by Tony Lewis
As a teenager, my father bought a 1971 Dodge Demon (a name that is being brought back into service) with a 225 CID Slant Six. That was the first car I drove and the first car that I actively did maintenance and repairs on. Later, my first car was a 1976 Dodge Aspen with a 225 Slant Six. Somewhere in the early 1980s, I joined the Slant Six Club, and was quite active, and always looked forward to receiving the newsletters (this was pre-Internet, pre-email).
About this time, the 2.2L Trans Four (so named for its transverse installation in the engine bay east-west instead of the traditional north-south) was released by Chrysler in its new front wheel drive vehicles, replacing the Volkswagen-supplied four cylinders. It struck me that perhaps owners of this new generation engine would like to have their own “club” to share ideas, information, and sometimes complaints. So with a little advice and help from the Slant Six Club owner, I started the Trans Four Owners Group, or T4OG. Why “Owners Group” instead of “Club”? It just sounded snazzier, and I did not want members to think it was directly related to the Slant Six Club.
There were never any meetings, patches, coats, hats, or bumper stickers. There were also never any meetings. The only T4OG “product” was the newsletters, which were published at varied intervals, which varied directly with the availability of my spare time to generate them. The intent of the club was not as much social as it was an exchange of technical information. I think the annual dues were either $15 or $18, along with the slogan “Less than the price of one oil change!” (you can see that marketing was not my strong suit).
I would search magazines, industry papers and technical papers for anything related to the 2.2L and later the 2.5L fours each month to provide the content for the newsletters. I used a “home computer” with a primitive word processing program and an electronic typewriter to type out the newsletter, and literally cut and pasted drawings and illustrations onto the master copy of the newsletter; once again, this was long before Word or Photoshop were conceived. Once the master pages were complete, I would copy the newsletters in bulk at work – something I probably should have been fired for.
T4OG only lasted about five years, and I don’t remember the membership topping over 200 members at any given time. And no, it was not a money maker, but I did not lose money doing it either. The only advertising that I did (once again, pre-Internet) was in the back of magazines like Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend, etc. (Fun fact: google “trans four owners group” and you can still see some of these ads.)
However, I will say that there were some very enthusiastic members, and everyone was focused on learning as much as we could about the engines and the vehicles that used them, and sharing that information with others. When we could get them, we would post Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs). And when common maintenance or repair issues came up, the members were very good at sharing their knowledge with others. It was never a social club, more like a bunch of rabid car freaks that were loyal to their engines and Chrysler.
However, all good things come to an end. In the later part of the 1980s, more and more V-6s such as the Mitsubishi 3.0L, Chrysler 3.3L, and later variants were displacing the four cylinder engines, and folks were getting used to paying more for gas. Also around that time I became a father, which greatly reduced the time that I could devote to running the club and dropping copies of the newsletters off at the post office. So in the fifth year, I stopped advertising, stopped taking new subscriptions, and then officially terminated the group. And the newsletters? I kept a file cabinet full of the original copies, but cleaned them out a number of years ago. I highly doubt that there is a single copy of a T4OG newsletter anywhere, maybe one dry-rotting in somebody’s attic.
So, was it worth it? Absolutely! Although the Trans Fours never reached the cult status of the Hemi or Slant Six, they were the right engines for the right time (although I would agree that a normally aspirated Trans Four had no business under the hood of a minivan; more on that below).
Here are my top three favorite memories of the Trans Four Owners Group:
We helped Chrysler Engineering: Platinum spark plugs came out in the 1980s, and all club members were encouraged to use them as replacement plugs. However, complaints quickly poured into my mailbox about stumbling and stalling with the new plugs. I collected all of the information that I had and sent to a contact in Chrysler Engineering. Weeks passed, and I had forgotten about the whole thing, when I got an official letter from Chrysler. It was a copy of my letter that apparently had been routed through multiple engineers in multiple departments – they had not heard of the problem with platinum plugs.
