By on August 23, 2010

The reason there was no Curbside Classic last Tuesday was this: our camping trip to the coast was unexpectedly extended. We take our ’77 Dodge Chinook on deserted US Forest Service roads, and find hidden camping spots miles away from the nearest person, camp ground, and cell phone coverage. Depending on the mood, we can enjoy the dead quiet, or play the Dead as loud as we like. There is a certain risk to these back road jaunts, and I always calculate how many miles I would have to walk in case Old Faithful died unexpectedly. Folks perish regularly on these back roads, mainly in the winter. On Tuesday morning, having spent a serene night at the Cummins Creek trailhead, the “Hamtramck Hummingbird” starter sang and sang, but there wasn’t even the faintest sign of an explosion. Had be an ignition problem; the 360 always starts instantly, even if it doesn’t always keep running on a cool morning. Fortunately, this time we were a short jaunt from the highway. “I’ll just hitch hike to Florence, pick up an electronic ignition module, and be back in a jiffy”. My wife said “call a tow truck”. You already know who was right.

But luck seemed to be on my side at first. A young couple picked me up, took me to the NAPA, and even drove me right back to the camper. I was back in time for lunch! And the NAPA counter guys were all sure it had to be the ignition module ($73), but I decided to grab a coil ($22) just to play it safe. I slapped them both in, and…nothing.

For the second time, I made the three mile trek to the Cape Perpetua Visitor Center where there was cell coverage and a phone book (the first time to confirm the parts were available). This time it was for a tow. It was no joke getting the camper on the truck in the little parking area; we had to push the Chinook back so the truck could get in front of it. And then he had to turn around. Half way to town he remembered the tunnel on HW1, and began to panic whether we would clear it (he was new on the job). He pulled over while I ran ahead to the tunnel entrance and spotted him.

Arrived at the shop ten minutes to five. The mechanic says something about a little ceramic piece that goes on the old Dodges, but it will have to wait until the  morning. It was a pleasant night in his parking lot.

After breakfast, the mechanic shows up, but can’t find what he’s looking for. Runs  to get an old-timer who shows him where it’s well hidden in the very crowded firewall, right behind the master cylinder. A hunk of ceramic with a coiled wire in the back of it, that looks like it came out of a hundred year-old appliance: the ballast resistor ($11). The good old seventies, where early high-tech meets steam punk. I’m going to buy and carry an extra, to go along with the ignition module and coil that I yanked out. Be prepared! Of course, the next time it’ll be something different. Total towing and repair bill: $164. Campground fees: $0.

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43 Comments on “Not Getting Away From It All...”


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Steam punk reference in an article about car trouble with a 77 Chinook. Nice.

    The camper must have known you were gonna talk smack about it’s little brother, Fifth Avenue. Sounds like a staged strike to me. :P

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Ouch! You’re probably right though. Or maybe I picked on the Chrysler in spite.
      Notice I never said anything bad about the Chrysler motor or tranny: the 360 and A727 in the camper are a gold. And this is the first time it’s ever stranded us, in almost ten years and close to 40k miles’ lots of it on rough roads.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      BTW the top pic looks like it should be either a postcard or an advertisement for the towing company.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    But it wasn’t a crank position sensor (100 dollars) a throttle body injector (500 dollars) or any number of a dozen high tech seldom stocked big dollar parts even the dealer has to order. And the mechanics zeroed in without computer scanners or an internet search.

    I’d say this speaks volumes about old cars.

    And just think of the adventure and story you’ll have to tell!

  • avatar

    I used to have a Dodge Maxivan with the 360 that refused to start in any rain or snow. I wonder if it had that same part in a location that got wet …

    • 0 avatar
      thebeelzebubtrigger

      It doesn’t even have to get really wet — the ceramic develops tiny cracks, and if it’s humid enough outside the vapor in the air on those cracks will do it.

      But I agree with GS650G — what old vehicles lack in terms of modern amenities they more than make up for by being super easy and cheap to keep running. New cars are nice, but ultimately most are also disposable.
      No-one’s going to be paying $3000 for labor on a crankshaft ignition sensor to keep a modern camcord on the road once it’s 20 years old.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    You can bypass the ballast resistor in a pinch. When cranking, it is bypassed automatically to provide full battery voltage to the ignition. When your key moves to run, the resistor comes into play. Yours is the dual ballast resistor, used on cars with electronic ignition modules. I’m recalling from memory here, but I think that this is accurate.

