Livin’ The Dream in an ’91 Ford Econoline

“I’m just glad my Boss has already gone” my wife said as I was picking her up from the airport in the latest addition to the Summers fleet, a ’91 Ford Econoline 150 Clubwagon, “with those curtains in the windows you look like Chester the Child Molestor” – particularly stinging, since a female friend had made exactly the same comment earlier the same day. For me, by contrast, the van is an unlikely looking but very important step on the road towards Living The Motorsport Dream – and here’s how:

– Usually it is either too hot or too far to ride to track days. Direct sunlight and 100 degree weather for three or four hours wearing full leathers sees you arriving at the track looking like a shriveled up prune, like when you spend too long in the bath. Not conducive to speed or safety whilst on track, more conducive to the soft-fingered English boy needing a lie down in an air-conditioned room, in fact.

– The Land Racing / 200 mph project has repeatedly been rendered the more difficult because no shade has meant no relief from the grinding dry heat – either out in the So-Cal desert at El Mirage, or on the salt at Bonneville. Each time, I have under-estimated the sheer hostility of the environment and suffered accordingly. With a simple awning, I have shade now, and space to lie down and have a sleep if I want to.

– I’m told you can ride the Pony Express trails across California and Nevada. These were the first US cross country routes, and the blend of wilderness adventure, wild west history and motorcycles means I am possessed to do this. However, unless I want to fall off more than Ewan McGregor when the surface becomes loose, I had better get out there, buy myself a dirt bike, and get and practice plenty before I strike out across the Nevada desert. Since dirt bikes aren’t usually road legal, secure transportation is needed.

Nick Mason, drummer with Pink Floyd and noted classic car collector has said that all true car enthusiasts will buy without having to drive first – if you love the car, and you’re truly buying with your heart, you don’t need the test drive. Such was the case for me with the Econoline, although my lack of test drive was due to the rules of the Stanford University Surplus Property Auction which the van was advertised in. Indeed, the bid process was online, and tyre kicking was limited to driving to a remote part of the Stanford campus, finding the vehicles up for auction and peering through the windows / underneath. I have to say I was immediately taken with the two tone brown, faux wood / diarrhea vinyl interior and federally mandated 85mph speedo, although the 76k on the odometer stuck in my mind too. Nothing seemed to be leaking underneath, and the tyres seemed OK. Short of the dent in the bumper, and the Darlington Stripe on the side, it seemed remarkably straight for being close to twenty years old.

My bid was about half of what I thought the van was actually worth. Two days after submission, I got a call telling me I was the winning bidder. Excitement mingled with trepidation – would it even start ? It was with considerable anticipation that I went to the office, handed over my grubby twenty dollar bills, and had the keys in my sweaty palms. Although it was my lunch hour, I HAD to try it immediately. There had already been one surprise – the ad had indicated it was a straight six, but the log book indicated it was a V8 – infact the same “five point oh” ( yep, that is a 5 litre, 302 C.I. in US parlance ) Vanilla Ice rapped about, although I think he was talking about a Mustang instead. Inside, it smelt pretty bad, but fired up with the first twist of the key. I spent 15 minutes driving around Stanford University campus, feeling King of the Hill. The fan belt squeaked in a particularly annoying and intrusive way. The transmission seemed to shift alright. All the doors, windows, lights and wipers seemed to work. The radio was already set to the local rock station. The rubber of the steering wheel has started to break down – if your palms are a little sweaty, a horrible sticky brown film develops between the wheel and your skin. It really is unpleasant, but to me it was like smelling an old girlfriend’s perfume – my first car, an ’81 Ford Cortina had exactly the same habit. Obviously it hadn’t been driven much recently – there was a small green border growing along the bottom of the windscreen. The drive up the peninsula home to San Francisco revealed that warmed up, it ran better still, and would easily roll along with the needle above the 85mph maximum, although sudden changes of direction at that speed are not a good idea, and fuel economy suffers, with it barely managing double digits.

Since then, I have been busy fitting it for it’s purpose, by having a chock for securely holding motorcycle front wheels secured to the bed – otherwise securing a bike inside would be a two person job – and fitting the aforementioned Molestor curtains. Now I have no excuse but to get out there and ride…

Slide show here