COAL 5: Something Borrowed, Something Blue

The combination of owning a FIAT in a harsh climate, being a bit crash prone and spending most of my time working or at college still left me driving the family cars on occasion. With absolute apologies to those of you who love big American Iron neither 1975 or 1976 were banner years for American vehicles in my book and I think a lot of people thought the same way in the early 1980s.  A change in circumstances made two specimens that showed up at about the same time and departed at the same time the end of an era for my parents.  And pretty much for me as well.

My parents were getting back on their feet after my Dad resumed work. An upcoming influx of foreign visitors and a Polara that was disintegrating from rust led to a very conventional purchase for my Dad, a big Mopar to replace those that had gone before. A 50,000 mile, 1976 Dodge Monaco 2 door, with a vinyl roof and a measly 318 under the hood.  And I believe a 2:75 to one rear end just to take even more snap out of it. Europhile me, was, if not appalled, certainly unimpressed. I was old enough, and working enough to get out of family trips and had my own car so my exposure to it was minimized. I drove it to college on carpool days when it was too cold for the FIAT and it managed to do that well enough. The hood was so long it arrived at school 20 seconds before the doors did. I remember my friends and I putting a big cassette boom box in the back and cruising around with Blondie’s Eat To The Beat on heavy rotation one hot summer night and that was possibly my only fond memory of the car.  The TorqueFlite packed it in at about 75,000 miles which really says something about Chrysler in the 1970s.  With sandbags and snow tires it was driveable in the snow, it certainly didn’t have an excess amount of low-end power to worry about getting sideways. I don’t even want to write any more words about it. So I won’t.

Anyways one fine fall day there was a large Government Equipment Auction occurring in the next town. My Dad had the auction list clipped from the paper weeks in advance and he and his friend who often aided and abetted him in auction shenanigans had amped Dad up about a bunch of 1972 Fargo 1/2 ton 4x4s that had outlived their usefulness with the Ministry of Forests but still might make a good fishing truck. My Mom was very likely dreading yet another old green truck showing up that required a lot of paint maintenance. When auction day arrived I decided I was going to stay as far away as possible and would spend the day playing a pleasant game of pick-up football with my friends.  As the game ran down I started thinking about my Mom and how vehicle decisions affected her so I grabbed a Slurpee, hopped into the FIAT and headed off to the auction to see if I could head off any potential catastrophes. I arrived to find that he hadn’t bought a Dodge or a Fargo or even one of the K20 Chevrolets as the condition of them had looked rough even to him. He was however in the process of bidding on an ex-Environment Ministry GMC C25 with a camperette that actually didn’t look too abused. It was kind of unusual in that it was a long box step-side 3/4 ton with a 350 and a 3 speed auto. I think he paid $1300 which probably wasn’t that bad a deal.

Even a contrarian like I fancied myself to be, knew that GM step sides were on the cooler end of the spectrum, certainly upper tier in the high school parking lot pecking order. Half-ton shorties that is, but this thing looked weird with the eight-foot box.  The good thing about the box was that it had a wood floor, one of the three components along with the glass and the seats that couldn’t rust out. There was more than one gallon of Bondo Fibreglass Reinforced Filler and many cans of Color Match GMC Hawaiian Blue applied to the decaying bodywork over the years. The hood kinked liked they all did and the rust messed with the grounds for the tail lights. It was mechanically sturdy, ran well for the time and had reasonable power, even more so when the 350 grew tired and a 400 was swapped in. It could break a tire free leaving a light if you could stand to watch the fuel gauge move. The small tanks and terrible mileage of the day meant that a trip to the store could burn a quarter tank of regular and a pass on a three-lane hill would move the needle noticeably.

It was a good highway truck in the summer but for the other six months of the year it proved to be useless on any wet or slippery surface. It had 10-ply lugged tires on the back and highway rib on the front. Controlling it during winter braking could be quite frightful as no combination of steering or braking had much effect on ice. The FIAT 128 could embarrass it in any snow and ice situation with ease. It was a bit mortal in what it could haul as well compared to the old Coal Wagon F250 it replaced where the supposed maximum GVWR was just about where the springs started to move a bit. The GMC would sag in the back once you got near 2000 lbs in it.  Not a bad thing when you’ve been sent with a shovel to bring back a big load of sand actually.

