author thought he’d escaped his father’s feverish, sentimental, problematic fascination with old cars. Then how is it that he found himself driving
a 1970 International Harvester Scout—and towing a 1964 behind—from
Albuquerque, New Mexico to Chicago?
By David R. Murray
Last fall I went out of my way—to Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—to find an International Harvester Scout.
That’s right: I actually set out to buy one of these gas-guzzlers. I was hoping to bring into my already daily life a decrepit vehicle whose spare parts are in high demand and infinitesimal supply. It was my stated intention to get myself a truck that would likely rust away before the thaw. (Old “Scouters” tell a story about a man who was once buried in his Scout, and for some reason, dug up a few years later. The man’s skeleton was all that remained. The truck was gone.) What could I have been thinking? What had gotten into me?
Car Collector readers, I don’t think I have to tell you.
Like everyone, I guess, growing older has meant becoming less and less surprised each time I see another unintended similarity between my parents and myself—similar tastes, foibles, habits, reactions to things. “My God, I’m becoming my mother!” “My God, I am my father.” My dad, who has the distinct disadvantage of still being alive while I go through this grinding process of accepting the inevitable imprint of my parents—my mother died long ago—bears my protests gracefully for the most part. And generally, my stated resistance to “becoming” my father is feigned. I can think of many worse people to become than my dad.
But I had really hoped I’d escaped the old car thing—my dad’s feverish, sentimental money pit. "The hobby,” as he calls it (instead of “the fetish”). If I learned one thing growing up with my dad, it was that this old car thing is nothing but trouble—nerves, heartache, anticlimax, and head-scratching humiliation—especially for guys who don’t have the foggiest idea how to an old car running. For most old-car nuts, an old car is a problem. For Dad—all of whose tools except for one unwieldy pair of tin snips fit into an empty can of Pringles potato chips—it was a problem he couldn’t solve.
At 31, I had enough impossible problems. A professional writer, a middling golfer, a suffering Chicago Cubs fan, the last thing I needed to add to that list of misfortunes and bad habits was “Scout owner.”
Nevertheless, last October I found myself west on Route 70 with my old college roommate Tom Gillespie. It was his diesel Chrysler pick-up truck and his two 30-year-old Triumph motorcycles crammed in the bed. But it was my $5,000 cash jammed uncomfortably in my hip pocket, they were my directions to strangers’ homes in Kansas City and Fort Collins and Flagstaff and Albuquerque, and it was my briefcase full of snapshots taken in driveways.
My destiny as an old-car guy hadn’t overtaken me yet; but I had to admit, it was riding my bumper.
Tire tracks back: How I got into this situation
You know the Scout. It’s that utilitarian Tonka truck IH made throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The company’s motive was reportedly less for profit and more for the gratification of top execs whose bread-and-butter lay in farm equipment and big rigs, but who liked the idea of being in the light truck business (and of being in light trucks themselves).
Discontinued in 1980, the trucks were made with V-8 engines built to last but bodies built to rust. Needless to say, Scouts didn’t thrive in the midwest.
Among the casualties of the salt, I imagine, is the maroon 1978 Scout II that Tom and I co-owned in the summer of 1990, our last year at Kent State University in Ohio. We bought it for $100, and put almost that much in its cavernous and leaky gas tank the first time we filled it up. We drove that Scout all summer long without the benefit of a top (the removable hard-top was miles away in Cleveland), a working gas gauge, or doors that would open (they were integral to the structure of the truck)—let alone license plates or insurance. Late that fall, our landlord towed the snow-filled truck away—perhaps from the front yard, where we often parked it. Clearly not quite equipped to take responsibility for this vehicle, Tom and I did not protest; we were secretly grateful for the service.
But we had so much fun driving that big box around all summer, both of us vowed that someday, when we could afford to have a car that was either breaking down or guzzling gas at the rate of one gallon for every eight miles, we would each have one. We were just talking, of course. Neither of us thought we’d ever get that rich.
