I’m not really sure why I bought a truck in August of 2002. I wasn’t a farmer or a contractor, and I wasn’t doing any big project or anything else that required big or frequent hauling, so I didn’t actually need a truck. More, we lived not in a suburban or rural setting, but in Toronto. That meant narrow streets with tight parking at the best of times, aggravated by ice sheets and persistent snowbanks in winter. Expensive gasoline, too. I did no cost-benefit analysis, which surely would have come out on the side of no.
I don’t think it was a truck-urge I got so much as a rear-drive Mopar urge. Darts and Valiants and such were almost all in the distant past in that part of the world, and so were their unworthy replacements—not that I wanted anything to do with an Aspen or Volaré under those names or any of the many others (…Diplomat, Gran Fury, Caravelle…). So I guess it was sort of [RWD Mopar] – [A-body] = Dodge truck. Or maybe I’m misremembering it the wrong way round and I spotted the ad for this truck and rationalised backward from there.
Whatever which way, I trekked out past Oshawa to go see the truck: a 1989 D-100 with a 318 engine, an A998 3-speed Torqueflite automatic, a sliding backglass, an 8-foot bed with a hard plastic bedliner, and a rear bumper. Were rear bumpers still optional equipment on trucks in 1989? I don’t know. This truck had one, seemingly a factory item, painted argent silver. There was no discernible body rust or batterment, the interior was in very fine condition, nothing was faulty or broken, and the truck ran and drove, steered and stopped like a rear-drive Mopar—a big, portly one. The seller even agreed to drive the truck into Toronto for me. Very fine.
Before I even had the keys to the truck, I had my first haul-call, my first truckfriend—those folks who come out the woodwork calling me ol’ buddy ol’ pal because I had a truck and they, well, they wanted something hauled.
Very importantly, Bill liked the truck. Rare indeed is the vehicle Bill likes, so this was a major plus. Cars spook him; he saw a bunch of gory, gruesome car crashes as a very small kid, including one in which his pregnant dog got hit by a car and thrown like a water balloon, with similar results. Trucks were less of a trigger, plus he actually fit in the truck. It was easy for him to get in and out of, and the bench seat didn’t confine him; there was plenty of room for his head and his legs and his feet and his elbows and his shoulders.
So I had a real, actual rear-drive Mopar, and it even had wing windows! The driver’s one didn’t seal very well, and made an irritating wind whistle; eventually I figured out how to wedge a nickel between the catch and the frame when closing it to pull the wing tighter against its seal and stop the whistle. One of the first things I did, though, was to remove the Nippondenso starter. Functionally there was nothing the matter with it; it worked fine, but it grated my ears every time I used it. That’s not what starting a rear-drive Mopar is meant to sound like! Instead I put in a carefully-refurbished original 1962 to ’72-type Chrysler gear-reduction starter. The Highland Park (or Hamtramck) Hummingbird wasn’t just a single starter; there were numerous significant differences over the years that made the starters crank at different speeds and make different sounds while doing it (article eventually). I wanted one that sounded like my very early youth, and that’s what I got; it sounded exactly right. I beat this guy by a good bunch of years, but I had his same chortling reaction the first time I turned the key:
I also replaced the shift stick with a pre-1984 item that had the knob with the inverted-cone brushed-aluminum insert—again, just like the Darts my parents and grandparents had when I was little. Because that’s what the shift stick in a rear-drive Mopar is meant to look like. The truck equivalent of making a house a home.
The transmission engaged Drive or Reverse with a convulsive crash, even with the engine at a slow hot idle. There was a fix issued for the condition, involving a new valve body and separator plate for the transmission. Those parts hadn’t been put on this truck, and it was just a service bulletin, not a recall. I didn’t want to spend the money, so I just braced and gritted my teeth every time I put the truck in gear. –
3-point– multipoint turns and parking manœuvres were especially fun: edge forwards…BANG!…edge backwards…BANG!…edge forwards…BANG!, lather-rinse-repeat.
