Truck Thursday: 1990 Utilimaster Aeromate on the Devil's Highway

Friday, 2:38 AM, Somewhere in the sprawling suburbs north of Dallas: I swipe my debit card through the reader at the gas station and furtively enter my PIN, hoping the taxi driver isn’t lurking somewhere nearby, shiv in hand, waiting to take my card, my PIN and whatever may be left of my checking account. It’s now Day 2 of our van adventure and we thought it would be over tomorrow.

How it all went wrong was one of those situations where you say, “we’ll laugh about this later…”

It had been quite some time since my Vespa GT200 had been “messed with” while strapped down in the back of my trusty Ford Ranger. On my way to a Southern California scooter rally from my home in Utah, I knew for a fact that my hulking black scoot had not been listing at a perilous angle for the previous 450 miles of Interstate 15. To prevent thievery and other shenanigans, I usually parked backed up to a wall or some thorny bushes, but in this particular parking lot, that was not possible. Who knows if someone had actually attempted to steal my bike – in any case, it got me thinking – I need a vehicle that I can lock it inside.

Judging by the number of Econolines and box trucks at various rallies and track days across the country, I’m sure I’m not the first clever guy who’s figured this out – while being transported, our bikes are just sitting there, waiting for some opportunist to come along with a buddy and abscond with our treasured rides into the night.  With the front wheel chocked , there’s no way to even force a perp to lift the front of the bike, as the steering lock isn’t operational.  When in the truck, even my ramp sits out in the open – it’s like an invitation for theft with all the tools laid out in advance.

Over the next months, I scoured ebay, Craigslist, local ads, everything I could think of on the internet – to find the perfect rally rig. I did measurements, searched for specs and dimensions and came to a couple of conclusions: an Econoline, Astro or Express van isn’t big enough. See, I wanted to do a fold down bed and some shelving – a true ghetto-fabulous RV.

All of these vehicles were up to those tasks – just not swallowing the beast that is my modern Vespa. At 48 inches to the top of the headlight (not counting mirrors), the GT will not fit in the doors of a standard van without some sort of leaning or contortions. Not something I’d like to attempt by myself. A Sprinter would be awesome – if I could justify a significant outlay for one in decent shape. I couldn’t.

Funky old delivery vans entered the picture. A sweet 60’s Chevy milk truck in Seattle? Rusty. Former Uhaul Toyota box truck locally? Rusty. Slab-sided former postal van in Portland? Needs new engine. Oh, and rusty. Further refinement: aluminum body.

Finally, surfing the net at work one day, the light shone down and the triumphal music played: the Aeromate. An early 90’s joint venture between Chrysler and Utilimaster Corporation had produced this small, aluminum-bodied box on wheels. Complete with a Dodge Caravan drivetrain, the front-wheel-drive van had a choice of an inline 4-cylinder or V6 engines for not-horrible fuel economy, a low step-in height and the interior dimensions I needed. This one’s in Pennsylvania. Sigh.

Did I mention I was getting married about this time? Planning a wedding, honeymoon and all the attendant issues took precedent. I forgot about the Aeromate for a while.

Friday, 10:01 AM, 2.5 miles north of Valley View, Texas. “Is that Troy Aikman?” A guffaw. “Get the camera!” So ol’ Troy is shilling for pork products. You’d think being Texas and all, that it would be beef. Whatever. The van is “awesome” in your best Chris Farley impression. It feels, well, not powerful, but strong enough. We’re cruising north on I-35, on 3 hours sleep, transaction completed, Aeromate was mine. The rain and highway speeds have revealed two immediate needs: wiper blades and an adjustable wrench to tighten down the driver’s side mirror, which upon passing 35 miles per hour, had snugged itself up against the sliding door of the van.


With the wedding complete, honeymoon planned and other issues (mostly) resolved, the Aeromate was back on my mind. I found two in Texas – both on Craigslist. One with a lower mileage four-cylinder engine described as “not really highway-worthy” and the other a V6. Both apparently in good shape at a decent price.

Of course, the gutless four-banger was eliminated from consideration.

After many emails, questions, a AAA service station inspection and discussions, I agreed to preliminary terms with a nice gentleman from Dallas to purchase his van. I packed up the bare essentials into my Motokitty satchel and donned my beloved five-dollar cowboy hat I’d purchased on a motorcycle ride to Denver a couple of years back. On a warm Thursday night, my lovely and understanding wife waved goodbye. Cory, my best man, mechanic and partner in crime and I were off to Texas.

