Your first car always carries a sense of nostalgia. It can often shape your automotive preferences for the rest of your life. Me? I celebrate the oddball, the unloved, and the underappreciated. That’s because my first car was a K-Car.
More specifically, the Shadow, Sundance, CSX, and Duster represented the entirety of the P-body, the compact derivative of the K platform. It was released in 1987, eventually superseding the Omni. 1994 was the last year of production, as it was replaced by the Neon the following year.
My mom bought a brand new Plymouth Sundance America in 1991 at discount due to hail damage. At this point, I was not even 1 year old. In the later 90's, it was my brother’s first car; then it was my sister’s first car; then she brought it with her to Milwaukee and killed it through accidents and neglect. We had to tow it back home in 2004.
In the next two years before I got my license, my dad and I fixed it as best as two amateur mechanics could. We replaced broken and dented body pieces (the Shadow grill is the only real difference between the models, so that’s why I consider mine to be a Shadow instead of Sundance). It got a new door, meaning that I always had to unlock the car through the passenger door. The old rocker panels were rusted away, so we put on new ones with shoddy welding and Bondo.
Underneath, it got a new coil, wires, plugs, radiator, thermostat, muffler, fuel filter, and starter and was a reliable runner once again. A cheap, poorly executed paint job turned the car from grey and red to royal blue. It was ready for its next round of teenage driver mayhem.
This was 2006, so I had just about the oldest car in my high school lot. That was fine with me. I embraced having a junker car. I made it even worse with every cheap, Wal-Mart accessory I could afford: hubcaps, stickers, fuzzy dice, exhaust tip, seat covers, 8-ball valve stem caps, LED lights, neon underglow, a CD player that skipped over every bump, an amp, extra speakers and dual subwoofers. I can still hear Party Like a Rock Star rattling my trunk like it was yesterday.
But holy Iacocca was this thing slow. The base 2.2L engine and slipping 3 speed auto made it borderline dangerous to merge onto the highway. To make matters worse, everything that hadn’t been changed was now starting to fall apart. Eventually, my parents sold it for a whopping $500. Looking back, I wish I had more appreciation for it at the time. Maybe that’s why, six years later, I bought another Shadow for $400.
It also has a drive door that does not open. This one, though, is not slow. It was basically the perfect version of the car I longed for: a 2-door with the Mitsubishi-based 3.0L transverse V6 and a 5 speed stick. I drove it in college for a while until I realized how sketchy it was on the highway in the snow due to bad tires and suspension.
The main problem, however, is the rust. It had turned into a Fred Flintstone car. So, after college, teardown began. It was much worse than I had ever expected. It makes David Tracy’s Project Swiss Cheese look pristine.
The purpose of this car has always been to learn and try new things on it. For that price, I don’t have to care if I screw it up. I’ve been casually working on it over the past couple years and have formulated a plan. Taking inspiration from the likes of Max Rockatansky and Mighty Car Mods, Project Mad Shadow, the Last of the V6 Mitsu-Chryslers, was born.
It has been stripped of all unnecessary weight and has been given a suspension upgrade, aftermarket wheels, “riveting” body work, racing seats, a rear disc brake conversion with parts from a Stratus, and chains on the grill. Eventually, I would like to do some write-ups on this car, but it is nowhere near finished.
Actually, it probably will never be finished. Long term, it provides a good opportunity to practice welding exhaust and whatever metal exoskeleton I want to add. The block provides a nice platform to do some engine upgrades; there was a SOHC 24 valve version that should fit onto this 12 valve. I also wouldn’t rule out a turbo and dabbling into some EFI tuning since it already has sequential multi-port injection instead of throttle body injection like the old 2.2L had.
There are a few tips for this area. These cars are generally well laid-out and easy to work on, though rusty bolts will cause a lot of stress.
Many parts are interchangeable between K-car models. However, it is still hard to find some parts. Many body parts, castings, etc., are no longer available new. Even junkyards have phased them out; I’ve actually been laughed at when calling around because they “don’t have anything that old out in the yard.” I blame Cash for Clunkers.
As far as aftermarket and performance parts go, there isn’t much that can be done. Major suppliers like Summit and JC Whitney provide very few bolt-on goodies. There are a few great resources if you want to get a little extra speed, though.
Forward Motion, Inc. provides parts and information on many small Chrysler cars, including “Stage” kits for just about everything. Of course, Allpar is a community full of intelligent people that have documented everything about these cars and have squeezed every ounce of power out of pretty much every model and engine combination. Still, the general consensus for any of these engines is that the computer is the main thing holding them back, so there is only so far you can go without major changes.
Yes, I have a bias towards K-cars, Lee Iacocca is my hero, and a turbo Daytona gives me a tingling in my nethers. But, in general, here’s a few reasons why you should at least consider an older vehicle.
- Cheap to purchase, cheap to insure
- “Modern” old cars, such as mine, were still designed for safety and come with standard air bags.
- You do not have to care about anything if you don’t want to. Parking lot dings and fender benders aren’t even a mild inconvenience.
- If maintained, they can be just as reliable as a new car.
- Buy the right models, and you can have some serious fun running through the gears. Or, you can get something comfortable with luxury options.
- Your car will have character and stand out from the crowd.
- Economy cars are really small and easy to park; luxo-barges are huge and feel like riding on a cloud. It’s all your preference, but they will have great visibility either way.
- If environmental impact is your concern, know that it is much greener to buy a used car than a new one because of all the energy that goes into producing new vehicles. Additionally...
- The fuel mileage can be actually quite good. My peppy 3.0 V6 averages over 30 MPG on the highway.
- Anything new can do, old can do better. Okay, maybe not better. But adequately. Of all the things necessary for a car to get you from A to B, what does a new car have that an old car doesn’t?
There really is only one responsible choice. Be unique; be environmentally friendly; be kind to your bank account. Everybody wins when we keep those old cars alive and running.