That gritchment was aggravated by the primitive engine management system, a latter-day mutation of the 1976 Lean Burn setup. The fuel was laxly managed by an eh-who-cares shrug of a throttle body injection system: halfassed Holley hardware crudely controlled by a Chrysler computer full of flawed firmware (feh!). Idle air controllers were a well-known thing, readily available off the shelf in numerous configurations; Chrysler used them on just about all the rest of their engines, but not on trucks like this. Instead, the idle speed was controlled by a bulky external kick motor. Its plunger extended or retracted to move the throttle lever itself. This movement was as audible as it was sluggish; if the dimwitted computer thought it detected a condition calling for an elevated idle speed, the driver’s options were to wait (and wait) for the idle speed to slowwwwwllly meander back down to normal, or stand on the brake pedal, go ahead and shift into a gear, and brace for an even worse CRASH! from the transmission. This was the vehicle whereon I learned to use a scan tool—mine was an OTC Monitor 4000, same as the official Chrysler DRB but with the capability (which I never used) to talk to non-Chrysler vehicles. When I needed a break from this dumb idle game, I used the scanner to set the idle to 800 rpm and unplugged the throttle kicker. That brought sweet relief; the engine would obediently drop to a normal idle as soon as I let go the accelerator. But it caused other driveability problems, particularly during cold start and warmup, so I ruefully restored the idle motor’s power and resumed gritting my teeth.
When I took the truck for its emissions test, I had them check the ignition timing. It was around where the spec said it should be, 10° BTDC, but the spec was given as ±2°, so I had ’em bump it to 12 to see what would happen. They didn’t quite get it there; I think it wound up around 14 or so. This was not an improvement; the engine wanted to stall immediately after shifting into a gear. Managed to get it to stay running with some tapdancing on the accelerator, but as soon as I tried to drive, the engine protested with loud rattlety-ping on all eight cylinders. I babied it home, climbed into the engine compartment, put an end wrench on the distributor bolt, nudged the dizzy back the way it came, and the pinging went away. Beyond the basic advance, the spark timing was controlled by the engine computer; this was pure Lean Burn stuff except the distributor’s trigger was a hall effect item rather than the older magnetic reluctance type.
The miniature fuel injectors were clog-prone; Chrysler went through at least two designs—one by Bosch and one by Holley, if I recall rightly. The intake manifold was a lump of iron designed with apparently complete disregard for all expertise accumulated on the subject since the late 1950s. There wasn’t much of an unreliability problem with the Mopar system, it just didn’t work very well even when everything was exactly as intended. Oh, it was better than what passed for carburetors in the late 1980s, but only just barely; driveability was rough and fuel consumption high.
We had a laugh when, months after I bought it, Bill—who knew nothing about cars—casually flipped the seatback forward and stashed something behind it. Hey, neat, I didn’t know it does that! I’d never owned a 2-door car, let alone a truck, so it just never occurred to me.
The ammeter failed; I bought a new one and installed it, but its needle was a brighter red than the others in the cluster, so I painted all the gauge needles fluorescent yellow. That turned out nicely.
The truck came to me with half a ridiculous exhaust system: factory equipment all the way to the muffler, fine, but the muffler was a one-inlet/two-output polished stainless thing with dual tailpipes ending in extra-big tailspouts straight out the back. It wasn’t especially loud, it just looked dorky. The seller was kind enough to put the factory tailpipe in the bed before delivering the truck. It was in fine condition, including its side-dump tailspout. Trucks have side-dump tailspouts for a good reason: with rear-dump, the aerodynamics of the box would tend to pull a cloud of exhaust along with the truck. I had a shop remove the twin megaphone pipes, weld up one of the muffler’s outlets, and fit the factory tailpipe to the remaining muffler outlet. The exhaust still smelled considerably more obnoxious than ought to have been justifiable for a 1989-model North American-spec vehicle running on gasoline, but at least now I didn’t have to smell it as often. Eventually that stainless muffler rotted, and I put in a new high-capacity catalytic converter, a muffler for a late-model Hemi Ram (big, quiet, good flow), and new tailpipe with a tailspout inspired by ’60s Chevrolets: angled about 45° rearward and 45° downward.
