Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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When people give pet names to their automobiles, it's natural to assume they've developed an unnatural fondness for a machine. But that's not the case with Jim Steinberg and Old Yeller.
"It's transportation," Steinberg said matter-of-factly about the 1980 Volvo 240 DL that rolled over 500,000 miles this month. "For me, it's still a good working vehicle."
He calls the car Old Yeller, because, well, it's old and it's yellow. But it's clear the car is special to its owner. How else do you explain the party Steinberg threw in honor of the car last weekend? How many old heaps are feted with smoked salmon and Swedish meatballs?
Steinberg is a well-published landscape photographer with numerous books, calendars and magazine credits on his resume. He owns The Portfolio Collection on Oak Street in Old Town Steamboat. He's currently working on a book about Colorado's scenic byways, a project that takes him to all corners of the state.
Come to think of it, the Volvo has been more than basic transportation for Steinberg. It's a hotel.
Steinberg takes a diligent approach to his photography, and to be in position for the best light on his scenic subjects, he camps in the car. He's too focused on his tripod and camera to pitch a tent or even cook meals.
"Sometimes I miss coffee," he said.
The wandering photographer estimates he's spent 120 nights sleeping in the back of the station wagon.
When you consider the cost of 120 nights in a hotel and all of those extra miles, I figure Steinberg actually owes Volvo money.
"I got a good deal on the car in 1980," Steinberg said. "I only paid $9,000 for it new. Of course, you have to adjust for inflation."
He purchased the car at the Leo Payne dealership in Denver and maintains it religiously at Andersen's Foreign Car Service, Ltd., in Lakewood, where three generations of Andersens have worked on Volvos since 1953.
"When it turned 400,000 miles I actually began looking at new Volvos," Steinberg said. "But the new ones are 6 inches shorter. I couldn't sleep in there. Old Yeller's (rear compartment) is 6 feet 2 inches, and I'm 5-10, so it's a good fit."
Instead of purchasing a new car, Steinberg had his mechanic drop a new engine block in Old Yeller.
"I had so much piston slap it felt like I was in a marimba band," Steinberg cracked.
While he was at it, he went for an engine big enough to afford him an unheard of luxury air conditioning.
Al Andersen said he's not particularly surprised that Steinberg's 27-year-old Volvo has reached 500,000 miles.
"Volvos are just very well made," Andersen said. "The older ones sometimes have a little problem with rust. That's why I retired my 1978 264 with 485,000 miles on it. Volvo makes almost all of its own engines from a very high grade of cast iron. The crank shafts are massive."
Andersen has driven his older model Volvos up Rollins Pass, where cars aren't meant to go. Steinberg has tackled similar challenges on his photographic adventures. He thinks nothing of driving the passenger car up strictly four-wheel-drive roads to the foot of 14,000-foot peaks in the San Juan Mountains. Old Yeller has thumped its way up Cinnamon Pass out of Lake City and negotiated the switchbacks into Yankee Boy Basin above Ouray.
It was Steinberg's propensity for taking his passenger car up narrow Jeep tracks in the Rockies, and not so much its high mileage, that landed Old Yeller recognition in a recent edition of the newsletter Volvo sends to owners.
Does Old yeller have some drawbacks? Certainly.
The windows are operated by cranks and the door locks are manual.
"The only air bag in here is me," Steinberg cracked.
The car has been through four water pumps, three fuel pumps and two clutches. Through 27 Steamboat winters, it has never enjoyed the shelter of a garage.
Steinberg still relies on a cassette deck to play books on tape during his long drives through rural Colorado. At the end of summer nights on location in the mountains and plains, he tunes in Colorado Rockies games on KOA before drifting off to sleep.
Will he ever give up the car? There's a reason why the odometers on 1980 Volvos run up to 999,999 miles.
"If your car is doing a good job for you, you should stay with it," Andersen said.
Long live Old Yeller.
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