But now, 10 years later, Tom runs a successful business in Cleveland and I make a good living as a freelance writer in Chicago. I’d started thinking about getting a second car “to run errands during the day” while my wife, a school teacher, hogged our Nissan Xterra, driving it to school every day. At first, I thought I’d get a used VW Golf or Chevy S-10, but my thinking on this matter moved surely and steadily from practical, to the impractical, to the truly imbecilic. Next thing you know, Tom and I were bound for Kansas City to see the first of several westerly Scouts I’d found on the Internet; if I didn’t buy it, Tom probably would (for the eminently useful chore of plowing snow on his various properties, he insisted).
Were we crazy, taking 10 days away from our paying jobs to drive thousands of miles with the intention of buying not one, but likely two old trucks, one of which we’d trail back, the other one we’d drive? Quite to the contrary, Tom and I had convinced ourselves by the time we crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis: You’d be crazy not to do this.
It’s not about cars, it’s about people
It’s the unifying theme of all of my dad’s Car Collector pieces over the last 20 years: People pay good money for old cars not, primarily, for their intrinsic worth (which, in the case of a Scout, amounts to little more than about three tons of scrap steel) but for their sentimental human value—memories and feelings people associate with cars. It is on these memories that sellers of old cars put price tags.
In the case of this Scout, the man in Kansas City was asking $3,000 even. Though I had first dibs on this truck—Tom and I had agreed that if we found nothing we wanted in our planned loop through Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, we’d pick this baby up for me on the way back east—it was Tom who was under the truck, down in the engine, under the floor mats, inspecting the metal, listening to all the facts. I was talking with the owner’s wife, trying to convince her that I deserved the baby blue 1978 Terra that she and her husband loved so much.
She and her husband were having some bad times. She’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a couple of years ago, and had to stop working. Around the same time, two of their elderly parents had fallen ill and needed care. The couple was financially strapped and could really use the money that the sale of the Scout would provide. “Besides, I need really a bigger truck,” her husband was saying unconvincingly. I was trying to show that I was a good enough guy and enough of a Scout lover to give this lover a good home.
Meanwhile, Tom was driving a hard bargain. “How low will you go?” I heard him asking the owner, who replied he didn’t want to budge from the $3,000. Obviously, the guy didn’t want to sell the truck at all; he’d been overwhelming Tom with an endless list of things wrong with the truck—bad rust and chronic carburetor problems, for two—and offering lots of statements like, “It’s a good truck—if you like to tinker.”
We left discouraged; yes, this truck would serve as a good back-up plan, but we hoped we’d find something a little more mechanically reliable—and with a little less emotional baggage—down the road.
The next truck we saw fulfilled both requests. A 1975 Scout II in Fort Collins, Colo. proved virtually rust-free (except for one corroded cab-mount underneath), mechanically sound (other than the fact that the V-8 engine was running rough during our entire test-drive), and reasonably safe (if you don’t count the brakes, which, when pressed, caused the car to shimmy a little). But as far as Scouts go, these problems were minor, and cheaply remedied; and the turquoise interior and striped exterior made the truck totally charming. Hence, the steep $5,000 asking price.
The owner was out of town. He had trustingly left the keys in the ashtray with the instructions, “Enjoy, don’t wreck.” We were to call him where he was vacationing out east, if we wanted to negotiate. I had Tom call and pretend he was me; I cringed as he listed all the faults of the car right off the bat. If it were me, I’d have spent at least the first five minutes of the conversation waxing eloquent about the “character” of the truck, trying to draw out his own stories about the truck, and begging him to sell it to me by telling him how desperately I wanted it. But then, that’s why I asked Tom to make the call in the first place.
Tom got him down to $3,500, and the fellow agreed to hold the car for a week or so; we’d get back to him after we’d checked out a few more cars. We could come back through and pick it up. Now we had a better back-up.
Cars are about people, but car negotiations shouldn’t be.
