If you’ve just bought a new project car, knowing where to start can sometimes be a little daunting. Do I change the fluids, get it in the air and inspect the brakes, bail out immediately and transport it to a garage, or panic and push it into the sea?
All legitimate options, true, but in my experience I’ve always found that the best place to start is with a decent clean. Not just a wash with a bucket and sponge, but a thorough going over. Being up close and personal with the car, as you trawl over every panel and crevice, usually turns up all kinds of interesting things. Be it damage you didn’t notice originally, or neat original features, a comprehensive valet will leave you feeling much better informed about what you’ve bought. It’s more enjoyable to work on a clean car, too, so it’s a job worth doing before you get into the mechanical side of things.
That was why, with the arrival of my ’68 Charger at home, the first thing I did was go and spend £80 on cleaning gear from Halfords. Polishes, vinyl treatment, spray lubricant, contact cleaner, the works. I figured that, having been in storage for ten years, the paint, rubber, vinyl and interior would benefit from a deep cleanse and refresh. I wanted it to last, after all, so any protection I could get on it – such as a decent coat of polish – would probably be well worth the effort. The vinyl top and seats, in particular, felt taught and dry. I didn’t want them shrinking or cracking, now that they were suddenly exposed to the elements again.
What followed was a long, but gratifying, few hours of deep cleaning. Panels were lathered up, washed down, wiped and polished. The vinyl and rubber trim was liberally saturated with cleaning, softening and protecting fluid. Chrome was polished, the wheels were buffed and the glass wiped down. Lastly, every hinge and pivot was lubricated, and every contact sprayed with electrical cleaner and comprehensively wiggled. It was during this that I noticed that the Charger’s side windows featured original “Airtemp” air conditioning decals, correlating with my car's factory-fitted air-con. It appears, judging by the tint and fit elsewhere, that its glass is all original.
In the engine bay, I decided that I would try using Gunk’s foaming cleaner to lift some of the heavy oil deposits and to generally freshen things up. I removed the air cleaner, roughly covered the carburettor and distributor, and liberally sprayed Gunk around the bay. It really did foam and expand, to an almost comical extent, and you could see grease and oil simply sliding off the surfaces. With a quick spray of water it transpired the treatment had removed the vast majority of grime, making it much easier to see what was going on and thoroughly more pleasant to work on.
When I had originally decoded the car’s body and chassis tags it had confirmed – as Steve, the previous owner had said – that my Charger was originally a dark metallic green car with a vinyl roof and a 383 cubic inch V8. At some point, I believe before coming to the UK in 1979, it had benefitted from an upgrade to a larger 440. This engine, as far as I could tell from the stamps on the block, was a later ’72 example in standard tune - an engine that would have been painted turquoise originally. Having Gunked it, beneath the grease and flaking orange paint - a colour reserved for high-performance versions - the 440 still bore its correct turquoise finish. Under the bonnet and the carpets, the Dodge’s rather appealing original green colour was evident, too, further confirming everything I'd been told.
With a quick spin of a polishing cloth over the dulled chrome rocker covers and air filter, and some gloss black rubber treatment on the hoses, the engine bay suddenly looked a whole lot more presentable. A ‘Street Machine – Lazy Sundays’ sticker from ’97 on the washer bottle added another notch to the Charger’s history; fortunately it stayed in place while I washed and rinsed the washer bottle to get a decade’s worth of stale fluid out of it. I also happened to have a new, suitable radiator cap on the shelf, so it bore the honour of being the first new part on the car.
The interior, however, was where the difference was really made. It was covered in dust and debris, and there was surface mould on the sides of the seats and on areas of the dash. Everything you touched was sticky, making the Dodge’s cabin a rather unpleasant place to be. A bit of detergent and some hot water in a bucket saw the majority of nastiness swiftly dealt with, while removing the rear bench and lifting the carpets allowed me to vacuum up decades' worth of dirt and junk. The vinyl seats and trims were then liberally saturated in myriad leather and vinyl care products and left to soak, in an effort to restore some pliability. With a few repeat applications, a glossy shine was soon evident and the materials all felt softer to the touch.
Very quickly the Charger’s interior had gone from looking grey, flat and despondent to having the luxurious, plush and upmarket vibe that it would have offered when new. In conjunction with the refreshed exterior, it looked a different car. So much so that my neighbour, on seeing it, thought perhaps I should simply advertise it as it stood and sell it for more than I paid. Selling it was the last thing on my mind, though, but it was satisfying to know that beauty wasn't just in the eye of the beholder.
