bubbled and peeled as the underlying pot metal began turning back into zinc dust.

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