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He wasn’t fast: the legend of Prince Valiant

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Photos by the author except where noted.

[Editor’s Note: Jim Van Orden, of Richardson, Texas, has owned 23 cars, and the one he considers best of them all, a 1965 Plymouth Valiant 100, he dubbed “Prince.” This week, Jim relates what made Prince so special.]

Talk about “Plain Jane” cars.

The 1965 Plymouth Valiant 100 I bought for $500 in 1969 was about as basic as they come. No fins, portholes, hood ornaments, wire wheels, “bullet” grills/bumpers, white-wall tires, two-tone paint jobs or chrome strips adorned “Prince,” the car’s nickname.

Being a lowly “100” model, “Prince” was the cheapest, most basic and under-powered economy car in Chrysler’s line-up…and perhaps among all American cars that year. If he had been the “200” model he would have had chrome strips on rear fenders, red insignia on the grill and trunk lid, and two side mirrors (instead of just one on the driver’s side).

But to beat competitors’ prices, the automaker needed a stripped-down model dealers could sell for under $2,000. And strip it down they did. The seats had barely an inch of foam rubber on top of tiny springs covered in cheap, thin and dull-looking cloth—usually a metallic blue color—that reminded me of fabric used on inexpensive lawn chairs.

This is a “luxury” 1965 Valiant “200” dashboard with steering wheel horn ring. My “100” model had only one option: a radio with speaker on top of the dashboard. Photo by Jeff Koch.

Forget about “bucket” front seats or reclining seatbacks. A manually operated “bench” seat that slid back and forth when you pulled a lever was standard, as was a heater. Instead of carpet, the “100” model had a black, industrial looking rubber floor covering with no insulation or padding.

That was it…there were no other standard features. You paid extra for the AM radio (no FM or stereo) and its single speaker. The latter was mounted under the front window, the worst possible place because water blew through open vent windows and dripped down the plastic cover, making the radio sound like it had laryngitis. I was grateful for the vent windows, however, which could be turned to direct air into my face…much needed in a non-air conditioned car.

Mechanically, “Prince” was as simple a car as could be manufactured. There was no power anything, especially items that made driving easier such as power steering and brakes. In a day when 400 horsepower muscle cars prevailed, the Valiant’s 170-cubic-inch, six-cylinder engine produced a measly 101 horsepower. I guess Chrysler decided no one would steal the car as no alarm system was offered.

Unlike today’s eight- and ten-speed automatic transmissions, the Valiant had a three-speed manual gearbox—the same one installed in Plymouths since the 1940s—with shift lever on the steering column. There was no synchromesh on first gear, so you came to a stop to downshift into low. Overdrive for relaxed, high-speed driving wasn’t available.

You rolled windows up or down (the rear windows only went halfway) with eight full turns of door-mounted hand cranks. Doors were locked by pushing a knob near each window. The side- and rear-view mirrors were adjusted manually, too.

Simple dashboard knobs you pushed or pulled controlled exterior lights and heater/ventilation functions. Your left foot depressed a floor-mounted button to activate high beams. The horn, a feeble, monotone “C note,” tooted when you pushed a big button in the steering wheel’s center. Not having a clock didn’t concern me.

“Prince’s” 170-cubic-inch, 101-horsepower slant-six engine was economical and simple to maintain. I could do everything myself, from rebuilding the carb to changing the points and spark plugs. Photo by Terry Shea.

What the car lacked in fancy design cues found on many 1960s vehicles it made up with clean, unadulterated and functional lines. Some called its design “bland.” I thought its smooth, straight form made a statement. The car didn’t need chrome to look good. It was an “Andy Warhol look” the artist would have appreciated.

Unlike most cars that year, it had two—not four—headlights. Back-up lights were an option and didn’t adorn “Prince’s” simple, single-bulb taillights. Two-speed windshield wipers—not the “variable-speed” units found on today’s cars—did an admirable job of shedding rain and snow, but didn’t retract to hide in hood recesses.

The little car that could
Thirteen years of driving “Prince” proved he was far better than previous cars at navigating snow and ice. It was a combination of factors. Studded snow tires, illegal today, gave the car excellent grip. A 50/50 weight distribution between front and rear ensured well-balanced, stable handling when the car slid or swerved. Skinny tires tracked through deep snow with ease compared to wider, high-performance versions.

“Prince” had good traction in snow and ice and was easy and inexpensive to maintain. The car averaged about 21 miles-per-gallon and only needed one clutch replacement during 160,000 miles.

Speaking of tires, over the years I only wore out two sets of new 13-inch black-walls, each set lasting about 60,000 miles and costing less than $100. Never requiring balancing, I rotated them myself and seldom had flats. A damaged steel wheel, the result of hitting highway debris, cost $12 to replace after a junkyard visit.

“Prince” was easy and inexpensive to maintain, too. I learned how to service the “slant-six” engine years before when working on my wife’s 1961 Valiant.

Everything could be fixed with basic tools. I regularly changed spark plugs and wires, installed new points and condensers, replaced or rebuilt carburetors, flushed radiator coolant, changed oil and filters, installed batteries—the car wore out only two, each costing $25—and replaced a couple of fan belts. The car went through one four-dollar headlight and two one-dollar taillight bulbs, all of which I replaced myself.

Unlike today’s computer-controlled engines that require technicians to master electronic devices, codes and software programs, the engine could be tuned to perfection “by ear.” After loosening a bolt on the distributor, I slowly turned it to advance or retard the timing. Leaning close, my ear told me precisely when I achieved the engine’s “sweet spot.” The sound was unmistakable: valves and exhaust quieted and the engine purred.

