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 Chicory. 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.

Timing belts weren’t the only thing. Oh, no, they were not. Shortly after I bought the car, I actually bought something from a car dealer salesman, which I’d never before done: a de luxe Chrysler Added Care Plus service contract. It cost something like $500, I think, and covered parts and labour through to 120,000 miles or ten years of age on the vehicle. I’m here to tell you, Chrysler took a very deep, very cold, very shirtless bath on that particular contract. They bought me several head gaskets, one or two radiators, numerous timing belts, an A/C compressor and both lines, expansion valve, brake master cylinder and booster, oil pan, turbo oil lines, and a passel of parts and whackload of work I no longer recall. Many of these parts were specific to the Turbo III engine—the radiator was special to provide space for the intercooler, the head gasket was unique, the A/C compressor was a special ultra-compact Sanden scroll design and the lines were particular to this car, I think the oil pan had special baffles, and so on and on. All of them would’ve been bitingly costly to buy on my own; that service contract paid for itself many, many times over.

But it wasn’t a bumper-to-bumper unlimited warranty; some stuff I still had to fix on my own. One day I drove the car home from the grocery a mile and a half away, went to use it ten minutes later, and…nothing. Not even a Check Engine light when switching on the ignition. The headlamps were nice and bright, and the horn worked, so the battery was obviously fine, but other than that, nada. There was an ominous, inscrutable error code on the trip computer display, something like r 01 I couldn’t find any reference for. (I liked that trip computer; its average fuel economy readout closely matched my arithmetic).

Elapsed time, trip odometer, distance to empty, instant & average fuel economy. What more needed I?

I spent ninety minutes on diagnosis. Some phone calls with knowledgeable friends guided my underhood investigation, and eventually the problem came clear: the main fusible link in the engine wiring harness had blown. The oxygen sensor’s four wires, in one of those corrugated plastic looms, ran across the engine to the ECU. The plastic clip holding that loom up had fallen out the air cleaner base plate, and the wiring had dropped down onto the hot exhaust manifold and turbocharger housing. The instant I’d turned on the ignition, the O2 sensor heater power wire had gone live while shorted to ground and took out the fuselink to protect the ECU.

A fusible link, or fuselink

I made up a new O2 sensor harness out of high-temperature GE Flamenol wire I’d salvaged from the kitchen oven we’d replaced a few years previously. I triple wrapped it in plastic and aluminum tape and routed it above the air cleaner baseplate, so it couldn’t fall and burn again. I had no replacement fuselink, so I put in a blade fuse holder with a 20-amp fuse.

Flamenol! Now, with more Science! (not to be confused with flamin’ ‘ell.)

The car started right up, and dad was impressed with my diagnostic and repair abilities. Mother glowered, fulminated under her breath, and banged around. A fuse is a fast-blow item versus a fuselink’s slow action (which accommodates harmless transient overloads), so from time to time the fuse would blow and I’d have to replace it to be on my way again, but other than that, the repair held up fine.

Chrysler-Getrag A568 transaxle

The transaxle in this car was an A568, Chrysler’s highest-spec 5-speed with Getrag gears and guts. Car & Driver were full of (used) beans when they gushed about it in their R/T-SHO-Z34 comparison: “the R/T’s shifter took top honors, slotting into gear easily and accurately and generally making everyone feel all warm and fuzzy. Our logbook filled with raves: ‘It’s delicate and nicely weighted,’ and ‘by far the best gearbox of the group.’” Er…maybe so, but I daresay I drove an R/T a great deal more than the glib dillweeds at Buff & Book, and the two or three others I tried were substantially the same as mine. I never drove an SHO, but I easily believe the R/T’s shifter was better than the Lumina’s; a disposable drinking straw inserted in a pile of fresh Play-Doh would have a more direct, precise feel than any of the Lumina’s pathetic fittings.

Leather knob, rubber boot.


