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, 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.

The first week in April 2004 I flew down to North Carolina and made my way to Yadkinville (YAD·g’n·Vee·y’l). It was a nice one-owner car. White outside, –greylight quartz inside. Power everything except seats. Stopped in at a DMV office and bought a ten-day trip permit, pointed the car west, and drove it 4,400 km out to California. Longest stretch was day two: I left Tennessee in the morning and drove through Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and into New Mexico. Two time zones and 13.5 real hours later, I’d done 1,700 km through sun, rain, wind and snow. Probably the day after that I made it to Ventura. The car ran smoothly and dependably. No breakdowns, no tickets, and 28 miles per US gallon (8.4 l/100km) overall. I could’ve done very well by visiting with Hemi for a few days, having some relatively minor, cost-effective improvements done on the car, then driving back across the continent to Toronto. But as I say, I wasn’t very good at listening to the world outside my head back then. So I left the car with Hemi and flew back to Toronto.

Hemi called to make sure I made it home OK. He’d put the car up on the lift and found a core plug that was soon to let go, and a broken tubular rear sway bar in the rear trailing arm—this happened to a lot of the K-derivative cars. Oh well, no big deal; a solid rear sway bar was on the shopping list, anyhow. Speaking of the shopping list, here’s an email I sent to Hemi in 2004:

Hi, Hemi.

I’m going to try to do this alphabetically, because I figure that’s my best chance of not leaving stuff off the list, but I probably still will.

A/C condenser: Existing

A/C compressor: Sanden (you supply)

A/C expansion valve: Existing or new per your experience in changing to R134a.

A/C hose-lines assembly: to match compressor

A/C refrigerant: R134a

Air cleaner assembly: I have supplied

Air cleaner-to-engine bracket: If did not come with air cleaner, I do not have. Should be common to other turbo setups.

Alternator: Nippondenso 50/120 (I will supply)

Battery: Existing

Boost gauge: Do you have/can you install?

Brakes: Inspect (pedal vibration) and advise

Bushings, front: Inspect and advise

Bushings, rear: ?? Advise (see “Suspension, rear”)

Cable, accelerator pedal to throttle: I do not have. Mopar P/N 4306 578 (or good used if you have it)

Cable, throttle to trans kickdown: I do not have. Mopar P/N 5277 825 (or good used if you have it)

Cable, gear selector: I do not have. Good used if you have it or new if you don’t.

Camshaft: Stock ’89-up turbo cam (you supply)

Camshaft cover: “TURBO”, hemi orange, smooth/shiny (not crackle)

Driveshafts: Install equal-length assembly (supplied).

Engine: 2.5 Turbo, Hemi-built

Engine mounts: Heavy-duty if available.

Engine vacuum hose harness: I do not have. Do you have access?

Engine wiring harness: I will supply (trying to find better/uncut)

Exhaust: Existing as possible, except as needed to accommodate new engine

Firewall heat shield: From a turbo car. Do you have one or do I need to

Fuel filter: FFV stainless w/armored hoses, Mopar P/N 4495 409

Fuel lines, flexible, chassis to fuel rail: FFV armored if possible (supplied with manifold assembly)

Fuel rail: Stainless steel FFV, supplied w/intake

Fuel tank: Plastic from FFV car, I will supply (w/filler, w/pump, w/straps)

Intake manifold: With air charge temp sensor (supplied)

Intercooler: I have supplied

Intercooler hoses: I have supplied

Radiator: I have supplied

Radiator coolant reserve tank: I will supply (Spirit R/T item)

Radiator fan assembly: I will supply (Spirit R/T item)

SBEC (ECM): Working on getting a non-broken one

Springs: Eibach (I will supply)

Starter motor: Bosch, I will supply

Struts/shocks: Koni, I will supply

Strut tower brace: I will supply

Suspension, rear: Solid rear sway bar, bushings as necessary. I will supply Panhard rod.

Tires: Existing unless wheels swapped.

Transmission: Torqueflite, beefed up as appropriate in applicable areas (clutches, planetary assembly, etc.) with firm but not butt-kicking shifts. Appropriate torque converter.

