Sunday, April 27, 2014

Shade tree update: Too much stuff going on!

I haven''t been able to post much in the last month or so because, well, dear readers, there's just been so many things happening, there hasn't been time for me to tell you about them.

Much of the business stemmed from the fact that my sister managed to sell our mother's retirement bungalow in the Glamorgan valleys for a good price, after two years languishing on a low UK house market. (Well done, sis!) That meant that I received a modest inheritance. I'd planned to pay off the farm with it, but the recent low interest rates made that unnecessary. We refinanced last year with PenFed (one benefit of being a veteran), now have a very cheap mortgage, and don't owe very much compared to the value of our property.

Which all meant, once I'd paid off some credit cards and put much of the rest in retirement, I had a lot of vehicle work to get done.

There has been an awful lot of vehicle maintenance put on hold for want of time and money these last few years, and indeed, for want of vehicles that had any useful life left in them worth the investment. It was well past time to put this situation to rights.

This is a long story, and has been a major theme of this blog over the years. Aimee and I never have compatible work schedules, and there isn't any kind of public transportation or car pool facility available to us, so we both need our own vehicles to get to work. Aimee gets a reliable car, which in recent years was our lucky Camry. For many years now I've managed to get by using a series of end-of-life junkers, first a succession of Saabs, then the Mazda, and eventually the old Ford Escort wagon.

There's also a need for four-wheel drive vehicles in winter, and for vehicles to do farm work. Our venerable 1971 Land Rover is my winter truck, does a lot of the farm work around here, and will last the rest of my life if I take care of it. But Aimee also needs a winter vehicle, which for as long as we can both remember has been her old Nissan Frontier pick-em up truck. She also needs a vehicle for her summer field work in marine biology.

These are well-documented vehicles. The Nissan Mazda, Camry and Escort are all mentioned in numerous posts on these blog pages. The Land Rover has both blog pages and even a FaceBook page, showing the original restoration work. The most relevant to today's post, however is this one here, where I explain why the Ford needs to go to that great junkyard in the sky.

In all this long saga of beat-up old jalopies, there's one theme: How to get the maximum useful life out of a vehicle with the minimum payment. That's mostly my job, for which I have a significant array of proper tools, a small shop, and big dooryard with the appropriate shade trees for a traditional "shade tree" mechanic.

We've done quite well. The Mazda gave us over 60,000 miles for about $2,000 total, the Ford has managed about the same. The Camry has given us 50,000 for around $5,000 total, but is still going strong and has lots of useful life left in it. The Nissan, which was new when Aimee got it in 1999 while a graduate student at UMass Dartmouth, ran on and on, and gave us 212,000 miles in the end, until I foolishly burned up the transmission.

The plan was, once mother's house had sold, for Aimee to get a new car, as well as a replacement transmission in the Nissan, while I would take the Camry. The first part of this was achieved the first week in April, when we secured a "new" 2009 Toyota Matrix for Aimee. This is likely to be a reliable and cost-effective vehicle for her, and because we got it from a dealer, it even comes with a three-month warranty, the first car or truck I've ever owned that had such a thing. The mileage is especially good, at what seems around 35-40 mpg. We looked at a Prius, but were put off by the low ground clearance, as well as the high cost. The Prius mileage was only touted at 45 mpg, so the Matrix was a better deal. It also has side air bags, stability control, and ABS, all needed because Aimee isn't the world's best driver in the snow.

My experience with Toyotas, having now owned three, is that they have superior rust protection and are easier to work on because of sensible layout

Once the Matrix was in hand, I started driving the Camry. We traded the Ford Escort for a couple days of sheep-sitting from a young person with a little sheep experience. They needed a car, and the Ford can probably serve, if it passes state inspection. If not, the price of scrap is high enough these days that they can sell it and use the money for a different car. They will pick it up tomorrow.

All the cars taken care of or in hand, I then turned my attention to trucks and particularly the Nissan's transmission. With some reluctance I stripped away the old wooden flatbed decking, the result of previous efforts to keep this truck going. My intent was to clean up the frame and replace the decking at the same time as I did the transmission.

But once the decking was stripped away and I got a good look at the frame I realized there would be no new transmission for the Nissan. The frame work I'd done four and five years ago, in 2009 and 2011, had managed to last alright, but there was new rust in different places, while the cab was also rusted out at the rockers. I realized that a new transmission was not going to be such a good investment. I sold the truck for scrap, then looked for a replacement.

Both Aimee and I were a little sad the day the wrecker came. We've had this truck for a long time, and gotten a lot of useful service out of it, but all good trucks come to an end (unless they are Land Rovers).

The knowledge that the frame was gone should have made me feel better about burning up the transmission, but didn't. I hate to waste money, especially with stupid mistakes like that.

But still, I had to bite the bullet and get a new truck, so I started reading the classified and driving around to look at what was on the market.

In the end I got us another four-wheel drive Frontier, just slightly newer, a 2002. I picked it up at a wholesale lot in Bangor for five grand, plus taxes. It needs work, and I have it on jack stands in the dooryard right now, while I go through it, but it came with a cap, a tow hitch, and an extended cab, so it seats five. It has 144,000 miles already, so we know we won't get that many more miles out of it, but it only needs to do a few thousand miles a year. Most of Aimee's miles will go on the Matrix. The new truck's rear frame is rusty, and the bumper rusted out, but it's still better than the old one was when I worked on the frame all those years ago, so If I catch it now with rust converter and the wire wheel on the grinder, spray the heck out of it with undercoat, and use Fluid Film every winter, it should last for at least five years.

Fluid Film is a godsend. I should buy stock. Until I discovered this stuff, all my cars rusted out no matter what I did. It's the only thing that makes sense out of driving in a New England winter, with all the road salt used around here. Even the Land Rover would corrode if it wasn't for Fluid Film.

Plus, it's made from sheep's lanolin. What could be better?

If I get time later today, I'll take some pictures of the new vehicles to add to this post. But yes, I've had my work cut out for me recently. All this and lambing season too. (We now have six, but more are coming.)

Mother would be happy enough, though, with what I've managed to do with all her hard work and savings. In particular, as many Great Farm Diary readers know, Aimee's now expecting. I should think my mum would want her first and only grandchild to be driven in safe vehicles. I should think she'd also be glad to know how much she's helped our family financially. She was a very practical woman when it came to houses and money.

I put a lot of this in my eulogy for her, but it took a while to come true.

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