Everything wrong with my new (old) project truck

After a lifetime of waiting, Andy has scored his first pickup truck — and, big surprise, it needs some work.

Andrew Reuter
Dec 11, 2019 · 8 min read

Ever since I have known about trucks, I have wanted a truck. That includes the little toddler version of myself who first laid eyes on his dad’s farm truck at the time, forever hoping, upgraded truck after upgraded truck, that maybe this would be the one he’d drive someday.

Well, finally, that day has come! Through a stroke of bad luck for my pops, I now own his latest old truck, a 2002 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 4x4 with a 5.3 V8 and about 180,000 miles on the odometer.

It is rusty. It has bad brakes and a bunch of other issues. But it is awesome, and it’s going to be a blast to fix it up. (Note from Andy of the future: You think so, do you?) Inspired by David Tracy of Jalopnik, here’s a look at everything wrong with “Old Grey,” as my dad dubbed it, and what’s ahead for my very-excited-to-be-a-junky-old-truck-owner self.

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FIRST: THE STORY BEHIND THE TRUCK

My dad bought this truck used 2005. It served him well, but eventually he bought something new and relegated “Old Grey” to backup-vehicle status. Then, one day while driving to work, a milk truck pulled out in front of him. He slammed on the brakes, but there were no brakes there! He managed to avoid a collision, shifted into 4-wheel-drive low to limp it home, and started doing some research.

The problem was the brake lines. They were horrifically rusty. One line finally rusted through, letting the brake fluid leak out and depressurize the system. Replacing those lines is an expensive task for a shop, and for good reason: Snaking new brake lines through an assembled truck is a nightmare of tight spaces and rust (in Wisconsin at least).

So, my dad called me up and made me an offer: Help me fix the brake lines, and I’ll cut you a deal on the truck. My response: SOLD.

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Rusty, old brake lines at left. Shiny, new ones at right.

The project was nasty, as we predicted. My hands barely fit into some of the spaces that we had to snake the brake lines through. Meanwhile, rust and dirt was falling into my face the whole time. It was rough, but after about three Saturdays of screwing around later, it was done.

Now the truck is mine. And now comes the rest of the work.

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BRAKES

First to be fixed is the rear brakes. They grind when the vehicle comes to a stop. At the very least, I’ll have to change the brake pads, but I should probably change that rotors as well. The rear brakes provide less stopping power than the front ones, potentially justifying the reuse of old rotors here. But they’re only $100 or so to throw new ones on there, so I’ll probably just change them out.

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There’s another good reason to replace them: I have to take the rotors off the truck either way. The parking brake isn’t working, and I want that parking brake working as a backup in case the main brakes fail again. This means I have to dig in underneath the rotors to inspect the parking brake shoe and other related gear. If I didn’t have to check the parking brake, the time saved from having to remove potentially rust-seized rotors might make reusing them worthwhile. But that’s not the case here. We shall see how it goes.

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The last issue here is that the anti-lock brake system warning light is lit. Evidence suggests that this is because the circuitry in the ABS module underneath the truck has failed. A simple replacement is an awkward-yet-easy enough task, but at $300 for a new part, paying that price is less easy. Luckily, it sounds like it’s actually possible to fix that circuitry with a soldering iron. This sounds intimidating, but it’s already broken, so I’m not going to be able to make it worse. Might as well give it a try.

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‘SERVICE ENGINE SOON’ LIGHT

In the same area of the dash, the “Service Engine Soon” light is lit. I have checked it with a code reader, and it appears to be an issue with the emissions system. Sometimes, an emissions problem like this can cost big bucks to fix. But research suggests that this one could be more in the free-to-$20 range. Even though my area of Wisconsin doesn’t require vehicle inspections with working emissions systems, I’d still like to get this fixed. Old Grey is going to be around for a while, and I don’t want to be needlessly polluting the environment. If I was driving some jalopy worth less than the price of a fix, it might be a different story.

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FRONT LIGHTS

One front light looks like an aquarium. The other pops out with the slightest touch. Tape might be a fix for both.

Down below, one fog light is missing a lens. Replacements again are available. But a cheap fix might be in the cards as well.

