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 somewhere near Cleveland. I took a train from Toronto to Windsor, caught a ride across the border to Detroit in the well-kept Aspen wagon of a noted Chrysler historian, and thence to somewhere near Cleveland on an over-the-road bus, which had to pull over because there was some kind of fault with the air brake system—it was very cold out and some valve had frozen or something. The driver kept applying and releasing the park brake, I guess trying to limber up the system. Eventually we got back under way. The car was as advertised, and the seller 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, such as 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. 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-Ices 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 (after removing its wonderful 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 taken aback 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.

This was the newest car I’d ever bought, in terms of mileage/usage on it. If correlation reliably implied causation, I could’ve said the new car caused me to become suddenly, ah, clumsy of recall. I got in it one day not long after buying it to run errands, and immediately noticed small but numerous rivulets and drops and pools of dark brown liquid all over the dashboard, windshield, rearview mirror, both armrests, both door panels, both front seats. Er…what? Some kind of giant water leak? But this isn’t water, it looks more like oil or…Oh. It was Coca-Cola. I’d left an unopened can in the cupholder under the armrest; it had frozen and blown its lid over the subfreezing night.

So I grumbled at myself and went off on my errands, and twice thought I saw small but definite wisps of smoke from under the hood when waiting at traffic lights. Nothing to make me think of a fire, just enough to make me want to look under the hood next time I parked. The third time, I was quite sure. I opened the hood…and found I’d left the oil cap off when I was poking around under the hood the previous week. Same song as when I left the oil cap off my Spirit R/T before driving from Michigan to New Jersey to surprise-visit my sister; in both cases the cap was perched right where I’d left it. This time I’d nicely oiled the intake and front exhaust manifolds (thence the smoke) and most of the rest of the engine. Find the good: guess it won’t rust so quickly, then!

The Coke cleaned right up off of everything with a weak solution of borax with a drop of laundry detergent in hot water and a soft-bristle brush. But c’mon, could I please try and be a little more careful from now on?

I picked up a metric speedometer out of a wrecking yard, removed the odometer motor, and used a canned-air duster to drive the odometer’s tenths drum at very high speed; its driven gear made a fine turbine wheel. I’d devised this trick years before, and it works great as long as you lubricate all the drums first with silicone spray; they were counting up digits much faster than intended. Yes, I rolled the damn thing forward, then back around to the correct KM equivalent of the car’s actual mileage. I put the speedometer back together and put it in the car. As to the radio, I’d’ve been happy to swap in the Chrysler Infinity CD-FM-AM-Cassette stereo which had done time in the truck, but that unit had gone away when I sold the LeBaron. So this Spirit got another of the same type, modified with a line-in cord to plug into an MP3 player or phone. The left rear door speaker was a little buzzy; I never fixed it.

In January 2011, I drove down to Detroit to cover the auto show. Eventually having taken all the pictures I needed, I had about half an hour before a meeting, so I thought I’d go back across the street to the parkade and get something out the car that I needed to send in a FedEx box. I left –Cobo Center– TCF Center by one of the side doors. Across the sidewalk from the base of the steps was a man half-kneeling/half-sitting, rocking back and forth in the bitter cold. He had a crude patch, long overdue for changing, over one eye and a “Please help thank you” sign in his hands. There was an empty cup in front of him. He wasn’t speaking to anyone, or getting in anybody’s way. He was crouched between a signpost and a bollard; nobody walks there.

I’d left my coat at the coat check inside, for I was only going across the street. Bad decision; a short walk, but a knifingly cold one. On the way back, I stopped at the crouching man, looked him in the eye and said “Sir, can I buy you something to eat?” He said “If you’d like to, that’d be great, thanks.” I said “What would you like? Sandwich or something?” He said “Sure…er…actually, a coffee would be even better.” I said “Yup, what do you take?” Cream and sugar.

