Drive It Like You Don’t Own It – More Tales from the Fleet Manager

A few weeks ago, I provided some insight into the trials and tribulations of a fleet manager.  Let us continue on this bizarre and sometimes nightmarish journey…

The first post (here) focused on the automobiles in the fleet.  This is like watching 20 minutes in the middle of an unfamiliar movie – you just aren’t privy to the whole picture.  There’s more to tell, especially when it comes to pickups and dump trucks.  Oh, and I also threw in a few behaviors I was lucky enough to witness.  As stated last time, your own experiences may vary.

Dodge Pickups:  Has Dodge ever not been a major player in fleet sales?  Dodge’s fleet composition gives them a triple-play.  Let’s look at each size individually.

The Dodge Dakota is a decent pickup, provided you have a light load and don’t have full-sized (measured either horizontally or vertically) drivers.  They hold up well, yet are highly prone to the old tin worm.  Most were equipped with the 3.9 liter V6.  Purchased primarily to reduce fuel costs, they didn’t pan out as intended when it came to fuel consumption, and weren’t well suited to their intended application.

The Dodge Ram of the late ’90’s to early ’00’s era was a willing pickup aching to burst free of its power train and trimming constraints.  These units really needed more than the base 3.9 liter V6 most of them were born with.  They were equipped with 4-speed automatics that seemed to require a downshift every 50 feet, even on level ground. After purchase, it wasn’t long before dashboards started to crack and seats started to deteriorate.  This really helped to reinforce the Dodge-phobia from which many employees suffered.

On the flip side, I know of several instances when trucks headed out to the job site with about 6,000 lbs. of materials loaded in the  bed. There was also a V6 powered Ram that had the burden of pulling a nearly three-ton air compressor over very long distances.  In both cases, forward momentum did not build so much as ooze.

For 2011, I purchased six Dodge 5500 diesel trucks.  With power windows and CD players as standard equipment, they were big morale boosters; however, unlike similar Dodges of the two previous years they had urea systems that were unfamiliar, and thus the cause of much uncertainty and derision (one person referred to the urea tank as the “piss tank”).  Aside from a few turbochargers going kaput early on, the only issue with these trucks has been a susceptibility to snowpack in the air filter housing.


Ford Pickups:  No Rangers here.  Always Ford F-Series, primarily in F-150 and F-250 flavors.  I was in Chevrolet Land, where Fords were always inferior to Bow Ties but still preferable to anything with a ram’s head on the hood.  Mechanical and trim issues were nearly nonexistent, although there were consistent complaints about a lack of low-end torque on 4.6 liter equipped F-150’s, especially when pulling trailers.  The only real annoyance was the tendency of upper ball joints being worn out by 30,000 to 36,000 miles.  If they were replaced under warranty with the non-greasable factory type, you could expect a repeat in another 30,000 miles or so. Installing greaseable ball joints settled the issue.

As one field supervisor once told me:  “I hate these Fords.  I like Chevys.  But the Fords just keep running and there is no drama.”

There were also a sizable number of F-450 crew cabs, and a limited number of ’08 F-550 crew cabs, purchased in the ’99 to ’01 model years.  The 7.3 liter diesel in the older units was mostly problem-free and easily good for 200,000 miles, even in hard use.  The 6.4 liter diesel in the ’08 models got 8.5 mpg regardless of driving style (for comparison, a dump truck as shown at the top would generally get 5 to 6 mpg).  Engine access was horrific, and a warranty engine replacement necessitated (drumroll, please) removal of the cab.

Chevrolet pickups:  These were a favorite of both the drivers and my counterparts in other locations.  Their only real issues involved transmission sensors on ’06 models with the 6.0 liter gasoline engine. They caused the transmission to heat up tremendously, which caused some very hard upshifting and downshifting.

While it (unfortunately) hasn’t always been the case,  GM generally does a good job of producing full-size vehicles requiring very little in the way of upkeep, as exemplified by their gasoline powered pickups over the last 10 to 15 years.

Nevertheless, I do have a caveat involving Chevrolet’s 6.5 liter turbo diesel. The engine was a true engineering marvel and many of them were installed in, of all things, service trucks for mechanics: By the time these units were sold, they’d all had at least once engine replacement. In fact, as a preemptive move one industrious mechanic used bits and pieces of various engines to build a “new’ one. (Eventually, his engine was put into service and would prove to be the best of the lot!)

International Dump Trucks:  There were many, many engine failures (which always seemed to occur in threes) on International dump trucks in the 466 and 530 engine series.  It was a perplexing problem and International, much to its credit, was very good about providing various forms of assistance. In the typical scenario, a truck with about 80,000 to 120,000 miles would be running and driving fine until suddenly, and without warning, it would start to knock.  The operator would shut off the engine and call the mechanic.  The mechanic would find an empty radiator and an oil pan full of coolant.  A tear-down of the engine would reveal that an O-ring on one of the cylinder liners had failed.  The actual cause never was never conclusively determined, although many had their suspicions. Despite their engine issues, these trucks hold up quite well given the kind of torture they receive.

Other routine issues during the service lives of Internationals involve front cover gasket leaks and worn walking beams on tandems. On the other hand, the Allison transmissions on automatic-transmission equipped units proved to be virtually flawless.

Trailers:  Trailers? you ask.  Yes, trailers were an issue.  If you do not properly store your glad-hands, insects like to nest inside the hoses.  In turn, if your trailer sits for an extended period and you do not do a proper pre-trip check, you can easily drag a trailer with locked wheels.  Then all sorts of bad things can happened.  Tires getting flat spots, tires blowing out, and even tires catching fire.  I wish I didn’t know all this, but I had occasions to learn all about it.

This story would not be complete without a few personal interactions and user gripes.  I was naive and thought I would be having scads of fun buying vehicles while having a sizable budget.  Wrong!  While buying was fun, dealing with people was always stimulating. Consider:

People who would be finicky about the lack of quality of a vehicle yet it would be superior to anything they owned.  Other people thinking they needed a four wheel drive as they might be on a gravel road (one person who wanted one was getting a dually Dodge – I told him, yes, it is four wheel drive as you have four wheels on the drive axle).  A vocal few who were never satisfied with the tires on their unit because they “needed” something with more aggressive tread.  Vehicles used as a mobile trash can (banana peels fused to the carpet, milk containers seeping their contents all over the interior, week old milkshake containers).  The gentleman who was such a slob that when his car was reassigned after his retirement, two people had to spend 3 days de-funking it for the next person. The office person making a rare trip out and insisting upon a new car from the pool (nixed by my filling the pool with old, high mileage units).  Or the perennial favorite when fire extinguishers discharged in the trunks of cars or cabs of pickups.

Being a fleet manager was fun but trying.  How trying?  This picture is of me at age 37.  I had become very grumpy.  All I wanted to do was drink beer and eat bacon.