A Tale of Too Many Piles: The Exploits of Big Chuck’s Towing and Recovery

Here at Big Chuck’s Robot Warehouse and Auto Body Center, we have a lot of piles. I get them for myself, but it turns out, I get them often for other people, too! Being back South now means I have access to many rust-free husks of once-useful machinery, which is unheard of in the northeast as everything slowly dissolves from road salt if not salty sea air from the coast.

Vehicles more than 10 or 15 years old were rare sights on Boston roads, as nobody keeps them beyond the age when nut and bolts on the underside get hard to remove and rust bubbles start peeking out from places. “Little Rust” is always a lie in used car ads (which are horribly expensive if it’s even remotely still together) and underbody inspections are part and parcel for purchasing anything. It was a constant battle keeping Mikuvan from dissolving with preparation every fall and remedying every spring.

While the same rust-free “Abject Vehicle Market” is true (and better) for the western states, the nice thing about the southeast is that it’s still a short one day’s drive from much of New England. So as a result, in the past couple of months, I’ve played “pile relay” by fetching and storing something that my Northerner friends have purchased nearby, for pickup later when they’re able to make it down. I’ve inspected a couple more things for purchase later or by other means and other people. These adventures have taken me all over the Former Confederacy, usually down some miles of 2-lane county roads and dirt roads where I wonder how they’ll ever find the body if I don’t make it back out.

Collectively, we’ve called this pattern of “Hey, can you go recover this terrible pile that’s been sitting in the forest for 10 years?” OPERATION: PileDriver. Here’s a selection of the exploits of Big Chuck’s Towing and Recovery, which is now desperately in need of its own logo, T-shirt, and website.

The Freedom Jeep

Pretty much everything here is going to be Jeeps, because these friends have a peculiar interest in collecting and restoring various old Jeeps. The first one of these adventures I was called upon for was for a barn-find 1942 Ford GPW, basically the original Jeep. It was located near Centre, Alabama, roughly a 2 hour trip by state routes and back roads.

This was to be highly American™ activity. It’s the weekend of Independence Day, the most premium of all-American days, and I’m taking Vantruck (an all-American object), to fetch something which is known and proven by its serial number to have served in World War II, an all-American defining experience. America!

Of course, the first thing to do was to take on lots and lots of gas, also a favorite American pasttime. I set out from Atlanta around 9am and was planning on meeting the seller around lunchtime. I went northwestward on I-75 before splitting off on US 411 towards and beyond Rome, GA.

The story was the usual; Granpappy passed away and left me this barn full of 1. rat poops, and 2. machinery that I now need to deal with. Likely the same fate assigned to my own grandchildren, let’s all be honest. This Ford GPW was full of more itself, as well as probably many pounds of rat turds.

There was also even more of itself (and likely most of another Jeep, I couldn’t tell) in parts strewn about the barn.

Luckily, the 60-something year old tires did hold air once we hit them with a compressor, but one of the rear wheels was seized up, probably seized brakes. So the seller towed the Jeep towards the barn door before I moved into position.

I brought along all my “Pile Getting” gear in Vantruck’s tool chest. This has expanded to include two 50 foot chains, a chain binder, the 4-ton Harbor Freight come-along, and a drill-powered cable winch. I “invested” in most of the gear for the Murdervan recovery trip, and pulling a little lightweight Jeep onto the trailer deck was pretty straightforward.

Indeed, a very American picture. The whole trip was about 6 hours or so – two to get out there, two to load up, and two back home.

Oh, yeah, I didn’t clean off any more rat poops than I had to. The rest of it just blew off all over the road as soon as I picked up any speed. Sorry not sorry, everyone behind me. Enjoy your face full of Freedom.

This assemblage got a lot of thumbs up and nods as I rolled back home. After I confirmed everything was back home, the Pennsylvania Jeep Bros began driving down.

Here we are the next morning, doing a butt-to-butt trailer transfer.

And away they go. They managed to bomb down to me and back home to Pennsylvania in the span of one weekend, taking turns driving. Now that’s some dedication, which is probably well worth it for this well-preserved WWII certified-legit GPW. It’s currently undergoing a complete restoration.

“Moldë”

The next adventure was in October, and involved going back to Alabama (….again) a little south of Heflin.

This was one of those “Miles down 2 lane county roads” adventures I alluded to. Perfect country song territory, no doubt. Vantruck and trailer were about 110% of the width of the lane, generally speaking.

The object affectionately named Moldë by the Jeep Bros is a 1989 Jeep Comanche, the “jeeptruck” that eventually finds itself as the Jeep Gladiator today. Whereas the Gladiator is a “midsize” truck of today (a.k.a huge), the Comanche was a compact truck that shared most parts with the XJ Cherokee.

