At least I thought it was a good idea. See, I've always held the dream of flying into a rural burg, finding a low-buck 4x4 to buy, getting it running, then driving it back home: the perfect gearhead adventure. So when Wade and Melissa Knapp of Mapleton, Utah, e-mailed Pw with the tempting subject line, "Wanna Buy a Flatfender?" our destiny seemed obvious. It lacked the randomness of tossing a dart at a map and wondering if there was a deal hiding in a barn somewhere, but at least the '46 CJ-2A in question hadn't run in 15 years. And at $550, how could we lose? To add to the comedy, we risked spousal death-threats by taking off just a week before Thanksgiving with the promise of hobbling home in time to carve the bird. We were on.
After grilling Wade for a list of everything the Jeep was missing, we put in a call to 4 Wheel Drive Hardware to get essentials that we didn't think could be scrounged from local boneyards: a tune-up kit and fuel pump, a Solex replacement carb, a radiator, a gas tank, lots of supporting pieces, and a set of reproduction 2A seat frames. The Optima yellow-top also came from 4 Wheel Drive Hardware, and we decided to convert to 12-volt using an alternator-bracket kit from Willys Works. Everything else would come from the locals. The guys at Sorensens Professional Automotive Care in Springville even offered up their pro garage and air tools for the effort, but that just didn't seem sporting. So we shipped our toolbox to Wade's work at Nozzle Tech USA in Utah, then got on the plane and headed for three days of wrenching in Wade's 38-degree garage.
We landed in Salt Lake City and made a beeline to the flatfender. It was obvious we'd done the right thing. The thing was barely rusty, bone-stock with the exception of the missing parts, and rich with the kind of patina that only comes with four or five brushed-on paint jobs and a rubdown of neglect. It's a look you can't pay for. The poor Willys had sat unappreciated since 1988 when it was last registered. Wade had saved it from the junkyard just a few months prior to our arrival. By midnight we had the 134ci Go Devil sputtering to life on a can of ether.
That was Thursday night. By Friday we'd enlisted Wade's pals Tony Canto and Nate Huff, who lent an enthusiastic hand, a few tools, and plenty of gophering. The throes of Jeep revival revealed that someone had begun to remove the engine from the chassis, which explained some of the missing parts, lots of loose bolts, and chopped-up wiring harnesses. Most of the removed hardware was under 3 inches of goo in the stock under-seat toolbox, but it puckered us up wondering why the engine needed to be pulled. The answer: Once we got it running full steam, there was a nasty clanking as the clutch fork, which had slipped off the throwout bearing, whacked the clutch fingers with every rotation of the engine. Easy fix. But there was a lot more fiddling, fingering, and rewiring than we anticipated, and once we were done, we'd made a collective 14 trips to parts stores, five to local junkyards, and one to a glorious Army-Navy surplus store where we scored the full-race, olive-drab, winter-wheeling garb of all time. We'd also discovered the miracle of PB Blaster rust penetrant and, surprising even ourselves, had gone to the Provo DMV to make the flattie legal and everything.
The '46 moved under its own power for the first time at Sunday noon and we were out wheeling alongside Wade's '53 M38A1 an hour later. It was up to the local dirt road of Hobble Creek where the flatfender's three-out-of-four vintage Tru-Tracs made way through the mud and falling snow, the L-head happily puttering on all four as we snatched the T-90 trans through all three gears. The brakes worked fine after just two pumps of the pedal, and the steering slop was manageable. Lack of wipers in the storm forced us to the logical conclusion: flop down the windshield. When you're adventuring with a window-down flattie, all is right with the world. Never mind that it would take two days for our knees and cheeks to thaw; we were home free. Wet, but home free.