I went in and bought a large coffee with cream and sugar, wrapped the change around it, grabbed a napkin, and brought it all out to him. Introduced myself. His name was Todd. We talked for a minute or so and then he said “Upp…here comes a cop. I’ll have to go.” Sure enough, the cop came over. How long were you planning on staying here? Todd said “I was just leaving, Officer.” What a good idea! Did you think of that all by yourself? You can’t be impeding pedestrians. I said “Officer, he didn’t get in my way, or even speak to me. He looked cold, so I bought him that coffee.” Well, you’re talking to him now, aren’tchya? That means he’s impeding a pedestrian. It doesn’t pay to be nice here. Where are you from? I said “Toronto.” Yeah, well, we do things differently here. If you don’t like it, you can apply to be a Detroit cop. I said “Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like I was telling you how to do your job.” He turned and said, mostly to Todd but partly to me, Yeh. So you were just leaving, you said. If I come back around and you’re still here, somebody’s getting a ticket or going to jail. A couple hours later when I left the building again, that time for the day, Todd was back in the same place. I talked with him for a couple minutes, keeping an eye out for cops. He said there was a program for homeless people to get canned food, but that time of year it freezes so they can’t eat it. Somebody had brought some kerosene heaters, so now those who got one could eat when they got canned food. Presumably they could also be marginally less likely to freeze to death.

I get it: gotta maintain the illusion of universally accessable prosperity and keep the icky poor people out of sight, just like it says in the Bible. It just really bothered the hell out of me, especially having just come from a glitzy press conference where ultra-wealthy auto execs prattled on about how Detroit is a great city that keeps its chin up through the hard times and blah blahbitty blah blah blah. This came back to mind, in Technicolor Imax Surround Sound, years later when Chrysler ran that imported-from-Detroit ad.

The following Spring, a bit of electrical weirdness cropped up in the car, now with all of about 18,000 miles on it. I hopped in, turned the key…silence from the starter. Fuel pump whirred, headlamps were as bright as they ever got; everything else electrical worked fine, just no crank. I ran the shifter from P through to L a few times, tried leaving it in N…still no crank. At 11pm, it was windy and cold, but this was really bothering me. I grabbed some paper clips and went out to the car. Unplugged the starter relay, used the paper clips to jumper across the № 30 and № 87 slots: starter cranked briskly. With the ignition switched on and a repeat of the paper clip pokery, the engine started immediately. Starter was fine. I put my multimeter to work: continuity from the № 85 slot to ground with shifter in P or N and no continuity there in any other shift position: neutral safety switch was fine. Plugged a spare relay onto the socket, still no crank: relay’s fine.

No continuity between № 86 slot and battery + with key in Start position, so it looked like it was the ignition switch or the wiring from the ignition switch to the starter relay. Whee! I gave up for the night and went in to thaw my frozen hands, which reminded me of that adventure cold-cold-starting the ’62 Lancer two decades before.

When the sun came up, the goose chase resumed. With lots of improvisation, for most of my tools were in Seattle, just out of arm’s reach from Toronto.

I’d need a tamperproof Torx bit to take apart the steering column and get at the ignition switch, so I went to Brafasco. What size do I need? Mm…good question. Donno, BRB. I figured I’d just remove the upper and lower column covers and take a look, right? Wrong. The covers are held on by three screws, one of which was accessble in the centre of the bottom cover. The other two were deeply recessed in tunnels of much too small diameter to accept anything but a thin-shank Torx driver or key. Not a driver bit on any kind of an extension. Back at the Brafasco count: No, they don’t have those. Used to, but not any more. Round the corner to Fastenal: No, they don’t have those. Used to, but not any more. No, they don’t have tamperproof Torx driver bits, either. Try Canadian Tire for the thin-shank Torx keys.

