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BIG BEND, Wis. - The current glut of used trucks on the market is a major problem for lots of folks. Along with high fuel prices and a slowing of the economy, the glut has caused a bust in the new-tru...

BIG BEND, Wis. – The current glut of used trucks on the market is a major problem for lots of folks. Along with high fuel prices and a slowing of the economy, the glut has caused a bust in the new-truck business.

But it’s a boon to anyone in a buying mood, even if what you get was set up for another kind of work. If you can put an older highway tractor back to work, whether over-the-road or locally, you can save some serious money.

The glut has depressed the price of a typical used tractor by as much as 50 per cent in Canada compared to a year ago.

That’s somebody else’s problem, unless you also find yourself stuck with tractors depreciated well below estimates when they were new. Either you run them longer or find other work for them.

Construction trucks don’t need sleepers, especially the integrated kind. While Freightliner is converting some SleeperCabs to daycabs at a special plant in Utah, it’s cheaper to leave the sleeper alone and take it along for the ride.

That’s what’s being done with this 1994 Freightliner FLD 112 and its 42-inch SleeperCab. It pulls a 2000-model Red River live-bottom asphalt trailer for C.M. Sobczyk Trucking of Big Bend, Wis., near Milwaukee.

The trailer was “an experiment,” according to Jeff Sobczyk, who runs the small fleet with wife Carolyn. Buying a new tractor to pull it was too financially-risky, but a used one penciled out.

Sobczyk’s other trucks are Peterbilt 378 “quads” – rigid dumps with four rear axles. They are his mainstay because they’re versatile, in fact, he recently bought two new Petes (also at bargain prices, because of the slump in new-truck sales). However, this Freightliner-Red River combination is a specialized rig that has unique abilities geared to certain jobs.

Why a Freightliner in a Pete fleet? Peterbilt Wisconsin in Waukesha, Sobczyk’s dealer, had taken the FLD 112 on trade, and a plan to resell it had fallen through. It was a bare-bones tractor with a short, flat-roof sleeper – not a visually desirable tractor on anybody’s lot. The dealer needed to get rid of it, and offered it to him at a wholesale price of US$14,000.

So the price was right, Sobczyk said, and the odometer reading of about 453,000 miles wasn’t bad either. Best of all, it was fairly lightweight and had a long enough wheelbase – 210 inches – to let it pull the relatively short Red River trailer and still legally scale 80,000 lbs. gross.

(For combination vehicles, Wisconsin adheres to the federal U.S. bridge formula, which encourages wide-spread axle groups.)

Then came about $13,000 in refurbishing and modifications in Sobczyk’s well-equipped shop. New paint, aluminum wheels, dual exhaust stacks and extra amber marker lights improved the tractor’s looks. He and Scott Haas, who now drives the Freightliner, added strobe lights on tractor and trailer for extra visibility on paving sites.

They also installed a wet kit out of used parts, the same ones as on the quad dumps: a Chelsea PTO, mounted at the bottom of the transmission; a commercial shearing hydraulic pump; controls on the floor of the cab; and a 55-gal. tank for hydraulic fluid. The system powers the trailer’s hydraulic motor which drives the 29-inch-wide floor belt.

Sobczyk figures that the $27,000 he has in the used Freightliner is $70,000 less than the price of a new Peterbilt 379 daycab tractor, a decidedly deluxe, extended-hood model, which another carrier he knows recently purchased. Even compared to a simpler model, he probably saved $50,000 to $60,000.

And “in some ways it costs less to operate than a quad,” Sobczyk said of the tractor-trailer. “It goes about twice as far on tire-tread because it doesn’t get scuffed like on a quad. Tires on the drives last about 60 per cent longer. On the steer axle, I don’t need the big $700 tires, just $300 tires. And I go twice as far on a set of $300 tires.”

The sleeper, of course, isn’t needed, and probably accounts for 300 or so pounds of the tractor’s tare weight of about 16,000 lbs. with all tanks full. But Haas said he does use the bunk occasionally, sometimes to stretch out when his chronically sore back becomes painful and work time allows, and sometimes just to take nap.

