Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Any guesses how much of that is true?
When you buy a used vehicle you’re buying someone else’s problems. The gambler knows, intellectually, that the house always wins in the end, yet hope springs eternal. Speaking of gambling, I bought a 24-year-old pickup truck in Seattle sight unseen, over the phone, from Pittsburgh, intending to drive it nearly 3,000 miles home.
Maybe that’s overly dramatic, it wasn’t like a Top Gear episode. The pictures looked good, and my friend (since first grade) Guy Ostrom test drove it, stored it at his home, even fixed a couple of issues for me. Guy is an automation engineer (Go-Tek Automation) who has done plenty of wrenching, and I’d trust his gut feeling on a rig over mine, so it wasn't a total shot in the dark. It can take time, though, for issues to emerge in a relationship. We all know how that works.
A previous post — Trucks — explained my affinity for these vehicles, the difficulty of finding an affordable example here in the rust belt, and the upcoming circumstances that would result in my being in the Pacific Northwest needing a vehicle to get home. Even if you read that post, some recapitulation may be in order. My youngest daughter was joining her older sister going to college in Vancouver, BC, and my wife and I had bought a used Toyota Prius for them. The Prius needed to be driven to Vancouver, and while there were more economical ways to accomplish the return trip, I wanted and had saved for a truck and this seemed like a reasonable opportunity to buy one.
Complicating factors included the US-Canada border. At the time these plans took shape, it was closed to US citizens. There was a reasonable expectation that it would open by the time I made the trip, and the border did indeed open to vaccinated visitors about a week before I arrived, but my crossing still seemed slightly iffy. Some in Seattle said it was no problem to cross, others said that people were being turned away. Then the Canadian border agents went on strike. In order to enter Canada I needed a negative PCR COVID test less than 72 hours old, but results would take at least 24 hours, so there was a window of 48 hours that could only shrink. All the lab was willing to promise for the record was less than five days, which was not reassuring.
Whoops, getting ahead of the story, we‘re still planning. Assuming that I could find and buy a suitable pickup in advance, I intended to drive the Prius from Pittsburgh to Seattle and park it at the airport. My wife and youngest daughter would fly to Seattle and drive the Prius to Vancouver. I would pick up the truck, get my COVID test, use the time waiting for results to drive to Oregon to visit my machine tool mentor Denny Turk, then head to Vancouver. Crossing the border would require making an appointment on the ArriveCAN app, uploading proof of vaccination and negative test results. There was also the possibility of a random arrival test in Canada. I would spend the trip out West being fanatically careful, both out of concern for the people I planned to visit and because it would truly suck to drive all that way and blow a positive test. But at least I would have wheels, that was plan B in case the border closed, or never opened, or they wouldn't let me in. My wife and daughter, having Canadian citizenship, would be able to cross with the Prius even if I couldn’t.
In retrospect, that was a lot of moving parts to pivot on two used vehicles, one of them as yet unknown. In the planning stages, it seemed like an adventure. I may have been emboldened by watching Vice Grip Garage videos on YouTube. If Derek could pull a 1970 Cadillac DeVille that hadn’t run in 20 years out of a swamp and drive it 600 miles home, my trip ought to be a breeze.
Having hatched the plan of driving the girls’ car out and driving a used pickup back (and having gotten no responses to my blog post offer of a free pipe as a finder’s fee), I started shopping online. Most Craigslist listings were outside the envelope formed by my budget and my risk tolerance. “Runs great, needs transmisson,” for instance, or “Ran when parked.” Riiight, I’ll leave those for Derek. As Dirty Harry once remarked, a man’s got to know his limitations. There were occasional mismatches between the photos and the ad copy. A black old body style (OBS) Ford F250 in Snoqualmie did look clean and straight, had a manual transmission and claimed only 64,000 miles, but a photo of the interior showed the brake and clutch pedals, which don’t usually wear all the way through to the metal in 64k.
Wanted: a rust-free, mechanically sound, reasonably low-miles pickup truck old enough to be relatively inexpensive.
