COAL: 1991 Dodge Spirit ES • Let’s Try That Again…!

“Eek, a ghost!” That was the subject of an email I sent to my German friend Peter in November 2010 shortly after I spotted the ad for this car, for it was very similar to the ’90 Saratoga he’d driven several hundred thousand kilometres on the Autobahn. Even the colour was the same! Minor badging differences, US equipment instead of European, and details here and there that were changed for ’91—such as deletion of the interior fuel door release in favour of a cheaper exterior finger-pull.

Hitting [UNDO] on that ’96 Camry with the rusty fuel and brake pipes and faulty emission controls had put me back in need of a car, and this time I wanted one I was more comfortably familiar with. I found this ’91 Dodge Spirit ES 3.0 on Autotrader in Ohio, advertised with 16,000-some-odd miles. aWHOOga! A high-specs, low-miles AA-body? Er…yes! The seller had to sell it, he said, because he had a 2-car heated grudge, half of which was suddenly occupied by the new 2010 Corvette he’d won with a raffle ticket purchased when he toured the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The weather was getting seriously cold, so the other half of the grudge was occupied by his cranky-when-cold diesel tractor. The Spirit, therefore, was being kept in his neighbour’s garage “while it’s for sale”, which sounded like a borrowed-time situation. Nevertheless, his ask price was $7,300. Er…no.

I told him it sounded like a really nice car. He said “You won’t be disappointed”. Instead of saying I’d read that part in the ad, I said “If it’s near the condition shown in the photos, I’m sure you’re right; there’s probably not much of anything about the condition of this car to quibble about. But I’m choking on your asking price”. He immediately said “Okeh, make me an offer. I really need it gone.” By and by we agreed on $4,100.

The car was near Cleveland, and I don’t recall the details of just where, nor how I got there. The car was as described. He described how he’d bought it new from the dealership where he worked as a tech, and applied every TSB as they’d been published and put in the newest transmission fluids as they were released—ATF+2, then ATF+3, then ATF+4—and installed the updated transmission control module as soon as it had become available. A few parts that came with the car; the one I remember was a new genuine Chrysler muffler with tailspout and over-axle pipe. He offered me a new spare transaxle, as well, a fully up-to-date one, for an extra thousand bucks, but I didn’t have inclination or space to hoard quite that big a spare part.

This collection of shapes works for me.

Money, signatures, keys, etc, and off I went back to Toronto from Cleveland by way of Columbus. The weather really was getting bitter and the car still had its factory-installed tires, nearly two decades old. Keeping them would’ve been inviting carnage, particularly on the winter roads. I was willing to gamble on the original-equipment belts and hoses, but not those tires I nixed the Nokian Hakkapelittas I’d ordered from a tire place in Owasso, Michigan—would’ve taken way too long, and the Hakkas they had were new (unused) but old (made 6 years ago). Placed a web order and appointment for Michelin X-Ice and plain black steel wheels from Discount Tire; they were finished before I got back from lunch (25 minutes).

The export-import experience went considerably better than the time before when the Dart got seized, though that’s not really a high standard. Boy, did I ever declare every last dust bunny and chewed pencil end and gum wrapper in the car and present redundant documentation for every last claim! Still, the experience was only just better than the previous. To export a car from the states, you have to fax the title to the US Customs office at the border crossing you intend to use, not less than 72 hours before you show up with the car. There, you have to bring the original title into the office and have them stamp it as officially exported. The US Customs agent was a jackass: Did you fax the title here at least 72 hours ago?! I said yes. Where’s your proof?! I pointed to the second page I’d given him, a fax machine confirmation report as I’d been instructed to bring. How do I know this is for the title being faxed here?! I said “It shows your office fax number.” I can see that! How do I know it was this title you faxed?! I said “That third page there has the fax machine’s confirmation printout of what it sent.” Yeah, or it’s something you made on a copier. I said “Well, I’m out of answers. I don’t know how to answer your question.” After some more mealymouthed crap out of him, he stamped the title (This doesn’t look like a real title, it’s not in the system so I don’t know what kind of crap you’re trying to pull but I don’t think you faxed it here; good luck getting it into Canada, etc…right, so that’s why he wound up stamping it in the end and stuff.)

I got another interrogation on the Canadian side as to what I’d paid for the car. This time, I had a pile of evidence. I showed the Customs agent the printout of the AutoTrader ad. It says asking $7,300. You wrote $4,100 as what you paid for it. Why is that? I said “The $4,100 price is the result of my negotiation with the seller.” So if I go on autotrader and look up this ad, it’ll say $4,100, right? I said “Nnnno, it’s not like eBay where the actual end price is shown; this is just a classified ad with a photo and seller contact info.” We played a few rounds of that dumb game, then I guess she grew bored and dropped the stick: Okeh, I’m satisfied, go in and pay your duties and fees. Which I did, then headed on up the highway. God save the queen or something.

Nice car, as it seemed. Most all of the weird vibration had gone away with the original tires, but there remained a very slight shimmy on takeoff and at highway speed—just like every other AA-body car I owned. It felt halfshaft-y, and over the years I had one go at fixing it (nope) before deciding they all do that and leaving it alone. The headlamps, something had to be done; they were in brand-new condition, but lousy by design. There was a minor oil leak that sometimes put a drop of oil on the exhaust manifold—not enough to smoke, but to stink; I guessed at a valve cover gasket. A few of the controls were a little stiff and could do with a shot of plastic-safe silicone or something. Other than that, it was great.

Oh, and I’d want a different stereo. I listened to the “Welcome to the Wonderful World of Wonderful Chrysler Car Stereo Wonderfulness!” cassette I found in the glovebox (that is, I listened to it after removing its factory cellophane wrap). I spent the rest of the trip tuning up and down the radio dial, usually to no good result. So I spent most of the trip up to Toronto wondering what the hell I was going to do about/with the other Spirit. (a funny thing: the Spirit felt like my car within 45 minutes of my driving it away from the seller. The Camry never felt like mine).

There was some more hassle when I went to register the car; it seems the friendly, helpful Customs agents had been so pleased with the nerve of me, bringing in a car from away instead of supporting the local economy by buying one in-province, that they’d forgot, you see, to give me one of the two necessary clearance-and-tax-paid forms. Despite having a receipt, I didn’t have the form, you see, so I had to pay the tax again and apply for a refund. Which I did get, but yishk.

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