COAL: 1991 Dodge Spirit R/T, Part II – Oh, Grow Up!

My first headlamp upgrade had been on my ’65 D’Valiant ( part Ipart IIpart III). By the time I got the R/T, I thought I knew all of what I thought was a very simple binary: Euro-spec = awesome superior upgrade; US-spec = poopy inferior junk. That’s wrong; the reality is a lot more complicated and nuanced—almost whatever part of the car we might care to name, both standards have ample room for good stuff and too much room for bad stuff, and “good” and “bad” are defined objectively, even in the real world—but I was in the firm grip of the Dunning-Kruger Effect; I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

So, inspired by Peter’s Saratoga—his red ’90 at that point—I trawled through the factory parts cattledogs looking for BUX items (that’s Built-Up eXport, as opposed to KDX for Knocked-Down eXport) and went on a shopping spree: left and right headlamps, left and right tail lights and the trunk lid appliqué with licence plate holder and lights, left and right sideview mirrors, left and right inner and outer front seatbelts, non-airbag steering wheel centre pad, front frog lamps. I didn’t have limitless money, so I had to draw a line somewhere; I didn’t try for export-spec glass or rear seatbelts or tow hooks. I didn’t chase after height-adjustable front seatbelts or motorised headlamp levelling.

Getting the part numbers out the cattledog was one thing, but actually buying the parts was another matter; I got skunked—sorry, I can’t order that, it’s an export-only part—until someone phrased it another way: that’s an export-only part; I can’t order that without an export-vehicle’s VIN. Oh. Okeh! I copied down the VIN of Peter’s Saratoga from his homepage and put in a call to a friendly parts manager at the nearby Chrysler dealer. Bing-bang-boom, parts successfully ordered. I thought it was funny how they came in the usual Chrysler boxes (“Contents conform to US Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards”).

Some of this export equipment was markedly superior to the American-spec parts. The sideview mirrors were appreciably larger, made by a big name (Ichikoh, a major Japanese supplier of lights and mirrors), and spring-hinged. Much better than the miniature, fixed-mounted, generic domestic items. The seatbelts, too, were name-brand items—Bendix—with a considerably less primitive locking mechanism that unobtrusively grabbed the belt even during a spirited (heh) curve or turn, helping to keep me planted in the seat. Nice. The new frog lamps were glass-and-metal Marchal 150s with real (H3 55-watt) bulbs, same as had been used on ’89-’90 American-spec cars until Chrysler got Valeo to make a cheap all-plastic version with a 27-watt toy bulb inside. And I even found the part numbers for the charcoal plastic cover guards made specifically for these frog lamps, only actually shipped with early-production ’89 cars.

Chrysler being Chrysler, the headlamps were still lousy, just differently so. They were sourced from Wagner, known more for cheap than for good. Their glass lenses wouldn’t cloud up like the American-spec plastic ones, yay, but it was thin, weak, fragile glass that pitted and cracked easily, boo. A Canadian company at that time made clear PET (pop bottle type material) guards for the Spirit/Acclaim cars, so I put on a set of those.

The reflectors were hard glass-filled polyester thermoset (like distributor cap material) rather than soft thermoplastic, which at that time couldn’t be used for European headlamps because it would distort so much as it heated up that the sharp low-beam cutoff would be lost. So yay, a more thermally-stable, more precisely-shaped reflector. But boo, that thermoset stuff was brittle, yet on these lamps the bulb retainer clip—a cheap, flimsy spring-wire thing—hinged and hooked on tiny, weak, easily-broken protuberances integrally moulded as part of the reflector. This chintzy bulb retention system broke in just about every possible way over my years of owning cars with these headlamps—sooner and more often when the glass-filled polyester was swapped out for a much cheaper construction, some kind of lightweight, flaky stuff that seemed to amount to rammed papier-mâché with a coating of varnish holding it (sorta) together. The American-spec lamps’ twist-lock bulb retainer was a much sturdier design.