Once he overnighted in the sleeper while working over in Madison, about 70 miles northwest of home, to save a motel bill, “and I got a real good night’s sleep,” he declared.

You can’t do that in a daycab.

“But how does it ride?” you may be asking.

Well, I met Haas at an asphalt plant along I-94, just west of Kenosha. He backed to a materials pile and disgorged a load of 3/8-inch chips for asphalt production.

Then he pulled under the asphalt chute and quickly reloaded, taking on three eight-ton “dumps” of the steaming-hot material spaced along the trailer’s 30-foot length. He got his tickets, deployed the motorized tarp and we headed out the gate and down I-94.

The load was for a paving job in Twin Lakes, about 20 miles to the southwest. From southbound I-94 we headed west on Hwy. 50, a stretch of four-lane concrete that time, and truck traffic, had bowed. Even with air-ride and a full load, the rig jounced some and Haas stayed in the wide highway’s smoother, left-most lane. A county road took us south about a mile to the job site.

“How do you like driving a Freightliner?” I asked him.

“It does okay,” he answered. “And when I first started driving it, I was really amazed at how good it was going down the road.”

In other words, it rides well. This tractor-trailer, with widely-spaced axles and both tandems suspended on air bags, rides smoother than a squat, five-axle straight dump truck.

Haas would definitely like more power. He was used to Sobczyk’s now-standard engine spec: Caterpillar’s 380 hp. to 430 hp. C-12.

“It’s only a 350, so it has to work harder to get up to speed. It takes you longer to get you there, but it does get you there,” he stressed.

As Haas approached the paving site he grabbed his C.B. mic and quizzed other drivers about the best place to turn around.

“You can probably make it right up here, Scott,” said one driver who was close to the paver. Haas instead turned right into a side street about a half a block away, turned on his strobe lights, and backed out to his left.

“This takes a little a little more room than a quad,” Haas said, “but you can usually find someplace close to do it. Backing it is a little tricky, though, because the trailer is short and reacts so fast. It’s like pushing a rope sometimes.”

He concentrated on the steering wheel and mirror as he pushed the trailer toward the machine. Soon he was snugged up to it. He unlocked and raised the trailer’s small tailgate, engaged the PTO and used the control’s joystick to begin moving the belt and disgorging hot asphalt into the paver’s bed. He watched for hand signals and varied the belt’s speed accordingly. In about seven minutes the trailer was empty and he pulled away.

Up ahead he pulled over to scrape asphalt residue from the tailgate area. I climbed in the driver’s seat and slammed the door.

The cab was still pretty tight after 470,000 miles and a powerful heater helped it stay warm, even with a chill outside.

The FLD 112 ran like most other road-going FLDs I had driven, with more than acceptable feel to its controls, a decent ride and good visibility all around. By the time we returned to Hwy. 50 and I turned right toward I-94. I was getting used to the transmission, an Eaton Fuller Super 10, something almost never found on a construction truck.

(Of course, this tractor wasn’t built for construction, but for over-the-road steel hauling, Haas had said.)

The Super 10 requires a leisurely approach to shifting, and some getting used to. Unlike most other trannies with their repeat-H-patterns, with the Super 10 you go through a basic 5-speed pattern only once and “split” each gear to get the 10 ratios. This was Eaton’s first Low Inertia design, which makes for easy, no-clutch gear changes. It’s similar to driving a 13-speed in high range.

The ride while empty seemed better than while loaded, the opposite of what I expected.

Maybe it’s a fu
nction of the overall short wheelbase versus a typical freight-toting 18-wheeler with a 48- or 53-foot van. Still, this Freightliner seemed perfectly happy in its second life.

If more Freightliners and other makes of trucks can be put to work like this one, in a role it was not originally intended for, the glut might be wiped out sooner rather than later.

That might reverse the fall in used-truck values and the current downturn in new truck orders, which should make everyone happy. n

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