What It Was Like Daily-Driving A 57 Year-Old Junker Through An Entire Michigan Winter

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Last fall I bought a 1965 Plymouth Valiant. Equipped with the Chrysler Slant Six “Leaning Tower of Power” mated to a three-speed column-shift manual — and devoid of luxuries like power steering, power brakes, power windows, or power locks — the old car had all the right ingredients to be a stout, unkillable machine. And, aside from some small issues here and there, it really was. Somehow my 1965 Plymouth Valiant — which I just sold — ended up being the best “winter beater” I have ever owned; here’s why.

I’ll admit that I bought the Valiant on impulse. I’d just driven from LA to New York, and didn’t feel like flying back to Michigan. So I searched for a car, with my criteria revolving around simplicity. When I spotted a 1965 Plymouth Valiant with a stick (on the column) and one of the toughest engines in automotive history, I knew it was the one.

What I didn’t know was that the $2,000 four-door sedan would actually live up to — hell, exceed — its bulletproof reputation. After I poured in some clean fluids and slapped on some used winter tires, the machine got me 650 miles back to Michigan without any major issues.

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And that’s really how things stayed. The 170 cubic-inch (2.8-liter) slant-six motor fired up even on the coldest of Michigan winter mornings. I had to keep my foot on the gas for about five seconds to fill the bowl or it would cut out, but other than that, the thing ran reliably, and took me to my errands day in and day out. I literally drove it everyday between late November and early April.

Hell, I even ripped some epic donuts in the snow:

 

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There was tons of space in the trunk for car parts (I carried multiple tires and a set of leaf springs back there), the ride was downright comfortable, 65 mph on the highway was no problem, and fuel economy was — well, roughly the same as my Jeeps: 18 MPG highway.

Okay so fuel economy and acceleration weren’t ideal, but that’s not what winter beaters are for: Winter beaters are all about reliability and heater performance; the last thing you want to do is have to work on your car in minus 20 degree weather, and of course you want your heater to work.

And that Valiant’s heater cranked. In fact, a strong argument can be made that the Slant Six engine is really more of a heater that just happens to be able to propel a car than it is a prime mover that produces heat as a byproduct. It’s not efficient, and that meant a toasty cabin within just a few minutes of startup.

In the snow, those thin, studded snow tires were absolute beasts, slicing through the fluff with ease, with those rear tires — weighed down by the car parts I had in the trunk — pushing the car confidently down the road.

I expected this car to be a pain in the ass given its age and low cost, but it was totally fine. The huge steering wheel and short gearing in the steering box meant taking turns without power assist — even at low speeds — wasn’t really that hard. The manual brakes, too, weren’t that bad at slowing the 2,600 pound car down. The ride was soft, the bench seat was cushy, and the radio cranked Alan Jackson whenever I needed it to.

I took this old sedan to my dry cleaner, I took it to my junkyard to haul parts, I took it to restaurants, I took it to official meetings, I took it to parties, I even took it 70 mph on road trips — the Valiant got me everywhere I needed to go without issue and in comfort. Was there a part of me that realized that a good percentage of cars on the road could turn my tiny Valiant into a sheet of tin foil with just a light tap of my rear bumper? Absolutely, but I tried to ignore that thought:

I’ll admit that the Valiant wasn’t perfect. On one occasion, it did leave me stranded when the clutch Z-bar (basically a metal bar that translates your clutch pedal input into motion that releases the clutch) failed at one of its welds.

Here’s the look at the failure:

A friend of mine welded that up, and I was back in business. I did also have a ballast resistor failure that prevented the car from starting. But, as I’d read about this part’s propensity to fail, I had a spare in the glovebox:

My starter motor also gave up the ghost, but the local car parts store had one in stock; that was just two bolts and a couple of wire connections — truly the easiest starter motor change of my life:

Really, that broken clutch rod was the biggest failure I had; the starter and ballast resistor took a combined 30 minutes and $75 to change, maybe.

