(First Posted September 2, 2013) Back in the eighties, living in tony Los Gatos, I used to gaze longingly at photos of old American cars and trucks still hard at work in Cuba. But within days of moving to Eugene in 1993, I came across this very truck, hauling its daily cargo of recycled cardboard. And it planted a seed in me, to document the old vehicles still earning their keep, which finally came to fruition with Curbside Classics. Although we’ve strayed from the strict interpretation of that mission a few times along the way, no other vehicle more perfectly embodies the original ethos than this 1956 F-350.
I’ve seen this rolling relic coming and going all these years, and tried to catch it since starting CC, even searching futilely in the Yellow Pages for “B&L Recycling”. But then on our daily walk, there it was, with its owner loading up a week’s worth of cartons from Cafe Zenon. After a hard-enough first life of twenty-five years as a farm truck, since 1979, “Gus” has been earning a living for owner Mike McCool, hauling cardboard to be recycled at the local pulp mill five and six days a week, year in and year out.
Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way first: either you “get” Gus and his owner, or you don’t. If you do, you can skip this paragraph. If not, I’m not sure I can change your perspective, but at least give Mike the credit that every aspect of his truck and his life’s work is deliberate. That goes for his precarious-looking load in the back: he’s been at it so long, he knows exactly what it’s doing; hasn’t lost one yet in thirty years. Mike’s hardly some marginal or pathetic character to either pity or wish the hell he’d get his battered eyesore off the road. He’s a successful independent small businessman who’s found a niche that allows him to make a reasonable living while living his passion for recycling. And keeping old things running forever.
It’s a way of life that I can relate to, even if I chose not to live it quite to Mike’s level by a long shot. Although my similarly battered ’66 F-100 isn’t getting worked quite as much anymore as it was during my old-house moving and rebuilding days, let’s just say Mike and I share at least an old Ford truck in common, and we hit it right off. He was happy to show me the various tricks employed to keep a fifty-five year old truck running happily, like the original oil-bath air cleaner that never needs replacing.
He did just mount an alternator to the old 223 cubic inch six, and recently splurged for some new custom-made 16″ front wheels to replace the 17″ split rims that are such a pain. After he’s amortized that rare and pricey investment, he’ll buy some for the rears too. Finally having radials on the front were like suddenly getting power steering. I know the feeling.
Lest I forget, Mike did rebuild the engine after he first bought it in 1979. Burning a quart of oil every hundred miles was a strong incentive. He used high quality parts, and it’s still running strong. The 223 six started life in 1952 as the 215, Ford’s first modern OHV engine. It developed a rep as a rugged work horse; but then that pretty much applied to all of Detroit’s sixes back then. It’s definitely the way to go if maximum reliability and minimum upkeep are high on the priority list and V8 power isn’t. Gus sticks to the surface streets, and the six purrs contentedly.
These old American trucks used a healthy grade of steel throughout. They come from a time when American trucks were still exported throughout the world, as paragons of durability, power and utility. And it really isn’t hard to keep them on the road pretty much forever. Except for some rust on the lip over the windshield, Gus is good to go for…as long as Mike wants him to.
Although it may seem that Mike lives in a world a bit different from ours, he’s actually as or more intimately connected to world affairs and the global economy than most of us. The global price of cardboard fluctuates dramatically, based obviously on the demand for cartons to ship the world’s products, especially from China. Having weathered a crash in the price down to $5/ton in the worst months of the recent recession (living debt free and cheaply made it possible), its been climbing again in the past couple of years and is currently at around $125/ton (8/13), near all-time highs. According to Mike’s cardboard price index, the recession is long over, and happy days are here again. But he’s not running out to buy a new F-350; more like another set of two new wheels and matching tires for the rear axle. Enough chatting; Mike and Gus have work to do.