A day late, but with no shortage of fun, we were on the highway home by Monday, wrapped in our OD gear and ready to pound 900-plus miles in the face of the freeze. After three days and nights in Springville, where you can't buy a full-strength Corona to save your life, this was how it was supposed to be! Beating a hasty escape from the main roads, we aimed for the byways, both of us ignoring the growing death knock from under the hood. Just a rattle? Exhaust loose against the frame? No. It was clear. Rod bearings were letting go, and the oil-pressure gauge wouldn't let us overlook it any longer. The Go Devil was hurt.
Our flattie limped back to town on the little access roads, ashamed of its failure but still motoring. It knew not to seize until we got right in front of the hotel. Time to regroup. We could get bearings shipped overnight, rebuild the engine, and never get home in time to ever be allowed to play again. We could ship the Jeep home and fly back, but that would be lame. So we made the only real choice: buy a beater and flat-tow the sucker home. The Springville/Mapleton area was thick with clapped-out trucks for sale, most of 'em way cheaper than the price of a last-minute airline ticket. So Wade loaned us his Cherokee to hunt for a deal. We had four hours to buy a running truck or risk another day in town. A local used-car lot had our prize hiding in the back. It hadn't run in half a year, but all we had to do was borrow a flashlight from the pawnshop across the street and change a fuel pump in the dark to take it home. My fly-and-buy scenario had been realized the hard way, and with just a few more trips to the parts store.
But let me tell ya, we scored one fine piece of equipment. It's not every day you can pay $500 for a truck and get not only a gun rack, but also a Vanilla-Rama air freshener, "Keep on Truckin'" floor mats, and a crocheted cowboy hat on the rearview. It was all hangin' on a '78 F-100 shortbed with a 302 and a T-18 four-speed. And check out those swanky stripes! The brakes were less than marginal, but with a manual trans and a functional horn, we figured two out of three wasn't bad. The steering wheel was little more than an implement of suggestion (what radius-arm bushings?). We were disappointed that the pickup was two-wheel drive, but once all the rust falls off it'll make a primo prerunner, and don't you think we're not already scheming in that direction.
The hang-up left us, for the third time, checking back into the Best Western where the desk clerk is a 4-Wheel & Off-Road reader who laughed all the way with us. Seems we made a pretty big scene in town, 'cuz the guy at the Jiffy Lube the next morning eyed our choice Ford, then our ODs, and said, "Hey, aren't you the ones who were driving that little Jeep around yesterday?" That's us. Ricky Hopkins heard the tale of our plight and kindly offered to loan us his magnetic tow lights, saving us a few hours of wiring the Jeep behind the also-borrowed towbar. Four-wheelers are good people.
A new challenge presented itself: It was now the Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving. We'd spent a year in Utah that week, and now we had to find a way to turn the trip into an adventure while getting home in just a day and a half. Sure, 900 miles in an untried $500 Ford latched to a fragged flatfender seems risky enough, but that's just regular stuff. Pw and I have many rules of the road, and chief among 'em is Dirt Every Day. That's why these things are called D.E.D. Tours, and they've taken us to the reaches of the continent in sundry high-character 4x4s. The F-100 hardly counted as such, but that wasn't going to stop us.
After a gruesome delay in the concrete-jungle outskirts of Salt Lake we were on to the Bonneville Salt Flats, then to the remnants of the Wendover airfield where the WWII crews of the Enola Gay and the Bockscar trained for the atomic missions over Japan. Then it was flatfoot into the Nevada desert, seeking the odd dirt roads and navigating by D.E.D. reckoning to California's old Route 66 and then the abandoned Kelso Depot that served Kaiser Steel during the war.
By the time we hit home, we figured we'd nearly died only four or five times, not counting nearly getting run over by the truck and Jeep (seems the truck's 302 has little to offer in compression-braking holding power on a hill) after the front wheel fell off the Jeep while pulling into Pw's driveway. This thing knows when to break, because, like a good Jeep, it did what was important: got us home in time, in one piece, and ready to live the dream another day. Sure, the trip cost something like $3,600 all told, and we could have had a full-on Hawaiian vacation for the same price. But who'd want to do that when you can have this kind of fun and two vehicles left over to prove it?