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1970 Suburban Rescue Mission Part. 2

Posted in Features on November 15, 2016 Comment (0)
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Wait, if you haven’t read Part 1 of Dino the Dinosaur, do so now. If you are too impatient for that, let me try to catch you up. As tech editor, I have had the chance to own, nay, take care of some very cool and unique rigs. The pinnacle thus far of this strange yet somewhat admirable collection has to be the 1970 Chevy Suburban known as Dino (rhymes with Reno). This is one rig that carries as many, if not more, stories and history as any other rig of its vintage. First bought in 1970 by The American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York (we’ve got the original order form from a New York dealership), and subsequently owned by a Dr. Scott Wing, a paleobotonist from The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., Dino has been used on countless scientific expeditions around the western United States.

I first bumped into the truck in the mid to late 1980s while on “vacation” in Wyoming with my paleontologist parents. Ever since, the memory of the copper-colored Suburban half-ton that was anvil-simple and point-and-shoot capable has stuck in my mind. Through annoyance and perseverance, I was able to talk Dr. Wing into parting with the truck. The plan is to update a few of Dino’s components, refresh some of the old parts, and give this widely loved Suburban a new lease on life while preserving the paint patina (including the hand-painted image of a dinosaur) and history. And while that’s the plan, the first step was to rescue Dino from its retirement in Worland, Wyoming, and get it back to Peoria, Arizona, where I can undertake the efforts at preservation.

Last time, we told you about my harebrained adventure to go and get the Suburban (including a thousand-mile road trip in a 1984 CJ-7 with no lack of issues) and most of the things we did to get Dino ready for the thousand-mile trip back. This time, we both literally and figuratively “bring it home,” with more misadventure as my former friend Trent McGee and I hurtle back to Arizona in not one but two dubious vehicles.

If you have never heard of Meeteetse, Wyoming, join the club. It’s a cool little time capsule of a town with boardwalks and history in the middle of nowhere. As the economy has fluctuated over the past 20 years, the town and its few tourist attractions, museums, bars, and eclectic mercantile have struggled to stay afloat. Unfortunately the mercantile closed down a few years back and, at the time of our visit, was up for sale. Meeteetse would be a great place to get away from the grind of the modern world permanently or a great spot to grab lunch on the way through town during a backroads drive. The environment is varied and stunning if that’s what you’re after (it is close to the badlands to the east and beautiful mountains to the west), but there isn’t much opportunity to get rich if that’s your goal.

With work deadlines piling up for both Trent McGee and me, it was time to hit the road home—but not without passing through the world’s oldest, and one of the most beautiful, National Parks, Yellowstone. Yellowstone is amazing. Be sure to see the geysers, and keep your eyes peeled for bison, elk, bears, moose, and more. McGee’s CJ also ran cooler and better once most of the gear and 50 percent of the humans were transferred to Dino. The Jeep still began to hiccup and snort at the top of hot steep hills but usually sputtered along until it cooled off enough to continue the trip. After the trip, a replacement CPU for the 4.0L in the CJ seems to have solved the heat-related issue.

The obligatory photo of Dino next to the Yellowstone Park sign! Notice the small puddle of coolant under the front? Despite a bottle or two of radiator stop-leak, the pinholes in Dino’s well-worn radiator continued to plague us on the journey back to Arizona. Luckily the weather was cool and overcast, with a little rain, and we had plenty of coolant and water.

No one expected a 1970 1/2-ton 4x4 Suburban to get great gas mileage. The 20-gallon tank has been beaten to the point that it only holds about 18 gallons and weeps from years of repairs and patches. For that reason we drove by many amazing vistas, but not by many gas stations, without stopping to fuel up. One of the coolest gas stations we hit was the Fishing Bridge Service Station on the northern side of Lake Yellowstone. Dino and McGee’s 1984 CJ-7 look right at home next to the vintage service station and eclectic mini-mart.

One old trick to fix a leaky gas tank is to rub the tank (more specifically the leak) with a bar of soap. The gas and soap form a paste that acts like a temporary plug. Our hope was we could get a little better fuel mileage as well as decrease the amount of fluids we were leaving in our nation’s parks. The problem with Dino’s tank is it has many leaks, patches, repairs, dents, creases, and more. The tank looks like it has been crushed by the jaws a tyrannosaur, gusseted with some petrified wood, patched with native lead solder, and reinstalled.

If you’ve never been to Yellowstone, go ASAP. You may also not know that Yellowstone is bordered on the south by Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest. The whole area is beautiful and mostly unchanged since the days before Lewis and Clark first passed north of the region.

With a couple hundred miles under our belts on the return trip, we stopped in Grand Tetons to smell the sage and flowers. Next time we are in the area we have to take more time to explore, but for now the modern world was calling us home.

Hi friend! Dino, meet Dino. That’s right, Sinclair Oil’s green Apatosaurus is also named Dino. Of course, Dino and Dino have met before as Sinclair is a privately owned Wyoming fuel company.

As our trip continued uneventfully we traveled into Utah, where McGee and I got an itch for more dirt roads. With a little detour we hit some backroads in southern Utah. What a great time to stop for some detail shots on Dino. This truck belongs on dirt two-tracks with the smell of sagebrush in the air.

Dino’s front axle is a closed-knuckle, drum-brake Dana 44. The brakes work pretty well but do leave something to be desired when stopping. We’d like to upgrade Dino to an open-knuckle, disc-brake Dana 44 with the later, larger 5-760X U-joints.

Factory steel wheels just belong on this rig. And check out those Warnesque factory locking hubs (the original order sheet calls them “front wheel warning hubs [locking])”). The tires are in decent shape, but the suspension is tired, and who doesn’t like a slightly larger-than-stock tire on a vintage rig?

Dents and rust holes help tell the story of Dino, and we don’t want to change that. This dent has been here a while. We’d love to know what caused it. Wheel fell off? Flat tire? Rock? We may never know.

Our plan is to stop or slow the rust and repair any issues that affect performance of the vehicle, safety, and/or things that could get worse. We have a plan to retain what Dino is while making it better, stronger, faster. Guess where all this will happen? In the pages of 4-Wheel & Off-Road, of course!

Maybe a good cleaning, some roof repair, and a little touchup on the Deinonychus on Dino’s flanks.

Dino’s engine is a Chevy 350 swapped in in 1989 to replace the tired and original 307 V-8. Were pretty sure Dino would be much happier with a larger carburetor, fuel injection, a more modern ignition system, and an exhaust that flows a bit better.

The rear axle is a Chevy 12-bolt, which should be plenty strong for what we plan on using Dino for in the future. It is probably a good idea to spend some time with it, changing fluid and bearings. Does Dino need a locker? We’ll see.

The Chevy 350 is bolted to an NP465 with a granny First and a bulletproof NP205 transfer case. We love that drivetrain combo, but the manual steering has to go. A junkyard power steering upgrade should be simple to make happen. Also note the bare-bones interior with vinyl floor coverings and bench seats.

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