The truck’s headlamp circuitry was cheap, nasty, and minimal (Hi, my name’s Daniel and I drive Chrysler products): long lengths of 18-gauge wire for the feeds and 20-gauge for the grounds; no relays. I never upgraded it, har-de-har-har, though I did install a small variety of different headlamps over my ownership: Bosch European-code H4s (fairly decent), Cibié European-code H4s (fairly good), then seldom-seen Cibié BOBI US-spec H4s (differently but equally fairly decent). The last pair I put in it was a set of GE sealed beams with yellow lenses. The subsequent owner bitched that they got him a ticket for improper lights. Donno what to say, dude; I never got hassled for ’em.
I found a replacement-lights-and-lamps vendor in Mexico whose product range included clear-lens taillights for the ’81-’93 Dodge trucks (the № 48C on the Chrysler page here). They had an internal red balloon over the bulb as well as the required rear and side red reflectors, and they didn’t cost much, so I took a chance. That worked out well; quality and performance were quite good—uncommonly so, for the product category. Might’ve looked slicker on a white or silver truck than on mine, but they looked nicer than the somewhat tatty originals I took off. Regular readers will know amber rear turn signals are one of the early Commandments in my religion’s holy scriptures, so I hunted up amber bulbs bright enough to be worth a damn that would fit in the reversing lamps and wired ’em up Australian style as combination turn/reverse lamps. The principle is exactly the same as the American combination stop/turn lamps, only with a different grouping of functions: red stop/tail, amber turn/reverse:
The truck was not air conditioned, but I let my fingers do the walking and found a dealer in rural Pennsylvania with the in-cab A/C package gathering dust on a back shelf (HVAC box with heater core and evaporator, controls, plumbing, ducting, dashboard parts, etc) for $125, and another dealer somewhere else with the underhood A/C package (compressor, brackets, filter-dryer, lines, condenser, wiring, etc) for $137. Yee! I could scarcely afford i>not to buy these, I thought; the shipping to Michigan cost almost as much as the parts themselves.
In early October, I got in the truck and headed to Michigan to pick up the A/C packages and have a go at making the truck earn its keep by hauling two Volvo B16B engines with 4-speed transmissions, plus a B16 block, back to Toronto. These would be dropped off in Mississauga for an individual restoring a late-’50s race car called the Davy Special. I also took the Canadian-made engine management system for my Volvo 164 to the place in Wisconsin where it was ever-so-slowly being not built.
I drove down the 401 to the 402, made my way to Sarnia, and crossed to Port Huron, Michigan. The boothkeeper was mumbling his questions into his computer screen, and I couldn’t hear him, even though I’d shut off the truck. I asked him to please repeat himself, which made him angry; He insulted and mocked me, then accused me of trying to smuggle merchandise into the United States. He meant the engine management system, which was right next to me on the seat, with the receipt on top, and I’d described it and declared its real value when asked what I was bringing in (all part of my ingenious smuggling technique). I tried explaining it was for my own car and offered him the receipt; he said “Right, right, you’ve got a ‘receipt’, and next you’re gonna swear it’s not fake. I see scams like yours a hundred times a day; you’re goin’ in for secondary”. The inspector in the office couldn’t figure out what was the booth guy’s problem; he looked at the system briefly and waved me away.
The weekend was great; I got to visit and drive the ’62 Lancer into Traverse City. It ran well and drove nicely. Got smiles and waves and thumbs-up signs. Put a smile on my face.
Eventually it was time to head back to Toronto. We loaded everything securely in the truck bed: greasy old Volvo engines with transmissions, extra engine block, two large boxes of A/C kit. Receipts for everything I bought. I drove across Michigan and took the Bluewater ferry—which I’ve just this minute learnt is no longer a thing—from Marine City, Michigan, to Sombra, Ontario. It was my favourite border crossing; small and fast and friendly, had been my experience…up to that night. The border guard asked a perfectly routine question: what is the purpose of your trip to Canada? That’s when things started going very badly wrong in a big hurry.
