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.

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