By on May 31, 2013

1988 Dodge Shadow

She done me wrong. I was beside myself with grief, anger and stress. Things had been going so well when, suddenly, a former lover waltzed back into her life and caused her to leave me in the lurch. Part of me wanted to win her back, to show her I was better than him. The other, darker part of me wanted to find that guy and kick his ass. It was a terrible time, and to make matters even worse, by faithful Dodge Shadow wasn’t running right.

By 1993 my little Turbo Shadow, purchased new in 1988, had almost 100.000 miles on the clock. It had traveled the length and breadth of the United States, making nonstop drives from Seattle to Los Angeles twice and a trip from Seattle to Washington DC, the return leg of which was done in just three days, without a single hiccup. It still looked great, not a single scratch marred its brilliant graphic red paint, but under the hood my heavy foot and childish antics had taken their toll and the car was losing water.

If it had been a leaking radiator or a shot hose, I could have easily understood what was happening. The problem was that the water was simply vanishing from the reservoir, I thought about the options and didn’t like where the logic lead me. I checked the tail pipe of course, but found no feather of steam in the exhaust. The radiator showed no sheen of oil and the dipstick showed no sudden increase in level, nor any emulsification either. Still, I reasoned, it must be a head gasket, bad but not yet critical.

Photo courtesy of

It was a bad feeling. Everything in my young life was in turmoil, women troubles compounded by car troubles. My heart was empty and my outlook black, but like so many men in similar situations I struggled on and worked with I knew I could repair. Life would not get better on its own, I knew, and so I must make it better.

I went to the auto parts store and purchased a rebuild manual and a gasket set and rolled the little Dodge into the garage at my parents’ house. With a nonstop soundtrack of the heaviest of heavy metal soothing my wounded soul, I worked like a mad scientist, carefully plotting every movement while evil lurked in my heart. The valve cover came off, then the timing belt, the intake, turbo and finally the head itself.

I looked into the heart of the beast. Four pistons, three scored black but in generally good condition and one that was too clean and fresh. Next to that piston I found the trouble, a small breach in the all important head gasket, just enough to let the tiniest amount of water wick out with every piston stroke and into the chamber where it was burned with the gas and sent out the back.

My outlook brightened as I replaced the gasket and slowly began reassembly process. The head went back on, carefully torque to the specs listed in my rebuild manual. I matched the marks on the crank and camshafts and secured the timing belt. Bit by bit the engine went together and little by little I regained control over my life. At the end of the project I reattached the hoses and topped up the fluids and I was done. The dark clouds in my mind lifted as I swung the garage door open, and the sun shined brightly into my soul as I slipped into the driver’s seat and fired the engine. One crank, then two and suddenly, blessed music as the engine fired and ran.

The little car sat there at idle and spoke to me of all the things we had been through together. We were a team, this little car and I, with good times behind us and the promise of even more ahead. Women would come and go, I realized, but good friends look out for one another. When the car required my help I put aside my own problems and I had saved it. In doing so, I had saved myself. Together we would endure.

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Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He writes for any car website that will have him and enjoys public speaking. According to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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33 Comments on “Dark Days: Broken Hearts and Blown Gaskets...”

  • avatar

    Great story – brought a tear to my eye.

    The 2.2 was a rough but wonderful engine. My 85 non-turbo LeBaron GTS 5-spd ran to 161k miles until I rebuilt it, and then soldiered on to 206k until rust claimed the car. I still see Shadows around here from time to time.

    Women and cars can break your heart. Glad to hear at least one got fixed during this chapter!

    • 0 avatar

      The Shadow seemed like a cheapened version of the LeBaron GTS. I can remember being mad at Chrysler for discontinuing the GTS and bringing on the Shadow. The GTS had a better rear seat and a well-proportioned fastback hatch. According to the information that I read at the time, the LeBaron GTS was at least as quick and got better MPG than the Shadow even though it was bigger than the Shadow. (They weighed similar amounts and had the same powertrain, but the GTS was aerodynamically sleeker.)

  • avatar

    Man, recessed headlights are the epitome of ugly.

  • avatar

    These Chrysler products were very interesting. My experiences were with the 2.5L.

    We owned a 1990 Acclaim bought new, and owned it for 10½ years. The last 2½ years, it was our daughter’s car and she beat the living daylights out of it – wrecked it twice, took out the trailing arm and a host of other things. I managed to fix a lot of things with a lot of help, but I digress…

    That year, because of earlier overheating issues, I suppose, Chrysler drilled out the water passages a little larger, for our car never would give good heating when the temp fell below freezing, and NEVER overheated.

