Cross-country Coronet: An adventure in a 1966 Dodge Coronet

It’d been a year of flipping through dead-end internet listings and skimming Hemmings, and five years since I sold my little 1963 AMC Rambler. But after meeting my car-nut boyfriend, Dan—owner of one too many Land Rovers—I knew it was time for me to get another old car. He tried to steer me down the British route, but I’ve always had a heart for American classics.

I grew up on Long Island with a gearhead father who brought me along to Sunday car shows, letting me ride along in a rumble seat not long after I could walk. He overflowed with stories about growing up in Brooklyn, a car-crazy child in a big, bustling city. At 12 years old, he used to steal his father’s Cadillac to go cruising while Grandpa was out on his boat—or vice versa. My father eventually moved out to the south shore of Long Island to start a custom sport-fishing boat business but has never stopped being a motorhead—a passion he’s passed on to me. 

The problem was deciding what kind of ride I wanted post-Rambler. Living in Queens, I knew the practical route would have been to go with something more petite like the AMC again, but I really hankered for a boat of a car. Endless internet searches just didn’t seem to be helping, so I decided to go with the tried-and-true: a trip to Carlisle.

Carlisle, Pennsylvania, hosts some of the biggest classic car shows of the year—a pair of them, in the spring and the fall. I picked up my Rambler from a spring show several years back, so I felt it’d be a good place to start looking for my next. It didn’t fail me, either. Sitting quietly among the Impalas and Grand Prixs all vying loudly for my attention, I see it: a Dodge Coronet. Leaving Carlisle and heading home, I can’t get my mind off that car. 

A few days later, Dan sends me a link to an online auction for a ’66 Dodge Coronet in Houston, and it’s perfect. The requisite internal debate and bank account parsing ensues before I dial the number on the listing. A deep Southern accent answers the phone; the owner, a pastor blessed with his calling’s essential gift of gab, is delighted to share everything he can about the car. I have a good feeling about this one. I flag the auction and dream of summer days where I can cruise along the north fork of Long Island, floating away in my 1966 time machine.

Not a week later while heading home from a long weekend of off-roading in Vermont, I get an email alert. There’s one hour until bidding ends for the Coronet. I place bid after bid after bid—and then my login fails as the auction comes to a close. Devastated, I immediately text the owner, pleading for him to call me if the deal goes south. 

A few hours pass before I can check my email again, where I find … I need to buy two one-way tickets to Houston. My life was about to be consumed by a new, old car!

Not long after we touch down in Texas, we pull up to a large garage with a small house attached, the tail of the Coronet—my Coronet—peeking out from underneath an awning and basking in the hot Houston sun. It’s a surreal moment, but I’m filled with excitement and gratitude. The pastor runs through the list of how the car works, pointing out all its characteristics and quirks, like its hot cammed 318 engine with exhaust dumps that open by the flick of a switch. He’s got a picture frame in the back seat filled with relics including the original bill of sale and a local newspaper feature on the car. He then gives me a small “beginner’s tool kit” for my journey back north and hands off the keys. 

We climb into the Coronet to start the long trek back north when the pastor runs down the driveway, a small piece of folded paper in his hands. It reads: “If you died today, would you go to Heaven?” It’s a prayer card from his church. I smile and thank him, and we pull away as the pastor and his wife stand waving in the rearview.

What I love about old cars is that each has a distinct character. Taking in the smells, sounds and general feel of an old car during that first drive is like nothing else. And then slowly getting familiar with the nuances of its personality—the specific squeaks, random rattles and various creaks and rumbles that start out new but over time almost become an old car’s language—it’s a magical time for a car geek, those first hours behind the wheel.

On the other hand, you have to be prepared—overly prepared even—to drive an unknown car as far as we were planning to. Someone’s willingness to forgive something small can be not-so-forgiving to the new owner: A misaligned wheel that drags to the left can be fine around town under 35 mph, but five days of wear at 65 mph will have a terrible effect. 

At some point, I look down at the gauges to check the fuel, but … wait, where’s the fuel gauge? And then I remember: The fuel gauge is wired in the back of the car and can only be viewed if you open the trunk and turn on the lights. So if ever I lose track of the miles since the last fill-up, I’ll need to pull over, turn off the car and pop the trunk with the key. It’s a real luxury. 

Not long on the road, we stop for fuel, but as we ease our way out of the station and carefully take the Coronet back up to speed, it’s already running hot, over 220 on the dash, and the car is hesitating. It also feels like it’s only firing on seven of its eight cylinders. And that A/C, yeah, doesn’t work. 

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