Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Valiant Saga: A Slanted View

Recently I experienced a maddening bout of bidding on a well known auction site. Up for grabs was a plastic model kit of a car I've been searching for for decades. The model is of a 1961 Valiant. Not styled with the elegance of a Mercedes, the car nonetheless holds a great deal of sentiment to me; my dad had a '62 model, which is almost identical.

Now, I always pictured myself behind the wheel of the car which dad affectionately referred to as the "Red Baron" for its color and its never-say-die attitude. In fact, it was that very attitude which indulged my cravings for the old Plymouth.

Take the engine; the Slant Six, so-called due to its number of cylinders and its right-leaning design, is known in the auto industry for its uncanny durability. Nonetheless, ours discovered a way to "window" the engine block. That's as bad as it sounds. When a connecting rod suddenly becomes free from the engine while the car is running, it has to go somewhere. In this case it went right through the block. I remember staring, with morbid curiosity, as the tow truck operator dropped it off in the driveway in front of my very stoic and patient dad. "It's just one of those things", mused my father the next day. Without hesitation, he rented an engine lift, went to a junkyard across town, and bought another engine. Ten hours later he had reliable transportation once again.

That lasted about four months. It was mid spring when the second reliable slanted motor began issuing rather overt cries for help. Dad first noticed it when he started the car one morning and made the west end of our house disappear in exhaust smoke.

Ever patient, my dad climbed into our other car and made a trip to the local car parts store for an overhaul kit, followed by a tool rental store for equipment he'd need for the job. Another long weekend was spent watching my dad and brother strip and rebuild the reincarnation of the original slanted wonder. "Why don't we paint the engine Fluorescent Racing Orange?", I queried, only to be met with "Hush, run downstairs to the tool room, and get me a 9/16" socket. It should be behind the tool caddy". These trips up and down the stairs led, prematurely, to the strongest knees you'll ever find on anyone not trying out for the Steelers. It was during this weekend that I discovered my name isn't Rob. It's Get Me. "Get me..." was issued ninety-seven times over that dreadful weekend. I couldn't understand why dad thought I was being sarcastic when I finally loaded up the wheelbarrow with all of his tools and brought them up to the driveway. "NO, knucklehead", said a man who was finally beginning to show his human frailty. "I don't need the drill. Or the ball peen hammer. Or whatever this thing is" (referring to something which appeared to be a double-handled bottle opener with a forward sight from an M16 welded to it). "Get me the wrenches."

Two long days of being in awe of seeing the inside of a car engine for the first time, dad turned the key and fired up the Red Baron again. I'll hand it to him; being a former Chrysler systems engineer he really knew his way around cars. I fully appreciated the beatific smile spreading across his face at that moment. For a precious few seconds, we recognized having overcome a very difficult challenge. We had grown. And we were victorious.

That victory was sweet for the next few months. One evening, an elderly man decided that his Oldsmobile would look better with the Valiant's grille planted directly in the side of it. Having pulled out in front of my brother, he realized, too quickly, his error.

That realization was followed by another trip across town for some replacement fenders, hood, and grille. I think dad was actually relieved this time. Body panels don't need to be rebuilt. They simply need to be bolted on. The forward frame rails, which secure the front bumper, needed to be straightened out. To this day I'll never know how he did it, but dad not only straightened them but even aligned them -with a sledgehammer. Dad, by now, was beginning to run low on his "let's-rebuild-the-car-again-this-weekend" budget, so he chose to modify the front bumper rather than replace it. In an effort befitting his natural determination to keep things operating, he hacksawed the center section of the bent bumper off, grinded the edges of the right and left sides of the part, and made bumperettes which almost gave the Valiant a custom car look.

We had been down this road, so to speak, so many times that no one in his car pool was surprised when he showed up in a red, white, and black Valiant with the center section missing from the bumper. His work mates were all engineers. I don't think any of them was very interested in aesthetics, in contrast to our neighbors next door. Mrs. Griffin, in particular, was having her prize roses judged while the wine-filled ambience was aided by occasionally issued vulgarities, the cadence of the sledge hammer, and beer cans tossed behind the car. In the end, the car was made roadworthy, and there was peace.

In the real end, the axle developed expensive damage. I did get to drive the car once, however. In fact, I was the one who drove it to a local gas station where it would be met by another tow truck for its final destination with the salvage yard. I like to think that someone rescued the poor thing, repaired it one more time, and painted it to its former glory.

In reality, it's likely refrigerator in Akron by now. That's sad. That car had undeniable character.

I hope refrigerators don't throw connecting rods.



  1. Hey, My car is a recycled Refrigerator! I resemble that remark. Good job fellow Hobo. I knew you when....

    Paper Clip

  2. Is that you, Tin Cup Carl? Great hearing from you! Still riding the rail out west?

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  4. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed.