COAL: 1991 Dodge Spirit R/T, Part I • The AAA-Body

In the summer of 1996 I took a notion to get a Dodge Spirit R/T. I can guess pretty well at the chain of thoughts: I’d become acquainted with the Chrysler AA-body cars via grandpa’s Acclaim and mother’s LeBaron, and begun gobbling up information about them. Of course I wanted one of the best ones, and that was a Spirit R/T. I might’ve also wanted a change from driving the slow beige car just visible at the left of ☝︎that pic up there☝︎. So…a fast red one, then! My folks agreed to help me with a purchase, perhaps to try and even things out a little after having effectively given sister a brand-new Jetta, though my mother made little remarks that it would help me get a girlfriend. [um, no —DS]

I found a Spirit R/T in the Denver Post classifieds. I think it had about 55,000 miles on it, and was in good condition overall. Not very highly optioned—no antilock brakes, no premium sound, no power locks or windows or seat, no overhead console, no cellular telephone built into the driver’s sunvisor (believe!). I’d’ve liked power locks and windows, but I was okeh without all the rest. The power seat was heavy and disreputable for rocking and rolling on its mounts, and the ABS wasn’t very good. Premium sound? Eh. I didn’t bother upgrading the speakers, but a Chrysler Infinity FM-AM-CD-Cassette deck out of a ’95ish LHS dropped and plugged right in.

Sunvisor-integrated in-car cellular telephone!


And even though it didn’t have many checkbox options, it was still specced way up compared to most of the rest of Chrysler’s models. Here’s a period road test:

It had the big brakes, a firm-feel steering rack, and beefed-up suspension including a sturdy solid rear sway bar instead of the usual weak and breaky tubular one. It had equal-length driveshafts so there was very little torque steer despite the monster engine. It had 205/60R15 tires on nice aluminum snowflake-design wheels. One Michigan winter’s morning on icy hardpack snow I braked too late and hard to turn into a parkade, and carried on straight ahead hard into a concrete curb with the left front wheel, lunching it and the bearing. I had no trouble getting a refurbished replacement wheel I couldn’t discern from new, though the red paint on those wheels, all of them, always looked a little purpler to me than the red paint on the rest of the car. Maybe it was the brake heat, or the brake dust, or my imagination.

The biggest upgrade, of course, was the engine, the development pinnacle of Chrysler’s 2.2-litre 4-cylinder K-car motor.

Chrysler 2.2 Turbo III engine, dressed

It was called the Turbo III, and its specs and pedigree were pretty astounding: forged crankshaft and conrods and a crossflow, DOHC, pentroof-chamber, centre-spark 16-valve cylinder head and intake manifold by Lotus, big Garrett turbocharger, distributorless ignition and returnless fuel injection—very whizzbang in 1991—and all the rest of it to get 224 horsepower and 217 lb·ft. That’s 1.66 hp per cubic inch displacement: proportionally comparable to a 3.9-litre, 495-horsepower Six or a 5.7-litre, 581-horse V8. Or best of all, a 373-horsepower 225 Slant-6! When the engine was running well, it ran beautifully and the car was blisteringly quick—0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds—and effortlessly fast.


I was a caffeine fiend at the time—I had to get high on coffee every morning or very bad things happened. Or rather, a different mix of very bad things happened, because caffeine really did a job on my guts and caused general health and wellness problems for me, but addiction is not responsive to logic or reason. And I don’t mean like a li’l ol’ cup of coffee, I mean at least 16 ounces of at least four shots of espresso and chocolate and sugar, and a chocolate-covered coffee bean or two (or three, or four) on top. There was a coffee shop I liked to visit because of its location. I figured out how to time it all so just when the caffeine was kicking hard, I was headed up an onramp that dumped into the left lane of the interstate. Caffeine and acceleration, effyeah! Guess it’s a good job I never tried coke.

That 2.2 Turbo III engine straddled the line between experimental prototype and mass production; by some kind of miracle or magic trick it managed to get past the corporate beancounters. Chrysler put roughly 2,000 of these engines in ’91-’92 Spirit R/T and ’92-’93 IROC R/T cars for the US and Canadian market, some number of hundred more in Mexican-market Spirit R/Ts and Phantom R/Ts, and perhaps a couple of dozen in cars built for Europe. The low production quantity meant certain marginalities were imposed by aspects of the 2.2 motor that were fine for lower-output configurations producing between 35 and 65 per cent of this version’s horsepower. Foremost: this engine had an insatiable appetite for timing belts. The crank sprocket was this tiny thing, maybe 2 inches in diameter, and all sixteen valves were stiffly sprung to cater for the 6,500-RPM redline, so the timing belt teeth were subjected to inordinate loads. There was nothing to stop a belt installer putting the eccentric tensioner pulley in the wrong rotative position so it bore against the belt above the pulley’s boltline instead of below—or vice versa, I forget. This created no apparent symptom, but greatly hastened belt death. And that tensioner could be installed with any bolt of the right length and thread, but only the special factory bolt would dependably prevent the tensioner slacking off (=rapid belt failure).

Chrysler 2.2 Turbo III engine, undressed

But wait, there’s more. One of the Lotus engineers involved with the project wrote:

the timing belt tension had to be set high to overcome “tow roping” of the timing belt, i.e. the timing belt going into negative tension, which is a belt killer. This problem was caused by the extremely low valvetrain friction from using roller rockers, combined with the DOHC setup. When an exhaust valve rocker goes over the nose of the camshaft, there is no friction to slow it down and it tries to close the valve even faster, causing the exhaust cam sprocket to rotate clockwise faster and decrease the tension in the belt span between the sprockets.

