Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Just a great car story to start the year

Ordering some parts from Drakes and off to start pulling parts off the car this weekend. Thought I'd start the year on a good note and share one of my favorite car stories. Cheers...

I try to like anything that someone has put anytime into. To each their own, that’s what I say. Sure I tease Chevy guys a bit but it’s all in good sport. I try but there is one vehicle that just has me absolutely baffled on why anyone would want to have anything to do with it at all. It’s the 1960 Ford F100 pick-up.

Almost all car models go through an awkward stage if the model gets some years behind it. The Pontiac Aztek only had an awkward stage and the current incarnation of the Dodge Dakota is going through an awkward stage – that’s one ugly truck.

Almost exactly two years ago I was introduced to one particular 1960 Ford F100 that is part of a story too good not to share.

It was January of 2009 and my father had only been gone for barely three months. Over Christmas I had devoted a lot of thought to my career and decided to resign my post as GM of a software company. It had been a crazy three years since University but I was now burned out and apathetic. Since the announcement of my departure my main duty there consisted of conducting a lot of knowledge transfer and introducing new employees (hired to replace me) to clients. Between my apathy for my job and my grief for my dad I was in a pretty anxious mood – I wanted to do anything but sit still. Eventually this energy would be funneled into the TR6 and this blog but I was still months of from that conclusion.

Meanwhile somewhere near Duluth, Minnesota, a guy, who at this point, I had barely met, was preparing to drive north and start a life with his Canadian fiancé. Fresh out of the service and college he thought some new scenery would do him some good – a fresh start. I imagine the thought that he was less likely to get “Stop-loss” in Canada might have entered his mind also. We’ll call him Derek for the purposes of this story.

Some years back he had inherited this brown 1960 Ford truck from his father and had decided to drive that into Canada in tandem with a minivan he borrowed from his brother in exchanged for his Toyota Tercel wagon. The truck was in pretty good shape as it held daily driver status up into the mid-90s and was still seeing annual insurance and registration renewal.

The plan made sense. With the van and truck he could get everything up there in one move. This fiancé would drive the van with some of the load and his two faithful golden retrievers and he would drive the truck with the remainder of his stuff – easy. This is the kind of planning and logic you expect from ex-military and a Masters candidate in Environmental Sciences.

I’ve never been in the military and nor do I think I would make a good soldier. And it might surprise you but even though I attended college and university – I am a horrible student – I have the attention span of an eight year-old with two liters of Coca-Cola down his gullet. Those differences aside I can really relate to the thinking that went into this process: Two cars – one trip – all in and done.

They left Duluth on a cold January morning. Derek, his Canadian fiancé and his two golden retrievers struck out for Alberta, Canada.

I knew Derek because his fiancé was a friend of mine from university and a former employee. In knowing her I know why Derek never related the message that the coolant system on the truck had a major leak into the cab. He did however have to relate that the cab heater on the truck didn’t work. It was either come clean or come up with a story why he was bundling himself in a Skidoo suit and had to pull over to scrape the windshield every 45minutes or so. Adding the information that the heat wasn’t working because the heater core leaked like a pasta strainer might have pushed her over from “reasonably outside her comfort zone” to “there’s no way in hell we’re doing this!”

The goal of the day was to make it to Manitoba and hopefully into Saskatchewan. And believe it or not they did that. They put almost a thousand Kilometers behind them that day in a 20 year-old minivan and almost 60 year-old pick-up.

That fact impresses me to know end for two people from my generation. It’s anecdotal of course, but I match it against a comment I heard around a table a couple years back made by another friend’s girlfriend: “My dad’s going to trade in my 4-Runner as it almost has 100,000 KM on it now – he wants me to be safe”. This is the generation I grew up in – it’s not right but I’m accustomed to hearing that rather than about a trek like this by two echo-boomers without the support of long wing of their parents.

Derek an his fiancé made it to a little town on just on the Manitoba side of the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border called Russell. They check themselves into the motel and decided to go out to dinner. The temperature in Russell was -40 degrees Celsius which, just so handily, is -40 Fahrenheit. They left the truck at the motel and took the van to dinner. The plan was to use a magnetic block heater Derek had brought for the trip as the truck was originally from Texas and wasn’t equipped with one. When Derek retrieved the heater from the back of the truck he grabbed it by the cord. It was so cold that the cord broke in half in his hand. Now without a block heater he would have hope for the best in the morning.

On the way back to the motel from dinner, because a ridge of snow a snowplow had left, it was impossible to see the curb separating the motel parking lot from the service road running parallel. Derek’s fiancé accidently struck the curb with the van and the cold weather matched with the force shattered one of the large side panel windows on the wagon portion of the van.

Being still another day’s drive from home Derek thought to make sure not to panic or get angry but went and found a large piece of cardboard to use a temporary window and go to bed – tomorrow would be better and they could make the rest of the way home.

The next morning Derek awoke nice and early, he promptly dressed and went out to fire up the truck and van. Reluctantly the van started as it had been plugged in but the truck wasn’t even coming close to firing – it was frozen solid. Prepared for this Derek pulled a tiger torch and propane tank from the back of the Ford and set it up under the truck.

It wasn’t long before the truck was warm enough to start up. Derek set it up on fast idle and went to work getting ready to leave. After the bags were in and the torch was put away looking under the truck he noticed that the engine was pouring out oil. It was just raining oil. In his haste to get going he had melted an oil line. The rate oil was pouring out of this truck it wasn’t going to make it far. Derek turned off the truck and went back inside the motel room to make a plan. His fiancé was starting to look rather worried as were the dogs.

