‘America respected and loved truckers a lot more back then’

Gregg Blair | July 04, 2014

Note: This story originally ran in August 2013.

Gregg Blair is one of our friends and a reader on the George and Wendy Show Facebook page. He sent us a letter the other day, and it was possibly one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever read. I love to hear the true veterans of the industry talk about old times — it’s a real treat to get one on the CB who wants to talk. It’s even better to have a six-million-mile veteran write a story for you. Thanks, Gregg. Your story is priceless, and I’m humbled you let me share it. Wendy Parker

 

Gregg Blair retired in Ft. Worth, Texas, where he enjoys his days happily tinkering around the house, camping, and spending time with his wife.
Gregg Blair retired in Ft. Worth, Texas, where he enjoys his days happily tinkering around the house, camping, and spending time with his wife.

I bought my first Peterbilt in 1975 at age 24 and trucked full-time until a year and a half ago, when I couldn’t pass the DOT physical due to several heart conditions and had a cardiac defibrillator implanted.

You might be interested to know that we didn’t have cell phones, computers, satellite radio, or tubeless tires for trucks. In their infancy were engine brakes, radar, and air-ride suspensions. The length limit east of the Mississippi was 55 feet, and nationwide speed limit was 55 mph. The gross weight limit was 73,280 lbs. in most states, 32K on tandems and12K on the steer. Trailer lengths were mostly 38-40 feet.

I started out hauling dry freight in a box. Six months later, I switched to flatbedding with International Transport out of Rochester, Minn. We called it the “Crayola Box,” because we had to paint our truck green and yellow to match our primary customer, John Deere. Ten years later, IT sold their authority to Schneider and became Schneider Specialized. In 1985, I leased on with Southern Pride Trucking in San Diego, where I lived, and hauled jet engines for the next 27 years until I was forced to retire.

“Six million miles. When Dad died in 1976, I wouldn’t have known except I blew out a tire on company trailer and called in for a P.O. number.” –Gregg Blair

Before deregulation of trucking, we had authority to haul specific commodities to and from specific locations. Authority looked more like a phone book than a document. Occasionally we would “interface” with another company to use their authority, and we would have to detour through the interface point.

If a trucker ran east, they pretty much had to have a cabover, and 350 hp was a pretty big engine, although there were some monsters available, like the KTAs. There were very few cops and a third of the traffic there is now out in the Western boonies. The interstate system wasn’t finished and you had to have a license to talk on a CB radio. There were no private showers in truck stops and not many women truckers. Diesel cost about 25 cents per gallon, depending on what state you were in. The log book only got checked about once a year, and it wasn’t any big deal. No long-form medical — we only carried the medical card, and it was pretty hard for cops to check if it was legitimate. I usually filled out my own medical card when it expired. Elizabeth Dole brought in the DOT as you know it today.

"HOME ON THE ROAD" -- That's how Gregg Blair describes the 1999 Peterbilt he last owned. The big blue truck is a '99 Pete. 600 h.p. C16 cat with auto shift 18 speed. 355 rears. Full length double frame. 500 gallons fuel. The sleeper is a 200" ICT on air ride bunk mate.  The back 50" is a garage with an electric motorcycle lift.   Keeps the bike clean like it is in the back seat of your car. I put about 1.75 million miles on that truck. Inside the sleeper,  kitchen, shower & toilet, washer/dryer,  42" flatscreen with surround sound and tracking satelite TV dish.  Heated floor. 15K btu A/C. 8K diesel generator.  Home on the road.
“HOME ON THE ROAD” — That’s how Gregg Blair describes the 1999 Peterbilt he last owned, powered by a 600-hp C16 Caterpilla with 18 speed autoshift and 3:55 rears. The full-length double frame was outfitted with tanks that could carry 500 gallons fuel. The sleeper was built by ICT and weighs in at 200 inches on an air-ride bunk mate. “I put about 1.75 million miles on that truck,” says Blair. Inside the sleeper were featured a kitchen, shower and toilet, washer/dryer, 42-inch flatscreen with surround sound and tracking satellite TV dish.

