NOSTALGIA DRAG WORLD
presented by Good Vibrations Motorsports
TRUCKIN' - CIRCA 1960
by Chuck Klein
Nineteen-fifty-eight found me sixteen and in possession of a driver's license, an automobile and a girlfriend. Life doesn’t get any better than this. However, within two years I had contempt for the automobile, the police and the girl, well . . . maybe it was she who held the contempt. All was not lost. I now longed for the coveted Chauffer license. With that, I could operate semi-trucks - not that I knew how to drive one. As a youngster, I had always fantasized being one of those real men handling these big rigs - backing them into tight spots, squeezing down narrow alleys and, air horns blasting, high-ballin' on the open road.
Ohio Drivers who held the Chauffeur license (now called a Commercial Drivers License or CDL) were required to wear a 1 3/4" badge in a prominent location (usually on one's cap) when driving for hire. In 1960 there were no classes of drivers, if you passed the exam you could drive for hire a taxi, straight truck, semi-truck & trailer - anything legally licensed. The exam consisted only of a written test that asked mostly questions about weights, sizes and vehicle running lights. Medical exams or demonstration of ability to operate a truck were not compulsory. One only had to be 18 years of age and possess a valid Ohio operator’s license to qualify.
The week I turned eighteen, I scanned the state booklet, memorized some statistics and, eureka, I'm a truck driver. Immediately thereafter, I stopped by my father's medium sized manufacturing company and told the general manager I was available should they need a backup truck driver. The corporation, The Progress Lithographing Co., had a 1951 International semi with 32' single-axle trailer. He did ask if I knew how to drive it and I assured him, with fingers crossed, I did. He didn't ask how I learned, but since I was the owner's son and had cut the grass of the factory's 12 acre site for the past six summers with a side-sickle bar cutter equipped Farmall, he obviously gave me the benefit of a doubt.
Within a month the G.M. called to ask if I could make a rush-job run to Lebanon, Ohio. They needed to deliver about 10 tons printed material in a hurry. It was early morning and I was working on a term paper for my college history class when the call came. Guess who didn’t do well in history that semester?
I quickly sought out the company machinist, Obe, who had been most helpful in supplementing the mechanical skills I learned in high school shop classes. I knew Obe had driven the semi in the past, but had purposely allowed his chauffeur license to lapse because he didn't want to drive the truck after spending all day rigging machinery and such into it. The regular driver, the police chief of a nearby suburb, was only part time as there wasn't enough work. Our Cincinnati based paper convertor did most of its business at distances where it was more economical to utilize commercial haulers. Trucking with the company truck was usually just between the company's four plants, all located within 50 miles of each other.
Though the chauffeur's test required knowledge of weights and size limits, I really had no firsthand experience or understanding of how much 10 tons is and what it was like to propel a 32' trailer so loaded.
The tractor had just been serviced and this required hooking it up with the all-steel single-axle trailer. After sliding the fifth wheel onto the king pin, Obe showed me how to attach the glad-hands, where to plug in the trailer lights and how to retract the dolly. It was a rainy afternoon, making my first attempts to back the trailer into the unlighted loading dock more difficult. I did find it easier than backing the short utility trailer behind the company Farmall tractor. It seems, the shorter the trailer, the harder it is to back up.
As soon as the shipping clerk waved that the rig was loaded, I started for the cab, only to have Obe hail me back to the dock. In a fatherly, but firm tone, he told me that it was I, not the loading party, who was responsible for the safety and security of the load. If the load shifts and is damaged or causes an accident, I will be the one held accountable. We walked into the trailer where Obe pointed out how loads should always be placed against the bulkhead in the front of the trailer and skids should be touching each other, nose to tail.
Obe, riding shotgun, joined me on this, my maiden voyage. He was along because we would have to load and return with some machinery. Following Obe’s instructions, I pulled out of the dock in low 2nd and then came to a stop on the level apron. Here he told me to set the trailers brakes – a chrome handle attached to the steering column – and then climb out to close the trailer doors.