I guess I should also mention that my shift linkage tended to leave the transmission stuck in first gear unless I slid under the car (to do this, I’d have to drive up onto a curb) and yanked the linkage by hand. This was a massive pain in the ass, as driving down the road, downshifting, and then realizing that you can’t get out of first can leave you in some precarious situations.

 

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Yeah, I guess that shifter linkage issue was the biggest drawback to owning the Valiant, really. All of that time and use had worn those parts down to where they’d just jam up, and I’d have to slide under the car and get greasy at times that I really didn’t want to. 

 

You may recall that I got the vehicle undercoated prior to the winter. I can’t tell you that this was a huge help, but I will say that the vehicle looked no worse at the end of the winter than it did at the beginning, though who knows what would have happened this summer when the sweet catalyst of heat got ahold of that old iron.

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A few weeks ago, I sold the old machine to a young man named Chris for $3,200. It was his first time driving a column-shift car, but he figured it out quickly, and enjoyed driving the 1965 cruising-machine. I have no doubt that it will continue to live up to its name for years to come.

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Though I will miss it, I’m headed to Australia in September to drive another Valiant, except this one will be a ute. If it’s half the car in the heat that ol’ Blue was in the cold, I’ll be the happiest man in the Outback.

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73 Responses

  1. I wanted to have a grand takeaway after reading the last chapter in the story of the Valiant but just seeing the photo of it next to Barry’s Bagels just made me homesick. I’ve been trapped abroad since 2019 and one of the first things I do when I get back is stop off there for a big bag of bagels before going home. A loooong time ago (early 2000’s) on our customary stop off at Barry’s we mentioned that we have been abroad for a year and stopped by to grab a dozen and they said that one was on the house. Ahhh, good memories.

  2. David, thanks for another trip down memory lane! I can attest to the car being a great winter beater, with an excellent heater and defroster . My first car was a 1964 Valiant 2-door, 170 Slant Six, three-on-the-tree that I acquired in 1972, as my daily driver.

    By 1973, I had swapped in the complete drivetrain and suspension from a totaled 1971 340 4-speed Duster, adding Six Pack induction, headers, etc. With a 3.92 Sure-Grip differential and studded snow tires, it would go almost anywhere. I really miss that first car.

  3. “I guess I should also mention that my clutch linkage tended to leave the transmission stuck in first gear unless I slid under the car (to do this, I’d have to drive up onto a curb) and yanked the linkage by hand.”

    Surely you mean “my transmission linkage”? Since you already fixed the clutch linkage in the paragraph above?

  4. Aw man, I’m so sad we’re not gonna see the blue Valiant anymore. Cool car.
    And I can attest to the Slant’s ability to heat up the cabin- even with the blower fan completely off, I have a constant hot breeze on my legs once driving 🙂

  5. Inquiring minds would like to know what that sweet station wagon is that’s parked between the Valiant & the dark blue pickup truck. Looks Peugeotish, especially with those 4-lug wheels.

      1. My second car was a 66 Valiant that I drove back and forth between Detroit and Schenectady. Of course went thru Ontario and I suspect you did too. I would guess that Peugeot was somewhere along the 401.

  6. This has been my favorite of your cruisers – I’ve always liked driving a 3-on-the-tree and have a no-frills ’66 Biscayne with that type of transmission in my current fleet. In high school I drove a ’79 Duster for awhile that had the slant-6. Fun fact, that was the only car I was ever airborne in. Also, can confirm – the engine was pretty-much indestructible. The rest of the car was a bit of a heap, but it never let me down and was a great base for learning how to wrench in general. Glad you found a good home for your Valiant – not too many left and it’s best if they’re kept on the road!

