(ED: Rich’s last COAL had to be postponed to this week due to a death in the family. SajivW’s COAL series will pick up again next Sunday)
I started off this COAL series with my
relatively very rare 1965 Opel Kadett L, wondering whether our choices in cars was somehow preordained by how and where we were raised or was it rather the result of circumstance. As I look back on the 22 vehicles I have owned since 1973, I guess it’s been a little of both.
Before we get to this last COAL for me, I thought I would review the numbers and see just how consistent I was over all these years and 22 different vehicles:
Colors – 36% were red followed by whatever was available. Apparently if I couldn’t get red, I didn’t really care what I got.
Engines – 73% were 4 cylinder with displacement ranging from 1.0 to 2.5 L. I’ve never owned an 8 cylinder and 3 of the last 5 were turbocharged (plus 1 hybrid) which speaks to the odds against me ever owning an 8 cylinder in the future as automakers continue to pursue efficiency.
Transmissions – 77% were manuals but the last 3 have been automatics and again, unlikely I will ever own another manual as automatics have surpassed manuals in terms of efficiency.
Body styles – 55% had some sort of hatch vs. a trunk or tailgate, although I had to stretch a bit to get to this number by including minivans, wagons, and the lone SUV I’ve owned.
Makes – 27% were Mazda despite my love/hate for the brand vis a vis their rust issues. Toyota came in second with 19% followed by Ford and VW each tied with 14%. I’ve never owned a GM product (unless you count the Opel), they’ve just never spoken to me.
Condition – 55% were new but I’ve noticed a recent trend toward buying gently used these days and avoiding the depreciation hit. I guess we all get smarter as we age regardless of what our children might think.
To sum it up, apparently I like practical cars that are cheap to own, fun to drive and easy to spot in a parking lot.
Our 2011 Highlander was supposed to last us awhile. We’re both retired and our daily ride is a 2017 C-Max. The Highlander was acquired primarily for towing our little camper. Initially this was a teardrop trailer, we upgraded slightly in 2019 to a Scamp 16 fiberglass trailer for the indoor plumbing. After a single season with the Scamp, we came to the conclusion that the sleeping arrangements were inadequate. Partly because the bed was only 45″ wide, but also because the bed was oriented perpendicular to rest of the trailer, requiring one of us to climb over the other in the middle of the night if we needed to get to the bathroom. Which we did almost every night.
So anyway, in the midst of COVID, we started thinking about a slightly larger camper that would allow us to camp for longer stretches, mostly to spend time with a distant granddaughter. We were committed to fiberglass trailers. Both of us having been sailors in an earlier life, we understood the inherent water-tightness of fiberglass hulls. We ended up looking at Chilliwack, BC based Escape, a builder of semi-custom fiberglass campers. You start with their basic floor plans, but you can choose your own finishes inside along with appliances and such. Most of their offerings are your standard bumper pull rigs, but their top of the line trailer is a 5th wheel whose bed is oriented north-south, not east-west. All of this is to say that once we had chosen our future camper, it became clear that the Highlander was not going to cut it and we would need to replace it with a pickup. This news was accepted with surprising aplomb by Maggie, a born and bred city girl.
My previous experience with pickups were two little Mazda B series dating to before Mazda started rebadging Ford Rangers. Very practical but not known for their towing prowess. I found I had a lot to learn. Being a kind of Ford guy, I eliminated all other brands from the get go. Toyota could have been a possibility but having committed to buying used, I decided Toyota prices were going to be too much for my pocketbook. So Ford it was. My search started on Carvana based on a 2019 article written by Edward Snitkoff, found right here on Curbside Classic. For the uninitiated, what Carvana does well is present their content consistently, which makes comparison shopping a breeze. It was very easy to compare several contenders in one session, but it soon became clear that there was a price to be paid for that convenience. Along about the time I realized this, I stumbled on CarGurus. Similar concept but really just a giant on line showroom for local dealers. CarGurus lacks the consistency of Carvana content, but still much easier than navigating each dealer’s stand alone web page.
I spent the better part of December 2020 shopping for used Ford F150s on CarGurus and got to the point where I had memorized just about every option available, especially with regards to towing. Right after Christmas I found my truck at a used car dealer in a western suburb of Minneapolis. It was a Race Red 2018 F150 SuperCab XLT with 4WD, showing about 39,000 miles. Key options were a 36 gallon fuel tank, towing mirrors, trailer brake controller, and the 53A tow package with both 4 and 7 pin wiring harness and radiator upgrade. Equipped with the 2.7 L Ecoboost with the 10 speed auto, it was rated for 6,500 lbs towing. The camper’s dry weight was about 4,000 lbs and we don’t carry that much gear, so I thought we would be okay.
It took me awhile to figure out the specs because my truck was originally sold in Quebec and all the documentation was in French, but with help from Google I was able to figure most of it out. My timing was perfect, used truck prices jumped considerably this spring as Ford announced production delays owing to chip shortages. My $30,000 truck would have been more like $33,000 had I waited. The test drive was on New Year’s Eve, just after a substantial snow fall. I had already driven a couple of F150s so I knew what to expect. This one showed a bit of vibration in the front end for the first 5 miles or so but it soon went away. It turned out to be wet snow packed into the wheels. It felt like the dealer was asking a fair price so I just needed a good trade number for the Highlander and he gave me what I wanted there, so we had a deal by noon. First time I’ve ever gone shopping car shopping on New Year’s Eve. Turns out to be a good time, no crowds and everybody wants to get the deal done and go home.
