I feel most comfortable writing about cars I have either owned, driven, sat in, or have at least seen in person. So my contribution this week is a car that I used to see on a semi-regular basis, sat in a time or two, but never was a passenger while it was moving.
The car, of course, was a green 1971 Plymouth Valiant 4-door just like the ones shown here, owned and driven by the father of one of my best friends in high school (And still is to this day!). The Dad was a tech guy, having worked at NASA at (then) Cape Kennedy during the Golden Age of space exploration, the 1960s. In the ’70s, they lived just south of Nashville, Tennessee.
I knew the car when it was about two years old; I do not know if they bought the car new or not. But I was 15 or 16 when introduced to this Mopar machine, and this was also during my time of transition from a motorcycle to first car.
I remember the Plymouth as being somewhat spartan, but not totally stripped. It had air conditioning. A radio. Probably an automatic (Hey, this was about 45 years ago… gimme a break!).
It had a nice dash. Plenty of gauges, surrounded in a vinyl woodgrain and chrome mylar. I really didn’t care for the asymmetrical gauge layout, but at least there weren’t idiot lights in the holes.
So the dash looked OK, but the rest of the interior was, well… not so overly luxurious.
It had slick vinyl bench seats, front and rear. The tops of the door inside were painted metal. I’m not sure if it had carpeting or just a black rubber floor mat… many of these floors looked like they were made of recycled tires.
The car was built and bought for simple, basic, reliable transportation, which is what most Plymouths seemed to have been built and bought for around this time. They were also favored by many police and fire departments.
Turn the key and this gawd-awful noise pulsated from under the hood, sounding something like eight screaming, spinning blenders being run over by a steam roller, one at a time. And though I’ve heard better sounds by an ancient roller washing machine on somebody’s front porch, this actually was just the Mopar starter motor of the era. It really made an awful racket.
The engine, also found in the Valiant’s kissing cousin, the Dodge Dart, was Mopar’s nearly indestructible Slant-6. And there were two Slant-6 engines in 1971, the 198 and the 225. The 198 replaced the 170 of years before to give the smaller Mopars a little more “oomph.”
It’s strange that I like this car now much more than I did in (circa) 1973. Its simple style looks tidy. The front end grows on me. Its interior could be upgraded easily.
Of course, not all 1971 Plymouth Valiants were green. One in particular was red, and it was the car star of a very notable made-for-TV movie.
From 1969 to 1976, there was the “ABC Movie Of The Week.” And in one of those movies, an up and coming director named Steven Spielberg used a ’71 Valiant De Luxe (notice the bright metalwork around the side windows and rocker panel) driven by Dennis Weaver, as well as a ’70 and ’72 that looked like the ’71. In addition to the Plymouth, a grimy, menacing 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck pulling a rusty tanker trailer was used as the Valiant’s nemesis. The film was “Duel,” and has been called one of the greatest TV movies ever made.
The story is about road rage at its most villainous and sinister. A large truck, driven by a mad driver that we never see, chases a smallish car, and towards the end, you know that something or somebody has to die to end this terror.
In the film, Dennis’ Valiant was so clever that it could overheat, lose oil pressure, and smoke its gauges going up an incline, but quickly cool off and heal itself on the way down. I wish my Vega could have done that as well.
That Valiant also survived a notable crash and drove well for the rest of the chase. And even with its front end twisted, the Valiant was valiant in its efforts to elude the massive truck that was seeking its doom.
I don’t know if The Dad’s Plymouth could do all that, but it did provide reliable service for a number of years. And though I really thought the car was, well… too plain for a 16-year-old, looking back, it would compare nicely to a Chevy Nova of that period. Just add some shag carpets, an underdash 8-Track player, some bucket seats, and you’re good to go.
Except for that god-awful horrendous starter motor noise.
Image Credits: Our first Valiant image was found at Hemmings.com. The rear shot is from Hemmings.com. The dash shot came from CarGurus.com. The Valiant engine photo is from Hemmings.com. The “Duel” image was found at IMCDB.org. Mr. Weaver’s action shot is from ThisDistractedGlobe.com. The final Valiant image came from CarGurus.com.