The Cortez Chronicles


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The Life and Times of a Tiny Tiger

1972 to 2002


Back in the day, most of the roads on the Baja peninsula and Sonoran seacoast produced teeth clattering, head banging, jaw-shattering vibration. It wasn't so much that you couldn't avoid such abuse, but more that no visitor had that much time. The Sea of Cortez is a thousand miles long, and it wasn't much shorter in those days. Much of the peninsula is rocky, and that which isn't rocky is, like the Sonoran seacoast, sandy. Unimproved roads, whether formed by following the tracks of a previous vehicle or gouged by bulldozer simply to make motor vehicle passage possible, are subject to erosion -- making a road of any degree a natural waterway. In infrequent storms, water rushes down such wash-beds carrying away particles small enough to be lifted by the current and leaving behind rocks too heavy to be moved. Over the years such channels grow deeper and deeper, heaped with increasing numbers of fist-sized and larger rocks. The result is a roadbed that cannot be traversed without strain even at one or two miles per hour -- a road that challenges to the breaking point the hardiest of vehicles and passengers1.

Even in deep sand the washing occurs, although the only immediate consequence of this may be a road four or five feet below ground level that is still sandy. The problem with sand is that travelers are not content driving four or five miles per hour but quickly accelerate to whatever speed the twists and turns will allow. Sandy roads quickly become naturally banked on the curves enabling travelers to go that much faster; and go they do, reaching burst speeds of forty, fifty, or even sixty miles per hour. Such stretches are generally not very long but are none-the-less exploited in a futile attempt to make up lost time. Still, many sandy roads provide no panacea for the chronically shaken -- they simply are not soft enough to stay smooth under such conditions, and with the help of even only a small amount of moisture are hammered into washboard tuned to the natural frequency of the vehicle suspensions. Such washboard, of course, causes another form of punishment easily matching any that rocks can produce.

Vehicle Skeletons, Base of Cuesta la Leona - June, 1972

Then there is the dust picked up by the pounding wheels, boiling through the undercarriage and swirling around the vehicle, powdering against the glass on narrow window moldings until it covers a third of the window, engulfing and penetrating engine and drive train components, paralyzing breaks and cables, filtering into the passenger compartment through the tiniest orifices, coating the skin and clothing of perspiration-soaked passengers, and clouding the glass of dashboard meters from the inside. There is a lot of dust in a few hundred miles, and you might as well pour sand in your motor oil. Baja roads are peppered with stark testimonials to all of these forms of destruction -- the dead and rusting frames of countless vehicles that inevitably failed to measure up and paid the ultimate price.

The Sand Buggy Attacks Cuesta la Leona - June, 1972

Such torment is not restricted to the past. Even today the toll on a modern vehicle is evident within a few minutes of leaving pavement -- hidden screws of all descriptions, normally secure over the lifetime of a vehicle, unscrewing themselves from hidden niches and accumulating at the feet of passengers. A vehicle used frequently under such conditions is beset by every affliction conceivable to the human mind as well as quite a number that aren’t. On the highway we occasionally see a muffler that has fallen off a car; but take, for example, a front wheel suddenly relaxing into a prone position on the road, the bolts which so securely held the spindle casting in place pulling straight out, the casting threads still affixed to each bolt like limp springs embedded in the threads. . .or a rear view mirror suddenly falling free of a stationary vehicle. . .or the shackle end of a leaf spring wearing its way up through the steel bed of a truck over time until it has protruded into the cargo space by several inches. Incredibly, the body of one vehicle slowly jackknifed through the years until there was insufficient space to close the doors2. Such events are anticipated by the savvy in a general sense -- but any specific occurrence is seldom, if ever, predictable.

The Beast Conquers Cuesta el Huerfanito - June, 1972

And today although the number has been significantly reduced, there are still unimproved or under-improved roads on both the Baja peninsula and Sonoran seacoast. However, a new obstacle that besets today's travelers is the deteriorated state of some roads which were once paved or graded, to a point where they are again comparable to or worse than before they were improved3.

Auto parts are still scarce or unavailable in all except the larger towns; and many small settlements still have no or unreliable power, although the number is decreasing every day. Even when available, it is often necessary to travel great distances or invest large amounts of time to secure parts or services. For these reasons, a good set of tools and spare parts is essential in acquiring a certain degree of self-sufficiency for any serious excursion into back-country.