The export headllamps took an H4 bulb, which put out more light (yay) than the US 9004 bulbs, but the H4 system uses only about half the reflector area to gather, magnify, and focus light on low beam while the 9004 system uses the whole reflector, so that’s more or less a wash. No bulb shield in either lamp, another wash. The export lamps had been upgraded a little since the ones on Peter’s car had been made; there was a fairly elaborate vent/drain system, so yay. Both kinds of lamp produced weak and streaky low beams with too much upward stray light causing backdazzle in bad weather, but I found the export lamps’ inadequacies a little less gritching to live with: shorter seeing distance, but wider coverage. They looked meaner, too. I still wished Chrysler had, instead of such bottom-feeding, gone to Valeo (Cibié) for lamps with that company’s advanced, efficient, enormously better complex-surface reflector technology, as they did for the Dodge Monaco/Eagle Premier cars. Or really, any of the other suppliers capable of making something better than low-bid rubbish. Why couldn’t they have sought a package lights-and-mirrors deal from Ichikoh? Oh, right, because Chrysler: make ’em (1) legal, (2) cheap, (3) cheaper, and (4) no, cheaper. Grumble.

Front frog lamps are essentially useless to most drivers in most conditions, but the export/pre-decontenting front frog lamps produced a noticeably brighter and wider useless beam pattern than the plastic imitations.

The relevant part of this film is 16 seconds long, so go ahead and hit Stop at 19:43:

I thought (and I still think) it’s a matter of regulatory malpractice that American regs fail to require any side-on visibility of the turn signal. Strikes me as completely obvious that the signal should be visible to those whose space you’re about to occupy. Flashing the front side markers was a halfway measure, not good enough for me (and besides, I wanted to convert those to white front position lamps because EURO SPEC RULEZ and stuff). I didn’t like the round Chrysler repeaters, which would’ve required only a simple 1″ round hole; instead I went for Saab items. They were a pesky nuisance to install, for they required a keyhole-shaped fender cutout. I tricked the Chrysler dealer into doing it by issuing a phony information bulletin on the subject, formatted like all the rest of the ’91 TSBs. They looked right at home.

The export steering wheel pad…yeah, I hadn’t yet outgrown my childish, ignorant certitude that airbgas were stupid, useless, dangerous bombs forced on us by the nanny-state government, et cetera ad nauseam. So rebel that I was, I stuck it to the man by making my car more dangerous in case of a crash. Boy, I sure showed them, aHyuck! Here’s to (eventually) growing up.

But I’d seen that non-airbag pad on a visiting Mexican family’s Chrysler Spirit R/T at a Denver gas station, and then again on Peter’s Saratoga, and in my pointy little head “export” meant “superior”. There were two choices for the pad: plain and de luxe. The plain one had the Pentastar logo moulded into the grey Medium Quartz flexible plastic material, pretty much like the airbag. The de luxe had a black-and-chrome Pentastar with a crystal-clear plastic jewel over it. I chose the de luxe one, of course, and paid for that choice every time the sun came in over my shoulder and glinted off the chrome or the plastic crystal.

The rear lights were made by the same supplier as the US-spec ones—Lescoa—but the brake lights and turn signals had a much wider visibility angle so they could be seen side-on rather than just to the rear, and there were redundant taillights and more efficient reflex reflectors. They had rear frog lamps built in, too, but I didn’t get around to hooking them up. Ditto on the reversing lights; I never got around to rerouting the wires from the US location on the trunk lid to the export location in the left and right light clusters. That detail didn’t get detected when I let a friend of mine use the car to take his driving licence test. The side-on visibility of the tail light more or less stood in for the missing side marker light, but I never added back the side reflex reflectors also absent from the export lights.

1990 Chrysler Saratoga taillight functions

Image courtesy of Peter Wendt

Installing the export-spec parts posed certain challenges, too. The decklid appliqué with dummy-lights and licence plate holder and lamps was configured for the European licence plate, 52 × 12 cm (20½ × 4.7 in) rather than the North American 30 × 15 cm (12 × 6 in) item. I had to drill two new holes in the plate bed and square them up to accept the snap-in nylon inserts which would take the fastening screws, and shave about ¼ inch off the top and bottom of the plate to squeak it into place. And it really was a tight squeak, but in the end I made it fit without looking schlock.

