Mircro hauler

The Micro Gear Hauler Project

Conventional wisdom is that, to be a cave diver, you must own a full-size truck, van or SUV. That’s not necessarily true. In many instances, you can get your gear to and from the water quite economically.

Please note: We usually write for an international readership. This article, however, was written for a largely USA audience, who generally drive their own vehicles when cave diving. Therefore, we’ve stuck with USA-standard measurements, quoted prices in dollars and mentioned vehicles which are only available in the USA market.

In the late 1990s, when I was teaching more actively, I was driving a full-size Dodge Ram pickup. At the time, I was hauling as many as eight sets of 95s, up to four deco bottles and possibly a Submerge UV-26.

For most of the past 30 years, however, my dive vehicle of choice has been a classic Jeep Cherokee XJ. What made this vehicle ideal was the fact the rear seat folded perfectly flat. This made everything from the front seats to the rear hatch usable cargo space.

For the last two decades, however, it’s been hard to find an SUV whose rear seats fold down all the way. This means, when you fold down the rear seat, you don’t really gain any cargo space. You just lose the ability to put things on the back seat.

How small is too small?

A few years ago, I arrived at Jackson Blue early for one of Edd Sorenson’s Diver Appreciation Days. As I waited outside the gate, who should pull up behind me but Kelly Jessop. It wasn’t Kelly’s appearance at a function such as this which was noticeable. It was what he was driving (and intended to dive from): A Toyota Yaris.

At the time my reaction was something along the lines of, “Are you f@*kin’ killing me?” But shorty thereafter I ran into none other than Bill “Hogarth” Main at Devil’s Eye. And he, too, was diving out of a Yaris.

At this point I’d yet to own a dive vehicle which could manage any better than 16 miles to the gallon around town. So the notion I might actually be able to dive out of something this small was intriguing. It would be a few more years before I could put that notion to the test.

A costly mistake

FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) stopped making the classic Jeep Cherokee in 2001. When my 2001 Cherokee finally died, I knew the odds of finding another one with less than a gazillion miles on it were slim. Foolishly, I replaced it with a 2002 Jeep Liberty.

To say doing so was a big mistake would be the grossest of understatements. The Liberty was the least reliable vehicle I’ve ever owned. Worse, even, than my 1974 Chevy Vega. Jeeps were never the most reliable of vehicles. Trust Fiat Chrysler to make matters even worse.

The Liberty barely made it a year before the engine self-destructed. An engine rebuild would cost more than what I paid for the vehicle, so it was basically totalled. Before rushing to buy a replacement, I decided to take my time and do more research.

Thanks to the Internet and some in-depth conversations with experienced mechanics, I now know considerably more about vehicle reliability than I once did. Would you like the short version? If it’s not a Lexus, Toyota or Honda — or a V8 Ford F-150 — don’t waste your money. And never buy anything made by Fiat Chrysler.

“Hey, buddy. Can you spare ten grand?”

I bought my last brand-new vehicle in 1990. Why? When I was growing up, my misguided father managed to piss away much of the family fortune buying a brand-new Cadillac every year. There is no way on Earth I’m spending 40 grand or more on a new truck or SUV, only to have it lose a third or more of its value the minute I drive out the door.

If you disagree, let me save you some time. Instead of spending $40,000 to $50,000 on a new truck or SUV, buy one that’s a year or two old. Then give me the $10,000 to $15,000 you’ll save. Trust me, I’ll put it to good use.

Since 1990, I’ve saved a shitload of money purchasing used vehicles instead of new ones. That’s despite getting the occasional dog, like the aforementioned Jeep Liberty.

I was in no rush to buy a replacement for the Liberty. Patience is a virtue when shopping for used cards and trucks. If I had to, I could get by diving out of my daily driver, a nice four-door Toyota Camry.

In theory, my ideal dive vehicle would be a Toyota 4Runner. However, if you’ve priced used 4Runners, you know they command a premium price. This is because, like divorces, they’re worth it. The thing is, while I might want a 4Runner, I didn’t need a 4Runner. Besides, they’re total gas hogs.

The shopping list

If you are going to go used-vehicle shopping on something like Craigslist, you may be better off selecting a range of vehicles which meet your criteria, rather than just a single make and model. This way, you can be more picky about factors such as reliability.

