COAL: 1990 Dodge Spirit ES – My Three “First” Cars (#2)

Alex Trebek



If you ask me to identify my first car, I will answer with no hesitation: A 1990 Subaru Legacy LS wagon. But as I give that answer, I can picture the late Alex Trebek glancing peevishly off to his right and saying: “Judges?”

My dad bought the Legacy—actually two nearly identical cars in succession—in 2001 for his wintertime use. When he purchased the first Legacy that May, I was drafted to drive it home from the dealer. The Subaru’s entertaining personality stole my heart immediately, and I spent a starry-eyed summer taking it everywhere I could, much to my dad’s mounting consternation. Ironically, my dad hardly got behind the wheel of that first Legacy at all; it met an early demise in a collision at my brother’s hands (though not through his fault), months before the first snowflake fell.

’90 Legacy brochure image: the car I’d rather be driving.


When my dad lined up a second Legacy to replace the first, he realized he would need a piece of automotive chaff to throw me off the Subaru’s trail. He found a ready solution from a much younger co-worker looking to unload his college car for a pittance ($750).

As I recall, my dad made no mention of this four-wheeled diversion beforehand, and then one day, it appeared in our driveway: a 1990 Dodge Spirit ES. The car wore the burgundy color (Claret Red) ubiquitous in early Spirit advertising. At first glance, this car presented a passable façade, but a lingering look revealed numerous rough edges. The trunk lid, pockmarked on top as if it had been through a hailstorm, latched but sat proud of the rear quarters, looking eternally popped. The airbag had deployed, and the deflated bag was simply hacked off. Consistent with a quick-and-dirty collision repair, Claret Red overspray was everywhere in the engine compartment. Numerous rattly plastic fascia bits did not seat securely.

1990 Dodge Spirit ES

Not my car, but virtually identical (though in much better condition). (Credit: Paul Balze)


Even ignoring the car’s shabbiness and trying to visualize it in 1990 showroom condition, the entire ES package just did not gel for me. The underlying Spirit’s dowdy lines and upright rear glass seemed kindred to the A-body Centuries and Cieras popular among my grandmother’s cohort, yet the excessive body-colored trim suggested “Euro” pretenses. The dashboard’s heavy rectilinear lines and upward cant toward the driver recalled certain American cars of the ’70s, certainly out-of-step with its contemporary competition—even many domestics. The more common base and LE models struck me as a purer expression of the Spirit’s true essence: a more refined Aries for K-car devotees.

1990 Dodge Spirit ES - Interior

Brochure image; my Spirit’s interior was identical. Except, of course, for the shift lever.


Snapping my mind back to 2001 as I stood in the driveway and took in the well-worn Dodge parked before me, I accepted it as graciously as I could, thanking my dad for his generosity. But try as I might to look on the bright side—after all, it was a car that I could drive anytime without asking, and it wasn’t a total disaster—I could not look at the Spirit without catching a glimpse of the Legacy behind. Apparently, teenage limerence can be as strong with cars as with other teenagers.

1990 Dodge Spirit ES - Instrument Cluster

Oil pressure…volts… John Davis is happy, at least. (Credit: Daniel Stern)


Within weeks, the Spirit endured a careless mishap that kicked it several steps down the stairway to heap-dom. Arriving home from school one afternoon with my younger sister in the front passenger seat, she playfully opened her door while I was still backing down the driveway. Her laughs were halted by a loud crack; the door had caught on the corner of our family minivan’s bumper, hyperextending it to nearly 90 degrees. The door’s sheet metal was deeply creased and the hinges bent; the door would close under heavy force but not latch. Discovering the damage after arriving home from work, my dad was as furious as I had ever seen him. After slamming the door a hundred or so times in a fruitless attempt to close it (and venting frustration in the process), he devised a solution. He had me lean heavily into the door while he drilled through the lower B-pillar into the front door. Then he sacrificed one of his punches, hammering it through the pillar and door like a permanent deadbolt.

Hyperextended Door

Hyperextended door; my Spirit’s damage was similar. (Credit: Flickr user Robin Kearney)


This incident instantly killed one of the prime reasons a 17-year-old wants a car. Imagine picking up a date:

“Hi Amanda…great seeing you outside of English class! Wow…you look stunning tonight! Yeah…that is my car. Sorry, but you’ll have to sit in the back seat. We can’t open the passenger door. Well, one day my sister…it’s a long story. Or you could climb over the console if you want…”

As if simply being seen in the car wasn’t embarrassing enough.

Social stigma aside, the Spirit proved to be a durable workhorse. The 3.0L Mitsubishi V6, common to so many Chrysler products, provided strong power, reasonable smoothness, and respectable economy of about 27 MPG highway. Of course like every such Mitsubishi engine I have seen, it both leaked and burned oil at an incredible rate. Keeping the crankcase full was a daily chore. As with all V6-powered Spirits in ’90, the engine was mated to Chrysler’s frequently problematic Ultradrive four-speed automatic, although the transmission was entirely trouble-free in my time with the car. The Dodge merely shrugged off the abuse I occasionally heaped on it, dutifully providing reliable transportation despite my disdain for it.

Mitsubishi 3.0L V6

Mitsubishi 3.0L V6 as shown in a Chrysler LeBaron. A voracious oil consumer in my Spirit. (Credit: Jason Shafer)


Ultimately, my reluctance to take the Spirit on dates sealed its fate. With my dad driving his fair-weather car through the summer of 2002, I stole the Subaru for many road trips and countless romantic encounters. Yet a foreboding prospect loomed: Winter was coming. The inevitability of my dad cutting off access to his winter car drove me to find some kind of a replacement. Flush with summer job earnings, I bought a 1991 Mazda Protegé that I deemed to be “good enough”.

And the battered Spirit sat in the driveway—unused, unloved, and unlamented. Then one day, as unexpectedly as it arrived, it was finally junked.

“Could I take “Curbside Recycling” for $100, Alex?”