Picasso had his Blue Period. Another Blue Period is occurring around my house in northern Virginia, where some odd set of coincidences has caused a number of blue Dodge Darts and Plymouth Valiants to appear on nearby streets, long after the Chrysler A-Body twins have disappeared from common usage in the area. Far from being immobile driveway or yard sculptures, they all remain registered and ready for the road. Each is, in its own way, a work of art.
Some may question how anyone could declare a car as mundane as a Dodge Dart or Plymouth Valiant to be a work of art. Many would confine the term to the best of Ferrari and other exclusive European marques from the 1960s and earlier, along with the more brilliant creations of Bill Mitchell and other American designers. The essence of art being expression, however, the simplicity and vulgarity of the elements used is immaterial. For example, no one would contest that this simple collection of lines and colors, “Blue, White and Yellow” by Piet Mondrian, is a work of art (although many would call it pointless and wonder why anyone finds it interesting or worthy of acclaim).
The Darts and Valiants that I have found nearby are equally works of art. Take this 1974 Dart. I could point out the obvious resemblance between the shapes and colors in this photograph and those of “Blue, White and Yellow”–each with a yellow square, a blue rectangle, and parallel black lines–and rest my case. It goes far beyond that basic visual similarity, though. This generation of Dart and Valiant was a perfect blank canvas for the owner to express his or her own personality.
During my teen years in the 1980s, Dart and Valiants of this generation were the aging cars of frugal parents and teachers and hand-me-down first cars for teenagers. I experienced several of them. A friend’s father had a ratty 1969 Dart convertible with a 273 V-8 that was one of the most uncomfortable yet fun cars in which to be a passenger. My Russian teacher, without whom my various stories of Russian vehicles such as the GAZ-24 Volga and GAZ-66 would not exist, drove a late 1960s Valiant. My clarinet teacher had a mid-70s Valiant with a Slant Six/3-speed manual whose three on the tree was the first and only one that I have seen in action.
This 1974 Dart perfectly captures the look and spirit of those Darts and Valiants of the 1980s. It is faded and dented but complete and almost entirely stock, like a well used but diligently maintained example would have been thirty years ago. It has rust holes in one of the fenders and some surface rust on its right side but otherwise appears to have a sound body and a good vinyl top. The owner is keeping it clean and in original condition, and cares enough to clean up the trail of gas from the exposed filler that was the mark of a beater A-Body back when they were common. It may need adjustment to its front torsion bars to get it back to its original ride height, but since that adjustment is quite easy, it is likely that the owner is keeping the rake intentionally.
The white rectangle visible between the windshield wipers is a cassette of a Bryan Adams album which, along with the old-fashioned aftermarket AM/FM/cassette with knobs and buttons sans display screen or LEDs–possibly a period Kraco or Sparkomatic, keeps the car Eighties-correct.
“Ironic hipster doofus” is the first thought that many will have upon hearing these details, but they would be wrong. A passing dog walker informed me that the driver of the Dart is a high school student, which puts this Dart in an entirely different light.
That was confirmed when I later found it parked at the local high school. A student preserving a 1974 Dart as a tribute to the eighties, an entire decade before he was born, must have an interesting reason for doing so. It is akin to a high school student in the eighties driving an unrestored early 1950s Chevy with a Stovebolt Six. One possibility is that he is driving the high school car of his father, who based on a back of the envelope calculation, likely was a teenager during the 1980s. Whatever the reason, seeing this Dart serving as the daily driver of a teenager is a heartwarming sight. Here is one teenager getting started in the hobby early and in the right way, with a modest and easy to maintain starter classic.
Alas, the other blue Dart/Valiant examples in the area are less heartwarming, although no less expressive. On to them.
The preceding 1963-66 generation of the Dart and Valiant had already disappeared from the streets in the area during the 1980s and are more self-consciously classic cars, so I am not surprised to find the surviving examples near me to be more shouty and obvious about their old-time status. This vanity plate equipped 1965 Dart has become a defiant patriotic symbol with its “One Less Import” and “God Bless America” stickers. Since it was sitting unused on a weekday, however, it probably is a second or third car that has not prevented the sale of an imported car in a long time, if ever. Art is not always subtle or entirely accurate, unfortunately.
Speaking of Picasso’s Blue Period, his favorite subjects during that deeply depressed period of his life were beggars and other down-and-out members of society. Fittingly, I found this 1964 Valiant Signet living under the shelter of a highway overpass. It appears to be complete and rust-free aside from the holes on the leading edge of the hood, so hopefully it is living on the streets only temporarily. It wears an antique plate from 1964 and probably has since 2007, the year of its last inspection sticker (in Virginia, cars registered as antiques are exempt from state inspections).
In addition to the 1964 antique plates, this Valiant has a bumper sticker for the 1964/1965 World’s Fair in New York attached to its rear bumper. It is in far too fresh condition to be period-original, so it is clearly a new addition to make the car’s age more evident. It is a sign that someone cares about it even though it appears to have been sitting in this spot for so long that a mound of leaves and dirt that the street sweepers were unable to reach has accumulated around it. I hope that this unpretentious classic stops living under an overpass and rolls into the light of day on its own power soon.
I have presented three blue classic Darts and Valiants here, but there are more in the area that I know about but could not find and photograph in time. Another 1964 Valiant Signet, a dark blue example parked only a few hundred yards away from the one under the overpass, almost became my Gambia road trip car instead of the 1986 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser that I ended up buying when I was thinking that the simplest, most foolproof American classic would be the right tool for the job. It has disappeared from its long-term street parking space, probably to re-join the rest of the owner’s fleet of four Darts and Valiants parked in his garage and yard.
The popularity of these Darts and Valiants as practical classics, parked outside and driven regularly, is not surprising–being inexpensive to buy, easy to maintain and repair, and respected for their reliability and durability, they are an ideal starter classic, and as shown here, they are an excellent blank canvas for an owner to use to make his or her own statement to the world. If this many exist within a few miles of me, then their numbers around the country must be quite high.