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TIRES

The tires look decent. They still have a driveable amount of tread. But they are old and worn, and they don’t have great traction in slippery conditions. Meanwhile, all four have slow leaks, making it tougher to jump into the truck for quick trips when needed. So that means new tires are in order.

I’ve never changed tires by myself before, but it sounds like there’s a decent chunk of money to be saved by doing so, so the plan is to give that a try.

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FLUIDS, SUSPENSION, ETC.

My dad said he took care of the truck, but it’s still probably a good idea to start moving down the list of preventative maintenance items. The oil is new, but I haven’t had a chance to change any other fluids yet. That includes the transmission and differentials.

The same idea goes for the suspension. All those parts seem fine to me, but failures there can be catastrophic, with wheels going wonky at high speed down a highway. Might as well investigate them now before they’re a problem later.

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RUST

There’s plenty of rusty body work to fix up. In theory, that’s a cosmetic problem, so who cares? In reality, the stuff isn’t just bad looking. It’s also dangerous to anyone who comes near it. That includes rust in the rear wheel wells that does a good job of catching passers by, and corrosion along the bottom of the cab that lines up perfectly with little feet like my son’s when he climbs into the truck.

Lucky for me, I have the Eastwood MIG 135, which is perfect for welding thin autobody sheet metal. I’ve never attempted this kind of work before, but I guess that’s about to change.

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SEWING

Eventually, I’d love to replace the seats with fancier versions. Perhaps some leather ones from a junked-out truck could be scored, or heated and cooled seats could be purchased aftermarket. For now, these will do fine with some fixes. That includes a sad armrest that needs new cushioning and a tear on the front left of the driver’s seat that needs a needle and thread.

Speaking of sewing, the tonneau cover is similarly in disrepair. While the vinyl is overall in good shape, the velcro strapping it down has completely separated along most of the length. Can a sewing machine save it? Maybe some glue will do it? Or will it have to be junked? We’ll find out.

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MODERNIZATION

Lastly, I’d love to add some gadgets to the truck. Things like a backup camera, a Carplay stereo, and a tire pressure monitoring system would go a long way toward making this truck feel like a modern day vehicle.

You might be saying, “None of those things are necessary. Why spend the money?” My logic is that these provide insurance against truck envy. Instead of drooling over other, newer vehicles with their little luxuries, why not just add them to this truck when it makes sense? A couple hundred bucks spent here is still far less than one truck payment. If they make the vehicle safer and more enjoyable to drive, then great!

LOTS OF WORK AHEAD

All of the above is going to take quite a bit of time. But I’m not worried about it. The goal is for this to be both my first truck and my last truck, so I’ve got my whole life ahead of me to work on it.

I wouldn’t be the first to embrace the old truck life. An excellent YouTube woodworker I follow, Frank Howarth, regularly features a beautiful old Ford in his videos. And it appears to be working great for him. It’d be lovely to one day have this truck age into a classic like that one.

Who knows: If I keep it going another 20 to 30 years or so, maybe electric-truck-conversion-kits will be cheap and easy to install by then. After I get it converted, maybe the brake lines will rust through again. And then a space milk truck might pull out in front of me. In which case, my son might end up getting his first truck, keeping the circle of wrenching going for another generation.

Here’s to hoping!

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Wisconsinite Andy Reuter writes and shoots video about whatever DIY project is holding his attention at the time. For more, follow him on Instagram, find him on Twitter, or subscribe to his channel on YouTube.

Project Lab

Demystifying DIY.

Andrew Reuter

Written by

DIYer, Project Lab. Web-editor-type, Lee Enterprises. Dad/husband. @djnf, @theexponentnews, @uwplatteville alum. Seeking best obtainable version of the truth.

Project Lab

Detailed, documentary-style DIY videos and blogs that demystify DIY.

Andrew Reuter

Written by

DIYer, Project Lab. Web-editor-type, Lee Enterprises. Dad/husband. @djnf, @theexponentnews, @uwplatteville alum. Seeking best obtainable version of the truth.

Project Lab

Detailed, documentary-style DIY videos and blogs that demystify DIY.

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