    One evening, she called me and told me the car was reading hot(!)… when she came home, I popped the hood, and indeed, the radiator was dry. Hmmm… I filled it while the engine was running, and saw the problem: The junction of the valve mounted on the firewall on the driver’s side that sent hot water to the heater core was plastic, and the thing was split at the top, allowing coolant to burble right out onto the ground! “Burble” was the correct word, for that car NEVER overheated.

    I parked the car, bought the new part, replaced it, and things were fine.

    Funny thing, no matter how well you take care of these, the engines are good for the first 100K, then you’re on borrowed time.

    We had the head gasket replaced on the Acclaim after 110K, but finally, we traded the car at 138K in 2000 on a 1997 Cavalier for her. Our dear old Acclaim was tired after being mercilessly beaten up by our daughter, so we decided to let my “baby” go…

    By the time we traded the car, I was seeing constant variations in the coolant gauge, which in previous years, never moved once it warmed up to just under the one-quarter mark.

    Next; we bought a 1992 LeBaron convertible – a very beautiful car – in 1999 as a “toy” with 101K on the clock. That car DID have heating/cooling issues that changing head gaskets could never quite fix.

    I fought the fine fight with that car for 8½ years until the engine blew on the way home from work on a stunningly beautiful September afternoon in 2007.

    That was our last Chrysler product except for the 1992 Wrangler we owned for under 2 years from 2008 – 2010. That Jeep had the venerable 4.0L, a different story altogether.

    Final note: The 1997 Cavalier? Our daughter LOVED it and guarded it with her life! Go figure… That car was sold after three years and lived on for many, many more.

    • 0 avatar

      Zackman, my heater control valve split just like yours, except mine went about 180K before it failed. I caught the coolant loss before I overheated. Can’t say that I agree with the statement that after 100K you are on borrow time, at least for the 2.2. Mine went over a quarter million miles…the piston slap made it sound like a diesel at idle by that time and the head gasket finally let go at that point. In a way I am sorry I did not fix it just to see how long the bulletproff 3 speed trans would last.

    • 0 avatar

      Which is what separates domestics owners from those who know cars.

      Mid 70s Toyotas with 200K and nothing but routine maint were the norm.

      • 0 avatar

        “Which is what separates domestics owners from those who know cars.

        Mid 70s Toyotas with 200K and nothing but routine maint were the norm.”

        Yeah, right. That wasn’t even true of early 80s Toyotas from my experience. Also, if you lived somewhere with salt on the roads, they weren’t going 200K no matter how much maintenance you did.

        That said, I’ve always wondered what these mythical Toyotas look like. I’m sure there are things that are broken, just being ignored.

        • 0 avatar

          Did you miss the fact that his name includes Porsche. So frequent head gasket and water pump and even engine replacements seem more reliable. Heck water pumps and replacing many of the gaskets and seals are considered “normal” maintenance.

        • 0 avatar

          Good luck on that. I have no idea where you lived that killed a mid-80s Toyo before 200K but the MW wasn’t it – if you actually drove the car.Regardless of the weather, I know I did.

          There was no maint for the body at 50K per year, they just kept going despite the rust. (Which was minimal compared to domestic garbage of the same era.)

          Scoutdude, I don’t do 911s, so I expect my my clean-sheet “real’ Porsches to run 200K before any serious work is done. They always deliver over more cars than I can rememeber. A water-pump at 100K is standard maint even on every Honda, Lexus,Acura,or Benz. Do tell how that is
          “labor intensive”?

          But I’m sure your 350 Chebby runs for eternity…

  • avatar

    Like the old saying goes – if it has tits or tires, it’s going to give you trouble. (No offense to the ladies!)

  • avatar

    I still miss the times where you could do all the maintenance on your car with but a shop manual and some basic tools.

    Now you can’t touch a new car without a degree in computer engineering and a diagnostic station.

  • avatar

    Just wondering.. but shouldn’t the deck and the head be checked (at the least with a straight edge) before bolting it back together? Glad it worked out though..

    • 0 avatar

      There are a whole bunch of things a competent mechanic is supposed to do when changing a head gasket – straight edges and doing a magnaflux on the head included. I was fortunate that I took this on before I suffered any real overheating problems. If I hadn’t, the comlications could have been insurmountable for a regular shade-tree mechanic like myself.

      The car ran fine for years after, by the way. I got it up to 140K miles before I sold it to my brother. He drove it for several more years and then sold it to his sister in law who still had it on the road as late as 2002 before she sold it off. I could have bought it back, maybe I should have, but I really wasn’t in a position to have any kind of project sitting around.

