Suburban Improvements

As anyone who hitches up knows, the selection of the right tow vehicle is just as important to enjoyable Airstreaming as the Airstream itself.  My favorite truck for towing the Overlander is a 1984 Suburban C20 and it sometimes gets more attention at campgrounds than the Airstream does!  While a Suburban is hard to beat for interior room, this particular workhorse, with its ¾-ton suspension & 454 cid engine, excels at safely getting us where we want to go.  While today’s trucks are powerful & certainly more comfortable, the ‘Burb,’ with its lack of computer-controlled functions, has a certain allure to it and is easy to work on when required.  But between servicing age & use issues, and modifications incorporated to make long distance trips more comfortable, the Suburban has seen many improvements since the first time it backed the Airstream into my driveway.

My wife’s grandfather (“Mr. B.” to me) purchased the Suburban new to tow his 28’ Jayco travel trailer after his ½-ton Suburban did not live up to his towing expectations.  Opting for a no-frills approach, he ordered a truck with every towing option available but virtually no creature comforts.  So, while the truck was delivered with no trim, carpet, third seat or rear-seat air-conditioning, it did have fold-out mirrors, an engine oil cooler, and a drive train designed specifically for towing heavy loads.  Of course the ‘Tan Truck’ exceeded his expectations, and he & his wife enjoyed its use as both tow vehicle and daily commuter.

When I got the truck around 1995 it was in need of paint & general repair.  I did all the mechanical stuff myself, my father-in-law hammered out the dents, and a local auto paint shop sprayed a new coat of tan on the exterior.  Since a boat was my only towed load at the time, I opted to replace the interior’s worn rubber floor covering with the same thing.  The addition of trim & a paint stripe made the truck look less “Government,” but to this day the low rumble from the factory dual-exhaust pipes is enough to remind the casual observer that this truck means business.

Living close to a river, we never had to travel far to launch the boat.  But after our first trip with the Airstream, I decided that the ability to play videos for the Boyz in the back seat would enhance everyone’s vacation during travel time.  Sizing up the interior layout, I decided that adding a third seat appeared to be the ticket as the Boyz could sit there with the television on top of the folded-down backseat in front of them.


While it would have been nice to find a tan-colored seat, the color did not really matter as the Master Plan had always included having the seats reupholstered.  EBay is an amazing place.  In addition to finding the correct-year third seat there, I also found a set of four, custom-made mounting brackets manufactured just for people like me who want to add a third seat to a Suburban that came from the factory without one.  I would not have thought the brackets’ market would have been that big.

The third seat installation has been time & money well spent.  Besides the planned benefit of on-the-road videos, we find that it is easier to store & retrieve stuff via the back doors as opposed to from the back of the truck.  About a year ago, I had the seats reupholstered in Corinthian Naugahyde .  With the seats all one color now, one would never know the third seat had been added.

Our long-distance trips usually occur around the schools’ Fall Break.  Even with school out, crowds are generally smaller and the weather usually cooler.  We made an exception this year to hit the beach at Destin FL while the weather was still warm.  The beach was great but the towing weather hovered around 100 degrees, and the Suburban only had front air.  Our third-seat riders, after an hour or two, started getting a bit grumpy.  I couldn’t blame them – the front-seat occupants were not faring that much better.

Searching the Internet after returning home, I was amazed to find that an add-on, rear air-conditioner kit for an ’84 Suburban was still available.  Even more amazing was that it had been manufactured by the original supplier to General Motors and was identical in appearance to what would have been installed on the Burb if it had had factory rear air

Nice kit.   Not only was it complete, but it came with a GM fan switch, bezel, and template to mark the front dash for installation.  Being OEM for all intents & purposes, no special rigging was required to install the hardware, and the effort, except for Freon charging, was accomplished on a Sunday afternoon.  The truck was taken to an auto AC shop Monday afternoon, and I had working rear air by Tuesday.

One frustration encountered while having the seats recovered was the lack of locally available options for sprucing up the interior door panels.  New replacements were not available, and the ones in the junkyards looked worse than what the Burb already had.  One buddy in a bigger city told me that body shops there routinely spray door panels with a special paint.  Around here, everyone said, “You can’t paint plastic and expect it to last!”  So I lived with dingy panels for awhile.

But with the shroud thrown into the equation, I was forced to do something. I stopped by a professional auto paint supply store and shared my tale of what I heard they do in the big city.  He smiled and said that an elastomeric paint was what I needed, and its application required the use of a respirator.  A special prep spray was also needed for good adhesion.

So returning home with two cans of “not to be sold to the general public” chemicals and a gas mask, the boat bay was once again converted into a paint booth, and spraying began.  Everything went well until Number 1 son snuck out of the house & proceeded to squirt me with a water pistol while the last panel was being finished.  Luckily, no water landed on what was being coated, and funny-boy left after seeing my head spin around.

The additional air conditioning made a remarkable difference in comfort during our next long distance camping trip.  We stayed nice & cool even with outside temperatures in the mid-nineties.   However, after looking at the gauges, it appeared that the mighty Burb’s engine was not enjoying the same level of comfort.

I had seen the engine temperature run a little high during the last trip to the beach but had chalked it up to towing 6,000 pounds during 100-degree weather at 65 mph.  But the outside temperature was lower this time, and I could recall the Burb, in the past, having no trouble under similar conditions.  Something was obviously amiss.

The problem was finally identified during a fuel stop – the radiator had developed a pinhole leak.  While glad to know what the problem was, the issue itself annoyed me because the Burb had a new, AC-Delco brand radiator---purchased in 1995.   It just didn’t seem right that enough time had passed that new, substantial parts installed by me were starting to wear out.  But that was in fact the case.  While a local radiator shop was able to fix the leak, The Man advised me to replace the radiator if I had more trouble with it as it had been hard to repair.

While the leaking coolant issue came on rather quickly, another problem appeared to be getting worse this year: the ever-increasing size of an oil slick in the Burb’s parking space.  I knew there were two oils involved: engine, and power steering.  The engine-oil leak had now grown so bad that the Overlander was being misted with oil on long trips.  While the power steering fluid was not leaking on that scale, the pump’s reservoir had to be topped off every 400 miles or so.

While I could not make up my mind on the exact source of the engine oil leak (other than that it was on the back on the engine), the power-steering fluid was clearly leaking at a worn seal on the power-steering gearbox’s input shaft.  Since replacement of the gearbox required a special tool, the Suburban went to a local auto shop for both repairs.


The Tan Truck is now in the best overall shape it has ever been in.  I believe Mr. B. would be pleased if he could see it now.