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by Jessie Eustice (October 2009, updated February 2011)
In life, some folks seek the most comfortable route, and some folks seek challenge. Bill Robinson is that second kind. That must be why Robinson bought his fifth or sixth Jeep as a project — a used white 1995 Grand Cherokee with 118,010 miles when he bought it in 2001, known to Robinson’s family as “The Gerbil” for the way it smelled when the weather was wet.
Robinson calls himself “just a goober” and says he is the product of a small town much like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, where his parents were pharmacists.
Upon graduation from college, Robinson was commissioned as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army in 1968. He completed Ranger and Airborne training and was sent for overseas tours in Germany and Vietnam. At times he carried a seven iron while on patrols as a walking stick, often hitting rocks and nuts to pass the time. He figures it was a link to his pipe dream of being a professional golfer.
After his tours of duty, he was assigned to a Special Forces Group. While at Fort Bragg qualifying to wear a group flash insignia on his green beret, he noticed that the soldiers who liked to hunt (particularly the American Indians who were hunters) knew how to move stealthily and undetected; they were comfortable alone in the woods. He worked at acquiring those skills, a task made more difficult by his collegiate rugby days when moving quietly and slowly was not the thing to do.
While flying around Vietnam as a passenger in small helicopters, Robinson learned from the pilots to constantly watch the gauges to check on the aircraft engine. It seemed to be a good idea and it became a habit. He now counts on the information he receives from the oil pressure and temperature gauges to monitor the performance of the Gerbil’s engine. He does not have much use for “idiot lights.”
After leaving active duty in the Army, Robinson remained in the reserves for several years while he went back through college and became an architect. He graduated from the University of Tennessee.
Over the years his projects have included small hospitals, churches and manufacturing facilities in rural areas of Tennessee, and motels along interstates in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. Because of this, Robinson is on the road quite a bit, especially during the work week. It’s hard on the old Jeep to be on the road at night between projects, and so Robinson tries to be prepared for anything as he and the Gerbil drive home late at night.
Robinson keeps a 2 gallon can of water, tools, battery cable, flashlight, and survival kit with clothes, food and a blanket with him when he is driving. Peanut butter and crackers are excellent survival foods.
To keep the 4.0 straight-6 “honey of an engine” running as well as it can, he tries to keep more oil going in than the amount that comes out the back. When any strange noise occurs while driving the Jeep, Robinson just puts it in neutral and listens to the engine to hear to how it’s running. It’s that old Army habit of his.
Robinson says all of his Jeeps have been good vehicles. This one now has over 452,479 miles on it. He likes the fact that the Gerbil is a white Jeep because if he has a problem with a body part, he can usually find a match. For example, once he had to replace the heavy driver’s side door; one of the hinges broke. He was able to find a junked Jeep with the same door down to the pinstriping.
He has his eye out now for some little dashboard parts and the plastic console, but he’s in no great hurry. As he put it “Nobody rides with me, it’s just me and my golf clubs.” A golf buddy who has a Meineke shop and also has a high mileage Jeep has been a Jeep consultant for the Gerbil.
On the way to a University of Tennessee Alumni Golf Tournament in Atlanta, someone dropped something out of a car and Robinson ran across it. Whatever it was cracked the transfer case housing and that eventually led to replacing the transfer case. He tried to figure out a way to run the Gerbil without a transfer case, thinking that he could get along without shifting into four-wheel-drive. His golf-buddy Jeep-consultant nixed the idea because there is a chain in there that can seize up. Well, it did and, though the engine ran fine, the Jeep stood still; it was stuck in neutral. Robinson had to get a transfer case from an old car and put it in.
The Jeep ran well until an unintended consequence surfaced: A control device on the outside of the transmission caused the transmission to fail. (The replacement transmission probably came from the same Jeep from which the transfer case was taken.) That was around 2008. A few other oddball parts have had to be replaced over the years (a couple of water pumps and a serpentine belt) but those things hardly count to Robinson, because they are more like maintenance than anything else.
Robinson does not rotate tires, a practice he learned from an engineer with whom he worked years ago. Instead, every fall he inspects the tires and replaces four at a time if needed. He buys the least expensive tires he can and selects the best of the old set to keep as his spare. He keeps it mounted and balanced on a full size rim that matches the others so that, if he has a flat while on the road, he does not have to stop twice: once to put the 50 mile spare on and a second time to replace the 50 mile spare. He can just drive home. [Allpar note: this is not recommended for front wheel drive cars.]
When the vehicle had about 400,000 miles on it, he thought maybe it was burning oil. He got the engine steam cleaned and found out that it was blowing oil out of a spot where the oil filter goes onto the block. He found that there was a manufacturer’s bulletin about a little $16 oil filter mounting adapter. He had it put it on. That part corrected the oil leak. Since the engine was steam cleaned, it runs a whole lot cooler.
There is one more way that his army experience has served him well. The tailgate on the Gerbil likes to slam shut because the two cylinders that hold the tailgate up have lost their compression. Robinson found a wood framing member from an army cot that fits perfectly between the tail light and the tailgate bumper cushion — a field expediency example almost as good as when his son noticed the golf tees he had used to seal a broken vacuum hose on another vehicle he drove years ago.
As of February 21, 2011, the 1995 Grand Cherokee was still registered and rolling.
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