The Curbside Pickup Classic: 1988 Peterbilt 320

Today I’m going to take you on a tour of my assigned company vehicle, a front loading refuse truck. C-32 is the 2nd oldest piece of equipment my company operates and the oldest that is operated daily as its sister truck sits in on the back of the bench, only to come out during peak demand or to cover for another unit that has broken down. When my truck was built Reagan was in Office and I was in 2nd grade.

Here is what the drivers controls look like:

Wheel, Gauges and Shifter

Packer Body Controls, Back Up Camera and Billing Computer

As the C-Series proved, medium and heavy duty trucks can live very long and productive service lives. In the realm of class 8 trucks, specialized vocational vehicles (where the upfitting costs 3-4X+ the cost of the underlying vehicle) can be darn near immortal. When purchased new in 1989 this truck cost ~$200,000 in today’s dollars. On the used market with packer body in good condition and fitted with a smog filter I’d estimate that this truck would sell for $25k.  As a frame of reference our newest truck was $275k fully loaded with dual controls, 3 backup cameras and a prepped for the side loader adapter kit.

It’s a 1988 Peterbilt 320 with a 13 speed Eaton Fuller Transmission and a Cummins L10 Engine. A few years ago it was fitted with a $15k Cleaire Horizon diesel particulate filter to comply with California smog regulations. While it cuts down on the soot in the air it also acts as a very restrictive exhaust that strangles the engine. It has 264k on the odometer and an estimated 31,400 hours on the chronometer.

From the published specs for the L10 and my seat-o-pants dyno testing, I’d guesstimate that the engine is putting out 260HP and 900lb-ft.  It also has the strongest exhaust brake of any truck I’ve ever driven; with proper gear selection I can go down miles of 8-9% grade at a steady 45mph never having to touch my brake pedal.

It sounds like a lot of power, but my truck weighs 32k lbs empty and 52-54k fully loaded.  With a full load on the truck the power to weight ratio is approximately half that of the traditional USDM slowness benchmark of the old air cooled VW. Climbing a 9% grade slows the truck to 25 mph when full. Acceleration when empty: 0-25 mph takes about 15 seconds, 45mph is a 45 second wait and getting to the ludicrous speed of 60 would take a good 90+ seconds empty with the engine screaming at 1900 rpm in top gear.  Optimal cruising speed is 45-50 mph. Fuel consumption ranges from 2.5 to 4 MPG depending upon weather and the route.

The Maxon Packer body is something of an orphan; when the refuse industry went through a big wave of consolidation in the 1990s they found themselves out of favor with the handful of larger buyers. They went bankrupt in the mid 90s and exited the refuse and cement mixer markets, retreating to their core business of lift and rail gates for delivery trucks.

On my truck the build plate gives it a 38 cubic yard capacity.  As a practical matter it equals 400-600 stops on a residential route; 60-80 yards of commercial dumpsters or 45-55 yards of construction debris.

For severe winter conditions there is no vehicle I’d rather be in.  I have 8 drive tires with at least 20k lbs of weight on them and the ability to chain 6 of my 8 driven wheels, combined with an air actuated limited slip power divider.  It is not uncommon to be the first vehicle on unplowed residential streets breaking a trail through 12-18 inches of  fresh plowed snow.

My truck likely has one or two years left until the next equipment purchase cycle gives sends it off to its date with the grim scrapper’s torch.  It will represent the end of an era of simple, rugged trucks with mechanical injection that were cheap to operate and maintain.  While the new Pete that replaces it will be decades ahead in ergonomics and process automation it just won’t have the same soul.