Drive It Like You Don’t Own It – Tales From The Fleet Manager

So many of the discoveries found at Curbside Classics are vehicles with an above average lifespan – or perhaps an above average ability to endure. However, there is a class of vehicle that by its very nature often guarantees a miserable, brutal, and often abbreviated life.  It is the life of a fleet vehicle.

Yes, there are the fleets of Hertz, Avis, Penske, and the other rental companies.  However, they have fleet management down to a science, along with an ear tuned for resale, and turn their cars and pickups out with an established life cycle.  No, the focus here is the cars and pickups who spend the prime of their lives in service to an agency or organization, often many years and well over 150,000 miles.

Among the things I can claim on my resume is having spent 20 months as the fleet manager for the local branch of the organization where I am employed.  It was one of those “other duties as assigned”.  In actuality I am an engineer, yet I suppose my passion for all things vehicular, combined with my profoundly superb managerial and people skills, got the attention of the powers that be.   So mix pieces of ambition and motivation with a little outhouse luck, and, voila, Jackie Boy got to expand his horizons.

Sound easy?  Think again, grasshopper.

As a point of reference, the fleet was comprised of around 420 units (the number fluctuated mildly) that consisted of cars, pickups, vans and all the way to motorgraders, loaders, and dump trucks.  There was a maintenance schedule for all units that was adhered to.

Some wise sage once opined the best way to learn about a person is to travel with them.  I would contend if a person really wants to learn about someone, look at how they treat the ride they didn’t pay for.  Alternately, the best way to learn about a vehicle is to see how it performs in fleet service.

A disclaimer about me:  I’m normally pretty easy going and mostly polite yet a bit finicky at times.  After a few months as a fleet manager, I had the same degree of pleasantness and was as cordial as either of the characters from Grumpy Old Men.  Maybe it was the backseat of a pickup full of McDonald’s wrappers or its bed loaded with 20 ounce soda containers full of tobacco juice.  Perhaps it was the new and over-zealous supervisor who tied a dead squirrel to the grille of a pickup to determine if an employee was doing a morning walk around.  It could have been the person with a vendetta who threw a dead skunk in the back of a van one Friday afternoon in July.  Or maybe it was the twenty-seven dump truck engines that failed within three months.

However, as this isn’t a website intended for psychoanalysis, let’s look at the vehicles themselves.  To give a more thorough insight, I am going retroactive to my date of employment in 1996.  I have driven a multitude of cars and pickups in my life with the majority of them being fleet vehicles.  Plus, being the caraholic that I am, I have always talked to the mechanics as, frankly, they tend to be a lot more entertaining to converse with than a lot of fellow engineers!

Twelve years after the last one was sold, the Dodge Dynasty (or, Die Nasty) still has the reputation of being a tire smoking, fuel sipping, transmission eating machine.  These were highly comfortable cars whether in the front or rear.  Yet the 4 speed Ultradrive transmission was an absolute weak link in an otherwise stout drive train.  Having driven dozens of these creatures, I was lucky enough to only have problems with one, when its transmission slipped consistently for a 250 mile round trip (I still remember it was a baby blue ’92 with the Mitsubishi built 3.0 liter V6, not the Chrysler built 3.3 liter).  Yet when the tranny decided to retire, it did so quite suddenly and without doubt.  There were instances when the transmission would go so far south the car would roll even in park.  It was not uncommon for a Dynasty to go through three to four transmissions in its service life.

Trim staying put where Mopar intended was spotty at times.  I knew one gentleman who kept a box in the backseat.  When something fell off, he would put it in the box.

I came about toward the end of the GM A-Body quartet (Celebrity, Ciera, Century, and the elusive 6000).  These machines did their duty with very little protest.  While the backseat was an absolute penalty box for anyone taller than 4’9″, several went for well over 200,000 miles with nothing more than preventative maintenance.  These were one of the few passenger cars that could be passed around relentlessly among drivers without suffering form prematurely aging.  That alone speaks volumes.

Ford Tauruses (Taurii?) were purchased nearly every year from 1994 to 2005.  That’s a breathtaking feat as so few ever found themselves in fleet duty (yes, that is sarcasm).  Equally breathtaking is that one unit would consistently get 27 mpg while its sister would be lucky to break 20 mpg with the same driving conditions; this phenomena was more pronounced with the 2000 and newer models.  Transmissions were a weak spot, though of a lesser magnitude than the Dynasty.  I was briefly assigned a ’95 model Taurus.  While the transmission didn’t fail, it would snap your neck and bark the front wheels with every 1-2 upshift regardless of throttle input.  The garage replaced it and within three months it was doing it again; the car was promptly sold.  Overall, the ’97 to ’99 models tended to be the best mechanically, although they were often heckled for their appearance by being called “catfish”.

Chevrolet Impalas are currently the fleet car du jour.  They love tires.  They will devour tires.  Mmm, tires! I sent three brand new Impalas, just delivered from the dealer, to the alignment shop.  All three were built ridiculously out of alignment on all four wheels.  They don’t seem to age very quickly by being in pool applications where countless people drive them.  Just have an alignment shop handy and plenty of tires on hand.

Overall comfort is decent, although this doesn’t apply to the rear seat.  I’m 5’11” and have trouble cramming myself into, or unknotting myself to exit, the rear seat.  The bulk of the cars I managed were Impalas.  Other than alignment, they kept going and going.  There was one in particular that had a deer run into the side of it and hit a bobcat another time.  It was cheap to fix.  I drove one a time or two that started to get a few rattles at around 180,000 miles but it looked and ran great.  The only significant issue ever was a head gasket blowing on a single ’02 with a 3.4 liter.

Lastly, I will mention the 2004 Dodge Stratus.  In a word: awful.  If you never encounter one, so much brighter your life will be.  I was assigned one brand new.  After nine months and 14,000 miles I did some horse-trading and obtained a ’99 Taurus.  I almost felt bad for the person who got stuck with the Stratus.

I could go on more about pickups, vans, one-tons, and even dump trucks.  Perhaps a different time.  From reading various comments here, there are a number of mechanics and fleet managers frequenting here who have their own unique experiences.  Their observations could parallel mine or they could be completely different.

To be fair, my brief experience as a fleet manager was rewarding, frustrating, exciting, infuriating, challenging, and mind boggling.  To best manage any sizable fleet, one needs to dedicate a lot of time to it as well as have a first-rate staff.  I (mostly) had the first-rate staff.  I didn’t always have the proper amount of time.

This article is admittedly outside the norm for Curbside Classics and from what I normally offer.  However, one of these days you might just find yourself looking at a very low mileage and highly optioned Impala for sale in a parking lot somewhere.  Isn’t it good to know what you might expect from it?