COAL: Take This F-150 and Go (South) West, Young Man!

In my last post I left off having to hastily sell my Ford Ranger because my family moved to Arizona.

Upon arrival to Mesa, Arizona in January 2003, I was blown away with 1.) how absolutely rust-free the cars were 2.) the automotive diversity – not only from the perspective of auto makes but also vintages. 3.) Arizona issued me a license that did not expire until I was 65!

I began perusing the vast resources such as Autotrader and other publications that a big city had to offer, but reality was I did not have much for savings and I had difficulty getting a part-time job right away. So, for the remainder of my junior year I got around with the school bus, my friend, Phil, and my trusty 1998 Trek 520 touring bike. Transportation was not really an issue, being in a bigger city everything essential was close by. Eventually, by May or June, I did get a job at a nearby grocery store and biking to work was no sweat (figuratively!)

My dad finally joined us around this time – not an ideal time for a Midwesterner to come to the Valley of the Sun and not too terribly long after he arrived, he began signaling this was not for him. I think he gave it a fair shot but the demerits for him were too much, by mid-summer it was announced to me that we’d be moving back to Iowa before the new school year.

Back in Iowa, with our failed Arizona experiment behind us, it was very apparent I needed my own vehicle and soon. The new acreage was even more remote, and I’d need to go in almost daily for school and work. Recognizing this and my diminished savings, my parents allowed me to get a small loan from the local bank and I think they contributed some, too.

I eyed a reasonable 2wd 1996 F-150 XL single cab, Toreador Red with a shortbox and grey interior at one of the local used car lots. Like the Ranger, it was also a very base level spec – perhaps the only option being an automatic transmission. It seemed like a decent bet – a local trade-in from the next town over, rust-free and straight. I believe it had fewer than 100,000 miles. The only thing out of place was it had period ¾ ton F-250 hubcap covers on it but whatever, I was jazzed about the legendary 300 C.I. inline 6 under the hood, which I believe ’96 was the last year it was offered. $4900 took it home.

The F-250 hubcaps (top) that were installed on the truck were over steel implement rims. I really liked this (bottom) style of stock steel wheels and they would’ve been cheap and readily available. I am 90% confident I did swap to these wheels eventually but can’t recall for sure…


The plastic saved on this 3/4 length door card yielded millions for Ford’s shareholders!

The truck served me well throughout my senior year in Iowa. I recall at one point it needed lower ball joints and conveniently, my neighbor loved to wrench on Ford trucks. One Sunday morning we did them together in his heated shop and repacked the wheel bearings while we were in there – all for a fraction of the in-town estimate. Under the hood he pointed out something on the front cowl – the truck had a sticker from Ford denoting that it had a replacement ECM installed. Odd.

Spartan grey interior but I do miss vent windows!

I was already ~90% certain my post-secondary education plans were going to be back in Arizona but driving home one sunny afternoon really sealed that for me. This part of Iowa is anything but flat – not only is it the driftless un-glaciated area but also as rivers traverse eastward, closer to the Mississippi, they cut ever deeper river valleys and equally tall ridges. Over the course of the 16 miles from town to our acreage, one rises in and out of these drastic (for Iowa) elevation changes a few times. Anyway, the route I happened to take that fateful day has a gravel road that climbs steeply out of the river valley with a south-facing slope. Covered with snow, polished by all the other vehicle traffic and subjected to a vast swath of daytime sunshine, the road was slicker than heck – no match for my 2wd F-150 with worn all-season tires.

I made it about 30% up the steep grade with the traction and momentum I had, then I realized the peril I was in. I was not going to climb out and was also not just going to stop, I was going to slide back down – either to the shallower ditch on the west side, or the deep gulch on the east (and likely rollover). Somehow, I was able to coax it backwards into the west ditch but then was buried deep in the snow filled embankment – no way I was getting out on my own. I cut the engine and just stared ahead – then and there I swore to get the heck out of this frozen wasteland when I could. It took me a bit to stop shaking and get my composure back. I hailed a farmer just down the road who kindly pulled me out with his old IH tractor and my sympathetic dad gave me a few hundred dollars for snow tires after I came home pretty worked up.

That May I followed my stepmom down to Tempe, AZ where she’d start a new temporary traveling nurse assignment as she had been doing and I’d start a masonry trade school apprenticeship. The F-150 did just fine on the drive down and suited my transportation needs after moving out. After a few weeks, I realized masonry was not my forte and enrolled in a few summer community college classes. I was an out of state student and credit hours were far more affordable there.

The fall semester found me preferring to ride my bike to class more often than parking miles from class and walking so I really didn’t drive much. Same as before – all my essentials – work, school, groceries, the bank were all within such close proximity that having a vehicle was almost a detriment.

Well, be careful what you wish for… As most know, loose gravel on top of pavement is slippery. One cold January night we were having a fire in our backyard and I hopped in the truck to get more firewood from the alley. The paved transition had spilled over gravel covering it and the alley started right after sharp turn. In hindsight, I may have been coming in too hot, too. I managed to slide into a stout cinderblock gate post with my driver’s side fender. The cinderblock structure fared well enough from what I could tell but the truck’s headlight, hood and fender were pretty scrunched up.

After that, the truck just stayed parked for a little bit. In this time, I also noticed that it was now leaking ATF. The impact did not seem severe enough to me to have jostled a crossmember or anything like that but upon inspection, the transmission case now had a crack. Not good. The truck sat in our carport alongside my roommate’s derelict ’84 Toyota 4×4 with a blown 22RE head for a few months, I was unsure about what to do with it. A few months in, a landscaper passed through and inquired on buying it. I thought this was my chance to get out from it and I recall selling it for $300 – essentially salvage price. I was forthright about the transmission leak and even included a case of ATF with the sale. He assured me his buddy was a mechanic and they’d fix it – he seemed happy and off it went.

A few weeks after that my dad received a call from the Tempe Police, the truck was found abandoned. The police looked up the VIN and traced it back to Iowa records. I called the police and let them know I had sold the truck just weeks prior so it wasn’t stolen, but it no longer belonged to me. I presume the truck was then impounded by the city and likely sold or scrapped.

Looking back, it was a good truck that served me well during that year and a half – would’ve wished longer but I guess it is what it is. The accident was certainly unfortunate but as a college student working part-time and with the damage it had it didn’t pencil to fix it.