Sunday, March 16, 2014

Freewheeling Fourwheeling

The ides of March have passed and earth’s do-si-do with the sun brings the end of NJ’s snowiest winter in two decades within spitting distance. I rarely celebrate the equinox, but this year I might just get all Druid and make an exception. The Chevy Cruze I bought last October (see The Road Worrier ) finally has seen the light of day after two months in my garage. It has all of 1700 miles on it. The Cruze is a fine little fair-weather car, but an alarming drive home from work during a sizable snowfall last December convinced me to shut it away for a while – in fairness, it is no worse in the snow than most other vehicles in its class, but no better. My 1998 GMC 2500 Sierra guzzles like a sailor on leave, but its 4WD proved indispensable. Without the GMC my home furnaces would have shut down: during one of the worst weeks, I daily drove 5 gallon cans of fuel oil to my house because my supplier’s home heating oil delivery truck couldn’t get up the driveway even after it had been plowed. I’ll keep the Sierra for as long as it runs.

Behind the wheel of my Sierra

The penchant of suburbanites for 4-wheelers draws snickers from some circles (“Why? To drive to the supermarket?”), but I learned their value as long ago as 1974 – and not just for weather reasons. In 1974 I still lived with my folks in Brookside. One of our vehicles was a 1970 Jeep Jeepster; I had learned to drive on it, and continued commonly to drive it throughout the 70s. Another vehicle was my dad’s 1965 GMC pickup; a 2WD straight-6 with non-synchromesh standard transmission, it was just a basic workaday simple truck.

1970 Jeepster 

Thanksgiving weekend in ‘74 my sister Sharon flew east from CA with her newlywed husband Frank; they were living in Hollywood at the time. On Thanksgiving morning, my mom asked Frank and me to bring in some firewood for the fireplace; there was a pile back by the barn. The geography of the property needs a description: there were two driveways, one to the house and one to the barn; a stream separated the lawn by the house from the lawn by the barn, and a small footbridge crossed the stream. I suggested to Frank that we take the GMC from the house driveway around to the barn; we then could load up the bed and drive back to the house rather than lug logs a few at a time by hand over the bridge. I drove to the barn and, as I had done on previous occasions, backed off the barn driveway onto the lawn next to the woodpile. I failed to take into account, however, that a rain had fallen early in the morning and had soaked the grass which now formed a slick surface. We soon had reason to regret the oversight.

We both loaded up the truck bed and I got behind the wheel. The ground from the woodpile to the driveway inclined upward slightly, and with the extra weight in the bed the wheels simply spun on the wet grass. The only direction the truck would go in forward gear was sideways. So, I backed deeper onto the lawn to a leveler place with the idea of getting a running start. Once again, my plan failed to take into account the rain. The truck backed downslope easily enough, but the soil beneath the grass in the level area was muddy, so when I tried to drive forward, the wheels spun in place and then sunk in. Frank and I collected rocks from the stream and stuffed them under the rear wheels in hopes of getting some traction. The wheels simply spun and threw the rocks around the yard. A roll of chicken-wire fence was in the barn, and I suggested we lay it down as a track on which to travel. We stuck one end under a rear wheel and unrolled the fence. The wheel gripped the chicken wire well enough, and wrapped it around the axle.

At this point, dad came home. Visualize the scene: there was a truck half-buried in the lawn, tracks running through it, rocks strewn about, chicken wire fence unrolled atop the grass … it looked as if the 1rst Marine Division just had slogged through. As my father thundered his opinions of our performance up until this point, I had my first idea of the day that smacked remotely of intelligence. I got into the Jeepster, put it into 1st gear 4WD, and drove onto the lawn despite the real risk of ending up with two vehicles stuck there. By putting the GMC into reverse while Frank tugged on the chicken-wire, we got the fencing off the axle. I hooked the Jeep by chain to the GMC frame, climbed back in the Jeep and tightened up the chain. Even with the GMC in neutral (I was worried it might tail-end the Jeep if Frank put it in gear), the Jeepster pulled both vehicles back off the lawn and onto the driveway with scarcely a slip on the grass.

We had our fire – after I was done on the lawn with a shovel and rake. My labor-saving plan for retrieving firewood hadn’t worked out, but it probably did save me time, labor, and trouble in the long run. The events of the day convinced me always to have a 4WD, if only as a back-up vehicle. Sometime in the subsequent 4 decades I surely would have gotten stuck somewhere without it, if only in my own driveway.

Jeepster by T Rex: I suppose he means he would 4-wheel it to get to her, but he calls her a Jaguar so she might be hard to catch on a paved road


  1. I don't know how you do it up there with all that snow. Texans would freak out at the slightest snowfall. As I read your post I wondered how an all-wheel drive car like a Subaru would hold up in such an environment? I try to stay up on all the bells and whistles being offered by the auto industry. Right now, I wish I had a car with better gas mileage, just makes sense to me. I'm also a big fan of PBS's Motor Week and NPR's Car Talk.

    1. Subarus do pretty well most of the time. I have friends with them who swear by them. This year we had unusually deep snows so there were days when autos with a little more road clearance (eg Jeep Cherokees) were less likely to get hung up, but 99% of the time that is not an issue. On all other snow & ice days, the extra traction of the AWD is all you need to keep going when the equivalent 2WDs are in the ditch.

      Judging at what point the cost of current gas bills justifies the cost of a more fuel efficient new car is always hard. I do like the typical $32 bill when I fill my Chevy better than the typical $95 bill when I fill the GMC – their ranges aren’t that much different.