Back to Brafasco. Donno what size driver bit I need; sell me tamperproof T15, T20, and T25. Most of fifteen bucks later, I went back out to the car and—as I’d been doing since the Friday before—turned the key to “On”, popped the hood, and applied an unbent paper clip across slots 30 and 87 of the start relay’s socket to start the engine. Hood closed and up the road to Crappy Tire, took my choice from three different and equally shoddy sets of Chinese “star-shaped drivers” (guess you can’t say Torx if they’re not good enough).

Then across to Motorcade for a new ignition switch and some other parts: a new distributor cap and six of my favorite NGK ZFR5N projected-electrode spark plugs (previously show-‘n’-told here); I used them in so many off-label applications—pre-’75 Slant-6s, the 318 in my truck, the 273 in my ’64 Dart, the 2.5 in my ’92 LeBaron—and wanted to see whether they were 3.0-compatible, too.

Got home, took apart the steering column, removed the ignition switch and key cylinder as an assembly, put my continuity meter across the main input terminal and the starter relay output terminal, and turned the key to Start; the meter went “BEEEEEEEEEP!”. Tried it again. Same result, so nothing was the matter with the old switch. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that hunch, anyhow; I’d owned enough vehicles with this switch to consider it quite reliable.

Put one meter probe on the yellow (starter relay feed) wire at the ignition switch connector, other probe at the other end of the same wire at the starter relay socket: “BEEEEEEEEEEEP!” Um…okeh, then why wouldn’t the car crank? I put the (original) ignition switch back in, turned the key and the engine cranked and started flawlessly. Did it again a few times with the same result. Okeh, now the car was just messing with me.

Went back under the hood and had a closer look at the starter relay wiring harness. Yep, my second hunch was correct: it was an IPO problem. Idjit Previous Owner hacked in an alarm, and sure enough, the starter circuit had been…behaved upon. Some dodgy (ahem) looking splices into the yellow wire, covered up by sticky electrical tape. I’d have to get in there with a proper splice connector and repair the vandalism (and finish removing the alarm); until then I tossed some spare paper clips in the ash tray.

I replaced the 20-year-old original black distributor cap with its aluminum terminals with the new blue one with brass. Took out one of the spark plugs: a poor-quality original-equipment Champion, but the firing end looked good, so things were happy in combustionsville. Threaded one of the NGKs in, cranked the engine, removed the NGK: zero evidence of piston contact. Very fine; in went six of my favourite long-electrode NGK spark plugs.

Bill got a chuckle or three out of sitting in the passenger seat while I, complete with leather jacket, septum tusk and the rest of it, poked around under the hood hotwiring the car—in one case within sight distance of a police officer; that time reckoned me the chuckles would come to an abrupt halt sooner or later. I saw to the restoration of the starter circuit, and while I was at it I installed a daytime running light module.

In Autumn 2011, we pulled up stakes and moved from Ontario to British Columbia. Bill flew out, and I followed along in the car. I took a route through the States, for I had some work-related stops to make in Wisconsin. That’s a vague way of describing factory visits at Harley-Davidson (not a religious experience for me; I don’t ride) and JW Speaker (high-tech headlamps made in a sparkling factory in the middle of cornfields). My first stop, though, was in Northern Michigan. A favourite shop there made the car ready for a transcontinental run: leaky halfshaft seal replaced at the transaxle end (for the first of several times; I never figured out why), loose hose clamps seen to, Koni shuts and strocks installed that I’d managed to find on eBay; they were no longer in production. The tech noticed some advanced-and-advancing corrosion of the radiator at the lower right rear corner and said I’d be due for a replacement soon.

The car made it out west just fine. I was overcookin’ it a little on a substantially empty highway in a substantially empty state—130 km/h was at that time the world’s most common motorway speed limit, or so I’d been given to believe—and a trooper pounced from the median. I pulled over straightaway. The officer noted my Ontario plates and metric speedometer, said “cool it a little”, and sent me on my way.

