Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL
Somehow, I managed to talk two compatriots into hopping into a buddy's Chevrolet Malibu at 5:30 in the morning on the Fourth of July and rolling up to the Blue Grass state for what was supposed to be a quick look-see.
Red flags started hitting the field almost immediately. We arrived about 20 minutes early, and the seller, a man who, for everyone's sake, we'll call Shady Bobby, had told me over the phone that he had the truck at a friend's car lot and that we would need the friend to unlock a gate so we could have a closer look. I assumed that the pickup was there to help quicken the selling process.
That old gem about assuming? It's dead right. As it turned out, the big IH wasn't there because his friend was trying to help him sell the vehicle. Oh, no. Instead, the truck was behind a locked gate because Shady Bobby had hocked the title for $1,000 a month prior. It got worse from there.
Nearly everything in the ad was a complete lie. The truck actually had 104,000 miles, was not a three-quarter ton and only "ran well" in the sense that the engine could be turned on and off. The bed was filled with such niceties as the remnants of the old shattered windshield, a spare fender and various sundry artifacts of Shady Bobby's life over the past six months or so – McDonald's bags, cigarette boxes, even used diapers.
Despite all of this, the prospect of a mostly rust-free International was too much to just walk away from without driving, especially after being on the road for the majority of the morning just for the occasion. We waited for about 15 minutes before Shady Bobby asked me to go get him a cup of coffee from the gas station two stores down. His reason? He didn't have any cash at the time.
Thinking that a cheap cup of coffee might just lubricate the cantankerous mechanisms of commerce, I obliged, and returned to the anxious faces of the other two members of my Vehicle Recovery Team, or VRT.
Everything's better with an acronym.
The lot owner eventually showed up and we began our inspection. It quickly became obvious that we had progressed past the occasional red flag and into the factory that produces them for mass consumption.
A major point of contention was the fact that the fuel tank was leaking – a clear indication that the inside of the tank was chock full of rust and other contaminates, just waiting to play drunk-monkey-with-a-hammer on the inner workings of the carb. The seller had previously indicated that the engine needed a fuel pump, and since the part is identical to the one on a truck I already happen to own, I had removed the one from my vehicle before hand and brought it along for good measure.
At first, I thought it may actually not need the pump. Even with the fuel tank doing its best impression of a percolator, the truck started without drama, smoke or any sounds that usually accompany mechanical agony.
Such promise was short-lived.
Once up to road speed, the engine stumbled and stalled repeatedly. The entire time, Shady Bobby kept insisting that the fuel pump was the culprit, not the Titanic-sized chunks of rust that were undoubtedly swimming around the fuel system just waiting to sink my battleship. But that was of minor concern compared to the truck's steering. Between the worn wheel bearings, one poorly conceived and highly illegal lift and a bad steering box, the truck staggered all over the road like someone had swapped the front tires for slabs of Land-O-Lakes butter.
Asking price? $3,100.
As the engine came to a choking stop and we wobbled toward the shoulder for a second time, Shady Bobby began to see that there was no way in this life or the next that I would lay down the kind of cash he was asking for this heap.
He began listing off parts that he had personally spent money on within the past few months.
"Since you drove all the way up here this morning, I'll give it to you for $2,000," he said, "not a penny less. Hell, even at that price, I'm losing..."
I cut him off.
"I'll give you 1,600 cash dollars," I told him, not entirely convinced that even this quasi-insulting number was a good price.
"I'll take $1,700."
In another minute, I was shaking one very tattooed hand and dishing out a stack of $20 bills that just hours earlier were 250 miles away sleeping contentedly in an ATM.
The VRT and I coaxed the newest member of the Bowman house of horrors across the street and into a vacant and somewhat dry car wash bay before descending into the open maw of the truck's engine compartment like a pack of iron-hungry hyenas. Before long the old fuel pump was lying on the concrete, having been extricated with nary a busted knuckle. Operating under the assumption that if we were prepared for just about any scenario, said mishap would pass us by in favor of an easier target, we had packed an unholy arsenal of tools in the trunk of the Malibu.
This rationale would prove very, very flawed.
Around half-way through reinstalling the new pump, my phone rang. It was Shady Bobby.
"Hey, uh, you wouldn't want to drive me and my old lady to Nashville, would you?"
I could, in fact, think of about 700 other things I would rather do than climb into a pickup cab with Shady Bobby and what would undoubtedly prove to be his similarly shady old lady, including removing my cornea with a rusty razor blade. But having myself been stranded in flea-bitten hell holes with no way out, I obliged.
My compatriots shook their heads in what I assumed to be a trifecta of disgust, disbelief and humor.
"I sure do appreciate it," Shady Bobby murmured on the other end of the line. "You think you could pick us up from my parents house?"
