COAL: 1992 Dodge Spirit ESRT • The Nine-Year Lesson


Y’know the Doppler Effect: it causes the sound pitch of cars and horns and sirens and suchlike to seem lower as they pass and move away from you at speed. It has nothing to do with today’s stories. Instead, they pivot on the Dopeler Effect, which causes dumb ideas to seem smarter as they approach you at speed. Both effects are relative; they depend on the observer’s frame of reference relative to the sound (Doppler) or idea (Dopeler).

In Autumn 2003 I spotted an absolute honey of a 1994 Spirit R/T on an automotive classified-ads website. Just about 40,000 miles on it, all original, belonged to a banker’s wife. Intercooled turbocharged 2.5-litre engine, automatic transaxle, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 15″ alloy wheels, power locks-windows-mirrors-heated seats-antenna, sunroof, tan leather interior, perfect inside and out, and an affordable asking price. It seemed like almost the perfect AA-body; very near to exactly what I wanted, minus only cruise control and that deep metallic green paint they offered.

Problem: that classifieds site was autos.yahoo.com.mx, and the car was a Chrysler Spirit R/T in La Paz, Baja California Sur—over 5,300 kilometres and two international borders away from my home in Toronto. Oh, and it was 16 years too new to be legally imported into the States and six years too new for Canada. Still, it made my teeth itch so much I started running mind-movies of cockamamie schemes to get it in. I was emailing with the seller (using whatever came before Google Translate…oh yeah, that’s another thing: I can’t speak Spanish) and he proposed I fly in, have a lovely vacation there in La Paz and then drive the car home.

That is: drive the car 1,400 dangerous kilometres as an illiterate foreigner who doesn’t speak the language before I even get to the United States border, convince the US border guards I’m not trying to import the car to the states, but rather to Canada, cross the states diagonally, then convince the Canadian border guards to let the car in. Oh, gee, is that all?

Truly harebrained thoughts were inspired by late-production early-type Beetles and Minis and such brought in via subterfuge—or maybe even less than that; after all, I knew there was at least one other Mexican Chrysler Spirit in daily use with regular US licence plates. But false declaration is a profoundly stupid idea, just like all other kinds of lying to border guards. This is the likely outcome for an illegal car (and it’s likely what the would-be importer, in very deep doo-doo, wishes were their own fate):

Even if one manages to sneak a car across the border that isn’t meant to cross, it can still be seized (and destroyed, with the deep doo-doo and all the rest) at any time afterward. So: no. Okeh, how about importing it legally? It was potentially possible, theoretically. All I’d have to do is contract with DOT-registered and EPA-certified importers, put up a hefty bond, pay and wait for the importers to take apart the car and tabulate the construction and equipment differences to the equivalent US model, wait and pay for them to petition NHTSA to be permitted to modify the car to comply with US safety standards, wait and pay for them to do a three-day-long, multi-thousand-dollar series of emissions certification tests, then if NHTSA said yes wait and pay for the importers to do the modifications, wait for NHTSA to accept the documented modifications and for EPA to accept the results of the certification test, purchase costly import insurance, and…yeah…no. Even if that were successful, it would only get the car into the states; the only cars not built to Canadian standards that can be imported to Canada are substantially identical US models requiring only trivial modifications—all others are frozen out until they are 15 years old.

So I had to give up on that ’94 Spirit R/T. But its existence, and that of the illegal-alien ’92 (linked above), sparked another idea which in comparison—here’s that relative frame of observation I mentioned—seemed entirely sound, sane, reasonable, and feasible: build one! Start with a perfectly functional, intact automobile, take it apart for no good reason, and put it back together with a whole bunch of different parts. It’ll be great; all the parts will certainly go together with no difficulty, the resultant assembly will be a car even more perfectly functional and intact than before, and the project surely won’t take much time or money. A surefire plan, really; why, what could possibly go wrong?

This idea was juiced along by my recollection of riding in “Killer”, Hemi Andersen’s decidedly non-stock 1981 Aries, when I’d been there with D’Valiant some years before. He built that car up with goodies from a variety of later-year K-derivatives. It had a snappy turbo 2.5 motor in it, an A413 Torqueflite that shifted nicely, good brakes and wheels and suspension and on and on. Lots of fun. I wanted a Hemi-built car, too!

I found a Silver ’92 (American Dodge) Spirit R/T and thought to use the proceeds from selling its monster 16-valve motor and 5-speed transaxle to finance a swap-in of an 8-valve engine only somewhat less fun and a lot more dependable. That fell through; I think the car sold before I made up my mind. But not long after, I found a white ’92 Spirit ES with the Mitsubishi 3.0 V6 and A604 automatic. Aha! Hemi tried to discourage me: So you don’t apparently want to use the engine presently in the car. It seems a shame to make such a swap. But he did have a 2.5 turbo engine built up and on a stand…!

By the extremely eventual end of the project, he and I both wound up wishing he’d refused harder and I’d listened better. But we didn’t, so I bought that 58k-mile ’92 ES remotely—that was to be the first similarity with my at-the-time-still-ongoing-but-not-really Volvo 164 restification.

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