As covered before in these stories my Dad had a bit of patience with automotive mishaps which was only fair as he was one of the prime perpetrators of automotive catastrophes at our house.  But one time he seemingly ran out of patience. My siblings and I went cross-country skiing on some trails off a local back road. Since it was a family trip I took the GMC. When I got to the parking lot and started to turn around I ventured a bit too far down a slight slope and the truck bogged down in the snow which was a bit softer than it looked. I shoveled for a while and couldn’t get it unstuck. My former high school science teacher happened along and mentioned he had done the exact same thing the previous week and the slight grade was deceptive. That’s what he eventually said anyways, I’m sure the first thing was to point out that I didn’t seem to be getting much smarter despite my time in college. We all tried to push it out and the truck went back a bit unfortunately running over his skis.  He said they were cracked anyways and that this was one of the last times he would use them so he wasn’t angry.  I went to a phone and called my friend who had a new black  S10 4X4. He showed up and without checking out the situation drove up behind the GMC and also promptly got stuck. My Dad then showed up to the unfolding disaster featuring two stuck trucks, a bunch of bystanders and some broken Nordic ski equipment. He got me shoveling again and he was already less than happy. A few minutes later we heard the unmistakable sound of a 3-53 Detroit Diesel which was powering a big orange TimberJack log skidder in use by a logging crew in the area. The skidder hooked a line to the S-10 and tugged it out only somewhat altering the rather flimsy rear bumper. It did the same to the GMC minus the bumper bending, and all the participants retreated to my house for hot drinks. My Dad went absolutely mental on me as we worked to straighten the bumper on the S-10, and he used all of the seven words you couldn’t say on television way more times than once. My friend was killing himself laughing about it later as he thought it was one of the best rounds of swearing he had seen in his life. Since I was finished with high school the science teacher couldn’t mock me in class for running over his skis and my friend still took me ice fishing in his S-10. I wish I could say I never got stuck again but that would be far far from the truth.

Around this time I was driving lots but always to the same places.  I had a camp job for the summer which involved the same long, half highway, half gravel trip a few times a week. We had a 1966 International Travelall ambulance with a 304 and three on the tree which allowed me to experience firsthand the miserable shift linkage that had bedevilled my Dad with his 1962. We had a 1972 Dodge School minibus which had the S and H covered so it was the C  OOL  BUS. The crew only let me drive it on Mondays on the 2-hour trip out to camp as I was the slowest driver. On the way in at the end of the week the trip was only 1 hour and 45 minutes with a speedier colleague driving.  My boss gave me the long distance assignments in a new C20 Chevrolet hauling construction materials on a large trailer, just to spite the couple of fellows who believed they were the first choice in competent driving. With all the repetitive driving and the fact that I was about to transfer to a University in the City it seemed like a good choice to finish work a week early and to go some places I hadn’t gone before.  Taking enough provisions, supplies and equipment to circumnavigate the globe my friend and I took the old GMC  for a 2000 mile adventure, a huge chunk of it on gravel.  The warm and bug-free camperette was way better than a tent. We saw a lot of sights that I did end up seeing again, but the first time is always more adventurous. Other than adding considerably to Shell Oil’s profits the blue truck gave not a hint of trouble.

My Dad eventually calmed down about me getting the truck stuck and I will allow him to make a few more appearances in these stories.  Right at this time he got a new job working away that paid significantly more than his old job had. My Mom joined him and they soon had enough money to do whatever they wanted. He put up with the Monaco for another year as he wasn’t driving much. Then one trip to town it had a flat tire which apparently was the last straw. He went down to the Toyota Dealer and bought my Mom a brand new Tercel and gave the Monaco to a friend. A few months later also tired of the GMC, he told me and my brother to sell it and keep the money. He went to the truck store and bought himself a new Dodge W100 Power Ram. There were a few more bargains, old habits die hard, one of these purchases will show up in an upcoming story. And after this I started down a path that I thought I would never deviate from.  And with only a couple of exceptions for 15 years I was right.