Sometimes owning an older car or truck is a thing of pure bliss: the feel of the road, the freedom of the journey, the smell of aging plastic, leather, and steel. But sometimes it’s a giant headache — a cacophony rather than a symphony. This was one of those times. Maybe both.
We were leaving our recently adopted and much-loved home of Austin, Texas, for the soothing climes of Manhattan Beach, California, and my new position as Senior Editor for Automobile. The bulk of our stuff was already California-bound, having left on a Mayflower 18-wheeler two days earlier. What remained of our lives was boxed, bagged, and packed, ready for the 1,400-mile trek westward to Los Angeles. I was in the truck, my Volvo 245 wagon was loaded on the trailer, the cats harnessed and mewling pitiably in the cab. My girlfriend and her dog were in the other 245. I turned the key, pulled away from the house, and rounded the corner.
Then it died. We’d made it all of two blocks. Despite my best efforts with my trusty travel toolkit and a non-encyclopedic knowledge of mid-’90s American big blocks, I couldn’t get it to restart. It eventually had to be towed to a shop. An inauspicious beginning to our new lives in the Golden State, to be sure.
Worse yet, it wasn’t clear what exactly was wrong with it. Among the many issues: the shop had apparently re-broken the crusty, decaying hard (read: brittle, plastic) vacuum line that controls the HVAC vents; I’d cut it back and run a new stretch a couple of summers ago. Now it’ll likely need a complete replacement. That meant the drive would have to be accomplished without much in the way of A/C, just what could slip through the defrost vents.
Right up until it flat-lined, “it just works” had been this particular 1994 Ford F-250’s modus operandi for more than two decades. Even after being parked under the blazing California sun in Bakersfield for two years, a new battery was all it took to get good old Hank — as he’s come to be known — to start right up. He’s one of the last True Trucks, an all-steel tool built to do work, powered by a no-nonsense (and no green-sense) 460-cubic-inch V-8 that makes a lazy 245 hp and an unstoppable 395 lb-ft of torque. Hank’s also fitted with uprated axles, a transmission cooler, and other factory extras.
Last summer, fresh from the addition of a new camper top, roof top tent, 20-gallon onboard water tank and running water system (literally including a kitchen sink), chemical toilet, shower, and dual-battery installation, Hank ran a flawless 4,200 miles in 11 days. Starting just east of Texas Hill Country, we traversed the Ozarks, Ouachitas, Appalachians, Poconos, and Catskills — all while towing a ’49 Morris Minor to a friend in upstate New York. Hank wasn’t just presumed bulletproof, he proved it out on the open road. Without question.
Imagine my consternation then as we sat in our now empty house waiting on a diagnosis and fix, with nothing but a pair of camp chairs and an air mattress to offer comfort to me, my girlfriend, our dog, and three cats. Our new life in California seemed an eternity away.
Finally, after two full days of troubleshooting, featuring numerous dubious suggestions about the cause of the issue and the addition of a new thermostat and some spark plugs, it was time to see if Hank could hit the road again.
I was understandably nervous as I turned the key and it started up, my palms sweating as I slipped the gear lever into D. Two hundred miles later, I was still clenching my jaw, waiting for the 23-year-old truck to disintegrate around me. A high, thin whisper of impending doom slowly took over at the base of my skull, painting lurid scenes of our bleached bones being strewn across the arid expanses of West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona by coyotes.
So I was more than a little surprised and relieved when we cleared all three of those Southwestern states with ease, with the only hiccup being the occasional flicker of a check engine light. When pressed to cough up its secrets, it flashed back nothing but the 1-1-1 of a self-test passed with flying colors. With Hank loaded to his 8,000 pound curb weight and towing another 5,500, we’d crossed some of North America’s harshest desert country and traversed several mountain climbs in the final week of a sun-crisped spring that was already bleeding into summer.
About 20 miles outside of Coachella, that cute little California desert town that occasionally becomes a festering pit of salt-encrusted, drug-addled pseudo-bohemians and wannabe Instagram celebrities, Hank’s torque converter decided it had done about enough for one life. It started on the hills — any incline would cause the truck to kick itself out of torque converter lockup, essentially free-revving the engine and losing all forward drive. Lift off the throttle and ease back on gently (losing speed and momentum all the while) and it would re-engage — sometimes. Most of the time.
Then it started to crap out on the flats. By the time we coasted the last few hundred yards to a truck stop on the eastern edge of the Coachella valley, my cortisol levels, like the poor torque converter’s temperature, were in the red. My only hope for a fix: park it, grab a bite to eat, and see if letting it rest and cool as the not-quite-summer sun dropped over the desert rim would relieve the issue and allow us to make it the last 143 miles to our new home in the South Bay.
At this point, it wasn’t so much a roll of the dice as a twirl of the cylinder — either the hammer would drop on an empty chamber, or it’d all end in one big bang. Fed, tired, and about five hours beyond ready to be done, we loaded back up and pulled the trigger.
With the sun down, Hank was suddenly a teenager again, pulling strong and encouraging us to hammer through the L.A. basin’s gnarly evening traffic toward our new life. Two hours, a gallon of flop sweat, and my bodyweight in vile curses later, we’d made it.
We’ve made it.
And Hank’s getting some new parts. He deserves ’em.