Wheels: 16″ items (you supply)

Thanks -Daniel

Whoof! Some of this stuff baffles me now. Panhard rod…?! That’s, uh, quite the list, even if it had been a static one. But it was dynamic instead, by which I mean I kept adding to it with cool parts I found and bought. Some of them were as described; I managed to score an all-metal heavy-duty radiator, OE Mexican-spec for the intercooled R/T cars, new in box. Others…well…”good condition” means something different on the Mexican used-parts market than it means in America, so quite a pile of junk accumulated at Hemi’s on account of my compulsive shopping. This pile contained many parts not actually needed, and it lacked certain parts that were very crucially needed. An engine wiring harness, for example. The V6 harness in the car wasn’t compatible with the 4-cylinder engine; too many different components in different places. Neither would a harness from a nonturbo 4-cylinder car; those had throttle body injection, so no wires for the turbo motor’s four injectors (amongst other lacking provisions). And a harness from a pre-1992 turbo car wouldn’t work either, because of significant changes made to the fuel injection, engine management, cruise control, and other systems for 1992.

There weren’t very many 2.5/turbo automatic Spirits sold in northern North America in 1992. Even expanding the count to the max by including LeBarons, the total was still very small, and this was now twelve years on. A harness was not turning up for me or for Hemi, no matter how hard we looked. And looked, and looked, and looked! In early October 2005 (T-plus 18 months) I mentioned this unobtainium wiring harness in casual conversation with an individual who had contacted me with some questions about a segment of the vehicle lighting industry. Oh, hey, no problem, this guy said. He was a staff consultant to several automotive and industrial cable assembly shops, he said. Give him a factory part number and vehicle make-model-equipment specs and he could readily have one built, he said. Here again, I’ll pause to point at an example of my deficient observational skills at that time: dude’s first name was Brian, and his last name started with an S. Making his initials—class? Anybody?—yep. Those letters might just as well have been in the form of a giant, flashing, buzzing red neon sign. He managed to string me along with a steady stream of bogus progress reports (e.g., I sent the harness back to the shop, they have to rework the pcm connector and make some changes. I do not have an eta in January 2006), promises, and excuses through at least March of 2007 (T-plus-almost-three-years). Eventually he dropped out of contact altogether, though I wasn’t the only one he conned; next I heard of him he was half-selling—i.e., taking people’s money but not sending—bogus “upgrade” headlamps for Corvettes. People suck.

Stuff was happening with the car—Hemi swapped in the engine and built and installed the transaxle and the accessories, the suspension and brake upgrades, and other such. But the car got kinda jammed in the door, too. Figuratively, not literally: Hemi had the best of intent, and he certainly had the knowledge and experience, and all the tools and facilities. What he didn’t have was the time. He was in a very difficult position: he wanted to close down his shop and retire, but on the other hand didn’t want to close down his shop and retire. But keeping the shop meant paying monthly rent, and that meant keeping the fast-turnover customers coming for hourly-rate work, and that meant my ’92 Spirit build necessarily moved slowly. Eventually mine was the last car before Hemi would close down his shop, which in itself made difficult and complicated conflicts for Hemi. We (Hemi, the car, and I) continued in a holding pattern for quite awhile, but it still wasn’t running. Eventually I arranged for a friend of mine in Northern California, another experienced Chrysler tech, one Mr. Haigh, to go get the car and see if he could make something of it. He drove down and fetched the car—with its paint and interior quite deteriorated from seven years in the Southern California sun and smog—and the small mountain of parts, including a Mexican-spec 1993 2.5 Turbo II ECM I had finally found in good condition. Here’s the car about to depart Southern California:

…and here it is in Mr. Haigh’s yard, in the middle of being put together:

Mr. Haigh put together a working wiring harness by cobbling together parts from the original V6 harness and from a badly hacked one I’d bought out of Mexico. At first it would only fire one cylinder’s fuel injector:

…but Mr. Haigh iteratively debugged it to arrive at these fine results:

From then on it was “just” a matter of hanging parts. Many, many parts all over the car. The headliner had fallen down under the beating-down sun in SoCal, too, so that was replaced.

A good stereo went in, with a flip-out-and-fold-up screen—de luxe!. Lots of little tweaks: spacers behind the front turn signals to bring them close to flush with the bumper face, rather than recessed. That kind of thing.