How my dad got me into this situation
I guess it’s really laughable, the idea that a son of Tom Murray could keep from catching the old car bug.
After all, I was brought up on cars, brought up in cars. On long drives with Dad—many of them to car museums and car shows, others to airplane museums and air shows, train exhibits, etc.—we talked a lot about cars. Actually, he talked and I listened. I remember, at a very young age, perhaps eight or nine, hearing an endless regurgitation of Richard Langworth’s book, The Last Onslaught on Detroit, the story of Kaiser-Frazer.
As I remember those hours, I must say they were some of the most boring I have ever spent. And, as I look back, some of the most formative.
It was something to be talked to, however inappropriately, as an adult, on adult subjects. How many kids, at that age, find themselves contending with words like “onslaught” and trying to understand why somebody would want to attack a city in Michigan. I’ve always appreciated the vocabulary lesson, and credited my dad’s long talks about cars, boats, trains, and planes for giving me an early education in any number of things, most importantly, how to be an American man. (Step One: Admit that you are powerless over your desire to travel, and that your life has become unmanageable.)
What I don’t appreciate are some other hand-me-downs—or, rather, a lack of practical tools to go along with my intellectual and emotional understanding of cars and things. But then, we’ve already discussed my inheritance: one Pringles can big enough to hold my tools and mechanical know-how both.
Now, let’s talk about how my father sheltered me from the truest joy to be found outside of a lover’s bed: Motorcycling.
In a Car Collector article some years back, Dad told a funny story from his teens. He was snooping around the local car dealership in Middletown, where his father was a top executive at Armco Steel, his family a prominent member of the company town. The dealer asked him what he was doing looking at motorcycles. Apparently afraid of admitting he had no good reason to be there, my dad said he was in the market for a motorcycle.
The dealer laughed: “Ain’t no Murray gonna buy no sickle.”
Perhaps this mild humiliation discouraged my dad from ever getting on a motorcycle again. He would grow up to become a pilot and a boater, but he never got a motorcycle out of a parking lot, and I never had, either. So when I told my dad that Tom and I were taking out west with us two of Tom’s Triumph motorcycles (a 1971 Bonneville and a 1966 Tiger), Dad was quiet for about 10 pregnant seconds before he said, “I thought Tom had more regard for you than that.”
Though it seemed terribly unlikely that these old, hard-starting, plug-fouling bikes would both run right when we needed them to, they made a great conversation piece along the way, especially when we got off the highways and passed through small towns on small roads where they don’t see Triumph motorcycles very often. A liquor store owner in western Kansas told us he had to attend to a customer, but if we’d wait a few minutes, “I’d be more than happy to bullshit with you all afternoon about these bikes.”
The north rim is perfect in October; because it’s so late in the year, and so much less accessible than the south rim, there’s nobody there. We got down to the rim just as the sun was beginning to burn off the frost. In the parking lot of the closed North Rim Lodge, we parked the truck, backed the bikes down the two-by-eight board we’d brought for the purpose, got the motors fired up, and after a quick tutorial—on and off the whole trip we’d been talking about the gears (right foot) and the clutch (left handlebar) and the brake (left foot, right handlebar)—we were blabblablabbing miraculously off, our bare faces stinging, then aching, then numb from the cold, down the winding road that runs through the forest along the Grand Canyon.
The Aspens through which the road is carved were all bright yellow, blurring when I kicked it up into third (right foot). We hit turns at 35 miles per hour, got it up to 60 on the straights. Once, Tom, who was riding about a half-mile ahead of me, had to stop for a deer standing right in the middle of the road. That was all the traffic we saw until we wound up a steep hill around a few switchbacks and came out on top and beheld the Grand Canyon, stretching out like you simply cannot believe any physical thing besides an ocean can. I remember breathing hard and deep as I killed the engine, climbed off the bike, put the kickstand down, and forgot then remembered to shut off the gas to the carbs. Standing there on the edge, still high from the ride, we didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes. I broke the silence by telling Tom, after some reflection to make sure I wasn’t overstating the case, “God, I’m so happy.”
