Wants and needs: Is the rolling condo for you?

Maybe it’s time we all gave our heads a bit of a shake. Truck prices are getting out of hand – or maybe it’s the rates that are way out of whack, but when the price of a typical owner-operator spec hits one hundred and forty grand, it’s time to have another look at what constitutes an ‘owner-operator’ truck. And for the record, we’re not even talking about the show trucks. Those buggies are priced way out of range for most folk.

Fifteen years ago, you could have bought two trucks for the price of one of today’s premium rides. Crazy as it seems, it’s not hard to run up a bill of $170,000 anymore.
As time marches on, prices rise. That’s almost a given. But in 2007, the EPA-mandated low-emissions engines hit the market, and with them came price hikes of between $10,000-$15,000 (depending on application). A hike like that is tough to swallow. It’s going to be more important than ever to watch the data sheet carefully to keep the price down.

A few years ago we wrote about our test drive of a ‘fleet spec’ Peterbilt 379, just to illustrate that there’s little to lose in winching-in the wish list in these tight times. The powertrain in that truck was arguably where the fleetishness of the thing showed up (it had a Cummins ISX 475 coupled to a Fuller 13-speed and 40,000-lb rear ends with 3.70 gears). And fleetishness is a word I use with the utmost respect. The bigger fleets research this stuff exhaustively, for cost/benefit, compatibility, drivability, as well as other factors, including driver preference. Fleets, you see, view trucks as a means to an end. They want the truck to make them money, not cost them money.

According to Mike Dozier, assistant chief engineer at Peterbilt’s Denton, TX facility, the specing process can be dangerous territory. “The allure of the deal can make extravagant and costly components seem too good to pass up,” he says. “If you’re inclined to break the extra costs down to ‘an extra 15 bucks a month on the payment,’ you can easily spec yourself straight into the poor house.”

Dozier sticks firm to his assertion that a truck can be designed for nearly any application, but you need to tell the sales people what you want to do with it, before you start putting it together. Do a need/want/would-be-nice analysis.

“That’s where we can begin separating what’s necessary from what they think they want,” he says. “We can work out all the gradability, startability, and cruise speed parameters if the customer is honest about what they’ll be doing with the truck.”

Dozier admits that Canadian weights necessitate a different spec than what he typically sees from the American buyer, but he’s aware that a majority of our owner-operators work in the U.S. a great deal of the time. “That should tell them something about what they need, versus what they want,” he stresses.

Big Power and Big Sleepers

Big power comes at a big price, and there are compatibility issues that sometimes get overlooked. The chart on the right illustrates the cost of drivetrain upgrades that are required if you want to go big under the hood.

These numbers came straight from an OEM data book, by the way. The difference, $12,190, is the premium you’ll pay to have a 565-hp engine and all the heavy-duty gear that goes behind it. Really.

Advancements in engine performance have altered the drivability curve dramatically on the smaller engines. They now perform like their larger, thirstier, and more expensive cousins. If you can get over buying horsepower, focusing instead on torque, you can get torque ratings up 1650 lb-ft in a smallish 450-hp, 12-liter engine. That kind of torque feels really good under foot, and you’d only really notice the shortage of horses on the big pulls, or when trying to keep pace with a pack of bull haulers. The savings will show up on the invoice immediately, and over time on the fuel bill.

Moving from the engine room to the bridge and the Captain’s cabin: preference rules here, but there’s money to be saved. Gary Taylor, sales manager of Universal Truck and Trailer in Moncton, is in a good position to comment on the typical differences between the owner-op spec and the fleet spec. “There’s a spread there, for sure,” he notes. “The fleet buyers tend to focus on application-specific needs, such as single sleepers for drivers on short hauls or overnight runs. They don’t need the big bunks, really, but owner-operators buy the bigger ones as a matter of course.”

There’s such a broad selection on the market now — flat-tops, mid-roofs, tall-roofs, and the rolling condo — that the buyer should do some serious cost comparison. You have to live in there, so the don’t buy something you’ll regret just to save a few bucks.

Appearance is an important part of the owner-operator spec that might also carry a stiff cost. Taylor said that owner-ops go for the dressier truck, with the fancier paint and trim, while the fleets remain more pragmatic. He says the cost spread can be as high as ten grand in extreme cases, but $4000 to $5000 is more typical.

At the end of the day, it all turns into a monthly payment. And as Dozier points out, it’s a slippery slope when you start adding one ‘extra’ after another. By the time the finance people get done with you, you might be looking at payments of $3000 or more per month. That’s frightening.

Spec to Reduce Cost

A staggering number of options exist today, some designed to minimize weight or reduce maintenance costs, some to reduce fuel costs, and others to make you feel better while you’re at the helm. Given a reasonable price tag of about $130,000 for a new truck (post 2003), you should be asking what you could get for the money that will further reduce your operating costs, without a big performance trade-off. Reverse the process, and start by asking what you can afford to spend. If you want to keep your payment at, say, $2500 over four years, determine what the price tag would need to be, and work backward from there, rather than layering on cost, then struggling with the payment.

Start with the basics — engine and power train — basing the decision on the intended application. If you’re not sure where you’ll be in a year or two, build some latitude into the spec so the truck can function in a different vocation. In making this decision, don’t forget that a one-mile-per-gallon difference in fuel economy, could save, or cost, about $5,000 a year. That’s about two truck payments

If you’re paid by weight, consider spending a little more on premium, lightweight components. You could add several thousand pounds to your payload by specing light, but it’ll come at a price. Do the cost/benefit analysis first.

If you’re competent and inclined to do a little of your own maintenance, you can save some dough by avoiding the premium-priced lubed-for-life hardware. If you’re a good driver, spec low-cost brake components, knowing that you’ll not be wearing them out as fast as a poor driver. Consider your own strengths and weaknesses, then spec to complement what you do well, or spec to overcome your deficiencies.

Engine electronics can contribute to fuel savings in a huge way. For example, a programming option such as Cummins innovative Load Based Speed Control (LBSC), which you’ll soon be reading about in highwaySTAR, has been demonstrated to add a mile per gallon or better to your fuel economy.

In the final analysis, you may still be able to afford that Luxury Liner if you spec some operational cost savings into it from the start. Payments of $3300 per month are beyond the ability of most owner-operators to manage, but it’s all relative. If you trim your costs by $500 a month, you could add that $500 to the payment, and not notice the difference.
In today’s crazy market, where rates have lagged way behind the cost increases, the cost of independence is steep indeed. You could profitably take a page from the fleet playbook, and buy the type of truck they do. They’re reeling from the price increases in the 2003 engines, too, but they’re taking steps to mitigate the hikes by buying less truck. That’s a strategy worth considering. H

Head to Head Comparison
Upgrade charges to accommodate big engines

400 hp engine $6,800 565 hp engine $12,000
10-speed tranny $1,500 18-speed tranny $ 6,900
1810 HD driveline $ 900 SPL 250 driveline $ 1,100
15.5–in. clutch $ 225 15.5-in. clutch $ 365
Oil cooler $ 245 Oil cooler $ 630
DSP40 rear axles $ 0 DSH40 rear axles $ 865
Total $9,670 Total $21,860

Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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