The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve realized that the U.S. has the greatest car culture on earth. Where else can you buy a 56 year-old junker for two G’s, slap some temporary tags and cheap insurance on it, change out some fluids (for dirt cheap, I might add), snag some backup parts at the local store, and then just road-trip the rusty hulk 650 miles?
That’s what I did with my 1965 Plymouth Valiant, a car that I’ve referred to in my first two columns as “The Most Reliable American Car Ever Built.” Is this hyperbole? Absolutely, but that should be obvious given the nature of the claim, which is unprovable. Still, one can make a good argument that the Valiant is indeed the most reliable American car ever given the unkillable nature of the slant-six “Leaning Tower of Power” engine and the simplicity of the drivetrain (three-speed column-shift manual, solid rear axle).
That’s what I was leaning on when I bought this car as a way to get back from upstate New York (where I had just helped a friend move from LA) to Detroit, and what I’ve leaned on when purchasing all of my vehicles.
I always go for cars that have been well-engineered, even if they haven’t been amazingly maintained. This way, I can save money, but also take solace in the fact that, once I inspect the car and make the necessary repairs (often brake work, engine tuning, suspension fixes), the vehicle probably won’t give me any major trouble in the future. I’d much rather follow this strategy than buy a poorly-engineered vehicle that has been well maintained (like my coworker’s Volkswagen Tiguan or the rod bearing failure-prone E9X BMW M3), and have to worry about a stupid catastrophic failure.
So I felt pretty confident in the Valiant. The bulletproof engine sounded good. And, given that the slant six doesn’t have a reputation of catastrophically failing without first knocking for a few thousand miles, I knew that the motor would hold up. The transmission shifted well and sounded good — no gear whine or bearing noise. Sure, there was some scratchiness in the throwout bearing when I pressed the clutch pedal, but I wasn’t worried about that, especially as I wouldn’t be clutching in that often since there are only three gears. The rest of the driveline is really basic, and appeared to be in good condition.
I had no doubt this 56 year-old machine would make the trip. What I didn’t know was how little wrenching would be required for that to happen, since some failures are hard to anticipate. Surely I’d have to swap the ignition points and condenser, right? The ballast resistor?
Nope. None of that. All I had to do was swap out a little spring in a rear drum brake — a job that I did under the cover of a PNC Bank drive-through — and have a shop fix a bad valve stem:
I noticed while refueling that my passenger-side tire had gone pretty much completely flat overnight while I was sleeping in the Valiant’s rear bench. How I didn’t feel this while driving down the freeway, I don’t know, but by the time I made it to a Sheetz gas station in Pennsylvania, I only had 6 PSI holding that tire to the bead.
While airing up, I enjoyed a 15 minute conversation with a ~75 year-old native who told me all about her husband’s 1948 Dodge Coupe and her black Studebaker Hawk (with a red interior!). She loved my Valiant, and even complimented its condition; we chatted about car shows she and her now-not-quite-as-mobile husband used to go to. She was a sweet woman who actually thanked me for talking to her, though frankly I think I enjoyed it as much as she did. God I love meeting new people through cars.
Anyway, after leaving the fuel station, I noticed that my tire was losing air quite rapidly (apparently the shop that had installed my tires hadn’t checked for leaks or replaced my valve stems), so I stopped by a nearby repair shop, where a gentleman hooked me up with a new stem for $20. He, his colleague and I also talked about cars, showing eachother machines on our phones.
I don’t really know what else to say about the Valiant. It drove along at 65 MPH without a fuss. The tipped-over engine revved smoothly underhood at around 3,000 RPM, the soft rear leaf springs and front torsion beams suspended the car like a bouncy castle (but with a bit more damping, thank god), the manual steering felt light thanks to the enormous blue steering wheel and short gearing in the steering box, and honestly — aside from my windshield wipers coming detached from their arms — the Valiant was perfect. It felt almost new, which is absurd thing to say given the car’s age and price.
Fuel economy was around 17 MPG if my GPS navigation’s vehicle speed is to be trusted (I used that to adjust my mileage, since I know my speedometer is off due to my smaller tires). That’s pretty low for a car that should do mid-20s all day, but I’ll do a tune-up at some point.
I made it home on Monday night after a day and a half on the highway. The following day, my scratchy throwout bearing started making some clunky sounds, so I do anticipate a clutch job soon. I’ll also rivet in some floors and undercoat the whole vehicle before it serves as my winter beater from November until April.
Finally, I’ll have a fun car to drive in the winter, and not some sorry, rusted-out Jeep that makes me hate life. Hopefully this Valiant continues running “like a clock,” as the previous owner liked to say.