After the experiences of a 1967 Baja California expedition, which battled over 600 miles of unimproved road4, and having lost a front wheel on the beach at Puerto Libertad, Sonora in May, 19705, we were grimly concerned about breakdown when planning a new Baja journey even though there were only some 300 miles of unimproved road left on the main transpeninsular highway by 1972. Among the tools, spare parts, water, oil and gasoline which routinely accompanied many of the excursions posted in the Cortez Chronicles, a power drill, bits, a complete tap and die set, a number of bolts of various sizes, and an innocuous miniature gasoline-powered generator were acquired to provide a greater ability to make serious repairs on the road. Aptly named the "Tiny Tiger", this 350 watt dynamo was the size of a newborn baby and weighed in wringin' wet at just 6.5 pounds.

Life began for the Tiny Tiger with an early June mail order purchase from a J.C. Whitney catalog for this 1972 junket6 -- the cost, approximately $139.00. Our party consisted of five vehicles, all thought to be in good condition -- a 1967 International Scout with 4-wheel drive7 pulling a heavy trailer designed for the boondocks, a vintage VW Bus circa 1961, a contemporary VW sand buggy with fiberglass body, a 1970 GMC Jimmy with 4-wheel drive, and a 1947 military weapons carrier dubbed "The Beast"8. All of these vehicles including the trailer featured oversized wheels designed for floatation in deep sand -- except The Beast, which quite frankly didn't need them.

Straight Flat Road Across a Coastal Plain, Isla El Huerfanito at center - June, 1972

Despite trepidations, the trip would be a major success due in large part to the Tiny Tiger, without which much of our party might still be living somewhere along Baja's Highway 1. There were numerous breakdowns on the way, and none were so serious as those which required use of the Tiny Tiger in recovery.

Breakdown near Punta Bufeo - June, 1972

The first breakdown began on steep grades over dark volcanic mountains, along the coastal highway from Puertecitos south to Bahía de San Luis Gonzaga, near Cerro Prieto. The rocky roadbed of Cuesta la Leona9 proved too much for the VW Bus, which required complete unloading to make the grade and still suffered substantial insult. A few miles short of San Luis Gonzaga, along a nightmare stretch of road across a coastal plain that looked straight and flat from the distant grades, one of three engine mounts -- the transmission mount -- simply gave in to the pounding.

The Bus bounced to a stop near Punta Bufeo, within shouting distance of 4753-foot Cerro el Potrero on the west and Isla La Encantada on the east, too tired to continue with the full weight of the engine hanging on the drive train. Utilizing the Tiny Tiger, a power drill and other tools, a temporary replacement mount was manufactured from plywood and wire, as no other materials were available10; but when the Bus finally limped into Gonzaga Bay only some 20 miles down the road, it had to be done all over again due to the inadequacy of the materials.

Welding the Trailer Tongue - June, 1972

A lot could be said about the repairs at San Luis Gonzaga, but this story is about the Tiny Tiger. Suffice it to say that we began watching for suitable materials with the first breakdown11, but would not find any appropriate to a long-term fix for at least another day. Meanwhile, we contented ourselves in the stifling humidity and torrid heat with several hours of welding on the trailer tongue and undercarriage.

The Road - June, 1972 / Copyright (c) Carl M. Fox

Now, from San Luis Gonzaga, the best road followed Arroyo de San Francisquito inland to Las Arrastras de Arriola, a well of good water, and on to Laguna Chapala some 25 miles inland. Stating that it was the best "road" does not provide a lot of insight, as this narrow, rocky, twisting arroyo is among the most difficult to traverse on the peninsula, featuring stretches of bedrock with vertical walls barely wide enough for a motor vehicle and no way out should a flash flood be encountered.

Sacrificing The Step - June, 1972 / Copyright (c) Owen E. Chesley

Along the way the Bus lost an aluminum sidestep, rattled or scraped off on a rock, which the last member of the party picked up in addition to some scrap steel that was found in the rusting frame of an ancient relic, and threw into his trailer. Some 13 miles out of Gonzaga and still in the wash, the transmission mount broke again; but this time we had the materials to provide a better repair. With the help of the Tiny Tiger, a power drill, a hacksaw, and the welding torch a new aluminum and steel transmission mount was manufactured and installed. This consumed another evening and morning, and we exuberantly resumed our journey early that afternoon.