By and by, I began smelling coolant when I’d walk past the front of the parked car; “soon”, as the shop in Michigan had said, appeared to be coming, well, soon. Here are pics of the original radiator I removed:

Entire rows of fins had gone missing, crumbled to powdery cupric or cuprous oxide. Yee! If I’d been running ordinary pressurised coolant, this rad would’ve finished corroding, gone BOOM, slicked down the roadway, and stranded me long before. But I was running waterless coolant, which operates at atmospheric pressure. That gave me months of I-smell-coolant warning time to procrastinate; order a new radiator; send it back (RockAuto wanted to argue) because instead of the name-brand item I ordered they sent a pathetic radiator-shaped trinket from some no-account Chinese factory; procure a real OE Valeo radiator; procrastinate, and install it. Which I did. Not such an awful job, but I did notice that every time I did a car repair job, I moved a leetle closer to wanting never to do another.

I countervailed that drudgery with a fun experiment: these cars tend to have very swingy engine temperature gauges up and down within the normal range, and I wanted to see if I could even that out a little. I dug around in various books and bulletins and cattledogs and came up with an interesting 2-stage thermostat, a TSB part for Toyota 22RE engines. The main valve is over towards one edge of the plate, to make room for a smaller second valve meant to open at a slightly lower temperature. Plate diameter and main-valve temperature rating were the same as the factory item in my Mitsu motor, so…sure, let’s give it a try! Only problem was a vertical wall in the thermostat well, which wouldn’t clear the underside of the Toyota item. Someone made me a spacer out of aluminum, and with an extra thermostat gaskets and some longer bolts everything fit together fine. The temperature gauge got much less indecisive, so yay.

I did some other experiments, too. Hey, take a look at How to make a turn signal flasher in many, many steps! Here’s the abstract from the linked patent, and the actual flasher:

I found, for $6 or so, such a flasher on eBay. I think it was a Dietz like this one, and I bought it because I’d never seen one like it. Will you excuse me just a second?

»grabs at the rubber band around my wrist, snaps it«

Where was I? Oh, right: when it arrived, I wired it to an appropriate lamp load and found I liked the flash pattern—a longer “on” than “off” time in the duty cycle—and it made an odd and interesting sort of clockwork noise: zzzzCLICK! zzzzCLICK! zzzzCLICK! The case was made of almost-transparent plastic imprinted with a patent number, and I could see what looked like clockworks in there, so I looked up the patent. Wow! We don’t do it this way any more, we use electronics, so this was nifty. I put it in the car and chuckled at the idiosyncratic asynchrony of the zzzzCLICK with the dashboard telltale. Sometimes it takes little to tickle me.

I found and installed a NOS correct 1991 3.0 AA-body European-spec engine control module; it worked fine, but the engine didn’t seem to run much differently. There might’ve been a tetch better light-throttle driveability, or it might’ve been my imagination.

There were upgrades, that worked noticeably, though. Good nearly-invisible window tint (Llumar Air) to boost the efficacy of the air conditioner; that worked very well. I put in a stout rear sway bar to bolster the weepy crack-prone factory item. I put in European-spec headlamps with good wiring—new lamps were long discontinued, so I had to settle for fairly good used ones. As with every other set of European-spec AA-body headlamps I installed over the years, they were markedly better on high beam, objectively just differently lousy than the American-spec headlamps on low beam, and I found the European lamps’ lousiness less obnoxious. I also put in the European-spec sideview mirrors (larger and spring-hinged rather than rigidly mounted).

Couldn’t get the better European seat belts any more, and I guess I’d better change topics before I tell about finding a listing on German eBay for a Schlachtfest (part-out) of a Saratoga and buying and shipping all the glass except the windshield, with the idea of swapping it all in to get the better European-spec glass. What can I say? For many people, recovery from any compulsive condition is a process that involves relapses. Fortunately I saw the folly and never actually swapped the perfectly intact US glass out the car; the expensively-shipped glass wound up in a dumpster before we left Toronto.