    Yeah, the old stuff is way easier to diagnose and repair, but no matter who makes it, the modern, complex electronic car is way more reliable than those based on stone knives and bearskins. One can’t help but wonder how reliable a new car could be if it were made the old way but with really high quality parts. I still think that elimination of carbs and rich mixtures washing down cylinder walls is primarily responsible for the longevity of today’s engines…

    • 0 avatar
      GS650G

      I travel on 30 year old motorbikes regularly. Reliable as a sunrise. Not much to go wrong. Of course the emissions are a little higher and there is that mysterious device called a choke to be operated when starting, but they serve as reminders how simple the ICE can be.

      Getting from A to B is still accomplished.

    • 0 avatar
      MarcKyle64

      +1 for the ‘City On The Edge Of Forever’ reference.

      Yes, the old parts were cheap to buy, but they were cheaply made, too.

      Even nowdays I could completely overhaul my last old car’s fuel system with a rebuilt carb, fuel pump and fuel filter for about the same price as a single new electronic widget would cost me for my Accent’s engine. But 50,000 miles later I’d be doing it again. And getting 12 mpg.

    • 0 avatar
      thornmark

      Lead-free gas plays a large role in increased engine life, oil life, exhaust system life.

      And life, human et al.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Back in the day, everyone who drove a MoPar knew to keep a spare ballast resistor in the glove box.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Now you tell me.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep…’76 Plymouth Volare Station Wagon…wood grain side panels, red cloth interior…and a ballast resistor in the glovebox!

    • 0 avatar
      JKC

      Yep- same with my parents’ much un-loved ’74 Dart… always carry an extra ballast resistor. I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner. Easy fix, though. Would that modern iron was so simple to repair.

    • 0 avatar
      jpcavanaugh

      I think I still have a new one out in the garage.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      And from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s, a spare Chysler pick up coil!

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      Yeah, after getting my 88 Ramcharger as a teenager I started panicking whether I needed to get spare ballast resistors (and I’ve never owned an older Mopar). Luckily the TBI 318s didn’t seem to have those POS parts. I never did have coil problems, but for a while I had to keep spare dizzy caps & rotor buttons while the lone distributor shaft bushing was wearing itself out before I could replace the distributor.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      We also knew to carry a big screwdriver used to hold open the 2bbl butterfly when the weather was cold or damp.

      One day in Driver’s Ed as I was earning my certificate, we were out in the ’72 Impala wagon stopped at a light behind a ’69 Satellite that was stalled with the owned frantically cranking away. I told the instructor, “I can fix this”, got out, asked the driver to pop the hood on the Satellite, unscrewed the wing nut on the air cleaner cover, stuck my fingers into the throat of the carb and the 318 started on the first try. Put the cover back on, closed the hood, waved to the driver, got back in the Impala and we were all on our way in under 45 seconds. I had so much practice on my Dad’s Sattellite that it became second nature. And, yes, I carried a spare ballast resistor in my ’69 Charger. Some us also carried a spare voltage regulator as well as they often went bad.

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    …we can enjoy the dead quiet, or play the Dead as load as we like…

    Hmm – for me, playing the Dead as loud as I like would result in dead quiet.

    As the joke goes:

    What did the deadheads say when they ran out of pot?

    “What’s that horrible noise?!”

  • avatar

    Ouch… I feel your pain! It’s from an old injury, actually. Yep, I did exactly the same dance with my Chrysler product some 20-odd years ago, only I was fortunate enough to be in town at the time.

    Bought the electronic ignition module, installed it, still no start. Beat head against fender. Checked coil, plug wires, etc. Finally, my brother said “you’re not going to like this”, as he knew how much I’d spent in non-returnable electric parts. We went and got a new ballast resistor (about $5, as I recall), put it in and the damned thing started up immediately.

    Thus, as soon as I started reading your post, I said “ballast resistor”! My advice for anyone with an old Mopar: Buy two spares and have them in the vehicle at all times. Seriously.

    I’m pretty much neutral on the Dead, myself, but I saw a bumper sticker years ago that had me chuckling:

    “Jerry’s Dead, and I’m Grateful”

    I’m glad you all made it out okay! I love those fire roads, too.

