COAL 7: Beach Wagon

I consider myself a forward looking person. I try not to dwell on the past too much. There’s still a hope that the best thing that I will do in my life is still ahead of me. Those who know me probably have it figured out that it will involve some type of concrete aggregate mix and a two-axle self-dumping trailer. That current fantasy aside, when I was a lot younger, I remember being attracted to a time and place I was never part of. Maybe, the place I want to be existed or maybe it didn’t, that doesn’t matter.  And just for a while at least I thought I had found the vehicle to get me there.

Since I was a young boy I’ve had a bit of an interest in surf culture. An upbringing in the British Columbia mountains of course was less than conducive to ever learning how to surf. I longed for the world that I saw in the 1966 Bruce Brown documentary Endless Summer. I liked the music, the style, the sun and the general coolness of it all. Since this was a fantasy I can put myself where I wanted to be and that place is Surf Rider Beach in Malibu California in 1966.  Maybe Dick Dale and the Del-tones or the Ventures are playing on the transistor radio. Since my mad board-riding skills would be doing the talking for me, Daddy-O, I wouldn’t need a boss set of wheels, my old 59 Willy’s wagon would be good enough to get there. I’d be rolling slow and cool as long as there was room in the back for my board and that’s all I’d need man. I’m going to have to be 17 years old and my best friends from High School are all there with me. Naturally we are way too busy “shooting the curl” and “walking the nose” to be bothered with girls but if some Sandra Dee, Patty Duke or maybe Judith Durham lookalikes were there that would be bitchin’ and we could maybe all have a soda from my cooler while waiting for the next big wave.

Switching back to 1980s reality from 1960s dream. I had a trusty little mini truck to drive but that was about practicality rather than any deep desire to own one.  I figured that I wanted to take on a project to have something more unique. I remember having the Advertiser out and occasionally phoning promising ads.  A Karmann Ghia for $400 sold before I got there. A 1974 Bronco for $1200. Just missed that one by a few hours.  And finally, I test drove what may have been the last of the original Dodge Power Wagons built, as it had a 318 where a flathead should be.  It was in beautiful shape, but that guy was asking nearly $3,000 and I wasn’t that desperate to be cool.  One day I saw an ad for a Jeep and a 1966 Chevy short box.  Turns out I knew the seller and when I went to look instead of a CJ type Jeep there was an engineless 1959 wagon. Price wasn’t much so I got a tow bar and brought it home. I’m honestly not sure what year it was when I even acquired this. I see that I towed it home with the old GMC stepside.  I could already picture my first off-road expedition with a canoe and some fishing gear replacing the surfboard of my fantasy world.

Once I got it home there were a few issues that imposed a bit of reality on me.  The biggest one was all the missing pieces.  I believe I had read some advice in some ridiculous magazine or other that says when you go to restore a car make sure there is no rust. I got that part right.  The old red wagon was plenty solid.  But it was missing an engine for one and some interior stuff and the master cylinder that Willy’s cleverly put on directly under the floorboard was going straight to the mat.  Also there were very large tires on the back and small ones on the front.  And a note written on the headliner about a night spent buried in a mud hole.  All of which had me concerned about the condition of the Dana 30 front axle and that was even before thinking about the nonstock power that had been under the hood.

Tracking down the engine was easy enough.  The previous owner had pulled it out and sold it to another person I know. I bought the engine back.  As can be seen in the photo this is obviously not a flathead Jeep motor but a 283 small block Chev. After a bunch of fun with clutch alignment it went back in there behind the T-90 3 speed.  Here’s where I started noting more missing parts that I would need beginning coincidentally enough with the starter. I was saving nearly all my money for school and I hated to shell out for parts.

I’m old enough to absolutely know that everything was better when I was young, and it would be pointless to try and convince me otherwise. One exception to this bias would be involving the difference in gathering the information as to how to make a 283 Chev work correctly in an old Willys at the library as compared to using Google today.  That’s a lot better nowadays. I kind of like fuel injection as well. And I guess new ambulances. But other than that things were better then.

So each step required a bit of learning and a bit of research.  And a bunch of the parts required scrounging. And money which I didn’t budget for my cheap project.  Progress was a bit slow. Someone convinced me that the solution to all of the peculiarities of an old vehicle like this was to put it on a more modern chassis. So he and I bought a wrecked K-5 Blazer’s frame and running gear and he kept the seats while I took the rest.  I started prepping the Blazer chassis but once again started noticing how many parts I would need to make it all work even if I went with that most Canadian body mount solution known as the drilled-out hockey puck.  And then I changed my mind.  I would retain the stock Willy’s stuff.  Any dreams of going off-road in the old Jeep were certainly seeming to be way in the future.

Corrosion was my other enemy I didn’t have good access to a red wrench at my house, so every rusty bolt came off the hard way with soaking the rust in penetrating oil, tapping and heating with the propane torch around the nut, further slowing my progress.  It was a bit frustrating as I was a good enough FIAT and Courier mechanic and could do major repairs quite quickly.  But of course, I had all the parts and a Haynes manual to follow in both cases.  I just didn’t really comprehend that restoration was a different animal altogether.

Most of the friends I was hanging around with were into cars somewhat but were not into working on them. So, the Willy’s project was a solitary pursuit.  As university students they didn’t have cars at all and just borrowed family cars or rode with those of us that did. I had one friend who had some pretty interesting ideas about choices of a good fishing and hiking vehicle.  His first attempt at an off-road vehicle, a Lada Niva seemed to not be a success.  I barely remember riding in it, but I do remember being able to almost feel the driveline vibration as it drove by on the highway, I don’t think he missed it but even it was at least running, as the Willy’s project dragged on. Luckily I could do all my outdoor activities with the Courier.  You think I would learn from that.  No matter what you see on the YouTube if you have to go 100 km from civilization in the cold and your choice is a 2-wheel drive mini pickup or a Lada Niva take the mini truck unless you really want to work on your emergency mechanical skills.

Between work and all the trouble and fun a young man can get into I only had limited time to work on this project. I had three non-functioning vehicles parked in a nice line at the back of my parent’s acreage. Plus a Blazer frame and some miscellaneous parts.  They were nearly always away so it wasn’t a big deal, but I really wasn’t trying to be a car collector. It was just happening.  After a summer of only limited progress the project got shut in for the winter as it was time to go back to the coast. And since I went back mining the next summer one winter turned into two. At this rate this project was going to take a while and a rethink as to my approach.


So, of course I never did really pursue my dreams of wearing a Pendleton shirt and hanging out at the beach. Never got down to California, never owned a surfboard. The damn Willy’s never really ran right, I met a genuine blonde California girl in university and occasionally annoyed her with surf questions when I’d had a few too many at beer night. She didn’t know how to surf.  University, career, wife, another career, kids, house, RRSPs, creaking knees…… I’ve gotten to be middle-aged and sedate. If my life was a day, dusk is now nearer than dawn. The cashiers at the Safeway ask if I need help packing my shopping out to the car. Typing this story tired me out so much that I may need a nap.

But that’s not how the story ended. It couldn’t. 

A few years back I ended up near the ocean and there was one thing I was determined to do. Rolling in a rental Hyundai instead of the Willy’s. The Boss Martians on the iPod rather than Ventures on the AM dial.  The pretty girls watching from the beach and drinking my sodas were of course my wife and young daughters. I spent more time falling off than riding. There was more pain than I’d anticipated from hitting the bottom. The waves were only 4 feet high. 

The picture is with a telephoto so you can’t really make it out. But I’ve got a pretty contented look on my face.

Next week I think I will go mining again and learn a lesson that took only one more questionable purchase to actually hammer home.