I’d entered Canada thirteen months previously on a NAFTA work permit based on a job offer by a headlamp company there in Ontario—or at least that’s how they’d billed themselves, which wound up being its own hornswoggle; details probably eventually. I left that job after being asked to falsify safety certification tests, then took a work-remotely job offer from an American lighting company after carefully checking with Immigration Canada to figure out if and how I could legally remain in Canada while doing so. Answer: that would make me a business visitor who needed no work permit because I was working for an American company. That’s what I repeated for the border guard at Sombra.
He decided that was a bunch of fish and picked up the phone and called it in. He did that thing where he punched the phone buttons with the same hand holding the receiver, never breaking his glower at me. I couldn’t hear everything, because he was shielding his mouth with his other hand, but I did hear him say “boxes of car parts…engines…truck has Ontario plates…uh-huh…uh-uh…oh really!…smoking gun, hell, that’s more like a loaded gun, right there!…yeah, I thought so…thanks.” He hung up and said “you lied! You didn’t tell me you used to have a work permit that has now expired!”
I said “It was expired, and I’m not at that job any longer; now I work for an American firm. I didn’t know I needed to disclose that previous job…you didn’t ask…”. He flew into a rage, screamed that I was lucky he didn’t have me hauled to jail, and refused me entry to Canada. Told me to go talk to Immigration at Sarnia.
Eep! I filed this under shit (comma) oh—a file that would grow very thick in the following days—and drove down the interstate to the Sarnia crossing. Told the boothkeeper I’d been turned back at Sombra and needed to speak to the Immigration officials. In the office, I told the guy everything. Former employer, current employer, old work permit, current business visitor status…everything. The guy stood there with his arms crossed, smirking the whole time. When I was done, he said “I guess you wised up and decided to be a little more forthcoming this time. That’s good, because if you’d left out anything the Sombra agent and I discovered about you, I’d’ve banned you from Canada for at least a year. I can do that; that’s within my authority”.
The “business visitor” advice was just plain wrong, he said. I did, in fact, need a work permit, he said. Which I didn’t have, so…back he sent me to the US. When they do that, you have to go through US Customs. 15 booths, and the one I pick has sitting in it…guess who? Yup, the guy who thought I was an old-Volvo-parts smuggler a few days before. He seemed not to recognise me; let’s hear it for small miracles.
I drove down to Ann Arbor, my former town, checked into a motel, and fruitlessly tried to get some sleep. Next day I called up a friend and secured free lodging and ersatz office space.
Now, I’d mislaid my passport in the Toronto apartment I used as an office (which always looked as though the proverbial cyclone had hit it), and hadn’t thought much of that; at that time you didn’t need a passport to cross between Canada and the States, and figured I’d find it when I got back. Oops…! I spent a frantic, frightening and very expensive week gathering documents. Official birth certificate, expedited. New replacement passport, expedited. School transcript, certified and expedited. Job description from my boss, expedited. Reference from former employer, expedited. Résumé. Application for a work permit.
Friday was do-or-die, because there was a holiday on both sides of the border on Monday. That day looked like this:
9:20: Passport arrives
9:40: Cab arrives
10:30: Cab drops me off in Detroit for $88, would be $133 now (why not just drive the truck? Find me a a place in Detroit to park and leave a truck with a full bed, where there’s even a shadow of a chance it won’t soon be empty or gone, then we can talk it over).
10:56: Staffer walks up line of waiting people, giving them little yellow “I was here before the doors closed at eleven” chits. She asks me what kind of permit I’m applying for, I say “Work”, she says “Oh, we don’t do that in person here, we do those by mail. It would take a few weeks. You should go to the border”.
11:15: I choke down a Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza because I haven’t eaten yet at all that day.
11:20: Taxicab takes me through the tunnel ($35 → $53). Boothkeeper sends us
in to see Immigration, me and the cab driver alike.
11:32: Immigration officer, convinced I’m not very bright, gives me the permit and takes my $100 ($151).
11:40: Taxicab takes me back across the tunnel ($35 / $53) and from there to Ann
Arbor ($88 / $133…you keepin’ tab?)
