PROJECT DUSTBUS: 800 miles in an untested $50 van

Imagine that you’ve just purchased a 30-year-old barn find for $50. What’s your next move? You could do a slow, methodical refresh of all the important mechanical and safety bits, taking only short drives while you make certain that everything is in perfect nick before attempting any long-distance treks. Or, you could do what I did: immediately take it on an 800-mile road trip, because really, what could go wrong?

When I bought my ’89 Toyota Cargo Van, there was never any doubt that it was going to be my daily driver. Because that meant around-town driving within walking distance of assistance in case of a breakdown, I wasn’t worried about the risks of using a veteran vehicle as regular transportation. Always lurking in the background, however, was the reality that at some point I was going to have to take it on a longer trip.

That reality came to pass last June, when my company, Model Citizen, was selected to be a vendor at the second annual Radwood NorCal show in South San Francisco. Using the van for this task was a no-brainer, as its sci-fi shuttle vibe meshes nicely with the “rad” aesthetic embraced by the show. So, having only done a fluid change and some cooling system repairs in preparation for the drive, I loaded my trusty Dustbus up with model cars and pointed it north.

First stop on my excellent adventure was the residence of JNC editor-in-chief Ben Hsu, who would serve as my co-driver for the weekend. Recalling the time when we drove back Ben’s wife’s Lexus from Texas, we were looking forward to another road trip, albeit in a slightly less luxurious vehicle. That unbridled excitement of our road trip lasted until the end of Ben’s block, when the van stalled at low speed. Likely caused by a vacuum leak, this was a known problem before the journey, but for it to rear its ugly head at this exact moment made for a rather inauspicious start.

We continued anyway, the first 150 miles taken at a slow and cautious pace. Once we got moving, though, the hesitation was no more, and the mid-mounted 4Y-E hummed along brilliantly. As the ambient temperature began to rise, we decided to give the as-yet-untested air conditioning a try. Unsurprisingly, its output was tepid at best, meaning a recharge (and of course an R134a conversion) was on the horizon. We pressed on, resigned to riding in stickiness.

We made our first stop about two hours into the trip in Buellton, for the obligatory bowl of pea soup (because, really, what could be more refreshing on a warm summer day?). The opportunity to photograph the van in front of one of California’s most enduring and hokiest tourist spots was too good to pass up. The soup wasn’t as good as we remembered, though, so perhaps it’s time to forge some new traditions in Highway 101 dining.

Hitting the road once more, the air temperature grew steadily hotter, and with it the van’s operating temperature, particularly on uphill slogs. Having used only more modern cars for road trips for the last 20 years, this was disconcerting. My veteran old-car co-pilot did his best to calm my nerves, assuring me that a slightly above-middle needle was normal behavior for such time-worn machinery, but as we continued up the road I realized that I hadn’t really relaxed since leaving Los Angeles (a situation exacerbated by strong crosswinds that lashed relentlessly at the van’s expansive sheetmetal).

Our first real trouble struck in rural King City, when a small steering vibration suddenly became dramatically more pronounced. We pulled off the highway for a visual inspection, but couldn’t identify the source of the shimmy. Suspecting tread separation, we then did something that really ought to have been done much earlier (like on the day I bought the van): check the date codes on the tires. Surprise! They were from that golden year of yellowcake uranium and “In Da Club,” 2003.

Failing to replace this aged rubber prior to making this trip was an act of breathtaking stupidity, and now, in the thriving metropolis of King City, California at 5:15 on a Saturday afternoon, our options were limited. The nearest open tire shop was the Costco in Salinas, 45 miles away, which told us they would stop accepting customers at 6 o’clock. We fearfully eased the van back onto the 101, trying to hold a steady 62 miles per hour and hoping for the best. Even if we kept pace, we’d weren’t guaranteed to make Costco’s cutoff.

Hope ran out 20 minutes later when the left front tire exploded violently beneath my seat. If you’ve never had the experience of having a tire grenade directly under your genitals, my advice to you is: skip it. Thanks to a modicum of experience (and also having done nothing for the last twenty miles other than visualize this exact scenario) I was able to pull safely onto the wide left shoulder of the highway.