My shopping list for my next dive vehicle included:

  • Lexus RX 330
  • Toyota Rav4
  • Toyota Highlander
  • Toyota Sienna
  • Honda CRV

All ranked generally well for reliability…but you had to be wary of certain things. For example:

  • If looking at an early-2000s Honda CRV, you need to avoid the ones made in the UK. These have failure-prone A/C compressors, which cost $1,200 or more to fix.
  • Some of the vehicles on this list have timing belts instead of timing chains. If the belt was recently replaced, it’s generally good for 80,000 to 100,000 miles. If not, steer clear. A timing belt replacement on a Honda can cost $900 or more. Also, many Hondas have what are known as interference engines. If the timing belt breaks on these, the valves crash into the pistons. That’s the end of the Honda, as the engine rebuild or replacement cost would be more than the value of the vehicle.

A last-minute addition

I should mention that I was shopping strictly for a dive vehicle, not a daily driver. This is something I use, at most, one or two days a week. If I’d wanted a daily driver, I might have spent the extra bucks for the 4Runner. (Oh, wait…they’re gas hogs, remember?) There was another vehicle, however, which I did not originally consider.

In addition to my two local mechanics, whom I listen to very carefully, I follow a guy on YouTube named Scotty Kilmer. Scotty is something of a character, but he’s got a Masters Degree and has been working on cards for over 50 years. His advice always makes sense and corresponds perfectly with what my local mechanics tell me.

Among the things Scotty points out is that, when shopping for a used vehicle, find out what it is your mechanic drives. After working all day on other peoples’ vehicles, the last thing a mechanic wants to do is work on his own.

Scotty’s daily driver is a 2004 Toyota Matrix. These were sold elsewhere in the world as a Toyota Corolla Hatchback. After the 2014 model year, Toyota went back to using this name in the USA. You want to avoid recent Corolla Hatchbacks, however. The CVT transmissions apparently have problems the regular Corolla transmissions do not.

The early Matrixes were mechanically identical to Corollas of the same vintage. They have a reputation for being bulletproof and can go a quarter million miles or more with just normal maintenance.

They also have one more feature which put them in the running. I’ll get to that shortly.

Time to go shopping

They say no one ever sells a perfectly good vehicle. There seems to be considerable truth in that. I’ve found that three out of four sellers I talk to are lying through their teeth. This is why you never want to be in a rush when shopping for a used vehicle. You want to be able to walk away at the first sign someone is lying.

My Camry was a one-owner vehicle. The prior owner was an elderly gentleman who lived in rural Gilchrist County. He drove it three or four times a week and never in stop-and-go traffic. Since every trip was at least ten miles, the car had plenty of time to warm up. There were ample service records showing the car was obviously well care for.

The car was for sale only because the owner died. My mechanic said it was in absolutely perfect condition and should easily go a quarter million miles or more. These are the kinds of deals you find if you are willing to be patient.

I shopped for the Liberty’s replacement for over a year. In the process I came across quite a few dogs. Then something popped up on Craigslist that you just don’t normally see: A 2004 Toyota Matrix. Just like the one Scotty Kilmer drives.

Checking it out

Good Toyotas don’t stay on the market long. The only reason I was able to get my Camry was that most buyers were unwilling to drive 25 miles out to the boondocks to look at it.

Even though I called the Matrix sellers the minute I saw their ad, someone else had arranged to see the vehicle first. But then their swimming pool burst a pipe and I was able to get there first.

Before even going to see the vehicle, however, I got it’s backstory. A Tampa couple owned it and later passed it to their adult daughter and her husband. The only reason they were selling it was the parents were gifting them with an even newer vehicle. It wasn’t due to an defect in the Matrix.

Of course, the other thing I did was run a Carfax. A clean Carfax doesn’t guarantee a trouble-free car. There are issues which are not always reported to Carfax. Still, if a Carfax report shows a car which has been in an accident or has had multiple owners over a short period of time, you know to steer clear.

When I arrived at the sellers’ apartment complex, the firs thing I did was plug in my $100 Bluedriver OBD scanner. Unlike those $20 scanners you see advertised on Facebook, the Bluedriver checks everything, then emails a detailed report to your computer. It can also do things most OBD scanners can’t, such as clear ABS codes.

The OBD scan showed no issues. That’s rare on vehicle this old. Nor were there any warning flags popping up when talking to the sellers. It was time to go for a test drive.

