1984 Plymouth Reliant
A good friend of mine was the orginal
owner of this car. It had belonged to his grandmother at some point,
and was parked when she stopped driving. Although it had a very young
power train (70,200 original
miles!), the body had rusted and degraded. Mice had been in the car as
well. After having moved on to bigger and better vehicles, he decided
to junk it. Some years before all of this, he drove the 1984 Reliant with its 2.6 liter
four cylinder engine while I was driving a 1984 GMC pickup truck with
an eight cylinder 6.2 (!!!) liter engine. A coincidence? Probably. Interesting? I thought so.
I decided to buy it from him. Thus begins quite a story. The junkyard offered him $100, so that's what I paid.
We got the car to run right then and there at his parents' farm. I
found a ratty old battery on my driveway and it got the car started as
soon as we gave it some help with a can of ether. There were some
problems, make no mistake. The engine was absolutely racing, fuel was
leaking everywhere and the old car didn't have the strongest of brakes.
He, myself and his wife to be got it up on my trailer, though.
Unfortunately for him, my trailer had side rails that precluded opening
the doors on the car.
Hilarity ensued, but we got his nearly seven feet out of the
passenger's side window. Everyone who'd been watching was very amused
by this process. (Process is a good, polite word for it.)
Coming from a GM and Ford background I never knew much about the
Chrysler K body cars. The most I knew about them at the time had to do
with all the jokes that were made about them on the Red Green show. I
didn't think they could be that great of a car.
I was wrong. This little car was one of the most enjoyable cars to
drive AND work on. Chrysler knew how to build a car once upon a time,
and this thing was a great example. It needed some repairs at first--I
treated it to a new fuel pump, new bolt to replace the one that had
gone missing on the alternator mounting bracket, new spark plugs, and
some new plug wires. It also got a new fuel filter. To get rid of the
stale gas, I decided to simply run the car until it ran out of fuel.
Even with the small amount of gas that was in the car, this took a LOT
longer than I thought it would.
I cleaned the heck out of the car in the meantime. It needed a good cleaning. I took lots of pictures, you can view them here.
My Kingdom For An Idle Speed Adjustment!
All this time, however, the problem of the engine racing remained. It
baffled me. It baffled my dad. The Chilton's and Haynes manuals baffled
us both--their uselessness was stunning. The next door neighbors (also
guilty of having many project cars) were baffled as well. I finally
happened upon the original set of Chrysler Factory Service manuals.
These proved their worth plenty of times, but not until after we'd
already found and fixed the high idle problem. It turned out that the
secondary on the little Mikuni carburetor was jammed wide open with
rust. After a whole lot of WD-40, we had it working a lot better.
To say that the carburetion system on this car is unique would be an
understatement. It is the only car I've ever seen with a computer
controlled air fuel mixture system on the carburetor as well as a
throttle position sensor. (If you go looking for the computer, it is
behind the passenger's side kick panel.)
Our next door neighbor was the second person to know. He came out almost immediately after the engine settled down to an idle and commented on it.
Ready To Roll
With the car basically ready to run, we got it licensed and insured. I
drove it at first and then my brother David started to attend college.
He needed a car, and so the Reliant went to him most of the time. Five
days a week he drove it almost 100 miles round trip, and he did so for
about a year and a half. If anyone would have doubted the reliability
of the little Reliant, they couldn't afterwards. It never once failed
him on those trips.
David drove the daylights out of the Reliant when he wasn't attending
school. I don't think there was too much of our fair part of the state
that he didn't explore. I'll probably never know all the places he
went. Of those, a few adventures stuck out as unique. A bozo woman in a
brand new Dodge truck T-boned the poor Reliant in the grocery store
parking lot, leaving a scar running along the driver's side rear
quarter panel. David took the car out one night and down a muddy
What happened after that was nothing less than a testament to the
incredible traveling ability of a front wheel drive automobile. He'd
gone down this dirt road that had been turned to mud and churned up by
a bunch of rude people in four wheel drive vehicles. What finally
stopped the bold little Reliant was not the mud--it was the clearance
between car and ground. David overheated it and nearly ran the battery
down by the time he called me in.