Friday, 12:56 PM, Just south of Norman, Oklahoma. “I’ll bet that place has a buffet,” I motioned toward a coming off-ramp which so happened to feature an Indian Reservation casino as it’s main attraction. First order of business, however, is a crescent wrench and a pair of aviator sunglasses from the mini-mart across the road. Mirror tightened down, we proceed to enjoy the finest meats and cheeses Central Oklahoma has to offer.

Our trip had started off well enough. No flight delays through Phoenix, we expected to arrive late into Dallas and were resigned to the idea of not getting much sleep that night. No matter, we would make Albuquerque the first night, and on to Salt Lake in time for a Saturday evening bar-be-que get-together.

Then, the seller greeted us with an ominous question – “would you like the good news or the bad news?” Immediately, my head was filled with thoughts of expensive one-way return plane tickets, extra-special TSA security patdowns and…

“Well, the bad news is that we heard a knock in the engine.”


 “The good news is, we replaced the engine.”

Oh? Turns out, my helpful and generous friend had replaced the old 196,000 mile engine with a newer 70,000 mile unit. That’ll do – we drove it around the block and gassed it up and returned to the seller’s place to retrieve the paperwork and be on our way.

Friday, 4:14 PM, 5 miles from Elk City, Oklahoma. “This thing is running great – let’s take it up to 75!” says Cory, now driving. Famous last words, Murphy’s Law, what cliche shall we use? See, there’s certain things that should be done when replacing an engine. Swapping in new hoses and belts are a pretty simple and inexpensive task. These things were not done on my van. So here we are, standing in front of the van, steam rising from under a hood we can’t figure out how to open. A quick call to my seller reveals the secret and the problem is soon diagnosed. A radiator hose – a massive tear. Cory, mechanical genius, uses hose from heater core to replace damaged bits – then we notice the flat tire. Sigh. Flat tire changed and we hit the road, rolling into Elk City’s Autozone for supplies.

I’m not sure, but it may have been the sight of a 190-foot tall cross – by some accounts, the tallest in the western hemisphere – that caused Cory to suddenly break into a demonic rendition of Glen Danzig’s classic, “Mother.” Maybe it was the 397 miles in a rattletrap van, or the fact that the advertised AM/FM/tape player failed miserably at delivering music, or the fumes from the tire patch kit. I knew only two things at that moment – I was dead tired and very hungry. Fortunately, a scant 30 minutes later, the Big Texan Steak Ranch loomed along the side of the freeway like the old-school tourist trap that it is. A sign proclaiming, “Home of the Free 72 oz. Steak” sealed the deal. We would eat like kings – princes at least, no 72 ouncer for me – tonight and haul ass tomorrow.

Saturday, 7:45 AM, Santa Rosa, New Mexico. “Damn!” I stagger back slightly as I open the door revealing a light akin to standing on the surface of the sun. We make our way slowly to the continental breakfast in the lobby, pausing momentarily to answer the question, “are you in room 14?” “Yeah, why?” No answer. Odd to be sure, but I’m guessing this sun has something to do with it. Or it could be a situation where if you can’t figure out the odd one, it’s you.

Somehow, in the dark of night, we’d pushed on past the Route 66 towns of Vega, Adrian and Tucumcari before admitting defeat and ended up in the town of Santa Rosa, New Mexico for the night.

Over freshly-made lobby waffles, we formulated a plan for the day. Drive quickly and arrive in Salt Lake City, over 700 miles away, by midnight. The newly-christened Hellvan and the Devil’s Highway would conspire to crush that dream soon enough.

Saturday, 10:18 AM, Edgewater, New Mexico. “Our best option will be to hard-wire the fan to the battery,” says Cory after the engine overheats only 70 miles out of Santa Rosa. For some reason, it’s not working. So, it’s off for more supplies. The girl at the Edgewater Autozone was as friendly as the one in Elk City. They do a nice job of customer service training. I’ll be looking into Autozone stocks if I ever get home.

We’ve been very lucky with one thing so far: the weather. Other than some showers in the section between Dallas and Oklahoma City, the skies have been clear and the temperatures mild – keeping the engine problems to every hundred miles or so.

Saturday, 2:40 PM, Grants, New Mexico. “We should probably get some transmission fluid too,” Cory suggests, augmenting the 6 gallons of coolant, 3 quarts of oil and boom box we’ve already placed in the cart.