There were no freeways open then requiring us to take U.S. 42 with its undulations and numerous traffic lights. I wasn’t complaining, as this gave me a lot of shifting practice. Because the highway was wet, I followed Obe’s advice to always gingerly apply the trailer brakes before stepping on the cab brake pedal – this to avoid a jackknife. It was raining even harder on the return trip and loaded with bulky, but light weight machinery (secured with chain and nailed to the wood trailer floor rails), I got another lesson. Starting down a long hill and with no other traffic in sight, Obe told me to slam on the cab brakes just short of locking the wheels and watch the rear view mirror. Cool. The trailer began coming over the center line as if trying to catch the tractor. Releasing the cab brakes brought everything back into line. Now he had me lock up the trailer brakes only. Though not as rapid deceleration when used in tandem with the cab brakes, the rig slowed and stayed in a straight line.
I don't know now, and surely didn't know then the load limits of the rig, but I'm certain those limits were greatly exceeded more than once in the years I acted as relief driver. Because inter-plant shipping didn’t require weighing loads, how did I know? Most trucks are geared so low and have more torque than horsepower; they can usually start in second gear/hi-range. However, I hauled many loads so heavy that first gear/lo-range (bull-dog low, aka granny gear) was necessary to pull out of an up-hill loading dock. Sometimes, even on level roads, I could not even get into low 5th.
The rig had the standard 5-speed crash box transmission and optional 2-speed electric shift rear axle. Today, every stick-shift transmission includes synchronizers to slow the gears and keep them from grinding during a shift. A crash box has no synchronizers – just cut gears. Thus to keep from grinding (crashing) the gears double-clutching is required. To change up, you have to shift into neutral, let the clutch out to slow the transmission gears down, shove in the clutch and move the shift lever to the higher gear. Down shifting also requires a move to neutral, but while the clutch is out (in neutral) – engine speed must be increased to match the transmission gear speed before again pressing in on the clutch and shifting to the lower gear. Utilizing a tachometer you can make perfect shifts (even without using the clutch!). But, a practiced ear and a “feel” will produce good enough shifts and at a much quicker pace. I had learned to drive a crash box with my first car, a 1952 Crosley which I converted to a fiberglass bodied sports car at age 15 – but that’s another story. The ’51 International was equipped with the optional 150 gallon, saddle style, diamond-plate fuel tank and west coast mirrors. Power steering was not even an option, but air brakes were standard.
To shift to a higher rear axle ratio, after tripping the switch, entails only letting up on the throttle momentarily - the use of the clutch is not necessary. To shift to the lower rear axle speed while under a load, keep the gas pedal to the metal while quickly disengaging/reengaging the clutch. If not under a load, push the button in while double-clutching into the lower gear. Shifting these old rigs is not so much the mechanics of engine/vehicle speed or the grade of the road as it is based on a feel or sense of when to shift.
Changing transmission gears and axle ratios at the same time is called split shifting and is tricky as it requires all of the above directions to be done at the same time and in a most timely manner. If you try to hurry the axle shift you could end up in “nothing gear” a potential disaster if heading down hill.
I joined the company full time in 1963 as a salesman. Though we now had an everyday driver he only drove the straight truck, thus if full loads or heavy machinery were involved, I had to double as the semi-driver. By now, the clutch was slipping and the king pins were worn causing a shimmy. I had also noticed on trips in the ’51, the air pressure gauge indicated a higher than normal reading. We worked a trade for a new 1963 Chevrolet tractor. On the ‘51s final voyage to the Chevrolet dealer, sans the trailer, the air pressure kept building toward the danger zone. As old as the truck was, I was indeed worried that an air line could burst so I drove in the outside lane just in case . . . and in-case happened. Starting down a long hill into the city, I heard the unmistakable sound of an abruptly opened air line. Fighting panic and assuming the brakes had failed, I began edging toward the guard rail while split-shifting from high 5th to low 4th. As the engine screamed, I reached to yank on the emergency brake . . . .
Flashing through my mind was the Hollywood “in-case” version of oil spray covering the windshield as the truck slammed cars and barriers before upending and bursting into flames. My imaginative thoughts were all for naught. In a few seconds, the “open line” stopped blowing air as I realized there must have been a pressure relief valve that was designed to pop before the air lines did.
Nostalgia Drag World - by Chuck Klein
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