As seen on ABC Nightline, as reviled in the byte bin of WX-CHASE; the more (in)famous Meatwagon was a cream-and-tan, 1986 model, Pontiac Parisienne station wagon, built in Fairfax KS in 1985. It became well-known for the abuse it took in loyal storm chasing service.
While still in Miami, I got this car as a gift from my wife Tanja's dad, when the latter decided to buy a new car. [I paid $400 for it however: the tax that Florida charged on out-of-state vehicle title transfers before it was ruled unconstitutional.] Rich Thompson wanted the Roachmobile back, so he and Dan Spaeth brought the Meatwagon from Tanja's dad's place in Oklahoma to a halfway point near Mobile AL, where they bought back the Roachmobile and turned the Meatwagon over to me. Large areas of the fake-wood decoration on the driver's side were already peeling off thanks to sun exposure; this process continued until its final day. Another omen: just past Pensacola that evening, the tape deck would not eject my favorite Johnny Cash cassette! With only 40,000 miles on the odometer then, it would approach 200,000 in 1999 before the last belch of exhaust from its manifold.
I took the Meatwagon on many fishing trips, trying hard not to stink it up as bad as the Roachmobile. Then, on 24 Aug 92, I parked it in my apartment lot, rear facing east (so that the windshield was on the lee side) in preparation for its first serious storm experience: Hurricane Andrew's north eyewall! After Andrew passed with over 120 mph sustained winds in that area, the only damage was a dent on top and a tiny trench down the hood, caused by a 6-inch diameter tree branch that was resting on the front bumper. Naturally, I didn't fix the body damage; these were proud battle scars from the 3rd-strongest landfalling hurricane in US history.
Having survived Andrew with minimal damage, I took it with me to Kansas City in April 93. It was my main chase vehicle thereafter, steady and reliable, with only one (minor) breakdown on any chase and no major mechanical trouble whatsoever. Its foray to Chicago for the 1995 Multi-county Skywarn Seminar created a cult following among several NIU and COD students and alumni who dared to venture near it. In 1996, I put 28,000 miles on it, chasing in areas from IL to CO and MN to southwest TX. However, it kept getting uglier and uglier as pieces of trim would fall off, fake-wood covering would keep peeling away, and rust spots gathered like measles all over the body.
On 17 May 96 in southwest MN, a 4-foot long piece of metal trim kept flapping and banging loudly against the driver's side. In intense dusty outflow, and in no position to stop, I got frustrated with this racket and (to chase partner Matt Foster 's great amusement) reached out, yanked the piece of trim off, and lost my grip on it, causing it to fly away to who-knows-where. Not very enviromentally friendly, I admit, and not very smart either. After that, I made sure to remove loose pieces of the car before storm intercepts!
22 May 96 made the Meatwagon a fixture in chase lore. On a day famous for two spectacular supercells, that turned into a demolition derby for chasers in northwest KS, the Meatwagon
On very dusty dirt roads NW of Atwood KS, my friend in the Mazda could not see through our dust wake that we had just stopped at the intersection, and smacked into us at 20-30 mph. Gladly, nobody was hurt. My friend's pickup bounced back several feet on impact and demolished its front end; but was somehow barely drivable. The Meatwagon slid forward about 6-8 inches and suffered a busted tail light, minor frame bend, and deeply dented bumper. I had to fix the tail light to pass inspection a couple months later; but the other scars remain. [My friend's insurance paid for much, much more than the tail light; but that's all I chose to repair.]
23 May 96, Goodland KS: Roger (l) and Matt (r) film Meatwagon. Note opacity of the last passenger-side window -- a result of a fine coating of dust-encaked vomit. (Photo © 1996 by Rich Thompson).
The dust-covered blast pattern from Matt's carsickness remained on the right side of the car until the following day around noon, when I washed it off. Too bad Steve Hodanish, while inspecting fresh damage to several chasers' vehicles that morning at the GLD NWS office, rubbed the vomit with his hands before asking what it was. Good move Steve... when I told him what he had done, his horrified and animated reaction was priceless! On the good side, the wreck had jolted loose most of the remaining pieces of trim, which I pulled off at my fuel/cleanup stop before the east-central Colorado LP supercell chase that afternoon.