The original US bulb sockets with their plastic-wedge based bulbs snapped right into the export taillights, so I figured I was good to go without the export-spec socketry for the metal-bayonet based bulbs. So how did these difficult-to-get lights work? Not very well. Kind of lousy, in fact: a tiny spot of light from the filament as viewed directly through the lens, and an occasional glitter of light from various parts of the lens as I walked back and forth looking at the light. On a wall behind the car I could see sort of a grid of red streaks rather than a concentrated oval, round, or rectangular patch of red, but I didn’t yet know enough to care or to figure out how come; I just shrugged, guessed that was how they worked, and drove off to the University of Michigan that way.

About the only things I remember from that trip are that the cruise control would sometimes just decide to cancel itself for no reason, as though I’d tapped the brakes. It would accept a reset immediately. And occasionally while cruising along at a steady speed there was a low hoooooooooot like a foghorn that seemed to come from directly in front of me (eventually I decided it could only be the brake booster diaphragm—the booster eventually got replaced under the service contract, but the foghorn noise remained). Also, somewhere in the vacuum of space between Denver and Ann Arbor, I maxed out the 120-mph speedometer. Stayed there for a brief time, observed that the car felt remarkably stable and unstressed, then backed off back down to something probably still over the limit, but not by quite so much.

A few days after I arrived in Michigan, I was backing into a parking space at night when it dawned on me what those streaks of light were all about: I hadn’t been quite so good to go as I’d thought; the domestic-spec sockets had the wrong focal length for the export lights, so the filaments weren’t where the optics were looking. I ordered the export-spec taillight wiring-and-socketry assemblies, and presto! Now I had proper brake, tail, and turn signal light performance. Good job my faulty ones hadn’t got me hit.

Not all my modifications were made in slavish adherence to a Euro-fanboi mindset. I put in Koni adjustable strocks and shuts, which made a giant improvement in handling, ride, and surefootedness.

And there was a modification the car made to itself. The steering column was built by Chrysler’s Acustar division, but Chrysler had bought steering columns from GM’s Saginaw division with Briggs & Stratton locks for many years, and I guess they studied carefully, because this Acustar column with its Acustar lock did a very GM/Briggs thing: it wore in such a manner that the ignition key could be removed in any switch position. I viewed this as a convenience (and another bit of rebellion against big ol’ bad ol’ nannystate ol’ government regulations, hurr-hurr-hurr) and left it “broken”. The key itself, I’d had cut on a blank intended for a first-generation Neon; it had a fluorescent yellow-green head. Obviously much sexier than the regular ol’, normal ol’, boring ol’ black one, or even the bright red one I’d found on the Ilco keyblank rack at the hardware store.

My friend the starter-and-alternator wizard built me a top-spec starter with all the best bits—metal gear track instead of plastic, etc. When I wasn’t using the downslope of a driveway to start the engine by shifting to reverse, releasing the parking brake and letting out the clutch, that optimal starter started the engine exactly the same as the original starter had, but it gave me a warm fuzzy knowing it had all the best parts in it. He built me a superior alternator, too, which kept the battery charged just like the original had done.

This kind of time and money spent on stuff that make no practical difference and nobody actually cares about feels alien from my current perspective. I guess it’s a tradeoff: being a grownup might mean losing youthful enthusiasm, and day jobs and taxes and responsibilities are a drag. But on the other hand, if y’wanna eat cookies for breakfast, can’t nobody stop ya!

And fortunately for this present story, I had other kinds of fun with the car aside from the hunt for the optimal ignition key head colour. The university, as such entities are wont to do, sharply limited where students could park on campus. For awhile I had what I considered a legitimate need to park close to a building with no nearby student parking. So I went out and bought a small red-and-white Igloo cooler, sized to fit neatly on the passenger seat, and I got me a pen and a paper sat at the computer and I made up my own little sign:


That translates as Contains ice; if its temperature goes above 0°C/32°F it will melt. I put the sign on the cooler and the cooler on the front seat. Never got a parking ticket; I reckon the campus cops saw the cooler in a car parked near a building where who-knows-what kind of science-y stuff was being done and decided maybe to give it a miss. These days it sounds more like a surefire recipe for the anti-terror squad to be called in.

