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

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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