    • 0 avatar
      rnc

      Speaking of the Dead and thier following, a friend and I spent a couple of years restoring a land cruiser and when we finally took it out there is an old cemetary next to a river and railroad tracks with lots of dirt roads and such near his house (incase it died again), we found what we thought was a powerline access road that was so steep that it was like going over the edge on a rollercoaster and coming back up the same, we get to the other side and as we drop we realized that we were in the middle of 20 or so tents (or tarps, etc.), and surrounded by leftover hippies everywhere, freaked me out (first question – have any weed man, and while we did, wasn’t taking that chance I wanted to run them over and get out of there). That’s what they do now, dead are gone, phish broke up, they say that it’s free to live on RR land.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Like golden2husky said, it is called a ballast resistor and is used to drop the voltage to the coil during run conditions. Normally, however, the starter switch bypasses that resistor during starting so as to give the plugs and extra hot spark on start up. The sure signal of one of those puppies failing is that the car will start, but instantly die when you turn the switch from start back to on.

    For very short distances you can bypass said resistor with a jumper wire. Since you already had the spare coil and ignition module, you were good to go :).

    Many vehicles use a high resistance length of wire for that same function.

    And yes, you should chance those suckers out as a maintenance item every six years or so on vintage Chrysler products (or carry a spare).

    • 0 avatar
      Uncle Mellow

      “For very short distances you can bypass said resistor with a jumper wire.”
      Back in the early 80’s I remember running for a couple of weeks with the resistor by-passed , and the motor getting an extra-fat spark , while the dealer sourced a new one.

  • avatar
    Cerbera LM

    20 years ago was driving a 240Z (RIP) when it died in Alexandria, LA. Coasted into a garage where the biggest (6-7 350+ lbs) and grease-est mechanic I’ve ever seen comes out for a look see. First thing he did was get a screw driver and some wire to bypass the ballast resistor and says start the car. Fires right up. Used the wire as a temporary bypass and gives me directions (which were hard for this Yankee to understand) to the parts store. 10 minutes after I coasted in I was headed to the parts store. A new resistor and borrowed screw driver later and I was back on the road.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    You got away super cheap, and were fortunate to have someone old enough to know how to fix it. At least it wasn’t snowing in that beautiful countryside.

    My last two Mopar minivans (96, 98) died from electrical problems in the engine wiring harness. Since the parts cost more money and time than the cars were worth, I moved on. I wish it had only been a ballast resistor. :)

    Having just taken a 6100-mile, 15-day camping trip in the 09 Sedona at near maximum capacity (including towing ~1800 lbs) with nothing worse than two (2!) blown accessory fuses, I’m thankful nothing more went wrong.

    My fuses both blew when an old aftermarket AC inverter died in New Mexico ($30 to fix all). Then I needed a jump in Nevada and Colorado because I foolishly let our DC-powered cooler run overnight. This is how we met some nice people. Sounds like you did, too.

    By the way, that’s a nice-looking camper.

    • 0 avatar
      segfault

      Ah, yes, the DC cooler. My Altima has a DC outlet under the radio/HVAC and another in the center console. The one below the HVAC, where I plug my Garmin in, turns off with the ignition. The one in the center console, unbeknownst to me, is hot all the time. I had a cooler plugged in there, but miraculously heard the fan running after I had turned the car off, else I would have left my hotel room the next morning to a drained battery.

  • avatar
    obbop

    Sorry about your lost opportunity to attain the coveted Alfred Packer award for winter survival.

  • avatar
    Beta Blocker

    Didn’t the true cause of the problem lie in the resistor becoming corroded from all that cold misty air you Oregonians have to put up with?

  • avatar

    Good story Paul. I learned the same hard way on a Dodge 1/2 ton 360. Mine was an urban experience that was not as scenic as your adventure, but it also involved a tow truck. The remedy was provided by a smart farmer with serious mechanical savvy.

  • avatar
    Omnifan

    One correction. It’s not “Hammtrack hummingbird,” but rather “Hamtramck hummingbird.” Pronounced ham-tram-ick.

  • avatar
    relton

    This happened to my father’s Dodge so often that he had the spare attached to the firewall so he could just change the wires without having to actually change the resitor till he got home. Chrysler should have made the cars this way, saving people from being stranded and lookng for parts.

    There’s a reason they nearly went out of business, again.

    Bob

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Paul, my first thought on seeing the top photo was: You own the flatbed and that’s what you drove, carrying your RV to keep the miles off it! But, no, you really did have a problem. Happens to the best of us! The Dodge really does look to be in great condition.

    How about a CC about the last 4 door hardtop GM barges of the mid-70’s (1976), perhaps a Buick, Poncho or Olds? Those were the biggest of the big. One-foot thick doors and all!