I did improve the charging system. The car came with a Bosch 40/90-amp alternator (they also came with 40/90 Nippondenso alternators; it was what happened to be in the house when any particular engine assembly got put together). Line voltage was lower at idle, which kind of amazed me—wow, correctly-operating cars still do this in 1991? I mean, it wasn’t anywhere near so extreme as the ’60s-’70s Chrysler cars, but it was noticeable enough to be noticeable. A friend of mine is a…well, he’s…okeh, y’know how I’m the guy for “Oh, yeah, that kind of parking light was used only in the Principality of Monaco between June 1963 and February 1964”, and all that? This guy is like that, but for starters and alternators. He told me a PT Cruiser Turbo alternator would drop right on with a connector plug and a pulley swap to one with the correct number of grooves (4 instead of 5? 5 instead of 6? Something like that). A 136-amp Denso item with a much more efficient stator winding technique to pack more live copper and less dead air in a given cross-sectional area. I surely didn’t imagine needing any extra current capacity, but that and the alternator’s other features gave me a warm fuzzy. I found such an alternator and the right pulley, on they went, and no more line voltage droop at idle.

Water was getting into the car…somehow. We couldn’t figure it out, but kept finding the carpet soaked in or after wet conditions. I found a shop here in Vancouver (well, Burnaby, I think) specialised in fixing car body leaks. They had all kinds of armatures and nozzles for directing a big variety of water sprays at at a big range of heights, angles, etc. They tracked the leak to the vapour barrier on the right front door: that sheet of plastic film between the door card and the door itself. Someone had been in the door (don’t think I was he, but maybe) and hadn’t retaped the bottom of the film to the sheetmetal. Water raining down from the glass and splashing up from the drains was entering the car. The barrier was replaced and retaped and the leak ceased.

At around 60,000 km, the car’s original muffler was beginning to go soft; I could dig into some corroded spots with a screwdriver, and it shook audibly (muffler dust/chips and chunks inside) when I would kick the tailpipe. I think ’91 was the last year before stainless, which would explain the spare part the dealer-tech original owner had bought and stashed and included with the car’s sale to me. There was a bit of a resonant growl at idle, and a palm clapped over the end of the tailpipe wouldn’t be forced off by the exhaust pressure. Twenty-two years is a long time for non-stainless exhaust parts to last. I found a well-liked exhaust shop; guy had been at it for years: You’re welcome to watch me work. There are two rules: only one of us under the car at a time, and if you get hurt it’s your fault, plus handshake.

I have long maintained that art is everywhere. Among the examples I frequently cite are the skillful, talented exhaust builder who can peer at two pipes at odd angles with a large gap between them, then go over to the machine and bend up a suitable pipe that fits the first time. I’d bought and brought a new resonator, too; the one on the car was fine, but the pipe between it and the over-axle pipe had cracked along its seam and at a hanger weld. Easiest, fastest, and therefore cheapest to replace everything. The new pipes were at least as tidy as the factory fitment, and on all the original hangers. Exhaust guy was friendly enough to humour my request to cut open the old muffler. Entropy:

Plus, the catalytic converter was developing a rattle at certain engine speeds; despite the low miles the wraps failed so the bricks were rattling around in the shell. I rejected the common aftermarket units which need meet only a pathetic 25-kmile durability test and have only a small fraction of the catalyst load found in an OE converter. Instead I hunted up a California converter; these have to pass much more stringent function and durability tests and they have to be type-approved by the California Air Resources Board. They have a much higher catalyst load, equivalent to OE. I went back to the same shop and in went the new cat. At the same time I had the headpipe wrapped with thermal barrier to get the converter up to temp faster and keep it there during periods of prolonged idling. Necessary? Obviously not. Beneficial? Who knows? The car never flunked an emissions test; all in all it got quieter, cleaner, and safer.

It was brought to my attention by a Seattle shop I had long trusted—grandpa had been a longtime patron—that there was a hole in the driver-side tank of that new OE radiator I’d put in. Duwhat? Yep: the fan shroud had been secured to the radiator with too long a bolt, which punctured the tank.

