COAL Part 3: Coal Wagon

I grew up in a mining household in a mining town. Mining put food on the table, allowed us to have a proper house, go on vacations, and generally live a lot better existence than anyone who didn’t make their living getting valuable minerals out of the ground experienced. Mining had a very direct influence on my life and to some extent on the vehicles that I purchased in subsequent years. This story though,  is about the time when a mine truck became our unlikely family vehicle taking us on adventures both planned and unplanned, and which was also my training ground for a whole lot of automotive learning.

Backtracking a bit from the end of last week, with a few somewhat reliable Mopars doing family duty, it was getting time for a replacement for the 1962 International 1/2 ton.  We were an outdoor family, or Dad certainly told us that we were and furthermore, we had better like it, so we obliged and spent a lot of time fishing, hunting, hiking, and berry picking. There were getting to be some nice new trucks available in the early 1970s with interiors that were sparse compared to today but still pleasant compared to what had come before. If we went ice fishing with some of my Dad’s friends we got to experience the relative luxury compared to the old IH. But there was no way that a nice new Dodge Club Cab in a pleasing colour was coming to our house. That would not be part of the plan for someone averse to borrowing money. So there would have to be a much cheaper option. Turns out my dad had a friend who had a brother who was a mechanic at a coal mine and who had somehow acquired a few vehicles at an auction. Most interesting to my Dad was a big yellow 1966 or so International 3/4 Crew Cab. Crew cabs were a novelty at the time and so to find one available at his price range of $500 to $700 was pretty exciting to him. He must have had some fondness for the old Corn Binder he had been driving for the last few years enough to go look at another one. There were always heavy things to move around as part of construction and a bigger truck would come in handy. I remember he liked to “consult” me about his auto choices around then, because even though I was a kid, I was a potential ally in defending any questionable automotive purchase and besides that, I could identify any car on the road which must count for something. I’m sure I had an opinion on most cars then and I guarantee it was a lot more cut and dried and unsympathetic than any opinions I hold now. We had an International, therefore Internationals must be the best truck is I’m sure what I thought. Anyways I remember him coming home from the inspection of the IH crew cab and coming into my room to break some bad news, he wasn’t going to buy the IH and he just had to make sure I wasn’t upset by it.  I don’t remember being upset though a few months before he had test driven a Marlin Perkins-type Land Rover 88  and decided that it wasn’t his thing, which was disappointing to a young boy who watched Wild Kingdom. Maybe he was thinking of that.

My Dad had an odd character quirk that hadn’t really manifested itself too badly at that time, but became chronic later, often to my benefit I might add, in that he really liked shopping for things and what he really liked most was when he got what he thought was a bargain. And the best place for a real bargain was an auction, particularly if it was a business liquidation. Often he bought more bargain items than he needed which of course negated any cost savings and often made Christmas and birthdays a bit more interesting than they should have been with all sorts of strange treasures wrapped up as gifts. This was despite his otherwise fiscally responsible nature. He had done very well on large lots of building supplies at auction which was good for the house construction cost and had led to some interesting custom choices in interior finish. Which is why it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the trip to look at the big IH Crew Cab had taken an unexpected turn. When he had arrived at the place the brother’s friend had managed to convince my Dad that what he really needed was not some stodgy old International but rather something that was sitting around the corner and that was a real “bargain”.  He led my Dad to the back of the yard to the remains of two 1970 Ford F-250 Cab 4x4s.  Although they were only 4 years old the rigours of life at the Kaiser Coal open pit mine had taken a toll on them. The mechanic figured he could combine the two into a solid runner. The boxes had been removed but there was a box for an old Willys pickup sitting there that had about the right dimensions. For $1200 he would be in business with a relatively late model 4×4.

There were a few flaws with this idea and in the excitement of getting a bargain my Dad kind of brushed them off.  As someone who had worked in the industry, he must have known just how short the life of a regular production vehicle can be in a mining environment, considering the round-the-clock use and the thousands of hours that can entail. The subject of mine trucks and how they influenced a series of my purchases in the future I’ll leave for its proper chronological place later in this series, but the following photo shows what happened to one of the last Scout Terra Diesel pickups ever produced one afternoon when I was at work. I was the last person to sit in the passenger seat before it inadvertently was launched off an embankment.

