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The Engine Time Couldn’t Kill

Even though the Hemis and 440s and the big cube V8 engines get all the glory in the Mopar engine pantheon, I have a soft spot for the bread and butter Slant Six. It was the first Mopar engine I ever did any work on other than changing the oil and basic maintenance.

The first car I spent my own hard-earned money on was a 1971 Dodge Demon automatic with a decent 318 CID. I enjoyed that little V8, but never worked on it other than oil and filter changes. I was to learn much more about Mopar’s little 6-cylinder “engine that could” when I moved into a “student ghetto” area in college and one of my student neighbors had a 1970 Plymouth Duster with the 225 CID, 30-degree slanter. I didn’t know those specs at the time, and little did I know that engine would be in my life for some time to come.

I was more interested in home audio gear than gearhead stuff in those days of the mid-70s, but the Demon was a fun and reliable car -- with its white vinyl roof no less – oh the shame of hindsight! Yet for me it really was more of a driving appliance for road trips home every so often across the desert Southwest – even with its under-dash factory A/C. Watts per channel were more important that HP for me then.

The Demon could be a handful with its narrow stock rims and radial tires and “Iso-Master” power steering mated up with the 318. It really was agricultural in its handling – can you say plow? Did any car company make power steering deader than Dodge did in those days? Just where were the front wheels pointing anyway? Those radials would roll right over and it felt like the front was in pudding.

I had a grand time once driving through a snow-packed mountain road of Arizona right behind a state trooper as he led a last caravan of vehicles and trucks through before the road was officially closed because of too much snow. I was all over the road and learned on the spot about throttle control and drifting – long before it became fashionable.

But it was a genuine surprise to me when my neighbor showed up asking if I had an oil filter wrench that would fit the filter on her Duster’s engine. First, I only vaguely recognized her because I had never spoken to her and her roommate in the months we had been neighbors. Second, in 23 years of living, I had never know any female to even know what an oil filter wrench was, let alone change the oil in her car. This was in 1977 -– fairly early on the women’s empowerment curve and my subsequent enlightenment.

I was bemused and mildly impressed right off with a girl that would take on this task. Luckily, I did have an oil filter wrench and other assorted tools, and even offered to help with the job if she needed it. I didn’t even know what engine was in her light yellow Duster with the black vinyl interior and manual tranny and in-line six -– as she clarified to me when I asked about it.
I got a quick and frosty brush off on the help offer. She made it clear she knew what she was doing, didn’t need my help thank you very much, and it was more out of irritation of not having the right tool than lack of knowledge that led her to my doorstep. She had a boyfriend anyway – so I handed the tools over and didn’t think much else about it.

Because I’m on a “get your column in!” deadline, I won’t go into the details of the following few months, but that was the first time I met my future wife. And what was the car we drove away from our wedding in? The Duster. The Demon was sold because it really wasn’t that “practical” (read used too much gas) for a newly married couple, and the Duster could easily get 25-plus mpg on the road.

Part of the reason for that, as I soon learned, was that her car was a stripper. It had no A/C. It had no FM radio. Did I mention it had black vinyl interior and no A/C? That was a character-building interior to drive in the Southwest in the summer.

That Duster’s Slant Six in stock form with no A/C, a single Carter one-barrel carb, and from the 1970 model year its laughable emission controls -- what, maybe a PCV valve? -- was the epitome of a “cooking engine.” No flash, no high revs, no hi-po pretensions -– just a basic prime mover put in a car to get the metal down the road.

Up until then, I had worked on plenty of 4-stroke and 2-stroke motorcycle engines, so the internal combustion engine wasn’t completely foreign to me. In fact this one resembled more of an anvil than an engine, but I learned to respect and admire it.

We drove that car from 1978 to 1984, and took road trips from Arizona to Tennessee and all over the Southwest and its engine never required any intervention except putting gas in it and changing fluids. Its Carter was the first car carburetor I rebuilt at around 70,000 miles; more because I wanted to say I had done so than that it really needed it. After Amal “metered leaks” on motorcycle engines, it was elegant in its simplicity. If you can’t rebuilt that carb and adjust it, you might as well give up on car work.

In fact the entire engine was an example of some simple and direct engineering producing 215-lb-ft of torque. It had a bottom end that was as tough as a vault, a solid lifter top end, and you could stand beside the engine in the engine bay to work on it -– not that I ever really needed to.

We finally ended up selling it to a middle-aged single mom who needed reliable transport. I was holding out for $900 – the car was easily worth that money even without A/C -– but it was after all my wife’s first car and she decided that $650 was plenty. Yes, I learned more than mechanics from the little engine that could. 

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