COAL 8: Another Willys And A Bunch More Mining.

Sometimes a solution to an automotive part shortage seems to be obvious. Buy a parts car. Unfortunately, this obvious solution can just add new problems.  For instance, if you have an old Willys project missing a few items that you really haven’t enough time and money for, the best solution may not have been to add another Willys to the mix.  Not that it stopped me from doing just that. Luckily another summer in mining was about to change my ideas about vehicles.

Another year in university had ended and it was time to head back home.  My little Courier truck had attracted a mate, a little orange one that always parked beside it in the parking lot and left increasingly risqué notes under the windscreen. I would have loved to hang around and get to know the orange truck’s female owner, but I had a plane ticket for Resolute Bay NWT.  I set off for another three-and-a-half-month stint with a little less enthusiasm than previously. The plane rides up started with a 737 though the final jaunt was usually a Twin Otter but sometimes a vintage DC3.  Once there I was happy to resume the long shifts that kept me in tuition.

I spent time in the concentrator but could be dispatched anywhere on the island.  Often, I was underground helping to repair and adjust the miles of conveyor belts or alternately as a welder’s helper. This involved lots of uncoiling wire, handing out rods and standing fire watch.  Since this is not a mining blog, I guess I should move to the automotive side of things.

Mechanized mining is a tough environment for any piece of equipment and most light vehicles are not built for it.  For fire safety reasons the vehicles must be diesel and the rough conditions underground are quite beyond any normal use. Body damage from rock walls and squeezing past scoop trams is constant.

There had been an International Scout or two, which along with a Unimog left over from exploration times resided in the scrap pile.  We had a K35 GMC welding truck with a 6.2 diesel that was barely up to the task of forward momentum when loaded. A few more GMCs ran around on the surface, but they did not have the air scrubbers for underground use.  Plastic parts would not hold up to the extreme cold and if I remember right, there were plastic parts in the transfer cases of the K35 as the welding truck was out of commission for a long time waiting for a rebuild.

What worked best was the Land Cruisers.  BJ40, BJ42, HJ60s, BJ75s, HJ78s and whatever else they made in the 1980s and 1990s.   There were specialized underground mancarriers in use, but any underground maintenance work was done by Land Cruiser.

All manner of contraptions and armor was welded to them to make them more useful and less susceptible to damage.

Some were seemingly bone stock, other than the exhaust scrubbers, looking just like the Land Cruisers down at the Toyota dealer, as in Canada the last Land Cruisers were diesel.

If a vehicle was turned off it may have been too cold to ever restart one, so they just idled 24 hours a day.  Even in the residence, you were never far from the sound and smell of an idling Toyota.

Even if you were not a big believer in Japanese trucks, a few months in that environment would go some ways to make you one, especially considering the consequences of vehicle failure could be life-threatening. Most people didn’t rush home and buy Cruisers as there were far nicer choices available in civilization, I found it interesting that American cars were still aspirational to some of the tradesmen I worked with. They bought Firebirds and Cadillacs as they had a lot of money to spend. One middle aged guy cracked me up one day when he came back from a rotation down south and wanted to impress us with talk of his recent dream car purchase, a new Chevy Monte Carlo.  I was fine until he paused, lowered his glasses and his voice and added to him, the important killer detail, “Super Sport”.   Now I am in late middle age I understand his excitement, but at the time he could have said the all-new Hyundai Pony and it wouldn’t have been funnier to car guy me.

Of course the last BJ42s in Canada were the 1984s so a replacement was needed.

Not surprising the 70 Series was the next choice. It lacked the easily repairable body of the 40 series so it required a bit more armor but they were every bit as tough as the old 40 series had been.

Even this fancy one came off some dealer’s lot depriving some future collector of a LHD BJ 70.  After the BJ70s were no longer brought into Canada importers supplied the need with later 70 series trucks that were not highway legal but since the mine was private that wasn’t a concern.

The welding truck I spent so much time with makes an appearance in the background behind our maintenance “Jeep.”  They were always called Jeeps by the miners.

As mentioned above the 40 series were a bit more modular in construction and often sported parts from scrapped ones to replace smashed body panels.

