COAL: 1983 Dodge Aries SE – Our First (and Worst) Beater Challenge Car


(This week’s COAL ride has been covered before at Curbside Classic but I’ve added it here to my COAL series in its proper order. So in case you missed this Aries the first time around or would like to revisit the story I have remixed and updated it.)

I needed a cheap but hopefully reasonable reliable ride for an event called The Great Beater Challenge. The basic premise is this: buy a vehicle and fix it up all for less than $700Cdn, then drive into the Rocky Mountains with a scavenger hunt along the way. What I found was this 1983 Dodge Aries K-car.


A member of a car forum that I participate in offered to sell me a car that he had bought but did not really know what to do with once he had it. It was located about 180kms away which meant a road trip and a second driver. My friend Rod, who is also participating in the challenge, is always up for a car buying trip was good enough to accompany me. I packed a few hand tools and we headed north after work.

The story I have on this particular car is that it was a one owner vehicle until a young person inherited it. They took it to a local mechanic in order to pass the safety inspection but were not interested in paying the bill. It sat outside the mechanic’s shop until the guy I bought it from had purchased it. He has a mechanic’s plate which meant he could drive it around a bit without having to register it in his own name. He also happens to be the owner or previous owner of many interesting a low mileage Eighties and Nineties cars in pristine condition. He had a very original 1989 SHO among others which we sadly did not have a chance to see due to time constraints.


I had a cursory look over the car and pronounced it good enough for my purposes. It was clean, had good tread on the tires and, most importantly, was cheap. These vintage travel stickers gave credence to the elderly, one owner story and I think give the car some extra character. Rod and I had a great chat with the seller who has similar vehicle interests to our own. Perhaps too good of a chat as it was dusk and rapidly getting darker as we set off.


As you can see it is a Special Edition which is the top trim level but more importantly worth a mighty fifty points in the vehicle judging section of the challenge.

1982 Dodge Aries 2

The interior is refreshingly clean for such an inexpensive vehicle. Usually when I buy at the very shallow end of the budget market the car needs several hours of cleaning to be inhabitable. You can see the cloth seats, padded dash, simulated wood grain trim of the SE trim line. It is not a loaded car however with manual crank windows. The seats themselves seem to straddle the line between a traditional bench and buckets by deftly combining the negatives of both designs without the positives that either would have afforded.


The Dodge Aries for 1983 was powered by either a Chrysler 2.2L or Mitsubishi 2.6L four cylinder engine. Thankfully mine has the (relatively) more reliable 2.2L making 82-84hp and 111lb-ft of torque when new. The engine could be hooked to either a manual or automatic transmission. Most were equipped like mine with the automatic which is a TorqueFlite A413 three speed unit with either a column or floor shift. Like several other American manufacturers at the time fuel injection was not yet on the menu especially at the lower end of the market. The Aries is saddled with an electronically controlled feedback two barrel carburetor that is often afflicted with driveability issues especially when the engine is cold. Suspension wise the front uses struts, the rear has coil springs and a flex beam. Steering is a rack and pinion system that could be optionally powered. Braking is the usual for the era front discs and rear drums. My Aries has 13″ rims with an impressive amount of sidewall on the tires.

1982 Dodge Aries 3

For the journey back the Dodge would be in the lead with my trusty Mazda 2 following behind.


I was a little surprised that no one mentioned K-cars in comment section of part one of the Challenge write up looking for suggestions. Perhaps that is because the K-car’s time in the sun as a beater of choice was a decade or two ago. The early cars in particular are getting very thin on the ground. I had previously owned a 1986 Chrysler LeBaron that was a fantastic inner city clunker but it could not hold its oil while on the highway so I was a little apprehensive for the drive home.


Only half an hour into the drive the battery light started flickering signaling an issue with the alternator. We had to turn off all the accessories in a bid to save every precious electron. The plan had been to trade drivers at the half way point but by then it was clear we would be limping it back home in the best possible scenario so Rod got stuck with the driving duties for almost the whole way. Soon after the flicking battery warning light became more rapid then solidly lit. It seemed likely that the alternator had given up the ghost.

As if to foreshadow a greater issue the seat-belt warning light came on despite the fact he was already belted in. It cannot be a good sign when the car tells you to buckle up! We resorted to even more drastic battery management solutions for the last leg of the journey. I suspect the added load of having the headlights on is what did the alternator in. If we had done the drive in the daylight we might have had no problems at all but I would certainly prefer to flush out any issue like this before the challenge.


