September 30, 2012

The 1999 GMC Suburban 6.5L Turbo Diesel, my new Cold War camping vehicle

Someone's head will explode when they read this, but the Bombardier Iltis may not be the perfect vehicle for my Cold War tourism hobby.  Let me compare, contrast, and explain what I've figured out.  I've taken three different vehicles to various Cold War sites across Canada.

In August 2011 I drove from Carp, ON to Parent, QC in a 2003 Pontiac Grand Prix.  The Grand Prix is a 205HP Front-wheel-drive 4 door sedan.  Travelling with one passenger (DA), and a ton of camping gear, was extremely comfortable, and we only spun out in a torrential downpour on a dirt road once - no damage.  The road between Carp and Parent was paved for the first half, and dirt for the 2nd half - there was never any fear of getting stuck or being unable to take the vehicle anywhere.  It even went up to the operations site of the former RCAF Station Parent.   Overall I didn't regret taking the car, there wasn't anywhere I didn't go because of it, but with a more capable off-road vehicle we would have gone to more/other locations I think.

In the March or April of 2012 I drove from Carp to Foymount in the Iltis, and had a great time.  The ride was smooth, most of the road was paved, the day was sunny but chilly, and I didn't get filthy.  The trip wasn't very long either - there and back in a day.  This confirmed to me that the Iltis was an awesome drive-anywhere vehicle.

In April of 2012 I drove from Ottawa to Parent again, this time with friends.  Carp to Parent is a much longer drive.  It had snowed heavily the day before (and during) our trip.  Capability wise the Iltis got stuck offroad only once, and used it's own winch to get out of the spot it was in.  I was able to take the Iltis anywhere and everywhere, and this time I crossed terrain that would have obliterated the Grand Prix.  To get from the town of Casey to the airstrip at Casey required a vehicle that had better approach and departure angles than the Grand Prix - by a long shot.  The Subuaru we were with barely made it (AWD was great, but angles were a problem in one spot), the Jeep Liberty performed well, and the 2WD Dodge Ram did OK (it may or may not have made it to the Casey Air Strip, we didn't attempt it)  Off-road/On-road the Iltis showed it could go anywhere... However...
All items in the Iltis were filthy by the end of the trip, we had the rear plastic window rolled up, and everything was either covered in dirt, snow, or both - mud.
All passengers in the Iltis were cold, wet, or both.
We were travelling with the doors on, because of the cold weather; else we would have been colder, dirtier, and wetter.

In August of 2012 I drove from Carp to Oba, ON via Hornepayne, ON first along HWY11 and then back along HWY17.  Part of the trip I had a passenger (RH), and I was driving the aforementioned Dodge Ram 1500 2WD regular cab pick-up.  Along this trip I was conscious that I wasn't driving the Iltis, and I wanted to question myself whenever I did something in or with the Ram; IF I was driving the Iltis, would I do this?  If not, what would I lose/gain from using the Iltis?  The results of this self-questioning were somewhat sobering.  The drive to Oba was ~16Hrs, and the drive back seemed longer - perhaps because I was already exhausted from getting there, and had naps on the side of the road along the way home.  That's the first tell; if I was driving the Iltis I wouldn't be napping IN the Iltis, it's too uncomfortable.  The interior of the Dodge Ram was leather, and has a bench/captain's chairs - when not travelling with a passenger, LOTS of room to nap.  My passenger was also heat/cold sensitive; if I'd taken the Iltis they would have died, I'm sure of it.  The Dodge didn't fare as well as the Iltis would have in the rough terrain, BUT the Dodge didn't get stuck - to be fair - I didn't put it at risk of getting stuck either.  Another surprise was the tonneau cover on the back of the short box Dodge Ram wasn't sealed enough to keep the dust off the camping gear.  By the end of the weekend, everything in the pickup truck bed was covered in road dust.  The whole reason I didn't bring the Iltis was because the rear differential went, and I haven't bought or installed a new one.  Gas mileage on the Dodge Ram with it's 5.9L Magnum engine is poor, but after driving thousands of kilometres, it got down to 15.4L/100km.  I would have wanted, in hindsight, to have a 4WD extended cab pickup, Jeep, or SUV; I would have been able to go more places, with better piece of mind, still napped in comfort, and not got everything filthy.  But how to decrease my gas consumption?  Diesel?  4Cyl of 6Cyl gas engine?  Maybe just a new modern engine (A Dodge HEMI is far superior to the Magnum when it comes to horsepower AND fuel economy...)?