Close by North Campus was UMTRI, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. This was where I put in the most substantial, highest-quality chunks of my self-directed study in vehicular lighting; they had a library stacked floor to ceiling with research papers published round the world over numerous decades. I eagerly sucked up every lighting-related paper I could find, and there were a great many. I took notes as I read, then went upstairs to pester the human-factors researchers—whose bread and butter was lighting; many of the papers were their own—with questions. One of them seemed not to like me very much; I found him grouchy and prickly and terse. But the other was frequently happy to answer my questions and discuss the research at great length. He was remarkably patient with my knowitall ignorance and preconceived notions (European headlamps rule and US lamps suck, and any so-called research to the contrary is just useless lab-knowledge not applicable to driving in the ‘real world’ as I imagined it, etc) and my knowledge and understanding advanced at a galloping pace. The patient researcher and I still talk regularly; now I’m active in some of his same professional circles, helping to devise and revise vehicle lighting technical standards.

All of that makes this next kind of childish fun I had with the R/T all the more ironic and shameful: Baxter Road was about a kilometre long, tree-lined, with gentle curves and hills. The speed limit was 30, or maybe 25. Late at night I used to see how fast I could go. I think I touched 80 or 85 mph, maybe more, right past the place where all the traffic safety research happens, haw-haw-haw! Never got caught, never got crashed. What was I saying? Oh yeah: let’s hear it for eventually growing up.

This isn’t one of his shelves, it’s one of mine. I’m trying to quit; I really am…!

There was another headlamp-obsessed guy, a Vietnam vet with a home and shop/warehouse full of European headlamps in rural Plymouth, Wisconsin. We had long, extend-o phone conversations (with him there was no other kind) and he told me stories of racing his old Volvos at Road America, just two miles from his place. Late in June 1998, he told me he’d be serving as an instructor at the Track Time performance driving class to be held o’er the July 4th holiday weekend. I should register and come do the class, he said. I could stay at his place, he said.

That sounded fun, so off I went—a day or so early, to buy some shop time and work from him. I hadn’t got around to upgrading the car’s severely underspecified headlamp wiring: 18-gauge low beam feeds, 16-gauge high beam feeds…20-gauge grounds; no foolin’ and no relays. Futility in resistance! Working together, we put in heavy-gauge wires with relays, put in 100-watt bulbs (years before I learnt these usually aren’t the upgrade they sound like) and aimed the headlamps “properly” (in quotes because European aim specs are questionable even for over there, and outright wrong for over here) with his actual, real, official Hella Beamsetter. While we were at it, we put in a set of loud horns, also lashed up with large wiring and another relay. We mounted the relay bank—high beam, low beam, horn—in place of the RH airbag impact sensor, which got relocated to the trunk.

We also put in a set of (Wagner, uff da) semi-metallic brake pads, and flushed in new premium brake fluid.

The class was pretty cool; I had great fun driving around the track. At the time I felt like I learnt quite a lot, starting from scratch, about driving technique and car control, though I don’t know that I’ve retained much of it. I also put a pretty serious dent in my unrealistically high opinion of the Spirit R/T. The mushy, disconnected-feeling brake pedal and its sluggish return to the up position after pressed made it very difficult to get any real practise in at threshold braking, for example. I missed the no-booster brake pedal feel from D’Valiant. But I surely didn’t miss D’Valiant’s bench seat! The Spirit R/T-exlusive buckets weren’t quite Recaros, but they were very supportive, quite a bit better than most any other seat Chrysler ever installed in a car.

This is me leading (i.e., holding up) a new C5 Corvette through a turn…

…and here’s me in the way of a Viper.

But even so, I was hitting around 115 on the straightaways and 55-80 through the corners by the time I began to get the hang of things. Of course, several areas showed up as needing improvement in my driving: shifting coördination, picking and executing proper lines through corners, and driving closer to eight-tenths than to five—even then, I had this irrational thing about not wanting to roll or crash the car.

The exhaust system hissed at high engine speeds, indicating a need for attention (which was eventually given, as described in part I). I averaged 9.8 miles per gallon on the race track.

The headlamp-freak/instructor took me out on the track in his ’82 Volvo 242 turbo. He put the car into a perfect 4-wheel drift through the Carousel (bounded by turns № 9 and 10); I was duly impressed. On the straightaway I noticed his speedometer was hard against the stop. “Why did you leave in the 85-mile speedo?” I asked. He said “I’m going faster than 85; why should I care how much faster?”. Fair point.

