[My first time behind the wheel.]
(welcome to our new Sunday COAL series)
This starts my Cars Of A Lifetime journey. I’m not starting with the first car that I owned, but with a car that my parents bought. I’m doing this because almost all of my childhood automotive memories surround this car. It was the first car I every drove solo. It is a car that I called my own twice during its lifetime. This car was my birthright. In 34 years my family and I racked up over 360,000 miles on it. My COAL series begins with a silver Dodge station wagon and it also ends with a silver Dodge station wagon, but there will be plenty of others in between.
1977 was a big year for my recently married parents. They welcomed their first bundle of joy to the world (me) in February. That summer, they celebrated their first wedding anniversary. By December of that year, my dad made his career decision and enlisted into the Air Force. Since this is Curbside Classics, you’re probably more interested in what happened in June of 1977. That is when my parents bought their first new car, a 1977 Dodge Aspen station wagon.
My mom was working at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and had a 40 mile round trip commute every day. She drove “White Lightnin’”, a white 1973 Toyota Corolla wagon with blue pinstripe flames on the front. The miles were piling up, and age was starting to show. On June 27th 1977, that Corolla was traded in on a 1977 Dodge Aspen station wagon. The Aspen was equipped with the 225 CID “Super-Six” Slant-6 engine, 3-speed automatic transmission, Silver Cloud metallic exterior (with chrome/maroon side trim) and a maroon vinyl interior.
[original sales order when Aspen was purchased]
Being new car owners and with a new baby, mom and dad drove that car all over North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia visiting relatives near and far every weekend. My parents proudly tell the story that they burned through the 12,000 mile powertrain warranty before the 90 day bumper-to-bumper warranty had expired.
After dad completed Air Force basic training, we were stationed in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Aspen made many family vacation trips between Arkansas and North Carolina. Back in those days, the rumor was that the Tennessee State Police went off duty at 2am. We were driving back home late one Sunday night, and mom was behind the wheel. In the foothills, she would motor hard going down hill to gather speed and let off going up the hills. Crest the top of the hill, and repeat. Luck wasn’t on her side that night. She got clocked (80 I think) at the bottom of the hill by a state trooper. The ticket was written for 70, but was unable to confirm if the cops went off duty at 2am. The ticket was issued at 1:58 AM.
[Not our car, but how it looked when new.]
After a few years in Arkansas, my family was transferred by the Air Force to Barksdale AFB near Shreveport, Louisiana. The Aspen continued to remain the primary family vehicle, and in September of 1981 the odometer tripped over 100,000 miles. My dad’s car was a 1966 Dodge Monaco 500. The rear taillight was cracked and dad located one the next county over who was parting out a few “old Dodges”. Along with the replacement taillight, the Aspen received a set of the Monaco 500 wheel covers that stayed on the car for many years after. I’ve read that these wheel covers were very rare, only available in 1966 on the Monaco 500 and Charger only.
As a grown up, I’ve often seen the Aspen/Volare end up on many “Worst Cars” lists because of the premature rusting and how anyone who bought the 1976 models were basically beta testers for Chrysler. While our car wasn’t flawless, we never experienced any of the rusting issues or terrible quality issues that I’ve read about. As a toddler, however, I did discover a very unusual electrical ‘glitch’ in the car. When the key was in the accessory position (car not running), radio on, wipers on, and the hazard flashers on the windshield wipers would only activate for the duration of the hazard flash. They would creep across the window, moving about 5 degrees across the swipe, one hazard flash at a time. It took about a minute for them to do one full swipe.
[Original owners manual. Logged date when crossed 100, 200, and 300K miles. I still have this.]
