Safeties made me a better gearhead

BY Willy WilliamsonWilly's Garage. Dec 01 04:00 am

A friend of mine who is 30 years old was recently lamenting how easy it was for old guys like me to get a winter beater on the road when we were his age.

He wasn’t wrong.

Before Manitoba Public Insurance made vehicle safeties mandatory we could basically insure anything we wanted. Heck, back in about 1992 I vividly remember trading a guy a case of Labatt Blue for a rusty blue 1975 Chevrolet Nova.

That car was a total piece of crap. It was riddled with dents and had more holes in it than the Blue Bombers defence. But, the heat worked and it was cheap. Real cheap.

The bill of sale was written on the back of a cigarette package and it actually stated the car was traded for a case of beer. My local insurance agent gladly accepted this.

Looking back, it’s a good thing I wasn’t in an accident in that beater — it would have surely crumbled like stale bread. It also wasn’t the only terrible car in my past. There were many.

As a lifelong gearhead, my money is usually tied up in a cool car or motorcycle, both of which are typically useless for half the year here in Winterpeg. Every fall my search for a car to get me through the winter months would coincide with covering my prized possession with a tarp — usually in my dad’s backyard. Of course there was no internet, so I’d scour the local Buy & Sell paper for a hidden gem.

My favourites back then were always Chevrolet Novas, and over the years I probably owned about six of them. They were easy to fix, the parts were cheap, and although the bodies rusted like tin cans, the motors in them ran forever. The case of beer trade was likely the cheapest, but not by much. Back then I could easily find a suitable Nova for less than $300.

All that seemingly came crashing down on April 22, 1994, when the Vehicle Safety Inspection Regulation came into effect. The days of insuring any old car you could find were officially over.

Any vehicle changing ownership now required a comprehensive inspection by a certified automotive repair shop. I was 27, a new father and a new homeowner when this came into effect. I spent an entire summer riding my Yamaha Virago motorcycle, rain or shine, because my wife and I couldn’t afford two safetied cars.

Thankfully my stepfather came to the rescue that fall and gifted me a 1988 Jeep Comanche pickup truck.

When vehicle safeties became mandatory, it hit me quite hard. In addition to being able to insure these winter beaters, I could also turn a tidy profit in the spring after getting them roadworthy.

I wasn’t exactly Terry Balkan Chev-Olds, but it was common to sell these beaters for a few hundred bucks more than I’d paid for them, money that always went towards more car or bike parts. Looking back I now see how necessary vehicle safeties are. My friends and I drove vehicles that were total death traps. Holes in the floorboards, wooden brakes, bald tires, cracked windshields. You get the picture.

Now, with all that out of the way I did manage to offer my young friend some advice. My lesson was that mandatory safeties challenged me to become the gearhead I am today. It forced me do it for myself.

To prove my point I told him about a 1986 Toyota pickup I resurrected back in 2005. We’d lived at our rural property for a few years already and money was tight, so I was looking for a cheap little truck to commute with. My buddy mentioned his sister had the old Toyota for sale for only $500.

I brought a battery and a small portable compressor along and had that little truck up and running on her driveway in a few minutes. She said it had been more than a year since it moved.

It had about 190,000 kilometres on the clock, barely broken in for a Toyota. A temporary permit was purchased from a nearby insurance agent and the truck was brought to a friend’s shop for an inspection. Aside from a couple of lightbulbs and worn tires it was actually near safe — except for the rust... and there was lots of it.

Those old Toyota trucks were known to be bulletproof, the boys on the Top Gear BBC TV show proved this with a similar looking version. They were also prone to rust and this one was no exception. Once my buddy had given the truck a thorough once over he wrote up the required repairs.

On the way home I stopped off and visited my dad, who was the manager at Brunswick Steel. He let me dig through the scrap bin for some sheet metal and I found exactly what was needed. Back in my garage I got to work quickly. If memory serves me correctly it took me one weekend, working basically day and night, to make it right.

In my favour was the fact the rust issues only affected the truck’s bed and body panels. The frame was still good and solid. I grinded and cut away all the rotten spots and made cardboard templates that were traced onto the new sheet metal panels.

My hand still gets a cramp thinking about cutting all those pieces up with the tin snips. The edge of my metal workbench was utilized to hammer out the edges and the new pieces were carefully riveted onto the truck’s bed. Bondo was slapped over the rivets to make it a bit more presentable.

Once it was all fixed up I headed to Canadian Tire and bought about six cans of Tremclad brown, which was a miraculously close match to the original Toyota brown.

A set of used tires was bought off a buddy and I also replaced the brake pads and added a Cherry Bomb muffler and a cold air intake for good measure. The entire works was polished and detailed from bumper to bumper. When I brought it back in for the final inspection, my buddy said it was as good as new and signed the safety on the spot.

It was a proud day. That little Toyota may not have been a Chevy, but it was like a rock. It may not have been arrow straight, but it was something to see. It cost me about $850, including the initial purchase price, to get that little truck on the road.

It served me well for a few years and had about 300,000 kms on it when some guy t-boned me in Beausejour and wrecked it. I walked away without a scratch.

My point through all of this is even though safety inspections are required; a vehicle that may appear ready for the shredder often still has plenty of life left in it.

If you have even a small amount of mechanical skill, a few tools and a spot to do your own work you’d be surprised what’s available for sale and how simple some of the required repairs are. Take your time and I’m willing to bet you’ll be able to find a well-maintained older vehicle with repairable rust issues for a song.

A couple of years back a friend was selling her old 1994 Toyota pickup for $400. Of course I bought it — and now it is patiently waiting in my yard for the same shadetree treatment.

My young buddy has been bugging me to trade it to him. I’m holding out though.

It’s easily worth more than the case of beer he’s offering.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

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