I looked for a while, tried to buy a 2008 F150 from a Ford dealer using one of those car finder websites but that deal turned out to be a blatant bait and switch. Made a couple phone calls on a beautiful green and white OBS F250 in Portland but never heard back. The 1997 F250 pictured above happened to be close enough to Guy that he could check it out, at one of those little semipermanent used car lots in a sketchy part of town. A private seller might have been preferable but a dealer would make the long-distance transaction easy. Private sellers don’t usually take credit cards, and while dealers have the reputation for prevarication, private sellers aren’t necessarily under oath either. Cosmetically the truck was excellent, which is what a competent used car dealer does. I was riding along on Guy’s test drive via cell phone, so I knew there was a slight issue with the muffler.
Otherwise, the truck seemed to be all there and the AC was cold, so I bought it. Guy picked it up and kept it at his house, had the oil changed, and diagnosed and replaced a faulty ignition coil on cylinder number 5.
Arriving in Seattle, my first priority was to do something about that muffler, just in case they needed an excuse to turn me away at the border. I tried to get the truck into a muffler shop, any muffler shop. No luck — labor shortages had everybody booked at least a week out. One shop owner told me he was turning away enough work to hire three more mechanics, he just couldn’t find them. I was able to make an appointment for the return trip, and for the interim did my best with a piece of 18 gauge steel from Lowe’s and virtually every muffler repair product from Autozone. I was able to mummify the muffler externally but couldn’t do much about the blown-out internal baffles. If the swaddled exhaust was still loud at least it was obvious that an effort had been made, which I hoped would be enough to get me into Canada. For what it’s worth, heat-curing fiberglass wrap and muffler cement both work pretty well. I mean, given sufficiently low expectations. Tiger Tape is OK if a bit brittle once cured, but high temperature JB Weld epoxy does NOT hold up to exhaust heat despite what the package says, and as it cooks it would stink a dog off a gut wagon.
Ahh, used cars, what fun. In my life I have purchased three new vehicles. My 1993 Toyota pickup was great. My 2013 Mazda 3 was great. My 2020 Toyota Corolla‘s flawless mechanical personality is overwhelmed by its irritating computer personality, by its ever-present, intrusive nannying. The car is smooth, comfortable, and handles well. Unfortunately, it's an asshole.
Every other vehicle I've owned has been used, some more so than others. Experience has taught me not to bank heavily on a seller’s word, so when I first punched the F250’s brake pedal at highway speed and the resulting shudder from warped rotors knocked the pistons back into the calipers, I wasn’t shocked. The shudder came from the front brakes; the rear brakes might not have been doing anything and I had previously discovered that the parking brake was AWOL. Brakes are good, indeed. What WAS shocking was the cost of brake work in Vancouver. Canadian dollars or not, that’s one expensive city. The ball joints and wheel bearings were also shot, naturally, had those replaced along with the brakes. It might have made a better story to limp home with bad brakes and let that noisy driver’s side wheel bearing catch fire. Or fix the brakes myself in a parking lot with my $19 socket set, but I was in Vancouver to have a nice time with the girls, not to make a YouTube video. So, money well spent.
Dang, skipped ahead again. Chronologically, the brakes were my second repair, not counting the mummified muffler because to call that a repair would be pure flattery. First, cylinder no. 8’s ignition coil went bad in Seattle traffic, on my way to the border after visiting Denny. You remember, Denny my machine tool guru in Oregon, I had gotten my negative COVID result on the way there and was on my way back. Fortunately, Guy had diagnosed and fixed the same failure a few paragraphs earlier, so when the truck displayed similar symptoms — a hard miss, loss of power, and the check engine light flashing — just as I reached Tacoma, I had a pretty good idea what was wrong. The coil failed at a good time, which is to say, it could have been much worse. It was less than an hour to Guy’s house in Lynnwood just north of Seattle, right on my way. Guy was home, I could pull into the garage and use his tools.
