COAL: 1994-1997 GM Box Vans – High Cube Drifter


During my post-high-school years one of the several jobs I had was as a delivery driver.  I started in my senior year of high school driving a 1987 Ford box truck about 120 miles on highways every Saturday morning, but that truck isn’t noteworthy other than the fact that I hated it: 460 cubic inches of heat, noise and no power.  No, the ones that left an impression were the ’94-’97 Chevy and GMC box vans that I drove following it, and put several hundred thousand miles on in the years to come.

At the end of the summer following graduation, the company I was driving for was about to move into a new warehouse facility sixty five miles away.  I knew going into it that I’d be spending most of the weekend driving loads in the company trucks back and forth, but I was fearing spending a August weekend in Nebraska driving those @!#!@# Fords.  Much to my surprise they had just bought a new leftover ’94 GMC 3500 box truck, and that would be my steed for the weekend.  Fresh and new they decided it would carry the first and heaviest load – four pallets of solution.  You know, water.  My instructions were pretty simple: “don’t stop at the weigh station”.


First observations were mixed mainly due to the fact that it was insanely overloaded with a shifting load, and that it had a non-Vortec 350 to get me up the rolling hills to the offsite warehouse.  While the drive there was a bit white knuckle, and I’m sure I left dents in the floorboard trying to coax it up the hills, it made it without scorching my legs or making me deaf like the Fords.  On the drive back, and on subsequent trips that weekend with more reasonable loads I appreciated it more and more as it definitely drove much easier and quieter than the Fords with a much better ride.

A year later the shenanigans began, as they say.  I’d started working more routes and at the same time one of the old Fords was sent to live at the new warehouse, and the other old Ford was retired in favor of a then brand new ’97 Chevy 3500 box truck.  I picked up a route that involved a loop through Kansas on Fridays, and in turn given the ’97 Chevy.  It was definitely a step up from the ’94 with the new Vortec 350, AC and.. a skylight roof in the box!

I admit it, I stopped and napped once back here.

I admit it, I stopped and napped once back here.

I quickly learned some things about the Kansas route.  It was all rural highways that had very little to no traffic, and as such you could… make rather good time on them.  Where the old guy would take ten to eleven hours to do the route, I’d get it done in seven to eight as it was Friday, after all!  Even with a large box truck full to the brim, the Chevy 350s had no problem maintaining just enough over the limit to avoid the rural pokey if the law was to appear; Kansas had a speed limit of sixty to sixty five on most of the roads I took at the time.

In the summers it was hot, dusty, and windy so the ’97 was my favorite – but it was the favorite of the local in-city driver too, so without the benefit of seniority more often than not I had the AC-less ’94.  In the winter I vastly preferred the ’94 as the stock tires had been replaced with all-terrain ones and it always got me home even through the various freak snowstorms on rural highways.

During that time I also learned how to work hard.  After three semesters at the age of nineteen I decided I knew it all, and quit college to work more.  At twenty years old I was working three jobs – during the day as a delivery driver in the big GM’s, in the late afternoon as a courier in the mighty CRX, and then in the evenings as a bouncer at a local rock club that doubled as a “gentlemen’s club”.  Suffice to say, during those years I put a LOT of  miles on vehicles and spent a lot of hours in the driver seat mostly alone.  Prior to smartphones, and not being able to afford many calls on my nineties-era Motorola, I had to find something to do to occupy my time.


Many of those hours in the seat of the big GM’s were spent daydreaming, or even talking out loud.  With only an AM/FM radio that for most of the route got two stations – country and western – you had to do something to keep sane other than count corn rows.  Those were going by way too fast anyway… only slightly above the legal limit, of course!  I also mused about various differences between the two trucks, one most notably was the interior.  In the ’94 it looked like someone at GM had literally used toothpicks for the gauge needles, and the doors had steel inner panels.


It was a crash course in really learning how to drive, too.  To this day I get out of the left lane of the interstate as fast as I can, as I can’t tell you how many times my blood would boil on my Wednesday route – which took me out to Western Nebraska – stuck behind a RV going one or two MPH faster than the semi they were trying to pass… or maybe they just stayed there.  I always felt a little bad for the semi drivers, where I generally had no problem in either truck holding seventy five(..ish) those guys seemed terminally stuck in the slow lane.

I learned to scan ahead for problems – stopping  something that big full of cargo going seventy five miles per hour was much more challenging than getting it there in the first place – as well as being keenly aware of the vehicles around me.  As a general rule I would, and even to this day, try to know the make and model of the two vehicles in front and behind me at all times.


While the Western Nebraska and North Nebraska routes went the fastest thanks to more lanes and/or Interstates – I always preferred the Kansas route in the old ’94.  Over time I came to appreciate the solace of the route, and the simplicity of the truck I took.  No navigation systems, smartphones, bluetooth, pandora, rdio, or text messages to distract me, and heck for most of the route not even a decent radio station.  Just the wind whipping through the windows in the summer and the smells of rural America coupled with the stories in my own head to keep me busy.

On Fridays my days would start just before six A.M., and end sometime around one thirty A.M. Saturday with only a little dinner break in there somewhere.  Somehow I still found the energy to go out after work on Saturday so it wasn’t uncommon for me to pull almost a twenty-four hour day.  Work hard, play harder.. right?

Eventually all the hours and driving caught up to me so shortly before I turned twenty two I decided to find maybe just one full time job and work back towards getting into school again.  Between driving the big GM’s, my courier route in the CRX, and then driving literally across town to the bar I figured I was driving easily over two to three thousand miles a week (six hundred of those on Friday alone between the three jobs) so I was ready to take a break from driving so much.


As luck would have, or so I thought, I stopped in to a local c-store on my way out to the Kansas route one morning and got talking to the guy behind the counter who mentioned he was quitting as the overnight shift person.  A couple weeks later it would be the last time I ran “the Friday marathon” with a single full time job making up seventy percent of my previous income without all the stress of juggling three jobs.  It really was bittersweet running that route and going to the bar for the last time.   At the time I thought it would be relief as I jumped up and pulled the cargo door down the last time.

Yet it really wasn’t.  What I’ve found since then is that I miss the freedom of the open road and what you find along it.  Where my Galaxie started a hankering for the open road, this job made it a lifelong thing.  Freedom was endless when I was on route, I didn’t ever have a boss looking over my shoulder or people to bother me as long as my route got done in a reasonable time without any customer complaints, they didn’t care what I did.  Stopping for a long lunch on a day when I was running ahead of schedule in some little town cafe in rural Kansas was the norm, not the exception, and something I rapidly realized I had taken for granted.

I had gone from three of the best bosses I’ve ever had and the freedom of the open road to overnight solitary in a gas station three miles from my house.  For a bit I held on to the courier job with the CRX, but soon I decided to just let go of both of them and move on completely.  I missed the trucks, and honestly after driving them for so long it just felt weird driving the little Honda, not to mention the fact that I hated the thing.  So with ideas in mind I moved on, but to this day I miss those days on the open road in the big GM’s that never once let me down or had anything so much as a hiccup despite the hundreds of thousands of hard miles they rapidly accumulated.