I know some of you are thinking that I forgot something in all my research – payload. And you would be right, rookie mistake. I didn’t think this truck was particularly loaded from an option standpoint and assumed I would have a reasonable payload rating in the neighborhood of 1,400-1,500 lbs. Wrong, the yellow door sticker read 1,178 lbs. Which I didn’t notice until I got home. I was so thrilled to have checked all the other boxes that I never even looked. The good news is our trailer has a tongue weight of around 700 lbs and it’s just the two of us traveling when we tow. And with the bed taken up with the 5th wheel hitch, there isn’t a lot of room for stuff. I’m guessing that we’re at around 1,100 to 1,150 lbs when we head out with the camper. One of these days I need to weigh the whole thing just to be sure.
It would be another 8 months before we would take delivery of the Escape trailer in Sumas, WA, just south of Chilliwack. Meanwhile we acquainted ourselves with the truck while doing some camping in the Scamp. We managed to put about 8,000 miles on it between trips to both coasts with no issues at all. Just before leaving for Sumas, I took it in for an oil change and brake inspection. The rear brakes felt like they were pulsing a little when towing the Scamp. This is when I learned about Ford’s swollen lug nut issue. Lug nuts on some Ford cars and trucks apparently fail with some regularity but Ford keeps installing them. $80 got me a new set which may last 3 years if I’m lucky. Plus a set of pads and rotors on the rear brakes for $400 and I was all set.
About that 5th wheel hitch. We went with an Andersen rail mount Ultimate hitch coming in at just 50 lbs or so including chains and rails. Technically with the Andersen setup, it’s not a 5th wheel so chains are required in most states. Hitching up the new trailer continues to be a bit nerve-racking for me. First I need to remember to lower the tailgate so the pin box on the trailer clears when I back up to connect. Then remember to stop before the lowered tailgate hits the trailer. But back up far enough so the tailgate doesn’t strike the pin box when it’s slammed shut. It helps to have a partner and my wife Maggie is great with her signals.
The Andersen hitch used a funnel like attachment on the end of the pin box which allows you to get within 2″ or so, you don’t have to be perfectly aligned. You just have to remember all of these steps with the tailgate. I know that one of these days I will forget one. The truck pulls the trailer just fine, although we have not tackled the Rockies yet. I have watched all those Fast Lane Truck videos pulling trailers up the Eisenhower pass and down again, so I know it can be done. As I noted in the beginning, most of my experience is with manual transmissions and I’m still getting to know the 10 speed. I leave it in Tow/Haul mode when we have the trailer attached. I’m still getting used to the truck downshifting to 2nd gear on steep grades. What I haven’t quite figured out yet is how to get it to start upshifting at the bottom, it wants to hold the lower gear longer than I like. Yes, I could manually shift it, but I paid all of this money for it to do it by itself. We get about 13-14 mpg towing, 20-22 mpg without. That seems to be the going rate. I do like that 36 gallon tank. Sure it’s hurts to fill it, but I managed to drive from Lancaster, PA to Atlanta, GA (albeit without the trailer) on a single tank; almost 750 miles.
About a month after buying the truck I noticed a substantial section of the grille missing. I went back and looked at a photo of the truck taken the day I brought it home and there it was, I missed it on the walk around. The XLT comes with the two horizontal bars, painted a grey metallic color called Magnetic. The grille is actually three pieces – those horizontal bars, a supporting grid under that and then a supporting structure including motorized louvers under that. My middle grid section was all smashed to hell, like maybe a tree branch or something hit it. No damage to the outer or inner sections. But I just couldn’t leave it like that, I’m not that kind of guy. A new OEM grille would have run me $700, so I opted to get a Raptor like FORD replacement from Amazon for $170. I know I’m not fooling anybody, but I like the look.
The interior is just fine with black cloth seats and a center console with a deep storage box. It’s got the same Sync3 system as the C-Max, so there is no learning curve for us or our phones when we switch back and forth. Ford started outfitting their trucks with a 300W DC converter some years ago and ours has that system. Like other folks who have this, I have taken to carrying an assortment of Ryobi tools and batteries with me in the truck and use the onboard converter to keep everything charged.
The SuperCab gives us more than enough room for either the occasional passenger or some (lightweight) odds and ends when camping. Between the limits of the cab and the bed being full of hitch and trailer, it actually works to our payload advantage in that we just don’t have the room to load up beyond our limits. Another advantage with this configuration is the 6-1/2′ bed vs the shorter 5-1/2′ bed commonly available on the SuperCrew cab. That extra bed length lets us turn almost 90 degrees with the trailer attached. Backing into campsites has never been easier.
I do I feel a bit of guilt driving something this big, both because of its thirst and just the overall size, especially living in the city. Probably the biggest challenge to city driving is those big-ass tow mirrors. I moved my daughter from Atlanta to Brooklyn and this is the first time I’ve ever been driving something that was maybe too big for local streets. The problem is those mirrors. They aren’t electric, if you want to gain clearance, you need to get out of the truck and manually fold them in. I haven’t clipped a mirror or fender yet, but it’s bound to happen someday. Maggie will not drive the truck if it means exiting or entering our garage.
I could see another F150 in my future though. I am leading an effort to bring EV charging stations into our condo parking garage and when I get that accomplished, it will be time to test drive an F150 Lightning. I can’t wait for that.