COAL 8: The 1980s, Part II – Much Too Many Cars and One Dealership Too Much

It was just after the middle of the 1980s. As I recall, the Dodge B200 Sportsman van had found a home some time ago and the cars hanging around were the newly-5-year-leased Volvo, the 1963 Plymouth station wagon, the 1965 Barracuda, and the 1965 Valiant 4 door for mother to drive. We had only two drivers, and one of them rarely needed to drive. Something had to be done.

I was ‘stuck’ with the Volvo until October 1990.

I wasn’t going to sell the Barracuda, but the ’65 Valiant, that was a possibility. And unfortunately, as much as I had of myself in the ’63 Belvedere wagon, it drew the short straw first. She had served so well all these years since I bought her in September of ’70; I hated to sell her. But first she got to contribute some parts to my son Erik’s ’63 Belvedere, as well as her 360 engine, which went into my ’79 Dodge D150 truck. To make room for the 360 in the truck, I had occasion to sell the engine right out from under its hood to someone who needed a cheap engine replacement for his Dodge B-van. My truck’s own 360 had a ton of miles on it, and was just one step up from a junkyard engine. But it was a good way to provide a new place for my custom-built 360 workhorse.

Anyone ever try to pull (well, drop) an engine out the bottom of a full-size van, all by yourself? That is quite a trick, as well as a balancing act. This was in 1988 or ’89, when I was in my own shop, Hemi’s Independent Chrysler Repair, having left Harbor Chrysler for the last time in April of 1988 (about which, more below).

I had also met up with Eva, back in ’85 at the VASA lodge in Ventura. She was and remains a true Swede to this day, and became my wife № 4 in 2000. When I met her, she was driving a 1969 Chevy Nova with that everlasting Blue Flame 6 and Powerglide:

Curb feelers used to be a thing.

Here’s the Nova behind her cottage—which was swept away by a flood; hence, she ended up living with mother and me, eventually.

Kitty, front and center!

A closer zoom on the Nova:

This is what now stands where Eva’s cottage was. Even closer to the creek, and a lot larger!

By ’87, that car had clocked well over 200,000 miles and was running on borrowed time. While I was still working at Harbor Chrysler-Plymouth, it was time to do something about the Nova’s motor.

Since I had lived in Santa Paula, I had frequented the Chevrolet dealer on the next block east from my home, often for parts. At the customer entrance to the parts department sat a complete Chevy 6-cylinder long engine on display. I walked past it many times between 1979 and the mid-’80s. It was soiled with dust and cigarette ash, and I often wondered if it was for sale. I inquired one day and found that indeed it was available. I never knew what year or model of vehicle it was meant for, but as far as I was concerned, it was going to be for a 1969 Nova. I bought it at a very reasonable price; they were glad to get rid of this obstacle to pedestrian travel, and Eva was happy to have it implanted into her car—which I did right there in the Chrysler dealership.

Speaking of working at the dealership: when some customer’s car wouldn’t start after a repair, it was pushed to my stall. I would make it run, whatever it took. That theme carried over to driveability, as well. You must remember the hesitation and surging in those days after the start of emissions control but before fuel injection. It got pretty bad, balancing retarded timing, EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) and lean carburetion against the hopes and desires of the customer for a smooth-running car under all driving conditions.

Holley 6280 feedback carburetor

There was a fix I developed for the 1985+ M-body cars with the 318 engine. These were the Chrysler Fifth Avenue, Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Gran Fury cars, and had changed from the Carter BBD to a Holley 6280 carburetor for 1985. Both were feedback carburetors, but the cars with the Holley carburetor had a real surge at steady throttle. Accelerate to your cruising speed—30 or 35 or 45 in town, 55 or 60 or 65 on the freeway—fine, but then the car would shudder and surge very noticeably. That was the engine compartment configuration with which they were approved as meeting the emissions standards, so that was how they ran.

My fix arose from the purchase of a new ’85 Fifth Avenue by the county sheriff. The morning after the purchase, the vehicle appeared outside the gates securing the repair shop with a note under the windshield wiper: “IF YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS CAR RUN ANY SMOOTHER THAN THIS, YOU CAN KEEP THE CAR!” (the words may have been a little stronger, but you get the point).

I was called to the dealership owner’s office and instructed to “FIX IT!” I asked for a repair order, and was told, “JUST FIX IT!” This was not the first time I had heard those words. I road-tested the car, and felt the surging, jerky feeling in the car as I crested a slight rise then fall of the pavement of the highway at 55 MPH. To explain this better, in order to maintain the speed limit, as the road crested I had to back off the throttle just a little so the speed would not increase. This is when the car shuddered due to the engine intermittently producing forward thrust, then nothing, then power again until I would apply more throttle to get the engine once again putting out more power to propel the car along. (I’ve never tried explaining this in print, so I hope you can understand what I mean.)

