(first posted 2/3/2014) As one of the people who’d been rallying for a Big Truck Week, I suppose it’s only fitting that I step up and post some. I’ve got several more for later on in the week, but hey – why not start with the biggest?
I spotted this rig several weeks ago while taking a shortcut I rarely use, coming back from picking up a load of equipment bound for the office.
Given the paint scheme, it seems fairly likely this tractor and trailer spent at least part of their lives together. But given their neglected state, it also seems likely that their service lives have come to a close. Unless some ambitious individual comes along, chances are their next trip out will be their last.
The Astro 95 is my first big truck of the week, and also the biggest truck in my files. But, unfortunately, it’s also the one big truck for which I’m most starved for pictures. I could have sworn I took several of the truck I’ll be attempting to feature below, but for some reason I am unable to find them. As such, several other trucks will be standing in for it at various points.
My client roster once included a manufacturing firm called Ercoa. In past years, it had been E.R.C.O.A., as in the “Electric Reel Company Of America”, maker of battery-powered fishing reels. But somewhere down the line (perhaps in the early eighties) they acquired another line of business: building pontoon boats.
At that time, another local company, Boatel, was looking to divest itself of several product lines so it could focus on its core business, manufacturing yachts. So they dumped their interests in such things as snowmobiles and recreational craft, going hard after that one market they felt was most lucrative. In the shuffle, Ercoa managed to grab the pontoon business and run with it.
And run they did. By the mid eighties, they were doing pretty well for themselves: they’d moved into a big new facility, had expanded their lineup to include such things as portable ice houses and their trademark line of peddle-boats, and of course they were still cranking out pontoons left and right.
(The folks in their marketing department had a thing for using staff, friends, and family in their promotional photos. See that guy at the helm, in the pink shirt? He’s the one that hired me. Great guy… I understand he’s still working on peddle-boat designs somewhere.)
But they couldn’t just let the boats pile up–they had to get them out to the dealers somehow. And so came the company’s latest investment, circa 1987: a fleet of new-to-them tractors with brand-new trailers. All were late ’70s vintage cabovers with sleepers and rooftop air deflectors, painted white, with the obligatory logo on the door. (Ever the penny-pinchers, they opted to apply the same logo stickers to the trucks as they did to their boats.)
Each truck had a slightly longer than normal wheelbase, with tandem axles, a steel flatbed with wood decking, and an interesting low-mounted fifth wheel hitch setup. The trailers, each one brand-new and built to their specifications, were a sort of light-duty lowboy that attached to this odd hitch, upon which the boats could be stacked two high along their entire length of forty-some feet.
Of the three trucks in the fleet, there were two Internationals and one GMC. Guess which one I was most interested in?
Theirs was an Astro 95, of course; a 1978, if I recall. Of course, being a cabover it tilted forward for access to that huge Detroit Diesel mill.
But the pontoon-hauler wasn’t quite as fancy as this one. It had chrome bumpers, a chrome grille, and a single chrome exhaust stack, but the gas tank was steel, as were the wheels. It also lacked most of the personalized touches this one has–no fancy clearance lights or custom paint jobs here!
There was also the memorable wrap-around dashboard, all decked out in woodgrain. It looked similar to the above shot when I last saw it, but I bet its cockpit was much more awe-inspiring in its younger days.
In the seven years I worked for them, however, none of the trucks ever moved. Their heyday may have started in the mid ’80s, but those boom years were fading away by the early ’00s. And when I came on in 2006, things weren’t looking pretty.
My first impression? Right down to the furnishings, the place honestly looked like a time capsule from 1991 (just when I thought I’d seen the last of NetWare 4, Compaq products with a rainbow stripe on them, and the unmistakable beeps and chirps of Merlin phones). I may well have been the only guy in the Yellow Pages who knew what they meant by “thickwire.”
That’s probably half the reason I was brought in: I worked cheap, I was willing to horse around with their archaic equipment, and I could manage to keep a sense of humor about it. Plus, I turned out to be a convenient source of labor for creating the coming year’s catalog, since their marketing department was no more by that time.