Ben and I jumped on the shredded tire like an F1 pit crew, I tackling the lug nuts while he retrieved the spare from under the Van. “Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad,” I thought. Then Ben pulled out the spare, at which time we made two discoveries: 1) it was the original Bridgestone that came new with the Van in 1989, and 2) it had not been refilled since, and was utterly flat.

Admitting defeat, we called AAA. As we waited, perched on the concrete jersey barriers dividing a major freeway, we assessed the damage wrought by the blown tire’s flailing carcass. Though there was no mechanical injury, the left mudflap was shredded, the underside of the battery tray was scarred, and worst of all, two big hunks of paint had been hacked from the left flank. I felt a pang of guilt at having caused harm to my original specimen Van through my carelessness, but it could have been much, much worse.

Thirty minutes later, a tow truck arrived. Slightly incredulous at the age of the spare or perhaps at our weird situation in general, the driver inflated and mounted the ancient Bridgestone. It was then that we noticed the DOT code on the spare, which had sat untouched for 30 years only to emerge in our hands was, we shit you not, “JNC” (you can see it in the 7 o’clock position).

Another thing we noticed: The Toyota Van originally came with 75-series tires like the full-size spare. In contrast, 70-series tires stood uneasily at the other three other corners. As we pulled back onto the highway, we couldn’t help but notice that the S.S. Dustbus was now listing to the right. Undeterred, we pressed through the farmland around Salinas and Gilroy, and on into Silicon Valley before finally reaching our destination: an unappealingly fragrant hotel in Redwood City that was most notable for its complete lack of functional vending machines. As we emerged from the Van, another fear was realized: the decrepit spare had not held air on its highway drive.

Exhausted and grubby, we limped it out for dinner, stopping on the way back to the hotel to air the tire in hopes it would hold through the night. It was at that exact moment that the entire character of our weekend flipped from frustrating to wonderful. A rental Infiniti sedan appeared next to us, and who should jump out of it but Chris Hoffman, avid JNC collector, Touge California staffer, and all-around fantastic human being, offering to lend us a hand.

Having come north from LA for Radwood himself, he and a friend were out for an evening drive when said friend, having seen our tale of woe broadcast on Instagram, recognized the hard-luck Dustbus. Metropolitan San Francisco is no small town, so the odds of Chris and Co. descending on the very intersection where we were servicing the van at that exact moment are so small as to be laughable, but then, that’s the part of the magic of driving a cool old vehicle — people recognize you share in the experience.

After some much-needed sleep, we rose early Sunday to find that Chris had sent us a bout of good luck and the tire was, miraculously, still inflated. We made the drive to Oyster Point Marina, site of Radwood NorCal. A steady stream of 80s and 90s classics poured in behind us, with Nissans and Toyotas being met with the same level of admiration as neighboring Ferraris and Porsches.

In this egalitarian situation, my Cargo Van fit right in. Numerous folks stopped by to check out its near-mint interior or to share childhood stories of their households’ Vans, and in one especially touching case, to let us know that they had followed our voyage on social media and were genuinely worried about our safe arrival in San Francisco. That’s the real magic of both Radwood in particular and the JNC community in general: for the most part, they are a world of genuinely nice people who want to hang out, share their cool cars and the experiences that go with them, and just generally take care of each other.

The camaraderie didn’t end with the show, however. As a good number of JNC writers and associates are based in the Bay Area, we took the opportunity for a North-South team dinner at one of San Bruno’s classic family-owned ramen joints. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to catch a ride to the restaurant in Glenn Chiou’s most excellent R32 GT-R.

Pervasive media attention may have created the illusion that R32s are getting to be commonplace, but I can assure you that toddling around the fringes of San Francisco in this epic machine was an experience not unlike riding on a Rose Parade float: Everybody is looking at you. Of course, the GT-R is a little quicker than a float, but to his credit Glenn kept Godzilla’s fury in check, driving fluidly and gracefully through the evening traffic and proving that a real racer doesn’t need to show his hand on the street.

