Interesting, how the US has so many pickup trucks while the rest of the world is largely able to manage without them. That thought occurs sometimes as I'm driving, when, for instance, a giant, lifted 4X4 comes roaring up behind me and the driver blasts on his high beams and off-road lights as though he could push me out of the way with photons. Or when the dual-stack diesel in front of me decides to demonstrate his disdain for emissions control. But right now it occurs because I’m thinking about buying another pickup.
The pickup truck is an iconic American vehicle, like the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Both were shaped by the land, the pickup by the farms and ranches and trades that required heavy, dirty, oddly shaped things to be gotten from here to there, the motorcycle by the miles upon miles of fairly straight roads. Both, for the most part, remain suited for their intended uses, but can also get used as canvasses for, shall we say, freedom of expression. That’s how we get pickups that are too tall to lift things into and motorcycles with exhausts that set off car alarms. It pains me when things I love like pickups and motorcycles get turned into instruments of annoyance and intimidation, but of course someone who enjoys rolling coal doesn’t see it like that. Not to pick on American vehicles, import sedans with coffee can exhausts and Suzuki GSXRs wheelying everywhere are pretty annoying, too.
My parents’ first vehicle that I can remember was a green Chevy pickup. Chevrolet green, you know, that kind of toothpaste color, Late 50s, I guess, maybe early 60s, would be pretty valuable if it were in good shape today. We used it to move from Texas to Washington State, and I spent a lot of time on various trips rolling around inside the camper shell. Car seat? Nobody had heard of a car seat, you had to pay extra for seat belts.
The first vehicle that I bought, as opposed to having handed down to me, was a four-wheel-drive 1972 GMC Jimmy, which on one hand was not really a truck, but on the other hand was nothing more than a short-box K15 pickup with a fiberglass shell over the bed. With the rear seat removed I could carry anything a pickup with a camper shell would, I just didn't have any partition protecting me from it. I was a graduate student/freelance musician, but I fancied myself an outdoorsman and wanted a simple, rugged 4WD for hunting, fishing, and camping. In the condition I bought it — ragged, rusty, with a 6-cylinder engine and a 3-speed manual transmission — it would have done very nicely, but I couldn’t stop myself, and within a year or two I had completely restored it.
Earl, the mechanic who sold it to me, was a kind, hard-working, honest gentleman with a one-man repair shop and towing business on the other side of the tracks in Greeley, CO. He always had some farm truck up on the lift, always had country music on the radio, and there was a sign on the wall that said “We don’t work on foreign shit.” He retired before Mazda started building the Ford Ranger. Or maybe it was about the same time. Hmmm, never thought of that before.
He was very patient with me, and even let me work on the Jimmy in his shop. I rebuilt the front spindles and hubs there, and swapped out some major components as he watched out of the corner of his eye. I don’t remember how many miles the inline-six had on it, but it used quite a bit of oil, and I mentioned to Earl that I thought it had a burned valve, that when I downshifted I could see a burp of smoke in the rearview mirror. I asked what he thought I should do.
“Don’t look in the mirror,” he said.
Good advice. What I did was pull the six and replace it with a rebuilt small-block V8 with an RV cam, Edelbrock aluminum intake manifold and 4-barrel carb, 4-speed manual transmission with a granny gear, and a two-speed New Process 205 transfer case. And repaint it, and restore the interior. Everything pretty much bolted together, which would not be true of a modern truck. With new tires and chrome wheels it looked like a life-size Hot Wheels toy.
I put some miles on that thing, and remember it being loud (dual exhaust), hot (no AC), and the ride and handling being primitive (solid front axle). It may not have been the most trouble-free vehicle I’ve ever owned, but it was the easiest to work on. There was plenty of room around all sides of the engine, and you could tell what was broken and what it did just by looking at it. Like when the alternator friction-welded itself solid halfway between Rawlins and Rock Springs, it was a predicament, but no mystery. I used the Jimmy to pull a trailer and move to New Mexico and sold it there. In the shape it was in. looks like it would go for around $30,000 today. I saw a "completely restored" one no nicer than mine listed for $80k, but that was one where all the numbers matched and of course none of mine did. I think I got $8,000 from a dealer who was shipping it to a client in Switzerland who wanted an American 4X4 for his “farm.”
A colleague in the orchestra remarked, “Man, when you get rid of a vehicle, you really get rid of a vehicle.”
