AlCan Adventure: Meet the Donut Truck (AKA I need my confidence back)

For this last cheap car challenge road trip, we did things a little different. For starters, we bought the cars at home and had them shipped. This gave us the ability to have clean titles and registration in our names, which would make border crossing and selling easier. More on that later. This also meant we could have as much or as little time with the cars as we wanted to get them ready.

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Shortly after I picked up my leaky Volvo, George was on the hunt. Whereas I was hunting via Craigslist and Facebook, he opted for a slightly different approach. He drove to one end of Tulsa’s extensive strip of used car dealers (~5 miles and over 100 car lots) and started working his way down, stopping in at any place that looked like the cars weren’t “too nice”.

Turns out while there are a lot of dealers working in the $4,000 to $10,000 space, very few want the headache of $1,000 to $3,000 cars and their buyers. Also more on that in a later post.

Eventually after driving quite a few different cars, some of them hilariously tragic like the Ford with all four tires that were different sizes, he settled on this minty seeming Chevy Tracker, aka a Suzuki Grand Vitara. With a peppy 2.5L DOHC V6 (or would that make it quad overhead cam?) under the hood mated to a 4-speed auto, decent interior, and acceptable interior this car only had two problems: A leaky oil pan and it was 2WD.

To the dealer’s credit, after the test drive both of them smelled burning oil, so, without prompting from George, he had the mechanic check it out. After some digging they settled on the oil pan gasket being the problem, and while George and the owner negotiated a price, the mechanic got to fixing it.

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Neat!

A few days later he had his car and was loving it.

There were, however, some problems.

First of all, he noticed the check engine light was missing. Classic. After replacing the bulb, it was, of course, illuminated. A quick OBDII scan revealed a failed or failing/ failed MAF. Not a huge deal... until the old part disintegrated and lodged itself in the intake while he was attempting to replace it. And then the new part didn’t work at all. Wonderful.

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Keep in mind he is wrenching on this thing while we’re still trying to keep the cars secret, so not only can he not enlist my help, he has to do it when I’m not home an the car has to be hidden again before I get back to the house.

With car pick up and an unrelated trip to out of town looming, he finally gave up and dropped it off at my favored indy mechanic. They fixed it and kept it for a week while we were out of town. It was very nice of them, I thought.

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After we got back, we only had a couple days before the shipper picked up the car, which ended up being another whole big thing, so he needed to pick up the car, verify all was well, and then get it to the pick up point.

After picking it up from the shop, all was well. Right until the brakes seized.

Seriously. I didn’t even know that was an option!

Apparently while driving back to the house on the highway it started acting weird. He pulled over only to see smoke pouring off of three of the four brakes. Apparently something in the braking system was not allowing three of the brakes to release and they were stuck on.

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He limps it to a nearby Midas, the only place that could take it immediately, and they seem to think the calipers and pistons are the culprit. I have my doubts, because a near simultaneous failure at three corners would indicated a problem with the proportioning valve or maybe the flex hoses.... maybe? Either way, replacing all the brake hardware did, indeed, solve the problem, but for an eye-watering lump of cash.

Once it got to the start point, I’ll say the Donut Truck, as we’ve taken to calling it, did just fine! It did start smoking when one of the valve cover gaskets decided to give up, but overall I’d say it did the best. Or, at least, it used the smallest quantity of fluids. Except gas. It used the most of that.

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I cannot comment on the sale of the truck in Anchorage because while we have some strong leads, the Tracker has been a surprisingly slow mover here in Alaska. As in while he has had similar views to the other cars, while the Celica and longboi went almost instantly, the even the scammers don’t want the Tracker.

So here is the problem

We’re all a little shell shocked by what has happened to the bowtie ‘zuke. First off, the brake problem sounds like it came out of nowhere. I guess it had some weirdness which he was trying to figured out, but never anything that really pointed to the brakes. Also the selling issues, even with the car’s faults, are surprising.

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As for the brakes, I’m still not convinced it was a caliper failure, though obviously replacing them solved the problem so maybe I’m wrong. If it was, I guess it is possible that the car had some old, heavily water contaminated brake fluid. While sitting over the weeks that he had the car but wasn’t driving it the lack of fluid movement allowed the brakes to rust internally. Then when he started driving again, the rust clogged up the system and/or disallowed normal brake movement, which led to failure.

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But that is just my best guess based on the information I have a available. I would love to hear other theories.

So yeah, our collective faith in old vehicles been tested to near the breaking point on this trip, but also that a braking system can go from “fine” to “destroyed” in such short order and with so little warning has been confidence breaking. We’re aware that catastrophic breakdowns are always a risk on these trips, but this is our closest and most expensive near miss. If this had happened in Yukon or before the Inside Passage ferry, for example, it would have been disastrous, possibly unrecoverable. I guess we would have bled the brakes and seen what happened but.... shit.

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