I f you are reading this magazine but have yet to buy your first military vehicle, then you are already doing far more homework than I did before I got started. I jumped, head-first, into the world of MV’s a couple of years ago out of what one might call “perceived necessity.”
Stuff happens, but paying close attention to the condition of my rig keeps stuff from happening very often. Still, I’ve learned that breakdowns are a fact of life in a 50+ year-old vehicle. Because I carry a basic set of tools, fluids, a tarp, and rain gear, the unexpected “happenings” are usually little more than an inconvenience. Photo by Joe Stevens
My modern pickup was to the point at which any more money spent on it was going to make it more than it was worth. I didn’t want to go into debt for a new truck, and I didn’t want to buy someone else’s problems. I wanted a rugged, reliable truck that I could do most of the maintenance myself. I had no idea that the world of the MV hobbyist existed.
I had ridden in an M37 many years before. That truck stayed in the back of my mind as something that would be neat to have. Faced with the dilemma of modern pickups requiring heavy expenditure, I figured now was as good a time as any to find just how good an MV might be.
I didn’t have very much experience with automotive work, but my background in marine engineering and military aviation taught me how to read a manual, troubleshoot a problem, and turn a wrench. Because I really didn’t understand what I was getting into, I hit some snags.
In retrospect, I have thought of a number of things it it would have been nice to know before I jumped into the world of historic military vehicles. This article is the result of my own experiences, and of my own opinion. Hopefully, it will help some first-time (or impetuous) buyers avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered.
Lesson #1: Gas gauges always lie
I should listen to my wife when she suggests that we fill up before leaving town. I don’t want to talk about it.
Lesson #2: Driving 101
Driving my rigs is the payoff for all the work I put into them. The best part of my workday is the drive in and the drive home. It’s just plain fun. Part of it, to be sure, is the attention that my vehicles get. Smiles, waves, and lots of “That’s a cool truck!” I don’t even mind if people refer to my M37, as a “Jeep.” I figure correcting them is just part of informing the interested. It’s a great conversation starter, and nothing pleases a collector more than to have his collection admired by others.
I did have to teach myself how to drive all over again, though. I think the most significant thing I’ve learned about driving these things is patience. They won’t accelerate like modern trucks, nor will they easily stop in the same distance, so I don’t try anymore. Now I wait the extra thirty seconds to let that oncoming car go by before I pull out on an uphill grade.
It took me almost a year before I could smoothly shift my non-synchronized transmission, up or down, without trying to make all the gears the same size. I’ve learned not to rely on the brakes as much as I used to, but instead to use drag and the gearbox to slow down.
I try to pay attention to what’s going on with the truck while driving. I find that there is often some sort of warning when something is about to go sour on me; I just have to look for it. I glance at the gauges frequently, notice different smells and sounds. If I detect something unusual, I investigate.
Lesson #3: The Zen of the wrench
One beneficial aspect about owning MVs is the pure therapeutic value of turning a wrench. It can be a great stress reliever. It’s one of the reasons my wife puts up with all this. She can see how happy I get over something as simple as repairing the windshield wiper. I fixed it. AND, it didn’t cost me $837.52 in parts and labor.
Alas, it wasn’t always so. Soon after I bought my first MV–a WC9, things began to go wrong. The electric fuel pump crapped out, I lost all four wheel cylinders in less than two weeks, seals started leaking, and so on. Frustration mounted, and I began to doubt the wisdom of this venture.
I sat down and thought about this for a bit. First of all, the engine hadn’t spit out any vital parts, and that mysterious (to me anyway) black box known as the transmission had thus far resisted all my efforts to return it to its base elements. Okay, maybe I’m not so bad off after all.
My conclusions were a) I didn’t know how to drive it properly, and b) I figured that I had probably driven that thing more in the first two months I owned it than it had been driven during the last two years.
Was it reasonable to assume that problems were going to show up under these conditions? You bet.
I set to work reversing the symptoms of neglect and getting it onto the preventative maintenance and inspection cycle laid out in the manual. I try to check all the fluids, including the gearboxes, weekly. About once a month I’ll grab a flashlight and wrench, climb under the truck, or into the engine compartment, and just look around. I take my time and have a gander at just about everything. Lightly rapping the end of a bolt with my wrench should produce a “tink.” If it goes “clunk,” it’s probably loose. I look to see that the wiring and lines aren’t frayed or chafed. I look for the source of leaks, and then add them to the “To Do” list.
The important thing I learned from all this is to do everything I can to catch potential problems early. That way I don’t get overwhelmed with failures and breakdowns. I have a good handle on the condition of my trucks, and can prioritize and address problems as time and funds allow. My confidence and truck reliability levels have soared. One would tend to think the Army was on to something with their Preventative Maintenance program.
Lesson #4: We stand alone, together
Every once in a while, something goes wrong. Of course, it never happens in the driveway on a beautiful day. Steve Turchet wrote a great two-part article (MVM issues 98 and 99) on roadside troubleshooting that is well worth the read.
Though retired from “active service,” my first MV, the WC9, still does duty as a historical display and as a crowd-pleaser at local parades. I have “mothballed” it to avoid the problems that will arise from infrequent use.
Recently, the truck suddenly stopped running. It just up and died with no warning. I grabbed my ball peen from my tool roll, and went straight to the fuel pump. Sure enough, the pivot pin had backed out. A couple of taps and I was back on the road. Did I feel smug? No. The same thing had happened a year ago, and the only reason it happened this time was that last years’ staking job wasn’t quite up to par. However, this time I didn’t shell out $80 for a tow home. Okay, I felt a little smug; I was finally starting to catch on to the game.
