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.

By and by, I headed for home. The car ran much better (and cooler), and with those cat-vision headlamps I could see at night. Big smiles…until I got to the border, where there was some ugliness, tension, and expense. I pulled up to the booth with my window down and my folder of paperwork on the seat next to me: properly-processed US title, bill of sale, receipts for all the parts I was bringing with me and repair work done, etc. The officer in the booth asked what I was bringing in with me; I said “I need to declare this car and also some parts and other items I bought”. Officer asked how much I paid for the car, and I answered truthfully. Officer sent me in to do the import paperwork, so I grabbed the folder and went in to declare everything and pay the taxes—nothing out of the ordinary.

But when I walked out the office and headed for the car, another officer stepped in front of me and wouldn’t let me leave. Said they thought the car looked a lot nicer than the amount I said I’d paid for it. I once again produced the file folder containing the receipts for the body and mechanical work I’d had done in Michigan and explained that’s why it looked so nice. This they interpreted as my having attempted to sneak past the border without paying enough tax, and took away the keys. I kept my voice down and tried my best to answer their every question, but they were sure they’d caught a cheater, and there was to be no reasoning with them. If this was all so innocent, why hadn’t I declared the full value of the car and all the replaced parts and all the work done on the car when I first pulled up to the booth?! They did not appreciate my response (“Because the officer in the booth asked how much I had paid for the car, so that is the question I answered”). Nope! By concealing the costs beyond the purchase of the car, they said, I had made a false declaration. With a medium-sized mental leap I could almost understand their point of view; it makes perfect sense that parts have to be declared whether they’re under the hood or in the trunk—if the booth officer had asked “What’s the total value of everything you’re bringing in today” as they often do, that would’ve been the question I would have answered. I figured the detailed declaration would happen in the office while doing the paperwork, and they decided I’d guessed wrong on that one.

They asked me where I’d found the ad for the car, I said “Detroit Craigslist”; they searched and didn’t find it (because it had expired)—further evidence against me! They included not just the parts but also the labour into the total amount they reckoned I had failed to report: It’s a service you received, so it’s a good you received. This didn’t make any sense to me; it implied if I got a haircut, say, while outside Canada, I would have to declare it. Or if I were to eat any food outside Canada, I would have to declare it (and what if I go to the washroom after eating but before crossing the border…?). Or if I were to stay at a hotel, I would have to declare that because the roof over my head was a service = good I had received. I didn’t think that was how it was meant to work, but there would have been no point debating; the officer said it was parts and labour, so to get my car keys back I had to pay $1,047 in penalties. I have no idea how this amount was calculated; it doesn’t seem to accord with what the officer said, but the options were pay it or surrender the car. The car was even built in Windsor, eh! As the father of Canada’s present Prime Minister once said, God, you guys!

The officer holding my keys said I seemed forthright and honest—hey, thanks for that—and that I could expect to be closely inspected each time I would enter Canada for the next five years. That turned out to be true from time to time; once a few years later I flew back in at Toronto from a conference somewhere outside Canada and got sent in for secondary inspection. The officer reviewed my travel and documents and looked through my suitcase, found nothing out of line, wrinkled his brow, clicked keys on his computer, and said “Did you get into some kind of trouble with a Dodge Dart?” I gave a brief summary of this what I’ve just described; the officer rolled his eyes and said “You’re free to go; welcome home”.

Once finally back in Toronto, the car got a new heater core, wiper bushings, and reversing light switch. New (surprisingly affordable, very good quality American-made) engine bay wiring harness to excise the wiring hash-up. I fixed the vacuum line routing under the hood so the HVAC switched modes correctly. I put in a new headlight switch so the dash lights worked, scared up a working temperature gauge and discarded the hosey under-dash item, and did something stealthy about the AM radio so I could listen to something other than angry people being boorishly offended at the existence of other kinds of people—the same stealthy thing I did on the ’62 Lancer, but this time with a new set of speaker-equipped kick panels, too. I bought some original vinyl and had the front seat resprung and refoamed—much better.

