COAL: 1976 Dodge Aspen – A Wagon Out of Wedlock

In 1976, my 1967 Plymouth Valiant was getting up in age and I was beginning to be concerned about its longevity.  Every couple of months, I was making 1200 mile round trips from where I was working to my parents home and did not want to be stranded in between.  Then this ad caught my eye.

I liked the Slant 6 and soon discovered that it came in a station wagon version.  I had always liked station wagons as a kid growing up, but could never convince my folks to get one.  Now that I was in charge of getting a new car, I could buy whatever I want.  Here’s the advertisement that got me hooked,

Sold!  I was living in a small town in Maryland and saw a Jade Green Dodge Aspen wagon at the local Dodge dealer.  It had a 225 CID slant 6, automatic, and better vinyl upholstery.  But it did not have air conditioning, a radio, full wheel covers, or a roof rack.  This picture represents what I bought in the exact same color.

Note: As I do not have any pictures of the actual car.  These were pulled from the Internet

Out the door price was $4200.  I had an aftermarket stereo in the Valiant that was relocated into the Aspen.  What I liked about the Aspen was that the cargo area had a low lift over and a flat cargo floor once you folded down the rear seat.  A  co-worker had purchased an AMC Hornet Sportabout, which was as close to the Aspen in size.  However, it had a taller lift over and the hatch was more severely slanted, thus reducing cargo capacity.  It also had poorer visibility compared to the Aspen.  The low belt line and the large windows made you feel like you were riding head and shoulders above everyone else.

Other features that attracted me included front disc brakes, the larger 225 /6 engine, the transverse torsion bars, and the standard electronic ignition.  The Aspen really did ride like a much larger car because of the revised torsion bars.  The interior included a front bench seat that was vinyl with perforated vinyl in the seating areas.  I thought that it might be cooler in the hot Maryland summers, but it was no better than solid vinyl.  I went back to using the same wire seat cushion that I had used in the Valiant.  The dash had a much more modern layout than the Valiant, but it was made totally out of plastics that did not have a good fit or finish.

Life was grand with my new Aspen wagon.  Then reality started to set in.  Although the car had Chrysler’s 12 month/12,000 mile warranty, it needed several repairs.  First oil change I attempted resulted in failure due to the inability to remove the oil pan drain plug.  It would loosen a couple of turns, but not come out since the plate it was threaded into in the oil pan was loose.  I tightened it back up and took the car to the selling dealer for an oil change.  They too discovered what I already knew and replaced the oil pan.  Then, the dreaded ballast resistor failure hit.  No warranty repair here because I had to replace it where it failed. Fortunately, there were still full service gas stations in the area and the mechanic knew exactly what had happened. I kept a spare in the glove box after that.

In 1977, I took a job with Chrysler Defense Engineering in Michigan and the Aspen was pressed into service as a moving vehicle.  It did the job well as expected.  However, the mechanical problems continued.  In 1977, the Aspen and Volare were the subject of 7 factory recalls to repair a number of issues.  Since I had purchased the car in Maryland, all but one of the dealers I talked to in Michigan refused to fix the car since I had not purchased it from them.  The one that did agree to fix the recalls did a poor job of it. There were two that caused some long term issues with driveability.  They installed a coolant temperature sensor by cutting the upper radiator hose in half and putting the sensor in with worm drive hose clamps.  You always had to keep an eye on the clamps because they would loosen and leak coolant.  Then there was a recall on the carburetor to change the accelerator pump seal.  The dealer took the top of the carburetor apart and changed the seal without changing the gasket.  More leaks to follow.  I eventually changed the upper hose and threw away the sensor.  Then I bought another carburetor to replace the one they had messed up.

In 1979, the infamous rust on the fenders issue reared its head.  Although I had continuously cleaned and waxed the car to protect it, I noticed some small bubbles on the top of the two fenders.  Then Chrysler announced a recall where they would replace both fenders at no cost.  Chrysler had begun its slide into bankruptcy and decided to maintain customer goodwill through the recall.  The dealer replaced the fenders, but the paint never completely matched the original color.  The car continued to rust in the floor, the front frame area, and behind the rear wheels.  This self-destruction was what you had to put up with at the time.  The rust would result in this car’s ultimate demise.

Other improvements I made to the car included installing a rear tailgate wiper, which was not a factory option until 1980.  I had noticed a co-worker’s 1978 Dodge Omni had such a wiper, so he let me look the installation over.  Then I took the plastic cover off of my tailgate and discovered that the Omni wiper would fit.  Went to the Mopar parts bin and got a motor.  One Saturday later, I had a rear tailgate wiper.

A few years later in 1983, I decided that having factory air conditioning would be nice.  So, I went to the local government surplus auction at the national guard base and bought a used Volare police car for $200.

It had all the air conditioning parts I needed plus it had all of the sheet metal ducting in the dash I would need.  I cut the car up for parts and kept the firewall as the template.  The car was a financial home run, as I sold the front clip to another bidder right after the auction for $400, the engine and transmission to someone else for $500, the rear axle for $100, and one door for $50.  Not bad for a $200 investment.  However, the desire to perform the firewall modifications soon became lacking in the next year, so I sold the air conditioning system to another co-worker for $200.  He did put it into his Volare wagon and it worked well.

In the early 1980s, I was buying and flipping used cars for profit (most of the time).  I needed a tow vehicle to drag some of the acquisitions home, so I installed a Class 2 hitch on the Aspen.  The largest car I ever towed was a 1975 Plymouth Fury wagon.  The Aspen did all of the towing without any issue.

In 1985, I had had enough with rust repairs on the Aspen.  The final straw so to speak was the rust out of the inner fender where the hood hinge was fastened.  I fixed it, but decided that I had to get something better.  When I came to work one day with the Aspen, another co-worker approached me about the car.  He’d seen it many times and liked the body style.  He’d been wanting a wagon so he could load fishing poles in the car and take his kids fishing.  I told him to make an offer and he did.  Sold for $1,000.  He wanted to make weekly payments of $100 until it was paid off.  OK, deal.  He missed a couple of payments and gave the an extra $200 for my trouble.  As the car was still in good mechanical shape and I had repaired most of the rust issues, I lost no sleep over the deal.  In the end, the car brought $1,200.

Whenever I see pictures of Dodge Aspen wagons, I want one again.  I made many trips in it including one to San Diego and other to the Canadian Rockies.  It had perfect proportions and was very practical and comfortable for going camping or hauling stuff.    I saw one in Santa Barbara CA many years later, and it had faded paint but was still in one piece.  I knew that to get a car like that and bring it back to Michigan would be futile, as the dreaded tin worm would soon devour it.  Not until Chrysler invented the minivan would I fall in love with a wagon again.