My wife’s first-generation 1961 Plymouth Valiant had the same mechanical features as “Prince.” The two cars were outstanding in every way and simple to maintain.

Utterly dependable, “Prince” hauled me and my family everywhere…to work, schools, shopping, Brownie and Girl Scout expeditions, vacations and weekend visits with family members. Each Saturday saw my daughters buy chewing gum in a drug store. Thanks to their non-stop chewing of the strawberry-flavored gum, “Prince” forever smelled like a candy factory.

Other odors added to the car’s interior “patina” such as engine oil dripping from the valve cover, gasoline leaking from a rebuilt carburetor’s gasket, anti-freeze bypassing a worn head gasket, seat covers saturated with years of spilled food—mustard, catchup, milkshakes and pizza—and sweat from the owner, a runner and bicyclist who stored shoes, socks and shorts in the trunk.

Cars die of cancer, too
Dented beyond repair, window glass shattered, “Prince’s” driver-side door was a mess.

“The man slammed into me and I couldn’t avoid him,” my wife explained as I surveyed the damage. It wasn’t her fault and I was grateful she had no injuries. As I would discover, the damage was inexpensive to repair…but hard to fix.

“How much do you want for that door?” I asked the junkyard’s proprietor.

“That’ll cost you $25,” he said.

“Too much,” I responded. “It’s red, my car is white and the panel is torn. Will you take $15?”

If you ever lift a car door, get help. Good thing my father was with me because we both struggled to lift it. How could a car door be so heavy, I wondered? The thing weighed more than 100 pounds.

Daughters Tori (left) and Jenne filled “Prince” on Saturdays with the powerful aroma of “Bubblicious” gum. They played in the backseat with Barbie dolls.

It was easy to remove “Prince’s” old door, which Dad and I accomplished in 15 minutes in his driveway. Four bolts held it on heavy-duty hinges. But lifting and positioning the junkyard door took 60 minutes of back-breaking, knuckle-busting torture. Once we got the alignment right, the door opened and closed perfectly. I replaced the panel, as well as door and window handles, with “Prince’s” original equipment. A few coats of primer and white paint finished the job.

Total cost: about $20 and two hours of effort. Imagine doing that today. Depending on make and model, a dealer-installed door can run more than $1,000…and the cost goes up dramatically if the door has tinted glass, speakers and power devices such as locks, windows and mirrors.

Other do-it-yourself repairs were equally inexpensive, such as installing a $40 radiator, rebuilding the carburetor using a $5 kit, and replacing the heater core with a $20 unit. The only major repair I couldn’t do myself was a $100 clutch replacement.

Despite Chrysler’s claims that its “Seven Soak Rustproofing” provided “lifetime” protection, every model had major rust problems. Little pockets in the lower edges of quarter panels and other locations collected water.

I knew something was wrong as I drove home from work and my right foot suddenly dropped through the floorboard…only inches from the road. A gap the size of a bowling ball opened. Using skills learned in high school shop, I patched the opening by applying a wire screen and layers of “bondo.” Close examination of “Prince’s” metal revealed several other rust holes.

“It’s bondo time,” I reminded myself each spring. Cans of metal primer and white paint, along with a fine-hair brush, were all I needed to restore “Prince” and make him look presentable. I got so good at sanding and painting the bondo-filled holes that the car sparkled like new…as long as you stood more than ten feet away.

But time was running out for “Prince.” Rust popped up everywhere. Now there were ever-widening holes on the fender tops and inside the trunk.

Mechanically, “Prince” was in fine shape and his engine and transmission still operated flawlessly. This was hardly a surprise. Fleet- and taxi-operators reported the same engine/transmission delivered more than 400,000 miles of service before needing an overhaul.

It was time to sell “Prince”…but who would buy a 17-year-old, rusted-out car with 160,000 miles on the odometer?

Then I learned my brother’s daughter needed a car. I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse and sold “Prince” for one dollar. Deal consummated, I was sad as I watched my niece—a big smile on her face—back “Prince” out of our driveway. “Prince” looked good. White paint hid rust. The old “slant-six” purred. But he was gone from my life.

What I miss most
There are so many “intangibles” in life.

Each of the 23 cars I’ve owned was very special. It’s hard to say why “Prince” was my favorite. I guess he had lots of intangible qualities that gave him “personality.” He wasn’t the most economical. Several cars delivered as much as 36 miles-per-gallon. He wasn’t fast. In fact, he may have been one of the slowest. He didn’t corner or stop as well as most, either.

Although he was commodious inside, several cars had larger passenger space and could carry more suitcases in the trunk. His “Plain Jane” styling made him the least stylish among cars with fins, rakish fenders and hoods, chrome wheels and convertible tops.

But it was what “Prince” didn’t have that made me appreciate him. Computers didn’t control his engine and transmission, or any of his functions. Everything was manually operated…windows, seats, doors, radio, heater…you name it. Which meant everything was easy to operate and inexpensive to repair.

Look under today’s car hoods and all you see is a plastic shroud covering the engine. You’re not supposed to do engine work. That’s for your dealer’s expensive mechanics. Do anything yourself and you might void the warranty.

Years later, I drove from New Jersey to Dallas to start a new job. On the way, I stopped in Blacksburg, VA, to visit my niece and her husband. After dinner, I asked if they still owned “Prince.”

Taking me outside, we walked to a remote corner of their driveway. There, parked in partial darkness, was the car that played such an important role in my life for so many years. “Prince” wasn’t operating now and I could see rust everywhere on his decaying carcass. Powerful memories flooded my mind.

Before departing, I quietly said goodbye to the “best car I ever owned.”