Eventually it was time for me to come fetch the car, which I did in Spring 2013 (T-plus nine years). By that time Bill and I had moved out West. The car ran and drove beautifully up Highway 101, with the only mechanical flaw being a noisy power steering pump. The Eibach springs and such rode harder than I liked, but made the car very capable on twisty roads. Fun! Here’s a pic taken moments after the end of that trip:

So those were the two times I drove that car: one road trip west in 2004, and one north nine years later. I parked it in the driveway and used it once in awhile to run a local errand, but it had to go; things other than cars took precedence with my time and resources. Having automotive tastes well off the bell curve makes one’s cars very difficult to sell; it takes finding someone else whose tastes are also off the bell curve by the same amount and in the same direction, and…well, the market for built Dodge Spirits is, ah, slow. I took pictures and made this show-and-tell video…

…and put up pages and ads with this accurate list of specs and upgrades:

2.5 Turbo II intercooled, built by Hemi Andersen with top-grade, name-brand components and the correct 2.5T2 pieces and parts—intake manifold with air charge temp sensor, correct intercooler, Mexican 2.5 Turbo II ECM, new correct Valeo all-metal HD 2-row radiator, etc. New (not rebuilt) TE04H turbocharger is utterly silent. High-flow TC-Maserati airbox with big blowoff valve. All new vacuum harness made with silicone hoses and new vacuum ejectors and orifices. New, Mexican Chrysler Phantom R/T dual-pipe muffler (with real dual pipes, not the fake US “looks like two pipes but one of them is a dummy” item) sounds serious but not obnoxious. HD alternator and starter custom built to spec by Wes Grueninger at AutoLab. Flex-fuel injectors, pressure regulator, and fuel rail (stainless rail & regulator, braided stainless flex hoses, nickelplate high-flow injectors). The car has the correct USA 1992 2.5 Turbo underhood emission decal, and it blew super-clean numbers when I put it through a California emission test.

Torqueflite 31TH with all the updates and beef-ups and a nice shift kit, with lockup torque converter (works). Also built by Hemi Andersen. Crisp, quick shifts. Correct Mexican Federal Police BIG transmission fluid cooler.

Spirit R/T rear axle assembly with fully-welded solid sway bar. Eibach progressive springs. Koni adjustable shocks and struts. Big 4-wheel disc brakes. ’93 IROC R/T “Ninja” 16″ directional wheels in perfect condition with BFGoodrich Traction T/A P205/55HR16 tires. Quick ratio/firm-feel power steering rack and pinion assembly.

Rest of car:
Power locks, windows and mirrors, cold R134a air conditioning (all work), R/T trunklid spoiler, factory European export (Chrysler Saratoga) exterior lighting system, fat headlamp wires and relays, side repeaters, quad wide-angle/long-distance brake lights, twin red rear fog lamps, wide-angle turn signals. Integral daytime running lights. Factory European export seat belts (height-adjustable in front). Mexican instrument cluster (dash wiring also installed for optional digital dash cluster).

Clarion NZ501 stereo/DVD/MP3/Satellite stereo head unit with dynamic satellite navigation system (no subscription required), BlueTooth, motorized flip-up touch screen, and line-in port (iPhone etc.), Clarion SRQ1331R 3-way speakers all around, Clarion THD400 HD Radio tuner sounds terrific.

Sounds like a pretty nice car, eh! They don’t go for much money, though, especially not relative to what I’d poured into it. I wound up selling it to an online acquaintance who’d bought some Dart-Valiant stuff from me over the years. A friend of his drove it back to him in…Virginia!

I could’ve done well leaving it in North Carolina. He made good with it, though; here’s how it wound up looking:

Now there you have it, the story of my second-to-last AA-body. I don’t blame Hemi for how this went, and neither should anyone else—and he’s a valued CC reader and commenter—so please don’t let’s be giving him any guff about it. Yes, okeh, he should’ve shut me down when I first floated the idea and firmly said no, and put his foot down and hollered no louder when I pressed the point, and we’d’ve done well if he hadn’t told me about that built-up 2.5 turbo motor he had on the stand. But me, I ought to have listened when he did say no in so many words. I ought to have got the hint when the car did just fine and went as fast as I cared to go with its original powertrain. I shouldn’t’ve initiated a(nother) nebulous, open-ended project like this and aggravated it by continuing to buy parts and sending them to Hemi.

The central trouble—as you’ll have detected if you’ve been reading my COAL series all along—was that I tended to fixate on an ideal version of whatever car was in mind and at hand. It was the ideal ’65 D’Valiant, the ideal ’85 Volvo 245…the ideal ’92 Spirit. When I latched onto the idea of whatever the perfect car was, it tended to blind me to the reality factors involved until they repeatedly smacked me upside the wallet. It took me a lot of years, cars, and dollars to finally understand was that unless one has Jay Leno levels of wealth and resources, there is going to be a canyon between the movies we run in our heads and the cars we actually drive.

»Back to Daniel Stern’s COAL Series index«