I've read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
. I knew how this would play out. Just because I'll be so kind as to let you ride in the same vehicle I happen to be piloting while headed South, does not mean I will be your damn chauffer.
"But it's only a quarter of a mile away!" Shady Bobby was beginning to sound insulted.
I told him that if it was that close, he could surely walk. If we were still there when he and his lady friend arrived, we'd be happy to take them with us. Otherwise, no dice.
I hung up the phone and began cleaning out the cab and bed of the truck – a task that looked like it had been neglected for the better part of a generation. While raking receipts, empty cigarette cartons, leaves and a million other layers of strata that an old truck can collect, my hand came across something that felt suspiciously like stainless steel. And nylon.
I extract the object only to find an eight-inch survival knife the likes of which is typically relegated to Rambo's day dreams. Amused with the absolute absurdity of such a find, I removed the weapon from its sheath and proudly displayed my new trophy to the rest of the VRT.
They immediately looked less than amused.
"You know that old fella is an Outlaw, right?" One of my compatriots inquired.
Suddenly, I too was less than amused.
Allow me to shed a little light on the color of Southern organized crime for those of you who are less than familiar. The Outlaws originated as a group of deep south bikers that has managed to evolve into the closest thing to our interpretation of a mafia. Throw in a dash of militia-grade weapon stockpiles and an array of crimes both petty and serious, and you begin to get the idea. The FBI has just recently taken to executing raids on Outlaw compounds with varied success.
As it turns out, Shady Bobby was actually Outlaw Bobby – a fact he was kind enough to share with the rest of the VRT while I was out fetching coffee.
This explained their troubled faces on my return.
I started racking my brain for what little I know about removing finger prints when it dawned on me that it would be in my best interest to get this hulk down the road before Outlaw Bobby showed up. We rushed through buttoning up the front of the truck and, with the new fuel pump in place, packed up the tools with the kind of quickness that only self-preservation can incite. With broad smiles and congratulatory handshakes, we began the journey sans Outlaw Bobby.
We made it precisely 20 feet before the big IH came to a stuttering stop.
Fuel. It's probably out of fuel. One of the VRT bravely volunteered to stay with the truck while the rest of us went to fetch a couple of gallons of gasoline. We dumped the dino juice in the tank, hit the key and made it another five feet before coming to a pathetic stop, safely out of the harboring shade of the car wash and in the middle of patch of black asphalt baking under the hellish Kentucky sun.
I was beginning to get that feeling in the bottom of my gut typically associated with massive, life altering mistakes – a sensation that was politely underscored by the on cue arrival of Outlaw Bobby and his similarly tattooed old lady.
"I told you it needed a fuel pump," he said, his voice tinged with defense.
Upon enlightening our intrepid purveyor of pathetic pickups that we've taken care of the fuel pump issue, he told us that the carburetor probably just needed to be primed. Skeptical, but willing to give just about any idea a try, we dumped fuel into the engine with the fire-extinguisher at the ready. I hit the key.
My patience had worn thin, ground bare by Outlaw Bobby's assurances of "That there's got to be the problem" and, "I just don't understand it – I drove this thing up from Nashville without a problem" every time we tried another potential solution. We'd been standing in the sun for the better part of an hour, each of us soaked in various leaking fluids – both human and International. We finally set upon taking the carb filter off for a quick investigation.
On upending the part, I was rewarded with a palm full of a sort of rust/fuel paste – think a more spiteful interpretation of wet sand. Yes, that there was the problem. At this point, it could be argued that I lost my temper. With Outlaw Bobby continuing to regurgitate his new lack of understanding mantra, I insisted that he needed to occupy another corner of the universe. One far, far away from the engine compartment of the big IH. Outlaw Bobby was displeased, and began warning me of the pitfalls of disrespecting him, but eventually sulked off to go stand beside the industrial vacuums with his old lady.
At this point, the VRT came to the unanimous decision to undertake a dangerous but necessary step – run the vehicle all 250 miles on a jerry can. Once again, we left one member of the team behind and set off in search of a parts store. Surprisingly enough, we found an open Advance Auto Parts and grabbed 10 feet of fuel line and two 5-gallon fuel jugs without so much as a hiccup.
By the time we made it back to the car wash of doom, Outlaw Bobby had, in his most generous move to date, up and evaporated. He was even kind enough to take his female companion with him. I couldn't have been happier, and before long we'd managed to run a fuel line from the pump into the passenger floor board where we'd situated the two full jerrycans.
If you're thinking that carrying two open jugs of highly flammable liquid in the cabin of a full-size pickup with only the vaguest of steering connections sounds like a dangerous idea, you're exactly right. It's on the same plane as using a wood chipper to trim a hangnail, but we had few other modes of recourse.