Aside from the out-and-out repairs, I also worked steadily at making the car work better. Not so much with the grandiose upgrade choreography this time—I won’t say I’d apexed that learning curve, but I was fairly close to its summit. I kept it small and reasonable: the good headlamps. An updated ignition box. A 1975-type air cleaner with its quieter oval snorkel and a tidier packaging job than the ’73’s. I did try a set of artisanally craft-made polyurethane engine mount bushings—no foolin’; this guy does top-notch work—and they might’ve worked out okeh if only the shop had installed them correctly. That would’ve meant pressing the factory rubber spools out the steel shells and pressing the new polyurethane spools in, then installing the spool-and-shell assemblies into the brackets. Something got lost in translation or lazed in execution; they removed the shells, rubber spools and all, discarded same, and put the poly spools in the brackets without shells. Took me awhile to figure out why there was so much more engine noise while cruising on the highway; it was because the mounts had a bunch of newly-introduced slop in them! I put in a new set of stock mounts and left it alone.

Beyond that, I busied myself with mostly just relentless tuning and tweaking. Valve adjustments and carburetor adjustments and distributor adjustments. Many PCV valves look alike, but the wrong one can give bad results. I broke the one in the car while prising it out the (original) grommet when I did what might well have been the car’s first-ever valve adjustment. Rummaged round in the trunk, found a PCV valve in a Chrysler box, tossed it in, and everything seemed fine. But not too long later I found myself trying to diagnose some weird starting and idling problems. I took off the air cleaner lid and the idle changed dramatically; the air filter, nearly new, was soaked and sitting in a pool of oil, and smoke was coming out the air inlet fitting in the wall of the air cleaner housing. I was freaked briefly, until I remembered having swapped that PCV valve. I went to the trunk again, found another PCV valve of known-correct number (different to that on the first box), put it in, and the smoke disappeared. The replacement air filter did not get oiled down.

The ’73 was heaps better than the ’71 as a daily driver. It was a more pleasant place to be and markedly less irritating to drive, with its nicer seat and nicer carpet and nicer radio and 3-speed wipers with electric washers; better sound insulation; power steer and power disc brakes, and seat belts somewhat less primitive than the ’71 came with (though unitised 3-point belts were still one more year in the future when this car was built). I found a rural wrecking yard about 2 hours’ drive away with a ’75 Dart 4-door with the heated backglass. Ooer! That fits all Dart sedans back to ’67, including my ’73! I went and got it. Stored it, too, but never managed to install it. I think I might’ve balanced the convenience it would have brought against the risks and decided not to go finding rust and/or never sealing out the water again back there by touching a well-sealed backglass. The Vredestein Quatrac tires did a fine job even in Toronto’s winter. Here’s a weirdly slanted ice-stalagmite that formed under the car in the wind one overnight:

If you’ll indulge me a bit of woo-woo, I had the opportunity one day to talk with my maternal grandparents, who had been dead for quite some years. “I think of you when I’m driving my Dodge Dart”, I said. Came the answer: “You should think of us when you go shopping for clothes…!” Hi, grandma. But even without that extraordinary experience, this ’73 had a trick up its sleeve to catapult me back in time. In my first COAL entry, one of the things I described about grandpa’s ’72 Dart was the sound its turn signals made; at last I tell the promised other half of that story.

This ’73 Dart of mine had few enough miles to probably have its original flasher—no, that’s not why I bought it. The turn signals went “tick-dunk, tick-dunk, tick-dunk“. Not the same sound as grandpa’s ’72, but also not an unfamiliar one; it was the same as in all the ’91-’92 Spirit-Acclaim-LeBaron cars I owned over the years, amplified a little differently by a different mount on a plastic rather than metal dashboard part. That’s the sound of an ordinary Wagner thermal flasher, the kind in the round plastic can with the square nub on top. I pulled the ’73’s flasher off the back of the ashtray frame to take a look: Yep, sure enough, a round blue plastic round can with TUNG SOL cast into it; that company was bought by Wagner in the late ’50s and eventually the Tung Sol name went away. The nub was different: instead of a solid plastic square about maybe ¼” on a side—insert into square hole, twist to wedge in place, twist opposite to unwedge and remove—like the Wagner ones, it had a split-leg snap-in mount arrangement designed for the same-size square hole as the square nub on the later flashers.

