Cars Of A Lifetime: 1979 Chevrolet Suburban – It Just Keeps On Grinding On

Observe, a brush guard that has been put to use

This was our second Chevy Suburban. Now you might well think we wouldn’t own another after our misadventures with the 1982 White Whale, but we did. And it brought us much adventure of a different sort (the good kind mostly). But first there are a few odd cars to cover, if briefly.

For those of you following the many follies of my sordid automotive history, I should take a moment to go over a few cars that were not worthy of a full post. There was another Subaru Justy that the entire stub axle sheered off on, causing the whole wheel to fall off. Which subsequently earned it a trip to the rightful home of all Justys, the crusher.  And then there was a Volvo PV 444 or 544 that Michelle bought while I was away. It turned out to be completely un-restorable and almost killed me trying to trailer it home (note to self: never rent trailers with inertia brakes).

There was also Volvo 240 that Michelle bought while I was away that had a rod knock. I drove it until it exploded all over the road. There was a Jeep CJ2a that I traded a for pistol, but it was a complete heap and I sold it to the neighbors. There was a Ford Tempo I got for nothing; fixed it up, gave it away to someone in need, and got back. It was used as a rolling target. There was a Bridgestone motorcycle that never ran, and also a Honda Trail 90. I am sure there were a few more that I’ve conveniently forgotten, or repressed. And now back to our scheduled program.

We were just getting settled into our Toyota Van when one day in the advertisements I saw a Chevy Suburban. The key facts that caused me to look twice at the ad were that it was four-wheel-drive, had a full length roof rack, ran well, had a third seat, and was only eight hundred dollars. So off we went to buy it. It turned out to be a pretty good truck for the money. The floors were rusted through in a few spots, the seats were ripped, the doors were rusted out at the bottom, but it was a good old truck.

I don’t recall what axles or transfer case it had, but they were nothing special. The transmission was a TH350 and the engine was an SB400 with dual exhaust, and an Edelbrock carburetor on a stock 4 hole iron manifold.  The reason I bought it was because I didn’t want to beat up my nice Toyota Van too much and thought the Chevy would be good to goof around in.

And indeed it was, here is a video of us doing just that, and another. It was great at the beach and at the time my friend had a 1987 Suburban, the one that rescued my Dodge. So we had plenty of fun on the beach with our two Suburbans.

We were both big families with lots of friends, live in grandparents, etc. So a trip with both families might include up to twenty people. Hence the need for bench front seats and third seats!

The Suburban made a trip up to Tacoma Washington and back to Salem Oregon to move my friend’s brother and his large family down here. Throughout the trip it pulled a trailer with an International 392 engine, NP205 transfer case, and a few axle assemblies in it, plus a loaded roof rack and rear.  It was the quickest rig out of our convoy, even out muscling his cherry 1973 Travellal at red lights. We averaged twelve miles per gallon. But one small problem came to light. The starter started to grind on occasion.

Now, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Chevrolet starters, but they were all the same mounting style for a very long time in a very many engines. It is one of the stupidest mounting styles yet invented. Whereas other auto manufacturers simple bolt the starter strait into the bell housing to permanently and effectively align with the ring gear. Not on GM products though, the starter sits below and to the side of the ring gear. Two bolts hold the end of it on  requiring a bracket for the other end to keep it from bouncing about. because of the location of the starter, it may or may not require shims to align it correctly with the ring gear. Furthermore, they have nasty habit of changing their alignment of their own accord. On top of the design issues there is the fact that many people simply eliminate the bracket on the end of the starter.  Which someone had done long ago on my truck. This had let the starter vibrate and bounce for a long enough time to finally break the engine block at the starter bolt boss. There was still enough threads left to hold the starter on but not to keep it lined up for to long.

The starter problem became painfully apparent at the Portland International Airport. We were dropping Michelle’s friend off who had come to visit us from Iowa. The Homeland Security threat level was Orange for some reason or other and the airport cops were strictly enforcing a fifteen minute maximum curb time in front of the entrance  After we saw Michelle’s friend off we started the truck. But we only got grinding. Try as we might, only grinding. People began looking in our direction. I had some tools with me and I jumped underneath. Many tries, much grinding, half shimming, the battery on it’s last gasp, security calling a tow truck, it started!

So I had the pleasure of installing a new flexplate and starter. But I noticed something when I did. The flexplate was moving about a quarter of an inch forward and back, and so was the crankshaft. I had noticed a bit of a very deep vibration/knock at idle and this was the cause. As well as the true cause of my starter problems. Obviously the bottom end bearings were going out and the thrust bearing was shot. But what to do about it?

Drive it until it dies was my theory. The truck was rusty and old so it was not worth fixing. But it lasted quite a long time like that, until we finally got something “better”. The Suburban went to the junk yard and we bid a fond farewell to it. It was one of my favorite rigs.