    1. I’m gonna be >that< guy here. They are, in fact, NOT indestructible. These tilted 6s were designed in the ‘50s, and definitely intended for 40-50mph cruising. There is no pressurized oil going to the valvetrain: just splash. And, the way the oil pan is configured to clear the K-brace, you get a lot of oil-froth at the 5th&6th rod bearings when you launch hard.
      See yt (24HoursofLemons for anecdotes, and UncleTony’sGarage for footage of carnage-and lots of LTOP goodness. Seriously: if you like old Mopars, or even just old-school, budget hotrodding, check Tony out)

  7. I owned one of these jewels. Chalky Tan. Same year and running gear. Paid $200 for it. It came with a new clutch and throw out bearing, as the seller said that’s what it needed as the clutch was inoperable. I lived in Florida and after getting it home, shifting sans clutch, replacing the clutch while being eaten alive by mosquitoes, I discovered the same clutch Z-bar weld failure.
    I really enjoyed driving it and didn’t mind not having air conditioning. Never tried the heater. It did smoke a lot. Sold it to a friend in need.

  8. “I took this old sedan to my dry cleaner”
    :record scratch noise:
    Wait. David Tracy, the guy that dyed his clothes in motor oil, goes to the dry cleaner?
    Do they dread seeing you show up?

    Thanks for the closure on the Valiant. I’ve been wondering what other trials it may have put you through this winter. Glad to hear they weren’t major.

      1. Same, man. Same.
        Found that the worst of it was always afterwards when you get back in the vehicle. Keeping shirts and pants clean is usually fairly easy during, unless all hell has broken loose you’re usually just doing some minor wrenching. When you get done and go to drive off is when you’re gonna touch something and get the wrong thing dirty. I started to keep a couple rags and a bottle of windex in the cab of the truck. Spray your hands off after, wipe ’em with the rag, let dry and you should have most of it off and you should be safe.

        Its getting better since I rebuilt my truck’s engine. Used RTV strategically to ensure that the leaks don’t reach the outside. The wife not letting me play outside in the wrong clothes helps as well.

        30+ year old vehicles, what can you do?

        1. Here’s a story I often tell:

          I was in a meeting with the MR (Model Responsible) of the Jeep Wrangler JL (basically the lead engineer). This dude was known to be the strictest dude at the company; he used to run the AeroThermal team that I worked in, and I heard that many quit because they couldn’t handle this guy’s “edge.”

          Anyway, I was presenting something on, I think, the Motor Generator Unit (MGU). By this point, I was about 1.5 years in, so I knew my shit well enough to not be nervous around this guy anymore — basically, if he wants to try to find holes in my presentation, bring it on. (This was not my mentality when I was new and basically had no clue what was going on). Despite this, I was a bit alarmed when he hit me on the shoulder during the presentation.

          I turned to him. He hit me again.

          “Uhh,” I began.

          “Oh, you’ve just got something on your shirt, I was trying to brush it away.”

          Me: “That’s an oil stain.”

        2. You buy a pair of Carhartt coveralls one size too large, and leave them in the vehicle. Then, whenever the mood strikes you, you throw that big boy onesie on over your regular clothes, and crawl around under the car. Or in the engine bay. Or in the bed, if it’s a pick up.

          1. I went through a phase like that, where I always had a pair of coveralls in the car. It wasn’t so much being ready if the mood hit, but being ready for the inevitable breakdown because I drove a lot of POS cars when I was young.

            My typical checklist before departing from the house on a trip of any length greater than a mile:
            -At least a 1/4 tank of gas (or $5 bucks worth if the gauge didn’t work)
            -A couple of cans Fix-A-Flat and at least one spare tire
            -A fan belt (you can’t really skimp on this, though I saved old ones for emergencies)
            -Duct Tape. As they say, it has a light side, a dark side and it holds the universe together
            -A gallon of water, a gas can, a couple of quarts of oil, and any other fluids that are leaking
            -A basic tool kit and a roll of wire
            -A flashlight, because the odds are it’s going to be dark when you break down.

            1. I’m like 50 miles from the Gulf coast. I more than “feel ya” on that one.

              It was bad enough wearing long sleeves when working in power plants and paper mills in the south, including one in Pensacola. And when the boiler was running? Most couldn’t imagine. It’s already tipping 100° and then you have a multi-story fireplace running full blast? With steam pipes running all around you? Shit.

              Some can do it (wear coveralls in the heat), but not I.