These two gals–no idea who they are–made frequent appearances in company literature. In fact, this picture was used to create a cut-out on foamcore, which sat atop their reception desk when it was unstaffed.
Equally memorable was a prop which sometimes sat near it: a Dixie cup which contained a spoon and was filled to overflowing with white glue, which had a bit of brown paint stirred in and was allowed to harden. Even upon close investigation, it looked just like an ice cream sundae that had been forgotten and was melting all over the desk! It took a while for me to warm up to that one–I thought it was tacky when I first saw it, but apparently the secretaries got a kick out of watching peoples’ reactions. Apparently, many was the visitor who attempted to dip their fingers into it!
Despite everyone’s best efforts, the business finally went under in 2013. It seemed the final nail in their coffin might have been the failure of a large chain of boat dealers, which happened to be one of their biggest distributors. There was no coming back after that.
So an auction was scheduled, and the company’s assets were bagged, tagged, and sold to the highest bidder. As a result, I finally got a chance to get up close and personal with their fleet of trucks.
But as you can imagine, by this time there wasn’t much left of them. None were roadworthy, only one was able to be started, and perhaps worst of all, no titles could be produced for any of them. It seemed certain that these once-proud rigs would be fed to the crusher soon.
As much as I enjoyed finally getting to climb around on the trucks, I was actually there for another reason.
Among their factory leftovers was a small group of V-bottom boats. There were approximately seven built, all told; they were prototypes for a new line that never got off the ground. I’d been itching to make a deal ever since I became aware of their presence in the back of the warehouse some years ago, but my offers to buy had always fallen on deaf ears. The auction would be my first, last, and only opportunity to snag one for myself.
And so it was that I got my one and only surviving picture of the trucks at hand. It’s grainy and basically useless, but unless I find the others, that may well be all that remains of these rigs.
Of the seven, five were sixteen feet long, and two were seventeen feet. Three of the sixteen-footers were completed and used for testing and promotions; this catalog picture depicts the very same boat seen above, only twenty-two years earlier. None of the seventeen-footers were ever completed.
In a surprise win, I ended up with both the seventeen-footers and one of the two unfinished sixteens for just a few hundred dollars. Given the design and material information I hung onto from earlier, I expect to be able to finish their construction fairly easily. All three are currently relaxing behind the shop until my project backlog is a bit shorter. (Wonder how many other people can say they own not one, but three brand-new, never-used, 1991 model year boats?)
I also lucked out on a few items from their shop, such as this toolbox. $20? Overspray bedamned, I’ll take it! I had wanted to grab the “ice cream sundae” as a souvenir, too, but someone else beat me to it. Or perhaps some do-gooder finally threw it away.
The trucks, however, were not so lucky. An acquaintance of mine who’d recently gone from avid recycler to junkyard owner was also present at the auction, and seemed determined to buy everything in sight. I was astounded when he paid $3500 for the title-less derelict Astro; upon looking it over again (just to see if I’d missed something), I couldn’t understand how he was making money on it at that price.
Turned out, he wasn’t. I happened to be at the yard a few days later, and saw the big old GMC roll in on a lowboy trailer. The yard owner and I were talking at the time, and I congratulated him on his win. But, with surprising candor, he began to lament his purchase of the truck – having now done the math, he was expecting to take a big hit on it, and several other things he’d won at that auction. Still, he remained hopeful that the tons (literally) of aluminum pontoon parts he’d also bought would make up for it.
Speaking of aluminum, perhaps the strangest item offered for bids was the right to sweep the floors–which the auctioneer claimed would yield barrels’ worth of aluminum shavings if done correctly. I don’t recall who won it, but I do remember that they paid $300 for the privilege.
As I left the yard that day, I watched as the dilapidated Astro was being hacked apart by a small herd of torch jockeys. It wasn’t exactly a dignified end for such a long-lived piece of machinery.
But every end is merely a new beginning. Who knows? Perhaps even these Jeeps were big trucks in a past life.