David Weinstein: The Original Vanlife

David Weinstein traveled around in an old ugly panel truck back in the late 60s and early 70s. And even though his experiences happened more than 45 years ago, it's not so different than the stories of vanlife today.
David remembers his family always telling stories when he was growing up and now that he's older, he felt it was time to share a few stories of his own. Tune into this podcast to hear the story of Big White.


Full transcript with photos below.

Produced & edited by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Photos courtesy of David Weinstein.

Music by Anthony Siciliano of Head to the Roots.

Big White

If you’ve never had a beat-to-shit vehicle, you’ve missed one of the great opportunities in life.

Your parents, with their concern for safety and image, may have bought you a handsome, late-model luxury automobile when you first got your driver's license, but all I can say is, "You poor deprived soul."

My first "beater" was a 1959 Ford F-100 panel truck: Three-speed manual transmission, V-8, 292 cubic-inch engine. I can't say for sure, but it may have been the worst vehicle ever manufactured. Anyone with any automotive sense, after having driven this vehicle, would have immediately sold all their Ford Motor Company stock, if they had any. This was a vehicle so badly designed that it foretold the coming demise of the U.S. auto industry. But I loved this panel truck. I loved it so much that I gave it a name, Big White. It was like a cherished household pet, but one I never managed to completely housebreak. What adventures we had together.

And after all these years, I still think back on it with a fondness I reserve for few things in my life.

It was never my intention to buy it. I was interested in a 1954 Chevy panel truck. Most of you won't understand, but buying this was like wanting a pair of Vans and winding up with a pair of Keds. Vans are way cooler.

My ne'er-do-well Uncle Ed, my mom's oldest brother, was instrumental in the purchase of Big White. When he was sober, which was infrequently, he was a master mechanic. I had asked him to take a look at a Chevy panel truck I had found in the local want ads. He happened to be sober that particular day, but only because he had recently developed a stomach ulcer and the doctors had told him he would die if he didn't quit drinking.

Like most chemically dependent souls, he figured out a temporary compromise: if he drank on alternate days, he would be able to survive…barely.

Uncle Ed (left) with one of his many drinks in hand.

The next morning when we went to look at what I thought would be my new panel truck, Uncle Ed had already consumed a few pints of Old Taylor, Kentucky straight bourbon. This wasn't all bad, though. He was sober enough to evaluate the truck, and he always seemed more convincing after a few drinks. I thought this might even come in handy when we got down to negotiations. My mom used to say, "Your Uncle Ed would have made a good politician. He can't tell a straight story, and he could talk a fox out of a hen house." He was a bona fide genius, but I know now that unfulfilled genius is almost a proverb.

I examined the Chevy the way a plumber might look at the Hadron Super Collider. This is to say, I was absolutely unqualified to make any assessment. The body looked fine, the motor started when I turned the key, it had tires, a windshield, lights, and most importantly, I had five hundred bucks in my pocket, which was the exact asking price. Done deal. But before I could transact business, my Uncle Ed waved me off with an open hand. It was his signal that said "Hold on young nephew, and give us grownups a chance to parley."

He started up the Chevy, opened the hood, pointed at something, and the seller shrugged. He crawled under the vehicle and inspected the undercarriage with his penlight. Then he asked if we could drive the truck around the block. As we pulled back into the seller's driveway, he said, "If you got somethun' in mind besides crusin' up and down the boulevard, it'd be best if you got yourself a different truck."

A person wouldn't want to trust Uncle Ed's advice on life matters, but on anything mechanical, he was your man. I was disappointed, but I knew he was right.

On our way home, we passed an alley that fronted a strip of commercial stores. Before we got to the stoplight, he ordered me to turn down the alley. Something had caught his eye. We drove past a few stores, and sitting behind a TV repair shop was this big ugly, white panel truck with two flat tires. Like the girl in school you'd never given a second look until you were forced to work on an assignment together, I was about to develop an unexpected relationship.

Uncle Ed directed me to park. We got out of the car and walked through the back door of the shop. He found the owner standing behind the counter and asked his intentions about the panel truck. The owner said he was thinking about fixing it to sell, to which my Uncle asked. "Have you figured out a price?"

The shop owner responded, "Oh, five or six hundred dollars."

