Switchin’ to Glide: Registering glider kits could be a problem

Jim Park
Glider kits emerged as an option for those looking to avoid the costs and headaches of newly introduced emissions technology.

TORONTO, Ont. — There are hundreds if not thousands of trucks rumbling across this land that aren’t really trucks at all. They are legally defined as “an assemblage of parts” that someone has bolted together and turned into a truck. Otherwise known as glider kits, these vehicles create headaches for regulators — and some may soon cause their owners a little grief as well.

Until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency introduced emissions regulations that required diesel particulate filters, higher rates of exhaust gas recirculation, and eventually a selective catalytic reduction system to treat oxides of nitrogen, glider kit trucks were not that common. Mostly the kits were used to repair trucks that hade been severely damaged in a crash like a rollover, or to update older trucks that were looking long in the tooth but still had good powertrains.

They also became popular during the recession of the 1980s as a way to update fleets at a significantly lower cost than purchasing new trucks.

The kit — bought through a dealer, directly from the OEM — consisted of a set of frame rails, a fully equipped cab, front axle with suspension and steering gear, and a radiator. Often, the frame wasn’t even drilled to accommodate a specific engine, transmission or rear axles unless it was specified that way.

The owner stripped all the useful hardware from the “donor” truck, bolted it all onto the shiny new cab and frame rails, and away they went. There were so few of them constructed that nobody really worried about the peculiarities at registration time, such as describing the make and model and the model year. If the donor truck was a Freightliner, for example, and the glider kit was a Freightliner, most vehicle registrars wouldn’t even notice.

Then, when owners realized what a train wreck the new emissions rules turned out to be, glider kits became a popular alternative to the cost, frustration and lack of reliability associated with then-current truck generations.

Some owners began building their own glidered trucks. Businesses sprang up offering to do the conversions for a fee, while other entrepreneurs began buying junked trucks and glider kits and selling the resulting pieces of equipment as used trucks. That’s when the regulators became involved.

Transport Canada was among the first to put its foot down regarding the importing of complete glidered trucks from the U.S. The regulators on this side of the border concluded that vehicles classed as trucks and manufactured from glider kits that are less than 15 years old couldn’t be imported into Canada because they lack the certification that demonstrates these vehicles comply with all applicable Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (CMVSS) or American Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).

Those standards include such things as seatbelt anchors, glazing, door hinges and locks, flammability of the interior materials, brake timing, and stopping distance.

“It takes a few million dollars’ worth of testing at the OE level to prove out all the compliance requirements for new trucks,” says Don Moore, director of government and industry relations at the Canadian Transportation Equipment Association. “A glider kit comes from the OEM without any certification because it’s not sold as a ‘new vehicle.’”

Transport Canada’s ruling effectively prevented Canadians from buying completed glider-kit trucks from American companies like Fitzgerald Glider Kits of Crossville, Tenn., but it did little to stem the tide of domestically produced gliders.

The kits, frame rails, and cabs can be imported into Canada because they are not deemed to be vehicles — and therefore not under the jurisdiction of Transport Canada, which deems them to be an “assemblage of parts that would constitute a truck minus the powertrain, i.e., engine, transmission and drive axles.” The kits, for all intents and purposes, are treated no differently under the regulations than a replacement fuel tank. Nor are glider kits considered “incomplete vehicles” under the regulations.

New, used, incomplete

The Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Act defines an incomplete vehicle as “a vehicle that is capable of being driven and that consists, at a minimum, 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 require further manufacturing operations to become a completed vehicle.”

In the case of a cement mixer, for example, the chassis would arrive in Canada without the mixer body and be documented as an incomplete vehicle awaiting the installation of the mixer body by a domestic upfitter. That company would be responsible for ensuring things like the lighting fixtures and vehicle stability meet all CMVSS and Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations requirements.

To comply, a truck that has been rebuilt using a glider kit must meet two criteria. All three major drivetrain components must be used, in other words remanufactured, reconditioned or rebuilt. And at least two of the three components must come from the same donor vehicle.

