Why I Chose A 1965 Plymouth Valiant As A Winter Car Over A Toyota Land Cruiser

How can a 56 year-old rear-wheel drive sedan be a better winter vehicle than a 2002 Toyota Land Cruiser?

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Illustration: David Tracy/Adam Ismail

On the face of it, it doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone drive a 1965 Plymouth Valiant in the winter instead of a 2002 Lexus LX-470 (the Lexus version of Toyota’s 4x4 beast, the Land Cruiser)? Here’s the answer to that question.

I just sold my 2002 Lexus LX-470 to the kind gentleman you see in the photo below. It took me quite a while before I found a buyer, but in the end, my driveway is bearing 4,500 fewer pounds than before, and my wallet is carrying 7,200 bucks more.

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Image: David Tracy
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My fleet now consists of the following machines:

  • *1957 Willys FC-150 (doesn’t run)
  • 1958 Willys FC-170 (has a whole slew of issues)
  • 1965 Plymouth Valiant
  • *1966 Ford Mustang
  • *1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle (doesn’t run)
  • *1985 Jeep J10
  • *1991 Jeep Cherokee 5spd
  • *1992 Jeep Cherokee
  • *1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd
  • *1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd (doesn’t run)
  • 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd (parts car)
  • *1994 Chrysler Voyager 5spd diesel (in Europe)

On that list, all the vehicles with asterisks are ones that are not completely rusted out, and that I’d rather not drive on Michigan’s salty roads during the wintertime. Two of the rusty vehicles have mechanical maladies that preclude them from being my primary winter transportation.

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That leaves only the Plymouth Valiant as a vehicle that I don’t mind rusting out (since it’s already quite rusty) and that is in mechanically good shape. Here’s why I kept it over the Lexus LX for winter duty.

Why Not The Land Cruiser?

I Don’t Want To Rust Out Something That’s Worth Money

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Image: David Tracy
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Why not the Lexus? Well, there are a few reasons. First, in its current mostly-rust-free shape, the Lexus is worth actual money. And ideally, I don’t want my sacrificial anode-car to be worth much.

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Image: David Tracy
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If I rust the frame out after a few Michigan winters, the vehicle will be worth a lot less, and that’s depreciation that I’m not willing to swallow, especially since I can easily find and maintain a cheap, already-rusted beater for a grand or two. So that’s what I did with the Valiant.

The Valiant Is More Reliable And Easier To Fix

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The Valiant is not only more reliable than the Lexus, but it’s also easier to fix. The former is probably a pretty surprising thing for Toyota Land Cruiser fans to hear, but it’s just reality. The Land Cruiser is an unkillable machine if properly maintained, and has earned a reputation as the ultimate long-distance overlander. But as stout as it is compared to modern cars, its reliability can’t hold a candle to that of an old machine like my Valiant, which is fitted with the unstoppable Chrysler slant-six motor.

What it comes down to is complexity and ease of service.

Complexity

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By virtue of being a modern vehicle (especially a luxury vehicle), the Lexus just has a lot of stuff that can go wrong. The sunroof, for example; it not only doesn’t work, but it also leaks water into the cabin (though this seems to have fixed itself). Look at the video above to see me wake up at 3 A.M. to the Lexus’ horn blaring due to the sunroof’s drain allowing water to bridge the horn’s relay.

Other fancy features that the Lexus has that the Valiant doesn’t: a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, power steering, and air conditioning. The first doesn’t work, and the last two are leaking.

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Plus there are features that still work, but will eventually fail — things like Automatic Height Control (AHC) suspension (which is known to leak and leave the vehicle sitting like a low-rider) and an ABS pump/accumulator (which tends to leave 100 Series Land Cruiser drivers brake-less, quivering, and with their right foot jammed to the floor).

The Valiant obviously doesn’t have hydraulic adjustable suspension; it doesn’t have any sort of brake pump (it doesn’t have power brakes at all), and it doesn’t have a power steering rack (it has manual steering — just a shaft going into an oil-filled gearbox). The car is bone simple, and that’s what I want in the winter, when I really would like to avoid spending 10 hours replacing a steering rack in -20 degree weather.