3:30: I arrive at border with truck full of parts. Boothkeeper has no problem with me and my documents, but doesn’t like the Volvo engines without a receipt showing their worth. He patiently and politely explains, “Even though you were given them for free, even though you’re not selling them, the fact that you’re bringing them in for any purpose means they have some value in the eyes of Canada Customs and Revenue”. He decides the three of them are worth $300 and sends me to pay the Goods and Services Tax (CAD $56 or so). I also get to pay the $100 excise tax on the air conditioner I’m bringing in—this is one reason why historically, fewer cars in Canada had A/C.
Still, though: Oh, you want to charge me money to get back into Canada? That’s all? Here, have money. Have more. Take it all; take my wallet, have my charge cards, I don’t care.
8:30 pm: I arrive home with duelling cases of heartburn and walletburn, which of course explains why I very shortly later bought that ’85 Volvo…in the States. Maybe that Immigration officer was right about my being not very bright. Anyhow, Canadian Thanksgiving is in October, and I surely was thankful to be able to spend it at home!
My just-leave-it attitude toward the bangcrashy transmission might have suggested that I had learnt to shush those big ideas for vehicle improvements, but that isn’t so. I was getting better, but very slowly, and I had some ideas for this truck. First, of course, was the air conditioning system. This was the official genuine Chrysler Mopar system intended for dealers to put almost factory-identical air in trucks not built with it, so it would have to go much easier than in D’Valiant, right? Welllll…no, not really. Different difficulties, that’s all. The compressor was seized from sitting in a box for a dozen years. That was easy enough; I bought a new compressor—a Chinese copy of the Nippondenso original was all I could get, which made me grumble. The Chrysler/Nippondenso C171 compressor wasn’t the world’s worst design, but it also wasn’t the best. I’d’ve preferred a Sanden, but the Sandens specially built with Chrysler mounts were long extinct. And I should have fetched a high-efficiency, parallel-flow condenser, but I went ahead with the olde-tyme serpentine item in the kit.
By and by, the system got installed. Not by me; I had nowhere suitable to do such a project. I had a nearby shop do it, the owner of which was much like Fat Tony, the mafioso from The Simpsons. He did get the system installed. He charged it and overcharged me and voilà, the truck had air. It worked nicely on sweaty summer nights, but not very well during the daytime, for it was trying in vain to cool a completely uninsulated metal box, a solar oven on wheels.
The fake compressor was a lot noisier than a real one would’ve been (oh, but it was manufactured in an ISO-9001 certified facility, so that’s all that matters, then; who needs quality when you’ve got a piece of paper saying you have quality control!). The clutch cycling switch was a chunky metal Cutler-Hammer item mounted on the firewall, with its capillary tube sensing the temperature of the low-pressure line coming off the evaporator. Every so often that switch would go “Tick!”, then the relay across the engine bay would go “Click!”, then the compressor clutch would go “Clack!”, all three in rapid sequence. That’s an olde-tyme control strategy, and it’s the one I prefer. I don’t agree with the idea that vehicle A/C should work like residential A/C, where you set a temperature and the system (falsely) claims to maintain it. Regardless of how sophisticated such a system is intended to be in a car, I always find myself ceaselessly adjusting the temperature. With the cycling-clutch systems, there’s perceptible hysteresis around the setpoint. The periodic colder-than-ambient frosty breeze is much more refreshing than a steady stream of constant-temperature air, at least to my nerve endings.
I also tried to do something about the truck’s even-in-perfect-tune rough driveability and awful fuel economy. I took a hard look at the fuel system, decided better fuel atomisation might help, and placed a phone call; a couple weeks later I had a custom one-of-none fuel pressure regulator built to provide 21 pounds’ pressure (1.45 bar) rather than the stock 14 (0.97). I installed this along with a new, latest-design set of the smaller injectors meant for the 3.9 V6 version of the system. I had an adaptor plate made to put the throttle body, with its weird mount pattern, on a 4-barrel intake manifold. Somehow or other I wound up with an Edelbrock Performer; I don’t recall how. Before long I took that off and put on an Edelbrock SP2P, a manifold designed in the 1970s with small runners specifically for high flow velocity at low engine speeds. This truck had a 2.76:1 rear axle and biggish 235/75R15 tires, and I was driving it in Toronto traffic; it specialised in low engine speeds.
