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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

October 17, 1997

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what the attraction is for the early '60s Slant-6 Plymouth Valiant or, for that matter, its clone, the Dodge Dart. Maybe it starts out as admiration for it's unabashed honesty. It was small, but not too small. Today it would be called mid-sized but in '60, it was considered a "compact."

The Valiant of 1960 was a product of its time. It was well-known in the industry that Ford and Chevrolet would be introducing the Falcon and the Corvair that year and so the Virgil Exner-designed Valiant was rushed into production, Its design was very much unlike its competition in that it had a definite continental flair that was loved or hated. There was even a fake "continental kit" built into its trunk lid.

The original Valiant engine was an up-to-date 170 cubic inch "oversquare" (the cylinder bore was bigger than the stroke) overhead valve straight six that was canted over on its right side by 30 degrees. Its crankcase housed engine bearings that were bigger than those in many of the V8s in the Chrysler lineup in those years and it was the first American car to come equipped with an alternator rather than an antiquated generator. The little engine was later to be known reverently as the "Slant-6" by aficionados.

The manual transmission was a three-speed (although in later life four-speeds were offered in various years) while the optional automatic was a "baby" Chrysler Torqueflite that developed a reputation for being bullet-proof. Of technical interest was the operation of gear-selection in the automatic. Mounted on the dash beside the steering wheel was a push-button system and parking pawl lever that worked an almost-Rube Goldberg-ish collection of sliding arms and rods. Operating it on the work bench was a real joy for a mechanic to observe.

The suspension was unique, too. Plymouth had done away with conventional springs up front in favor of torsion bars (a feature mostly given to European car back then), and the handling was better than its contemporaries, the Ford Falcon and the Chevrolet Corvair.

A year later, the same 225 cubic inch version of the Slant 6 that was used in the full-sized Dodges and Plymouths was offered in the Valiant (and the Dart, too) and the performance that was just so-so was boosted considerably. The Detroit Horsepower Race was just getting under way and the parent Chrysler Corporation also offered a dealer-installed "Hyper-Pak" engine kit that made the car a veritable rocket for it's size and added luster to the Slant-6 name albeit without a factory guarantee.

But I think that there is more to the veneration of the Slant-6 and its Chrysler-product recipients than plain appreciation for an honest design. Jan Rowan is an example. Jan drove her '70 Plymouth Valiant Slant-6 with a manual transmission straight off the showroom floor that year. Unfortunately she didn't know that restarting the car required depressing the clutch pedal, a problem that resulted in an embarrassing traffic tie-up on our local freeway an hour later when her car stalled in 5PM traffic.

Fortunately two of my sons came to her rescue, gave her a bit of automotive education and she was on her way.

Jan kept her '70 Valiant until it rusted away at which point she sold it, still running, to a youth who had visions of restoring it. Her replacement was '63 push-button Valiant which she still owns along with a station wagon example of the same vintage. Jan was seduced by the Plymouth Valiant/Dodge Dart Slant-6 mystique.

She was later to find that she wasn't alone in her adoration and that the SLANT 6 CLUB of AMERICA is enormous, having over 20 chapters all over the US as well as in other countries. Jack Poeler operates the club out of his office in Salem, Oregon, and has over 2000 enthusiastic owners on the club roster.

It seems as though almost everyone has had some version of either the Plymouth Valiant, its Dodge Dart sibling or some kind of Chrysler vehicle that carried the Slant-6 engine. The Valiant itself was produced until '76 and the powerplant was so well designed and durable that it was used in Chrysler-built cars and trucks well into the '80s.

My son Tom had a Plymouth Valiant Slant-6 station wagon of uncertain vintage that was given to him as a gift. He labeled it "The Grinder" by virtue of the din given off by its manual transmission. After a year of brutal abuse by Tom, "The Grinder" too was passed on to someone more in need of transportation and it may still be grinding its way through traffic to this day.

Like Molly Brown, the Slant 6 and its applicable vehicles are unsinkable.