COAL: 1979 Plymouth Volare. A Fine Compact Car, It Was Just…..Compact

I’m a pretty big fella.  Standing erect, I’m 6’2″ and depending on the day, the time of year, or what I had for lunch, I’m somewhere between 280 and 290 lbs.  Now before you get an image in your mind that I’m a walking beach ball and a heart attack waiting to happen, and even though my doctor reminds me that I need to lose 20-30 lbs every year when I go for my physical, let me put my size into context.  I have a 21″ neck, a 52″ chest and a 40″ waist. I was a football lineman and a lacrosse defenseman in high school.  In my 20s, I was benching 325 lbs, dead lifting almost 500 lbs, and leg pressing almost 1000 lbs.  I picked up bare V8 engine blocks.  Into my 30s though, things started hurting and now that I am halfway through my 40s, and in an active career in the military and emergency response, my knees and shoulders are destroyed, I’ve had a hernia and my lower back is constantly reminding me that my days of ‘lifting heavy’ are over.  My workouts are cardio-based now, but I still like to push cars and flip tractor tires as part of my gym routine.

I tell my tales of size and physicality not in an effort to amuse or amaze you, but to put it in simple terms, that should you find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance of getting trapped in a burning building, under combat fire, or stuck on a sinking fishing boat, the one that’s going to pick you up and carry you to safety is a guy my size, not the 150 lb marathon runner with 3% body fat.  Ask me how I know.  The marathon runner is the Z06 Corvette and I’m the Cummins Turbo Diesel Ram pickup; horsepower VS torque.

What I’m trying to say is, I take up a lot of space.   And that’s a major consideration when car shopping.   The fun little sports cars that are often talked about here are nowhere on my radar.  I’ve driven many of them, both current and classics, and pretty much any Euro or Asian sports car requires feats of contortionism and upper body strength for me to get in and out of.

Even most modern mid-sized and smaller sedans are out for me; a recent drive in a friend’s Fusion reminded me of that.  In the modern spectrum of vehicles, since full sized sedans are all but extinct, that leaves me with pretty much full sized trucks and SUVs as my personal driver options.   My late model Challenger is a big, comfortable car but my wife’s Charger,  even though its built on the same platform, but with its much smaller door openings, requires more effort.  Smaller SUVs are out too.

When I was younger and more limber, vehicle ingress and egress was not the consideration that it is now. Classic compacts like Mopar A-Bodys, GM X-Bodys and even Corvairs aren’t too hard to get in and out of.  I had a couple of second generation Firebirds that were quite comfortable and easy to get in and out of, but their 30 foot long doors probably helped with that.

As I have written about before, there’s a lot of ’70s and ’80s “malaise”-era cars that I like, but the problem is that most of them are awful to drive in their factory default settings.  Underpowered and sloppy handling are unacceptable to me, so, as you have seen via my 1977 Grand Prix and 1983 Malibu, and my current work in progress 1984 Delta 88, it’s easy to “de-malaise” them and make them quite respectable performers, even by modern standards.

I always liked the F-Body Volares and Aspens; I think they are great-looking cars, especially the wagons.  The history of their design, sales and reliability has been talked about pretty extensively here so I won’t spend any more time on it.  Whatever their history, they were pretty thick on the streets through the 1980s and into the ’90s.

While I always liked the F-Bodies, and I like the Volare trim just a little better than the Aspen, it was never a car that I had to have like a Charger or a Road Runner.  Obviously, they were never the hot musclecars that car kid’s dreams are made of, and I didn’t really have any sentimental attachment to them like I do with some other cars, but I thought they were cool-looking cars with a lot of hot rod potential.

In my garage is a roughly 450 HP 408 c.i. small block Mopar V8 that I built in 2005 based on a 1994 360 Magnum that I pulled from a van in a junkyard.  I ran the engine in my ’96 Ram for a few years in an effort to make it a Lightning killer and it had about 25K miles on it when a lifter failed and wiped out the camshaft in 2012.   I repaired the engine but swapped the original 360 back into the Ram since I was never was able to get the engine, transmission and computer to talk to each other correctly and the truck never ran the way I thought it should.  That’s when I swore off building modern hot rod computer cars and decided to stick with what I know, which is old, carbureted engines, mostly built before I was born.   I did keep the intake, injectors, throttle body, ignition, computer and headers from the 408 and swapped them over onto the 360 and it actually runs really strong with those upgrades.

So, I pushed the 408 into a dark corner in my garage and for the next couple of years, I started casually looking for a clean and affordable Duster or a Volare to swap it into, and when it came to the F-bodies, the wagons were actually my bodystyle of choice, not just for looks and utility but also for weight distribution.  And so it was in early 2015, when glancing through the list of Craig that I found this sweet little ’79 Volare wagon just outside of Charlotte, NC.

