Glider is Not a 4-Letter Word

Jim Park

TORONTO, ON — You’ve heard the expression “bucket of bolts.” In the truest sense of the word, that’s exactly what a glider kit is. It’s no reflection on the quality of the completed project, but probably the best non-regulatory definition you can bring to bear on the things.

When they arrive from the factory, towed in on their front wheels, they are neither vehicles nor incomplete vehicles. They are not used trucks; they are not new trucks. They are, as Transport Canada defines them, “an assemblage of parts.” An admittedly inglorious description for what’s becoming a fringe alternative to buying new trucks.

Glider kits have been around for decades. They are brand-new cabs on brand-new frame rails with brand-new wiring and plumbing and a brand-new steer axle and suspension/steering system. And not much else. Buyers also get a box strapped to the frame rails containing a bunch of parts needed to complete the project, but the buyer supplies the powertrain; i.e., an engine, transmission and drive axles.

They are often used when rebuilding a worn-out or wrecked truck with a salvageable powertrain. Increasingly, they are becoming alternatives to the rising cost of new trucks, and/or a way around certain emissions regulations.    

Small fleet owner, Dale Holman, of Georgetown, ON., has two rebuild projects on the go right now. He is using glider kits to rebuild two late-‘90s vintage trucks and will use the engines and transmission from his older trucks along with reconditioned rear axles with a gear ratio change. He’s totally unapologetic about his choice to rebuild his older trucks versus replacing them with new trucks.

“I have several new trucks. They are putting me out of business,” he says. “The carrier I work with has a very low tolerance for service failures. I just can’t stake my success or failure in this business on a check-engine light.”

For fleets that don’t have a surplus of equipment to throw into the game at a moment’s notice, rebuilding an older and arguably more reliable truck is seen as a viable alternative to bankruptcy. What seems to raise the ire of some of the glider kit opponents is the impression the glider guys are simply making an end-run around the EPA emissions requirements.

Whether that’s true is open to debate. Trading into a newer truck, with all their supposed and documented problems, can be a risky move for some, particularly the smaller operators that don’t have much sway with repair shops or parts people, or the technicians on staff to deal with the problems.

Holman, who is very handy with a wrench and formerly operated a brake-testing business in Toronto, says he cannot repair the newer trucks.

“I can’t reset the faults code and run the diagnostics on the new trucks,” he says. “I’m totally at the mercy of the dealer. I’ve spent days waiting for repairs, which usually turn out to be sensors or something small. I can’t afford to do that.”

Holman says he’s not trying to circumvent the emission rules. He points out that he could just as easily overhaul the trucks he has, but at some point the wiring starts to get dicey, the cabs look tired, the doors get loose, and it simply makes sense, he says, to start with fresh cab and chassis, using a reliable but older engine.  

“As long as that option is available, I’ll take it,” Holman says.

When is a truck not a truck?

Glider kits are in regulatory no-man’s land. They are considered neither “vehicles” nor “incomplete vehicles” for regulatory purposes. That makes all the difference in how they are regulated at the purchase stage and when licensed for the road. 

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act defines a vehicle as, “any vehicle that is capable of being driven or drawn on roads by any means other than muscular power exclusively…” Glider kits cannot be considered “vehicles” because they lack a powertrain, and so cannot be driven.

Nor are they incomplete vehicles, which are defined as “a vehicle that is capable of being driven and that consists of a chassis structure, powertrain, steering system, suspension system and braking system in the state in which those systems are to be part of the completed vehicle, but requires further manufacturing operations to become a completed vehicle.” For instance, a fully operational chassis delivered by an OE to a second-stage manufacturer to have a dump box installed. Once the box is installed the second-stage manufacturer certifies it as a complete vehicle that meets all applicable Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

A glider kit becomes a vehicle once the powertrain is installed, but the confusion doesn’t end there. The regulations say that two of the three major powertrain components (engine, transmission, drive axles) must come from the same vehicle, a so-called donor vehicle—presumably an older or perhaps wrecked truck that will be rebuilt using the glider kit. These cannot be new components (remanufactured or rebuilt is apparently okay).

If these requirements are not followed, the builder or assembler of the truck will be deemed to be the manufacturer of a new vehicle, and as such, would be required to certify the vehicle conforms to all applicable safety standards — just as an OE is required to do.

Having said all that, Transport Canada regulates only new vehicles. If the builders follow the powertrain directive, then gliders cannot be considered new vehicles. So by default, they become used or in-service vehicles and so are regulated by the provinces. For all intents and purposes, when an older vehicle is rebuilt using a glider kit, if it can pass a provincial safety inspection, it can be licensed and put on the road.

Jim Park

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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