I also put in a set of my favourite extended-projected nose spark plugs. No bogus “magic” plugs, these; they’re in every major plug maker’s product line (I like NGKs best). They were originally used in AMC’s 6-cylinder engines starting in the mid-late ’70s to help light the lean, stratified mixtures resulting from the strangle-and-pray emission controls of that time. Chrysler themselves later used plugs like this in the Jeep 4.0, the LH 3.5, and other motors. The idea is to move the spark away from the quenchout area near the cylinder head metal, and I was always able to gain small but noticeable improvements in driveability and fuel economy by using these plugs in my Chrysler Slant-6s and 2.5s, and now in this 318. I figured it would help countervail the big, open, 1960s-type combustion chamber shape. There was a fast-burn/closed-chamber head for the 318, right on the shelf; it went in M-body Diplomat-Caravelle-Gran Fury cars and suchlike. Why didn’t they put it in the trucks? Chrysler only knows.
Each of these changes I made nudged things in a good direction. The engine ran a little smoother, the driveability was a little more polished. Nothing much happened with the fuel –
economy– consumption; it was a not-very-advanced engine trying to push a brick through the wind via a tall axle ratio and tall tires, without overdrive. I had ideas for how to bypass the engine computer’s control of ignition timing and put in a vacuum/centrifugal advance distributor—this is a common retrofit for owners of Lean Burn cars, and it often makes them run and drive considerably better, but it would’ve been more complicated on my truck: no ported vacuum available, and there was a need to keep the computer informed of the engine’s speed even after removing the hall effect distributor it looked at for that knowledge. I’d like to think my plans were good enough to work, but I never tried them. That’s probably just as well.
Bill and I used the truck for all our automobility needs. This involved certain other gritchments. It had rear-wheel ABS which I quickly grew to hate. It never kicked in, that I noticed, when I was actually driving the truck—not even when I tried to make it engage by finding slippery surfaces and standing on the pedal. But Toronto had these permanent banks of frozen, compacted road slush all winter long, and when I was trying to get in or out of a parking space the ABS would override my brake application just as I was trying to balance the truck on top of a little ice hill to get a bit of a gravity assist for the next manœuvre. I’d sit there with both feet on the brake pedal, listening to the rear wheel(s) turning and the ABS pump pulsing. What a damn nuisance! It was an overlay type with a regular master cylinder and a regular vacuum booster. I unplugged the ABS module and removed the dashboard ABS light bulb—problem solved.
The truck wasn’t very good for errands; the options were either put the groceries or whatever in the bed (not good in sloppy winter or broiling summer) or crowd them into the cab with us. It wasn’t very good for putt-putting around town, either (hard to park, thirsty to run, dangerous on slippery winter roads). But it excelled in other applications. One dark, snowy Winter afternoon I was sitting at my desk, struggling as I usually do to get actual work done, when Bill rang. He wanted me to come down to Queen’s Park immediately. He’d found a table, he said; he’d explain later. Just get in the truck, right now. Okeh! I slogged through the slush and found him sitting atop a long table outside the University of Toronto property disposition office. Pulled up alongside, stepped out the truck, and got a terrific soaker when I sank my foot ankle-deep directly into a chuckhole.
He’d been walking home when he spotted this discarded long chemistry lab table, sturdily built in U of T’s in-house furniture construction shop probably in the 1930s. It had pockmarks, burns, and scars from decades of use (wabi-sabi!) and was otherwise perfect. He’d been sitting on it the whole time, fending off any other would-be claims, getting snowed on and waiting for me to arrive. We horsed it into the truck—too long to allow the tailgate to close, and we didn’t have straps or ropes, but it was heavy enough to stay put if I drove carefully, which I had to do anyhow on account of the weather. It was a hell of a score, that table, and we still have it.
Oh, speaking of driving in slush: My truck, like many vehicles with automatic transmission and a bench seat, had a parking brake applied (Gzzzzt!) by stomping a pedal located far to the left of the brake pedal, and released (CHUNG-ta!) by pulling a brake release trigger handle located under the left side of the dashboard. A fine arrangement; leg muscles are generally stronger and the driver’s bracing against the seat, so a great deal more force can be applied to a parking brake pedal than arm muscles can apply to a handbrake lever.
