Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Plymouth Valiants and Dodge Darts of the 1960s and early 1970s were the everyman’s car. Equipped with the famous “Slant Six” engine, the affordable, economical and comfortable cars were exceedingly popular. If you didn’t own one, you knew someone who did.

One of the people who owned a Plymouth Valiant was Jeff Masoner’s father. He recalls that in the 1970s the family lived in Lexington, Mass. That was when one of the men who worked with his father bought a new car and needed to sell his old one, a 1970 Plymouth Valiant. That was the Valiant that became the family car.

With a 108-inch wheelbase, the car was a nice size. “I learned to drive in that car,” Mr. Masoner says. He took his drivers test in that car.

Life moves on and three decades later Mr. Masoner decided to fill an automotive void in his life. He began shopping for an early 1970s Valiant like the one where his driving career began.

In September 2004 he found an unbelievably nice 1971 Plymouth Valiant for sale by the original owner in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The blue four-door sedan was a bare-bones model, one of 42,660 built during that model year and was exactly what Mr. Masoner had been looking for. “The 1970 and 1971 Valiants were virtual twins,” he explains. “They were both very simple, very straightforward cars.”

The 1971 Valiant he found in New York sold new for a base price of $2,392. Under the hood was the “big” 225-cubic-inch slant six engine that produces 145 horsepower, more than sufficient for the 2,831-pound car.

“The key thing about this car,” Mr. Masoner explains, “is that it had been driven only 12,000 miles.” He purchased the 15-foot 8.4-inch-long Valiant in September 2004.

When the vintage Plymouth arrived on a truck at his Upper Marlboro home Mr. Masoner then had an opportunity to carefully examine the car. When he lifted the engine hood and saw the original dated spark plug wires he knew it was time to take the car to Smitty at Contemporary Automotive in Beltsville, a trusted technician who gave the car a thorough physical examination.

Mr. Masoner soon had his “refreshed” Valiant back home with all of the deteriorated rubber parts replaced and the engine ready to do the job it was designed to do.

Whenever Mr. Masoner settles behind the three-spoke steering wheel, he feels at home. The 108-inch wheelbase, supported by 6.95x14-inch Goodyear Power Cushion tires, makes for nimble handling and the three-speed Torqueflite transmission makes the car as easy to drive now as when he took his driver’s license road test.

Mr. Masoner discovered original documents that indicate the Torqueflite transmission cost an extra $182.95 and the big “Slant Six” engine was an extra $38.95. An unusual accessory on a bare-bones model Valiant is the deluxe full wheel covers that were an extra $25.15.

The white sidewall tires and the Chrysler solid-state AM radio must have been dealer-added options because those items do not appear on the factory build sheet.

One of the convenient standard features on the car is the foot-pump washer. A couple of pumps on the bladder by the driver’s left foot and the windshield was thoroughly wet, awaiting a couple of swipes by the two-speed wipers.

Although the speedometer can register speeds up to 120 mph, Mr. Masoner says that figure is just wishful thinking. This car was never intended to be a racer; it was a family car that was trustworthy. The odometer is now approaching 12,700 and Mr. Masoner scolds himself for not driving his blue car more.

The 35-year-old car appears to have been ahead of it time because, like new cars, it has a minimum of chrome trim.It stands 4.5 feet tall and close to 6 feet wide. In other words, Mr. Masoner says, “I like the size. I grew up with a car this size, which I think is perfect. It brings back good memories.”

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