He knew what he was talking about, too. When the belt would begin to go slack on account of something in this complicated system going out of spec, the T-belt would begin to flap—that tow roping effect—and the engine’s characteristic smooth buzzing drone would take on a wahh-wahh-wahh-wahh note at certain RPMs. That was the sound of standing-wave oscillations in the belt; needless to say, this kind of whipsawing led to (say it again!) quick belt death. I still remember—even before I found this next image—the timing belt gospel: it’s a № 206 belt, and it has to be the one made in Italy; the others have the wrong tooth profile.

Timing belt scriptural exegesis, Chrysler 2.2 Turbo III engine

A few years ago Gates introduced a range of racing timing belts: expensive, but said to be capable of handling thrice the torque of the standard belts. Just for grins I looked: yep, the № 206 is included in the range. Had this T206RB been available when I had this car, I might not have some of the following stories to tell, though this car ate so many timing belts that telling all the stories would make this morning’s symposium go late into the night.

Someone who looked like me, 1998

In 1998 when I was at the University of Michigan, someone who looked like me and drove a car similar to mine could be said to have engaged in what might diplomatically be called social engineering: drafted up and faxed to a Dodge dealer an informational bulletin on what gave every appearance of being letterhead from Chrysler Corporation’s service operations division. The bulletin described a new service quality initiative, similar to a mystery-shopper arrangement, under which apparently ordinary customers would bring their cars in, likely with challenging problems, and the dealer’s performance would be measured in terms of how satisfactorily the repairs were performed.

By some strange coincidence, that was the very dealer I had the car flatbedded to when its timing belt failed. When I went to fetch the car a couple of days later, it was fully detailed as though prepped for sale, purring like the proverbial kitten. The service manager came out from his office to greet me and after some tentative questions, asked me outright if I worked for Chrysler. “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question for you. But it looks like your team has done great work here. Top marks!”. The manager said “I understand!” and smiled. He was sure he’d cracked what was what and who was who. Which he sort of had, but the what and the who weren’t quite as he’d reckoned out.

In the summer of 1999 I drove down to Sedona, Arizona for a campout event with a buncha bears. I was leading in the Dodge, with my deaf friend from Dallas behind me in his ’96 Jeep Grand Chickory. A little more than 50 miles south of Denver, suddenly “wahh-wahh-wahh-wahh-wahh” and rapid loss of power: another timing belt failure. I called AAA and while we waited, my friend taught me the sign language for stupid fuсking timing belt broke—the same friend gave me my namesign, which is half the sign for headlamp (done with one hand instead of two), in front of my forehead.

AAA sent us a nice little lesbian in a nice big tow truck, and the three of us had a few wry laffs about being in the shadow of Focus On the Family, a notoriously anti-gay Christian organisation there in Colorado Springs. The car got towed to the Dodge dealer in town and the next day we set off (again) for Arizona with no further incident.

In March of 2000, I headed down to Arizona again to try to get unscrambled after my father’s untimely death. I knew it wasn’t going to work, but figured at least I could escape my mother’s much-worse-than-usual behaviour and try and relax a bit after a hellish nine months. I left Denver at 12 noonish on a Saturday, and drove through maybe eight or ten individual little fun-size snowstorms. I stopped for supper somewhere, then kept driving. At 1:45 in the morning I was 75 miles outside of Phoenix and began to get tired, so I figured to pull off the road and doze for 15 minutes to charge up for the home stretch. I braked from 90 to 0, kicked the clutch, watched the tachometer bounce a few times off the 0 stop before dropping there—and I hadn’t touched the ignition.

Turning the key brought the whirr of an engine being cranked with no compression at all: shit, another timing belt’s gone. I called AAA, who said they’d send someone. Waited an hour without seeing a truck so I called again; AAA said they couldn’t find me. I put up the hood of the car, donned a jacket and hat, grabbed my MagLite and slung it over my shoulder for conspicuity, and started walking to look for a milepost. It was 3:00 AM, give or take. After about ¾ of a mile I heard the jake brake on a semi truck behind me. A tanker truck pulled off into the breakdown lane ahead of me; as I approached, the driver ducked out his door and asked if I needed a ride into town or something. I could see the milepost about another ⅛ mile in the distance (which means the milepost was ⅞ mile away from the car, which means I could’ve walked the other direction and found a milepost a whole lot sooner), so I thanked him anyhow and he drove off. I continued down the road, chuckling at what had been the makings of a highly stereotypical dirty story. By and by I drew close enough to identify mile post 275, called it in, and the AAA flatbed picked me up at about 4:15.

It cost $208 ($318 in today’s money) to tow it the 75 miles into Phoenix—oops, I should’ve got the “plus” AAA membership. They dropped me and the car outside my Phoenix friend’s house, and I collapsed onto his couch until he got up for work, two whole hours later.

The next afternoon, another AAA truck picked up the car and we headed 15 minutes up the freeway for a hastily-called conference of three front-drive Mopar super-experts; one of them ran the foremost hop-up shop for them, and the other two were aircraft mechanics by profession. The workshop where we converged had a lift, air tools, and everything, plus the right ambience: four (other) Spirit R/Ts and a giant assortment of other interesting FWD 2.2/2.5 turbo Mopar cars. No new timing belt to hand, so a good used one was installed in less than an hour. I don’t recall doing much but watching this elite crew do their thing while they kept up a running commentary on the errors they were fixing: tensioner clocked wrong and affixed with wrong bolt, etc. My total cost: $15 for new serpentine belt ’cause the old ones was deteriorating, and the car ran better than it had in many months, because they timed the cams and set up the belt exactly, precisely right.

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