It was very, very MOLDY. The story with this one was a “Ran When Parked” scenario….back in 2011? or so. It’s been sitting in the woods somewhere in mid-Alabama since then, so the entire thing was covered in lichens, spiders, and other small mammal nests. The interior was pretty disgusting, albeit easily cleanable looking and really not all that much worse than Sadvan was. Of course, instinctively, I dove under to perform the New England Underbody Inspection and promptly found myself covered in organisms.

The seller has 4 or 5 other Jeeps of varying vintages and plenty of other motorized implements in varying states of despair on his property. He moved to this little spot in Alabama after retiring, it seems. Hey, more power to you. One day I’m sure I’ll have the same, but in strange vans and giant-ass drones (as by that time, I’m sure I can pick up a junked Uber Air or what have you cheap on Facelist)

This load was actually even simpler than Freedom Jeep; for you see, the property is on a long slope that ends at its lowest point at the road. I just set up Vantruck and the trailer on the driveway, got into the Moldë oh god it’s crawling on me fuck FUCK and the seller pushed down the hill to build up steam while I aimed carefully. You only load once.

And here you have two vehicles, neither of which are common found in truck form, in tow formation. The memes write themselves and I’m happy to encourage their proliferation. As usual with anything Vantruck does, it was a hoot pulling into gas stations and at red lights.

The Comanche was light enough that I could actually push it backward up the yard slope after locking out the U-haul trailer’s surge brake. Therefore, I positioned it in the Yard Hole so it could roll off, but not before….

…positioning Mikuvan inside to be a yard shuttle. I set the parking brake slightly so it wouldn’t just freely roll down the trailer ramp, and then just wound up one of Vantruck’s tow chains to about 4 feet long and pulled it over to the “Pile Corner” of the yard. The best part was that Mikuvan can make the turn around behind the pile of tree debris that neither I nor the landlord have taken initiative to clear up, so I was able to just pull the thing into a good resting spot.

This trip was performed on behalf of Alex of Wedge Industries, whom I also picked up the Benchmaster Master of Benches from when I went the other way. There’s just a freely-flowing trade of heavy and questionably-working machinery up and down the I-81 corridor.

Operation Florida Man

The third and most recent pile adventure finally saw me go somewhere besides Alabama to the Lake City, Florida vicinity. This time, it wasn’t even a complete Jeep, but the husk of one. So, no car trailer for this haul, just a 6 x 12 utility trailer.

It was a rainy and foggy day the whole way down to Florida, as this time was about when the entire eastern seaboard was being smacked around by a winter storm. Quite possibly the most awkward weekend weather-wise to do it, but hey, gotta get ’em Jeeps.

The wonderful thing about this affair was that Vantruck rolled its 100,000 mile mark somewhere just over the Florida border. I bought it at 75,000 miles – original and documented, not a rollover figure! so that means I’ve put about 25,000 miles on it.

If you go by the average per-gallon gasoline cost of the 2017-2021 timeframe, and the usual mileage this thing gets, that means I’ve spent anywhere between $6500 to $7500 on it just in gas.

Why do I put up with you….

Here we go, once again down some network of Florida county roads. How the hell do you guys keep finding these things. The sandy consistency of these unpaved Florida back roads is interesting. It’s a solid surface, but you can definitely start the slip and slide quite easily. I suppose I’m used to either pavement or packed gravel, which is a different vibe. I passed a few flocks of kids riding ATVs and side-by-sides, plus the odd tractor or two.

I didn’t take many photos of the process, as rain was moving in and there was only the seller and I to load up. This is the husk and frame of a 1962 Jeep CJ5, one of the first civilian models made after World War II, plus a bunch of spare parts.

The Jeep Bros let me know exactly where to space up the frame and body to not damage them by strapping them down, so I packed a bunch of my cut-up workbench spare 4×4 lumber pieces. It turns out that Jeep husks aren’t very heavy. I was concerned about just picking up a vehicle frame and throwing it in a trailer, but it wasn’t bad actually. It was like lifting a very long, deformed Overhaul.

This trip took almost 12 hours because of the weather. What was supposed to be a 4.5 hours in and 4.5 hours out trip instead was beset by heavy rain and fog, at times with “terrifying pile-up crash video” level visibility, so I really had to keep it slow. Traffic coming back to Atlanta made it even worse.

This isn’t to say they had it any better. They set out the day before, but got caught up in one of the many ice storms along I-81 and didn’t make enough progress in one day. The next day saw more ice storms and snow, before also fading to rain. This photo was taken something like 10PM instead of the anticipated 6 or 7.

So there you have it, a curated selection of the adventures of Big Chuck’s Towing and Recovery. It’s funny to me that as more of my friends are aging into houses and yards, no longer artificially limited by city or dorm/apartment living, the amount of heavy things we’re accruing is rapidly increasing. Chances are I’ll go on more of these PileDriver adventures this year.