The Repaired Transmission Mount - June, 1972 / Copyright (c) Owen E. Chesley

But the celebration didn't last long. After only four tenths of a mile the transmission mount broke again, and was beefed up with additional steel using the welding torch. We proceeded just before dusk, but alas -- after only another mile the Bus' steering box was scraped off on a rock, dumping small parts all over the roadbed.

Repairing The Steering Box - June, 1972

We made it only 1.4 miles that day. The entire group scoured the roadbed, picking up small springs and gears. Late into the evening the repair crew worked, with light and tools powered by the Tiny Tiger. They drilled out sheared bolts, enlarged and re-tapped holes to accommodate oversized spares, reassembled the steering gear and reinstalled the box. Next morning, half frozen from two unexpectedly cold nights spent in the interior of the peninsula12, we made 12.8 miles, putting Arroyo de San Francisquito and dry lakebed Laguna Chapala behind us. But Laguna Chapala is another story, and so is the loss of two radius rods, more hours of welding, and other anomalies before San Francisquito, within, and well after8.

Welding and a Two Quart Jack - June, 1972

While the ordeal in Arroyo de San Francisquito comprised the short, happy life of the Tiny Tiger, it was utilized again on that journey in repairing and remounting a broken spring shackle for the '67 Scout, and one more time in the reconstruction of a spring shackle for The Beast of spare iron welded and re-attached to the leaf spring with a one-inch diameter bolt brought along in spare parts as a trailer hitch pin.

A Broken Spring Shackle Tears Through the Bed of the Beast - June, 1972 / Copyright (c) Carl M. Fox

The Tiny Tiger accompanied us on countless Mexico trips over the next 25 years, but was used on only one or two other minor occasions, neither of which was particularly remarkable, and I cannot remember the particulars of those exercises. Times change, and in time the roads improved and our vehicles came better equipped and more capable -- and so some years ago the Tiny Tiger was relegated to permanent storage in the garage.

Then, in the summer of 2002 the fortunes of the Tiny Tiger once again turned upward, and it went to live with an adoring master -- a collector of small engine products -- who would provide a truly fitting retirement in its waning years. Between the Cortez Chronicles and the new master, the legacy of the Tiny Tiger will not be forgotten.

1972 to 2002

Manufacturing a New Transmission Mount - Arroyo de San Francisquito, June 1972

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Ebay Listing

August 1-8, 2002

Miniature Gas Powered 110v Generator - 350 W. Peak
Item # 2043263080

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US $59.00 (reserve met)
1   # of bids: 3
3 days, 14 hours +
Phoenix, AZ
United States / Phoenix
First bid   US $20.00

Aug-01-02 15:12:31 PDT
Aug-08-02 15:12:31 PDT
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The Tiny Tiger - August, 2002
The Tiny Tiger - August, 2002 (Click for magnification)
The Kit - August, 2002 (Click for magnification)
Close-ups - August, 2002 (Click for magnification)


Holly "Tiny Tiger" portable gas powered generator. Continuous output 110v at 250W.

Max. 350W intermittent; 4-5 Amps with converter pack. Physical size: 10.25" x 8.5" x 8.5", 6.5 LBS (YES, it's small!). Complete with full Operating Instructions, Converter Pac, wooden carrying case. Perfect for remote 4-wheeling breakdowns (such as running power tools to rebuild steering box sheered off on rocks in Baja Del Sur).

This unit has been run less than half an hour total since being purchased new in 1972, but it sure saved our necks a few times! Excellent condition; has always been stored in house, but may require some start-up TLC due to not being run for several years. (Carrying case is solid, but some external fabric peeling.) Unit supplied as-is, without warranty of any kind.

Specifications: 6300-RPM Air Cooled Engine / 1 HP / 1 Cylinder / 2 Cycle / 1.250" Bore / 1.032" Stroke / 1.26 Cubic Inches / 4.86:1 Compression Ratio / Magneto driven spark / Gas-Oil mixture: 24:1.

Shipping weight approx. 25 LBS, from Phoenix, AZ. Buyer pays all shipping and insurance. Winner please supply shipping address after close of auction so that shipping costs can be determined.

PayPal preferred, but will also accept Cashier's Check / Money Order.


