Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Every Man's Second Car Should Be a Beater Truck

Oh, you dream of owning a Ferrari one day? So does every pimply teenage boy and hedge-fund junior exec. As Peter Behrens argues, the more discerning man lusts after something a little more humble but with just as much personality: the dusty, worn-in pickup
Something about well-used American pickups grabs most guys right where they drive. Old trucks are stoic, cheap, empowering; own a truck and you discover all sorts of things to do with a truck. Furniture is moved, lumber is bought. And finding the right one is like bringing home a great mutt from the pound. You won't win points at the show, but you'll end up best friends.

I learned to drive in a 1960 Chevy pickup with a suicide knob on the steering wheel, and I fell in love on the bench seat of a Dodge Power Wagon a decade older than me. My first car wasn't a car but an early-'60s Apache with a permanent crust of prairie gumbo (caked black soil) on a $299 paint job.

When I got married, I shoved my obsession deep into the closet. We moved to Maine, had a son, and drove a matched pair of aging Volvos. Then we started spending winters out in Far West Texas. That first year, we drove a long-term-rental car with the soul of a washing machine and a nav system that kept ordering us to Houston. I felt like an astronaut being scolded by mission control.

The Texas desert is a nature preserve for old trucks, and temptation was all around: battered, dusty, and handsome as hell. I suggested to my wife that we really could use one, but old trucks make women anxious. They like reliable. With beater trucks, reliable is not a selling point. Driving one is like sailing—you're never quite certain you'll get where you're headed. And if the road is long enough, something always breaks or leaks or sounds funny. It's adventure travel.

I've found that no matter what, you'll end up spending about $5,000 on a worthy truck. If you find one cheaper, you'll use the difference to get it running and street-legal. A clean old truck with a seized engine or balky transmission is still a smarter buy than a machine with excellent mechanicals and a rotted body or frame. You can fix anything except rust. If you live somewhere that roads are heavily salted, get online and look for a pickup in a drier part of the country. Shipping a beater cross-country can be cheaper than driving it there, though truth be told, the road trip is part of the fun.

When my wife flew north to work on a photo shoot, I sensed my moment. Within an hour, my son and I found our truck in Bee Pierce's used-car lot in Marfa, Texas: a '76 GMC Sierra Grande 15 with stalwart lines, a sturdy frame, and a decent asking price. And it had that old-truck aroma that comes as standard equipment: a heady compound of engine oil, dust, orange peels, vinyl, and the Swisher Sweets the original owner smoked back in 1981.

A couple of grand and a handshake later, we were proud owners. My wife returned and, after a little thunder and lightning, graciously learned to live with the truck. We shipped it to Maine and bought another last year, a 1986 Chevy Custom Deluxe we'll keep in Texas. Now I've got my eye on a sunburnt, well-weathered 1977 Ford F-150 that needs only two new tires and a tune-up. So many mutts out there, looking for a home.

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