I used a baster to transfer coolant from the rad to the overflow tank until the level was below the hole. So far so good, then things went strange. Immediately on beginning to unscrew the overlong bolt, I found it was threaded into one of those folded-metal quicknuts Chrysler loved for allowing bolts to hold one thing with a big square hole to another thing with a big square hole. Fine, ‘cept the quicknut was snapped onto the fan shroud’s square hole, not onto the adjacent square hole on the radiator. This should remind you of that standard cartoon gag where someone tries desperately to open a door by jumping onto the door itself and simultaneously tugging at the doorknob. With the quicknut thusly placed, using an overlong bolt would have done nothing but pushed the shroud rearward away from the rad tank once the bolt bottomed out on the tank. For the bolt to puncture the tank, the quicknut would have to be on the radiator. With the bolt removed, I discovered an attempt had been made to seal the hole with black RTV. Not my work.

With the RTV scraped away and the area cleaned with brake cleaner and Q-tips, I discovered the hole was neatly, perfectly round and there is no distortion or crack in the tank, as would have been caused by torquing a too-long bolt through a quicknut placed other than this one was. This was the kind of hole made not by the gradually advancing end of an errant bolt, but by something like a drill bit. Not my work.

With the overlong bolt in hand, I cast my gaze to the other side of the shroud, where the quicknut was correctly placed, so the extra-thick sandwich of shroud, radiator tank, and A/C condenser bracket was all in correct sequence, but—lo!— there was no bolt there.

So Killroy might’ve been here, but not I; not my work, any of it. To my knowledge, two entities had been at the cooling system of this car since I installed this new-in-box OE Valeo radiator: myself and that shop. I had zero proof they did what it certainly looked like someone had done, and the car had been to one or two other shops for stuff wholly unrelated to the cooling system. But I also know I didn’t do it.

My repair with Water-Weld (a log-type epoxy putty of the “cut off as much as you want, knead to mix the inner and outer components, apply” variety) wound up stopping the leak permanently.

Grumble. Time to find a new shop. I tried one 44 blocks away from the house—walk distance if one would make the time; some of the blocks were flat and some sappingly steep. It’s existed in some form in the area since the ’40s. While we were out of town elsewhere in the States, they put a set of Moog Cargo Coil progressive springs in the rear, did the heater core and a few other things; the original core was leaky and clogged from long years of sitting. That gave the car faster and better heat, no more coolant smell inside, some dashboard rattles got eradicated, and my sloppy radio line-in cord routing had been tidied up. Yay for all that, but there was a new whistle at any blower speed, somewhere between noticeable and irritating, nowhere near enough so for me to throw a tantrum and demand a takedown and do-over. If there was something fast and easy to reduce it (rope caulk round two halves of heater box or duct tape somewhere…), fine, I told the shop, but please don’t lose too much time on it. They fixed it or at least reduced it; I don’t recall how.

This car had a philosophical objection to going through arbitrarily-defined too much water, slush, or snow, and would express its displeasure by throwing off the serpentine belt—a common gritchment with the 3.0 V6 in Chrysler products. There was a Dorman kit consisting of a flange to bolt onto the idler—nice idea, but no effect. Gates offered a more comprehensive belt no-fly kit to address the issue: a new belt with ribs on both sides instead of just one, and new multi-groove rather than smooth idlers. That looked promising, but it was listed as suitable for 3.0 V6 Chryslers only back through 1996. I looked in the factory parts cattledogs but didn’t see any changed part numbers between ’95 and ’96, so I bought the kit and took it to the same shop that did the heater core, possibly on the same visit. No good; the no-fly was a no-go. The belt was about an inch too short, and the next size of double-side-ribbed belt was 5 inches longer. Bzzt! Missed on my earlier comparison between ’96 and ’95 3.0 belt drives: all part numbers same except the power steering pump pulley. The earlier pulley was 6-9/16″ (167 mm) diameter, and the later pulley was 6-1/4″ (159 mm), making about a 1.4″ (36 mm) difference in circumference. Ding! All other dimensions of the pump pulley matched up, so swap looked like yes. The later pulley was about $17, and it was even made in Canada!

