One of our continual refrains, particularly in post-visit reviews of national parks, is that we would have enjoyed it more if we had our own local transportation. And now we do! During our unexpected month in South Florida visiting friends and family while The Big Kahuna undergoes extensive transmission repairs, we bought a great little used truck, a 1997 Geo Tracker.
We had several requirements for a Toad (RV speak for a tow behind vehicle, alternatively referred to as a Dinghy), in the following order of priority:
- It must be affordable, as in cheap. Our numerous repairs have resulted in us blowing through our motorhome upgrade budget, and we have exceeded our regular budget for most of the months we have been on the road. Besides, I haven’t bought a new car in 17 years so I was not about to start now.
- It must be flat towable, i.e., all four wheels on the ground rather than up on a tow dolly or trailer. As many motorhome owners will tell you, it is so much easier to deal with a flat tow because you can disconnect and reconnect it so easily and do not have to worry about manhandling the trailer or dolly around after you park. This narrows down the options considerably.
- It must have an Automatic Transmission so that Rosemarie can drive it. As New York city girl she did not learn to drive as a young person, only developing that skill as an adult once in Miami. So she balked at having to learn an entire new driving skill this far into the game. If you read up post to requirement number two you will see that the top requirement is a flat towable vehicle, most of which are manual shifters. Most auto transmissions can’t be flat towed without destroying the transmission, which makes them less fun. For an automatic tranny to be flat towed, it usually has to be…
- A true 4×4 with a transfer case. For reasons I will sum up as “automotive engineering,” a 4×4 with a transfer case can usually be flat towed even if it has an auto tranny, but it must be a true 4×4, not merely All Wheel Drive.
- Preferably light weight! We already have enough difficulty getting The Big Kahuna’s nearly 30,000 lbs up hills, so we really wanted to minimize how much additional strain we added to the challenge.
- Convertible if at all possible. Rosemarie has not had a hard top in years, and just loves the option of taking down the top in good weather.
So if you start narrowing things down with all those requirements you end up with very few vehicles that meet the bill. Depending on how strict you define conditions #1 and #5 above, perhaps only the the Geo Tracker or the co-production Suzuki Sidekick, made in the same Ontario plant, can satisfy all six bullets. The most common 4×4 auto trans ragtop would be a Jeep Wrangler, but they retain their value so well that it was hard to find one in great condition that did not violate condition #1. Besides, they weight at least 500 lbs less than a Wrangler from the same year.
We knew all this months ago, and had been on the lookout for a Geo Tracker since at least June, checking Craigslist in each state we entered. Every one was either manual transmission, the hard top version, overpriced, in questionable condition, or had just sold. Finally, we found the ideal one in Loxahatchie, FL. We paid slightly more than blue book, but the engine and transmission feel rock solid, the body and interior are in great shape, and it had only 87K in original mileage. For less than $4K we walked away with our new Toad, which Rosemarie has nicknamed Loki. So far the only problems we have had:
- Poorly functioning A/C due to improper freon top off: fixed for $65.
- The tape cassette player (yes, a cassette player) does not work.
- The rear section of the rag top, where it connects to the tail gate, is missing the retaining brackets. We can see remnants of the brackets, but will need to get them replaced in order to maintain a proper seal back there.
Loki will be our transportation not only in and around towns and parks, but will also be taking us all the way from South Florida to Colorado to pick up The Big Kahuna. The Big Kahuna came with boxes of spare parts, and one of the things we found was a near complete tow bar assembly. It is one of the few spare items we chose to carry around with us in anticipation of buying a toad. Once back in Colorado we will retrieve it from The Big Kahuna’s stowage and take it with Loki to a place to get the brackets made and installed on the front of the tracker.
We are a bit nervous about adding one more element of complexity to our travels. So any experience with Toads out there, particularly the Geo Tracker?