The one big problem that my parents encountered was the transmission. The bulletproof Torqueflite wasn’t so bulletproof in our Aspen. The first time the transmission went out was in Louisiana in 1981. Dad took it to Aamco where it had to be replaced. Wisely, my dad also purchased a lifetime warranty through Aamco on the new transmission. The transmission was replaced a total 3 times in the span of 4 years. When the last transmission was installed, the Aamco tech in North Carolina noticed that the transmission mount had been welded in incorrectly. This put added strain on the input shaft of the transmission, causing the failures. The mount was corrected, that was the final transmission installed in the car. Every year, my dad would have to take the car in to Aamco to get the transmission inspected to keep the warranty active. I think the last time the car went to Aamco was in 2004.
[The “Foot” gas pedal, always with the car.]
With the move to Louisiana, this meant a new route via I-20 to North Carolina to visit relatives. At least once a year, we would make the 2-day trek to NC to visit our extended family for 2 weeks. My brother and I have so many memories of riding in the car on these trips. Our parents kept us entertained with a variety of car-based games, we never pestered with the “are we there yet question.” The license plate game. The Alphabet game. Cow poker (ask me about it). Whoever spotted the state line sign first got a quarter. We made that trip at least once, maybe twice a year. Each trip had us stopping overnight in Atlanta. The Gaffney Peach was always a real treat for us young boys. Oh yeah, and there was also Birmingham.
[Dad tearing down the top end. Hole in grille courtesy of an owl strike. Owl survived.]
To my parents, Birmingham was a gift from God. I saw it the other way, Birmingham was cursed. We had several breakdowns in Birmingham. One trip, the front wheel bearings went out and had to be replaced in Birmingham. On another trip, heading east through Birmingham the head gasket blew. We made it to a local auto parts store that was about to close. The owner was kind enough to leave the store unlocked for us so that Dad could use his parts and tools. He left us to lock up and pay for whatever we needed. Dad tore down the top end of the engine in the parking lot and replaced it. This is why my parents say it was a gift. However, to this day I never drive through Birmingham. The two times I have had the opportunity to drive through Birmingham as an adult, I chose to go around.
As the Aspen crossed 200K miles in July of 1987, my dad did some body work on the Aspen to repair a few dings and dents. My younger brother and I were spending the summer in North Carolina with our grandparents. Imagine my surprise when my parents showed up at the end of the summer, and our once silver car was painted a nice shade of Carolina blue metallic.
A year later, the Air Force moved us to Atwater, California. We made the slow trek across the west to our new home. Our first day got us to Odessa, Texas. The next morning as we attempted to drive away, the brand new Firestone tires were out of round and the car vibrated terribly. We spent an extra day in Odessa for four new tires (which would be our last Firestones ever). Later that day, we drove through the worst dust storm west of El Paso, Texas. A couple of days later we made it to my aunt’s house in LA. We spent the weekend there visiting with family, before turning north and the final leg of the trip.
[A nice shot of those 1966 Dodge wheel covers.]
I wanna say it was the summer of 1990 when I was 14. Mom, dad and I were driving back from the store and my dad took a turn and headed out of town. I wasn’t really paying much attention until he pulled off the side of the road. Dad got out and told me it was my turn to drive. I slide into the driver’s seat behind the wheel. It felt good to actually be sitting there, wheel in my hands. He had me start her up. The sounds were all too familiar to me, but the sensations were all knew. With the engine humming along, he gave me the basic instructions. He said when i was ready, to head on out. Foot on the brake, I reached up and pulled the gear lever down to D. I eased my foot off the brake and over to the big chrome plated foot-shaped gas pedal. The steering wheel had a lot of play in it before there was actual movement of the front wheels. I eased onto the road and got up to about 35 mph. I had little trouble keeping the car between the lines, gently rocking the wheel back and forth in the “play area”. I think I drove for about a mile or two before it was time to switch back. From that moment on, I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license and be out behind the wheel of my own car.
The new paint job on the Aspen wasn’t holding up well, and it was time to do something about it. This time, dad did all the bodywork but took the car to Earl Scheib for the new coat of charcoal gray metallic. The next summer, my dad enrolled in a community college class for upholstery. Each student got to select their own final project, something to reupholster. His chose to reupholster the front and rear seats in red cloth. This was much better than the red vinyl we had been sweating and sticking to for years.