The pedal even had a nice rubber pad on it, deeply grooved to stop my foot sliding off. Those nice deep anti-slip grooves also acted like capillaries when it was slushy and wet outside, so if I kicked the parking brake on a sloppy day, several gallons of slushy brine got slucked and packed into the pedal pad—much like loading a gun.
Once I’d done my errand and come back to the truck, you see, and buckled in and started the engine and turned on the lights and put the transmission in gear, then would come time to release the brake (CHUNG-ta!). Pedal, driven by spring-loaded parking brake cables, flies upward-rearwar and hits its up-stop, then the several gallons of unrestrained slushy brine obey the laws of physics and continue the pedal’s arrested upward-rearward trajectory, winding up on my hand, wrist, sleeve, arm, beard, face, and left lens of glasses. Whee! Do it again, daddy! I got in the habit of putting my foot on the pedal just before pulling the brake release, so I could slow its upward travel and keep the briny slush the hell in the pedal pad.
Carrying stuff in the bed wasn’t the only thing the truck was good for. In those early years of our relationship, I was still a damaged mess from having grown up in my behaviourally-defective mother’s house and losing my father too young. Beyond that, Bill and I hadn’t yet sanded down each other’s sharp edges and pointy corners, nor figured out how to hold a mirror to illuminate each other’s blind spots. There was a lot of work to do, and we often used the “therapy truck”, as we called it. We’d get in and drive, or even just sit there parked, and talk, sometimes for hours. We were right there next to each other, so we couldn’t be distracted by email or things on the shelf, or suddenly need to go look at something in the other room, or otherwise like that. We had to look and listen and talk with each other. I haven’t done the maths, but I don’t have to; whatever large money that truck cost to own and run, it did us more good than years of $250/hour therapy.
Meanwhile, I’d been working on becoming a Canadian permanent resident (like having a U.S. green card). That involved a lot of paperwork and waiting and fees and waiting and background checks and waiting. Finally in February 2005, the time came. It was an interesting day. Action-packed, as the movie posters say. Up at 5:20, out the door at 6:20, crossed the border with zero problem at 7:50, parked in the Consulate building’s garage in Buffalo at 8:10, gave my passport to the cheerful and courteous agent at 8:20. Exited the building, walked around a bit, found myself in a free-streetcar zone, found a likely corner, walked around a bit. Asked a random stranger to recommend a decent breakfast place, walked the 15 blocks or so to her suggested restaurant and the french toast wasn’t bad.
Went from breakfast to the public library. Finished my goods-to-follow lists and pored over Consumer Reports magazines from the early-mid ’60s; it is a terrible shame that magazine was permitted to de-evolve over the years into such selfgratulatory parody.
Walked back to the Consulate, picked up my passport (now with shiny new visa on page 15!) and landing papers, paid my $6 parking, and at 3pm pulled the truck out the parking garage. Got to the Canadian border around 3:45. “Hi there. I have a landing visa, so I need to see the immigration people”.
Got a yellow card, pulled into the Immigration parking lot.
“Hi there. I’m here to land!”
Pleasant back-and-forth banter with the agent while he clicked keys and did paperwork. “Initial here and here, sign here, sign and date here, please—keep your signature within the white box”, then he extended his hand and said “Welcome to Canada!”.
Next stop: Customs. I handed in my items-to-follow list (one 1971 Volvo 164 and associated parts, etc) and landing document. No pleasant banter from this apparently humourless agent, but no harrassment, either. While he was doing his paperwork, the only other customer at the counter was making a slow and massive trainwreck of himself, right before my eyes. He was a Canadian apparently trying to import a BMW from the states, and he was standing there screwin’ up every single question they asked him:
Who’d you buy this car from?
Oh, where’s your friend live?
You claim the car has an extremely low value. Why is that?
“It needs a lot of repair.”
You listed it at 25 per cent of its actual value; any car that needs 75 per cent of its worth in repairs isn’t roadworthy and we can’t let it in.
“Oh, no, I’ve been driving it, it’s not junk, it’s fine.”
