Continuing the discussion of pickups from the past. 

A good driller friend of mine was reviewing my last couple of articles written about pickups. His response: “This is not bad, John, but you missed some of the really fun parts of those old trucks – the heater, the windshield wipers and the tires.” I had to agree that if we are going to discuss old pickups, we need to talk about these three items.

The Heater

As I said a couple of columns back, some people didn’t even buy a heater, which was an option on a pickup truck if they made the purchase in the 1940s and ’50s. What I failed to say was the heater, even if purchased, left a lot to be desired by 2011 standards. Ford, which made – and still does make – a good pickup, had an absolutely rotten heater. In fact, to call this thing a heater was taking liberty with words. The heaters in older Fords that I had experience with put out very, very little heat, and had no affect on keeping the windshield clear at all. The Chevys and Dodges that I had experience with in those olden days had much better heaters. In fact, my first car, not a pickup, was a 1942 Chevrolet Fastback, and it had a very effective heater.

Many of these heaters had little quirks, too. My dad had one in a truck that was an after-market model, and it was a big improvement over the factory heater in this Ford truck. The problem was that there was no way to modulate the temperature. You got really warm air – hot actually – or no air at all.

Shirley, my wife, and I once had a vehicle that had a reasonably decent heater, but you had to choose between heating the cab space or defrosting the windshield. This choice was made by opening or closing a door in the heater housing, and it was way over on the passenger’s side. With the door closed, the windshield was kept nice and clear, but the driver and riders were pretty cold. If you opened the door, just the opposite was true – the passengers were quite comfortable, and the windshield was frozen over.

I never did figure out why these early heaters were not effective; it must have had something to do with getting hot water from the engine to the heater core, and then getting a decent air flow over the core to warm the inside cab. Memory may not serve me real well, but it seemed like it was the early 1960s before Ford had a decent heater. I don’t know about Chevy and Dodge; I drove Fords exclusively in those days.

Compare this discomfort to what we have in 2011, which most certainly is a combination heater and air conditioner, and one can dial up the desired temperature just like a home thermostat. I have one truck that has dual controls, although I have never figured out how my side can be a different temperature from Shirley’s side, as we are only a couple feet apart. While this really is a nice system, I have cussed it on many occasions as it seems to have a mind of its own. The control system will select the fan speed it wants, as well as the temperature of the air coming out, which many times is not what I want. This all can be overridden, but I thought I had automatic temperature control – perhaps I do, but the system decides what it will be.

Speaking of automatic temperature control, I once went to a drillers’ meeting several hundred miles north of home, and rode with another driller from a nearby town. We were going to northern Michigan in February, and I warned the planners that we could likely get snowed in. Sure enough, as our meeting progressed, the snow came down in buckets, and we had a wintry mess on our hands as we prepared to head home. We both needed to get home that night for some reason I now have forgotten. In truth, we should have stayed another night, but we headed out.

My friend’s name is Duane. He is retired now, but always was a good guy to travel with. He had a nearly new Cadillac four-door, and as we headed south, I felt rather cool. I asked him, “Duane, do you have the heater on?” He replied that he certainly did, but that he felt plenty cool, too. I reached down to the air outlets, and sure enough, nothing – and I mean nothing – was coming out, cold or hot. We pulled into a service station in a small town, and they had a mechanic who took the car into a service bay. After checking a number of things, he reported, “Fellas, you are absolutely right, the heater fan is not running. I’m not sure what is wrong. Where are you headed tonight?” We told him that we had about 200 miles to go, and he said it would be a darn cold 200 miles.

I told him that, while I was no expert auto mechanic, I thought I knew what was wrong. I suspected correctly: The automatic temperature system on this car had a sensor that controlled a switch that would not allow the fan to run unless the engine was up to operating temperature so the passengers did not get a blast of cold air. I suspected that a relay or the sensor had failed, and I asked the mechanic if he could hotwire the fan motor to see if it would turn with a 12-volt supply. He said that he could. Guess what? The fan turned just fine, and we had warm air into the passenger compartment. I suggested that we “fish” a two-conductor wire up onto the floorboard in the passenger compartment, and I would serve as the heat engineer, connecting the two wires when we wanted heat, and taking them apart when we were plenty warm – just like the heater my dad had in that truck years ago.

The mechanic charged us a very reasonable fee for his services. We had some dinner in this town, and then proceeded on through the snowstorm, happy as bugs in a rug and toasty warm with our Body by Fischer and “Heater by John.” The next week, Duane took the car to his Cadillac dealer, and I was right; the problem was a defective relay, which cost about $5 for the parts and $150 to replace. Cadillac service can be expensive, although the ride is good.

Well, in my long-winded style, I have written an article entirely about heaters in pickups and cars and their shortcomings. Next time, I will write about windshield wipers and perhaps tires, and yes, readers, I eventually will get back to pumps, tanks, well pits and a lot of other subjects about our industry.

You should be reading this in January 2011, and I hope you had a safe and enjoyable Christmas and New Year’s. I hope, too, that your favorite college football team (if you have one) won its Bowl game. The University of Michigan team, which I have followed in person since 1946, is scheduled to get to a Bowl for the first time in three years, after going for more than 30 years in a row. As this is written, most Michigan fans are absolutely ga-ga that the Wolverines are going to a Bowl – even if it may be the “soup bowl.”