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Firing Order: I Need an Old 4x4 in My Life

Firing Order

Ken BrubakerPhotographer, Writer

Some of the 4x4s I’ve owned have been what some people would consider “junk.” That goes for some of the cars I’ve owned as well.

In the late ’80s I bought a beat, rusty ’77 Toyota Celica as a winter car so I didn’t have to drive my restored International Scout II on the Northern Illinois road salt. The Celica was black with a manual transmission, and was probably pretty darn nice when it was new. I commuted an hour to work in the car each day. The car’s heater made minimal heat, so on really cold days I had to wear a balaclava, stocking cap, gloves, and coveralls just to keep marginally warm. These were the same items I wore when plowing snow with an old Ford 8N tractor. The movements of shifting the Celica’s gears helped to keep me a bit warmer—and there was a lot of shifting to do because the engine was so underpowered and tired, and the clutch slipped. Coercing the car up even a mild highway grade required building speed in advance in hope it could hold 40 mph to the crest before it would magically come alive on the downhill and gather speed. The car also had a bad starter. Sometimes the starter would spin fine, and other times it would just click. It clicked more than it spun. There was no way I was going to spend money on a new starter, so I just got creative. At work I parked on a downslope so I could get the car rolling, pop the clutch, and fire the engine. This was a somewhat stressful one-shot deal because the downslope was very short. One day, I was told I couldn’t park on the slope (I think they did that just to see what I’d do next), so I resorted to pushing the car down the street when the starter refused to work. I’d run (literally) the car to a decent speed, hop in, and pop the clutch. Worked like a charm. The carbureted engine was also cold blooded. On super cold nights I parked it in my neighbor’s pig barn, which was heated. I’d simply come home from work, slide open the doors to the barn, back the car in, and enjoy a warm, aromatic Celica in the morning.

Eventually I got rid of the Celica and replaced it with an ’84 Jeep Cherokee XJ. With that purchase I had hopes for smooth vehicular sailing, but it wasn’t to be. I’ve recently written about the XJ’s carburetor icing and the resulting frozen choke, but there were more XJ issues. Many more. The heater core leaked, which left a puddle of coolant in the passenger-side carpet and a perpetual odor inside the SUV. Fixing the heater core was out of the question because there were too many other things wrong with the XJ. The heater blower motor only operated on the high setting, the driver door sagged, the clutch slave leaked (I learned the hard way not to let it run low on fluid because bleeding the system was a pain), the engine was absurdly underpowered, the rear brakes were incredibly grabby when wet, the five-speed manual transmission was a constant source of problems, and if I remember correctly the 2.5L engine wouldn’t run well if barometric pressure was low.

Now, I had endured the Celica’s baggage, so the XJ’s woes weren’t that big of a deal. The XJ started on its own (except for when the choke was frozen), the heater made heat, and it didn’t smell like a pig barn (just coolant). However, my tolerance for glitches maxed out with the XJ’s finicky vacuum front axle disconnect. I was willing to put up with a lot, but non-functioning 4WD is where I drew the line. Ultimately I traded the XJ in for a brand-new ’97 Wrangler TJ. It was delivered with a faulty gas gauge, and it wasn’t long before the paint began to flake off from the outside rearview mirror bases, the defroster flap broke, and the sway bar end links rattled, but hey, the 4WD worked.

Strangely, all these years later I think of the Celica and XJ with a measure of fondness. They were inexpensive and I didn’t have to worry about scratching or even washing them. There was a level of excitement when driving them somewhere, because there was a high probability that something was going to fail and leave me stranded.

Due to relocating I just sold off my last “junkpile,” a ’90 Geo Tracker. Now I have a hole in my heart bigger than the one that was in the floorboard of the Tracker, and I’m hunting around for an inexpensive, old 4x4 to replace it.

I’d love to hear your old 4x4 stories. Saunter down Memory Lane and send an email to ken.brubaker@fourwheeler.com with experiences you’ve had or are currently having. Don’t forget to include a high-res photo of the rig!