The Aspen had always been mom’s daily driver, but that was soon replaced by a hand me down 1979 Chevette from my aunt. The Monaco was a very thirsty car with the 383 big block, so it was sold. Dad now became the primary driver of the Aspen. The old grey goose (as dad loved to call her) continued faithful service, exploring all over the great state of California. Before long, it was time to move again thanks to the Air Force. This time to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
When it came time for me to go to college in the fall of 1995, the Aspen was now mine to cherish and take care of. My friends dubbed her the Party Wagon. At least once a month, the Party Wagon would be loaded down with me and 3 or 4 of my friends to travel the 200+ miles between Las Cruces, New Mexico and Albuquerque. The car floated along the freeway. The worn out speedo gear would start a significant “bounce” above 60 mph. As long as the middle of the bounce was around 75-80, I was good. For being right at 100 hp (when new) and a heavy car, I was able to cruise comfortably at an estimated 75 mph. On Dec 15, 1997 I was traveling north to Albuquerque for Christmas break. After 20 years of dutiful service to the family, the Party Wagon crossed 300,000 miles. I pulled off to the side of the freeway, and pulled the owner’s manual out from the red binder under the passenger’s seat. I very proudly notated the accomplishment on the inside page. It was a moment I had been waiting for since the Party Wagon becoming mine. A few miles later (69 to be exact…. I was a teenage boy), the speedometer was buried!
[Crossing 300K miles. 69 miles later, speedo buried!]
I did a few of my own personal touches to the car. I pulled the 60/40 split bench seat out and replaced it with bucket seats from a 1984 Shelby Charger. Surprisingly, they bolted right up to the seat frames from the Aspen. Some red/black seat covers masked their blue/grey color. Dad built me a center console to go in between them. I painted most of the grille and the headlight buckets semi-gloss black, to mimic the look of an Aspen R/T grille. When the time came, I replaced the white wall tires with some white-letter BFGoodrich Radials to give it a little bit of a muscle car vibe.
[21 years later, replicating my first time behind the wheel.]
I had two major hiccups during my ownership of the car. The first was an intermittent electrical gremlin. The car would just randomly shut off, usually while in motion. Wind and road noise, along with the radio, masked the sudden loss of engine noise. The first indication there was a problem would be the steering would get heavy, power steering was out. I would coast to the side of the road, and usually it would start up after a few minutes of resting. Only once did it really strand me, and it started up after sitting for about 4 hours. This went on for about 6 months, maybe 4-5 times a month. I replaced the distributor cap, wires, rotor, 4-prong ballast resistor, alternator, and battery and it was still happening. It was finally diagnosed by a mechanic as the stator in the bottom of the distributor had finally worn out. It was estimated that this was probably an original part to the car.
My other hiccup was with those fancy new BF Goodrich tires and a very long, arduous road trip. A few weeks after getting them, I went to Albuquerque to visit my parents over the July 4th weekend. The drive back home was on one of the hottest days of the year, pushing well past 100 degrees. What should have been a 3 hour drive south turned into a 14 hour trip that included the sidewalls blowing out on two brand new tires, the car falling off the bumper jack and shoving the top of the jack into the taillight, a ripped bumper jack point, a flat spare tire, hitchhiking 5 miles to the nearest town, another instance of hitching (after the second blowout), riding in the back of a pickup for 45 miles, and an expensive 45 mile tow into the Discount Tire store that sold me the tires. After getting two new tires, never had any problems after that.
After college, the Aspen went back to mom and dad in an exchange for one of their cars. It became an occasional use car by my dad when the weather didn’t permit him to ride his Harley or when he went out to play golf. During this time, it was driven at least 2-3 times a week. In the spring of 1999, the tired 225 six was replaced with a rebuilt short block. When my dad got the Bullitt Mustang, the times the car were driven became less and less. Maybe once a month, if the weather was decent. We all still had a lot of sentimental attachment with this car. It became a running joke that in my parents will, I got the car and my brother got the house.
