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

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.

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