For a period of 32 years, from 1988 to 2020, I owned a grand total of two automobiles. Both were Dodge Darts that had rolled off the Chrysler assembly line in the early 1970s. The first was a 1974 Custom 4-door in two-tone green with a vinyl roof I purchased in 1988 for $650 from a woman in Nyack, NY, a town on the steep western banks of the Hudson River. While she was not the original owner, the woman from whom she had purchased it was, and fit the profile of the ideal Dodge Dart owner from a prospective buyer’s perspective: an elderly woman who had driven the car once a week to pick up her prescriptions at the corner drugstore. Hence the 58,000 original miles on the 14-year-old car.
I purchased the Dart because I needed a way to transport myself and my belongings to Iowa City, where I had enrolled in the graduate film program at the University of Iowa. The $650 sticker price was less than the one-way drop-off charge levied by the Hertz Corporation had I instead rented a car, but truth be told, at the time I had no idea whether the automobile I had just purchased would make it across the George Washington Bridge, let alone halfway across the country and the Mississippi River to my new abode. As it turned out, the car not only made it to Iowa in 2 days without incident, it continued to run for another 9 years until the salted winter roads of the Midwest rusted the frame and rendered it unsafe to drive.
By the time of its demise, I had driven it further west (including an unscheduled 2-day stopover at a Motel 6 in Truckee during a snowstorm at Donner Summit – “Chains? What do you mean ‘chains’?”) and relocated to San Francisco. Based on my track record with the Dart, I decided to trade it in for an older model, a 1970 Swinger 2-door in metallic green with a white vinyl roof. The owner was a 79-year-old man in San Jose who was parting with the car only because the California DMV had declared him legally blind.
“He loved that car,” his wife said, as we met in his kitchen to transact the sale.
The price was $950. The car had 69,000 original miles on it. He had installed an additional horn that he said had been a big hit in the rodeo parades in which he had participated. As I left his house with the title and keys, his last words to me were, “Take good care of Lilly Belle.”
I was initiated into the mysteries of the Dodge Dart during the summer of 1987. In June, I flew from New York to Seattle to visit my friend Bob, who was attending graduate school at the University of Washington. He drove a 1972 two-door Dart which, he informed me, was run by an engine called a “Slant-6.” Apparently, either a Slant-6 or a V-8 was the standard engine that powered Dodge Darts and Plymouth Valiants (essentially the same car under different names) during the 1960s until the mid-1970s.
Bob had acquired the car after he had responded to an ad on a bulletin board in a Seattle bar for a room in a house. The house’s owners were the Holloway Brothers, both of whom, fittingly enough for the Pacific Northwest, were imposing lumberjack types well over 6 feet tall. But the Holloway Brothers’s consanguinity ended with their physical resemblance: One was a tree-hugging environmentalist; the other a right-wing U.S. Navy veteran. During Bob’s sojourn with the Holloways the brothers would engage in non-stop arguments over every imaginable topic. There was only one subject on which they were in complete agreement: the Slant-6 was the greatest automobile engine ever manufactured in North America.
Back in New York in July, I experienced my second serendipitous encounter with the Dodge Dart. My friend Paul, with whom I had canvased door-to-door in neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island for the consumer and environmental group NYPIRG, drove us in his 1969 4-door Dodge Dart to the house my immigrant grandparents had retired to from the Bronx on Eastern Long Island. Paul took up where Bob had left off, extolling the virtues of the Slant-6 engine and its seemingly indestructible endurance and prowess. Years later, when I inquired by phone about a Dodge Dart offered for sale in California, the owner, a man with a British accent, said of his own daily driver, “My Valiant has 500,000 miles on it.”
As a child, Paul had developed bone cancer and one arm had been amputated. At NYPIRG, in addition to canvasing, I drove the van to and from the Manhattan office and whatever neighborhood we were to work in that evening. Paul said he had been impressed by my driving ability and asked me to drive the Dart on our return trip. As I drove west down the Long Island Expressway, the car began to violently rattle. I pulled over onto the shoulder and we began to inspect the tires in a counter-clockwise movement beginning with the left rear. When we reached the right front tire, we discovered a nail had punctured it. Paul and I removed the jack and a spare tire from the trunk, installed it, and drove off. About 15 minutes later, the car again began to violently shake. Again, I pulled over. It turned out the left front tire, which we had never got around to inspecting, also had run over a nail.
