It was an earlier morning than most for me, but I didn’t mind getting up for it. Today – April 23, 2016 – my ’71 Plymouth Scamp was going to cross the 100,000-mile mark on its odometer, and it was going to do it right as I rolled up to the factory it was built in, Chrysler’s Windsor Assembly facility in southern Ontario.
I’d spent the past three-and-a-half years putting some 9,088 miles on its clock, and I had to make something out of its rolling over. It only happens to a car once, after all.
The plan was to wake the car from its winter hibernation; load up my brother Matt, who’d slept over for the occasion; pick up my friend Heather; and then point the nose of the happy-green two-door southwest, driving more than four hours from Toronto to rendezvous with Michael Brieda, plant manager at Windsor Assembly, at one o’clock.
I’d be hitting a milestone – it was also my birthday that day – and my car would be, too. I knew it was going to be a day I’d remember; I didn’t know it was a day that would make me look at life differently.
The happy-green two-door is born
My car, a 1971 Plymouth Valiant Scamp two-door hardtop, the sister to Dodge’s more-popular Dart Swinger, had its last pieces of trim fitted to it some time February 12, 1971, before it was sent out the door of Windsor Assembly. It joined another 46,134 Valiant Scamps that’d come off that line that model year, which was the Scamp nameplate’s first.
I’d call it a “stripper” model, a modest near-base-spec 225-cubic-inch slant-six compact, except the few options it was fitted with – Rallye wheels; the A01 glove-box-light and trunk-light package; and, oddly, air-conditioning, a rare feature for these cars – would’ve driven the base MSRP up by close to a half, to somewhere around $3,000 ($18,000 in today’s dollars).
Regardless, sunlight first landed on its Amber Sherwood olive-green paint and green vinyl top that winter day, before it was shipped off to New York state to sit on a dealer lot, to wait for a buyer.
Once the keys traded hands, it spent most of its life there, as far as I know, through three-and-a-half decades until it was sold to a broker who in turn delivered it to its next owner, a retired diesel mechanic in southern Ontario. In 2009, he fixed it up for his wife, doing over the interior in its original vinyl and throwing a quickie new paint job on it, a near-perfect match for the original shade.
The car was indisputably handsome, but understandably its tired six-cylinder didn’t excite the missus all that much, so in their driveway appeared a Mazda Miata and on Kijiji appeared a listing for a 1971 Scamp for $9,900.
That’s when it came into my life. A once-over on the retired mechanic’s hoist, a drive up to 70 mph on the rural roads by his house, some negotiating on the price, and I was sold. I came back two weeks later with a cheque, a set of licence plates – THESCAMP – and late August 2012, that car became my first.
Planning the long journey home
I can recall almost every single one of the 9,000-plus miles I added to the Scamp’s odometer. There were summer trips to car shows with friends; bi-weekly pilgrimages to my local cruise night; even a 700-mile rally from Toronto to North Bay and back.
That event was one of the last of 2015, the one that saw the numbers roll over to 99,000. I knew the big one-hundred wasn’t far off, and that’s when I decided I’d bring it home to Windsor, Ontario for the occasion, from Toronto.
Photo by Matthew Maronese
I had never driven the Scamp that far all at once before, but despite its years and still-original drivetrain and suspension, I never doubted it could. I got in touch with an old colleague, Brad Horn, who works with FCA (formerly known as Chrysler Canada) as well as the other members of FCA’s communications team, LouAnn Gosselin and Jordan Wasylyk.
They signed off on the idea, and agreed to connect me to the plant manager when I arrived, for a quick photo op. Day-of, it was Jordan that greeted me in front of the massive Pentastar-and-maple-leaf-adorned white building, the single-biggest manufacturing facility by employment in Canada, with some 6,000 employees.
Michael Brieda, plant manager at Windsor Assembly, walked out the front door 10 minutes later, and had someone fetch a new fresh-off-the-line Chrysler Pacifica minivan – the factory’s current product, then not yet on sale – to park beside my car.
I told Michael about the Scamp, and he told me about the Pacifica. The two vehicles almost couldn’t be more different, with the 2017-model-year minivan being fitted with safety features like active braking, an 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system, and an available hybrid powertrain; and my car boasting drum brakes all around, an AM radio, and a single-barrel Holley carburetor. The changes in technology made in just 45 years blew me away.
“You should know,” Michael mentioned offhandedly while I was still chewing on that bit, “that a few of the people still working the line have been here since ’71—they might’ve even worked on your car.”
That part hit me hard, and took my thinking in the opposite direction. The vehicles were different, yeah, but then and now they moved Canadians across the country after being bought at the same dealerships, after rolling out of the same factory’s doors, after being built by some of the very same workers. Many things had changed in the decades in between, but many more things hadn’t.
Seeing zeros on the odo (again)
The Scamp has changed owners since new, too, but all that really means is it lives a few hundred miles from where it used to and has its oil replaced a little more frequently. I couldn’t help but reflect that day on the old saw that these classic cars aren’t really ours, that we’re just the caretakers. We change, but often, they don’t.
The steadfastness of time hit me once more, as I shook hands good-bye with Jordan and Michael and pulled out of the parking lot with Matt and Heather in the passenger seats. You can only turn that odo over 100,000 miles once, but for the second time in its life, this modest little car would roll out of the parking lot in Windsor with a bunch of zeros on the dash.
It was born again, 45 years old but looking like it’d been built all of 45 minutes ago, having seen decades of change—and having not changed at all.