I’m feeling a sense of dread. Soon, we will peel away from I-40 and any semblance of Autozone proximity. Hopefully, stocked up on vital fluids and a stack of classic country tapes from the Grants Wal-Mart, we…

Saturday, 5:07 PM, 5 miles south of Newcomb, New Mexico. “Something isn’t right.” The engine revs, but no accompanying increase in speed. Pulling over, a streak of liquid visible for hundreds of feet behind us, we diagnose yet another problem. Broken transmission fluid line. The Devil’s Highway has struck.

There was much consternation about the desolate highway between Gallup, New Mexico and Monticello, Utah. As the 6th spur route off old Route 66, the highway had been designated US Route 666 for decades. Only recently, with the prodding of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, had the number been changed. But for us, the bad luck associated with the road remained.

We had no way of fixing this most recent problem. No replacement transmission line, only 2 quarts of fluid. So we dumped those in and got back on the road, hoping that there would be some sort of auto parts store nearby.

Saturday, 5:29 PM, Newcomb, New Mexico. “Holy shit, is that a gas station?!?” Has our luck changed? Virtually skipping gleefully inside, we grab as many bottles of transmission fluid as possible and even find some hose patching tape.

Saturday, 6:41 PM, 2 miles south of Shiprock, New Mexico. I look at Cory and shrug my shoulders. We’ve now slowed to 40 miles per hour, but the gravity of this long hill is keeping us at that speed and there’s no traffic. We’ve been coasting now for a little over a mile, and we can see Shiprock in the distance. Hopefully, we won’t have to push.

Here’s an interesting factoid: Shiprock, New Mexico, a town of over 8,100 people has no motel. No hotel, no accomodations. No Autozone either. They do have a Napa, but it apparently is open between Noon and 1 PM. A quick consultation of a convenience store phone book revealed an Autozone in Farmington, 30 miles away. According to our calculations wild-ass guess, we should be able to get there on the remaining 6 quarts of transmission fluid we have.

Saturday, 10:22 PM, Farmington, New Mexico. “This food isn’t very good,” says Cory, looking up from his plate. “It’s Denny’s,” I reply. We’re both filthy, covered with transmission fluid, road grime and dust. Four Farmington police officers at an adjacent table are shooting us odd looks. Given this is likely the entire City’s force, I wonder if now would be a good time to knock over a bank.

Again, the Autozone store had come to the rescue.  Cory had replaced several dozen transmission lines and it now seemed as though all rubber parts had been replaced and we should therefore be good to go for the rest of the trip.  Then…

“Hey Ray, did you see this?”  I walked around the back of the van to find Cory holding the rear door up, the upper hinge broken away from its mount.  I laughed, because if I didn’t, I was going to cry. 

Fortunately, besides a Denny’s and a hotel, Farmington was also home to a 24-hour underwear store Walmart.  We stocked up on provisions, assuming we had another week before we made it home, and finally fell into our respective motel beds, having never left the state of New Mexico.  Devil’s Highway, indeed.

Sunday, 2:37 PM, Somewhere south of Price, Utah.  Next to a ditch full of urine bombs, the van sat, hood up.  Cory was on the phone, I was staring into the desert, contemplating walking in and not coming back.  The van was theoretically okay, but had started to warm signficantly after a long hill, so we decided that discretion was the better part of valor and pulled over for a break.  It was then a Utah Highway Patrolman pulled alongside and asked if everything was okay.  Perhaps it was the delirium, but the response came out, “we’re just fine – don’t worry, there’s no illegal aliens or fireworks in there.”  One of those was true.  Cory stared, hoping the Patrolman didn’t think he needed to check anything.  From the cruiser, laughter – “okay then, drive safe.”

Over the 8000-plus foot elevation of Soldier Summit in central Utah – theoretically the most difficult part of the journey – the van did just fine.  Gas mileage was impressive – around 18 mpg on a consistent basis, and when running well, a 65-70 mile per hour cruising speed was comfortable.  The noise on the other hand, was a bit um… obtrusive.  A massive stereo system would solve that eventually.

Finally within a few miles of home, I exited I-15 to drop Cory off at home.  A jubilant feeling had settled over the Hellvan – visions of improvements, customizations, epic tailgate parties.  We opened the sliding side doors to let the breeze blow through, thrilled with our accomplishment.

Then my cowboy hat blew out the side door.

Ray Lindenburg is an Associate Editor with, but he also contributes to his own site  Head over there for all things hatchback.   [Images: Copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Ray Lindenburg]


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