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1970 Suburban Rescue Mission

Posted in Features on November 11, 2016
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Photographers: Trenton McGee

When I think back to the start of this adventure one thing that sticks in my head was my good friend Trent McGee saying, “Maybe we should drive my 1984 CJ-7 to go get that three-door Suburban in northern Wyoming.” To which I replied, “That’s a great idea!” It wasn’t. In fact it was a horrible idea, but one I would never change if given the chance. It was a decision that lead to adventure, and that is what life is about. A vehicular-based exciting experience involving danger and unknown risks? Yes, please.

Anyone who is a lifelong truck nut has probably bumped into at least one vehicle that they wished they owned, a car or truck that had such a strong impression on them that they never forgot it and contemplated trying to buy it . . . or even considered its theft. I can think of a few vehicles that have made an impression in my life, but none of these vehicles are quite as unique as a certain 1970 Suburban, fondly known as Dino (rhymes with Reno).

I first ran into this 1/2-ton 4x4 Chevy Suburban in the late 1980s in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming. Why on earth was I in the middle of Wyoming in the late 1980s, you ask? Well, my dad was a paleontologist. That means he spent his life (and a lot of my life) combing the badlands of Wyoming and other arid areas of the world looking for fossil remains of life. I went with him every chance I got, and yeah, it was just like Jurassic Park, only we there was a lot less action and glamor. Also there was a lot more dust, dirt, rain, heat, rattle snakes, rats, biting insects, weeks without bathing, sand in food, sand in hair, sand in places no one wants to hear about, and more. It was wonderful and horrible! Being the son of a paleontologist means that since I was old enough to walk (I’m the baby of the family) my family didn’t spend summer vacation at the pool, relaxing at a lake cabin, or running around Disneyland, but rather out in the wilds of the world with our noses to the ground looking for rocks and fossils. I wouldn’t change it, any of it. It was fun, sad, happy, scary, hard, easy, and, in general, an amazing adventure.

Dino was a small part of this adventure. The truck was so simple and effective it always left a mark in my memory. It went everywhere we aimed it with grunt and force thanks to an anvil-simple combination of parts. Powerful V-8 engine, granny-geared manual transmission, bulletproof transfer case, solid axles, and suspension that was supple and perfectly broken in allowed Dino to work. Dino is and was a bear, a beast, a machine, in my adolescent mind. Unstoppable and built to work and last while carrying lots of stuff and people wherever.

Not surprisingly Dino has a story of its own. First purchased in 1970 by the American Museum of Natural History in New York for paleontological field work, Dino has been all over from New York City to Baja California. The stories from Dino’s past could fill a book, and hopefully some will grace the pages of this magazine as time passes. For now, know that I am one lucky 40-year-old boy who gets to play truck with a Suburban that he’s always wanted.

My plan is that Dino will undergo some minor upgrades, restorations, and modifications to ensure that this eclectic old hunk of American steel will continue to roll down the roads and trails that make up the American Southwest. I want to preserve and extending Dino’s vehicular life, sharing this truck and some of the experiences that it creates with my family and friends. Sounds great, right? First, there was a problem: Dino was in Worland, Wyoming, and I live near Phoenix, Arizona—hence the conversation with McGee that opened this little tale.

What could possibly go wrong? Let’s take a 1984 CJ-7 with a fresh engine swap on a 2,000-mile trip to recover an unseen 1970 Chevy Suburban. This kind of bad idea is a great way to ensure adventure. Trent McGree filled the CJ with the finest 87-octane fuel that could be had in Flagstaff, Arizona, two hours into the trip. So far so good! Don’t worry. That would change.

Just south of (and luckily, uphill from) Page, Arizona, after climbing a long grade, McGree’s turd-brown CJ-7 started stumbling like it was out of gas—only it wasn’t. We rolled downhill into Page and promptly stalled in the center of the first (and only) roundabout, dead-center of the northbound lane of Highway 89. Perfect. Luckily a nice guy in a Chevy truck with a handy chain towed us to a nearby gas station and out of increasingly annoyed traffic. Thanks, guy. Here we started trying to figure out why the 1995 Jeep Cherokee 4.0L in the CJ wasn’t running. We suspected the inline E2000 fuel pump because it was easy to blame (for no real good reason McGee had swapped the pump for a spare that was lying around). After the Jeep cooled down it ran just fine. We fueled up, bought a new (and third fuel pump from the Page parts house), and hit the road thinking we’d fixed the problem.

This looks familiar. A few hours north of Page, fully engulfed in the state that is Utah, just after scaling a grade, the Jeep stumbled and died just like it had in Page. Only this time we were nowhere near anything. McGee climbed underneath again and moved stuff around and felt a warm but not hot fuel pump, and a warm but not hot fuel tank. After scratching our heads for a while we decided that maybe the fuel filter was clogged. Fuel was reaching the fuel rail and there was pressure, but the problem seemed temperature related. McGee pulled the fuel filter, and we checked it for junk. Not much junk came out. Hmm. After waiting, and letting the Jeep cool down, it started and ran like a damned top, until . . .