Surprisingly when the F-250 was reassembled, despite the box being a different color and there being a multitude of other cosmetic issues, it seemed to work well enough. There was a 360 under the hood and a New Process 435 4-speed behind that. There was no radio which really wasn’t an issue at all as there was no way you would hear it anyways. Once it arrived home there also turned out to be another catch. That was the coal dust. It had seeped everywhere into the truck and resisted any normal attempts at cleaning. One day I was enlisted to help dismantle the interior and remove all the seats so my dad could put his 1970s lawn chair in there and drive into town to try and blast everything clean once and for all.  It more or less worked. Thick seat covers prevented any more ruined clothing. Years later every once in a while more coal would show up. His friends quite accurately nicknamed it the Coal Wagon.

As a kid arriving somewhere in this thing was pretty cool. 4X4s were still not that common and crew cabs even less so. There was no way my Mom would drive it. She was happy with her Fury. The F-250s steering was manual, the clutch was heavy and there was no working parking brake other than the Mico Line Lock that the mine had installed.  My Dad would take the pickup anywhere he could. He really seemed to like the image it presented.  Particularly when relatives visited from the old country, he would play up the wild nature of his adopted home, and having a big gnarly truck complemented that nicely. One of the things that had bothered him most about England and that he liked about Canada was the class system and the airs that people presented which were not as common here. So, especially if our visitors were a bit posh we would travel around with them in the crew cab. Noise and hard ride and all.

We lived on a long straight stretch of highway partway up a hill. The sound carried for miles sometimes, particularly in the morning and evening. Dad went to work at 6. The F-250 had no working choke. So each cold start involved lots of sputtering followed by racing the engine so it would keep running before settling into a lumpy idle. Then he would head off up the hill. In the first installment I mentioned that the proper operation of manual transmission vehicles in his world required all shifts should be done at close to redline. So that’s how the Ford left the yard every time, with the sound of the big old FE V8 screaming. It had 4.09 gears as well and I think a fairly low torque peak so I doubt that this high rpm action was necessary in the least. The howling tall 7:50X16 mud and snow tires added an additional layer of aural unpleasantry. Particularly at the 70 to 80 mph speed he liked to drive it out on the highway.

That long straight stretch of highway really doesn’t hold many fond memories for me though the house itself does. Most of the time it was fine. I kind of think the highway worked like a primitive social media for us. You could see when the Kowalski’s went fishing, through hunting season you could see who had got an elk and many people stopped at the house for a beer or a coffee on their way back to town after a fishing trip. Watching the highway was just another form of entertainment. Since satellite TV hadn’t arrived yet and all we had was the CBC we needed something to watch. But the one really unpleasant thing that this social media highway gave us was up-to-date information on car wrecks. In the same way, you could hear the angry cacophony of the F-250 for miles you could also hear the sirens of emergency vehicles for at least 2 miles before they went past, particularly in the evening or at night. Often accompanied by the frantic roar of a big block Cadillac or Pontiac engine working extra hard. Although this was past the time of the transition from the scrape-and-run first aid era, since ambulances still seemed to have their primary goal as getting someone to the hospital as soon as physically possible, they would go flying by what at what seemed like speeds that were more likely to kill someone than help. Often a wrecker was a few minutes behind. Then the wait began. Coming back up the hill if the ambulance was going full speed, with lights, and sirens you knew someone was badly hurt. Worse yet if it was just slowly traveling back to town that maybe meant a fatal. We then got to wait a bit more to see the sad wreckage get towed by and hope it wasn’t a car we recognized. At the end of the long straight that ran past our house, there was a corner where many people lost their lives. It’s a faint memory now but one my Mom reminded me of later and it was that I was scared to death of the ambulances. I would run along the highway if I was getting off the bus or coming from a friend’s house just to ensure one of the creepy evil things didn’t come by. This fear went away with either age or in my recollection, the transition from the car-based hearse-looking ambulances to the relatively innocuous vans that replaced them. Actually, I’m not sure this visceral reaction has gone away completely and I’d probably get help for this phobia but I do think I know where the only local old ambulance, a Superior Pontiac, is stored so I’m safe from it.

Returning from that grim subject, somewhere along the line, likely from a liquidation auction held when a local hardware store went out of business, a few cans of green marine enamel showed up, so my Mom carefully painted the truck with a brush to make it all one color and more presentable. It seemed to just keep on running and doing all it needed to do. I did the points, changed distributor caps, and kept the minor tunes and lubrication in order. If something more major came up my Dad would actually haul out the tools and work on it. It spent a bunch of time in mud and snow and hauling so he maintained the running gear quite well. The transfer case was a divorce mount so there were plenty of U-joints to grease and change. The good thing was it was tall enough it never had to be jacked up. I remember helping with wheel bearings and being taught how to make gaskets from scratch. Also, the 4-wheel drum brakes were not self-adjusting out at least these ones didn’t so periodic brake adjustments were required. These were all skills I was glad to have learned as I had plenty of opportunities to apply them in the future.

