Avoidable Contact #1.
To all the Suburbans I’ve loved before
In many of my weekly stories, I make no secret about my love for early 1970s BMWs. And that is, without question, the longest automotive thread that has stretched through my life. But there is another. I wouldn’t quite call it a guilty pleasure. It’s more like a dark dirty secret. The love that dare not speak its name.
I’m talking about Suburbans.
This all started when my wife, Maire Anne, and I fell in love with Nantucket. We first visited the quaint Massachusetts island in the mid-1980s with friends whose family owned a house there. I became indoctrinated into something of which I was completely unaware—driving on the beach. Over the years, due to erosion and regulation, the percentage of the shoreline on which vehicles are permitted has shrunken to a small fraction of what it once was, but Great Point—the six-mile-long spit of sand that thrusts itself due north into the Atlantic—is still generally open to vehicles (unless birds are nesting in the tire tracks).
Our addiction to all this built slowly. Our friends invited us to join them for a few years. Ed, a fellow car guy, would buy a 4WD vehicle, usually a Jeep Cherokee, use it for the duration of the trip, then sell it. When I asked him about it, he shrugged and said, “It’s much cheaper than renting, and I don’t really need a vehicle like that the rest of the year.” I took that tip and filed it away.
When Maire Anne and I began renting a vacation house on Nantucket in the early 1990s, I didn’t quite have the stones to do what Ed did and simply buy a vehicle and then sell it, so I rented. I found a local Ford dealership that rented Expeditions for an affordable price, but then one day, when we were out at Great Point, I had an epiphany. I saw a Suburban, an old one, one of those big boxy mid-’80s vehicles, with a mild lift kit and oversized tires. It wasn’t comically jacked up to monster truck proportions, but it had oodles of ground clearance. The owner had the roof of the vehicle outfitted with a Daktari-style cargo basket, which carried all manner of boogie boards and beach chairs. And the enormous interior of the vehicle (which three bench-style seats that seated nine) disgorged a seemingly endless number of passengers and coolers. I just stared.
I thought, “Oh, my god! I’m lusting for a truck!” The hook was set. I just needed to reel it in.
The next year, I found one fairly similar to the epiphany vehicle—a 1985 seventh-generation Suburban (the boxy kind from 1973–91). Other than the third seat and rear air conditioning, it was a pretty basic ’Burb. It didn’t even have carpet. I liked this, as it made it easier to sweep the sand out. On its maiden voyage to Nantucket, the A/C compressor seized, but other than that, nothing else went wrong with it, and immediately my friend Ed’s dynamic of “it’s much cheaper than renting” made sense. Plus, unlike a rental, I didn’t have to worry about scratching it, or—if the fishing was good—somehow cover up the fact that it was stinking of bluefish.
After the first vacation, I did what I thought I was supposed to do—I sold the first ’Burb. After all, as my friend Ed had said, I didn’t really want to own something that big the rest of the year. I had my daily-driver BMW, and Maire Anne had her minivan. Neither of us wanted that vehicle to be usurped by, well, by a truck.
I regretted selling it almost immediately. The next year, I had to repeat the process and buy another one. I eventually learned that, rather than buy, say, a $5000 vehicle, use it for a few weeks, and sell it for as close to what I paid for it as I could, it made sense to buy the ’Burbs for closer to $2000, hold onto them for a few years, effectively amortize the investment over multiple vacations, and sell them for whatever I could when they became too rusty to pass Massachusetts state inspection.
As with anywhere you vacation for a 30-year period, traditions develop. There was a regular cavalcade of family and friends who came to Nantucket with us. One of a sequence of Suburbans was always at the ready to ferry us, fishing rods, boards, sand toys, sand chairs, guitars, coolers, towels, and more out to some far-flung beach. It wasn’t about laziness. Well, maybe, on certain beaches, it was about laziness. But more often, it was about getting us to remote areas on the island we couldn’t reach without walking for hours on sand. And the ’Burb often came home with more than we left with—horseshoe crab casings, gull skulls, pieces of driftwood at times nearly the length of the truck.
We eventually began going to Nantucket with my brother-in-law, his wife, and their girls, who are very close in age to my three boys. For all five of the kids, their first chance to drive, typically at about age 13, was behind the wheel of a Suburban on the beach. We used to refer to it as “going to the bluefish races.” The older kids who’d already had their turn knew what it meant; the younger kids squawked that there couldn’t be any such thing as “bluefish races.” None of them ever put the truck into the north Atlantic. Everyone came back happy. I felt privileged that the truck and I could play this role in the adolescence of my kids and my nieces.
Of course, readying and packing the truck became a ritual all its own. Even with all that space, when you’re packing for two weeks with all those people, you fill it up. I cut some three-quarter-inch plywood to put in the way back and made a platform, allowing me to put the heavy stuff down low, and pack the top half right up to the ceiling.
