Auto-Biography: Super Duty Truckin’

It was a successful launch, and I was going for the record books. The 534 cubic inch Ford V8 bellowed and roared through the two short pipes exiting under my feet. The wide-open Holley four barrel noisily sucked the cool morning air. The air-scooped hood rose and dropped on one side with each banging shift, a visual testament to massive torque. As my speed approached record territory, I had my hands full keeping the snorting beast under control. I glanced down on the big round speedometer and confirmed my victory:

I was abusing a 1966 Ford F-900 (or was it a F-950?) Super Duty dump truck loaded with some 10 tons of gravel down a narrow country road. Normally, the Metro Pavers fleet would top out at sixty-five. But  Number 8 had an erratic engine governor, as well as an Allison six-speed automatic. Every so often, when you first floored it on take-off, the governor didn’t engage. And it stayed that way, until you backed off. How fast did it go that morning? The needle was bouncing so erratically behind the gravel-dusted speedometer pane, it was hard to tell. Eighty-five? Ninety? It felt like at least a hundred.

These unpredictable moments of Holley-anarchy were the equivalent of turning on a bottle of nitro or a turbo (or both) and an irresistible invitation to explore the true top end capabilities of the giant hot-rod Ford, as long as the engine held together. The odds of an untrammeled blast were about one in ten; kinda’ like playing the slots. The best odds happened when the go-pedal was stabbed as quickly as possible, seeming to catch the governor off-guard. The random inevitability of a noisy payoff kept me on my toes (literally), and helped break the rapid-growing ennui of hauling gravel all day.

And that screwy governor sometimes went to the other extreme: holding the effective throttle back to about one-half or so. Maybe it was keeping the secondaries from opening. The truck topped out at forty-five when it did that.  Fun times.

I’m not really sure whether this truck actually had the biggest 534 inch version of Ford’s Super Duty V8 line. If it did, it was rated at 277 hp @ 3400 rpm (governed). There was also a 477 incher rated at 260 hp, and the 401 with 226 hp. The Super Duty V8s were super huge blocks, as the that big Holley four-barrel sitting on this one makes clear. And it was no genuine hot-rod, designed for heavy-duty truck and stationary engine use, back when diesels were not yet ubiquitous in large trucks. Unlike Ford’s passenger car V8’s, they used a flat-top head on a wedge-shaped cylinder, a bit like the Chevy 348 and 409 engines.

Ford trucks play a recurring theme in my life; from my first truck drive to my most recent (yesterday). My initiation to Ford-truckin’ arrived via the usual baptism by fire. I was a seventeen-year old car jockey at the local Ford dealer. I had noticed a big red F-800 cab-chassis when I came to work after school. A salesman walked in and asked if anyone knew how to drive a truck. Without hesitation, I said Yes! The cab looked just like an F-100. How hard could it be?

The salesman imparted his minimalist directions: “follow me”.  I had no idea where we were going or what I was doing. Man, everything sure looked small from way up there. Was that warning alarm ringing away a novice driver detector, or something to do with air pressure?

I found the first of ten gears (a five speed and two speed axle), and released the heavy clutch. A groan and shudder, and then… nothing. The engine stalled; painfully. I finally found the air parking-brake release and set off. The first order of business: keep the big rig in my lane while sorting out the 10 gears. Once I figured out how to stop locking the unloaded rear wheels with the grabby air brakes, people stopped staring at me.

The dealership was just a few blocks off the Beltway, and our route included that and the very curvy Jones Falls Expressway,  Which dumped us in the heart of downtown Baltimore, to where its future bed or body awaited it. I sweated bullets keeping up with him. I had no idea where were were supposed to be going. Just stay on his ’71 LTD tail, but don’t compress it. It was another righteous, riotous rite of passage.

A couple of years later in Iowa City, I grew tired of washing dishes (surprise, surprise) and answered an ad for a dump-truck driver. Inexplicably, I, a twenty-year old long-haired kid, walked into the dusty office of Metro Pavers without a commercial license, and was hired on the spot, at $3.00 per hour ($15 adjusted), double the $1.45 I was making washing dishes. Progress!

CDL? The Highway Patrol was called, and a female state trooper showed up at Metro Pavers to give me the driving test. There was just one problem: most of these trucks had no passenger seat. I found an old rickety wooden chair in the back of the dusty dispatch office, whose legs I rudely shortened with a dull handsaw. I was not going to let this opportunity pass me by. She gave me a look of utter disbelief. I gave her my best killer smile. Yes, she was a real trooper to perch on that wobbly chair while I drove her around the neighborhood. Mission accomplished.

It was mostly fun driving those gnarly old Ford Super Duty’s (back then that name was reserved for Ford’s biggest commercial trucks). But the day I lost my air brakes wasn’t a lot of laughs.

I had just loaded eight yards of gravel at the quarry. In my youthful bound back in the cab, my long leg must have hit the air-brake switch off. The low air-pressure warning alarm was broken, as was almost everything else on these already elderly trucks used only during the summer paving season. By the time I approached the stop at the highway, the brakes were dead, and I realized my predicament. Trees blocked the view in both directions. I seriously considered bailing out. But I stayed with my truck and barreled into the highway, hoping for the best. It’s a good thing traffic was lighter back then.

I still rent a dump truck (Ford, of course) every now and then. Today’s turbo-diesels have a wonderfully intense but short torque curve. And the transmissions now offer blazing quick clutch-less shifts.

My ’66 Ford pickup with its manual steering, non-power brakes and three speed (plus two speed transmission) keeps my skills in shape. It has the exact same cab as those hoary old Super-Duties, just a whole lot closer to the earth. And I’m still hauling gravel in it. Explains a few things, eh? I’ve even hit ninety with it, but it wasn’t loaded with gravel. So the old record stands. Back then, Super Duty really meant something.