I contemplated and studied the obstacles and my lessons learned.  I came up with a solution.  The GM Suburban, Tahoe or Yukon (Chevy or GMC, long or short) in 4WD, Diesel and with leather would be the target.  Unfortunately, there are precious few of those on the road, let alone for sale in Ontario (or anywhere else).
Let's review the pros and cons...
  • GM Vehicles in general do not have a great reliability history, but, they're predictable, well known by all mechanics across North America and the parts are plentiful.  This is not true for the Iltis.
  • The vehicle comes in leather, that's a feature I won't compromise on.
  • The vehicles comes with 4WD, again, that's something I won't compromise on.
  • The vehicle can be kept clean on the inside (no dirt/dust)
  • The vehicle has amazing cargo room, and the possibility to mount additional aftermarket roof racks.
  • Diesel is an option, and the 6.5L "Detroit" Turbo Diesel is not the most powerful Diesel in the market, but delivers respectable fuel economy.
  • It has a 158L diesel gas tank.  Yes, 158L.  It should be able to go over 1200 highway kilometres before a fill-up.
  • The vehicle can realistically be kept warm, it doesn't have canvas or vinyl sides, and should warm up comfortably after hours on the road.
So I dropped the hammer, and after three tries, got a seller via Kijiji to actually SELL me a 1999 GMC Suburban... I bought one.  It isn't precisely what I wanted; the gears are 4.10 rather than 3.42, but it will do!  All the other features are right in line with what I wanted.  It should be more fuel efficient than the Dodge Ram, capable enough with 4WD, and have enough space to bring everything AND the kitchen sink.  I'm very excited to take it to Belleterre, Val D'Or, and Senneterre in the coming weeks.  Reviewing the popular industry magazines, the Suburban is in the top 10 best "road trip" vehicles with good reason, and the '99 places better than the Excursion, Yukon and Expedition for overall ride, comfort and performance.  I'm looking forward to the next outing to give my own opinions on the 1999 Diesel Suburban :)

1999 GMC Suburban 2500 4WD
6.5L Turbo Diesel (L65)
190 HP @ 3400 RPM
385 ftlb @ 1800 RPM
4.10 Axle Ratio
7,500 lb Towing Capacity
GM 4L80-E Transmission
158L Fuel Tank
Goodyear Wrangler AT/S
P245/75R16 tires
Exterior: Pewter Metallic
Interior: Light Grey Smoke with Grey Leather

September 02, 2012

Westport Gap Filler Annex (CG18 / C-3A)

Current driveway of the domicile which was once the
Westport Gap Filler Site
(Updated and Reposted)

The gap filler site just north of Westport Ontario is conveniently located a short distance off county road 10, a paved well maintained road - so no climbing of mountains was needed.  The drive to the site is serene and picturesque.  The last leg of the road is one lane and one lane only.  When the Gap Filler stations were sold off in 1964, it was sold to Norkum Construction of Porcupine, Ontario.  Today, as you can see from the (dated) satellite picture below, no vegetation grows around the perimeter, and little vegetation grows within the circle.  I visited the site on August 5th 2012 and was quite surprised to find that it was not currently owned by a business or industrial interest, but a private owner.  As I didn't catch his name, we'll call him Cletus for no reason what-so-ever.  Cletus "greeted" me in his gitch, while his three giant German Shepards were circling and barking at me.  He was a man of few words and even less patience, as I tried to explain who I was and why I was interested in visiting his property.  The terms "Cold War", "Pintree Line", "Gap Filler", and "Military History" didn't interest him much; he informed me this was his private land, he didn't want any visitors, and I should best be on my way.  I apologized profusely for interrupting his lunch, and bid him good day.  I can't say he was rude exactly, but not very neighbourly, by my neighbourhood's standards anyway.

I did not get any pictures of the site, very unfortunately, because the two Steelox buildings have been clad in white vinyl siding, and green detailing added around the windows that have been installed.  They also have a windmill and solar power; I'm not sure if they're living totally off the grid, but they're at least half way there.  The ring road around the buildings is still very visible, although there doesn't seem to be any reason for traffic around the ring, so I can only assume whatever herbicide the military used to cleanse the area was potent stuff.  Agent Orange has been rumoured to have been used at Pinetree line sites; could it have been used at Gap Filler sites?  I would have liked to ask Cletus if he'd had difficulty growing his vegetable garden, but alas, he wasn't in a chatty mood.

UPDATE: I took the above picture on September 1st 2012 showing that the driveway is well maintained.  "Cletus" did not seem to be home, and I did not trespass on his property.

No tower is on the site (anymore?), and I did not see any fuel tanks or auxiliary buildings of the same vintage as the Gap Filler site.  It was a disappointing visit, but I'm glad I saw the gorgeous job they've done on refitting the Steelox buildings into proper homes.

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Westport GFA Location