With fresh fuel finding its way to the big 345 V8, the engine was running like only an IH can. Despite the loosey-goosey steering, things were looking up for the first time since breakfast. We dutifully marched toward home, stopping every 50 miles or so to top off the tanks and fight off asphyxiation headaches. We only came close to running completely out of fuel once when we pushed it to around 90 miles.
When we passed the 100-miles-to-go barrier, I could smell sweet whiffs of looming victory wafting my way from Knoxville. But after the third stop, the truck began to develop the kind of shimmy that typically spells a bad wheel bearing getting worse.
If only we had been so lucky.
We stopped in a cool corner of a Cracker Barrel parking lot and began dissecting the front left hub, only to discover that of every tool that we had brought, the snap ring pliers were still snoozing in the tool box at home. The VRT nobly volunteered to go locate a pair, and within 45 minutes we had everything apart, repacked and back together.
We hit the road again, only to find that the vibration had gotten worse, not better.
Eventually, the vibration had gotten bad enough to warrant another full stop, and I directed the vast expanse of butternut hood toward a convenient tractor trailer pull off labled TRUCKS ONLY. On exiting the IH, we were greeted with a torrent of coolant gushing from the radiator. The vibration had absolutely nothing to do with the wheel bearings.
Someone, at some point during the truck's history, had gone through the pain of installing a fan clutch, and said part decided to take this opportunity to voice its displeasure with being bolted to such an archaic piece of farm equipment by vomiting out its bearings and flying hara-kiri style into the radiator.
We were done.
I voted to stay behind while the rest of the VRT went for a functional truck and trailer. Having nothing better to do, I began disassembling the fan shroud to evaluate the damage for myself, only to dump a trough of warm coolant into my open peepers. At this juncture, I had been in the process of acquiring this vehicle for the better part of 16 hours, and with dehydration looming, my body wasn't in the mood to generate enough moisture to flush the antifreeze out of my eye sockets.
Defeated, partially blind, broke and nearly black from head to toe, I drug myself up to a stopped big rig and knocked on the driver's door, leaving greasy knuckle marks on the red paint. An older gentleman opened the door and looked down.
"Son, you look like you got drug through a horse's ass backwards."
I guess you have plenty of time to come up with clever observations on the state of man when behind the windshield of a 16 wheeler. After a quick laugh, the guy gave me a cup of water to flush my eyes. I've never been so grateful.
I spent the rest of the night watching the stars creep out of the murky twilight of the Tennessee sky and listening to the distant pop of Independence Day fireworks occasionally silence the chorus of crickets playing harmony to the moan of the interstate. It would be another four hours before the VRT returned to pull the carcass of the big IH back to Knoxville and another two before I was in bed, safe from the perils of claiming another International for my own.
The long march to get the truck roadworthy continues to this day, hampered by an unavailability of parts and a dearth of funds. The 21st IH Scout and Light Truck Nationals are set to kick off in Springfield, Ohio on September 10.
If I can find a drag link in time, I think the truck just might make it...
In less than a week, it will be four months since I laid down my hard-earned cash on the abomination you see above. Needless to say, I didn't make it to the IH Nationals. Over the course of the last four months, I've ran into an astounding dearth of aftermarket support for the big International, forcing me to rely on an incredibly talented network of craftsmen spread throughout the greater Knoxville area as well as some of my own ingenuity.
The radiator had to be repaired after discovering that no one supplies an aftermarket example, the original water pump replaced with a retrofitted piece from a Scout with a new fan clutch as well as a fan robbed from a big-block Oldsmobile Cutlass, the master cylinder swapped, and brake hoses fabricated. No one makes a drag link for the truck either, so that was another one-off bit. I did find a new-old-stock fuel tank, but the price tag was well north of what I was willing to spend, so the old tank got boiled out and repaired by a local shop.
Even the brand-new steering box that came with the truck turned out have a pitman arm that rotated in reverse of the original. Of course, I didn't realize this until after the massive chunk of cast iron was safely installed in the truck, where upon the steering wheel effectively operated in reverse. Turn left to go right, right to go left, etc. I've never plummeted through the stages of grief in quite such a rapid fashion in my entire life as after wrapping up that little project.
Denial is powerful thing.
I eventually put down the can of gasoline, threw away the matches, regrouped and had the original steering box rebuilt. Now the truck is more or less roadworthy, and while small problems like massive oil leaks and persistent air in the rear brake lines continue to crop up once in awhile, it's serving our household well. With the help of a parts truck I recently purchased, it may even have a complete interior within a few months.
Is it perfect? No. Did it put me within spitting distance of institutionalization? Yes. But the more I wrench on the hulk, the more it becomes mine. Everything I fix is one less thing I'll have to worry with going forward, and even after all of the repairs and headaches, the project is still less than a down payment on new truck. Just don't expect me to be willing to hop in the car and go after a sight-unseen project any time soon.