  • avatar

    I had an ’89 Plymouth Sundance RS hatchback (yes, hatchback!) with the 2.5L 4 and a 3-speed autobox. It was my first car, back when I was 16. I beat the living shit out of it. It would get 20mpg if I was lucky. It never left me stranded.

    I miss it so much.

  • avatar

    Another great job of story telling. I also admire your ability to wrench. When I was young I would tackle anything auto related . Now not so much.

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Mama

    C’mon, we’re all friends here. Did Jack Baruth waltz back into her life? Inquiring minds, yada yada…

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Mama

    Level with us – did Jack Baruth waltz back into her life?

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Mama

    Hmm. My two comment submissions failed to appear after hitting SUBMIT. I’m sure they’ll appear later and I’ll look like a man obsessed with Jack Baruth. Sigh.

  • avatar

    Thomas, you’re a wonderful storyteller. Thanks for your contribution. (BTW, my wife used to have an ’89 Acclaim which holds the record for the most worthless vehicle we ever owned. It was sold pretty much for scrap at under 50K miles – but we didn’t want to own it post-warranty.)

  • avatar

    As always Thomas ;

    You imbue your stories with heart & truth .

    I hope that’s the correct word ! if not , the trolls & thought police will be on my a$$ .

    Am I the only one here who calls that book you bought : H.B.O.L. ?.

    Or knows why it’s routinely called that ? .

    My Father bought a Dodge Caravan in the late 1980’s , IIRC it had that same engine and never gave one bit of trouble hauling kids & house stuff from Short Hills New jersey to Oahu , Hi. then he moved back and shipped it to Bellingham , Wa. where it soldiered on a few more years before he got nervous and sold it , still looking cherry , for $1,500.


  • avatar

    Damn you Thomas, in the most friendly way!

    Every time I read one of your Shadow Turbo stories, I get so blasted nostalgic for my old Laser XE Turbo.

    If the ice storm had not taken it out, it would have been my project car.

    From the talking voice, to the assuring turbo lag that something big was getting ready to happen when I planted my foot in it, I so miss that car! I loved working on it too when I had time. The 2.2L motors were so easy to get to all the serious parts. And work on it I had too at the ripe old age of 20! At that year, much of the rubber fuel line components were cracking to pieces. It was becoming a fire hazard. It was awaiting fixes when the ice storm killed it.

    • 0 avatar

      I found a pumped up 87 Dodge Daytona Pacifica Turbo/5 speed in Ohio over on turbododge dot com. He only wants $3200 for it. If it was local I would be frothing at the mouth to get over there to see it. My wife would be so pissed off if I brought it home…

      The only turbo Dodges that ever show up down Buffalo way are automatics. No fun. :(

      • 0 avatar

        I know it’s because Chrysler called their design studio Pacifica in Carlsbad, but it makes no sense to have a car called Daytona Pacifica, given where Daytona is. Incidentally, Daimler of all people bought studio from them.

  • avatar

    Feels good man. johngoodman.jpg

    I can relate. Sometimes when things have you down, a little time spent in the garage with some wrenches and a car are the best way to feel better. Having completed something at the end of it is so much better than getting all destructive about your problems.

  • avatar

    Your repair story reminds me of the “ghetto” head gasket job I did on my ’83 Accord back about 20 years ago. I burned two valves in the head driving from California to Utah where I lived and limped home on two cylinders. As a college student having more time than money, I spent $30 for a head gasket, yanked a head from a “core” engine I had lying around, and swapped the heads in a marathon all-night session. No head surfacing, no magnafluxing, no checking for flatness, I just yanked it apart and slammed it together. but By the time I was finished early the next morning, the battery was dead and I couldn’t even test my work! Fortunately, the auto repair gods were smiling on me, and the car ran fine for another year until my dad made a left turn in front of an SUV while driving it and totaled it.

  • avatar

    I loved this story! Had a similar relationship with a ’76 Pontiac Grand Prix. For six years that car stood by me through thick and thin. Even after an altercation with a Datsun B210 that left the Grand Prix a declared total loss, but totally drivable due to the 2.5 foot “crumple zone” between the tip of it’s pointed grille to where the car’s mechanics actually began (you should have seen that B210!) the car still kept going (used the insurance money as a down payment on my first house). Toward the end it too suffered from “MVC” (Mysterious Vanishing Coolant) I and several mechanics were baffled by it’s lack of any detectable leaks. Finally resolved to the fact that I couldn’t drive very far without a couple of gallon jugs of water to maintain the GP’s hydro-addiction, I retired the GP and still managed to sell it for enough money to put down on my first brand new car.

    What can you say about a car that took you where you wanted to go, protected you from kamikaze rice-burners, helped you into your first house and left a new car in it’s driveway on the way out…


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