Operated on the bench, the Tung-Sol and Wagner flashers sounded identical. I put the Wagner flasher in the Dart: ” tick-dunk, tick-dunk, tick-dunk“. I put the Tung-Sol flasher back in the Dart: “tick-DIZZz! tick-DIZZz! tick-DIZZz!” The hair on the back of my neck stood on end; here was a sound I had not heard since I was a little kid.

Over the next days and weeks of hearing sometimes the one sound and sometimes the other when I would put on the signal, I figured out what was up all along: if the flasher is not quite solidly snapped into its anchor, and its rotative position is just so in terms of how the various parts inside are orientated with respect to gravity’s pull, then comes that DIZZz! sound. It’s one or another internal part of the flasher vibrating when the bimetallic strip snaps, amplified many times by the metal structure of the dash. Turn the flasher a bit or snap it a little tighter into its hole, and the DIZZz! goes away. And the volume of sound also varies quite a lot, no matter what sound it is, depending how the flasher is rotated and put in contact with the panel it’s mounted to. I figured out the right mounting angle and onehow or another managed to secure the flasher there; from then on I smiled every time I used the turn blinkers. Because I’m an idiot, I didn’t record the sound, which now really has gone forever. Yay, me!

About a year after buying the car, in 2010, I decided to move it out to the house in Seattle. I’d sold the ’64 Dart out there and we were by then out there a few months at a time, so I had to have something to drive, and, well…yeah.

Bill and I got in the Dart and drove to Michigan; the Americans were unruffled by my brazen attempt to re-smuggle the Dart back into the States, and after a brief and cost-free bit of paperwork we went on down the road. Back to the top of the lower peninsula for a visit and another round of work on the Dart: a fairly extensive but not complete pulldown of the engine to replace leaking gaskets and such. Cylinder head pulled, rusty water passages cleaned out. New valve stem seals, combustion chambers de-carbonised. The cylinders looked fine; they still had visible cross-hatch. Oil pump lovingly blueprinted and hotrodded by famed Slant-6 wizard Doug Dutra.

Bill flew out to Seattle and I followed along in the car. It was a beautifully autumnal September’s day when I set out. I punched up my specially-made playlist and opened the wing windows and drove my Dodge Dart and smiled and spent the first little while of the trip visiting the 1970s:

Took some pictures along the trip, too; these two somewhere on Interstate 90 or 94. They show the original mileage of a 1973 car with a US (mile) instrument panel. They are photos of the odometer turning 50 kilomiles; anything else that may or may not be depicted in either or both photos is strictly by the by. Sorry for the blur; I did the best I could without taking my eyes off the road:

I have no comment.


Encountered this guy at a Conoco station somewhere in Montana:

We got to talking about beards, for some strange reason, and he said Jack Passion dyes his beard (»gasp« Scandal! I do not follow or participate in beard contests). Anyhow, this dude’s beard was way longer than mine. Also, I was driving a Dodge Dart with parts and clothes in the trunk, while this dude was driving a Honda hatchback with a giant machine gun of some kind bolted into the back.

The Dart did just fine. Used a scant pint of oil. Didn’t ping. Highest recorded mileage was just shy of 21 mpg, cruising on flat highways. Lowest was in the neighborhood of 15: long, hard climbs up mountains, running on ethanol-diluted gasoline, going from high altitude to higher altitude, and sustained cruising at over 80 mph up in the mountains. Engines lose about 5 per cent of their output for every 1,000 feet above sea level, just because of the reduced air density at higher altitude. This was a carbureted car without barometric compensation or feedback control of the fuel/air mixture, so I lost additional power and efficiency: the mixture goes rich as the same amount of gasoline is mixed with the same amount of less-dense air which contains less oxygen. I wished Montana were better about providing elevation markers on their highways; the only one I saw was 6,400 feet at the Continental Divide. I don’t know if any of the other climbs took me higher than that, but that’s 32 per cent efficiency loss due to reduced air density alone, so the lower mileage figure was in line. The car still wanted a new exhaust system; the one on it was small, restrictive, and old.