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Ease of Service

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Image: David Tracy
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Even though the Valiant doesn’t have as many parts to fail as the Lexus does, there are still bits that can go bad. Plus, basic maintenance is always important. But this, too, is where the old Valiant shines.

Just look at how much space there is in the engine bay. It’s fantastic. Meanwhile, the Lexus’ engine bay has a 4.7-liter V8 stuffed in it, and while the off-roader is not the worst when it comes to access, the old Plymouth is on a different level.

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Serviceability matters in a winter vehicle. Take a look at the photo above to see how easy it is to change a Valiant’s starter; the motor is right there at the back of the engine bay, mounted up high. I could literally replace that starter in five minutes.

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Meanwhile, the Lexus’s starter is located in the engine’s vee; replacing the starter is a humongous pain in the ass, as this video shows:

Another maintenance item for the Lexus is the timing belt, which has to be swapped every 100,000 miles or so. This job requires tearing into the engine:

You’ll notice in the video above that the timing belt drives the water pump, so you can expect water pump replacement to be even more arduous.

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My Valiant doesn’t have a timing belt, and because the slant six is a pushrod design with a camshaft close to its crankshaft, the chain is short and should last the life of the vehicle. As for the water pump? Look at how easy this thing is to replace:

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Image: David Tracy
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Sure, there are a few things that the Valiant has to deal with that the Lexus doesn’t, like ignition points. But swapping those out takes no more than five minutes. The Valiant also has a carburetor, which can get gunked up over time, but the single-barrel Carter on my Leaning Tower of Power is as simple as a carburetor gets. It’ll continue running beautifully for years, and when it needs a rebuild, that’ll take me a few hours at most.

Cost of Service

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Whereas the Lexus if made up of quite a few expensive components that have a tendency to eventually fail (and my Lexus, with over 260,000 miles, was a time-bomb in some respects), the Valiant really doesn’t have many bits that can break, and if they do, they’re easy to fix and cheap.

That’s a big deal in the winter, when I really want to avoid getting frostbite. “If it breaks, just take it to a shop” you might suggest. No way in hell. Lexus parts are ridiculously pricey. A used ABS accumulator pump like the one shown above tends to cost around $1000. A new OEM steering rack? Ditto. A thousand bucks.

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Even smaller maintenance items cost more than the Valiant’s. The starter, for example, is $95:

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Image: O’reilly Auto Parts

That’s actually not a bad price, though I will say: My Valiant’s starter is significantly cheaper at $52.

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Image: O’reilly Auto Parts

The water pump for the Lexus costs $120 at O’Reilly Auto Parts:

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Image: O’reilly Auto Parts
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My Valiant’s water pump is only $33:

Image for article titled Why I Chose A 1965 Plymouth Valiant As A Winter Car Over A Toyota Land Cruiser
Image: O’reilly Auto Parts
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Add the cost of a mechanic if I were feeling too lazy to fix my car in the winter (and of course, that’s never the case; I always do my own work), and you can see why the prospect of owning that Lexus isn’t too enticing for me.

It’s Just Not Worth The Headache

The Lexus may be reliable for a modern-ish vehicle, but compared to my 1965 Plymouth — which only has a few parts that can fail, arranged around a stout powertrain and drivetrain — it’s a liability. Add the fact that replacing parts is significantly pricer and more difficult due to tight packaging, plus the fact that the Lexus stands to lose quite a bit of value if it rusts out (whereas my $2000 Valiant can’t lose more than $2000 in value), and this decision became a no-brainer for me.

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I get that the Lexus is safer, more comfortable, and more capable in deep snow. But the tradeoff just isn’t worth it to me, especially since I find the Valiant to be significantly more fun to drive.

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Image: David Tracy
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I slapped some winter tires on the Plymouth, poured in all new fluids, and I expect to drive the machine all winter without issue. Or if there is an issue, it will be one that I can fix quickly and for little money. That’s what I want from a winter “beater with a heater.”