When he’s developing and testing sensors for advanced nuclear reactors, Idaho National Laboratory’s Troy Unruh is thinking big and long term. When it’s time to unwind, however, his thoughts turn quickly to his fleet of vehicles.
“It’s always a balancing act between a full-time job, personal fleet maintenance and restoration projects,” he says.
The two are not independent of each other. “Cars were what got me into engineering,” said Unruh, an Instrumentation Development engineer in the Measurement Science Department. “They’ve always been an obsession.”
With a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from Kansas State University, Unruh came to INL in 2008 to conduct instrumentation research. He has led research into neutron detection sensors for material test reactors and has performed evaluations in all INL nuclear reactors as well as international reactors. While employed at INL, he spent time at the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) to study fission chambers.
“With nuclear, we’re always working with really large time scales,” he said. “With cars, the goals are a lot more short term. It’s a nice outlet for doing something unique and creative with out-of-the-box ideas and problem-solving.”
Unruh fixed up and sold his first car before he even had a driver’s license. In Idaho Falls, you may see him behind the wheel of many different vehicles. Each day it changes, from a warbird-painted 1996 Dodge Ram diesel truck he rebuilt for Diesel Tech Magazine on Monday to a 1979 International Scout he rebuilt in high school on Tuesday to a 1963 Austin Mini he imported from Scotland on Wednesday, or even a 1959 CJ750 sidecar motorcycle from China. Soon he will finish his current project, an Audi TT convertible that he is modifying into an off-road, rally-styled car with a suspension lift, mud tires and electric winch.
“It’s the perfect convertible for ever-changing Idaho weather,” he said. “I routinely drive it in the winter with the top down. I know it looks crazy, but with all-wheel-drive, studded snow tires, a good heater and heated seats, it’s so comfortable and fun!”
A native of Kansas, Unruh grew up with a father and brother who were also into cars, albeit more traditional American muscle cars. He always had more eclectic tastes, starting with his high school truck, an International Harvester Scout II convertible 4×4 truck.
At his “car farm” east of Idaho Falls, Unruh has four buildings in which he shelters the fleet. He enjoys cars from all eras and backgrounds, including a crank-start 1913 Model T Ford speedster and a 2001 Dodge Viper ACR supercar. “It’s hard to put a number on how many I have, but it’s over 30,” he said. Many vehicles are rare and require a lot of spare parts to restore them. For a 1941 Dodge 4×4 truck used during WWII, he had to buy seven trucks to get the parts needed for restoration.
Another aspect of his personal affection for the fleet is the custom license plate he gets each car – complete with a name and personality. The two-tone yellow-and-white Nash Metropolitan is “HUNYBEE.” His red Swedish Volvo PV544 is “SWEDIE.” The curvy blue Dodge Viper is “ELVIRA.” The black 1935 Bugatti Type-35 replica bought in Austin, Texas, is “TEXXXY,” while the bright yellow Honda Z600 – a 36-horsepower predecessor of the Civic from the early ‘70s – is “BANANAZ” due to its small size and resemblance to the fruit. Unruh bought this car from Smith Honda after the dealer determined its days as a showroom floor novelty were over.
Although he does occasionally sell cars, that’s not why he keeps doing it. “It’s most fun to develop an idea to use them, rebuild them to meet the vision, and then take them on the adventures,” he said. “For me, they can be simply a tool to perform a job just as well as they can be like that pair of shoes that matches an outfit.”
If he does sell a car, he’s likely to upgrade to something more interesting. This was recently the case with a Porsche 944 Turbo he’d owned for 15 years. “I had my fun with it, but thought a Viper would be an exciting replacement,” he said. “It provides many more smiles-per-gallon for me and anyone brave enough to get in the passenger seat.”
Sometimes, Unruh will return to one of his parked vehicles to find someone taking a photo of it. That will strike up a conversation about their fondness or history with that type of vehicle.
“They all have their unique attraction and charm, and I enjoy connecting with other folks through them” he said. “I am most fascinated by the ones that have some historical significance. However, I don’t think you can really own a piece of history, so I’m just a caretaker. They have a life all their own.”
Published on June 7, 2021.