Matt (l) re-enacts his digestive woes while Roger (r) holds one of many fallen pieces of the Meatwagon's uniquely exquisite facade. (Photo © 1996 by Rich Thompson).
The Meatwagon remained impervious to large hail for years as well. A bad road decision on 5 Jun 96 in northeast KS got Rich and I into a core containing hard hail measured to 2.25 inches in diameter -- with no obvious damage to the beast. Finally, however, it became the first car known to me with hurricane *and* hail damage: hard 2.25 inch hail from a supercell at Throckmorton TX (8 May 98) put a few shallow pings in the Meatwagon's heretofore unblemished veneer. Well, at least unblemished by hail...
On 30 May 98, the Meatwagon hit a crater on a horrible state road south of Chamberlain SD, busting the power steering pump, knocking the tailpipe off and leaving the muffler dragging on the ground, sparks flying wildly. A borrowed clothes hanger and some elbow grease at a truck stop in Chamberlain, and it was well enough to carry Steve Marks and I to see the Spencer tornado 5-1/2 hours later. There may still be stains on the pavement at the Sioux Falls weather service office from the pool of power steering fluid it left on their parking lot. Sorry 'bout that, FSD! Despite several fixes, the power steering fluid leak kept coming back, forever to drip upon wherever it parked.
The Meatwagon was as roomy, versatile, and safe of a storm intercept vehicle as can be. However, by early '99 there were just too many accumulating irritations (e.g., the driver's side window which wouldn't open, the door which had to be kicked to open, "orange snow" falling from the ceiling, a light of some sort going out every month, an increasingly clogged carb in need of an overhaul, an aging master cylinder, etc.). Because of the increasingly frequent and expensive maintenance necessary, I planned to send the Meatwagon off to that great scrapyard in the sky after the 1999 storm intercept season. In the meantime, I rode the loyal and trusty steed to see 15 tornadoes in '99 -- my most prolific season ever for that -- including 11 on the 3 May 99 central Oklahoma outbreak. I had several more successful tornado intercepts in Kansas and the Texas Panhandle in mid-late May, thanks to the reliability of that ugly old beast of a wagon.
The fateful day: 11 June 1999... The upper air pattern was going to go to hell soon with a giant Rockies ridge, effectively ending the season. That morning, I convinced Rich to go along for "one last chase ride" in the Meatwagon, to the southwestern Texas Panhandle. After watching some mainly nondescript storms between Hereford and Littlefield, we headed SE toward Lubbock after some new supercell development over downtown. Taking a cloverleaf entrance ramp, slowly but not slowly enough, we hydroplaned off a sharp L-curve in the ramp, running up onto a high concrete median. Crashing to a sudden halt astride the median, we heard that sickening noise of metal massively ripping and crushing beneath. It was the heartbreaking sound of the underbelly being disemboweled by a firmly bolted metal pole base (no pole attached).
The first sight I saw upon opening the door was a huge moving pool of black oil atop the stream of rainwater. The left front tire was blown out, the rim mashed... the entire exhaust system ripped off the manifold and mangled... and worst, the oil pan torn out and the front differential busted in half. We knew right then that the odometer reading -- 181225.5 -- was frozen there forever. The Meatwagon was dead -- not quite a casualty of its age as planned in another few weeks, but instead of my driving mistake. I didn't want it to end this way! [Ironically, the Meatwagon met its death in a tornado warning.] But the legend will live on in spirit and in the form of pieces shed to immortality as part of all past and future Meatwagon Awards.
Rich forlornly examines the debris from the fateful final seconds, a requiem for a dear Meatwagon.
Oh yes...even the day after its demise, it was still dripping power steering fluid, puddling the stuff in a Lubbock junkyard. Old Meatwagons never die; they just leak away.