I'd actually been planning this trip for two years. I wanted to do it last year, but the planets weren't aligned properly. Apparently, that is still the case. The idea was to attend the sixth annual FSJ Invasion held every July in Ouray, Colorado. With no less than six FSJs in the staff fleet, it seemed like a no-brainer. Technical Editor Christian Hazel, Associate Editor Pete Trasborg, Publisher Jeff Nasi, and I committed to making the 1,700-mile trek early on. None of us actually made it. There are three versions to this story, if for no other reason than your amusement.
Pete and Christian went to work thrashing on their M-715s nearly every waking moment to get them road-ready. Pete was undoubtedly adding something like a compass that uses GPS satellite input rather than the tried-and-true magnetic kind that has served the rest of mankind for over 2,000 years, all while his engine runs at an uncomfortable 200 degrees Fahrenheit around town. Pete likes things unnecessarily complex, and his M-715 certainly has more wiring than stock. In fact, I'm the sure the linear footage of wire in Pete's Jeep rivals that in the space shuttle and maybe even a Nissan truck.
Christian, on the other hand, simply likes to set himself up for failure. It gives me ulcers just thinking about the projects he takes on. To his credit, he often predicts his future failure, but he goes through with it anyway. "Build a Jeep For $10 in 10 Hours," "Drive a Rust Bucket Across the U.S.," "Sneak Across the Iraqi Border in a Surry Flatfender," and "Running on Five Horsepower For 500 Miles" could all be potential headlines for future stories by Christian. It just so happens that this particular story was "28 Days to Failure" (page 52).
So while the rest of the staff was feverishly working away - Pete adding several miles of wire and Christian learning how to bench press an NP200 with wasted seals - I took a weekend to change the oil in my J-20 and then went waterskiing.
Jeff bailed out the Monday before we planned to leave due to the fact he had just returned from a 3,000-mile adventure. I postponed the shove off by a day so Christian could finish his rig, but a wasted engine pulled Christian from the manifest 24 hours later.
With Christian out of the game, we were down to two rigs, my J-20 and Pete's M-715. Pete had been having problems with his fuel system, so I wasn't very optimistic. I headed toward his residence in Riverside, California, anyway (about 80 miles away) hoping he would have it fixed by the time I got there. He didn't. So I sat around while Pete got dirtier than anyone I have ever seen just to change a fuel pump. I mean, it's two bolts and a pair of hose clamps, and Pete looked like he had swapped a tranny and cleaned it with his shirt. Anyway, he eventually got the overly complex M-715 on the road, and we were motoring toward Barstow.
It couldn't have been more than 10-15 miles later that he started worrying about overheating. We pulled over and felt under the hood to find it didn't feel any hotter than under the hood of my truck. I convinced him the gauge-sending unit was the culprit because it was located close to an exhaust port. Besides, it wasn't my bread-truck 366 big-block.
After a failed attempt at following Historical Route 66, we turned around and got back on Interstate 5 to climb up and over the Cajon Pass. Pete's M-715 started puking coolant about halfway up the grade, so we pulled over. Apparently, the largest radiator he could hack into place (from a big-block Chevy truck) and the two hacked-in Ford Taurus electric fans weren't enough to keep his engine cool. One of the fans had pretty much fallen apart (by the way, Pete, zip ties are not a permanent mounting solution) and wasn't working anymore, but we were moving fast enough that he shouldn't have needed it anyway. It was only about 90 degrees, so I was skeptical about his rig making it through the 115-degree desert to Las Vegas, much less all the way to Colorado. We removed the fan and plugged on while he watched the gauge rise and his motor roast.