  • avatar
    grzydj

    This is why my “camper” fits in my backpack. Although, I did have an alternator start to go out on me in one of my Toyota pickups after a hiking expedition in northern Minnesota one time. I managed to make it back to civilization before the battery said later tater.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    You’re lucky the Chinook’s aetherion core wasn’t acting up…humans have forgotten how to mine for that mineral, and it’s been lost to history…

  • avatar

    Got the same lesson on a ’77 Omni. I called the dealer and talked to a mechanic there (in those days they let you talk to them!) and he told me to get the ballast resistor. My old Ford tractors still have them but they don’t go bad often.

  • avatar
    Zombo

    They probably sold those ballast resistors at the local K Mart back in the 70s . Just like the voltage regulator for my 66 Mustang , valve cover gaskets and oil strainer (Red Baron parts) for my 74 VW Sunbug , etc. Cheap parts , easy to fix – not as reliable as modern cars about sums it up for older iron . But even accessing the oil filter on a modern vehicle can be a major task – complexity comes hand in hand with the enhanced reliability . It might be a good idea to attach a small dual purpose motorcycle or scooter to the back of that old Dodge camper in event of a breakdown many miles away from civilization and cell phone towers . Sometimes the search in finding a cheap old one in need of some TLC is almost as much fun as riding the damn thing ! I’ve spent hours upon hours on Craiglook searching a zipcode radius from 5-250 miles for elusive treasures .

  • avatar
    LXbuilder

    First rule of driving an old Mopar… spare ballast resistor in the glovebox.

  • avatar

    Paul, great story. The pic of the camper in the woods is very nice. What – no bike or a moped carried along?

  • avatar
    Bergwerk

    As soon as you began your story, I thought to myself; Been there, done that. My tormentor was a 1987 Cherokee. I was on my way back from dinner with a lady friend years ago. We stopped to rent a movie – VHS of course – and the Jeep would not re-start, or rather it would not keep running, it would start then die immediately. I went back for the Jeep the next day – Sunday – and it started fine. A call to the Jeep dealer on Monday resulted in estimates for ecu’s and other expensive fixes. A work acquaintance who owned Jeeps suggested I replace the ballast resister first. I had never heard of one, but was assured the $10 investment was cheaper than the labor charge for a diagnosis. The Cherokee would start when cold and run, but once stopped would have to sit and cool before it would restart. I replaced the resister in the NAPA parking lot and over the next 200,000 miles never had the problem again. I have since learned that on my Jeep, the resister stepped down voltage to the fuel pump, it’s failure cut power to the pump. That is why it would start for a second then die of fuel starvation.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I nearly got stuck in that area on a motorcycle trip years ago. Made it to the coast no problem, but coming back my tranny locked up. Fortunately I was only a few miles out of Reedsport and there was a farm near by. Another 20 miles and I’d have been in the middle of nowhere, on the ride out I didn’t see a single soul for about 30 miles. Great camping country though.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    I’m amazed the ballast resistor lasted more than a few months for you. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little used vehicle.

    “Back in the day” everyone learned the hard way to keep an extra brand new ballast resistor in the glove box of Chrysler products.

    Now I have to admit to being a very slow learner, apparently. It took me from 1973 to 2002 to finally utterly ant totally give up on Chrysler, GM, AMC and Ford – for reasons just like this….

  • avatar
    H Man

    Just drove up the coast from Bandon to Portland yesterday and passed right by the area. Windy as hell, but very nice otherwise. I haven’t traveled many of the forest roads in that area, but have pretty much exhausted Lane county by this point. The region around Horton/Triangle Lake is probably my favorite.

    BTW, I noticed numerous “Electric Vehicle Plug-In Stations” in quite a few coastal towns. I had no idea these were so common. Did you happen to notice any?

  • avatar
    tiredoldmechanic

    Ah the good old days. Many moons ago I was the road service mechanic for a government agency in northern British Columbia. They had lots of domestic pickups and bought whatever was cheapest at bid time. I soon learned to carry a supply of mopar ballast resistors, GM HEI ignition modules, Ford ignition switches and headlight switches, various pickup coils and voltage regulators and some other bits related to keeping Detriot Diesel engines running. Some of that junk is still in my toolbox.
    I could almost always diagnose the problem over the phone or 2 way radio. Computers and electronics have done a lot of great things for modern vehicles, but diagnosis by the side of the road isn’t one of them. Do you play the grateful dead on an 8 track by the way?


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