The roof was also a wonder of hack engineering. There were a succession of cargo boxes, Daktari boxes, and home-made rack systems. The year we had the windsurfer and the surfboard up there, I felt for certain we were having more fun than anyone else who drove off the ferry.
Over the years, six Suburbans came and went—three seventh-gens, two eighth-gens (1992–99), and one ninth-gen (2000–06). I liked some more than others, but I never had one catastrophically fail on me to the point where the family was stranded on the island. One did, however, die in the dunes. I had to pay to have it towed to the local dealer. As it turned out, a section of the wiring harness had chafed and shorted to ground. I expected the bill to be a financial horror, and literally hugged the service manager when it was only $186. Another one ate its transfer case, and I got it home by starting it in 4WD, shifting to 2WD on the fly, and keeping a very steady foot on the throttle, as any variation produced spectacular crunching sounds. When I got it home, I changed the transfer case and got another few years out of it.
Now, there’s no question that it’s convenient owning a truck. I eventually relaxed my “it’s only for vacation since neither of us wants to daily-drive the ’Burb” policy. After all, with the number of cars I go through, being able to show up with a truck and a rented trailer and haul off some barely-running prize is incredibly handy. Some years the ’Burb stayed insured year-round; other years it’d be pulled on and off the road, depending on other needs. There were long stretches where it would simply be a rolling warehouse in my driveway for the never-ending sets of wheels and tires that the other cars would attract.
The most recent truck was a ninth-gen 2000, one of the bulbous-looking ’Burbs with such a reputation for rusty brake lines that there was an NHTSA investigation over it. Sure enough, about four years ago, one of the lines let go while on Nantucket. Fortunately, it was one of the short easily-accessible lines from the tee to the rear wheels. I changed them both using generic lines from an on-island NAPA, and had to pay a local garage to bleed them, as I had no way to jack up the truck.
When, a few years later another brake line went, I thought that if I was keeping the truck, it was time to change all of the lines to stainless. This was possibly one of the most miserable repairs I’ve ever done. The pre-bent lines themselves are cheap (about $60 shipped from RockAuto; how anyone makes any money off parts like this is beyond me), but when the trucks were manufactured, the lines were apparently laid down on the frame before the body was dropped on, so trying to thread the pre-bent lines through a single narrow channel about the diameter of a cigarette pack is next to impossible. To make matters worse, the ABS controller on these trucks is in the middle, under the left frame rail.
But I got it done, and the ’Burb had one last romp on Nantucket a few summers back. By then, both our kids and my brother-in-law’s kids were grown, so it was just me and Maire Anne for a week, with my brother-in-law and his wife visiting over the weekend. Though I’d gotten another year out of it with the brake line repair, the truck was on its last legs. Rust had eaten the rocker panels, and it was gradually losing antifreeze due to bad intake manifold seals. I bought a package of GM Cooling System Seal Tabs (sawdust) and put them in the glove box as insurance, figuring that this bit of voodoo inoculated me. Sensing this was the last time we’d be on the island for a while, we did it up right, covering from Great Point at the north to Smith Point at the west. The last evening we were on the island, we came over a bluff at Smith Point just after sunset. Some weather and tide had moved in, and the waves were lapping alarmingly close to the tire tracks we needed to follow. It was a dramatic coda to a 30-year adventure. We may be back, but it won’t be the same. With the kids gone, there’s no reason to take a vehicle that big.
So the Suburbans are gone. In their place in the driveway is a 1996 Winnebago Rialta, which is a Volkswagen Eurovan with a Winnebago camper body on it. I’ve had spirited discussions with friends who tell me I’m crazy to have done this, that if you want an RV, the better path is to tow something like an Airstream with a Suburban, because that way, you still have the truck to do things like haul cars home, and you can size the RV trailer to your needs. On the other hand, a truck and a trailer would occupy my whole driveway. And our little Rialta is only 21 feet long, barely larger than a ’Burb, highly maneuverable, easily parkable. Viva la difference.
But, as is the case with anything automotive, nostalgia is a powerful thing. I find myself thinking longingly back to that first truck-like seventh-generation ’Burb. While values of these haven’t headed north the way early Broncos, Land Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers, and Jeep Grand Wagoneers have, cherry rust-free ones certainly have their following. I think it’s unlikely I’d buy one to relive the years where we’d pack it with nine family members, boogie boards, and bluefish, but when I see I pretty one on Craigslist, with slightly bigger tires and a mild lift kit, I have the same thoughts that I did all those years ago: “Oh my god! I’m lusting for a truck!”
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel Magazine for 30 years. His new book, Ran When Parked: How I Road-Tripped a Decade-Dead BMW 2002tii a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is available here on Amazon. In addition, he is the author of Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. Both are available from Bentley Publishers and Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.