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by Gene Yetter (photos by Jesse Shaffer)
At first look, the 1998 Dodge Neon R/T in the accompanying images, allpar.com’s July 2009 Car of the Month, seems like a well-cared-for and possibly little-used vehicle, with thousands of miles easy to imagine in its future. The car is owned by Billy Shaffer of Denver, North Carolina. He shares it with his 21-year-old son, Jesse, a student at Shippensburg University in the Cumberland Valley region of Pennsylvania.
Jesse is the family spokesman for the “Intense Blue Pearlcoat” Neon with silver stripes, and he wants the world to know this car has not only aged beautifully. It has also provided miles of service in the many six figures. When Jesse took the picture of its odometer to send to allpar.com, it was indicating a road history of nearly 450,000 miles. It is presently used by the senior Shaffer for frequent trips between Denver, NC, and Altoona, Pennsylvania, where the family lived before relocating to Denver. That is about a 500-mile trip. Jesse reports that he and his father have accounted for 30,000 miles since they acquired the car in July of 2008.
Compression in each of the four fuel-injected cylinders read recently at 175, 175, 160, 160, while normal would be in the range of 180-190 psi, Jesse reports. “Probably the piston rings should be replaced. But we’re not going to do that. I guess we just want to see how far it will go as is.” Worst wear on the body is a slight dent on the left rear quarter with a small paint chip and some surface rust.
About to begin his junior year at Shippensburg University, Jesse is working towards a degree in computer science. His father is a construction supervisor with an interest in classic cars, especially Mopars. Jesse has picked up the habit and has already had experience driving, owning, repairing, and selling, six Dodge Neons. He says he’s “hooked on Neons!”
One of those cars (not the blue R/T) required a major engine rebuild, which Jesse did himself with help from a professional machine shop. A cooling system malfunction caused the engine to overheat. That, he says, “blew a hole in the no. 3 piston and destroyed the cylinder walls.” He had the block rebored, installed new 0.020-over pistons, put the car back together and it ran fine.
How has the ten-plus-year-old Neon survived so well? “The original owner had a long daily commute in highway miles,” Jesse says. “Beyond that, it’s got to be oil changes. That’s all I can say. As far as we know it is still getting around on its original clutch.”
Neons and particularly R/T’s are popular in some race venues. They don’t wear “Viper” stripes for nothing! But this car may never have been raced. “We have not gotten a chance to race it properly on a track. We would loved to autocross it and we fully believe it will hold up under autocross conditions.”
Neons have been controversial due partly to a head gasket recall. But that doesn’t have to be a problem, Jesse believes. “People seem to complain about Neons because of the paper-compound gasket they originally came out with. But I think Neon engines were built well, and once you put in the multi-layer steel gasket, and you keep changing oil and don’t let it overheat, the engine will never stop running!”
The Shaffer car had two problems when they took it over. “The cooling fans weren’t working and it had a little shake in the steering wheel at highway speeds,” Jesse explains. “The fan relay was bad. We should have replaced it, but it was a lot cheaper to just wire in a switch to control the fans. And the steering wheel problem was diagnosed as a worn drive axle, which I replaced.”
Not much to criticize about the interior, especially not considering the car’s history. It came without power or other options, not even a tilt wheel, except for a 6-CD changer in the trunk. “That’s okay,” Jesse says, “It’s nice and light!” The stock steering wheel has been replaced by one from a Dodge SRT-4. Outside, stock headlights were replaced with clear Depo headlights.
While Chrysler first marketed its “cab-forward” Neons in the 1995 model year, R/Ts were introduced in 1998. They were powered by the 2.0 liter, 150-hp, dual overhead cam engine and 5-speed manual transmission of previous model years. Jesse says his car gets about 38 mpg. R/T suspension features front and rear sway bars and rear spring isolators. “It really loves to take corners,” he says. “Although most factory Neons aren’t what you would call ‘fast’ cars. They pull decently for their engine size and get to 60 in about 7.5 seconds. With the R/T’s performance ‘A’ transmission, getting to the 120-mph cutoff is probably easier than with the other transmissions offered.”
Basic Neon specs include 104-inch wheelbase, 171.8 overall length; standard tires on aluminum wheels, P185/65HR14. Height of the R/T is 53 inches; co-efficient of drag, 0.328.
Just under 30,000 two-door Dodge Neons were made in 1998, with the number of R/T models not separated in the total; the four-door Neons outsold two-doors by a large margin each year, and the car was sold under the Plymouth and Chrysler names as well as Dodge. Neons were assembled at the company’s Belvidere, Illinois, plant.
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