COAL: 1988 Plymouth Reliant SE : Grandpa’s Legacy

Note: These are actual pictures of the car

For 20 years, my in-laws spent the winter months in Florida (October to April) to avoid the cold and snow.  In 1998, upon their arrival, my father-in-law spotted this car in the driveway of another park tenant.  He got all excited because it had a For Sale sign in the window.  He’d seen the car in the park occasionally over the years and really liked it.  He went up to the door and told the owner that he wanted the car and would pay cash.  SOLD!  He didn’t even take time to unpack, rather, went straight to the bank for the money.  He was now as happy as a clam with his new toy.

The car he had in Florida at the time was a 1984 Dodge Aries like the one pictured above.  It had a 2.2L engine with automatic, A/C, AM radio, power steering, and nothing else.  The windows in the rear doors did not open, only small vent windows at the back of the door.  It was carbureted and that was the reason why he jumped on the Reliant.  The carburetor didn’t always function properly, so he asked me to work on it when I came down that year for my annual visit.  I had three spare carbs at home, so I packed them up and took them to Florida as checked baggage (in the days before the TSA).  I picked the best looking one and installed it.  The car instantly ran better, so I told him to sell the car and throw the rest of the spare carbs away.  He did.

The Reliant had a 2.5L engine with throttle body injection.  Automatic, power steering, AM radio, A/C, and….all windows in all doors could be cranked down.  Although built in Michigan, it had been originally sold in Florida and driven there ever since.

Although this car had factory A/C, it was inoperative and the compressor was seized.  Most likely, it was due to the condenser leaking Freon without being repaired.  Freon likes moisture in the air to corrode aluminum and Florida certainly has a lot of humidity.  Dad didn’t believe in A/C anyways, so it didn’t matter.

The trunk was a generous size due to replacement of the full size spare with a mini spare and relocation to the back of the rear seat.

As you might expect on a Florida car, there was no rust on the lower extremities.  However, there were spots of rust on every horizontal surface.  I have no pictures of the rust, but the one corner of the hood rusted from the inside out.

During Dad’s ownership of the car, there was only one repair required.  During one of my annual visits, Dad complained that there was a noise coming from the alternator.  I looked at the car and determined that the water pump bearing was going bad.  Fortunately, water pump removal was easy if you removed it and the housing it was mounted in first.  Remove two bolts, the lower hose, and the alternator, and the rest was easy.  Refilled the coolant, burped the system, and all was well.

Dad showed me that the original owner had complained about a brake squeak to a brake shop.  He had the receipts showing that they had replaced the front brake pads and rotors to the tune of $600.  Yet you could still hear a minor squeak when you drove the car.  The brakes were fine to me and were never touched.

The interior was clean and comfortable, comfort being the operative word given that this was a K car.  Even the headliner was still intact.

One important repair I made involved the windshield wipers.  The old ones deteriorated due to the heat and so the wipers quit wiping.  Dad usually used the car to go to the market and the bank, so he would only drive it when there was no rain in the forecast.  I looked at it and determined that the nylon bushings were bad.  Went to the local dealer and as soon as I mentioned what I needed, the guy at the parts counter reached under the desk and pulled some out.  I think they were a buck apiece, so it was a cheap repair.

In 2006, Dad passed away and ownership of the Reliant was transferred to me.  Mom continued to go to Florida for the next two years and one of her friends in the park assumed the role of chauffeur.  After those two years, Mom decided that she didn’t want to go anymore, so we purchased the mobile home from her.  I didn’t retire until 2012, so we continued to visit for two or three weeks in February.  The Reliant would be our primary transportation when in Florida and it served us well.   Certainly much cheaper than a Florida rental.

The car had aftermarket window tint installed by the original owner.  I couldn’t stand driving the car as there was distortion in the tint so everything you looked at was distorted.  There were also many small air bubbles throughout the tint.  I always felt that I was driving in an aquarium.  When Dad was alive, I just put up with it as he didn’t want anyone to touch his baby.  After he was gone, I spent one Saturday afternoon removing all of the tint from the windows.  Much better vision.

One of the first things I replaced were the shocks and struts.  The car was beginning to bounce and wobble when you drove it.  I bought the parts on eBay, rented a spring compressor at the local auto parts store, and did the complete repair one rainy afternoon in the car port.  I chose a rainy day because you weren’t supposed to work on cars on site.  With a torrential rain coming down, no retirees were walking around the park so no one knew what I was up to.

Another major repair I made was replacement of a front wheel bearing, as one was beginning to grind.  To replace this bearing, which is pressed into the knuckle, I purchased a new bearing/dust seal at a local auto parts store.  They did not offer machine shop service, so they referred me to another machine shop.  It cost more for labor than the part did.  But it was a job I couldn’t do myself due to the lack of a press.  Since I had done this job many times in the past on flipper cars, I was able to mark the alignment position so that alignment was maintained on reassembly.

Note: Not the actual tire, but the effect was the same

Dad had purchased new Gillette Bear tires when he bought the car.  Never heard of Gillette tires?  Neither had I.  However, they were good for many years given that the car never racked up more than 600 miles per year.  Then, about three years ago, one tire in the front decided to give up the ghost.  I started to feel a vibration in the front and didn’t have to go far before the tire went.  At least I wasn’t driving fast and was able to pull off the road into a driveway.  The mini spare, naturally, was flat so I hauled it to a nearby tire shop to get it inflated.  The next day,  I went to Costco and purchased a new set of tires.  Problem solved.

Well, maybe not all of the problems.  On the way home from Costco with the tires, I decided to make some stops to do some shopping.  First stop was uneventful.  The second was not.  As I pulled into a parking spot, the brake pedal went to the floor.  The parking bumper prevented the car from hitting anything else.  I looked under the car to see if any brake line had ruptured, but found nothing.  Added some brake fluid to the master cylinder and some brake action returned.  Later in the evening, my wife and I returned to try to drive the car back through some subdivisions.  She drove the good car home while I limped the Reliant back home in first gear.  With little or no traffic, mission accomplished without incident.  The next day, I purchased a new master cylinder and installed it.  I had to bleed the brakes at each wheel because I was unable to properly bleed the master before installation.  Surprisingly, the bleeders at each wheel broke free with almost no effort and using a vacuum bleeder, I had the brakes back to normal.


The next year, we had decided to take our 2000 Buick LeSabre down to Florida to replace the Reliant.  With the actual mileage shown on the odometer above, I placed an ad on Craigslist.  The trip odometer shows the total mileage that I put on the car after the new tires were installed.  I had a number of calls and a 20 year old lady came to look it over.  She was in the process of getting her first driver’s license and didn’t want anything expensive.  $1300 is what I was asking for the car, so it met her needs.  She brought her husband along to look the car over and drive it.  He was satisfied and the sale completed.  He was also happy to buy her a car as they had a year old son and he was tired to chauffeuring them to all kinds of appointments in between his work assignments.  As we were planning to return north the next day, I gave him the spare set of keys and told him that I would park the car in the driveway and lock the second set in the trunk.  The husband told me that he wanted to fix the rust, repaint the car, and fix the A/C.  I admired his eagerness and hope that he was able to fix everything.  If you’re ever driving around North Ft. Myers, you might see the Reliant in action.

The Reliant was a simple and reliable car that served everyone well.  Low tech stuff with no digital anything in the interior except for the radio.  Always started and ran well.  Only had to disconnect the battery during the time when we were gone and to make sure that the fuel had StaBil added to it.  It was a hooptie from all appearances, so you never had to worry about anyone messing with it.  That was a big plus when you parked it at the beach trolley stop at the shopping center.