Around Christmas time of 2006, I got the call from my dad. He just didn’t have the time or energy to keep up with the Party Wagon. It was mine if I wanted it. I bought a one way ticket to Albuquerque, and my parents gave me the Party Wagon as my 30th Birthday present. The 800 mile trip back to San Diego went off without a hitch. The car still drove just as I remembered, and it smelled just as I remembered. So much nostalgia with me tied up in that car. I drove the southern route to avoid some winter weather in northern Arizona, only to encounter snow and sleet in Tucson of all places.
The Party Wagon wasn’t a daily driver anymore, but I would take her out for drives a few times a month. Guys at work and in the car club I was a part of really enjoyed seeing me drive her and talk about her. I had visions of a nice pro-touring style wagon in my head. Since I wasn’t anticipating being on Chip Foose’s show “Overhaulin’”, I went about formulating my plans myself. I slapped on a set of 17” Mustang GT rims (from my Mustang convertible) and that really changed the look of the car. I purchased a 1978 Town and Country wagon as a parts car from a fellow club member. The interior was in pristine condition (although the wrong color), and I wanted to replace some of the Aspen’s interior parts that had faded and cracked from 30+ years of sun exposure. I upgraded the front disc brakes to R-body police spec discs. Shocks were upgraded to Mopar Police Spec shocks. A rear stabilizer from a Chrysler Imperial went in. The exhaust system was replaced. I installed a center console from an Aspen R/T and converted the transmission from column shift to console shift.
Starting to look a little better and to handle a little better, but she was still running the the Super Six and 3-speed auto. The T&C was also going to be the source of an engine swap, it had the 318 V8 in it. As I continued to formulate plans for the V8 swap, I started seeing more resto-mods with modern drivetrains in them. Having that modern reliability, power, and efficiency sounded great. Of course, this would be more in depth and a more expensive. swap. Plans changed and now called for a 3G 5.7L Hemi and auto trans from a newer Dodge Ram pickup. The suspension would be replaced with an all airbag suspension. Once all of this was completed, then I would turn to paint, body, and interior.
[Mockup of my Pro-Touring Party Wagon.]
However, the housing market collapse hit us and we had to downsize. Moving from a house with an enclosed garage to a condo with a parking space put a damper on both my grand plan as well as general upkeep and maintenance. A change in the California registration laws (revoking the rolling 30-year smog check exemption) meant that every two years the car now had to pass a smog check. The first time in 2009 it passed. However, in 2011 it failed. No amount of tinkering that I could do would get it to pass. I registered the car as Planned Non-Operation, which meant no more street parking.
After a few months of agonizing, I realized that my grand plans for the Party Wagon had stalled for good. I totalled up the cost of just the mechanical changes (engine, trans, suspension, electrical) for doing the work myself, and that was a good chunk of change. This work would also necessitate a house with a garage (that we didn’t have at the time). Without this space and the ability to work on the car, the Aspen just sat and sat. Farming out the work easily doubled the price, and I just couldn’t swallow that pill. The time had come to say good bye.
I called my dad to find out if he wanted the Aspen back. He gave me his blessing to do with it what I needed to do. Even after making the decision, it still took me 6 months to pull the trigger. I finally called up the charity that I had donated one of my previous cars to. They came by and picked her up in August of 2011.
[Bye bye old girl. I really do miss you a lot.]
The Aspen served my family very well. 34 years of faithful service, and over 360,000 miles. So many memories are tied up in that car. My fondness for station wagons is all as a result of this car. Anytime I see an Aspen, I get a little pain in my stomach for my old girl. Maybe someday I’ll bite the bullet and buy another one to fulfill that grand plan that is still in my head. For right now, though, I have the next best thing (a C.O.A.L. for later).