The Marine View Driver: Rebuilding the 1976 Dodge Dart

In which the author boldly declares, “YOU do it yourself. I’m hiring it out.”

by Mike Smith

When we started our family my mom practically gave us her Dodge dart. Prior to this we had been carting our two little kids around in car seats in the back of our 1968 VW bug. Yes Virginia, we never owned a mini-van.

The Dart was beautiful. The only problem with it was that if it rained long enough, water would begin to seep into the foot well and get my left ankle soaking wet on a long trip. Despite that, the car was a real blessing to our little family.

51QBLKbIyLLIt was made back when cars were heavy and functional. The seats were vinyl, the dash was vinyl, the head liner was vinyl. It was one of those cars where you slid across the seat from one side to the other during sharp turns.

It was a great car for a family since it was easy to clean. Our backsides polished the vinyl on a regular basis.

It had the famous slant six engine which I’ve read was designed to run industrial plants. It churned along trouble free for most of the life of the car. Our Dart was not sporty, or stylish, it was simply utilitarian and the very definition of mediocrity. (Click here for a clever parody and an apt description.)

We drove the Dart to Denver to visit Sandy’s brother and family one year. The Denver trip alone put 3500 miles on the car. We did not have air conditioning so we were a bit unprepared for the heat of Wyoming and Colorado. I will say in retrospect, I am grateful for the wide open spaces of the mid-west as occasionally we would find a cloud shadow and be able to drive in it for several miles as it blew across the face of the prairies. The Dodge ran well and served us as a loyal steed until it needed an engine.

1976 Dodge Dart-01When the engine died I had just “retired” from a five year stint as a transmission mechanic at SeaTac Transmission on Pac. Hwy. By this time I had learned some car repair skills, so when the engine expired, I did the obvious shoemaker’s-shoes thing. I went looking for a replacement engine. I opted to have the current one rebuilt.

As a newly-avowed convert to the religion of DIY (Do It Yourself) I borrowed a hoist, took my engine out, broke it down… and hired a competent engine repair shop to rebuild it.

The engine was done right. When you take an engine in for repair you really just take the bottom end in and have cylinder work done. I took the engine apart and had both top and bottom redone. It’s the best way to go according to the Haynes repair manual. If you don’t rebuild the top end and the bottom end, the increase in crankcase pressure can play havoc on the top end. So just do both anyway.

After this work was done, I retrieved my gleaming engine and designated an upcoming three day weekend to begin pretending to be a mechanic again. Saturday was easy, so I was ready to install by mid-afternoon. I took out the borrowed hoist again and began trying to put the engine in.

This weekend ended up being an emotional roller coaster for me. I would be making good progress then something would happen for which I did not have a tool and I’d have to drive 20 minutes to a parts house to get something. You see, even though we had another car, it was tired and unreliable. And the Dart was my wife’s car for taking kids to school etc. The self-inflicted pressure of having to “get it running by Monday” was the heaviest weight I carried as a young Dad.

CaptureMy worst fears were realized when something happened to the hoist during the engine install. It would not hold the weight of the engine, adding to the weight of my emotional state. The hoist would get to a certain height and stop. It was just about one millimeter higher than the front of the car. So any downward movement was excruciatingly painful—to my pride.

While trying to wheel the hoist close enough to lower the engine over the front of the car it would fade and crunch down on the frame or hood. So I had to work fast. I finally had to ask for help from my wife. We worked like a couple of Keystone Kops trying to push the unwieldy, swinging, sinking engine over to the car while the other of us pumped like crazy. When I finally got the engine over the proper position the descending engine would miss its mark and I’d have to start the hoisting over again. There must have been a hydraulic leak because it would take fifteen or twenty minutes to hoist the engine up again.

Fortunately there are not too many components in a 1976 Dart. So I eventually got the engine in place. I spent all day Monday buttoning things up. But it had taken all day Saturday and Sunday just to get the engine in. Things were not looking good for my deadline. I had been working on this car all weekend and was confident I could finish. It was my youngest daughter’s birthday week so I’d promised to take us all out for a drive in the “new” car. But I was running out of time.

Toward the end of the Holiday Monday, I finally got everything back together and properly lubricated. All I needed to do was to install the new spark plugs, and we could take that spin. But guess who forgot to buy spark plugs? And guess who closed early on Memorial Day Weekend?

It was like a relief to get the job done, but without spark plugs, you can’t really test everything. You know, the engine won’t run. So I had all my emotions building to this point but could not finally “thrust home” so to speak.

So I took my emotionally spent and frustrated self into the house and we watched a movie with the kids that night. I couldn’t sleep.  I went to work Tuesday and fretted about my car all day. I bought spark plugs on the way home from work. I bought the correct spark plugs.

And it turns out I had them already but did not know it. Grrr.

I started the car up and it sounded like Angels humming. It was beautiful. We went for that drive and the engine was a quiet as a mouse. What a great day.

Two months later my wife totaled the car. I sold my tools.

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