Transport Canada considers any other use of a glider kit as the manufacturing of a new truck. As such, the “manufacturer” must certify that the completed truck meets all CMVSS that apply to the vehicle class — which is not technically or financially possible. A glider would also be deemed to be a new vehicle if a single new drivetrain component is installed, or the used drivetrain components have been sourced from two or more donor vehicles.

Transport Canada allows glider kits to be properly imported with no more than one single remanufactured major drivetrain component already installed. A kit with only a remanufactured engine is a “powered” glider. A kit with only remanufactured drive axles installed is a “rolling” glider. If a glider kit is imported with a single major drivetrain component installed, then the remaining two components must be installed in Canada and must come from the same donor vehicle.

The owner’s position

It’s now 2018, a decade after the current boom in glider sales began in response to the EPA’s then-new emissions rules. And there is still no consensus among provinces and territories for registering these vehicles. That leaves sellers and prospective buyers of glidered trucks in regulatory limbo.

In June 2015, the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators published a document called “Best Practices for Registration of Glider Kits,” intended to become a set of uniform registration policies that provincial motor vehicle registrars could adopt when registering glidered trucks. In Canada, vehicle registration is a provincial matter, so the guidelines are just that — unless the provinces agree to bring their policies in line with the CCMTA’s suggestions.

When it comes to determining the “year” of the truck, for example, the CCMTA document indicates that Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan use the model year of the kit on the registration, while British Columbia uses the model year of the donor engine. In some cases, these trucks are being registered in some Canadian jurisdictions as current-model-year vehicles.

When it comes to the VIN number, there is also little commonality across the country. Some provinces, such as Manitoba, will assign a unique VIN to the truck at the time of registration, while Ontario will use the VIN from the kit, and New Brunswick will use the VIN that is most easily viewed by law enforcement, with other recorded VINs noted in the vehicle’s history file.

In other words, almost nothing about glider kits is consistent across Canada, and since there are so many of them on the road now, it’s not a problem the regulators can ignore. The CCMTA says the registration incongruities are “misleading to consumers, finance companies and insurers who base their decisions upon a truthful description of the vehicle being presented for consideration.”

As a buyer of a “used” glider, you can’t be certain of what you’re getting, or how well it was put together. Realistically, that’s the case with any used truck. You’re at the mercy of its previous owner and their maintenance practices. There are no standards applying to the condition of a used truck, except for its ability to pass a safety and mechanical fitness inspection.

We called about a dozen truck dealerships across Canada to get a sense of where the they stood on glidered trucks. They were split on whether they would accept one on trade.

Mike Shay, used truck sales manager at Bayview Trucks and Equipment in Saint John, N.B., said he hadn’t seen one in four or five years, but that he wouldn’t have a problem taking one in on a trade.

“The problem is, most of then have more owing on them than they are worth,” he said. “I think the cost of a glider surprises many owners after all is said and done.”

Meanwhile, Adam Davy of Davy Truck Sales in Mississauga, Ont., said he’d probably pass if someone arrived peddling a glider. “It’s a little difficult when it comes to the emissions requirements,” he told Today’s Trucking. “If the year on the registration indicates it should have a DPF but it doesn’t, it can get complicated for me.”

And just because the current registration says one thing, it doesn’t always hold up. According to Jeremy Harrower, technical programs manager at the Canadian Transportation Equipment Association, imported gliders do slip through the cracks because they are imported as a used American vehicle.

“Sometimes the Canada Border Services Agency often doesn’t pay enough attention to the details and they miss the fact that it was built from a glider kit by a company in the U.S. and sold as a used vehicle,” he said. “And some provincial vehicle registrars simply do not check the vehicle properly, such as making sure the serial numbers of the major components match original VIN and it has all the appropriate safety marks and certifications. It’s really a case of buyer beware when buying a used glider truck.”

Transport Canada’s position paper on glider kit trucks
Best practices for registering glider kits
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 Trucknews.com, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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