COAL: 1984 Plymouth Reliant Wagon – I’m Sorry, What Was The Question?



Alert readers may notice that the above photo is not, in fact, a 1984 Plymouth Reliant wagon.  I confess that I’m fully aware of the difference between a Ferrari 365 GTB4 and a Chrysler K-Car.  Granted this admission, I realize that it leaves me open to accusations of posting shameless clickbait, but hear me out:  in fact, there is a tie-in, inconceivable as it may seem.  We will arrive at it, shortly.

The last installment of my COAL saga ended as our little Toyota Starlet (dubbed “the ****box” by a decidedly non-woke Chevy salesman) ascended to automotive Valhalla after a mauvais quart d’heure on Westminster Way in the verdant northern suburbs of Greater Seattle, hereafter fondly referred to as Tapioca Beach in homage to Henry Manney’s (of R&T fame) homeland.  The Starlet’s unfortunate demise left an empty stable chez nous (okay, that’s enough French), which presented me with the unwelcome task of locating a replacement on fairly short notice.

In our previous episode I also referred to my new employment at the Bertone of North Seattle, an auto restoration shop, run by a semi-legendary acquaintance who had abandoned his previous employment as sheet metal whisperer extraordinaire in Southern California because of its unbearable traffic and rising taxes, or so the story goes.  His reputation seems to have preceded him, the result being that any enthusiast living in Western Washington who owned a dented vehicle deemed to be somewhere on the exotic car scale made a beeline to his new operation to take advantage of his particular gifts.  As he didn’t have time to do everything himself, he added a disparate cast of characters to assist, including a very unskilled yours truly.

Why would he hire me?  In a word, I was cheap and I could speak fluent car geek lingo, which may have temporarily distracted him from my lack of experience in the actual fundamentals of automobile restoration.  I was a quick learner, however, and soon was handling a variety of tasks, from primer to basic paint, including my speciality, wet sanding for hours on end and then bringing out the highlights of a high-priced finish with my buffing wheel.  I learned the trade on objects of lesser value, homely VW Beetle convertibles and scores of stolid Volvos and eventually graduated to BMW’s, Porsches and the occasional Jaguar or Rolls.

Then came the day when a Ferrari 365 GTB4, more commonly known as a Daytona, rolled into our shop.  We all stood in silence as our 6’4″ boss slowly unfolded himself from the driver’s seat and briefed us on our mission for the coming weeks:  we were to color change the rolling automotive icon from Nero (black) to (of course) Rosso Corsa, Ferrari racing red.  This news resulted in a gnashing of teeth with accompanying wailing as there is nothing more laborious, time consuming, and all-around vexing than performing a color swap.  This goes for any car, but add to that the pressure of effecting the change on a Ferrari, and not just any Ferrari, but a plexi-nose, Euro-spec Daytona, that had (reputedly) belonged to Gina Lollobrigida.  Also, the job was undertaken at the behest of the local authorized Ferrari concessionaire, not some rich rube who wouldn’t notice overspray in his trunk and paint runs in his door jambs.

The Grail, or equivalent.


The pressure was on, and it ratcheted up noticeably as the days went by.

All this drama took place as I was confronted with the chore of replacing the family car.  Frankly, with all the pressure we were under at work, I couldn’t have cared less what I came up with as long as it ran and didn’t use up too much fuel in the process.  My boss offered to let me tag along to an auto auction, where I was determined to find a late model Volvo 245 with four wheels and no lit warning lights, but none was forthcoming.  That left the old reliable method, checking the weekend dealer ads in the Seattle Times.  I believe my credentials as a cheapskate were firmly established in our previous installments, so it will come as no surprise that price out the door was the chief consideration in the ensuing process.  I realized that given the needs of my family a station wagon would be in order, the cheaper, the better.  The newfangled minivan had recently been introduced in the form of the Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth triumvirate, but seemed pricey, especially given that they were currently the hottest thing since sliced bread with pricing above list still being the norm.  On the other hand, the minivan was essentially just a modified K-Car platform, so why not go to the source itself?

A Chrysler built compact wagon seemed like a reasonable if uninspired choice.  Even though the K-Car”s arrival was unheralded in comparison to the trumpet fanfare that announced the GM X-Cars, they seemed to be better engineered, even if somewhat dowdy in appearance, their chief stylistic attribute being a valiant (no pun intended) attempt to draw each and every line with a straight edge.  Chrysler Corporation would ride Lee Iacocca’s fetish for upright and formal styling nearly to its grave, but in the case of the wagon version of the K-Car, its box-like attributes resulted in a practical workhorse with loads of space.  It couldn’t match the expanded cube on wheels that was the original Caravan and Voyager, but it was also less pricey, and in those early days of Minivan Mania, much more accessible.