  9. I love your work.
    But what does it say about Jeep, when THE quintessential Jeep-guy, who has owned more beater-Jeeps than most people will even see in their lives, claims that the BEST winter beater he’s ever owned is a 1965 Plymouth Valiant?

  10. When I first got my driver’s license I was quickly indoctrinated into slant six culture. My mom had bought a stripped ’74 Valiant new as affordable, reliable transport to work as a school teacher. My dad had a ’74 Duster, I think mostly because he was cheap.

    Both had the slant six, the Valiant was an automatic, the Duster had three on the tree. I learned to drive on my dad’s car, but spent more time driving my mom’s (lived with her, parents divorced).

    This was the late seventies and the cool kids drove pony and muscle cars from the sixties with V8s, the rich kids had newer Trans Ams and such, courtesy of their parents. At the time I did not really appreciate the utilitarian charm of the rugged slant six.

    I have always wondered if my dad’s was one of the last years of passenger cars sold with a column shift manual. By then it was a very unpopular feature, but my dad said it made more sense as your hand was supposed to be on the steering wheel, and a column shift was a shorter reach than a floor shift. True, but I am guessing he mostly bought it that way because he got a deal.

    Mom’s car would stall out on hard throttle on cold days even when fully warmed up, an unintended consequence of Chrysler’s lean burn emissions technology. Several trips to the dealer to address resulted in no joy and the condition persisted. Otherwise it was pretty reliable, but do remember having to replace the ballast resistor one morning when it refused to start. Must have been the car’s Achilles heel.

  11. When I was in high school in the mid 80s, EVERYBODY had that car. The parking lot was half 74 Dusters, and green Darts with a vinyl roof. Hell, I’m 52 now and I still have TWO /6 cars.

    By the way, the trick is to sheet metal screw 3 or 4 ballast resistors to the firewall. Then when it doesn’t start, you just unplug and plug into the next one down.

  12. Back in the 60s when I was a kid, my Dad had one of these as a company car with the phone company (he traveled around the area supervising phone system installations in large buildings). It sat outside in the Cleveland winters and always was a reliable runner. I remember the pushbutton automatic which was another cool thing not seen in most other cars.

  13. As I mentioned on that other site when you acquired the Valiant, my dad and his cousin each bought new ’65 Darts in that same blue, each equipped with the same Slant Six and three-on-the-tree. For those few on this site who aren’t old enough to remember them, the Dart was the Valiant’s sister in the MOPAR world.

    Long story short, My dad put a little over 100K mile on his Dart and decided to trade it in on a ’74 Dart Swinger. The cousin kept his and put over 300K miles on it before he finally parked it next to his barn about 20 years ago. It still ran when he parked it, though the body was pretty much just rust with a thin coat of fading paint holding it together.

    The last I heard, it was serving as a storage bin for chicken feed. Even so, I’d lay money on that engine actually starting up with an oil change and fresh gas. Those things were tough as nails.

  14. (Long post)

    I love daily driving my ’74 C10 with an Inline 6, 3spd column shift, manual steering and brakes (although I do have front disk, I’m guessing the Valiant had drums?), and although I don’t have snow to deal with (at least, not often), I can say it drives great through torrential thunderstorms with heavy rain, but only after I upgraded to Goodyear Wranglers and replaced the shocks (the bouncing and floating were not good combinations for slick roads). It drives like a tank, now, and it’s actually decent on fuel.

    I have gotten the column shifter hung up a few times, but by the grace of God, my boyfriend happened to be there each time, and helped me, a feat accomplished without getting under the truck (just under the hood). It would’ve been nearly impossible for me to get it unstuck by myself.

    We have rebuilt the entire brake system, added some 15×7 rallys, and I upgraded the headlights and repainted the front bumper as well.

    The worst part about the truck has been the carburetor, after an emissions equipment disaster nearly destroyed the engine.

    See, to help it warm up quickly (a warm engine produces less emissions), a butterfly valve was installed in the exhaust manifold and operated like a thermostatic choke. What could POSSIBLY go wrong with that design, you might ask? Well, prepare for a shock: it rusted shut.