Don’t worry, Dad, I ain’t buying no sickle; after that ride, I don’t think I ever need to ride one again.
Back on the trail: Scouts in Albuquerque
Enough side trips: After spending an equally glorious Thursday morning flying over the south rim in a Cessna 172 we rented in Flagstaff—Tom is a pilot—I was through with side trips. I was getting anxious to get a Scout and get home in time for work on Monday.
We made it into Albuquerque Thursday night; we had an appointment an hour north of town to see the Scout I’d been holding out for all this time—a supposedly rust-free 1964 Scout 80 three-speed. The asking price was $3,300; the owner had raised it to that rate from $3,000.
Tom and I had argued the night before when he’d overheard me on my cell phone arranging the meeting. “You’re not going to back out on this deal, are you?” I practically cried into the phone, falling for the guy’s phony bluff that he was suddenly thinking about not selling it.
“Congratulations,” Tom sneered when I got off the phone. “Now you’re begging for the privilege of buying the car.”
I whined back hysterically, “I never said I was any good at negotiating!”
I don’t know how well my dad handled these sorts of negotiations when he was wheeling and dealing in old cars, but I’ll bet he wasn’t much better than me (though he couldn’t have been much worse). My childhood memory does associate with these interactions—I was part of several—a great deal of emotional tension.
That tension was up in me as Tom and I growled slowly down a pitch-black country road—you don’t know dark until you’ve driven in New Mexico at night—and overshot the house several times. Finally we made our way down a long dirt driveway at the end of which the owner lived in a trailer home. The Scout was parked in some weeds outside. As we stood talking to the owner beside the car, I found that again, I wasn’t listening to any of the particulars. I was all over the place, gazing up at the stars popping out of that black sky, trying to get a read on the guy’s character. I was anxious to drive the truck, and afraid to drive it—for good reason. Aside from the seats and the tires, the truck was all bare metal. It made a shattering ruckus in that New Mexico night, and the noise tore and shook my perfect dream of this car, nurtured and gently fondled over many weeks since I’d seen it on the Internet.
After the test drive, Tom and I sat alone in the truck drinking bottles of beer the owner offered us, and talking it over.
One of my criteria was already blown: Going into this trip, I was hoping to find a truck good enough for my wife to drive if I needed the Xterra to visit a client. Would my wife be able to drive this? Able, probably. Willing, maybe. Pleased? I doubted it.
On the other hand, the Scout was indeed rust-free, and the four-cylinder motor yielded an unexpected blessing: 18 miles to the gallon.
Of course, this low-geared, three-speed truck—it whined at 60—would definitely have to be trailered home, a several-hundred-dollar expense.
The considerations were endless; it was getting late. I decided most of my reluctance could be chalked up to one simple truth: The abstract idea of buying an old car is infinitely more pleasant than the shockingly concrete act of handing over perfectly useful greenbacks for an eminently impractical piece of steel so large and ungainly that even throwing it away will be difficult. You get $3,300, I get a huge problem.
Inside the trailer, my hands shook as I began to count out the $100s. I took a long drink of the beer and I sat down and braced my hands on the table and counted out the rest. Then, one final unanticipated sensation: Intense relief, at being rid of all that cash I’d been carrying around in my hip pocket for a week.
I was in the old car thing now.
Two guys, two motorcycles, and three trucks
Having determined we weren’t going back through Fort Collins or Kansas City but rather through the Texas panhandle, across Oklahoma and up through Missouri and Illinois, we towed my Scout around Albuquerque Friday morning in one last-ditch attempt to find a truck for Tom.
“This would be the point in the trip where we’re totally out of control,” Tom cracked, as we pulled into the driveway of yet another stranger trying to sell yet another Scout, this a somewhat rusted orange 1970 Scout 80 V-8 with a power winch.