Somehow I neglected to check the box for the woodgrain siding…


A test drive revealed that the generic K-Car also failed to exhibit the vices of the comparable X-Car.  It’s handling characteristics didn’t frighten the little children, not to mention its driver.  The interior, while obviously not fooling anyone with its bountiful fake wood and plastic chrome, nevertheless seemed like it might last longer than the third world polymers of the X-Cars.  The 96 horsepower, 2.2 liter SOHC four was a thousand cc’s up on the Starlet and actually had some zip, at least when paired with the admittedly rare four-speed manual transmission.  Don’t ask me how, but somehow I managed to find one of those, in a Plymouth Reliant Wagon, no less.  The details are murky–of all the cars I’ve acquired, the purchase of the Reliant remains the least memorable.  The dealer was in downtown Seattle, but I don’t recall its name or location.  Once again it was a Saturday ad special, no doubt a loss-leader that the dealer was happy to be rid of as who buys an American family station wagon with a manual transmission?

But the woodgrain on the dash made up for it.


Details of the trim designation recede into history, but our Plymouth had to exist at the very bottom of the K-Car pecking order.  Its single option was a dealer-installed rear window defroster that lasted maybe a total of two years before peeling off strip by strip.  Otherwise, vinyl upholstery and an AM radio were the order of the day.  The front seat was a bench affair with a folding arm rest in the middle and a manual shifter threatening any passenger foolish enough to sit in center position.  However, even our base model had all that fake wood, which actually wasn’t the least authentic representative of the genre ever produced.  The accompanying photos are of a higher trim package, but the colors are identical to our base model’s less cushy features.  Also, as mentioned, no fancy stereo tape deck or air-conditioning graced our K-Car (who needs air-conditioning in Seattle?).  Still, the interior was two or three cuts above the ill-starred Citation I had contemplated buying only a few years previously.



Long story short, my problem was solved.  Our family again was graced with reliable transportation, so I could turn my attention to the other problem at hand, one Ferrari Daytona, which was coming apart piece by piece, screw by screw, as we airbrushed its darkness into light, or at least Rosso Corsa.  Now on a lesser car a multitude of sins could be covered with masking tape:  for instance, weatherstripping could be left in place as who would care to peel it aside in search of an original color on your Dodge Dart?  Our benevolent boss banned any masking tape in proximity to the Ferrari.  Everything had to be disassembled, carefully marked, and put away for safe keeping.  The doors came off, all the weatherproofing rubber came off, the trunk lid, hood, and fenders were removed.  The labor was intensive, but we took the responsibility very seriously as we could feel the eyes of history upon us.

In the process of taking the Daytona apart a few things were revealed.  First, it became apparent that perhaps we were taking more care than the original factory hands had managed.  As we dug beneath the surface we came to realize that not every Ferrari employee was a virtuoso craftsman, turning wrenches or wielding an arc-welder to Vivaldi accompaniment while wearing spotless white gloves and pressed coveralls.  For example, some of the chassis welds seemed downright suspect, as did some of the wire routing and plumbing details under the hood.  We were grateful we didn’t have to paint the engine bay as we would never have got everything back together given the chaos that sometimes reigned.

Don’t get me wrong…nothing in there was an actual safety hazard or necessarily under-engineered, but after all we aren’t talking about some vast industrial operation with unlimited resources set down by angels in the midst of the Modena suburbs.  Given that fact, the quality of workmanship could be described in places as hit or miss depending, perhaps, on whether it occurred before or after the requisite two hour Italian lunch complete with wine.  Nevertheless, that had no bearing on our task.  When the Daytona had been built the factory in Maranello was simply cranking out the latest production model while no doubt distracted by what was being put together for Niki over in the racing department.   Be that as it may, even by the mid 80’s it had become apparent that the Daytona might be the last of the great front-engined V-12, true sports two-seaters; it was already considered a classic.  Of course, we didn’t know that in another few decades Daytona coupes would bring in the neighborhood of half a million dollars or more, while the spiders would go over a million.  All the same, we very much realized that we were working on the automotive holy grail.

Does look better in Rosso Corsa.