And for all that, the R/T did deserve credit for being somewhat less eager to play try-and-shift-me than some of the lesser Chrysler 5-speeds. With practise and luck, it was usually possible to get into the desired gear on the first try. Reverse was tricky, but the trick eventually became second nature: shift it as far into reverse as it wanted to go, then, while continuing to move the lever towards reverse, begin to let up on the clutch and the lever would slot into reverse with no grinding.

I taught my father stick-shifting in this unforgiving-on-that-count car. My folks were planning a trip to France, and any rentcar they’d get would likely not be automatic. Dad picked it up well enough to do it if he had to, but he was never really comfortable with it. They did get a handshift rentcar, as it turned out, a Peugeot or a Renault, and managed to get around with it okeh, except that time they couldn’t get it into Reverse. They didn’t realise you had to lift the collar under the shifter knob, so after giving up on reaching R they pushed the car backward instead.

Mother, who had last driven a handshift car in the 1960s, drove the Dodge (under strenuous protest) during my first year at the University of Michigan while her LeBaron was in Illinois with my sister. As a result, the clutch in the Spirit began slipping, so I had a new clutch, release bearing, and clutch cable put in. I think the service contract covered the clutch, but I paid for the release bearing and cable since they weren’t actually broken. The Denver Dodge dealer service department who did the work told me their key to perfect clutch jobs: always resurface the flywheel with a stone, not a cutter. They said they’d discovered this early on the diesel Dodge Ram trucks. I guess they were right, because the new clutch was quite a bit smoother and better than the previous one had ever been.

The car was built with a rear powertrain mount that was sort of a miniature shock absorber lookin’ thing with a compression spring for good measure. This was meant to cushion the engine’s back-and-forth motion, and it made problems: in normal driving, just cruising along at a steady speed, all it took was a very slight variance in foot pressure on the accelerator, a bit up and then a bit down or the other way around, to set up a bouncy, jerky, bucking effect that could only be stopped by letting go the accelerator or really stepping on it. Boing-boing-boing!

Ed Peters, a former Chrysler production engineer who was in charge of the Mexican plant when my car was built there and was quite an expert in making FWD Mopars go fast, offered a solid torque strut: rubber bushing at the bottom, adjustable thread at the top, connected by a solid steel rod. This was a giant improvement. It did a much better job; it completely eliminated the kangaroo effect and didn’t create any new problems. Peters died last year, but this kind of retrofit strut can still be had from other sources.

The engine generally ran very smoothly; it was equipped with Bill Weertman’s well-engineered counterrotating balance shafts that did just a fantastic job of cancelling the vibrations endemic to certain kinds of 4-cylinder engines. One day, though, I noticed at a stop light that the usually glass-smooth idle had taken on a rough edge. When the light turned green, acceleration was a little jerky. As I made my way along, the problem worsened to the point where letting out the clutch and applying gas to accelerate caused bucking, popping, and jerky, slow acceleration. Yikes! It was raining; had my spark plug wires gone bad? Visual inspection and the old-fashioned gamble of running my hands along the length of each wire with the engine running showed they were probably fine. Maybe some water had got where it shouldn’t, then? I parked in a garage to leave it overnight; as I opened the door, a distinct hot-metal smell told me the catalytic converter was unhappy with the results of the misfire.

Next morning, the car started right up and ran almost normally for a half mile, then the same problem began. It was a dry day, so I guessed it was a heat-related problem rather than a wet-related one. Did I have a coil pack or other electronic component breaking down when hot? H’mm. I attempted a bit more diagnosis, unplugging the fuel injectors one by one until I found one that didn’t change the exhaust chuff and eliminated the raw-fuel smell out the back: cylinder № 2. I tried swapping a known-good spark plug wire on that cylinder, with no change. I put a screwdriver in the spark plug end of the wire, secured it to create a reasonable gap to ground, and started the engine; there didn’t seem to be any missing sparks. Just to make sure there was no difficulty with the fuel injector pulse signal, I started the engine and probed the connector with a test light. I saw the same pulse pattern as when I probed one of the other connectors, so that wasn’t it.

