That Time I Drove from CA to TX in a $3,000 Suburban
Did I also mention I was towing my 1988 Mustang on a rented trailer behind said Suburban? With my pregnant wife and Tiny Dogé as my co-pilots? Oh yes, that too.
Let me back up a bit. My wife and I moved to the DFW region of Texas, from our native home of Southern California. This is all for work, with the added bonus of more space, a bigger house, and most important to my car adventures, a big ol’ shop. When we first drove out, I piloted a 26' moving truck towing our BMW wagon, followed by my wife & Tiny Dogé in our Subaru Outback wagon. It was pretty uneventful. But for the next round to get my two cars, I knew it would be a bit more trouble. I had no idea just how much trouble it ended up being.
I have a 1988 Mustang nicknamed The Grey Ghost, that my Grandpa bought brand new. Its been mine since I was 18, but I parked at my parent’s house for the past 3 years due to electrical gremlins. With the move to Texas, I knew I had to bring the car back to life. I needed a tow vehicle. After extensive research, I settled on a Chevy Suburban, specifically the GMT410 (1992–1999) with the 6.5L Turbodiesel V8. I found one very local for $3,000 with merely 295,000 miles on the odometer. Sure, thats a lot of mileage, but it had excellent service history and new AC, front seats, and tires. I nicknamed it the Superb Bourbon, our Chevy Suburban. I drove it for a few weeks before parking it next to my Mustang at my parent’s (they are VERY understanding when it comes to cars), then drove off to Texas, planning my return trip in about a month’s time.
Before I parked it, I did a fluids check and installed gauges to stay on top of the typical turbodiesel metrics: boost, exhaust gas temperature (EGT), and transmission temperature. I also had a code for a bad manifold air pressure (MAP) sensor, which limits how much boost the truck makes. Boost equals power, and as I would soon find out, sanity. Returning to sunny Southern California for work, I had a few days before departure to sort out some final details. My wife and I picked up the trailer from the local u-Haul, where we discovered that the trailer brake lights didn’t function with the Suburban’s harness. Knowing that I had an arsenal of automotive tools back at my parent’s house, I was unfazed.
Back at home, I ran into my first obstacle. The hood wouldn’t open. Turns out the cable was stretched, and once on level ground it popped open. My father and I performed some zip-tie engineering to take up the slack. I then swapped in a new MAP sensor and gave the truck a few revs, saw boost on the gauge and called it good. My father and I also verified the brake light wiring. By verification I mean that we drove ourselves insane testing and re-testing the lights on both the trailer and the Suburban for a few hours. We gave up and went to bed. Early Saturday morning, things came to a standstill when we discovered no brake lights whatsoever. The fuse had blown and we kept killing the stock 20 amp fuses. The brake switch was dead, and at this early hour, no parts stores were open. After an hour’s troubleshooting, I decided to start driving, using the running lights as a manual brake light, and hoped that there would be a new brake switch available at our next big stop.
By some miracle the Autozone in El Centro, CA had the brake switch in stock and cheap at under $15 (hooray General Motors products!). After a very necessary breakfast (I get angry when I don’t eat), I got to work swapping it out under the dash, which is an exercise in patience and dexterity, especially in the mid-summer temperatures. We finally had brake lights! On the trailer AND the Suburban. Success! The old switch was a little melty, which I took to be a sign that we had eliminated the problem, and that the rest of the trip would be a cake-walk.
The rest of the day was a slow grind. The truck only occasionally made boost, and the MAP sensor code was back with a vengeance. When I swapped the sensor at my parent’s house, I noted the socket was a little crusty. Every fuel and rest stop I tried swapping the MAP and messing with the wires. Inspection on the road showed it was actively crumbing, and we had a weak connection. Naturally, no auto parts store stocked a new connector for me to wire in. I applied die-electric grease and zip-ties as a stop-gap. We had to drive slow to keep the truck from pouring out black smoke and getting too hot, a side effect of no boost due to the bad connection. We pushed into the night to our hotel in Deming, NM. We were on the road from 6:30 am until 11:30 pm, with an hour time change thrown in for posterity. We hoped for a slow but easy final day of travel.
The next morning we struck out for the Texas border. Not long into our second day, just across the border at the edge of El Paso, my wife spotted smoke coming out from under the dash. I frantically searched for a good spot to pull over. I shut the truck off, and the smoke abated. No active fire, which was a good sign. Looking at the brake light switch harness under the dash, it was badly burned through. See, when my dad and I were messing with the electronics the morning before, we had swapped in a 30-amp fuse in place of the stock 20-amp in the brake light slot. Bad move. The new switch allowed too much current to flow and over the course of the day, cooked the wiring harness and causing a short. Freshly frustrated with my new-found knowledge, I really struggled with a solution. We decided to run without brake lights once more, and head for the nearest auto parts store.
Naturally, the store was over a large hill, and the boost was not present in the morning. A smokey accent, complete with a mid-grade pull-over-and-check-for-fires event (did I mention the brake lights also controlled the hazards?), we pulled in to an O’Reilly Auto Parts. I turned the key to the off position and started to head to the store. My wife asked my why the truck still ran with they key out of the ignition. Something in the burned harness was allowing power without the key! On a diesel, it can run forever provided it has fuel. This was a big issue. I pulled the fuel pump fuse and after a minute or so (myself in full panic mode), the engine stumbled to a stop. After letting everything cool, I went under the dash and found a small victory — the brake light harness was in fact a sub-harness, meaning I could pull the entire thing out from underneath the dash and work on it on the ground. I was winning the battle, but the war was far from over.
I dropped a couple of hundreds inside O’Reilly’s and spent the next two hours meticulously rebuilding the brake light harness in the shade beneath the Suburban. Note that we were in El Paso where it was mid-90’s in the shade. O’Reilly’s had the brake light switch and enough wiring supplies for me to patch my way to glory. After plenty of crimping, cutting, splicing, and stripping (not the good kind); my harness was complete and Roadkill-approved, with plenty of zip-ties to keep it organized. I reinstalled the harness then replaced the fuse with the proper 20 amp, praying for no more fires. Testing immediately destroyed the new fuse. After going through a few more fuses, I deduced that the trailer harness on the Suburban was bad. O’Reilly’s had a plug-and-play solution, so I went under the truck to replaced the entire thing. After another half an hour on my back, we had working trailer brake lights, turn lights, and hazards. Most importantly, no blown fuses and all wiring felt cool to the touch.
We got back on the road and resumed our slow and steady pace. In the midst of all this wiring, the boost was still an occasional visitor and we constantly monitored the mirrors for signs of black smoke. As we headed into the night, my wife noticed a distinct lack of lights on the trailer. Turns out there was no provision in the plug-and-play harness for running lights, so the trailer was essentially invisible from behind. We still had hazards, so we ran those for three hours until pulling in to our house in Texas at midnight. We had driven from 7:30 am until midnight. We were exhausted.
The next morning we got the Mustang unloaded, the trailer returned, and everything inside the Suburban shoved into the shop. Oh yeah, the Suburban was also filled with a shop’s supply of machine tools and whatnot. Turns out that electrical issue with the Mustang? A new regulator and an upgraded charging wire had it running like new in under an hour. A few minutes on eBay and a few days later, the Suburban had a working MAP connector and reliably made boost.
Sometimes, I hate cars.