On the drive back to Michigan (average: 25.2 miles per gallon) I took to laughing my head off when I’d come upon someone in the left lane going slower than I wanted, give a brief tap to the high beams, then another, then leave them on until what I perceived as the slug moved over. Hey, I know! Let’s be a complete jackass and throw klieg-light high beams in other drivers’ eyes on the public roadways! Those high beams really were insanely intense; they made reflective road signs pop in broad daylight; at night the high beams “burned out” those same signs (made them too bright to read). Day or night, if I pulled smartly out the right lane and into the left while blinking the high beams rhythmically, often whoever was ahead would pull over all the way to the right shoulder and stop, thinking I was in a police car. Neat party tricks, I guess? In retrospect I’m disamused.

I wasn’t done with modifications, of course. I put in a reprogrammed engine computer to increase the car’s performance (um, why?) and I’ll save those details for a forthcoming non-COAL post. That computer brought operational problems, almost as though he who reprogrammed the computer maybe hadn’t put quite as much effort, time, and money into R&D and testing as Chrysler had on the original. The new module’s built-in voltage regulator’s temperature compensation circuit went haywire; in cold ambient temperatures with a cold battery, line voltage rose to 16 volts or so. The turn signals flashed extra-fast, and I had to be careful not to turn on the high beams until the engine bay had warmed up, or they’d pop like flashbulbs—fed full line voltage as they were by my fat-pipe wiring and relays. The low beams weren’t immune, but they were somewhat less prone. Still, I bought bulbs by the boxful from the guy in Wisconsin. White ones and yellow ones in a variety of wattages—more about those yellow headlamps in another future post. And there were other issues with that ECU, too. I no longer recall them all, but I think one of them was that at random it would react to what it perceived as an overboost situation by momentarily cutting power to the fuel injectors…and blowing that fuse I’d replaced the fuselink with. That was always worth a chuckle when it happened.

In 1999 I moved back to Denver because my father was busy dying of cancer (and I sensed, correctly as it happened, that if I didn’t spend time with him I’d forever lose the chance) and my mother had to be propped up—a toxic, severely corrosive, impossible task that fell to me because my sister was busy having a life of her own, off in New York, and she for some reason was deemed entitled to carry on doing so. One day (of many) while leaving the hospital, I absentmindedly picked the middle lane of 9th Street, rather than the right lane that would allow me to turn North onto Colorado Boulevard. The light was red and there was nobody behind me, so I shifted to reverse (reversing lamps still nonfunctional), meaning to back up far enough to put the car in line behind an early-’90s Chev Suburban already in the right lane.

I was deeply and constantly in psychoemotional debt during those awful months, living well beyond my mind’s means. I didn’t adequately control the car on my way rearward, and made scraping contact with the edge of an outsized metal mudflap thing on the Suburban. Crap. We both pulled over and got out. The paint had been scraped off the crease of my right rear wheel arch—down to primer, not bare metal. Zero damage to the Suburban, but the woman who had been driving it went what we nowtimes call full-on Karen. Screaming and hissing at me that I could have killed her (…what?) or somebody else (…who?), blaming me for old and imaginary damage on the front, rear, and opposite side of the Suburban, giving me smarmy lectures about how driving is a privilege and a responsibility, threatening a lawsuit, the works. She called her husband, who eventually arrived, took a look at the situation, said “He didn’t damage your car at all”, spent 10 or 15 minutes walking around the Suburban with her going “No, he wasn’t anywhere near that…no, that was from the garage door last year, remember? No, that was there before”, and eventually came back to me and said “We don’t have an issue here; feel free to go ahead and leave”. I filled in the missing paint with a red Sharpie; it did about an 80% job.

The car was approaching the expiry mileage of the service contract, and I knew I didn’t want to be on the hook for anything like the long list of repairs Chrysler had picked up under that contract, so it was time to sell. I placed ads in the newspapers—I don’t think online car sales were much of a thing yet, but I advertised it on the relevant enthusiast forums. I even made a homepage about it. Zero bites, even as I periodically dropped the price lower and lower in the newspaper and enthusiast-forum ads.

Eventually the car did sell, and generated one hell of a dramatic story in the process. That story really belongs in the post about the ’63 VW, though, so…stay tuned!

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