A man and his cars… and trucks.
Over the past 46 years, I've managed to buy one vehicle or the other that I could adapt to my outdoor adventures. I'm not sure why, but I suspect that owning such a vehicle has to do with my Celtic penchant to see what's around the next corner, across the next stream, or over the next hill. I get a thrill from driving over dirt roads and two-tracks that any sensible person would avoid.
I discovered early in adulthood that not any old car would do for such nonsense. It needed to be a dual-purpose arrangement that would fulfill my domestic needs as well as my adventure side.
Back then, in the late 1960s, I didn't know much about pickups, but I did know about that German gem called the VW Bug, having owned a 1962 after my college days. All my driving was in urban Orange County at the time, however, and the car never saw a rough road let alone "the dirt."
My next VW was a '64, and it too never saw the dirt, but I was in the Army for four years and it saw plenty of snow; I learned the value of having the engine over the drive wheels for traction. I owned that VW for three years and the danged thing broke down on me every month like clockwork.
I traded it on my third VW, a brand new 1968 Karmann Ghia, the poor man's sports car. By then I was up in rank and seniority and actually had spare cash, so I bought it, and it became my first "huntin' car." Snow was not a problem nor was mud or Jersey sand, and we went some pretty gnarly places in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey.
In 1969 I got married (still am after 45 years) and we got a second Ghia — a rough 1960 model with a little 36-horsepower engine and a three-speed transmission that was non-synchromesh. The heater worked only in summer. But I fell absolutely in love with that car. I wish I still had it.
It was one tough son-of-a-gun, almost unstoppable, and got 42 mpg. I mounted aggressive snow tires on the rear wheels and together we went everywhere. Nothing stopped us.
One time Jeri and I were headed to see her folks in eastern Pennsylvania, and we took the old Ghia, which I'd named "Gordon." It was snowing heavily and we couldn't see the road, because the defrosters didn't work and there was eight inches of snow on the ground. I noticed the road had gotten awfully bumpy and after 50 yards or so, I stopped and opened the door and looked down: We were sitting in a cut corn field and were driving across the rows! We'd missed a sharp left turn in the road.
I put it into first gear and let out the clutch and made a "u-eee" and drove back with nary a miss. That was some car indeed.
After the Army, we moved back to Southern California, without either Ghia. In 1971, I bought my first pickup, a 1970 Datsun compact with four-speed tranny, two-wheel drive and pitiful city tread tires. I grew to love that truck too, and I've never been without a truck since then.
I soon took it off-highway on a deserted high-desert two-track. I drove down into a gulch, then started climbing out the far side only to spin out on hard-pack with a skim of sand on top. I slowly backed down to the bottom and turned around and went the way I came, only to be stopped dead by the same conditions!
I had read that if you got stuck in sand, lowering the air pressure in the tires to about 10 psi would get you unstuck. I did so, and soon was moving, but the way was steep and almost to the top, I was stuck again.
I had also read to put weight in the bed to further facilitate traction, so I threw in about 300 pounds of rock and boulder and happily it did the trick. I was on my way, never to be stuck again with that Datsun. That adventure was a valuable lesson learned.
That also reminded me of the over-sized snow tires on Gordon Ghia. Once back to civilization, I promptly bought over-sized, aggressive snow tires for the Datsun's rear wheels with much wider rims. Make note, please.
I quickly grew tired of California with all of its people and smog, and in 1972 we and the Datsun moved to eastern Pennsylvania. That's when I was re-introduced to snow — deep, deep snow.
But I recalled the lesson of weight in the back for better traction. So I devised a scheme where I put a layer of cement blocks in the bed and covered them with plywood. I now had traction and room to still use the bed for hauling. That arrangement worked fabulously and I can't recall a time that snow or mud ever stopped or stuck me in the five years I had the Datsun.
In 1976 kid number-two was about to come along, and the Datsun was too small for our needs. So I regrettably traded "him" (the car, not the kid) for a 1975 Dodge van, with three speeds on the column and two-wheel drive. It was a half-ton short bed, and served me well for nine years; I never got stuck in it, either.
Of course I put aggressive tires, now radial, on the back, and replaced all the springs with one-ton varieties because I would be hauling cut firewood with it. In the winter, I again loaded a layer of cement blocks and the usual plywood.
If the snow was less than 12 inches or the drifts less than two feet, we managed fine. If it was worse, well, I stayed home!
Even here in New Mexico, if you go off-highway for any reason, such as to get to a favorite hiking spot, make sure you put at least 200 pounds of weight over the drive wheels; you'll thank me later. Also be sure to carry a shovel and a spare scissor jack to get into low places, plus a 12-by-12-inch piece of plywood to set the jack on for stability. Buy a good tire gauge and, if you have to, air your tires down to 10-15 psi. If winter snow is a problem, buy a bag or bucket of cheap kitty litter for traction in front of the drive wheels. Lay a path about six to eight feet long.
It wasn't as if the van ever left me down, but one day in 1985 I was passing a Ford dealership and there was a row of Ford pickups in 4WD. I turned around just to look-see and fell in love again. They were all identical except for color; all had six-cylinder engines and four-speed-overdrive trannies and were shortbeds.
I left for home to talk (beg) the missus to let me get one, and after a week she agreed. Back I went and found all but two were sold — one bright red, the other all white. After bargaining, I took Ol' White home with me. My first four-wheel drive!
It wore all-season radial tires, which weren't too bad — at least until I got stuck in a four-foot snow drift. The old saying is, "Four-wheel drive just gets you stuck deeper." How true! Learn this lesson well, my friends.
I soon added a camper cap on the bed so I could haul my kids in the back. Pennsylvania was now demanding seat belts for all passengers, so I installed a custom roll cage under the cap and bolted a bench seat, facing backwards with seat belts, to the cage. The kids were safer than we were in the front!
The cap had a boot instead of a window and with the sliding rear cab window open, we could talk to the kids and they got heat, too.
One time I went hunting in New York in the winter. I decided to pull up a remote two-track to sleep, went around to the back and crawled in. An hour later I heard a car engine. I sat up and there was an old Corvair driving slowly by. It disappeared and I went to sleep. But suddenly "a Voice" said to me in my mind, "Get up and get out of here now!"
I crawled through the window in my underwear and just as I started the engine I spied the Corvair coming back real slow like. I was gone! Over the years, I've learned to never ignore "The Voice."
Next month I'll continue my tale as we move to New Mexico and Ol' White comes, too.
As always, keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may The Forever God bless you too!
When not ramblin' outdoors, Larry Lightner lives in Silver City.