It's funny how parts stores in bad neighborhoods attract crappy trucks and odd people. Pete and his M-715 fit in perfectly. We stopped in at an AutoZone for a new electric fan and a few supplies to move the gauge-sender to the water neck. I say we, but I didn't do much in the way of repairs. Instead, this gave me plenty of time to make fun of Pete's Jeep and get a better look at its complexity. Under the hood is pure entertainment. There are dual batteries, one of which isn't hooked up. However, there is enough double aught gauge cable, solenoids, relays, and circuit breakers under there to wire up eight batteries and power a lighted merry-go-round. My all-time favorite is the hydroboost brake booster connected to the factory four-wheel drums. The brakes work so well, in fact, that they drag if Pete doesn't lift up on the brake pedal. I also found a hardware store's worth of loose, lost, and unclaimed hardware in the nooks and crannies, not to mention lost zip ties, spray-can caps, and other miscellaneous crap. If I ever need a bolt, nut, washer, or zip tie for a field fix, I'm heading under the hood of Pete's Jeep.
Between staring at the side-show freakdom under the hood of Pete's Jeep and taking photos of said freak show, I ended up helping a random guy change out a flat tire. He looked as though he was about ready to die in the heat. Apparently, less than six-months earlier, he had - due to a heart attack. He even insisted on showing me the foot-long scar down the middle of his chest leftover from the open-heart surgery. So rather than let this guy keel over and die (again) right in front of me, I insisted that I change out the flat tire for him while Pete monkeyed with his Jeep.
A couple hours later we were back on the road, but still not to Barstow. Pete's rig was overheating again, so we called it quits. At that point, he turned around and steamed his 366 back to Riverside. I headed out into the desert and beelined it home.
I only made it 205 miles into the trip. Maybe next year I can double that. If nothing else, I learned my J-20 gets a thrifty 9.7 miles per gallon.
Trasborg: So, ya think you'll get your 715 ready by the time we leave?
Hazel: Yeah, but it won't make the trip.
Trasborg: Whaddaya mean?
Hazel: I'm gonna thrash on it full bore for a month, get it finished just under the wire, and then it's gonna blow chunks on its maiden voyage the night before we leave.
God, sometimes I hate always being right. The above conversation took place verbatim shortly after hatching my plan to thrash build the M-715 and get it ready for The Trip that Never Was.
Cappa's FSJ buildup and trip prep entailed bolting on a suspension and changing his oil. So boring I almost fell asleep writing the preceding sentence. Snoooore. Then there's Trasborg who thinks it's more important to install heat shielding on the interior of a vehicle with a severe overheating problem and doesn't run worth a turkey. That's like worrying about your runny nose while your chest gushes blood from a fresh bullet wound. It's called prioritizing, Pete. Look into it.
As a reader, I had always loved the entertainment value that came from the staff's miserable thrash builds, so I've done my best to follow in those footsteps since I've been in the writer's chair. We speculated around the office that it shouldn't take more than a weekend of hard work to get my M-715 up and running. Apparently, before hubris does indeed go the fall because what followed was one piddling setback after another.
With this build, it wasn't necessarily the severity of the setbacks but the sheer number of setbacks. When the clock is ticking and every second counts, having to make an extra run to the parts store or discovering that a mail order purchase isn't exactly right carries much drama. Pete's free T-case looked fine on the ground, but once it was installed and filled it with gear oil, it leaked like a sieve until I swapped all the seals. The fan hit the lower radiator hose and required four trips to the parts store before a hose that cleared was located.
Then when the original radiator blew up, the lower hose wouldn't fit the new replacement radiator, so it was back to the parts store a few more times. The 24-volt light bulbs were corroded solid in their terminals. The factory wiring was butchered and missing its aluminum identification tags. The starter that came with the engine wouldn't fit the bellhousing. The brakes were hashed and needed half a dozen bleeding procedures and all-new parts. Every seal in the vehicle leaked when oil was introduced to drivetrain components. The exhaust had held up the transmission after the engine was yanked and was bent, so the headers wouldn't line up on the engine. Missing lug nuts, no hood hinges, throttle cables that didn't fit, rigging stuff, cobbling crap, and so on.
In the end, true to my word, I got it going. I drove it through my neighborhood amid horrified stares from affluent neighbors, incredulous CHP officers, and terrified motorists to discover my freebie engine didn't have a prayer of making it to Bakersfield, let alone Colorado. Although I admit defeat, I do so in the knowledge that I gave it one hell of a go and refused to go quietly into the night. Hopefully, somewhere in America there's a kid who gets a chuckle from this tale and who will someday sit behind this keyboard typing away about his own failed driveway adventures.