This shop and I made good dance partners: from my end it was I’m expecting to see that belt R&R on the invoice when I come get the car, even though the original parts had to go back on it. From their end it was Thanks—when you get that pulley, come back and we’ll get you fixed up. I did, they did, and the belt never flew off again.

Let’s see, what else? Oh yeah: the ignition lock cylinder popped out the column one day when I switched off the ignition moments after arriving at a guard booth at the Canadian border. Whee! Would I be able to start the car again, or would I block an entire lane of traffic at the border? I jiggled the cylinder back into position and had good luck. I picked up a replacement cylinder and a secret nonexistent security piece, installed everything, took pictures along the way, and wrote a how-to article about it. Shhh, that secret nonexistent security piece is a secret! Oops, I guess not any more.

Reportable incidents: Yes, there were those. A guy in a Toyota Tacoma lost patience with my 40 mph in 40-mph traffic in a 40-mph zone on a rainy arterial. He went to pull out and get in the other (right) lane, let his accelerator run away with him, hit my right rear corner, lost traction, overcorrected, hit my right quarter panel, lost the rest of his traction, spun across the right lanes and the sidewalk, and fetched up broadside into a tree. That’s what happened as viewed from the perspective of the off-duty fireman in his Dodge Ram behind the Tacoma. From my seat, it was BAM! then immediate reflexive concentration on lanekeeping and thumb on the horn button to call attention, then BAM, then the freakin’ scary rearview site of the truck spinning off the road.

I stopped, fireman stopped. Hazard flashers, gap in traffic, converge on truck, driver OK. 911, cops on the way, move my car off the road per instructions. Info exchange, photos, cops arrive and talk to everybody (including fireman), scrutinise and photograph the vehicles, tell me the Tacoma driver admitted essentially the same as the fireman said, gave me instructions for how to get the police report, etc.

His black plastic and chrome bumper hit my red bumper, tail lamp, and quarter panel. Sprang the fuel door, too, so it no longer closed correctly.

Could’ve been a whole hell of a lot worse if there’d been more traffic in the lanes he spun through, or pedestrians on the sidewalk he flew over. For his part, he was okeh at the scene, but the truck was his mother’s, so who knows what further injuries he might’ve sustained; no Federal Mother’s-Vehicle Safety Standards are applicable. Not such big damage to my car, but I could already hear the insurance people: Well, sir, your car is 22 years old…. (yeah, with 68,000 whole, entire kilometres on it, that is under 45k miles).

Still, I figured I’d rather be me pushing my case with my insuror than the driver of his mother’s Tacoma pushing his with her and hers. I was right about that, too; turns out he wasn’t actually on her insurance policy and so they didn’t cover the crash. Dude promised to pay me for the damage to my car. For awhile it looked like he was going to flake, but in the end he did pay.

And my insurance people did exactly what I had imagined they’d do: try to write off the car on account of its age and what they perceived as its worthlessness. It took some doing, but I won that fight. Here’s the mobile dent dude working his magic—not quite factory-perfect because the fuel filler reinforcement prevented full access for the magic wands, but good enough; much less costly than regular bodywork. The fuel door lined up again and there was only a minor dip in the quarter panel surface.

I won the other two insurance fights, too. Once someone jimmied a doorhandle and tried to slidehammer the ignition lock. They failed because of that secret nonexistent part I’d installed (shhh, it’s a secret!). And even if they’d succeeded, the car still wouldn’t have started for them.