Uncle Ed inspected the truck, then he and the owner talked. I can't recall exactly what Uncle Ed said, just that it was remarkable. When Uncle Ed talked, people listened. He was not only engaging and charismatic, but convincing. He could get you to believe almost anything, which was ironic because he rarely told the truth. Whatever transpired, I remember the last words, "Okay, a hundred and twenty-five dollars sounds fine."

I reached into my pocket and handed over the money. I was now the owner of a big, ugly, white panel truck.

It takes time to develop a relationship, and I spent a lot of time getting to know this truck. The first thing was to get it to Uncle Ed's house, where I was going to work on it with his

assistance. This meant getting it started and moving, which required a new battery, an oil change, and new tires. I could handle all these things, but unbeknownst to me, I was about to embark on a journey that  provided me with an intimate understanding of the mysteries of the internal combustion engine. A journey I would never have taken had my parents been more concerned for my welfare, and helped me purchase a newer and safer vehicle.

I spent the late fall getting my panel truck in shape. It had fairly low mileage, having only delivered television sets back and forth around North Hollywood, but it still needed a new clutch, brakes, and a contraption called a top oiler. This last element because Uncle Ed determined there was a flaw in how Ford had designed the oil circulating system.

After the mechanical work, I set about customizing the interior. I installed wood paneling, carpeting, and stereo speakers in the cargo compartment. I wanted to make it as comfortable as possible. The practical reason was that I planned on doing a lot of long distance traveling; the aspirational reason was that my 18-year-old brain thought a more inviting space might improve my chances with members of the opposite sex. 

I had been accepted by the University of Colorado for the spring semester, and I planned to drive my truck there. While I had never taken it on a shake-out cruise, I somehow was able to convince my parents to let me drive it from Southern California to Boulder, which meant across the desert and over the Continental Divide in the dead of winter.

I was going to be accompanied by my older sister, meaning their only living heirs were taking off on a perilous road trip in a $125-dollar truck; and my sister didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

The author, David, pictured with his mother (left) and sister (right).

I’m sure it helped that Uncle Ed vouched for the reliability of the truck, but his support cost me three pints of Old Taylor.

We headed out in the last days of 1969, and made our way along Route 66, across the Mojave Desert past Flagstaff, Arizona, skirting the Grand Canyon. Then on through Navajo Country and the Four Corners area. When my sister, Bev, took a stint driving, it felt like we were pulling a cart with square wheels as she grinded her way through the gears and the truck lurched along until she reached highway speed. We crossed the treacherous, snow-packed Wolf Creek Pass, and spent the night in sleeping bags in the back of Big White near Alamosa, Colorado. The coldest spot in the nation that evening, 20 degrees below zero.

 When we reached Boulder in the early afternoon of January 1, 1970, it was sunny and cold. The new decade greeted us with a dramatic view of the Flatirons, an uplifted sandstone formation that marks the spot where the Great Plains rise to meet the Rocky Mountains. The sun reflected across the fields of snow as we entered town, and The Band was fittingly playing "Across the Great Divide" on my eight-track tape deck.

The 1970s was to be an eventful decade for me. Big White and I would do a lot of traveling, from Boulder to California and back several times, northwest to Oakland on a truncated trip to buy land in Oregon, and back and forth to Cleveland. Big White managed to break down in California, Utah, Wyoming, and Illinois, and threatened to break down in countless other waypoints along the road. Each time it was a test of my ingenuity to figure out how to make repairs, or gather enough money to pay the repair shops. I camped all over the country in the space I had created in the cargo area.

And I traveled with a cast of good friends at a time when we were young and callow, friends now only known to me in memory.

I courted a certain girl in Big White, who later became my wife, and then the mother of my two children.

I don’t know if her attraction had anything to do with my big ugly, white panel truck, probably not.

David (middle) sits with his wife Ann (left) and their mutual friend Anne (right).

You can tout the virtues of your old Volvo station wagon, your Honda Civic, or the Subaru you drove to college. I wouldn't trade the lot of them for one Big White.  So here's a glass of Old Taylor; Kentucky straight bourbon, to a drunken old mechanic, an ugly white truck, and a carefree time of improvisation on the open road.

Now aren’t you sorry your parents bought you such a nice a car?

Produced & edited by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Photos courtesy of David Weinstein.

Music by Anthony Siciliano of Head to the Roots.

David now owns a 1987 Westy and uses it mostly for fly fishing trips. His Westy is his Big White 2.0.

David with his wife Ann (lower seated) along with their two daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren.

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