California is pretty strict about emissions tampering, and so are the feds. So I had to find a way to correct the symptoms without altering the exhaust emissions from this vehicle (and without a work order). Similarly as I came up with a fix that wasn’t in the service manual for the On-Line Cryptic Teletype communications while on a Marine MEU in Vieques, Puerto Rico in 1962, so I had to do the same here without leaving any trace. I am not going to explain the details; it gets a little deep, but it did work. The sheriff was happy, the dealership owner was happy, and when I contacted the Chrysler zone office and told them how I had corrected the problem, they told me it was a clever fix, but not something they could recommend or easily repair on all the vehicles that experienced this situation. But if they had occasion to have others with this problem, they would refer them to our dealership for repair. FAT CHANCE!

The final straw between myself and Harbor Chrysler in 1988 while I was working as the fix-whatever-the-other-guys-in-the-shop-broke guy. At that time I was on a fixed salary, more generous than those working on flat rate. Generally I was the tune-up guy and drivability diagnoser as well as the occasional RWD transmission rebuilder. I also repaired air conditioning problems, and there is where the last straw entered the picture.

For “Protection” (…of what, we don’t “know”)

When a technician received a repair order for checking the air conditioner of a car for “no cold air”, the first thing to do was check to see if the refrigerant charge was low. If it is, you go to the parts window and wait in line behind a number of other mechanics, all waiting for their turn to get parts. Finally you can check out a few cans of the R-12 we used back in the day. You then go and partially charge the system and check for leaks. You determine the problem, and if it is something repairable without having to wait for a special-order part, you get the part to fix it and the parts department automatically charges out three cans of R-12 as well. Sometimes that is more than you need. The parts department doesn’t want it back; that would mess up their inventory, so the mechanic is stuck with the excess cans. You could just blow it off into space (back then; not now), but you can’t just throw it away. So, I would store it in a locked cabinet in the shop and use some to test the systems of the next AC repair job I got before even going to the parts department the first time around. That is how I ended up with a small stockpile of cans of R-12 in the cabinet.

This turned out to be a bad decision, as one day the entire management including the owner descended on me in my work area. A particular individual whom I had bad relations with in management, the Assistant Service Manager, had gone to the owner and accused me of stealing Freon and storing it in my locked cabinet. I tried to explain: if I was stealing it, why was it still in the locked cabinet when I had free use of the shop on weekends and could have taken it out any time I wanted to? My explanation didn’t fly, and my salaried job vanished that moment; I was back to working flat rate again. Needless to say, I was no longer “Mr. Fix-It” any more, either—their loss.

A mechanic named Lee, at the Cadillac dealership was looking to open his own business and asked if I wanted to go in with him on the rental of a shop and purchase of whatever equipment we would need. I agreed, and though it took a few months to set up, we moved into our own repair shop which we named ABC Auto Care; on the business card it stood for “A Better Choice”. We got the shop up and running and had more work than we could handle—Lee doing Cadillacs and other GM cars, and me with my Chrysler products.

I was also hosting a monthly 10:00 AM Saturday car Q&A show on KVEN Radio in Ventura, from 1988 until the station became KVTA sometime in the mid-’90s.

“Your ’87 Diplomat surges and the dealer won’t fix it?”

“…Very funny. NEXT CALLER!”

It wasn’t long before Lee became overwhelmed with work and had to hire someone to work for him. One Monday when I arrived at the shop, I found my lift, in my end of the shop, supporting an old ’50s Cadillac with the entire front suspension removed, waiting for parts. I asked Lee to get the Caddy off my rack, which he could not quickly do. I realized that this arrangement was not going to work, and fortunately I found that there was another vacant shop in the same building. I promptly rented it and had my lift moved from Lee’s shop to my new place, Hemi’s Independent Chrysler Repair.

And now this chapter has come more or less full circle, so we’ll close it here. Stay tuned for more!

Previous chapters:

  1. First Transport – Coming to ‘Amerika’
  2. Being American and Picking a Car Company
  3. Motoring Into the Working World
  4. The 1960s – Serving, Saluting, and Swapping
  5. The 1970s, Part I – Backing and Forthing
  6. The 1970s, Part II – Barking and Forthing
  7. The 1980s, Part I – The Barracuda Goes Into Dry Dock and the Wagon’s a Tractor