If I was going to make the unspecified deadline of sometime the week of July 17th, I had a lot of self-imposed work to do on my '67 M715 in two week's time.
Let me back up a step. I thrashed to build my truck in the tail end of 2004 with the intention of driving it cross-country. I didn't make it, and I had it shipped. Once it got to sunny Southern California, it wouldn't run, so I spent lots of time tuning it - messing with the carburetor, the timing and all other kinds of things.
You know how power-steering systems don't like to be at lock for more than a few seconds? Well, so do I. Didn't stop me from frying my added-on power-steering system while tuning the truck. I forgot my chain (steering-wheel lock) was wrapped around the wheel. It was at lock (or close to it) while pushing on a curb for a 40-minute carburetor-tuning session.
Needless to say, I fried my power steering pump, but didn't realize it. I ran the truck in a parade, and, just over an hour into it, I had smoke coming out from under my hood. Turns out the power-steering pump was smoking and incredibly hot to the touch.
Fast-forward six months. I knew what was wrong, and I'd replaced the steering box twice, the pump once, and the hydroboost once from December to April. Yes, it's got hydroboost. A regular vacuum booster wouldn't fit in the space it needed to, and I wanted power brakes.
Well, two days after replacing the last component (hydroboost), my truck was sitting in the street and got whacked by a drunk or otherwise impaired driver.
The steering was, once again, shot, and this time I ordered all-new parts: PSC power-steering box, PSC pump, PSC reservoir, Mr. Gasket remote filter setup, Vanco hydroboost and master cylinder, Flaming River steering shaft, B&M Supercooler, and Borgeson power-steering pump mount. After six months of having a power-steering system I could cook eggs on, I wanted to put good parts and a decent filter in it so I wouldn't have to mess with the steering or brakes again. I spent 10 14-hour days wrenching on the truck in 115-degree heat, most of it in the sun.
I had to fabricate a mount for the reservoir and filter and also had to clearance the frame for the new, large-piston PSC steering box. The alternator had to be moved because the new power-steering pump was using the grooves in the pulleys the alternator had been using, so I got to fab new alternator mounts - again, sparing no expense with rod ends and DOM tubing for tensioning, as well as Grade 8 bolts and DOM tube to get the spacing correct. Bled the brakes by myself with a two-foot chunk of leftover rollbar tube (new master cylinder, remember?), fabbed a new bolt for where the hydroboost hooks to the brake pedal, and 30 other things I'm sure I've forgotten.
Well, I got all that done the afternoon before Cappa (my boss) was due to show up so we could begin our journey. I decided, after painstakingly bleeding the steering system, to take it for a drive to my bud's house 15 miles away down the freeway. When I got there, it was running warm. I looked under the hood, felt around, but nothing seemed amiss. It turned out that the fuel pump gave up the ghost. That is, it was leaking fuel just sitting still. With running warm in mind, I waited until later when it had a chance to cool and limped it home.
Early the next morning, I ran to the speed shop and grabbed a Holley fuel pump with the outlet and inlet in the right places and was still installing it when Cappa showed up. I packed the truck and off we went
No more than 15 miles out of town, we stopped for food, and I mentioned how my truck was running at approximately 230 degrees, according to my 400-mile old Auto Meter gauge. We compared underhood temperatures and decided to let it ride.
We got about 10 miles out from lunch when Cappa flagged me down and pulled me over. My gauge had been indicating somewhere over 250 degrees for the last 20 minutes, but I was letting it ride. Well, my overflow container was boiling over, and on the side of the road we found out that one of my electric fans had spit the blades off the motor.
So after another 60 miles, two stops to work on my truck, and four hours later, we called the whole trip off because my truck was the last hope, and it just wouldn't run cool enough to continue. At the rate we were going, it would have taken four days to get to Colorado. But, hey, at least my steering works!