Eventually they bought sets of the plugs and tested them, and it turns out that the plug manufacturer was building them with the wrong internal resistance, which was throwing off the ignition system. Chrysler notified the plug manufacturer, and issued a technical service bulletin to the dealers to warn them of the problem. The engineers did not have to acknowledge that our group first identified the problem, but they did and gave us full credit for letting them know about it.
I drove a Dodge Daytona Pacifica before it was for sale: About the same time that I started T4OG, Rick Kopec started the Shelby Dodge Automobile Club. Carroll Shelby was tweaking Omnis (remember the GLH? GLHS?) and other Dodge vehicles, and Rick was already running a Shelby Ford club and decided to start the Shelby Dodge club. We would share information and tips back and forth between the two clubs.
In 1987, Dodge was having an automotive press advance showing of the restyled Daytona, as well as the new LeBaron (if you don’t remember any of these models, that is okay, we are talking over 30 years ago). In any case, Rick was invited, but could not go, so he had Chrysler invite me. They flew me from central North Carolina down to Birmingham, Alabama, for three days of meetings, shows, demonstrations, and a lot of non-automotive fun on the side. At the end, I was provided the keys to a new Dodge Daytona Pacifica (there is another name that is back in service) with a manufacturer’s license plate to drive back to North Carolina. (Side note: it turns out that at the event you could not choose the vehicle that you got. When offered the Pacifica model, I mildly protested and asked for a Shelby version. The gentlemen from Chrysler politely informed me that I could take the Pacifica or I could take the bus home.)
It took me two days to get back home, with speeds occasionally exceeding triple digits on remote sections of Alabama highways. I kept it for the rest of that week and then turned it into a very confused local dealer (“What am I supposed to do with it?” “Call Chrysler and ask them.”).
I have a letter from Lee Iaccoca praising the T4OG: On a whim, I decided to send a copy of one of the newsletters along with some club literature directly to Lee Iaccoca. It was really quite a risk – you have to admit that something called an “Owners Group” sounds like something a lawyer would put together for a class action law suit. He could have sicced his lawyers on me with a ‘cease and desist’ order. However, I got a very gracious, signed letter from Mr. Iaccoca (or perhaps his secretary), thanking me for sending the information, and encouraging me to keep the club going. I still have the letter, the wife had it framed years ago, and plan to keep it for the duration.
Last and least – how many Trans Fours did I personally own? An interesting question. It turns out that the owner of the Trans Four Owners Group did not actually own a Trans Four when he started the club, and did not have one until he bought a 1985 turbocharged 2.2L Dodge Lancer ES. A few years later, I purchased a (somewhat rare) 1989 Plymouth Voyager LE with a turbocharged 2.5L, which turned out to be one of my favorite vehicles (much more horsepower and torque than my brother’s minivan with a carbureted Trans Four). The 2.2L blew a head gasket that I changed out in my driveway the week before Christmas one year (my fault, I let the thermostat hang and overheated the head), but kept it for almost 200,000 miles. Never had any major repairs on the 2.5L turbo, and the 2.5L was much more sophisticated and refined than its little brother from 4 years earlier. But the transmission went at 175,000 miles, and so did the minivan.
So that’s a brief history of the Trans Four Owners Group. As noted previously, I don’t have any of the newsletters any more, and I highly doubt that you could find anyone that remembers the club, let alone admit that they were a member. But it was fun while it lasted, and if it helped one or two members better understand their engines, or how to fix them, then it was worth it.
In closing, I will also brag on the Trans Four. These little four bangers were developed and released as Chrysler was coming out of bankruptcy, and in an incredibly short number of years, went from rather pedestrian normally aspirated one barrel carburetors to multi-point injection, multi-valve, turbocharged and intercooled fire-breathing monsters that could give V8s a run for the money. I personally don’t believe that any other Chrysler engine underwent such a dramatic advancement in technology within such a brief period of time. Once again, not the most famous Chrysler engines, but they did help pull Chrysler out of bankruptcy, and propel them into the modern age of engine design.
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