I’m half-heartedly building up Spool Bus to be the fetching vehicle. While Vantruck is a funny meme, the fuel economy is an unmitigated disaster and having dual rear wheels makes it fatter than it needs to be for most car-ish-sized hauling. Spool Bus has in fact been part of two additional recent pile-getting trips already, which will make it onto this site as time progresses.

The Summer of Ven: Reaching Peak Spool Bus

Hey! It’s VAN TIME again! Time for MORE VAN

While we approach the May 2021 Norwalk Havoc, I’m going to continue playing blog catch-up. I’m like, what, 1/3rd of the way down my original list rehash list now? Getting there, slowly but surely.

We’ll resume Happy Van Time by picking back up with Spool Bus some time in the middle of July when I’d repaired the physical manifestation of the destroyed front brakes, but then found out on the first stop (thank goodness it was a stop, or the landlord would have found a new pull-through carport addition) that the master cylinder had tendered its resignation.

From there on, I made a series of casual repairs and upfits to make it attain the “Step 1: Run Good” stage of my three-tiered “Run Good, Feel Good, and only then Look Good” van self-improvement guide. The next post about it will cover the first major upgrade I perform to the IDI fuel delivery system. So anyhow, let’s begin!

The opening procedure for any surgery on the Ford Econoline is “Remove Van”. I dunno, guys, I still think they should have just committed to the #cabover life and not ended up putting the engine in literally the most awkward place imaginable, halfway in front and halfway behind the firewall. The dual battery system of the IDI diesel and its larger spread of accessory mounts make the volume even more crowded up here.

So to get to the brake master cylinder at all, I had to remove the drivers’ side battery and its cable attachments, remove the cruise control actuator, shift the (non functioning anyway) windshield washer fluid bottle, shift the A/C compressor aside by loosening its belt drive, and generally shuffle vacuum lines and other cables out of the way. This was before cracking a single fitting. And of course, all of this occurs in barely visible areas without much in the way of being able to swing a ratchet more than a few clicks at a time.

To make the experience less gooey, I used some left over large syringes from my days of casting 30Haul and Overhaul wheels to pull as much brake fluid out of the buckets as I could.

The flare nut fittings were not terribly corroded or stuck in place, and I was able to free them up with some dynamically-made “Flare” “Nut” “Wrenches”… you know the kind, made with an angle grinder and cutting disc and your least favorite 3/8” box wrench.

Out with the old! The mating surface of the brake booster balloon was pretty rusty, so I cleared it up with a wire brush and some rust reformer first.

I managed to source this new master cylinder locally, because AMERICA, DAMMIT! The reassembly is opposite of disassembly, and if you “Removed Van” beforehand, this whole operation wasn’t actually bad.

By my standards, anyhow.

So the old school hydraulically-actuated trailer brake controllers on these things, seemingly made popular by Kelsey-Hayes, are hooked up to the rear brake circuit. By virtue of applying pedal force, you also push a little piston inside the trailer brake controller which varies the output voltage going to the trailer brake harness. Just a big rheostat, nothing fancy like a modern current controlled one. This means there’s a 3rd little brake line involved.

I couldn’t find any resources on how to bleed this line, and I figured leaving it mostly full of air will just cause the rear brakes to be ineffective. So I just made it up on the spot and shot a bunch of brake fluid into the tube with it raised high up, using a syringe. I periodically shook it to try and clear any bubbles, then just shoved it into its fitting as quickly as I could.

Imperfect, and I’m sure if I take apart the trailer brake controller it has a bleeder valve inside, but I’ll find that out later.

The “sense line” is just screwed into a tee fitting coming off the master cylinder.

Alright, everything’s back in place now. I took the opportunity to replace the battery positive terminal completely, as the old one was just too destroyed. I personally don’t like this “squish down with the skinny steel strap” kind of terminal, but it will do for now, as I couldn’t find 2/0 wire compatible crimps at the McAutoparts stores….nor do I have dies that large for the hydraulic crimper anyway.

“It’ll do for now” is how I approached the entirety of Spool Bus anyway. Burnouts first, sensibility later.

On its first highway-speed trip, the roof liner came apart and it started raining disintegrating foam everywhere. Because of course!

The first stop after BRAKES! is TIRES! because the ones that came with it were three different sizes and all completely dry rotted. Sorry, did I say I went on the highway to get here?

I went to my favorite local taqueria & tire shop, which I also had handle a Vantruck front tire rotation, so they knew what they were getting into when I showed up again.

Even materials we call flexible are crystalline in nature, as can be seen here in the brilliantly clear cleavage pattern of these plasticizer-depleted tires that I totally was not driving on before, I promise.

I mean, I did get used tires anyway, but at least they’re recent vintages that aren’t becoming mineralized. The other working mantra with Spool Bus is “You’re getting the cheap and terrible things until you prove you warrant the nice things”.

