They Like the Cars, but Love the Engines

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REDWOOD CITY, CALIF. -- No doubt there are devoted followers of most any automotive make or model, no matter how obscure. But now that like-minded enthusiasts can connect so easily online, the clubs dedicated to those long-gone marques find it easier to assemble their congregations of the faithful.

The unlikely object of affection at the center of one such event in the San Francisco Bay Area was not an orphaned vehicle, but rather an obsolete 6-cylinder engine. The occasion was a roundup of more than 50 vintage Chrysler products, gathered here last month in a parking lot for an unofficial and unadvertised annual event known simply as the Slant Six Gathering.

Informality was the prevailing tone: no judges, no trophies, no tickets, no rules. A $5 entry fee was requested to finance the announcements for next year's meet.

Even V-8 Dodge and Plymouth compacts are tolerated, though these comprise a small minority and command little attention or respect. One Slant Six owner was overhead disparaging V-8s as "overpowered borderline muscle cars that anybody can build."

Darts, Valiants, Lancers and their subsequent variants built on Chrysler's A-body chassis are mostly remembered as boring-but-reliable chaperones for generations of testosterone-fueled teenagers and young adults. Most were powered by the bulletproof in-line 6-cylinder, installed at a tilted angle to allow a lower hood line, that finally replaced an archaic flatheadthat had been responsible for economy-minded buyers moving to more modern Ford and General Motors machinery.

If a new licensee was lucky, the family car had at least been ordered with the big 225-cubic-inch Slant Six -- all of 145 horsepower -- rather than the base 170-cubic-inch engine. The only hope for V-8 salvation was blowing up or wearing out that in-line engine. Neither failure was likely.

Even before the last Slant Six went into a new Dodge truck in 1987, the long-running Slant Six Club of America was dissolving. Some former members were determined to keep their September Sunday meetings sacred, though.

Nearly three decades later, organizing responsibilities fall mainly to volunteers like John Moran, 89, who snail-mails invitations to about 200 past participants, and Doug Dutra, 55, a technical expert known as Dr. Dodge for his mastery of Chrysler products in general and of Slant Sixes in particular. (He shares the wealth at SlantSix.org and ForAbodiesOnly.com.)

Mr. Dutra rolled into Redwood City in a '65 Dart GT convertible powered by a rare aluminum engine available in 1961-63.

"That idea was just ahead of its time," he explained. "The die-casting was too fragile for assembly-line production, and also for new-car buyers. If the coolant wasn't replaced every year, it would eat into the alloy around the cast-iron cylinder sleeves."

A silver lining from that expensive experiment was Chrysler's fateful decision to transfer the dimensions of its extra-thick aluminum crankcase to the iron engine.

"It was overkill, absolutely, but that extra metal made the iron version about 1.8 times stronger," Mr. Dutra said. "That's why the engines would go 30, 40 years on gas and oil only."

Mr. Dutra said that he worried about losing Slant Six enthusiasts when those engines finally started wearing out, but things have turned around.

"We're seeing more enthusiasts now, more modifications, more young people," he said. "I'm not worried anymore."

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 12, 2013 2:01 PM


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