The insurance company wanted to write off the car: It’s an old car, as if that settled the matter. “Yep! It’s the very same old car you sold me a high-end policy for. You knew exactly what you were insuring, and for what, and if you didn’t want to do it, the time to say no was then, not now.” They allowed as how all that was true, and grudgingly agreed to fix the car, but we’re cancelling your anti-theft discount because when we inspected the car we found no evidence of any anti-theft system or components. “Oh, you mean aside from the evidence consisting of a damaged car instead of a missing one outside my house? Here’s the purchase and installation receipt, with part numbers, for the system and components you say you didn’t see.” That shut them up. I won a similar fight when some jerk decided to kick the fender. A local body shop did a top-notch job of the repair, even finding an elusive new old stock engine callout decal for the repainted fender:

I haven’t said much about actually driving this car. It generally worked and met our needs and preferences well. We drove it wherever we wanted to go, numerous times up and down I-5 between Vancouver (BC) and Seattle. It never left us stranded or otherwise fretting. It required a steadier diet of parts and attention than a newer car or perhaps a Honda or Toyota of its same age would’ve, and model-specific parts had grown quite scarce, or flatly unavailable in worthy (or any!) quality. The Mitsu V6 ran reasonably well, had reasonably adequate power, and returned reasonable fuel economy.

It had started out as an ordinary more or less invisible mass-market toastermobile, mildly notable for being the relatively rare de luxe trim line, but by the time I was driving it as a low-miles time capsule it was plucky! If the transaxle hadn’t gone, I could’ve put collector plates on it later in 2016. Not that I necessarily would’ve, given the restrictions and constraints, but I could’ve. The car drove and rode and acquitted itself very well as long as one kept reasonable expectations. It had a particularly effective backglass defogger, and excellent sightlines. It had its little gritchments, but nothing major. I played a long-running game with the odometer, photographing interesting readings as they came up over the years (and never touching the trip odometer; there was another on the trip computer in the middle of the dash). Many of those odometer pictures no longer exist, but some do; we’ll pick up the stories after this diaporama:

Trip odometer reading of the BEEEEAST!


88,888 KM at 88 km/h!


1990 Chrysler Saratoga A604 transaxle

“The A604 Gearbox—no other shiftes
so smooth. No other is known as so horrendous because of its total damages!” —Peter Wendt


In 2016 my mother was visiting from diagonally across the continent. I arranged to meet her for lunch, and drove across town to pick her up. We got in the Spirit, I started it and put it in Reverse, got about 1 metre out of the parking space…KLUNK and a jerk as though I had slammed on the brakes. Oops, not good. Could still drive forward and backward, but with a great deal of drag and noises like the kind of pencil sharpener that was my grade-school saviour when I just could not sit still in my seat for another second without a quick break.

I called CAA and had the car towed to a reputable transmission shop, who confirmed the worst: the A604 transaxle had lived down to its reputation and failed internally with significant hard-part breakage. So: decision time. I considered having it fixed; the car had only about 113,000 km (70,625 miles) on it, but it was still 25 years old. Repair seemed uneconomic, so I regretfully decided to replace it. I’ll tell about the next car next week. But first, the tale of the sale:

One last odometer shot.

Within 5 minutes of posting this ad, complete with corny price catchline, I had a phone call from someone in province but 7 hours away: Yes, he’ll buy it—pending approval from his wife because he already has 18 front-drive Mopars. Wanted to swap in a manual transmission and keep driving it. Which, good! It was far too nice and far too well equipped, with far too much life left in most of it to go for scrap.

I also had a few emails from faraway places. I felt for ’em, I did; I’d certainly had big dumb dreams like that myself—I once got the hots for a beautiful, perfect ’75 Dodge 3700GT for sale in Spain, not to mention an uncomfortably large number of the vehicles I’ve written about in my COAL series—but no, you’re really not going to haul an inoperative sub-$700 Dodge Spirit across the continent and an international border, not least because your mom and dad are going to say no!

The in-province guy got permission from his wife. He came with a trailer and took it away. I never heard from him again, but I hope he did put in that 5-speed and got a lot of smiles out of it.

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