There were a few Hilux’s. The worst thing about them was, as anyone who bought a JDM Prado in Canada and headed up the Coquihalla can attest, is the L Series Diesel doesn’t seem to be all that robust. We were using the truck below, doing conveyor work nine days after it had a new engine installed and the engine started smoking enough that it was dangerous for it to be underground.  We headed up the long spiral tunnel to the surface and parked it with, yet another blown up engine.  I don’t think the rest of the trucks ever had a chance to wear out as the engines didn’t last long enough.  Not taking a shot at the Hilux as we shall see a bit later, I am a fan. But as a mine truck they were not up to scratch.

It was too cold and dirty for a camera most days but there was an old Bombardier around,

And a big old crane, Ford Louisvilles, a school bus, 4wd Econolines, and all manner of Cat loaders and dozers. But the Cruisers were the star of the show for me.

As far as I know, all of this boneyard was taken down the mine and buried as part of reclamation.

Anyways to return to the subject of this COAL, when I got back from up north, I still wanted to get my Willys running as I really liked the idea of them. Even though I had come to the realization that what I actually needed for my adventures was a Toyota. A colleague of a friend had a running Willys and offered it to me for a fair price and I thought that might solve my parts situation.  I test drove it and it ran well enough other than the brakes were almost nonexistent.  We hooked it to a friend’s new F150 and pulled it home.

About 5 minutes after I got home, I realized that I didn’t have the heart to start taking parts off the pickup to fix the wagon.  The truck had a 6-cylinder flathead, a healthy rear spring pack and what looked to be a heavier-duty rear axle.  The previous owner said they had been using it to get firewood and it would go where none of their other trucks would go. Dimensionally it was very much like a BJ75 Landcruiser, a smaller but heavy-duty package.

When I first got it, I pressed it into tractor service doing all my chores with it. My parents were away much of the time and when I was home, I looked after the acreage as there was wood to be cut and fences to fix and the old Willys was a useful tool for that. I had just about finished my first degree in Biology which I realized wasn’t going to get me into the wildlife side of things where I had been aiming but I decided to complete it anyways. I didn’t seem to be interested in the research that a master’s degree would entail as I felt like I wanted to be more hands on. I was starting to realize that getting proper job experience during the summers may have been more of an advantage to me than mining was. Unless it wasn’t.

Changes at the mine meant students would not be returning the next summer so come May I found myself in a 40-hour week job living at home by myself and starting in earnest on the Willys.  I had been reading enthusiast magazines again, and one article that stood out to me and not in a good way, was the aftermath of a Willys wagon losing its single circuit brakes and tumbling off an embankment.  I made brakes the first priority. I started changing out all the brake lines and renewing components.

I also raided the paint cabinet as I removed any corrosion I found.  I have no idea why I used the colors I did, other than that was the style of the times.

The project seemed to be going well but then I upended my own life somewhat by deciding that I was going to get another degree, this time in Forestry which certainly proved to be a good way to liven up future COALs.  That shortened up my summer as I had to attend a field surveying school which started early.  This was the summer after the Courier had died and I was carless.  I found one that needed a few repairs, so the Willys was parked for the winter and off I went back into the lecture halls.

To tie up a bunch of loose ends.  I got very distracted for the next few years.  I puttered at the Willys while I was home, but progress was slow.  A new RV storage structure was being built in my parent’s yard right where my car collection was.  I was away working, much of the time and didn’t have room to take the Willys with me. My Dad phoned the scrapyard who came and got the Cranbrook, my miscellaneous parts and I think the red Beach Wagon, though I prefer to think it went somewhere else. He gave the Willys pickup to the neighbor kids.  I was very busy when this happened, so it didn’t bother me much.  I was much more annoyed that he gave my mountain bikes and my Peugeot Road bike away.  In a backhanded way, he did try to compensate me for this automotive and cycling massacre as we will see later on.

I never did get to hang out with the flirty girl who had the orange Courier but that was alright as I found another one. I still don’t know if I would rock a G-Body Monte Carlo SS but I would respect someone who made that choice today.  Cominco deactivated the mine and returned the island to its natural state in 2002.  And in sort of a happy ending a fellow found me at work a few years back as he had the Willys pick up and the registration which was still in my name.  I signed it for him and wished him well so one day I expect to see it out on the road.

Next week I get with the program and start buying Japanese cars.  Which doesn’t always go as smoothly as I would have hoped.