I came out to find him, and started walking as soon as the paved road
ended. I'd walked so far that I couldn't even see the headlights of my
truck in the distance and was beginning to wonder if I'd gone to the
wrong place. Nope, David was there. He'd just driven so incredibly far
down a road that I was having trouble even walking
on. We had no choice but to leave the car there that night, and tempers
flared after my mom and dad got wind of it. The next morning, with a
little help from a four wheel drive pickup truck belonging to my
cousin, the Reliant was freed from its muddy prison. It really only
needed a quick pull to get its body off of the mud and then it came out
under its own power.
David eventually grew dissatisifed with the little car. His training as
an auto mechanic in school was making him a perfectionist. He didn't
like the fact that the ride was somewhat wobbly due to bent rims.
Eventually he didn't like the little car at all because it didn't have
functional air conditioning or power steering. He commandeered our
dad's 1988 Buick because of the working air conditioner.
I took over driving it at that point. We had quite a few more
adventures with the little car before a brake failure sidelined it.
(More on that later.)
Somewhere along the line, the factory installed ignition module gave it
up. I replaced it with one NAPA spare, which lasted about a month
before it failed. The car would shut off just like someone had turned
the key. A replacement under NAPA's warranty solved the problem,
A CD stereo (installed around Christmas of 2007) and speakers replaced
the malfunctioning AM radio and rounded out the package. It was REALLY
quite nice to have a stereo in the car after driving around with no
tunes and a hole in the dash for the longest time.
My dad elected to borrow the Reliant one day so he could take it to
work. His own car was broken. I suggested that he put gas in the
Reliant, but he didn't. That's how we learned that when the fuel gauge
said "empty" it wasn't joking. This wasn't any GM vehicle...empty here
meant flat out of gas, not "a few gallons still in the tank". He didn't
know what had happened, cranked the car over repeatedly and ran the
That old crusty battery from the driveway took that as the final
insult. It was dead beyond all means of charging, so a new battery was
procured alongside the knowledge that this car would not be alllowed to
reach the empty mark on the fuel gauge again. Nobody could accuse that
battery of quitting early--it had been purchased in 1999 or 2000 for
use in a Ford Taurus station wagon, where it had to endure one night of
the dome lights being left on, sitting around for several years in a
discharged state and finally sitting on the driveway for another two or so
years before I charged it up to see if it was still up to the task of
bringing a car back to life....not at all bad for the entry level
Wal-Mart battery. It was late 2008 by the time that battery gave it up.
~ ~ ~
The fuel system was always the bane of the Reliant. Dried and cracked
hoses took their toll on the system and kept it from really working
properly. The engine mounted fuel pump couldn't suck fuel because of
the air leaks. Performance suffered, sometimes quite dramatically. That
and the rust in the fuel tank tended to plug up the fuel filter and
We'd just finished replacing the fuel filter one night when we hit upon
the idea of a test drive. It was a cold night, and David made sure to
have his cell phone handy...just in case. We were going down a highway
when the sight of a boat trailer halfway on the road caught our eyes.
We chalked it up to someone pulling off the road to check their map or
When we finally came back the other way and it was still there, we knew
something was up. David and I pulled over to ask what was up. The old
man driving had been out all day fishing and was heading home when his
S-Blazer quit. He hadn't been able to restart it, so we offered him the
use of a cell phone. He couldn't raise anyone.
Well...how about we give you a ride? Where do you live? Only about
thirty miles away...come on, get in. Our $100 car pulled back on the
That was the most people we ever had in the Reliant at once...David and
I in the front and this old man in the back. Even though there were no
fuel problems with the old car for the entire ride into town, I swapped
it out for my truck and took the old man the rest of the way to his
house. It ended up that he couldn't get in, having left his house keys
in the Blazer. I didn't want to, but I left him at a busy service
station after he assured me that he'd be OK.
He bought me a tank of gas for my pickup truck and told me to take the
change ($10, left over from a $50 bill) to get something hot to eat.
I wonder where that old man is today?
~ ~ ~
The bad fuel lines left David by the side of the road, just outside of
town one time. I rigged them up, but he bought a new piece of line by
the time we'd made town.
By that time a lot of the fuel lines had been replaced ,but the one
coming off of the fuel filter to the pump was still original. My
brother Eric and I were flying down a highway one day when we came upon
this Ford Aerostar crawling along. After a while of this, we got bored
and I gave the Reliant the go ahead. It accelerated in the way it
always had--slowly--but we passed that van like a freight train passing
Later, we happened upon a major slowdown where some road construction
was going on. We came to a stop and the van was undoubtedly behind us
somewhere. Our good old Reliant had a fuel breakdown. We couldn't
accelerate at all; the engine stuttered, stumbled and fell all over
itself at every try. We just had to pull over.
