LINCOLN, Nebraska — It deserves a mention that while Ben Welch’s 1994 Chevy Suburban still has its original engine block in place — along with the same timing belt installed on the U.S. assembly line nearly 30 years ago — the driver’s seat has been replaced twice.
Welch, who has been in Lincoln since 1962, the year the Huskers began selling out football games, isn’t a big man. He might pass for a punter or place kicker. Maybe. So the wear and tear on the driver’s seat had less to do with his girth than the simple truth that all things eventually wear out.
“He’s put a lot of miles on those seats,” says mechanic Randy Bloom, who has taken care of that blue Suburban from the start.
In February, Welch did the unthinkable by turning over his odometer and hitting seven figures. That’s a million miles.
People are also reading…
On average, Americans drive 14,263 miles per year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Given those numbers, it would take just more than 70 years to do a million miles.
Automobiles — no matter the make, model or automaker — aren’t made to go a million miles or last 70 years.
Welch, a distributor for Conklin, the synthetic motor oil and additive he runs in his Suburban, says he averaged about 40,000 miles a year and traveled to every corner of the continental United States.
His original intent was to drive the Suburban for a year, put about 35,000 miles on it and trade it in for another, but he didn’t like the 1995 model.
“I figured I’d wait until they brought back the 1994s, but they never did,” he said.
So he kept driving his blue Suburban. And the miles began to add up. He changed the oil regularly, and Bloom monitored any work that might be needed.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few scares, none worse than in 2004, when he took a Fourth of July trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the midst of a summer heat wave.
On the homeward stretch between Joplin and Harrisonville, Missouri— about 110 miles — he noticed his steering wasn’t as responsive as usual. It turns out, he’d been driving in 106-degree weather without the belt that controlled the air conditioning compressor, water pump, alternator and power steering.
He changed out the belt and somehow nursed it back to Lincoln, where he immediately called Bloom to tell him what happened.
“He said I shouldn’t have an engine anymore, that the thing should be melted down,” Welch said.
That would turn out to be the most extensive work Bloom would do on the Suburban. He took off the cylinder head and redid the valves.
“That was a major repair on this engine,” Bloom said. “Everything else is original on the engine: the block, the crank, the rods, the engine. It’s never been out of the frame.”
That was at the 400,000-mile mark. Perhaps the most amazing part of this million-mile journey is that he wasn’t yet at the halfway point at that moment.
“That engine should have been toast,” Welch said. “It should have been melted down.”
His trust in the Suburban, even after the major scare in Missouri, never waned. It had always gotten him where he needed to be in the past and there was a part of him that wanted to see just how far it could take him.
Not that he ever intended to get to a million miles. He just continued to drive and practice proper maintenance with the Suburban, and the miles kept rolling onto the odometer.
When the corporate office at Conklin heard he was closing in on a million miles, Welch was summoned to Arizona for the company’s national convention.
They wanted to see — and document — the odometer officially turning over. They hooked him up to a GoPro and had a cameraman in the vehicle.
They turned that moment into a video, which was shown to the audience as Welch waited backstage. When the video ended, he drove the Suburban onto the stage to the roar of the crowd.
To this day, Welch has never seen the video, but he had a front-row view of the momentous mile and every mile that preceded it.
Bloom was in the audience that night.
“A million miles is a rarity,” he said. “That is the first vehicle I’ve ever seen for myself with a million. I’ve never seen anybody that would drive that far.”
In the nine months since the odometer rolled over, the Suburban sits in the driveway of his south Lincoln home.
It has an honored place, but it has been replaced by a newer model — another Suburban, although it still is good for an occasional ride into the country every now and then.
“It still starts up every time,” Welch said.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or email@example.com
On Twitter @psangimino