The first thing I did upon purchasing the truck was to get some manuals. At the very least, I recommend the organizational level manual and the master parts list. The organizational manual gives the operating instructions for the vehicle and most of the maintenance procedures short of major overhaul. The procedures are broken down into easy steps, and the illustrations are generally very good. The master parts list shows the part number for just about everything on the truck, right down to the proper size fasteners. It also has good ill ustrations. Armed with the proper manuals, and a quality set of tools, I haven’t been stopped by too many problems.
If I do get into a bind, my next stop is the Internet. There are forums for just about any vehicle you choose. I frequent my two favorites just about daily. I’m still amazed, and thankful, that there are so many people willing to help out. They’ve saved my bacon on several occasions. Another advantage is that I can see the kinds of problems that other people are having. If the same thing happens to me, I’ve seen it before and have some ideas for a fix.
I would also recommend finding and joining a local MV club. Getting together with like-minded folks can be an invaluable experience. Chances are that if you do have a problem, somebody in the club has seen it before. Besides, it’s really hard to beat the fun of participating in a parade, no matter how small.
Another good source of information is the vendors of MV parts. I have dealt with several of the folks that advertise in this magazine and have yet to be disappointed. I don’t call John over at Midwest Military for advice every time I hear a hiccup, but if I think I’ve narrowed down a head-scratcher, and am ready to order a part, I’ll run it by him. If he doesn’t agree with my diagnosis, he’ll suggest an alternative solution.
And let’s not forget back issues of MVM. I keep a stack of them beside my favorite chair. I would really like to see printed annual anthologies of past issues; even a CD version would be very helpful.
Lesson #5: Parts everywhere with no place to walk
One thing I didn’t realize when I bought my truck was how much space this hobby can take–both in spare parts storage and working area. Because I live in a relatively remote location, most of my parts come through the mail. My practice with parts is, if my cash flow permits, to order at least two of what I need. That way if something critical breaks later on I won’t be waiting for the weather to clear enough for the mail to get in and for me to get back on the road. I also grab those hard-to-find items that I stumble across. As a result I have consumed a pretty fair piece of my garage floorplan.
Operating in winter conditions means doing maintenance in winter conditions. Protection from the elements has ensured that I will keep up with maintenance. My “portable” garage has been worth the modest investment.
Lack of working space was another obstacle that had to be worked around. My trucks will not clear the door on my garage. To correct both of these situations took some reorganizing. After the first winter’s toll on the ambulance, it became apparent that leaving it outside would destroy it in short order. I opted for a good quality “portable” garage. I bought the tubular frame/heavy-duty tarp type, and it’s given me excellent service heading into its second winter, though I suspect that I will have to replace the plastic in the spring. Luckily, I had room for a 12’x20′ beside my house.
My spare parts now happily reside on metal shelving and, even though I’m the world’s worst carpenter (I can cut it twice and it’s still too short), I built a decent 5′ workbench with a 6″ vise and fluorescent lighting. I now have a reasonably ordered area to wile away my leisure hours. When it’s too nasty to work outside, I can always rebuild that spare distributor.
Lesson #6: Keep it simple!
I feel that “stock” is simple, and simple is good. I like it when things look like the pictures in the manual. It’s much easier to troubleshoot and repair problems that way. I began to recognize that a good portion of my difficulties could be traced to “modifications.” When the electric fuel pump on the truck went out, I had a heck of a time tracking down a 6-volt replacement. Then I discovered that it put out too much pressure and would flood the carb. That meant I had to find a pressure reducer, which quit a week later. This was getting ridiculous! I took some advice and returned the system to a stock mechanical pump. With the exception mentioned above, I’ve had ‘nary a hiccup with it in 3,000 miles.
While I’m on the subject of fuel systems, here was the line-up on my M37 when I got it: stock fuel tank, commercial inline filter, three-way valve to a bed-mounted fuel tank, electric fuel pump (not working), mechanical pump, Racor filter/separator, pressure reducer (identical to the one that failed in the ambulance), leaky carb. In short, a can of worms.
First, the 50-gallon bed tank came out. I wanted the bed space, and with gas prices being what they are, I can’t afford to fill it anyway. The inline filter, three-way valve, electric fuel pump, pressure reducer are coming out when I run a new fuel line. I installed a rebuild kit on the carb. I am going to keep the Racor, however, because I feel it is a more practical alternative to the stock filter. An added bonus is that the truck will run about five miles on the fuel left in the filter bowl after the tank has apparently run dry (I’ve done it twice now. Refer to Lesson #1, above.)
I have made a few concessions to historical accuracy with my M37: the Racor, seatbelts, and a fuse-protected extension cord with cigarette lighter socket tapped from the first battery. Now I can keep my cell phone charged should the beast decide it wants to strand me someplace inconvenient. I’m going to install a battery disconnect switch. I also cut the metal mask off my blackout headlamp. It makes a good little work light–about the equivalent of a flashlight–without the annoying glare of working by headlight. These things, in my mind, are practical, easily reversed, and won’t affect reliability.
I’ve also installed a heater/defroster from an M151 kit. I took my time and thought things out very carefully, and as a consequence the result was a very neat and tidy job. The downside is that now I’m addicted to having heat in the cab, not to mention being able to see out on those crisp mornings. I must be getting soft in my middle age.
When I earned my aircrew wings years ago, one of the chiefs on my qualification board told me, “You now have a license to learn.” I feel that way about MVs.
I don’t know everything, but I have picked up the operating and maintenance basics, set up my working area, and have my parts somewhat organized. I can relax and enjoy my drive, instead of perching stiffly on the edge of the seat anxiously awaiting the gods of catastrophic failure to smite me. If it does happen, I’m confident that I can get it back on the road in fairly short order. Because of what I’ve learned, I have turned my perceived necessity into a thoroughly enjoyable hobby.