COAL 6: Mini Truckin’

Might as well continue where we left off with another truck buried in a snowbank. At least this time it’s my very own 1972 Ford Courier, chosen, purchased and insured by me. Even more on the plus side of the ledger was that my Dad was away up North and left me the keys to his Dodge Ram so I had a way to retrieve the hapless Courier. This week’s story begins when I was also in the High Arctic, an experience that shaped my buying habits for many years.

I had been looking for good student work when my Dad announced that I should come up to the Arctic and make some big money at the mine.  I was never afraid of hard work, and after a hot summer on the power saw, a change would be welcome, so I gladly accepted the offer and flew up to the magnetic North Pole to start a summer of long shifts.  When I arrived, I was put in the engineering office as I was contemplating that as a career.  After a few days my Dad thought that position was a bit too slack so he had me transferred to a maintenance crew where my job was to do hard manual labor in support of the tradesman.  He was very conscious of nepotism and favoritism, so he didn’t want my job to look easy.

I was very influenced by the vehicles we were using at the mine, but that influence forms part of a future story, so I will shelve that for a few weeks, other than finishing the story of the unfortunate Scout Terra and its unintended conversion to fishing vessel engine donor. The Courier story isn’t super exciting anyways.

So I will digress a bit and tell about the Scout’s last day. The mine was on an island in the High Arctic. There are never enough trucks on most jobsites to begin with, and if they only come in by ship in the summer and get used up it’s even worse. One day I was assigned to work with a carpenter who happened to be European and a wee bit superior in manner. He had his own workshop at the mine and did the more precise carpentry, which was a bit beneath him, but he wanted to buy a Mercedes so mine carpentry it was, as the money was good. He lamented quite often that he had to share a truck with the maintenance crew who by the nature of their tasks were often oily and covered in dirt and dust ensuring that the trucks were as well. We were repairing something a couple of miles from the main site and I was the muscle assigned to the job. All the trucks but a few had the transfer case linkages disconnected and were permanently in 4-low to keep speeds down so the trips were slow and there was much time to talk. During the slow drives the carpenter kept at his relentless campaign to impress on my dad, through me,  how valuable it was for him to have a truck of his own and how well he would look after it.

This theory of his fell apart in spectacular fashion sometime during the afternoon coffee break. We never turned off the trucks as they may not have started again in the cold. The carpenter had not really set the parking brake that well and it may have been weak to begin with.  Halfway through coffee break an agitated safety man burst in and yelled “Whoever was driving the Scout better come out and help retrieve it off the Main Portal.”  Twenty seconds later my Dad burst in fresh from the shock of seeing the upside down and squashed Scout and thinking that the carpenter had managed to kill me. He transitioned from relief to annoyance at the destruction of a precious asset and the reporting out paperwork that would take. The surface crew came with a 950 Cat Loader and picked up the Scout for the boneyard. The carpenter let the subject of a truck for him drop for quite a while.

The salient part of this story is that while I was there, I worked 101, 12-hour days in a row both on the surface and down the hole giving me a rather giant amount of money able to pay for university for two years. The first year away I lived on campus and found that walking and the bus were more than adequate. What I missed though was having my bicycles with me. So I wanted a vehicle that could pack a bike and since mini trucks were still an available thing that seemed like a good choice. I had a fair bit of experience with Ford Couriers, there was even one in the yard that my Dad had bought as a vehicle for my siblings to use, though it had a miserable Jatco 3-speed automatic in it. I started looking in the papers for a truck and eventually found a tidy little 4-speed 1972 Courier an hour away. I barely negotiated on the price as I wasn’t an experienced wheeler dealer yet.

This picture isn’t the day it came home, rather it’s me using picture 25 on a 35mm roll so I could drop it off at the K-Mart to be developed. I probably wasted 15 of those 25 pictures on scenery that would look exactly the same this afternoon as it did in the 1980s, instead of capturing the ordinary like the Hornet, Omni and Fiesta in this parking lot.