I also noticed during my continued joyriding that the headlight switch was intermittent. The switch in question is a combination 3 position switch AND a rheostat to control headlights, running lights, and interior lights plus dashboard/instrumentation light intensity. Pretty much every circuit was gunked up and intermittent, especially the headlight low beam….which was exciting to find out at night, of course. I had to smack and wiggle it to get them to come back on.

The uninstall/reinstall for this headlight wombo combo switch is by the book and rather straight forward – it’s just retained to a dashboard bezel with the Shiny Nut on the bottom right, and the connector block pulls right off.

I found which wire in the Wiring Teratoma actually provided 12V feeder power to the upper console, and gave it a home instead on the under-hood fuse block that Centurion added. Like it was supposed to be. I think it must have failed at some point and the rednecks preceding me just tapped whatever 12V power was available.

Verdict? The roof mounted clearance lights (truck dots, as I say) only have 1 still alive, but at least the circuit is working. The CB radio has no power and that problem seems upstream of its own inline fuse holder. The dome lights all work and the equivalently-tiny cargo light works. I’m sure there will be renovations here as I get to it.

I say “preceding rednecks” not because I’m better in some way, just the most recent. My next repair increment was to bring the Gear Vendors Overdrive back online, and I did it using just a regular switch like in Vantruck itself. I can’t stand the added mess and phone jacks that the 30 something year old automatic controller design brings in. It’s a switch, push it when you don’t think something will break.

The 12V feeder was pulled through the firewall in the same uninsulated, burr-lined spot that all of the other “aftermarket” wiring ran through, because *sigh* I’m not the best redneck, just the most recent.

The Gear Vendor solenoid was grounded nearby on the frame as I had done on Vantruck before, so all the switch does is touch the 12V accessory power to the blue wire.

Entering the cab underneath the Wiring Teratoma. I stopped caring at this point and predictably, like the most recent redneck should do, crammed the wire terminal onto an accessory fuse holder that had an “Add a circuit” tap installed. In time, this entire thing will be ripped out and I’ll start all the wiring from scratch.

In an act of abject “Don’t give a fuck any more”, I just zip tied the switch to the entire bundle of dysfunctional instruments for now.

All of this wonderful hackery really just was getting Spool Bus to the “Feel Good” stage. So at this point in early August 2020, I’d gotten it to both drive and stop AND turn (BONUS!), with working lights, and the ability to actually go on a highway or something with the overdrive hooked back up. I’d otherwise gone through and inspected/changed all the fluids and filters and cleaned up the interior of the cab and blew out the HVAC ducts.

But I’m tired of running around with a ratchet strap holding its ass on. The rear bumper’s broken weld would be the first “Feel Good” operation, and for that, I turned to the help of Overhaul.

Thanks for being a $10,000 strap anchor, Overhaul! I needed to pull the bumper face backwards some , such that I had clearance to clean and grind the former weld joint.

This thing was just held on by a few booger tacks on each side. Note that this is not the trailer hitch that’s hanging loose, just the shiny chrome face of the rear bumper attached to the crossmember shown here.

After the cleanup, it was time to loosen the straps and adjust the height vertically with a jack, such that I can dd my own boogers. You can see in this photo how the entire rear end is just one contiguous weldment.

And add my boogers I did. At this point I hadn’t had 240 volts brought out to the garage, so Limewelder was still severely throttled. I could not get a good bead going at all, especially also while being upside down. As a result, I had to resort to the good old “weld moar” approach on both sides.

Not the better redneck, just the more recent one. I still want to repave this one with 240 volts some time.

For entertainment purposes, while I had Overhaul already out, I decided to try a van squat with the clamp arm. The youtube video generated some confusion from people wondering why the bot wasn’t tipping forward.

Note that the forks are fully lowered here, so the clamp arm is going through them into the ground. It’s a jackscrew actuator, after all. This isn’t too far removed from a high-lift screw jack doing the same thing. So I’ve managed to make a $10,000 bumper jack.

(Based on its driving behavior, Spool Bus is terrifyingly light in the back as well, and it’ll break traction on every launch as well as instantly lock up on every stop….. so I don’t think this lift was all that impressive, maybe 2000 to 2500 pounds at most)

And here is the completed reattachment process, next to the (as of this point) still-assless Vantruck.

The Summer of Ven will soon draw out into the Autumn of Ven, and with it, I decided to upfit the fuel system of Spool Bus to use an electric lift pump with a frame-mounted remote fuel filter. It’s a very common and documented mod for the IDI family, and having hindsight, I strongly advocate it for everyone who comes into one of these, even if it’s the F-series trucks with actually accessible things under the hood. The electric lift pump takes substantial stress off the starting process and keeps the fuel system air-purged. That will be a tale coming soon, along with more!