Dinner was, for lack of a better term, a hoot. As we tucked into steaming bowls of succulent ramen, our party of five was a smorgasbord of everything that makes the JNC community great. There was the human encyclopedia, the gentleman racer, the cynical academic, the reformed Euro-snob, and of course, the visionary ringleader who brought us all together. We shared more car stories and laughed harder over the course of one evening than I had for the entire preceding year.

Before heading home the following morning, our first order of business was a trip to Costco for a new set of Michelins (though we kept the vintage spare because originality or something). The addition of new tires removed a massive level of worry from the driving experience, allowing the Van’s true nature to shine through. The 4Y-E was responsive and surprisingly eager to rev, and while acceleration could hardly be described as “brisk,” it was more than adequate to keep up with San Francisco’s aggressive southbound pace.

The four-speed automatic shifted like new, and the steering exhibited none of the slop so common to cars this age. Other than the need for new shocks, the Van drove as close to brand new as one is likely to find. More importantly, despite its tiny workhorse nature, the van was actually — now don’t laugh — fun to drive. It buzzed and whirred and made smells and sounds and just communicated with us as we drove the piss out of it, proving once again that there’s simply no substitute for an analog car.

We wound our way down the 101, the Pacific Ocean gleaming off our starboard flank as we passed through Santa Barbara and then into the San Fernando Valley. As we eased along in sun-kissed bliss, it occurred to me that without meaning to, we had just recreated one of the quintessential California experiences: the microbus trip to San Francisco.

Though our ride was Japanese and not German and our soundtrack more Depeche Mode than Grateful Dead, but we had added our names to the list of those who had attempted questionable trips across the Golden State and came out smiling at the end. There was a touch of Kerouac in our journey, and Steinbeck and Thompson and (God help us) Don Henley too.

That, after all, is the underlying appeal of road-tripping in a nostalgic car. They engender feelings that simply cannot be replicated in modern machinery. True, one of those feelings is anxiety, wondering what mechanical catastrophe is lying just around the corner. But would the trip have been as magical in a modern, steer-by-wire people mover? Would a modern car have fostered a sense of community wherever it went? Not a chance.

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9 Responses to PROJECT DUSTBUS: 800 miles in an untested $50 van

  1. Ben E said:

    This was a great story. I love the JNC gnomes hiding on the spare tire. That made my day, I assure you!

  2. Eric P said:

    This was a great read. Glad you guys made it ok and had a story to tell.

  3. EGD said:

    Great post. But I must admit, the photo at the top makes me wonder if the van can float.

  4. Dennis D. said:

    I was pretending to work seriously until I came across this, “If you’ve never had the experience of having a tire grenade directly under your genitals, my advice to you is: skip it.” Great read! I’m glad you and Ben made it back safely.

  5. roy said:

    Next time remember the 7 ps. Proper planning & preparation prevents piss poor performance

  6. Negishi no Keibajo said:

    “Admitting defeat, we called AAA.” Owning vintage tin, I’ll admit to defeat at least a couple times a year… Oh, well. Glad you guys made it safe. A disintegrating tire is a big deal. I’ve had some self induced hairy moments disabled on the road as well.

    I took my girlfriend & my elderly dad up into the mountains in my Samurai. We got to the middle of nowhere and the shifter came right out of the floor. I instantly knew what was wrong but had no tools. I thought, OK, I’ll coast down as far as I can & then get some help. It wasn’t that far from civilization. Suddenly out of the brushes, a couple of dudes with guns strapped to them & heavy a Russian came out of the woods. Mushroom pickers… The “optics” were alarming but they turned out to be very helpful with some tools & off we went.

    “Awe, It’ll be fine…” I said.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      Haha, I can imagine how that’d be an unsettling sight. I use AAA several times a year as well. The premium plan is worth its weight in gold (or towing).

  7. cesariojpn said:

    “If you’ve never had the experience of having a tire grenade directly under your genitals, my advice to you is: skip it.”

    Had it done to me; only rear tire on my IS300.

  8. pete240z said:

    What could go wrong? Nothing, it’s a Toyota.

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