When The Car You Just Bought Breaks Down

Breaking down is a merit badge all car guys obtain at one point or another, because it’s simply not possible to experience the highs of enthusiast car ownership without also taking in the lows. One can never truly enjoy a sunny day without experiencing a couple rainy ones as well.

Breaking down is one thing. I’ve done it my fair share of times, but breaking down five hours from home is another.

So let me bring us back to how I ended up stranded in a Walmart parking lot in Nebraska with a dead phone and a truck I’d literally bought 20 minutes prior.

So I buy every manner of project car. Blown engines, head gaskets, light body work and riced. After some searching, I found this GMC Syclone out of South Dakota that had presented as mechanically solid, but cosmetically ugly.

The paint is beyond repair, the cladding mounts and rivets are all broken and the stock wheels are long since gone. It’s not a looker. I realize that, but it takes a certain eye to see what a car can be and not just as it is. I see potential.

The caveat to all the required work was that the truck was mechanically sound. After weeks of talking with the owner and planning out the transaction, we decided to meet in Omaha at the police station. After meeting, I test drove the truck and noticed a clanging noise at low speeds. I didn’t think much of it, but noted it to the owner. However, he mentioned that it didn’t make the noise yesterday when they drove the truck 500 miles down to Omaha. He had a point.

As planned, I carry on with the transaction and proceed to take the truck back home. The truck is running great and is just as quick and spritely as it’s 1991 Car & Driver features had led me to believe. It’s a strange atmosphere sitting in a truck seating position but having the feeling of nimbleness at one’s fingertips.

However, at about Bellevue, NE, a small vibration started that slowly but surely crescendoed it’s way through the cabin. Mile by mile the noise grew until it couldn’t be ignored. I decided to ignore it. I had to make it home.

Surely enough, after 5 or 6 loud miles later, the vibration moves it’s way into the steering wheels and it feels like all of the bolts are going to rattle themselves loose. This time I decide not to ignore it and pull over off the side off 75 Highway.

I stumble it to a Walmart parking lot hoping one of their mechanics can at least put it on a lift. They decline, but tell me of an independent shop two miles away that could possibly take a look.

The two miles were some of the sketchiest driving miles of my life.

Let me fill you in on what cause the issue. The GMC Syclone is AWD using a transfer case and two driveshafts. Each driveshaft has a U-Joint that connects it to the differential. Ideally, you want zero play in the U-Joint so that the driveshaft only spins in place. When a U-Joints starts to let go, it first vibrates the entire driveline. When a U-Joint fully lets go, it drops the driveshaft onto the road, which is bad. Real bad.

Gaining speed from idle, the truck now sounded like a small grimelin with a hammer was beating the transfer case with each rotation. The realization that this truck wasn’t going to make it home was slowly sinking into the mind. I’d never truly been stranded in a foreign city and I didn’t want to start now.

After limping it to Jensen Tire & Auto (Real nice guys. Props.) they confirmed what I had suspected and delivered the news: Bad U-Joints and destroyed yolk in the differential. They wouldn’t be able to have it fixed until four days later to the tune of roughly $900. Having a mechanic for a dad, I’ve always had a healthy distaste of other mechanics so all of this was bad news to me.

At this point I was faced with a dilemma. Leave the truck in Nebraska, have it fixed and make another trip to come pick it up or call my father and ask for a tow, 10 hours round trip costing lots in diesel fuel and feeling like a supreme jerk for ruining his day.

It wasn’t until about ten minutes after my ride had decided to leave that the idea came to me: U-Haul. I could get a rental trailer and return it in Kansas. Huzzah. I pulled out my phone to make the call

2% battery. Thanks Google Maps.

I tried to call my friend but midway through ring #3 my phone had died. Luckily, my friend Rick had the same idea and had actually returned five minutes later.

From here the story moves quite quickly. We rented the trailer, loaded the truck and left town. Six hours later, we made it to our shop and the truck was finally back safe.

U-Haul Trailer Rental $165.84
Fuel $53.05
Tolls $13.00
Lunch $16.18
Total Spent $248.07

So what is there to be learned from this? Not a lot really. Bad stuff happens. I genuinely don’t think the previous owner was trying to deceive me. He drove the truck 500 miles the day prior. I chalk it up to poor timing. When I know a car’s broken, I bring a trailer. When I believe it drives, I don’t. Bad stuff happens. You live and you learn.

As of today, the Syclone is fixed with a new driveshaft installed and will be restored and repainted in the next couple months. I’ll keep updates coming.

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