I once read a quote attributed to Einstein: “If a man talks to a pretty girl for an hour, it will seem like a minute. But if he sits on a hot stove for a minute, it will seem like much more than an hour. That’s relativity.” Whether or not that’s a real quote, it illustrates how I had ample time, the engine stumbling and farting and the light flashing, to minutely evaluate all my previous choices, and to start the countdown until my COVID test expired.
In the end, the repair took about an hour, neither the most pleasant of hours nor a catastrophic delay. No big deal, why had I worried? Derek from Vice Grip Garage wouldn't have worried. He would have gazed levelly into his GoPro and said, "Well, one cylinder — at least — has no spark and is scrubbing itself with raw fuel 8.333333333 times per second. That's . . . fine." Or probably something pithier and funnier. Then he would have fixed the problem on the interstate shoulder using pliers and a bottle cap. Oh, well. That's why I'm a clarinetist, not a professional mechanic/YouTube personality.
Back on the road in heavy traffic, I had been driving about half an hour when a gray Ford pickup roared up alongside and a horn tooted rapidly. It was Guy, motioning to pull over. Handy as the flashlight feature on smart phones may be, an actual flashlight has the advantage of being merely a flashlight rather than an exorbitantly expensive electronic gadget with virtual tentacles wrapped around every aspect of your identity. When was the last time a flashlight motivated a car chase? Evidently Guy, after using it as a flashlight during the repair, had put his phone down somewhere in my engine bay, where it remained as I shut the hood and drove away.
Guy doesn't have a house phone. He borrowed a neighbor’s cell phone to call HIS cell phone in case it was lying around the garage instead of headed for Canada as a stowaway as he suspected; he couldn’t call me because without his phone he didn’t have my number. Although I had been taking it easy in the slow lane trying not to dislodge my muffler bandage, chasing me down in afternoon I-5 traffic was still a Fast and Furious-worthy feat, proving that Guy may be a grandfather but remains one crazy son of a bitch. If the phone had been in the engine compartment, though, it had fallen out and presumably — hopefully — been ground to dust.
My used vehicles have generated some great anecdotes. While Guy might not think the term “great” applies to that one, it’s probably going to come up in future conversations.
On the topic of things falling out of trucks, many years ago I was returning from a fishing trip in my 1972 GMC Jimmy, bouncing along a washboard gravel road up around Red Feather, CO, when a horrible rattling, grating sound suddenly erupted from the rear of the vehicle. One of the steel straps holding the gas tank had broken, dropping the tank out of the frame. That’s how I know what a steel gas tank being dragged along a gravel road by the fuel line sounds like. Fortunately, the tank was only scuffed, not pierced, which is what makes this NOT a story about the time my truck exploded and burned to the ground in the middle of nowhere. The broken strap was useless, though, and I wasn’t sure that a fly line would hold as a repair. I started poking around outside the vehicle, as much for an idea as anything. Maybe I could wedge the tank back in with a tree limb, or maybe I’d just have to walk to civilization. As I gazed about, something circular half buried in the roadside gravel snapped into focus — a rusty but perfectly serviceable roll of baling wire.
What were the chances?
Crossing the border turned out to be uneventful, the agent genial and appreciative that I had my ducks in a row. Apparently quite a few people were showing up not having registered on the app, or done anything else that was required, if you can imagine. I idled up to the booth and switched the engine off just to be safe.
While I relaxed with my family in Vancouver my newest anecdote generator had its brakes, ball joints, and wheel bearings replaced. There was a long list of other things that a fellow could worry about if he so chose, but Vancouver is expensive and I was doing well just to get the imminent issues fixed. I did buy a couple of spare ignition coils at Canadian Tire just to be safe, and also a fire extinguisher, because you never know when your gas tank might fall onto the road.
Heading home — the exhaust system was replaced at the appointed time by Brody’s Muffler Shop in Lynnwood. They did a beautiful job: artfully bent stainless 3-inch pipe, clean welding, Flowmaster muffler, chrome tip. Sounds good, too. Deep, crisp exhaust note, not too loud, just enough presence to catch the ear of one who appreciates that sort of thing. It would have been nice to make it the rest of the way without further expense, but the phrase “recent tires,” translated from Used Car Dealer into English, meant that recently half a gallon of Armorall had been dumped on them. Although they had plenty of tread and you couldn’t see the cracks in the Craigslist photos, the sidewall code dated the tires to 2005 so they were hard as rocks. They vibrated quite a bit, and, after a couple of hot 700-mile days at Western interstate speeds, I noticed while pumping gas that I could see cords glistening at the bottom of some of the cracks.