The next task was to establish if the Dodge would be capable of moving under its own power. My parents had graciously offered to put the car up in their recently revamped garage, so I could work on it under cover. It was at the top of a gentle slope, however, and there was no way we could push almost two tonnes of Charger into the garage - the reverse of the problem we had initially. Getting the Dodge into the garage also entailed making space for it, which meant temporarily displacing my dad’s ongoing projects – a Renault Alpine GTA V6 Turbo and a two-door Triumph Toledo with a Stag V8. Both rolled easily, though, so with some shoving and countless hand signals they were all soon stowed out of the way. My dad also took the opportunity to lay a proper garage floor, using replaceable heavy-duty PVC tiles from Mototile. Luxury, compared to lying on a cold concrete floor, but it'll be interesting to see how they withstand the weight of the Dodge and anything we might spill on them.
So, with its parking space cleared and ready, the time had come to put the Charger’s mechanicals to the test. Dipsticks were pulled, fluids were inspected and topped up, the ignition system was given a quick going over and the carburettor was liberally blasted with cleaner. Everything appeared to be in comparatively good health and ready to run, so in went £34 of Shell Optimax unleaded and a bottle of Redex fuel system cleaner, just for good measure.
With everything seemingly in the green, and the battery hooked up, I pumped the pedal a few times and cranked the key. Almost immediately the Dodge caught, a rough staccato blast emanating from its tailpipes, before silence descended as the motor stalled. I pulled the choke out a little, turned the key and it fired again, this time settling into a lumpen idle. The gauges' needles began to climb, with both fuel and oil pressure registering their presence, and soon the Charger had settled into a relatively smooth idle.
There weren’t any obvious leaks or ominous noises, so I let it run and watched as the temperature gauge slowly swung into the middle of its operating range and stayed there. Shutting it down and turning it on again demonstrated that it didn’t have any hot starting issues, and it also started quickly and easily, hopefully indicating decent compression on at least a handful of pots. The exhaust manifold on the passenger side was blowing, leading to a pronounced ticking noise, the exhaust itself knocked and blew slightly in a few places, and the fanbelt was squeaking, but it still sounded pretty healthy. I can't wait to hear what it sounds like when it's fully serviced, repaired and dialled in.
Unsurprisingly the brakes were still devoid of life, having not magically fixed themselves since I last tried them, as was the handbrake. All that held the Dodge in place was the small parking pawl in the transmission and a few chocks of wood. The chocks were enough to stop it moving, though, so I tentatively slipped the transmission into ‘Drive’. There was a small shudder through the body, but certainly not the positive take-up I’d expected. Back into neutral, into reverse, the same slight judder.
This didn’t come as a huge surprise. Although I’d checked the transmission fluid level, all that had shown was that there was some fluid in it. Until it had some heat in it, and the gearbox been cycled through the gears, the dipstick wouldn’t accurately show how much fluid was present. The Charger had evidently been leaking transmission fluid for a long time, so it was likely that it was far below the necessary level to generate any kind of forward motion.
Removing the dipstick, with the engine running and the gearbox in neutral as specified in the manual, showed the true fluid level. Well, it would have, if that level had even registered on the dipstick. Presumably all that was in the transmission now was a few litres of very frothy automatic transmission fluid, as opposed to the 10-odd litres that it was supposed to have. I didn’t need the car to drive far, though, nor did I want it to run for ages, so I hooked up my funnel and dumped three litres of fresh ATF into the gearbox. That, I figured, would get it the seven or so metres into the garage. The transmission fluid and filter was going to be changed, at any rate, so I didn’t want to waste more than necessary.
Putting the car back into drive resulted in a much more positive ‘thunk’ as first gear engaged, so with dad guiding me up the slope, I squeezed the accelerator and felt the Dodge lumber forwards. Even though I was doing a mile an hour at most, it was the most white-knuckle driving experience I’d had in a while. If it stalled, I’d roll back, surely clear the chocks and career down the slope, through a fence and into a field. If the throttle stuck open and I didn’t shut it down quickly enough, I’d drive through the back wall of the garage.
Fortunately, the Dodge dismounted from the wooden ramps and chocks it’d been deposited on in a slow, steady fashion. I’d neglected to remember that the ramps weren’t fixed, though, and narrowly avoided remodelling the rear lower wing as the plank pivoted and fired skywards.
Unfortunately, as I tried to breach the threshold of the garage, a complete absence of forward motion became apparent. Seeing as there wasn't a three-litre pool of ATF on the floor, more was seemingly required to keep the gearbox going. In went another two litres, back came drive, and, with a bit of lock, the Dodge sidled neatly into the garage. Whether it has any more than one forward gear is yet to be seen, but we proved it can move.
After all of that I was quite glad to shut it down, the grumbling, bassy idle of the 440 being replaced by the impatient tick of rapidly cooling metal. Chocks were put in place, drip trays were slid underneath and the battery was disconnected. Now, under cover and with tools on hand, the project could begin in earnest.
1968 Dodge Charger
Price £15,000; Economy 0.005mpg; Expenses £114; Running total £15,214; Budget remaining £4786; Faults Untested powertrain, exhaust manifold gasket leak, transmission fluid leak, failed braking system, blown bulbs
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