The test drive showed no apparent problems, so I gave the couple their asking price in cash. $3,000 for a 15-year-old Corolla with 125,000 miles on it. (They could have gotten more, but the paint was badly faded.)

Consulting a pro

You will often hear that, before buying any used vehicles, you should have it checked out by a professional mechanic. This is excellent advice. A professional mechanic can uncover potentially expensive problems which even the most sophisticated OBD scanners miss.

The problem with Toyotas is that no seller is going to wait for you to take their car to a mechanic. Not when there is a guy standing right behind you with cash in hand. As a consequence, I’ve had to wait until after the sale to take my last two Toyotas to my mechanic for inspection.

The couple selling the Matrix lived less than a mile from my one mechanic’s shop. We dropped the Matrix off there and I left my mechanic a note that I’d call him Monday morning.

Obviously, waiting until after you buy a vehicle to have your mechanic go through it is taking a big risk. Although it’s less of a chance if buying a Toyota — especially if you’ve done a thorough OBD scan and test drive.

Fortunately, my mechanic reported the only issues were needing some new rear brake pads and a minor oil pan leak. The oil pan leak was something that would wait until the next oil change.

So, all told, I lucked out again.

So why the Matrix?

Of all the vehicles on my shopping list, the Matrix was by far the smallest. Most people looking at it would say, “How can you cave dive out of that?” But remember, both Kelly Jessop and Bill Main dove out of the even smaller Toyota Yaris. And, when I met Wes Skiles in 1986, his van had just died. He was diving out of his wife’s Honda Civic.

As I said going in, I always wondered whether there was a way to get cave diving gear from Point A to Point B while getting 30 miles to the gallon. It seems the answer is Yes.

The Matrix easily carries two sets of 85s, my O2 cylinder, my Gorilla Cart — not to mention all my other dive and video gear. How can it do this? Well, it seem the Matrix has a feature rarely found in anything other than full-dize SUVs. The rear seat folds perfectly flat.

The resulting cargo space is roughly what you would find in a compact pickup truck.

Making it work

Of course, were you to start throwing dive gear into the back of the Matrix “as is,” it would scratch the living Hell out of the plastic finish. Additionally, objects would slide right off the edges of the folded seat back. Fortunately, there is an easy fix for that.

With less than $80 in materials from Lowes, I built this cargo platform. All it took was a sheet of plywood, some one-inch by four-inch wood planks and a piece of indoor/outdoor carpeting.

  • The plywood and carpeting protect the interior.
  • The wood rails prevent loose items from falling off the side.

The carpeting also helps prevent items from sliding around on their own. Yet, when it comes time to pull tanks and crates out the back, it’s easy to do so.

Also, should I ever need to haul passengers, the cargo platform lifts out in less than a minute. It is unlikely I would need to do this, as I already have my four-door Camry.

Obviously, this is a one-person gear hauler. I doubt two people could dive out of it. And there are people who carry more gear than I do. Still, this is working out well for me.

“But what about my needs?”

Okay, you may be thinking, “This is great for your Matrix. The seat folds flat. But what about my SUV? The seat still sticks up when folded.” No problem. We have a fix for that.

  • Measure the distance between the top of your folded-down seat back and the load bed floor.
  • Cut three or four strips of wood to make them this wide and the length of the load bed floor.
  • Screw the strips of wood, evenly spaced, to the underside of the cargo platform as shown.

Your cargo platform will now fit, despite the disparity between the load bed floor and the top of the seat. I did this on my Liberty. It worked just fine.

Wealth comes from what you save, not what you spend

I’m sure there are people who look at what I drive and figure I must be living hand-to-mouth. But consider this:

  • I have no credit card debt.
  • I have no vehicle payments.
  • My home is paid for.
  • I have no outstanding debt of any kind.
  • I have money in the bank.

In other words, I’ve achieved what Dave Ramsey calls Financial Peace. It’s a feeling of freedom that only comes when you know you don’t owe anybody anything.

The average American is up to his or her eyeballs in debt. It follows them around like a large, hungry dog. It makes them feel like they are in a trap they will never escape.

By working hard to avoid spending money I don’t need to on cars and trucks, I’ve saved at least $50,000 over the past 20 years. That’s money that has kept me out of debt and allowed me the freedom to — guess what? — be a cave diver. I can’t think of a better investment.

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