One of the sad things about modern American suburbs is the alarming absence of blacksmith shops. If you don't believe me, walk out of any Starbucks or look around the mall and try to find just one guy with a decent forge or an anvil that weighs more than 50 pounds. My guess is you'll be disappointed.
Not so where my wife Barb and I live, in rural Wisconsin. A mile from our home we have the Cooksville Blacksmith Shop, where owner Carl Hach not only repairs trucks and farm implements, but helps local artists weld works of sculpture together. He seems to be able to weld or repair anything. Last year, when my race-car trailer cracked a frame tube, Carl did a seamless job of fixing the thing, just in time for a 2,000- mile round-trip tow to Watkins Glen.
And now it looks as if I'm going to need his help again.
Two weeks ago, while driving my 1997 Ford Econoline van home from Omaha with a Triumph motorcycle in the back, there was a sudden noise from the Ford's front end. It sounded like the mainspring in the clockwork of the universe snapping, only louder. My buddy Lew and I looked under the front of the van but couldn't see anything wrong, so we continued onward. The van drove fairly well, but with a minor front-end judder and a slight list to the right, like a canoe when your Golden Retriever is leaning over the side to look at a fish.
When we got home, I left the Econoline with Stoughton Tire & Auto Repair so they could put it up on the rack for a better look. Owner Tod Goldade called back a few hours later and told me that the right front coil spring had broken right in the middle. No big deal, he said; they could replace the front springs as a matched pair and it wouldn't be very expensive. But then he said, somewhat ominously, "You'd better come down here and look at the front end of this thing."
So I did, and it was not good. One side of the front anti-roll bar was hanging down where its bracket had snapped off the badly corroded frame rail, and the steering box was bolted to a rusty steel panel that was beginning to look like brown lace. The whole underside resembled a shipwreck from the Marianas Turkey Shoot.
"My advice," Tod said, "is to get rid of this thing as soon as possible."
This came as something of a shock to me, as I'd hoped to sail off into my retirement years without ever needing another truck. The Econoline—at fifteen years of age and 94,000 miles—still had a virtually rust-free body, a like-new interior, and a drivetrain that worked perfectly. I bought the Ford new in 1997 and didn't drive it much in the winter, so I'd glibly imagined the frame would last more or less forever. I said as much to Tod, and he said, "Well, modern vans are required to have a crush zone for front-end collisions, so they can't make the frame too heavy."
So I drove home from the shop and decided maybe I should take the van to Carl the blacksmith. Perhaps he could weld in enough steel plate to reattach the anti-roll bar and make a more rigid mount for the steering box. It seemed crazy to throw away this huge and otherwise finerunning vehicle because a few pieces of metal had rusted away. Maybe a little artful welding would extend its life for another year or two.
In the meantime, Barb and I had a minor transportation crisis on our hands. We were planning to leave that week for the fall vintage festival at Road America, and my Crossle 32-F Formula Ford was already loaded on the trailer.
My roving eye quickly settled on our 2011 Honda CR-V, which is basically Barb's car. When we bought this small SUV a couple of years ago, we ordered it with the hitch and towing package, but I had never towed with it. The CR-V owner's manual rated the car's towing capacity at 1,500 pounds. Would this thing haul a race car and trailer?
The Crossle weighed only about 900 pounds, and my light open trailer probably weighed around 400 pounds, so it looked as if towing weight would be no problem. But what about the mountain of other stuff we took to the track? Toolbox, air compressor, battery charger, jumper battery, gasoline-powered generator, spare nose, cleaning supplies, quick-lift jack, spare-parts box, driver's-suit bag, helmet, luggage...the list seemed endless.
I flopped down the Honda's rear seats and looked ruefully at the available cargo space. Scenes from Das Boot flashed into my mind, where the submariners leave port with their U-boat packed to the gills with food and supplies, and even the torpedoes are draped with strings of sausage. That would be us. The Joad family takes a submarine to Elkhart Lake.
Curious, I spent a whole evening consolidating tools and equipment and packing the CR-V. Everything fit when I was done, but it was like a black hole of solid mass, as if everything I'd ever owned had been melted down into a single meteorite. Dense and weighty.
I hooked up the trailer, we left for the track on Thursday afternoon, and the Honda felt...fine. We cruised along at an effortless 70 mph, hardly aware that the trailer was behind us, and averaged 22 mpg—quite a bit better than the van's typical 14 or 15 mpg. Also, it was quieter and smoother than the van, and nicer to drive around in the evening when we went to dinner.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
So now we're back home from the races, and I'm considering all my options. Do we need another full-size van? Used ones are not very expensive, so that's an option. Weld up the old van and keep it running for a while longer? That would work too, though other things are bound to go wrong with it in the near future. A slightly roomier SUV might work just as well. There are a lot of choices, but my inclination is to take the old van to the blacksmith shop and try to save it. Once you get addicted to a van, it's a hard thing to give up. Nearly every week, life seems to generate some need for a big empty box to haul things around in. And this empty box has been with us a long time.
The Econoline has hauled dirt bikes to Mexico and street bikes to Daytona Beach twice, picked up other motorcycles in Nebraska and Colorado, and carted a 1951 Vincent Black Shadow home from Ohio. Two years ago, I drove it home (high on Ibuprofen) from a dirt bike accident in Wyoming with three broken ribs and a broken foot while subsisting on Red Bull and honeyroasted peanuts because I was in too much pain to get out. I trucked straight to our local hospital, acting as my own ambulance driver. My friends Lew and Rob drove it back from the Badlands after I sprained my back and ankle; I lay on the floor (high on Vicodin) watching the underside of my KTM 520 rock gently above me.
I used the van to pick up a Lotus Elan in New Jersey and my Crossle in North Carolina. It pulled trailers bearing a freshly painted E-Type Jag and a 356 Porsche home from the body shop, and it towed four different race cars to and from Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Road America, and Blackhawk Farms. It's hauled my garage band's gear to dozens of gigs and taken our trash to the dump every two weeks since 1997. I think there may be a dining room set and a piano in there somewhere, too.
Hard and loyal worker, this van. Also, I've never driven anything for its whole life, from the showroom to the junkyard, and I'm not quite ready to admit that it's time.
I called Carl this afternoon, and he told me to bring the Ford into the shop tomorrow. He'll see what he can do. There's a chance, of course, that it's all used up and ready to become a memory. Just like the last fifteen years.