First Car – 1961 Dodge Lancer
Randy Jones also answered our call for readers’ stories about their first car or first Mopar. Here’s Randy’s tale in his own words:
My first car was a 1961 Dodge Lancer two-door hardtop. I got it for my birthday
in April 1966. It was white with a red interior, had a 170 cubic inch
Slant-Six, a 904 TorqueFlite with pushbuttons, and a dash that looked like it
was stolen from a spaceship.
My Dad bought it wrecked as a father-son project for the princely sum of $100.
The car “ran” when we got it, but it had been rear-ended with the trunk caved
in and the back end of the car hiked up like a dragster. The rear wheelwells
were squeezed narrow and the rear springs were bowed down. The rear shocks
were crushed in the full extended position and were holding the rear up; causing
the car to buck over every bump. The door openings had been squeezed narrow
so that the doors would not fully close; they remained on the first latch stop
with the door rear edge overlapping the door opening. The front of the car was
damaged when it got pushed forward into the car ahead. Yhe bumper and the hood
nose were bent, but most of the grille and engine compartment were damage-free.
We did all repairs on the cheap. Dad used his connections and friends to find
scraps and equipment that we could use to straighten the car. I used an old
sledgehammer head as a dolly and a ball peen hammer, and pounded metal as best I
could. Dad was a skilled oxy-acetylene gas welder, so he took care of the torn
metal in the trunk area after we had pounded the trunk back into shape.
We used borrowed hydraulic jacks, a borrowed I-beam, and chains to pull the
rear wheel openings back into shape and “recurve” the rear springs. The car
came with junkyard privileges so I went and found replacement shocks from a
junked 1962 Lancer that was badly damaged in the front end. That wrecked Lancer
also donated its taillights, backup lights, rear bumper, and bench seat to the
cause. All the correct Lancer wheel covers were long gone, so I found some
13-inchers off a Mercury Comet.
We got the doors to fully close by chaining an I-beam to the rear wheel arch
and to the front subframe, then used a hydraulic jack to push up on the rockers
under the doors. We had to be careful not to crush things! Dad took the bent
front bumper to a friend’s shop and borrowed his hydraulic press; he actually
made the bumper look pretty good! We pounded out the damage to the hood nose
so it looked good too although the hood release was a little bit bent, and
would bite your fingers if you lifted the hood before pulling your hand out of
the release hole.
Amazingly, the backlight glass was not damaged at all, it had simply
popped out of the rubber mounting gasket. It was a simple matter of putting
it back in the rubber channel after straightening out the bent body areas. I
became an expert “Bondo bodyman” and managed to make the car look pretty good
from 20 feet away. I also applied spray-can Appliance White paint that
approximately matched the existing paint.
We managed to get the car usable by the end of my senior year in high school. I
began driving it all over town, and discovered that when the gas gauge was near
the “E”, it was time to fill up. It was not wise to stretch it too much! One
evening, we went to the local Del Taco and ran out of gas. My friends and I did
not appreciate having to walk a mile to go get a rescue gas can.
I always tried to be a pretty conservative driver, no racing or hot-rodding too
much over the speed limit. However, there was one location in our area where
this rule was violated. On the north side of the Ontario international
airport, near the Guasti winery, there was a side road that went across a flood
control ditch. At the time, there was not enough traffic to justify building a
bridge over it, so the city just made a big sloping dip in the road across the
ditch. All of us kids would take that dip as fast as we dared; hoping to get
some air. The old Lancer took that dip a number of times, and even though the
body was a bit creaky and flexy from all the repairs we made, it held up to
the abuse, and we had fun and a thrill getting butterflies in the stomach.
I drove that car during the summer before I went to college, and continued using
it all through my four years there. I drove it to and from school for breaks,
about 150 miles each way, and had minimal problems. I did notice that the oil
level was a bit low on arrival at the destination on my trips, so I guessed that
the odometer reading of 30,000 miles was probably really 130,000 miles.
During that first summer I discovered that the car had a problem that was
brought about by some worn-out teeth on the torque converter. If the engine
happened to stop with the “ooth hole in the wrong place, I would get a
winding-starter noise instead of starting the engine. I would get out and pop
the hood, pull the fan belt tight, and pull on a fan blade in the correct
direction. This turned the crankshaft just enough so that the starter could
engage a good tooth. I could then start the engine and be on my way. That
quirk was deemed to be such a nuisance that it got fixed by a local mechanic
before I left for school. It was a big expense for me to get it repaired at the
time. I remember the painful memory when I wrote out that check! But it was a
more positive memory a few days later when I loaded all my worldly goods into
the car and went off on my own to college for the first time. I needed just
two cardboard boxes in the back seat of the car, and I could even fit my bike in
that spacious trunk.
Another problem happened about a year later when the heater control valve
corroded and jammed in the full-open direction. I got tired of being roasted
alive, so I installed an old water faucet in the heater hose to control the
flow. I discovered that old washing-machine hoses are 5/8 inch just like the
heater hoses. This allowed me to adapt to the faucet fittings. My fix worked
like a charm, except that on cold mornings, I would have to pull off along the
roadside, pop the hood, and twist the valve to adjust the heater to a reasonable
I parted ways with the Lancer when I went into the Air Force for my “free” trip
to Vietnam. With my new-found wealth, I was seduced by the Dark Side and
bought a new 1970 Mustang with a 250 cubic inch 6-cylinder engine. I discovered
that the Slant-Six was the better and longer-lived engine. Unfortunately, I was
a slow-learner, and after a number of years messing around with disappointing
Brand-X cars, my youngest son rescued me like Luke Skywalker. He found a dead
1962 Dodge Lancer in a friend’s side-yard and bought it with his birthday money.
It was a great father-son project that included bodywork, Disc-O-Tech
conversion, and a full engine rebuild. We had a good mentor in Doug Dutra and
had good books and magazines to help us. Obi-Wan Kenobi taught us well! We
ended up with a 1962 Lancer in dark green metallic with tan interior running a
225 Slant-Six and a 904 automatic. We even raced it at the Las Vegas Mopars at
the Strip event AND we drove the car from San Jose to Vegas and back. After
this, I was fully persuaded to return to the Mopar fold, and the legacy of my
old Dodge Lancer continues to another generation!