The plan was set weeks before to take my 1962 Chevy C10 “Swede” to Denver for an event. I had a story to write about the trip, an event to attend and need to prove to myself whether the hours I had spent wrenching on the pickup was worth it. Determined, crazy or stupid (likely a mix of all three), I had rationalized taking the old pickup and decided it was time. Even with all the prep, it would still be a nerve racking trip.
I checked the oil three times, antifreeze twice. Kicked the tires and stared at the engine bay. I had spent the prior summer swapping out the dead 235 inline 6 for a new-to-me 283 V8. This engine was a big improvement over the 235, yet it was unproven in my mind.
For the past week, I had set out to prove the engine could do it by putting in two tanks of gas driving from town to town. I drove in the heat, the early morning cold and with some rain. On the back roads, I pushed Swede beyond the posted 60 MPH speed limit. Each time, I came back to the house and checked the oil, the antifreeze and made sure nothing had come loose around the engine.
I was nervous, excited and determined the morning of the big day. I had gone over the plan in my head several times. It is less than 200 miles from my house in Nebraska to Denver, yet I planned to avoid the major highways. Instead, I was going to take all the backroads and two-lane interstates. This route put the total miles, one way, right at 200 miles. I didn’t have to be at the event I was going to until later that evening and I planned on leaving before 8 am. With ample time and keeping speeds under 60 MPH, I felt more confident he could make the trip.
Why drive Swede to Denver? This question was asked time and time again by my family and friends. I have access to many other, much newer vehicles to road trip with, so why not drive one of them?
The truth is I wouldn’t have minded driving a newer vehicle, but I also believe vehicles are like any other piece of machinery. The more you use them, the better it is for them and the more you let them sit around, the worse shape they get into to.
I also rationalized if I broke down, it wouldn’t matter if I was in a new vehicle or an old pickup. In a newer, more modern car, breaking down would ultimately lead to being towed. In Swede, I’d also have to call a tow truck, but odds are I might be able to walk to a parts store and fix the problem myself. Either way, the result was the same.
Armed with my rationale and determination, I tapped the accelerator twice, turned the key and Swede fired right up. A good sign I figured.
Pulling out of the driveway, I steeled myself for the long day behind the wheel. On a typical drive, it takes about 3.5 hours to get to Denver. I thought if I could make it there in 5 hours, I would be doing good.
I turned off my street and headed towards the two-lane interstate. The on ramp is a long stretch of pavement running parallel. Putting my foot down on the gas pedal, Swede easily climbed up to 60 MPHs and I merged onto the interstate. The posted speed limit is 65 MPH, but like I did most of the drive, I ignored the top speed and drove at my own speed limit.
About 5 miles outside of town sits Wildcat Hills, a ridge of hills with a steep grade on both the sides. Once you are over this ridge, the prairie opens up and flattens out somewhat towards Cheyenne, Wy. Getting over the hills requires a lot of effort and while new cars make it look easy it is not the same for a classic truck. I kept careful watch on the new mechanical oil pressure, heat and voltage gauges while I waited to downshift. About 2/3 up the hill, Swede loses his momentum and requires an upshift to keep moving forward. This is a tenacious moment considering I still had 195 miles to go.
I pushed in the clutch and upshifted carefully watching and listening. Swede jerked and caught the new gear, the oil pressure needle moved to 50 psi, the voltage gauge moved a bit and the temperature gauge held steady. Putting my foot down, Swede responded by climbing onwards to the summit. Once at the top, a quick downshift dropped the oil pressure and the roar of the engine quieted. He had made it and proven he was up to the task.
After that nervous moment, I relaxed. It is a long way to Denver, yet I knew the roads I was on. If Swede could get over Wildcat Hills, he could handle the long winding roads to Cheyenne and then the straight shot from Fort Collins down to Broomfield – the final destination.
Along the way, I stopped for gas twice both ways (and a bit of a breather). Each time, I checked the oil, antifreeze and looked over the engine and the tires. Throughout the journey, Swede didn’t use a drop of coolant, yet he needed a quart of oil. Making a note to look for leaks, I kept pouring in the oil and gas.
Prior to leaving my first gas station stop, I rolled down both windows and enjoyed the warm breeze blowing into the cabin. As the day grew warmer, I worried about the engine temperature, yet it never budged past 190 degrees. However, the cabin was getting hotter by the minute.
Driving along, it occurred to me I had floor vents! This pickup was built 15 years before I was born and floor vents were long gone by the time I learned to drive. Cruising at 60 MPH, I considered how to open the driver’s floor vent. My arms aren’t long enough to reach the handle and I didn’t want to stop. Sweating more by the minute, taking time to think it through wasn’t helping me cool off. As I was just about ready to pull over, I realized I could just use my foot. Eureka! The floor vent opened and the stuffy cabin air was replaced by the sweet smells of the country side.
Entering the city, Swede caused quite the stir with many drivers giving us thumbs up or curious looks. It isn’t that strange to see a classic pickup on the road, yet it is a bit strange to see one with out of state plates. Also, strange to see a pickup so “farmer used” like Swede driving around.
Keeping up with traffic and using my hand signals (no working turn signals), Swede made his way through the busy cities until we got to our final destination – the Omni Interlocken. Pulling into the lot was a big relief. He had made it!
All told, the trip took me right at 5 hours, 19 gallons of gas and a quart of oil.
A few days later, I loaded up and made the return trip. Yet, this time, I put the pedal down east of Cheyenne and let Swede fly on the county roads. With a big smile on my face, the windows down, floor vents open and the bright sun in the sky, it was as close to heaven as any classic pickup fan will ever get. Without question, I enjoyed every last minute of it and will remember that feeling for the rest of my life.