The bozos in the van that we'd passed so swifly earlier had something
smart to say about this, one of them leaned out of the window and
yelled something. I don't remember what, but I rigged up the bad fuel
line and took that car on down the road at a maximum of fifty miles an
hour, with soft launches. It lasted long enough to get Eric and I out
to AutoZone, where we bought a few bucks worth of fuel hose and changed
it right there with nothing more than a pair of heavy pliers.
Modern cars may perhaps be more reliable, but how many of them could have their fuel system serviced in a parking lot with a pair of simple pliers? Not too many by my count.
~ ~ ~
At some point I hit upon the idea of selling the Reliant and a would-be
buyer finally came along. Nobody was really driving it any more, even
though it still ran fine, so moving on and selling the car seemed like
a logical choice.
The kid who planned on buying it wanted a test drive. I knew he didn't
have a license, so I took him to a private location where he could test
drive the car all he wanted to.
I also didn't know that he had no real idea how
to drive. That car got such a pounding around the local fairgrounds.
And while the underbody seemed so rusty, it held together without
incident. The guy never bought the car, and in a way, I ended up being
quite pleased about that. I'd have wanted it to end up with someone who
would appreciate it, and I don't think that was this particular guy.
~ ~ ~
Saving the best for last...more than once, the fine old Reliant had the occasion to mix it up with some much newer BMW automobiles.
I work at a bank and took the Reliant to work more than once. I was
mighty proud of my hundred dollar car. It didn't matter how it looked
or what it had cost. Perhaps against all the odds, it kept right on
rolling down the highway even though it didn't owe us a thing. And so
it was that I didn't feel the slightest bit out of place by parking it
next to the bank president's sparkling new BMW. Later that day, when I
noticed that he'd moved his car away, the Reliant followed. You're darn
right that I found it funny.
Later on, shortly before the Reliant was taken off the road, I was
going down a rural blacktop when I saw this black car in the background
coming up hard and fast from behind. I made some derogatory comment
about a "boy racer" and then I decided to show whoever this was what a
rickety hundred dollar car could do. I had plenty of time (a necessity
given how long it took this thing to get up to speed) so I just let the
Reliant unwind. Got it up to 90 MPH by the time whoever was in such a
hurry was behind me. The radio was playing, and I felt like I was on
top of the world. (Yes, it was a cheap thrill. What of it?)
Oh, would you look at what's back there? It's a BMW! Sure, the guy driving it passed me, but I looked over to him and he looked back, shooting me the dirtiest look ever. I could only offer a raucous laugh in response.
The Reliant Today
I've still got the 1984 Reliant. The power brake booster is bad, the
power steering hasn't worked for a long time (bad shaft seal in the
pump), and the underbody is really not in good shape.
It's probably through in terms of being a road car. I just can't quite
bring myself to send it off to the salvage yard, where it would
probably soon be unceremoniously shredded to little pieces. I'd like to
sell the remaining good parts--the power train is in great shape and
still very young, having traveled only 7,000 or so more miles since I
bought it. It could use some seals, but it will start and run and drive
the moment a battery is dropped in.
Goodbye Red Rocket
On March 9th, 2010 or so I finally said my goodbyes to the Red Rocket
and called a junkman to haul it off. It was my hope that perhaps the
(very young!) powertrain might go on to see use in another car with a
better body, but I don't think that happened. At this point, I
doubt the good old Red Rocket exists in one piece any more. It's
probably been shredded and pulverized into little pieces, and it will
eventually become something else... maybe another Chrysler?
I really loved this car. I was sad to see it go, but the body was gone
beyond any real hope of repair. Even so, every cloud does have a silver
lining. I paid $100 for the car and the junkman bought it for $150.
That's not enough to recoup the costs of title, license, parts or fuel,
although it is something.
Fortunately, I got another. The new one is a grey station wagon from 1988 and its body is solid. It is a work in progress.
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Copyright © 2010, 2016 William R. Walsh. Created 03/16/2010 12:56 AM. Minorly updated 12/29/2016, 1:12 AM. Some rights
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The phrase "red rocket" has apparently referred to a sex toy of some
kind. I had no idea of this until someone told me. The name was chosen
just because it was ironic, since this was no race car. If for some
reason it offends you, feel free to substitute the name one of my
brothers used, the "red scare".