As the photo shows, either “plenty of tread” had been an optimistic assessment or, having the elasticity of chalk, they were wearing extra quickly. New tires, stat, in Greeley, CO.
That was my last major expense, everything since has been minor. The driver’s side power window had a mind of its own, sometimes rolling down spontaneously, then refusing to budge when I needed it to go down. Replacing the switch in the door panel was an easy fix. $60 for a flimsy plastic switch seemed a little steep, until I remembered Neil Flancbaum's (Smoking Holsters) retort to people who questioned his prices: "Make it yourself."
The Antilock Braking System (ABS) light comes on occasionally. A steady ABS light is meant to be a low brake fluid warning, but the fluid is fine. Internet research indicates that the speed sensor in the differential ($20 part, easily accessible) is failure-prone. Might get to it this week. I changed the oil, personally. It has been a while since I’ve done that, partly because vehicles got too low for me to get under them, partly because it’s not that much cheaper to do it yourself. But there’s plenty of room — relatively — under the truck and working on it myself was one reason for buying an old one. I also replaced the cloudy, dim headlights with new, crystal-clear SVT Lightning-style ones.
Some mysteries remain. The body is rust-free, the interior is perfect and the carpet is new. Odd that the seat brackets and the tire tools under the passenger seat are rusty. Flooded, perhaps? Reckon I’d better pull the seats and carpet and see what’s under there. The truck lived in Salem, OR, and came with a thick stack of receipts, but the last date on anything is 2013. It does use a bit of oil. Holes drilled in the bed show that the truck towed a 5th wheel trailer. On one hand, that’s severe service. On the other hand, carrying and towing heavy things is what 3/4-ton pickups are for, so it’s not necessarily a death sentence. Next oil change I’ll send a sample for lab analysis and see what’s going on.
The truck may turn into a nice long-term project if I can keep road salt from killing it. I had a Fluid Film rust preventative treatment done, we’ll see if that helps. I’ll fill those holes in the bed from the 5th wheel hitch, maybe look for a decent used tonneau cover. There’s some basic maintenance to be done before winter, jobs that won’t take much time but that will still feel like accomplishments, recalling a time when owners were able — even expected — to take care of vehicles themselves. And were expected to drive them without being warned and scolded and overridden by a computer every whipstitch. Wait, am I yelling at clouds again? Sorry.
I've got to say, I love driving this truck — a guilty pleasure because the gas mileage is poor, although a '69 GTO would be even worse and couldn't haul firewood. I love the feeling of mass and solidity. I love the height and the unobstructed view; it's the kind of vehicle that I bitch about everyone else driving when I'm in my Corolla. On the highway it’s comfortable and sufficiently powerful, loping along doing 75 at just over 2,000 rpm. It does indeed run and drive great, so the ad was true, in a clairvoyant sort of way.
That’s my newest hobby, or rather my return to an old hobby. 30-something years ago, after the gas tank incident, I tore my Jimmy down to the frame and restored it, swapping in a built small block with a 4-speed and a NP 205 transfer case, new driveshafts, yada yada. When the New Mexico Symphony hit the canvas and I sold the Jimmy to pay bills I resolved never to make that mistake again. Next time, instead of pouring unrecoverable money into some heap, I’d buy one that some other idiot had made perfect and was selling at a loss. Then I made it a couple more times, and possibly have made it yet again. Evidently that’s just how it goes, what my dad called my silk-purse-out-of-a-sow’s-ear gene. Fixing old things and learning new skills is fun, and this truck will let me scratch that itch now that I’m just about out of room in the shop for decrepit machine tool projects. Although I now have a truck to go get them, so maybe we’ll see about that.