You’ve been driving it? In Canada?
That’s two criminal offences, sir. False declaration and failure to declare.
“Um…ha ha ha ha ha..”
So when’d you buy this car, sir?
Yeah? So how come your name’s not on the title? ‘Cause that looks like a third criminal offence.
On and on and on. I couldn’t look away. When I came in, he had one agent talking to him; when I left, there were five.
Back at my own section of the counter, the guy issued me a tax exemption receipt for goods to follow, said they’d check off items as they were imported, no deadline, and…that was it! At about 4:20, I shifted into Drive and headed back home. There had been not a single hiccup. I no longer had to gamble on hassle or refusal every time I would try to return to Canada, nor fret every year when my work permit would expire. Or whatever document it was; every year at expiry time it seemed to be the same story: we can’t renew this for you; it’s not the right kind of document for your situation!. No more of that; big relief. Onward to the next goalpost (citizenship, which I attained a few years later).
I also tinkered with the truck’s cooling system, inspired by a nuisance event: I was heading home from work one night in April 2008, through West Toronto along Bloor St rather than on Dupont. More stop-and-go lights and congestion on Bloor, but also more restaurants; I wanted to stop and pick up a roti for dinner. I was within sight of the roti place, stopped at Lansdowne, when suddenly the truck and seemingly everyone else waiting at the red light and I were engulfed in big, dense clouds of burnt coolant…which I quickly figured out was coming from my truck. Oh, yay! I watched the engine temp gauge while I waited for the light to go green, and it didn’t seem to be rising, despite the thickening clouds of smoke; I bypassed the restaurant and drove straight home, a little over a kilometre.
Parked in the street, left the high beams on and popped the hood…found one of the heater hoses forcefully pissing coolant directly onto the exhaust manifold. Yeah, that’ll do it. I knocked the radiator cap to the stop and vented off the system pressure; the leak immediately decreased significantly in volume, and I closed the hood and went in to eat and go to bed.
Next morning in the sunshine, I popped the hood again. Really simple failure: one of legs of the spring-ring hose clamp holding the vent hose to the crankcase breather was in contact with the adjacent heater hose, and eventually wore a hole in it. I fetched some heater hose and made the repair, but shortly thereafter I switched to waterless coolant and put in a 205° thermostat, 10 Fahrenheit degrees hotter than the specified item. The waterless coolant has a much higher boil point and runs at atmospheric pressure (no water = no steam = no pressure), and I found it did what the maker claimed. The hotter thermostat seemed to do what Smokey Yunick said it would for engine efficiency; fuel consumption decreased slightly but measurably and consistently. Very fine.
Really, the truck did well for me. It was resolutely what it was, not more and not less, though I managed to nudge it closer to “more” in some ways. A couple of times, when small rust bubbles appeared in the lower body, I had it fixed straightaway so it wouldn’t get any bigger. But eventually I got tired of trying to park it, paying to feed it, and trying not to die while driving it in winter. Plus, the locking torque converter had begun to shudder on engagement, and I just didn’t want to know about transmission repairs. I told my mechanic (not the Fat Tony guy) I was looking to sell it, and a few months later he called and asked if that was still the case. Turns out the guy in the shop above his—a millwright who made big, expansive, expensive woodworks for custom homes—needed a new truck in a hurry.
“What happened to that blue GMC I always see him in?” I asked. Mechanic said that truck died when the oil filter rusted out. Think about that for a minute: the oil filter rusted out. I met with the millwright, he got in the truck, I drove him round the block once, and he said “I’ll take it! Wow, this thing has air conditioning?!”. He paid me (getting $4,500 for a 1989 Dodge D-100 in 2009 had to be some kind of neat trick), I went straight to the bank and deposited the money, and that was that.
But not really, because the truck moved just one block over. I think the millwright existed in a state of permanent stonedness on account of the solvent vapours in his shop, and he was reputed to like drinking his lunch out of a flask. Plus, his previous truck had died because the oil filter rusted out, so I got to watch my well-preserved truck very quickly regress to the mean condition of 30-year-old trucks in Toronto. That was difficult, but it was good practise at letting go.
Bill still misses it.