I was happy with the little truck once I swapped in the all-important Radio Shack 40-watt cassette deck and it took me on the backroads and around town flawlessly all summer.  It was cheap enough on fuel and pretty darn useful for small tasks. The small size allowed me to either avoid most obstacles or at least made it easy to turn around and give up. If needed it was rugged enough to bounce through a rough section.

When fall came and I had to go back to the city, word got out around town that I was heading to the coast with a truck which led to a few other university students asking, “could I take a few little things”. In a harbinger of my future, I said yes. Of course, the things turned out to be furniture made of whatever type of high atomic weight fibres the large blue hamster maze store sells and were very heavy. I set off for the 600-mile trip over multiple steep passes giving second gear a workout both up and down as I didn’t want to spend any time lying on my back adjusting the four-wheel drum brakes that day. I got to Grand Forks and after a fuel stop the truck refused to start. After an anxious half hour in a hot parking lot, I tried again, and it fired right up and made it to the coast with no problems other than a distinct lack of velocity. Once there, the truck contentedly went about taking me to the North Shore Trails to bike. Other than that bright spot, having a truck in the city was very much a mixed blessing. Everyone wanted something moved. Or a ride to the airport. Plus beer runs. Plus more beer runs as I lived in Campus Housing.

At the end of the year a friend and I headed back home. When we got to Grand Forks and we stopped to fuel up, the exact same thing as last time happened. Waited an hour and all was well. I put lots of miles on going here and there after my next stint in the Arctic ended camping, fishing and biking. And at winter break ice fishing, parking next to an unsquashed Scout. Those low tailights right in the salt were a pain and eventually were replaced with trailer ones.

Eventually I was to find out the limits of 1800cc Mazda engines.  One hot night I mistakenly let a friend drive the truck as we headed out to the next town.  He decided to see just how fast the truck could go and if it could keep up with the black S-10.  The answer to the top speed question proved to be frightening on a long downhill while I was hanging on for dear life and plotting just how much violence there would be when we stopped on top of that abuse. A few weeks later after a concert in a nearby city, I was in a real hurry to get back and pushed the truck harder than I should have and was rewarded with a blown head gasket. I scoured the classifieds and found a rusty Courier for parts and swapped out the engine. A few days’ work and I was back in business and took the truck back to Vancouver with me.  All was well until it was time to come back home at Christmas.  It was 20 below zero as a friend and I headed out.  I had 3 $20 bills for gas, and it was going to take $50 to make it so I was already nervous. I didn’t tempt fate by stopping in the town but climbing the hill out of Grand Forks the truck seemed to be running rough. Heading down the hill into Castlegar there was a huge explosion of steam and there went another head gasket.  It limped into Castlegar and then died.  My friend and I hung out in the cold and finished the trip by Greyhound as he had a few bucks on him. I went back the next day in Mom’s Tercel to get my belonging and sold the truck to a scrapyard. A sad end to a good little truck.

My miserable week wasn’t over either.  The next day I took the Ram to town. On a zero-traction inclined parking lot it slid away at 5 miles per hour.  The heavy-duty Warn bumper protected the truck leaving it unscathed by the collision, which is more than can be said for the Ford Fairmont I hit and the Volvo that the Fairmont caromed into. When the owners came out to see the impromptu demo derby the police were called. The RCMP officer asked if I had a “bumpy wumpy” and cited me for driving too fast for conditions despite being in low gear. My father wasn’t mad.  The Dodge had already had a couple of trips to the body shop for a few mishaps and it wasn’t the best on ice.

I learned a heck of a lot from the tradesmen I worked with at the mine, and I wish I had learned more, most particularly, I wish my welding would have gotten better. I built up my muscles and am pretty proud to have worked in that environment.

Though I may have kinked a bit of bodywork off road I never had another accident again. The next time I was through Castlegar I saw half of a very familiar sight as the box of the Courier was now a nice little utility trailer. I still cross my fingers going through Grand Forks as I had one more mechanical malady there. I’d like to say I learned that iron block aluminum head mini truck engines could be a bit fragile, but that lesson took a few more vehicles to really take hold.

Though next week’s lessons were learned on some good old American Iron.