    Unbeknownst to the previous owner, he kept driving as the overheated exhaust manifold cracked. Rather than investigate by, ya know, pulling off the manifold (where he would have discovered the real problem), he did a fuck-all job of welding it while it was still bolted up. Or he had a 7 year old blind girl do it, I can’t be sure.

    Anyway, eventually I bought the truck and it would barely do 60 MPH. I saw the amazing welding job done on the exhaust manifold before buying the truck, had already ordered one, and when it arrived, my cousin and I set about replacing it.

    Well, we discovered the shut valve. And, worse, it had cracked the intake manifold from the extreme heat (it and the exhaust manifold are “mated” but are not a single unit for 1974).

    He did what he could and the truck ran and sounded great for about a year, when the carburetor started failing (almost a year after purchase, isn’t it wonderful) and the intake manifold reared its ugly head again.

    So, I ordered a Clifford intake and Weber carburetor, Hedman hedders (required when going to the aftermarket intake, my only other choice was to buy a used 1974 intake and take a chance, then I’d still be stuck with a 1bbl).

    We got everything installed and it’s been one thing after another with the carburetor. It’s been to the shop twice now, Monday will be the 3rd week this time.

    Love my truck. Hate carburetors.

      1. That has occurred to me more than once. I can trash the carburetor (expensive as it was) and adapter plate, and an EFI system will work on the intake I’ve already bought.

        But you’re right in that it can get expensive. Not just the system itself, but probably another fuel tank mounted in a different location (out from under the cab, in the back like a Suburban).

        It’s definitely a “one day” idea, I’m just hoping they can get this thing dialed in and I can enjoy my truck for a while in the meantime!

        I liked the idea of keeping the truck all mechanical, and EFI ruins that, but if it means actually being able to drive it, well, it’s just something to consider.

  15. I’ve been on my back many times jiggling the shifter linkage. Luckily, I had a ’67 Chevy van allowing ample room to crawl under. Bought that thing having no idea how to shift the 3-on-the-tree. Naturally, it needed a clutch not too long after being bought.
    But love that old thing, I did. Put a used motor in it, fixed up the linkage, had the king pins replaced and souped it up a bit.
    Job loss necessitated a sale. I saw it years later on the street out front of the apartment complex where I live, still in great shape being used as a work van.
    I wanted to ask the guy if he ever got stuck in 1st gear.

  16. All things considered, that worked out way better than I would have expected, given the condition and apparent abuse the car has had over the years. Chrysler just does a fantastic job with straight sixes in general, the old flathead the slant six replaced was also pretty tough

  17. Back in the late 90’s I owned two Valiants, a 200 w/ the 225 slant 6 & power steering and auto tranny in the same livery as David’s, and a 100 w/ the 170 w/ manual steering and three on the tree. I bought both for $500.00 and after a three or so years sold each for the same amount. I had the same starter issue in the 200 and the same linkage and worn out throw bearing in the 100. Fortunately for this piss poor wrencher Valiants are almost too easy to repair. And David is spot on about the heaters.

  18. This is why we love David.

    Most people would say, I have a car that I cannot kill and runs well. Maybe I should get rid of a non-runner or 2

    David says “Hmm, sell the runner and buy non-runners to replace it.”

    Don’t ever change.

  19. Wonder how much of the warm cabin is due to a less effective cooling system compared to modern cars.

    And, David, told you that Krown spray is top shelf stuff when you wrote about it back in the fall

      1. Everyone on this particular thread is a genius. This is the solution to David’s car hoarding issues. He needs to buy a junkyard. Well, maybe not a solution to his hoarding, but his non-functional car storing problem. He could fence off an area for his projects (build a pole barn) and have it guarded by some fierce Pomeranians decked out in Mad Max doggie-wear. If he needs parts, he just needs to dive into his public heaps. The town wouldn’t cite him for excessive auto-hoarding because by definition, a junkyard is a hoard of automobiles. I’m not sure David would be able to send stripped, rusting hulks to the crusher, though. I doubt it’s in his nature if one usable part remains.

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