About 40 minutes later the Jeep started to sputter near the top of a long uphill grade. To the side of the road we went. Still not sure what was wrong, we thought we’d try the brand-new fuel pump. Once the pump was installed, the Jeep had cooled off again and ran fine for about 40 minutes. At this point three significant things happened. For one, McGee realized he could now swap the fuel pump in his sleep. We also realized the fuel pump was not causing the problem. Some sensor or the computer was having a heat-related issue and whenever the Jeep was loaded (driving up a grade) it was getting hot and causing a freak-out. Knowing this, we kept going 40 minutes at a time with 10-20 minutes in between to let the Jeep cool off. So it took us about 13 hours to travel nine hours’ distance. As expected.

That evening and the next morning the subsequent several hundred miles were uneventful. The weather cooled off as night fell and elevations changed, making the heat-related issue with the Jeep disappear—that is, until we were about 25 miles from our destination. At this point just to mock and torture us, the temperature rose just enough to cause the Jeep to enter its heat/stall cycle. Luckily at this point we knew what to do: wait. Also, luckily for the Jeep, McGee had left his weapons of mass destruction at home. We were collectively ready to murder the Jeep and leave its hideous carcass to rot. If you have never experienced it, trust us when we say that it is very hard to wait for 10 minutes when you are a mere 25 minutes from the destination of a 1,000-mile drive.

After the Jeep cooled down enough to carry us the last 25 miles we fired the pig up and headed on down the road. As expected, we got within spitting distance of our destination and the Jeep sputtered and stalled to a stop next to Dino on the south end of Worland, Wyoming. Despite our judgment (or lack thereof) and the odds, we had arrived—and only four or five hours later than planned.

These are some of Dino’s self-appointed human caretakers. On the left is your author, 4WOR Tech Editor Verne Simons (and in this photo I’m the happiest 40-year-old boy you can imagine). On the right is Dr. Scott Wing of the Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History who had passed us the Dino torch. He bought Dino from the American Museum of Natural History in 1986 for a great price and has used the truck for field work ever since, mostly in Wyoming. Our next challenge was to get Dino (and the damned Jeep) fit for a 1,000-mile return trip to Arizona.

After a well-deserved night of rest at one of Worland, Wyoming’s, finest hotels, McGee and I undertook the inspection of Dino in hopes that we could get the truck ready for a 1,000-mile drive. The truck had been sitting since the previous summer and had a leaky gas tank. Under the hood lies a Chevy 350 V-8, swapped in in 1991 and still running the original 307 V-8’s Rochester two-barrel. The truck ran, but not well, and seemed to be suffering from a gummed-up carb and a sticking needle. McGee also noticed some leakage from a battery that looked brand new. He checked the charging system. It was working all right. At nearly 17 volts it was working too well. That’s bad. With a plan and a fix-it-list we headed to one of Worland’s auto parts stores for goods.

The parts store run yielded a new fan belt and a GM 1-wire alternator to cure our charging issue. We also grabbed a mechanical fuel pump for the Chevy, several fuel filters (expecting junk in the tank to cause an issue), some fuel hose, a set of points, fluids, rags, zip ties, a jerrycan, and more. The closest carburetor rebuild kit was in Salt Lake City, so McGee promised to show us a quick and dirty way to clean up a carb (more on that in a minute).

We took one of the clear fuel filters we had purchased and some of the fuel hose and added it to the fuel system before the steel factory-style fuel filter. This way we could keep an eye on what junk is moving through the fuel system as we added miles to Dino. We also carried one spare of each type of fuel filter.

Dino idled but wouldn’t rev much. He smelled of varnish, and despite a tank of fresh gas we knew the carb was all gummed up. The needle was sticking, but a few raps with a heavy-handled gasket scraper seemed to free up the needle, allowing Dino to rev again. We also zip-tied up the choke butterfly since it wasn’t all that cold and the thermal mechanism on the choke was dubious at best.

McGee showed us how to perform a backwoods tune-up. With the engine warm, rev the engine up to about 2,000-2,500 rpm. Hold a clean cloth over the opening of the carb while opening the throttle all the way. Do this twice, and the engine should run nice and smooth. The idea is that this creates a vacuum that will suck debris out of the various ports and passageways within the carb, dislodging schmutz and gunk. One way or another, Dino seemed to be running better. We’ll take that as a win. Of course, just after this photo was taken and Dino was running great, a pry bar used to tighten the fan belt fell and created a pinhole leak in the radiator. Add a bottle of radiator stop leak to the list of stuff to buy.

With Dino running as well as expected we hit the backroads around Worland exploring areas I’d visited when I was a kid. There are many roads on BLM land that anyone can explore, but be careful not to stray onto private land. Private land owners don’t like unexpected visitors. Respect their rights for all our sake.

Driving the Dino proved the drum brakes were in very good shape for their age. Dino is an oddly optioned vehicle with manual drum brakes on all four corners, manual steering, an SM465 transmission, an NP205 transfer case, 1/2-ton axles, manual locking hubs, rear barn doors, bench seats, a V-8, and Medium Bronze paint with Sandalwood trim interior. Along with the original owner’s manual, the glovebox also held an original order form from the Chevy dealership in NYC for the truck (shown).

With more than a few miles of dirt road under our tires for the day, McGee and I met up with Dr. Wing and camped out under the Wyoming Badland’s clear starry skies. Dino is a great expedition rig from long before expedition rigs were cool. The truck is also loaded with tons of history and stories. Next time we’ll tell you about our trip home to Arizona and a bit more about this unique truck. Until then, Dino has his own Facebook page at facebook.com/dinotheC10Suburban. Come say hi!

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