I did get to play a small assortment of highway games, honking the horn when its two tones—the D-sharp above middle C and the F-sharp above that—were in tune with the chords in The Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature”. And checking the odometer accuracy over 100 miles: off by 3.4 per cent, so I reckoned a speedo drive pinion with 1 more tooth would fix it. I don’t think I ever got around to it.

So I had me a Dart in Seattle. Very fine. I put a collector licence plate on it and drove it around. I caught it chit-chatting with a contemporary one day when I walked out from the post office:

I made some more repairs and upgrades, too: a high-current/low-resistance heavy-duty ammeter invisibly replacing the willowy original. A new set of rear springs to cure the A-body sags. Some upgraded front suspension components that might’ve been more at home on a car used for rallying. A set of ’76-up front brake calipers (2.75″ pistons instead of 2.6″) and good pads, and the surefire cure for the disc-braked A-bodies to lock up the rears—or, now I think about that, I probably might’ve done it shortly after buying the car as a high-priority safety upgrade. I put in a carefully rebuilt brake booster and an air conditioner compressor clutch with a built-in heavy iron flywheel to smooth out some of that V2 compressor’s paint-shakings. Here’s a pic taken off the roof of my house one Halloween, with the car lit only by the sodium streetlight just up the hill:

In 2012 I decided to sell the car. I didn’t get fed up with it as I had with the ’71, but we’d moved fully out West, with homebase in Vancouver, and didn’t need two cars. The car was a good bit scarcer than the 2-door hardtops, for over the years most of the 4-doors either got used up and driven into the ground—a family car for a succession of n different families, then an unofficial taxicab, then nothing left of it—or else cut up to make yet another 2-door car (Ooh! Ooh! A big-block sleeper!). Me, I’ve always preferred the 4-doors for their stronger structure and greater practicality, and I just plain like the design better. Also I’m a big ol’ rebellious ol’ contrarian who just has to go picking the other one. Fine, but when one’s automotive tastes are not in the fat part of the bell curve, one has to wait.

Finally after I decided to sell I put a new exhaust system in it, for the rattly old rusty old one was unbecoming. That new exhaust made the car quite a bit more enjoyable, but I only briefly got to experience it. I advertised the car and awaited a suitable buyer. Here’s a movie I made as part of the advertising campaign; turn up the sound:

If you’re sharp of ear and attuned to these things, you may detect the starter sounds a little unusual, like a familiar song sung by a different artist or played on a different guitar. There’s a good story there; I’ll tell it another time.

When I bought the car, it had 44,000 miles on it and was basically sound, but much neglected and beginning to rust. When I sold it, it had 56,000 miles and fastidiously kept in good condition. No rust. No dents. No flaws to speak of. Still had all the original esoterica in the glovebox including the owner’s manual, warranty booklet, first-ever inspection report, “Your Chrysler Man In Detroit” customer service brochure, and briefly-mandated brake performance disclosure. Eventually the right buyers did come along. In a bit of a mindbending role-reversal of countless used-Dart-and-Valiant buys over many years—including by me—grandma and grandpa bought one from relative-whippersnapper me! The car was just what they wanted: a clean, sharp, well-equipped, low-miles 4-door Dart. They flew in from several states away, took a taxi to my house, and drove it home to Wyoming:

Nice folks; I hope they’re still enjoying the car. They took a big cache of parts with them, including that heated backglass and its control switch, relay, and wiring harness. They left behind only the really nice ’70 Dart (+’71-’73 Valiant Scamp) rear bumper—interchangeable, but with the nicer single taillights versus the ’71-’73 Dart’s small quads. I took that to FedEx and they wrapped and sent it along.

This Dart reminded me of my granddad’s last car; that’s why I’d bought it in the first place. It was especially a time machine once I brought it out to Seattle—a car like the one grandpa’s parked in the other grandpa’s garage. I grumbled at the car sometimes, but as old-car-as-daily-driver experiences go, all in all it was quite good.

»Back to Daniel Stern’s COAL Series index«