I’m sure I am biased and technically wrong for a bunch of reasons, but I think these old bumpsides were amongst the toughest trucks ever built in terms of the abuse they could take. The small box made it unlikely that it could ever be overloaded and even if it was the truck just shrugged it off. The old NP 435s had that unsynchronized 6:68 to 1  first gear that made that terrific whining noise and made stalling near impossible. It was the first vehicle I drove around in the bush and in the yard that had a clutch.  Any remote bush work necessitated a jerry can or two be carried as the fuel efficiency was a bit less than what could be called economical.

My Dad and his friends being youngish men occasionally put their 4x4s to the test in friendly competitions. The F-250 just wasn’t able to keep up to the nicer newer 1/2 ton 4x4s, particularly in things like hill climbs. It could hold its own in mud and snow with its high clearance but the punishingly stiff suspension just let it down off-road compared to his friends’ lighter trucks. There was plenty of wrong thinking about what made a 4×4 good at the time and a good bit of that wrong thinking was at my house. Dad decided to improve the off-road performance by installing the biggest shocks he could, Gabriel Adjustable E’s, and dialing them up to their firmest setting. This was the last thing this truck needed as the springs were so heavy duty any articulation had to come from the frame. It still was pretty good off-road. It made it anywhere it would fit, just not elegantly. Dad enjoyed seeing what it could do. There was a very very steep rutted hill a few miles from the house that Dad would take me and my friends up and down for the thrill of it. Come winter and mud season the F-250 pulled out many many stuck lesser vehicles over its time.

One day I remember Dad not coming home from work on time. This was many years before cell phones were a thing so we just sat and waited. Eventually, we heard the howl and racket of the truck coming down the hill home and when he pulled in it was obvious something wasn’t right. He had been coming around a corner in town and another pickup had driven straight into the front of him in a minor head-on collision. This had bent up the F-250 a bit though it did make it home under its own power. The other truck was finished, physics being what it is, and it being lighter. As per usual one of my Dad’s friends provided a solution. The friend had recently had the unlucky event of his 1967 Mercury short box rolling away (and for the second time in this installment no less) and inadvertently launching off a 50-foot embankment. Most of the panels were dented but still solid enough and the box was more or less unscathed. So we took what we could use off the Mercury and swapped it onto the F-250 dents and all.  The supply of auction paint, my Dad maintained in the basement had a few cans of light green marine enamel in it, so my Mom got out the brush and painted the truck a pleasant shade of turquoise green that would have looked fabulous without the dents.

We are catching up to the part of the story where my Dad lost his fingers and spent a long time with one functional arm. There was nothing about the F-250 that lent itself to one-armed driving. So it was parked. Years of abuse had cracked the cab mount in the rear. As that is where the gas tank resided in these trucks, the flexing of the cab also made the tank leak. We took it all apart and welded the cab mount but further failure seemed inevitable.  For some reason, the front locking hubs were also problematic which made the 4WD unreliable. My Dad was in no place to fix any problems with his injury and I was heading off to college which cost money. My Dad was determined that I go so he decided to sell the old truck. My automotive interests were elsewhere by then and I had no wish to take it on. I did my part and tuned and cleaned it as well as I could.  I took apart the worn hubs on the front and found there was something that was occasionally jammed up the spline causing the hub to sometimes slip. I fixed the problem and on a day not long after a workmate of his bought the truck. And that was that.

Less than 20 years ago I moved back to this area and was surprised to see the F-250 sitting in a backyard looking much like it had when it was sold. It was accompanied in its retirement by a 1960s Galaxie. I briefly thought about inquiring whether it was for sale and then thought better of it. The Nissan diesel extracted from the wrecked Scout is probably still powering some East Coast fishing boat. I drove an IH Travelall former ambulance as a crew vehicle for the summer during my college days and it didn’t bother me. And not long ago, just to see what would happen, I drove out to the old hill my Dad used to take the F-250 up and down to give us kids a thrill. I had my fancy newer truck with its rear locker and all that power and I thought I would just idle up.  Two-thirds of the way up I lost traction, had to back down and get a fair bit more momentum to crest the top. I never remember the old 1970 not powering up that hill on the first try.

I think I’m done with the sidetracking. I actually start driving in the next installment in something that is the polar opposite of the old Coal Wagon.