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

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!

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