The first vehicle that I bought brand new was a 1993 Toyota pickup with the V6. I was still in New Mexico, doing all right building fly rods but paychecks from the orchestra were unreliable, and I can remember the sense of dread I had signing the forms, thinking “I shouldn’t be doing this.” And the sense of exhilaration driving it off the lot, thinking “I should have done this years ago.” It was a great vehicle and I drove it all over the Western US, then used it to pull a trailer moving from Albuquerque to Pittsburgh. Capable, smooth, fast. I sold it when I moved to New Zealand. Years after I moved back to Pittsburgh I saw it — definitely my truck with the Quality Campers, Belen, NM shell on the back — in an underground garage after a concert. It was plastered with Bush campaign stickers and had a .30 caliber bullet hole just behind the passenger door.
Truckless for many years, I managed to haul what needed to be hauled with a Ford Explorer and a Ford Taurus station wagon. although I think I cooked the latter’s transmission hauling trailers. Finally, I decided I needed a wood hauler and bought an early 90s Ranger for $1500. I probably put a couple grand into it over 70,000 miles, about the same amount I’ve wound up putting into every other vehicle I’ve owned before deciding that the next dollar would be too much. I remember the Explorer’s last visit to the mechanic. I had just replaced a line to the transmission oil cooler, and then something else happened. I can’t remember, maybe transmission-related, maybe some structural component rusted through. Anyway, it was going to cost more than the vehicle was worth to fix. “I guess you’re sorry we just replaced that hose,” the mechanic said. I replied, “I’m sorry I just put ten bucks worth of gas in it.”
Anyway, the Ranger rusted beyond anything but a frame-off restoration. I bought a Mazda 3, which I passed it on to my youngest daughter two summers ago and bought a Toyota Corolla. I didn’t miss the truck for a while; you CAN get an 8’ 2x4 inside a compact sedan if you fold the seats down and bungee the trunk lid, but it’s pretty clear that’s not an intended use. There have been a number of items that I’ve looked at on Craigslist for just long enough to realize that I had no way to transport whatever it was. Tool cabinets, welders, anvils. Which may have been lost opportunities, or may have been just as well. I’d like to haul some stuff AWAY from the house, though and get materials to do some work around the yard, though, and eventually I’ll need to haul more firewood. I could use a truck.
So, here’s the plan. OK, fantasy. This Fall my youngest is going to college in the Pacific Northwest. If I drive her car with her stuff out there, maybe I could pick up a solid, rust-free older pickup and drive it back. Why not simply buy a truck locally? Could do, I suppose. My Ranger was from Virginia and didn't have MUCH rust when I got it, but the seeds had been sown. I'd like to do a little better next time. Used pickups around here are either solid or affordable, rarely both. I have reasons for driving both directions, and this is one way it could work.
I could use a hand, though. I was just looking on Craigslist at a Ford F250 in Monroe, WA. It appeared to have no rust, but they didn’t SAY it was rust-free, and it was black, so hard to tell. People usually only mention rust if there isn’t any or if it’s so bad you could see it from space. “Yeah, there’s some rust, but it still runs strong . . .” Manual transmission, excellent, would prefer that. Pictures of the inside of the bed were conspicuously absent. The seller did say it had 64,000 miles, and that is what the pic of the odometer showed, but the shot of the pedals didn’t quite line up with that number. After only 64k the clutch and brake pedals usually have a bit more rubber on them. Clearly would require a visit to clear all of that up. And there’s what looks like a real cream puff in Portland, OR. Auto transmission, I guess I could live with that. Gosh, what a nice-looking pickup.
I’m no Vice Grip Garage, though, I need some assurance from somebody other than the seller that the truck runs, and, well, you know. I’ve met some really great people buying stuff on Craigslist, and some people who evidently had terrible memories. I’m not opposed to another Ranger; mine was an excellent truck and I still have the studded snow tires in the shed. Or an older Toyota. I can take or leave four wheel drive. It’s nice to have when you need it, but that’s actually pretty rare unless you do a lot of off-roading, in which case 4WD will just get you stuck in worse places. Working AC would be nice, which pretty much limits the search to 1994 and newer, although if I encountered an otherwise immaculate freon (or no AC) truck I could probably cope.
So, if any of you happen to live in the PNW and are thinking, “Hey, Uncle Rod was just talking about selling his ’82 F150. Man, that thing is PRISTINE,” Or anything like that, feel free to send me an email. Other parts of the country could work — California, New Mexico, would just have to add a flight. You never know, a pipe might make a nice finder’s fee. Yes, that was a long way to go to drop a hint, but there’s an art to dropping a hint, you can’t just blurt it out.