It’s weird that packaging design like this now looks old.

One of the Champion H.O.T. (“High Output Technology”) plugs I’d installed—raise your hand who was never tempted by the promotional propaganda for one or another magic spark plug—simply quit working within 6,000 miles of having been installed. There was nothing visually wrong with it; it hadn’t been brutalised or mutilated or anything, it just flat stopped working.

Okeh, so that should be an easy fix, right? Wrong, because this object lesson was a twofer; I got to learn the hard way that Champion spark plugs tend to suck not only at sparking, but also at plugging. Or unplugging, as it were; their cut threads are cheap to make, but have very sharp edges. These dragged significant amounts of aluminum with them on their way out the (stone cold) cylinder head. Eeep! Heli-Coils exist, of course, but carry their own risks. That head was around a $5,000 item at that time ($8,400 in today’s money), if you could eventually get one. It was rumoured to be a part that was not stocked, but made only once enough had been ordered, and then only if the various parties involved felt like doing it. The tiny number of equipped vehicles meant this wait time could easily run into numerous months.

The workmanship difference was enormous and readily visible between the Chumpion spark plugs and the NGKs I decided to try instead. The NGKs have roll-formed threads: more costly to make, but they lack the razor edges of cut threads. And the surface treatment on the NGKs was obviously better; their metal parts felt slick rather than grabby. I was very fortunate: all four NGKs went in, the whole way in, and didn’t keep turning after seating. Whew!

The car was back to running smoothly on all cylinders, but I hadn’t been quick enough to stop downstream damage. There were new rattles under the car and intermittent severe power loss; the raw fuel dumped into the exhaust tract by the lame cylinder’s dead spark plug and live fuel injector had cooked my cat (meow?). The partially-melted broken chunks of its core were shifting around and sometimes blocking exhaust flow.

My cat blew chunks!

The right fix would have been a carefully-chosen new cat. But I was living in Michigan, where things like emission tests were viewed as wanton attacks in a war on cars, so I mustered all the selfish smartassedness that comes with being a 22-year-old and decided to gut the cat instead of replacing it. What the hey, eh? The rest of the exhaust system abaft of the cat was about due, anyhow. I was associated with a shop space and car crew at the time—details now would spoil a future COAL instalment—so a few of us took apart the exhaust system, put the cat in a vise, and took the straight end of a crowbar to its matrix. That ceramic was very tough, so it took a lot of hammering. Generated a lot of dust, too; I was blowing dark-grey boogers for a couple of days. Very valuable ones containing platinum, palladium, and rhodium.

Ackthpthpth. Thpth. Oop ack.

We put in the new factory muffler I’d bought, and a new tailspout. Without the cat, the exhaust smelt like 1970 and the turbo made entertaining “Wheeoooooooooooo!” noises, amplified by echoing around the empty cat can. Plenty fun. In 1999-2000 when I was back in Denver while dad was in hospital dying of cancer, I used the catless car to take out my pain on the nicotine addicts who instead of going to the smoking enclosure would cluster near the doorway that went from the parkade to the hospital so everyone had to walk through their cloud. I’d back the car into the parking space directly in front of them, then rev the engine. Whassamatta, y’don’t like being made to breathe dirty air? Don’t like me stinkin’ up the place? Imagine that! Me, I don’t like having to see y’all giving yourselves cancer while my dad’s upstairs dying of it. Eventually the registration came due, and I’d have to pass emissions, so I put in a new catalytic converter.

But speaking of stupid revving tricks, I discovered during my time in Michigan that the alarm on the Saab I parked next to in my apartment house’s lot could be set off by hitting a certain RPM. I’d slouch down in my seat, rev through the critical RPM, the Saab would start honking and flashing, and I’d shut off the engine and slouch even lower. The owner would come out, look around, shut off the alarm, and go back inside. A minute or two later, lather-rinse-repeat. All I can say about this is that I’m very pleased to have outgrown my 20s; some people never do, as it seems.

Next week in Part II of this car’s history: international intrigue

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