Beyond the motel, a gas station and a restaurant there was very little in Russell that was going to help the situation at this point. Derek decided to leave his fiancé and the dogs in the motel room and head 100 KM Northwest to Yorkton, Saskatchewan, for tools, a hose or/and, worst case scenario, some chain or rope to pull the truck the rest of the way home with the van. It wasn’t a great plan but it was a plan.

He was gone for a long time – so long that his fiancé, the dogs and their bags were kicked out of the hotel room. The fiancé and the dogs, with no real other options, huddled in the cold cab of the 1960 Ford waiting for Derek’s return. All three of them, the fiancé, dog 1 and dog 2, were sharing worried looks back and forth and forth.

All told Derek had had been gone for more than three hours. When he returned he found the hotel room locked and empty and his ’60 Ford locked and empty. Starting to worry a bit he drove around to no avail. With little else to do he then decided to get down to the business of attending to the truck – hopefully someone would show up.

In the back of his mind he thought the dogs could be at a local shelter with a Dear John not pinned to one: “Dear Asshole, I didn’t sign on for this – good luck – I fed the ring to one of the dogs – not telling which one”. That was in the back of his head but he was hoping there was simpler answer. A few minutes into his repair attempt a van pulled up.

Out came the dogs, his fiancé and a couple friendly locals. Soon Derek’s wasn’t the only head under the truck.

Sometime before Derek came back from Yorkton a local family was out for breakfast and noticed the unfamiliar early model Ford sitting in the motel parking lot. I, personally, suspected that one said to the other: “That’s one ugly pick-up – let’s go get a closer look”. But that’s purely speculation. The closer inspection revealed beyond the truck there were, at least, two species of mammals inside.

One local approached and after knocking on the window it rolled down to reveal a half-frozen 20-something girl on the verge of a breakdown and two anxious golden retrievers. The couple invited the frozen refugees to join them in their van and for coffee at the local café. Over coffee the fiancé explained their plight while at the same time the dogs hung out in the van. I imagine there might have been one exchange that included the fiancé passing a note and saying if I don’t make it, if this crazy bastard kills us both, see that my family gets this (again just speculation on my part).

After some ineffective backyard mechanics it was put to Derek that there was a mechanic with a shop near town. His fiancée thought this was a great suggestion. Derek relented – defeated – he let them call in the mechanic.

Soon a tow truck was on the scene and the truck was gathered up and gone. Now there was nothing more to do other than to check back into the motel get something to eat and go to bed.

The next morning Derek woke up early gathered up his fiancé, the dogs and their stuff and headed to the mechanic’s farm to hopefully retrieve his truck. Although the mechanic stated that he had worked late to repair the truck he suggested that it wasn’t a good idea to drive this truck the rest of the way home.

“800 and some clicks? You’re going to have problems.”

This was all Derek’s fiancé needed to hear.

“Hey and did you know you have a major coolant leak in the cab? “

This was more than she needed to hear.

They were already a day behind. And the mechanic had offered to store the truck until he could fetch it. But the truck was the least of his worries. All his tools were in the back of it; more than 2000 dollars worth of table saws, drills and such. It was a tough decision but in the end it he decided to jump in the van with his fiancé and leave the truck not knowing if he’d ever see it or his stuff again. Make no mistake, as a married man, I know he made the right decision, but I can imagine it didn’t sit well.

They made the rest of the journey without any major or minor hassles. It was loud with a homemade window but no major hassles.

Two days after being back in Alberta I get a call from Derek’s fiancé and she told me this entire story. After hearing – laughing – then relating my empathy – I offered to help. At this time my father’s ’03 diesel 2500 Dodge 4x4 was doing nothing more than hauling garbage to the dump every two weeks and I had access to a bobcat trailer so it seemed natural that offered my services.

I’d met Derek twice at this point and both times I enjoyed his company. Having a beer with a guy is somewhat different than traveling across two provinces with him but I thought “What the hell? I’ve got nothing else to do”. That was my attitude heading into 2009. I really had a devil-may-care look at the world. I wasn’t suicidal but I was really rather melancholy and apathetic to my plateful of life. This trip seemed like a great distraction.

It was set that we would leave early the next Saturday morning. I’d have the truck and trailer ready and gather him from his fiancé’s family’s farm on the way. One day to Russell and one day back. The trip broke down to almost 900 KMs each day – a bit much but very doable.

Little did I know that this story was far from over…

To be continued…


  1. I can't wait for pt2 and I know how it turned out.

  2. What a great preservation of many memories. Thanks Angus! I can't say how many pages of memories "Old Brownie" has brought into my life over the 25 years she was in my possession. I purchased the truck in Colorado the year Derek was born saying, “Ok honey, kids are coming, time to get a truck”. Living in Colorado required heat; what heat? For some reason the radiator is so massive, it took 20 miles for it to even think of warming up. And at -40, no way dude. All of the children; Derek, Travis, Kirstie and Karlie have a story to tell. Some good, and ... some not good. Oh, do you remember the time the carburetor was overflowing with gasoline? Almost burnt it to the ground. Owning a piece of heavy metal Americana brings us back to the days where a little planning goes a long way. Can you imagine being broke down in the middle of the San Luis Valley with no cell phone? Ahhh.. the good ole days. I carried 3 days supplies wherever I went. The good times camping in the back, getting stares and questions from nostalgic onlookers were always welcome.
    When Derek said he was going to drive it to Canada I thought; “that’s my boy!”. I thought he would have learned his lesson when he drove it from Texas to Minnesota and the generator fell off. Oh well, God it’s great to be young and in love with a family heirloom.
    Good Runner;