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Brakes? What brakes?

TORONTO, Ont. - Getting rolling is often easier than getting stopped. Especially in the old days, when braking systems were less sophisticated. In the early 1950s, there were no caged spring brakes (M...

Harry Rudolfs

Harry Rudolfs

TORONTO, Ont. – Getting rolling is often easier than getting stopped. Especially in the old days, when braking systems were less sophisticated. In the early 1950s, there were no caged spring brakes (Maxis), and the first exhaust brakes had just arrived in British Columbia. The emergency brake was a caliper handle on top of a post mounted on the floor. There was no such thing as a dynamite valve and the air lines were equipped with taps that you turned 90 degrees to open and close. When air pressure dropped below 60 psi, a mechanical device called a Wig Wag dropped from above the windshield and dangled before your eyes providing a low-air warning.

In 1953 Ross Mackie was a young lad hauling furniture for the family business in Oshawa, Ont. On one trip he was headed to Vancouver teamed with another Durham County driver, Paul McCaw. It was a beautiful summer morning and the two had just finished breakfast at a restaurant in West Hawk Lake, Ont., just east of the Manitoba border.

They were driving a brand new 3000 model 22 White, and pulling a decked-out 33-foot Trailmobile – the pride of the Mackie fleet.

“Those old Whites were a six-volt system. It was my turn to drive so I shoved in the clutch to crank it better. But the restaurant was on top of a hill, the mechanical brake didn’t hold and we started to roll backwards. I was trying to jam the transmission into reverse. Paul was still standing on the running board and I was yelling at him to get in. We were picking up speed and I was going into panic mode. He hollers at me to take it over to my side because there’s a severe drop on the passenger side.

“He finally managed to get in and close the door just before the trailer went over a big rock, through part of a ravine, and then lay down on its side. The windshield of the White popped out and some American tourists were there taking pictures.”

According to Ross, it took three wreckers to get the loaded unit back on its wheels. The next morning, after topping up the fluid levels, the two proceeded on their way – slightly scratched and bruised and without a windshield. They tried to get one at the White dealer in Winnipeg but had to drive all the way to Regina before they could find one.

“It was summer and we wore our sunglasses,” says Ross. “Lots of gravel roads in those days. We got dusty, but we didn’t go all that fast, probably 45-50 mph.”

A generation later, in the early 80s, I was working for a transport company that was trying to get some trucks on with a lumber distributor in Brampton, Ont.

I was such a rookie, just out of driving school, but I volunteered for the assignment. To my surprise the boss sent me over in an old two-stick Mack, with a tarp strapped across the fuel tanks.

I didn’t know the first thing about hauling “sticks” and the other drivers weren’t too helpful. They probably resented the idea that my company was trying to move in on their jobs. Regularly my trailer would be blocked in behind the building and I’d be the last to leave.

Tarping was a mystery and I spend a lot of extra energy hopping up and down on the flatdeck, and running around the trailer inefficiently tightening ropes and ratchets.

The old Mack was slow and got passed by everything on the road. As soon as it saw a slight hill it would start to sputter and wheeze. But one morning, on my way to Owen Sound, it seemed to be pulling slower than usual. It bogged right down going over the Niagara Escarpment and even smaller hills had me dropping a handful of gears.

Finally, rolling down the last hill into Owen Sound, with that beautiful view of Georgian Bay looming in front of me, I dropped the spike and engaged the trailer brakes. I don’t know why I did this since I always used the foot pedal, but I must have had some idea there was something wrong with the brakes and picked this time to test them – mistake! Almost, immediately, in my rearview on the passenger side, I noticed a plume of smoke and guttering flames coming from the last axle.

By standing on the brake pedal and grabbing a lower gear I managed to slow down enough to get the unit around a corner onto a side street. But the flames were licking at the oak deck of the trailer now.

There was a fire extinguisher in the cab, but the little canister was only half full and there wasn’t enough chemical to put out the fire. The realization struck me that in minutes this would become a great bonfire. I was thinking about unhooking from the trailer when a hydro worker in a van pulled over with a 20-lb extinguisher – enough to smother the flames.

Nonetheless, I sat on the grass for a good long while before moving the truck. But eventually I finished all my deliveries and hobbled back to the yard. While turning in my bills, I heard one supervisor say: “Good, he’s back. Now we can send that defective rental trailer back.”

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