The car turned out to be a gem. This is a picture from the original CL ad; I couldn’t get those hubcaps off fast enough. 85K miles from two owners, mostly from its original owner in Tennessee.   No rust, one repaint of its original metallic brown sometime in the 1990’s I assumed, when the original woodgrain trim was stripped and painted over but they left the chrome trim.

The interior’s tan vinyl was in great shape but a lot of the plastic trim was starting to disintegrate and wear down.

The 318 started immediately and ran great, at least as ’70s emissions-choked V8s go.  The original R12 air conditioner worked as did the original stereo and other electrical accessories.  The suspension was in good shape and the car tracked fine.

I made a deal with the owner, trailered it home with TBT, cleaned it up and got it ready for road duty as the latest of my classic daily drivers, while also getting it ready for the violent small block I had ready for it.

I thoroughly checked it for rust and filler by running a paint meter over the entire car; there was none and no sign that there ever was any; all of the body panels were original and untouched.

These cars were notorious for hard starting and stalling.  The Lean Burn system was still intact and worked as it should; it was fairly easy to start and never stalled.

I realized that mine was a ’79, built a full 4 years after the initial model year, which is a lifetime in the world of car building, where Chrysler had time to address the initial shortcomings.

I got it home and swapped on a set of 15″ Magnum 500 wheels that I had leftover from another car.  I ditched the Lean Burn system with a Mopar electronic ignition distributor and ignition box I had in my shop.  Like other malaisemobiles, even with a V8 in a relatively light body, the smog-choked 318 was slooooow, but the conventional electronic ignition woke it up some and the car kept up with modern traffic OK.  That is, if modern traffic was comprised of mostly Kia Rios.

I broke it in for about 100 miles around town before I put it out on road duty.  As a 1970’s transportation appliance, it was fine,  it ran fine and would get you where you needed to go, but from a driving enthusiast’s perspective, I was not impressed with its handling, especially compared to the GM G-Bodys of the same generation, and even  the earlier generation Mopar A-Bodys that these cars replaced.  The Volare was much more soft and wallowy.  The steering ratio was very slow and the turning radius is probably the widest I have ever seen in any passenger car.

After owning this original Volare and now an original ’73 Duster, I can say without question the A-Bodys were the superior cars.

However, what I didn’t plan for was getting in and out of it.  I’ve owned several A-Body Mopars but they were all coupes; this is the first compact sedan I have ever owned and I found that the door openings were just too small for my XXL frame to comfortably get in and out of.   Even with the tall roofline, I was always bumping my head or knees on something, and even once inside, I took up the entire driver space.  I remember driving it in front of a mirrored wall on a building one day and looking over and seeing myself taking up the entire front drivers seat area of the Volare; it looked and felt like I was driving a circus clown car.   I could just never get comfortable in it. And so, within a couple of months of ownership, and driving it with muscle spasms and a sore back that I decided that this was not the car for me.

See that big slab of white behind the Road Runner’s wheel? Thats me. Now imagine that in a car three quarters that size.

A few months after I bought it, I took a trip out to the Street Rod Nationals in Louisville, KY, about a 12 hour drive. However, a couple of days before the trip, I noticed an antifreeze puddle under the car and traced it to a pinhole in the radiator.  I couldn’t get a replacement radiator in time for the trip and there are no local shops that service copper radiators anymore so I took my trusty Delta 88 and its chocolate brown pillowy interior goodness and epic-sized trunk instead.  The Nats wouldn’t let any post-1980 cars into the show so I registered the Olds as a ’79.  Don’t tell anyone though.

I wound up holding onto the Volare for a little more than a year and put about 3000 miles on it, with no additional problems after the radiator repair, and it often got compliments.  I think time has been kind to the F-Bodys as many admired the car.  While they are not setting the collector car market on fire, nice, low mileage, well-optioned, original V8 coupes can fetch five figures and the special edition Super Coupes and Petty Kit Cars sell for respectable coinage.

That is, except my aunt, who bought the new ’78 Volare wagon that I liked.  I told her that I picked one up and she said, “oh what a horrible car!” as she remembered making many trips to the dealer for repairs.  But, her car couldn’t have been too terribly bad, as she kept it until 1987. Anyway, I sold it to a fellow who also has a penchant for ’70s-era cars, and I replaced it with my ’71 Satellite, which is much easier to get in and out of but I’m not interested in hot rodding it with the 408.

While on the prowl for a new potential candidate at the Carlisle swap meet last year,  I picked up this clean, low mileage 318 ’73 Gold Duster that’s just too clean and too low mileage to hack up for a big engine.  I have no problem getting in and out of it either.

Eight years later, that 408 engine is still in my garage, and at this point I really should just sell the damn thing or turn it into a planter.