1Imagine plodding along at four miles per hour, your vehicle lurching wildly, the hundreds of pounds of passengers and equipment tossing around like so much dinner salad in a chef's bowl. You've been enduring this torture sixteen hours a day for two, three, even four days at a stretch; you're tired and you're getting drowsy in the yawning hours of the afternoon. In the stifling heat you can't help dozing for a moment as your body sways widely in the lurching vehicle. . .  Suddenly, in a violent heave you contact the window frame with a resounding bang -- it feels as if someone has hit you on the head with the business end of a claw hammer. You don't doze off again for at least half an hour.

2This was attributable to breakdown of the center pair of six body mounts which secured the vehicle body to its frame. Their loss caused the International Scout body to slowly collapse at the center while still supported at either end, decreasing the size of the door openings.

3In some cases today it is not uncommon for motorists to actually abandon such paved, pothole-filled byways and take to the ditch or return to adjacent desert to forge new unimproved roads which allow faster speed and smoother driving.

4Due apparently to beginner's luck, the only 1967 breakdown besides flats was a frozen hand-break cable due to dust. This was simply disconnected at the rear wheels and left for repair after return to the U.S.  Reference Adventures: Baja, 1967. Article not yet posted

5That wheel was hauled 90 miles in each direction through deep sand for repair in Caborca, when a good drill and a few select taps and miscellaneous bolts would have done the job. Obviously, a certain amount of knowledge of mechanics would also have been necessary. Overlooking a grease-covered retaining ring, we were unable to discern how to separate wheel, spindle and suspension casting, and were compelled to take the intact assembly for repair. Once back in Caborca an International Harvester tractor mechanic was paid 50 pesos (then $4.00 U.S) to separate wheel, spindle and casting. The casting and spindle were then taken to a machine shop, where they were milled, drilled and the casting re-tapped. This work consumed four hours including setup time and a mid-day siesta, for which we were charged another 50 pesos. As a result of this and other lessons of the times we also learned to carry as standard excursion equipment, in addition to the items mentioned in the text, a hacksaw, an acetylene welder, complete vehicle maintenance manuals, and a collection of specialized tools mentioned in the manuals, such as retaining ring pliers, etc.  Reference Excursions: Puerto Libertad - May, 1970. Article not yet posted

6Excursions: 06/17/72 Baja, 1972 - Transcript of the Original Tapes Article not yet posted; 06/17/1972 Baja, 1972 - A Grandmother's Dairy.

7In those days all 4-wheel drive vehicles included a two speed transfer case to provide the high and low gear ranges considered essential in gaining the extra power that is frequently required in off-road 4-wheeling. (Nowadays, the transfer case is frequently omitted.) While the need for extra power is obvious in mountainous situations, it is, although not technically evident, also essential in deep sand in avoiding such unreasonable strain on engine, drive train and cooling system as to lead to premature demise of the vehicle.

8"The Beast" was of Dodge origin, purchased from a gentleman who had imported it to the U.S. from Ethiopia in about 1969. At that time its odometer boasted 312,000+ miles, all off-road in Ethiopia. He had purchased the vehicle from the U.S. army when it was 12 years old and had personally put half the miles on it as a safari vehicle in Ethiopia. It came equipped with two spare tires, a redundant 24 volt electrical system, a granny gear in addition to 4-wheel drive and two-speed transfer case, a pair of 45 gallon gas tanks in addition to the standard twenty gallon tank, a hole in the driver's door put there by an angry Cape Buffalo, and broken glass all around. It was a steal at $2000. That spring shackle was the only thing that ever happened to The Beast in Mexico despite a half-turn of play in the drive shaft, apparently from a worn gearbox.  Reference Adventures: Truckadero and The Beast. Article not yet posted

9Local truck drivers of the day distinguished between three grades -- Cuesta la Leona, Cuesta la Virgen, and Cuesta el Huerfanito.  Reference: Gerhard and Gulick, Lower California GuidebookB.

10This episode spawned a life-long habit of carrying spare iron in addition to tools and parts.

11While in Gonzaga Bay we observed a repaired truck tire that made obvious the importance of even the most innocuous materials. An eight inch square patch of nearly inch thick tire tread was bolted to the external tire wall with four one-inch diameter bolts -- the bolt heads inside the tire and the nuts tightened over flat washers on the outside. It looked surprisingly ancient, like it had been driven that way for many years.

12Although the peninsula is not much over 30 miles wide and the altitude of the interior less than 2000 feet at that latitude, the temperature variation between the interior and Bahía de San Luis Gonzaga on the east coast is extreme. This is due in large part to the difference in water temperature between the chilly Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, which reaches 88° F. in the summertime.



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