“It’s a good thing I always carry two spare tires,” Paul said.
If you drive a Dodge Dart across the U.S., you discover that you have unwittingly enrolled in a vocal and non-exclusive club whose members may be found in vastly different walks of life and regions of the country. (There is an actual Slant-6 Club of America, but you have to formally join that one; I never did.) The Iowa singer/songwriter Greg Brown has a song about visiting his grandfather that begins, “Hop in my Valiant, hit Highway One/Head on down to Hacklebarney, have me some fun” and an album entitled “Slant-6 Mind.” At a Stop sign in San Francisco’s Laurel Village, a man in an expensive automobile pulled up alongside me, rolled down his window, and said, “That’s the best car that was ever made. And no one knows about it.”
You also learn of the benefits that accompany this membership. As an owner of a Dodge Dart, your car invariably starts with at most two turns of the ignition key, regardless of the weather (e.g., after sitting for four days in 15° temperatures in the parking lot of the Cedar Rapids airport over a Thanksgiving weekend). If the master cylinder or other part needs replacement, that part is always the cheapest one available at the auto parts store. Once, when driving with a fellow student from Iowa to Michigan in March, 1993 during a blizzard to attend the Ann Arbor Film Festival, at about midnight the alternator died and my headlights slowly began to fade in the reflective snow. With barely enough power to make it to my friend Fred’s house in Ann Arbor, the following day we opened the hood, unbolted the alternator, and brought it to the auto parts store in Fred’s Mazda RX7. The astonished clerk at the store exclaimed, “That’s the original alternator!” Back at Fred’s, in about 15 minutes we had bolted in its replacement, which had cost in the neighborhood of $35.
“When I need to replace the alternator on my Mazda,” Fred said, “at the garage they have to remove the entire engine to access it.”
The last time I drove across the U.S. was in October, 2020, but this time it was in a 2018 Toyota Camry. Following my father’s death in 2019, the sale of my parents’ house of 52 years in New York, and moving my mother with her advanced dementia into an assisted living facility, I took over the lease of my father’s Toyota and headed back to California.
It was a month before the 2020 Presidential election and the height of the Covid pandemic. Driving across the Midwest, one encountered people both masked and unmasked and ran a gauntlet of Trump/Pence signs along Interstate 80, the bitter fruit of decades of devastation of family farms by debt foreclosure, globalization of the economy, and neglect by the federal government. One sign on a farm in western Iowa read: “Trump. God. And Country” (in that order).
“I used to say never turn down a chance to have sex or appear on television, but that was before AIDS and Fox News,” Gore Vidal famously remarked.
I used to say that while Iowa was the birthplace of John Wayne, it was also the birthplace of Henry Wallace. When I moved to Iowa, the farm crisis had been underway for the better part of a decade. I ended up staying for 7 years, which included a season working on a small, family-owned organic vegetable farm that survives to this day, the fortunate exception to the unfortunate rule. The journalist John Gunther reported in his 1947 magnum opus Inside U.S.A. that Iowa had the highest literacy rate in the then-48 states, a fact that came as no surprise to me having spent much of my time there teaching young Iowans, many from small-town farming communities, in their introductory college classes in Rhetoric. Unlike the horror stories one read of high school students woefully unprepared for college-level work, not one of my students was incapable of putting ideas to paper in an intelligible and intelligent way.
Like countless others before me, I had been driven out of San Francisco in 2016 by a combination of health and cost-of-living issues. When I arrived back in Walnut Creek in November, 2020, I put my 1970 Dodge Dart up for sale. Over the years, I had had the transmission and front end rebuilt and a new radiator installed, among other improvements. So I asked for $3,000. A woman from Rancho Cordova purchased it. She had owned and loved a Dodge Dart when she was in high school. With her husband trailing behind in the car in which she had arrived, she happily drove the Dart out of the parking lot of my housing complex accompanied by her young son.
I think of the car responsible for transporting me out of my native New York into the plains of the Midwest and later the hills of California. I think of the country that was capable of producing a Slant-6, but also made it the fortunate exception to the unfortunate rule. And I think of the environmental cost of our love affair with the automobile, another unpayable debt now due.