The labor went on for weeks, then months.  I took photos of the process, and then lost them, along with my Dan Gurney autographed issue of R&T with his Eagle Westlake on the cover and my Phil Hill signed program from the historic races at Kent (all is vanity, the preacher says).  In due time, we did complete the project–the Daytona emerged from the paint booth resplendent in red after several bouts of wet-sanding with 600 grit between coats. Even the door jambs and the inside of the hood and trunk lid shone.  She was a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and after a trip to the detailers, the Daytona was ready to be delivered back to the Ferrari agents on Capitol Hill.  Who would be selected for the honors?  As it happened, they fell to me.

Proper motor car.


Now it is distinctly possible that no one else wanted to take the risk, but I was young and foolish enough to think that I’d won some kind of lottery. Upon reflection, though, it occurred to me that unless I wanted to brave Aurora Avenue and downtown Seattle, the only practicable route to Ferrari Central was via I-5, which even in the best of times was something akin to a war zone.  Repressing the reality that I was about to drive a car in rush hour traffic that was presently worth more than my annual household income, I scrubbed my hands, ran my hand through my hair and blew off the day’s bondo dust with an airhose.  Satisfied that I was presentable, I fired up the four cam V-12 and headed for the nearest freeway on-ramp.

Some notion of the concept of celebrity status immediately dawned on me.  Everyone on the road wanted to take a gander at the low-slung, very red car, which meant that they wanted to get as close as possible.  Cars were soon following close to my rear bumper while drivers in front of me touched their brakes to take a closer look in the rear view mirror.  Even the unlikeliest Detroit Brougham-mobiles slowed to check out out all that Daytona bling.  Somewhere along the way I remembered a story the boss had related about the time he’d taken a freshly painted 275 GTB out for a spin (‘to dry the paint’) and immediately crashed it.  He ended up having to buy it.  Assorted Italian exclamations came to mind in that moment, none of them printable.

Somehow, sweat running down my face, I made it downtown, found the right exit and managed to navigate the steep hills leading up to the Ferrari dealership without destroying the clutch.  I brought her home with a sense of both relief and regret as I entered a welcoming garage with all hands lined up to watch as I pulled in.  I blipped the throttle a few times for good measure and pulled myself up out of that elegant leather lined cockpit, realizing that I was shaking.  The Ferrari techs gathered around to take a look while someone, possibly the Commendatore of Capitol Hill, came to inspect our work.  No complaints were forthcoming…

More Ferraris would grace our shop in days to come, but none had the stature or impact of that 365 GTB4.  My next favorite would be a 246 Dino that belonged to a private customer, so no extended delivery drives were forthcoming.  I did take it around the block a few times, and occasionally I would sneak away from my assigned labors just to sit in it.  I came to regard the Daytona and Dino as my Ferraris…but it dawned on me somewhere along the line that the odds of my ever owning one were nil, and ultimately realized that was fine as the stresses involved in Ferrari ownership seemed to be a very high price to pay.  I’m speaking not only of the financial burden, but the emotional toll wrought by worrying every moment it was out of the garage that some idiot was going to run into it.  There’s an old account from a Lusso owner who claimed that he died whenever a fly came close to his car, once when it landed, and once when he checked for the dent it had made.  In the end that’s no way to live…

Pinninfarina’s finest hour.


Returning to the subject of the Reliant wagon (remember the Reliant wagon?) seems a bit anti-climatic.  Nevertheless, I must finish up our story.  We drove the little K-Car into the ’90’s and it served its purpose.  No excitement was involved, except maybe for the time it blew a head gasket after it had passed the 100,000 mile milestone.  I had replaced the timing belt myself some time around the 75,000 mile mark, a task probably above my pay grade, but successfully accomplished with the aid of a Haynes manual.  The Plymouth also seemed to attract bumps in the night–as I recall it was in the shop three times for accident damage, none of them my fault.  All involved mostly sheet metal, so no great harm was done.  At some point it was joined in the Tapioca Beach stable by a late ’70’s Corolla, the anti-Starlet/anti-Christ, but that’s an account for another time. By the time we said goodby to the Reliant, it was pretty shopworn, as  any vehicle would be whose chief purpose was hauling kids from pillar to post.  It evokes no strong memories, neither good nor bad–it was simply transportation, and I won’t begrudge it for that.  Not every car has to elicit strong emotions; I had all the exotica down at the shop for that.  In the end it did its job, and that was enough.  It was traded in for something larger, and much less reliable as it turns out, but that account will wait till next week.  For now, behold, the sun rises above the horizon and I must cease my tale.

Ah, the 80’s. Sean, Corolla, and Reliant in the TB driveway

Bonus feature:   CAR magazine (UK) photo: LJK Setright’s favorite Ferraris, July 1977.