The morning frost had begun to melt on the sage and bunchgrass steppe that stretched to the horizon. A thick cloud of dust billowed from our tires, diffusing into the otherwise tranquil air. Inside the cabin of the Troopy the atmosphere was thick with corrugation-induced vibrations and the voice of Jack Johnson trying to cut through the noise. To my left, the gear lever sat quivering in fourth, up ahead the meandering road dipped below the horizon. Our downward trajectory began veering off to the right, as it did the washboard surface intensified, kicking the transmission out of fourth and into neutral.
Our RPMs instantly rose, accompanied by a relaxed hum, a sign of unloaded gears. I shook the lever left and right to verify the Troopy had shifted itself into neutral. It had. In the last six thousand miles, the transmission hadn’t so much as stuttered. I cautiously selected fourth again and continued on our way, crossing a few miles of flat sweeping landscape. The shifter knob gyrated aggressively around its central axis, but everything seemed to function properly. It wasn’t until our straightaway entered a downhill section of chicanes that the issue resurfaced.
In less than a minute the transmission slipped out of gear four times, enough to indicate a serious issue. The moment we reached a flat surface I pulled over to inspect the undercarriage. With the engine running, I rolled under the passenger side of the vehicle. In front of me the transfer case and rear drive shaft were shaking with an alarming amount of play; cause for worry, but these vibrations were not the source of the issue. I worked my way up the drivetrain, checking each component. At the joint of the transmission and clutch bell housing was a gap approximately 1/4cm wide, expanding and contracting with the vehicle vibrations.
Surely this was the source of the issue. I called up to Olivia, asking her to kill the engine so I could dig deeper. With the vehicle shut off, the vibrations disappeared along with the play between the transmission and bell housing. The gap remained, but pushing on the transmission induced zero movement. Clearly, the crossmember mounts were holding. I moved to the bolts securing the components and found that two of them were completely gone, one was about to fall out, and the last was threaded but far too loose.
I had caught the problem just in time. A few more miles and I would likely have been replacing my clutch and other major components. Thankfully a temporary fix was simple: tighten the remaining two bolts and monitor the vibrations for the remainder of our trip. As I fired the engine back up, it was easy to tell this was the cause of many of the vibrations which had developed in the last few days. The shifter lever sat peacefully in neutral, the steering column was silent, and the driver’s door had no high pitch squeak.
Situations such as this aren’t something I shy away from. There are many lessons one can glean from breakdowns, but an appropriate mindset is key. Owning an older vehicle is a time consuming and often frustrating task. It makes you question why you bought a 35-year-old machine with an odometer at nearly half a million kilometers. Owning an aging 4×4 is about a relationship and the mindset you carry into the dynamic. It would be easy to get lost in the frustration of regular repairs, but I choose to see the story in a different light. This vehicle is one in a long line of legends; it is my mentor as it forces me to understand its workings at an ever-higher level. It is my teacher and I am its student so long as I choose to see it that way.