Actually, we weren’t totally out of control. For instance, we had decided not to visit another Albuquerque Scout whose owner had offered, over the Internet, to sell his denim-blue Scout II for $4,500, “or will trade for the following items: Sako, Ruger, or Winchester rifles in .223, .270, 30-30 or 30-06—depending on condition, etc. up to the appraised price of the firearm. Single shot .22lr rifles—same criteria, except no old Remingtons, Thompson Contender barrels in .22WMRF, .30 carbine, 30-30—same same.” This fellow later remarked that his ideas on gun control are, “once I own them all. they're easier to control,” and specified that we visit after 7:00 p.m., because he had jury duty.
Tom and I took the orange Scout for a half-mile test drive, determined that it had one strong engine, a fair amount of rust distributed evenly over the body and the undercarriage, and almost no brakes at all. On the basis of that sound analysis, he bought it for $1,400 and we roared off down Route 40 East—two guys, two motorcycles, and three trucks. Despite a terrible gas spill at a gas station just outside Albuquerque (one of the Scout’s two gas tanks sprang a major leak, and we had to seal it, restart the car with a fire extinguisher trained on the tail pipe, and then rely solely on the 10-gallon left tank), we made Oklahoma City Friday night, and after another long day of driving, pulled this wagon train into heavy Chicago traffic Saturday night around 11:00.
On this epic journey home we drove in shifts, alternating between the comfortable Chrysler diesel and the bellowing, rattling, vibrating orange Scout. Connected only by two-way radios which we used sparingly to save the batteries, we had a great deal of time to reflect. I thought about what, besides the inevitable gravity of my father’s influence, drew me into my particular corner of this old-car hobby. I like a Scout because it’s a truck—hard and square and bare and tangible. Unlike modern cars—and computers and Palm Pilots and cell phones and Internet Service Providers—this car is made up of a finite number of parts whose properties and limitations I can understand. That’s comforting to me. I also like a Scout for the same reason—I do not know what that reason is—that my dog is a floppy-eared, dull-eyed English Springer Spaniel and not a sleek Doberman or a smart Lab. I like a Scout because it is old and it makes me feel as though I have a root system, however shallow, however fragile.
And I like a Scout because of the way I felt the last time I had a Scout, back in college—young and strong and sexy and a little reckless—and the way it’s making me feel again.
Postscript: Reality sets in
At this writing, I’ve had the Scout in Chicago three weeks, and it’s been in the shop for all but two days. The local mechanics, a little cowed by what they call my “safari truck,” can’t seem to get the clutch so that it holds pressure.
The good news is, I’ve found a guy in Duluth, Minn., who specializes in 1960s Scout parts, and can generally get me every part I need—so far, a clutch rod, a slave cylinder, and a master cylinder. And if not, there’s a Scout guy on the south side of Chicago who says he knows where all the Scouts are in all the junkyards in northern Illinois and Indiana, though he warns me in an e-mail that the only yard that has Scouts as old as mine is his least favorite: “The owner’s name is Bob B---- and he is known scornfully as the fat man. He has a huge yard with tons of good old stuff, but he is a total ass to deal with. As soon as you ask him how much for a part he asks how much are you willing to pay. Whether or not you negotiate a price beforehand, when you bring the part up, you start over after you have gone to the trouble to pull it.”
So far, I haven’t had to deal with the fat man yet—just my man in Duluth and my wide-eyed local mechanics. But with them, I’m on a first-name basis; in fact, we already have an intense, intimate relationship characterized by frustration and sorrow: I am always frustrated with them; they are usually feeling sorry for me. I’m an emotional wreck.
Reluctantly I called my dad a couple of days ago, for advice. He’s the one who got me into this mess, and he’s presumably the only one who might be able to help me through it.
So I asked him: “Dad, do you remember when you got your ’40 Buick and it took the restorer two years to do the job?”
He laughed. “Yes, I remember that quite clearly.”
“How did you live without it for all that time?”
He hesitated only a moment and then said, “I didn’t. I bought the Frazer.”