Despite the mechanical setback the Aries managed to complete the drive home under its own power. Although the photo does not show it the headlights were incredibly dim at this point. I believe we had only mere moments before the battery would have been unable to keep the car running. I suspect if the car had been fuel injected there would have been no hope with the extra electrical burden it would have saddled the battery with.


While we had managed to limp home the Aries without the battery charging it really needed fixed. Comments by Rich C and Daniel Stern here both indicated that the car’s computer brain was more likely at fault than the alternator. Further research confirmed this to be a rather common issue. Rather than replacing a hard to source ECU an external voltage regulator from a Dodge pickup truck can be used. Sounded like a good excuse to head to the local junkyard.


The junkyard had a selection of five suitable Dodge pickup trucks but three had already had their regulators harvested. Since they are quite affordable I figured I would grab both of the remaining units. As a nice bonus the operator gave me a two for one deal so I snagged both for $10 + tax.


After studying the diagrams and instructions I temporarily wired everything into place.


Success! I just had to go back to properly protect and route the wires.


The car was treated to fresh oil and a filter. As you can see the front cross-member has been well lubricated by the engine over the years. Rust prevention like the British used to do. The murky looking coolant was also swapped out which is a job I do not particular enjoy due to the high likely-hood of mess creation. On the plus side the brake pads looked brand new so nothing to sort there.


I had also purchased a new timing belt but when I took the cover off the existing one still looked decent. I really need to look before ordering parts.


The interior of the car was actually quite clean when I got it which is a minor miracle for a cheap vehicle but I did a slightly deeper clean. Usually in inexpensive vehicles there are some interesting items to find. After I acquired my old Lada Niva I did not even realize that the back seat was missing until I cleaned it. I also found a pair of used ladies underwear and a few random tools among the trash but no backseat. The Reliant Scimitar I owned briefly had a FuzzyBuster II early radar detector as well as some very rusty horse riding gear. The Aries however had no real secrets to spill. The trunk had some ragged seat covers while the interior held two old air fresheners, two screwdrivers, one pencil and a dime. I like the older look of the strawberry freshener so I hung that one the rear view mirror although any scent it once provided had long ago faded.


I got a bit of a surprise when I went to register the car as I had been under the assumption that it was a 1982 but it is in fact a 1983 model. There is not much of a specification or functional difference but there was a bit of an awkward moment at the registry (Alberta’s version of the DMV) when my bill of sale said 1982 and their computer said 1983. After some subtle cajoling the registration process proceeded.


I drove the car a handful of times to give it a bit of test before heading out on the Beater Challenge. Ideally I could have been driving it to work and back for a couple of weeks. With the first frost the Aries started a little reluctantly and took a couple minutes to warm up. I suspected the auto-choke was barely functional or non-functional. However given my mixed track record of repairing carburetors I did not attempt a fix.


As far as driving impressions go the Aries is softly sprung and does not want to be pushed hard around the corners but floats down the road in a reasonably pleasant way. It sort of oozes up to speed with a rather mushy throttle pedal. You give it a bit of gas, nothing happens. A bit more gas and still nothing. Then a touch more and it downshifts, roars and slowly builds momentum. My fuel injected 1986 Chrysler LeBaron was no sports car but felt like it had double the power. I am not a stranger to slow cars (having owned a Mercedes 220D and Nissan Micra among others) but I was (with good reason) a little worried that I would be crawling up the mountain passes with the engine screaming in second gear.

We had a successful Challenge with a few issues but ultimately making it home ok if rather slowly. The whole adventure can be read below.

The whole series:
The Great Beater Challenge: Day 1, Part 1 – Off To A Slow Start
The Great Beater Challenge: Day 1, Part 2 – Rain, Rain, and a Hotel with Character
The Great Beater Challenge: Day 2, Part 1 – The Big Climb
The Great Beater Challenge: Day 2, Part 2– Finale

I suspect the engine timing or something similar was very off on the Aries. The transmission was leaking at a good rate and a quick look underneath had me not wanting to undertake that repair on a vehicle I did not really need so it was put up for sale. A young man bought it off me very cheaply as his first car. I actually tried to talk him out of the purchase but he was insistent that he could fix it up. Luckily I sold it to him the car for what he could recover in scrap price in the worst case scenario. I never saw the car again around town so it is likely this Aries did not get another lease on life which is a shame.

My whole COAL series so far