My favorite way to travel is with everyone in the bus, no other vehicle involved.
As we’ve slowed down our travels though, spending more time in an area makes it nice to have a car to go exploring, run errands, and get to places the bus can’t. For that reason we bought a 2006 Volvo during the pandemic and have been relatively happy with it ever since. Other than changing the oil periodically we haven’t done anything to it.
Which is to say, we never loved it. It was practical, ran well, but it was just a modern car. They’re all the same. Ours was black, but this graphic illustrates what I think of modern cars better than anything I could say.
We talked about replacing the Volvo. We decided we’d get a late 1980s Jeep Cherokee, with the 4.0 engine. Chrysler’s last inline six is, by all accounts, a great engine. In some ways it’s a bit like the 318 in the bus, it runs forever. My kind of engine. And hey, I could figure out fuel injection. Probably.
But the Volvo ran fine. I don’t fix things that aren’t broken. The Cherokee was just a rough plan.
Then the Volvo started to show some alarming behaviors — stuttering and dying in parking lots, randomly rolling down windows. Things I found best described as “electrical gremlins”1. I tried to ignore these as best I could, but one day in Destin the Volvo stuttered and died in a parking lot and it took me quite a bit of tinkering to get it running again and home.
From what I read on the internet that night it sounded like it could be the battery. Or something far more expensive. The battery is in the trunk (I don’t know either) and it was a two-year battery going on year five, which seemed like a reasonable culprit. The next day I dropped the kids off at the condo my parents had rented and headed over to the auto parts store to get the battery and alternator tested.
On the way I happen to past a very cool looking old Jeep Wagoneer. Not a Cherokee, but in most ways cooler than a Cherokee. One of my best friends in high school had a Wagoneer and it had hauled all our gear climbing, hiking, and skiing more times than I could count. I always loved that Jeep. It seemed strangely fated that I should see one now. I texted Corrinne a photo and said, hey, maybe we should just buy this Wagoneer and be done with the Volvo.
She immediately started doing research to figure out if it was a good deal or not. I got the alternator and battery tested. Both were fine. According to the test. I decided to replace the battery anyway. Except that the parts store told me I couldn’t. I did not believe them so I looked it up myself and sure enough, you can’t change the battery in a 2006 Volvo without the expensive diagnostic tool to “reset” everything. Sigh. The Volvo was on its way out of our lives.
I drove back over to the Wagoneer to have a closer look. A cursory inspection revealed a little body rust here and there, the front windshield had leaked on the passengers side, but the body was in surprisingly good shape for being being 34 years old. I was shocked to learn in was a 1989, it looked much older thanks to what’s known as a “Rhino Chaser” front end the owner had put on.
I took a few more pictures and texted the owner to see which engine it had. It turned out to have a rebuilt stock engine, the V8 AMC 360. Despite being a 1989 vehicle, the AMC 360 is an aspirated engine. The Venn diagram of vehicles with carburetors and post-Freon air conditioning systems is very small. But the Wagoneer is in there. Check.
We had family in town and it turned out the owner was out of town for the week as well, so we mostly set the idea aside for a week.
After life settled back down we moved up to Fort Pickens for the bus’s photo shoot, but before the photographer got there I took a drive back to look over the car in more detail and talk to the owner. Everything I was interested in checked out. The number of recently replaced things on this vehicle is too long to list. It’s easier to say the transmission is original and pretty much everything else is new. The previous owner sunk a lot of money into it and then, apparently, his wife wanted to get rid of it. My wife wanted to get it. We had a deal.
A week later we wired over the money, signed some papers, and drove off in our new 1989 Wagoneer.
We haven’t had a chance to really shine it up yet, but I did eventually get the surfboard off. It came along last minute because it was secured to the rack with locking straps that the owner did not have a key to. Back at camp a hacksaw took care of those. I also went through and gave the bottom of the engine a good cleaning so I would be able to tell any new leaks from old ones. I tightened a few bolts, checked all the fluids, and made a list of parts to order, but this has been a well cared for daily driver for years, by and large, she is good to go. That said, I like to have certain parts on hand and soon I will.
We learned something pretty much right away with the Jeep that made me happy — people love old Jeeps. The Wagoneer generates almost as much interest and comments as the bus now. Unlike the bus though, most people who come to talk about the Jeep have stories about their own Cherokees and Comanches and Wagoneers. We get to hear their stories too.
This has become one of my favorite thing about owning older cars; all the great people we get to meet and swap stories with. Old cars are a great filter for me, the sort of people who turn their nose up at anything old — the sort of people I’d be unlikely to get along with — avoid us. Instead we get to talk to the kind of people who tell us about their first Jeep, a 1976 Cherokee Chief, which, even back then, had push button 4 wheel drive, letting you leave your friends behind at the bottom of the mountain fiddling with their locking hubs while you headed on up without even stopping, which is a story one of the rangers here at Fort Pickens told me.
People who love old cars tend to be people who see the value in taking care of things, the value in things made well, by people who cared about what they’re making. My kind of people. Look at the picture above again. Does anyone care about those cars? How could they? At best they are purely utilitarian. Those car are made by machines from start to finish. From aerodynamic analysis software to assembly line robots modern automobile creation has been designed to minimize human involvement.
I would go a step further and argue that those cars aren’t just boring designs churned out by machines, they’re explicitly anti-human. They have not been invested with any of the soul that human beings put into things they care about. There is no room in the machine-optimized creation process for humanity. Vehicles are a place that what Orwell called The Machine has won. We’ve been pushed out. There isn’t going to be another car or truck that’s made the old way, by human visions of beauty butting up against mechanical reality, by the interplay of human and world that used to exist. Today’s vehicles are commodities. There is no soul left in them. There’s no way to go back to the old ways, but for us this old Jeep is going to be well worth whatever I need to put into it to keep it going on down the road.
Further research revealed that electrical gremlins in a Volvo of this era are not uncommon and notoriously difficult and expensive to solve. They sometimes include fun things like the car suddenly shutting down at highways speeds, the brakes deciding not to engage, the throttle sticking open, and other treats brought to you by modern over-engineering. ↩