President Ronald Reagan appointed Elizabeth Dole to head the DOT around the time deregulation and, later, the CDL came into effect. It was certainly easier to haul more products, however the rate to haul them was open to competition. The competition became fierce, and truckers’ profit diminished. Survival depended on your ability to adapt. Prior to the CDL, it was very easy to get a license to drive a truck. In some states, a car license was adequate.

There was no multiviscosity oil, and combined with much lower compression ratios, this made it difficult to crank up in the winter. We had a manual compression release so we could wind it up before starting the engine. Wheels were two-piece, many on Dayton hubs. And there were only bias ply tires. You were doing good to get 100,000 miles out of a tire. If you ran a tire flat for more than a couple miles, you could kiss it goodbye.

The rear 50-inch compartment on the ICT sleeper functioned as a garage with an electric motorcycle lift. "Keeps the bike clean like it is in the backseat of your car," says Blair.
The rear 50-inch compartment on the ICT sleeper functioned as a garage with an electric motorcycle lift. “Keeps the bike clean like it is in the backseat of your car,” says Blair.

Winters really were brutally colder in the 70s and 80s. I remember many times when the temperature was colder then -30 F. Once in Northern Alberta, I had a load of plate steel that couldn’t be unloaded because it was -50 F. They used a crane with tongs that bit into the steel, and told me they weren’t allowed to unload below -40 F because the tongs would slip off. But good news, the next day it warmed up to -40.

In the 90s many people sold their snowmobiles — the winters were so mild there wasn’t enough snow to ride. Temperatures were considerably warmer, too. In recent years, the big storms are coming back. Apparently, there’s a cycle.

We didn’t have clutch fans. The engine fan ran all the time. To keep the engine warm, we had shutters with a thermostat to open them called a “shutterstat.” Ether was used to fire up when it was cold. No ABS brakes. One of the first ABS systems was “121,” which could be affected by radio transmissions such as a big linear amplifier, occasionally leaving you without any brakes. 121 didn’t stay on the market very long, but I loved mine because you had great brakes when they were working.

Very few trucks had power steering. “Center point” steering was easy to steer but still not hydraulic assist. Air assist was early power steering.

Not all hubs were oil bath. Many were just packed in grease. No LED lights, only bulbs. Some air cleaners were oil bath, unlike today’s paper elements. Unburned diesel fuel is black smoke, and there was plenty of that coming out the stacks.

Three wasn’t much chrome available unless you had something chromed yourself. Stainless, too. Front bumpers were skinny, often a steel channel. Windshield wiper motors were pneumatic. The CB radio only had 23 channels, and they weren’t limited to 4 watts. We had “fire in the wire.”

We were only allowed 8 feet of width (96 inches), and big cities had wider lanes than they do now. Cities have had to squeeze in an extra lane. At 96 inches wide and another foot of lane and a third the traffic, it was much easier to navigate, not to mention the short wheelbases and short trailers.

America respected and loved truckers a lot more then. But what’s not to love. We had Sonny and Will.

There was a fairly widespread usage of amphetamines. Not for me, though. They would leave you absolutely exhausted. I preferred to focus on good sleep when you had time for it. I could cover a lot more ground. 

Six million miles. When Dad died in 1976, I wouldn’t have known except I blew out a tire on company trailer and called in for a P.O. number.

  • jim stewart

    There is still a handful of us “old as dirt” drivers around. My first tractor was a GMC cracker box with a screaming 238 Detroit.. That was in 1969. The tractor was a 1964 model. I felt lucky to own such late model equipment I thought at that time… Now today everyone tells me how old my 1984 Western Star is! Funny ,, the Star feels as though almost new equipment to me. Why do I need anything later model with all the expensive electronics when I get decent fuel mileage & can work on my truck with a box of standard tools? Am I missing something? I guess it’s all about what you grew up with. I’m perfectly satisfied to operate what I have today. I believe it makes better money too or at least I get to hold on to more. Trucker attitude is so much different today on the road. I really miss the special tight community of professional truckers that we had at one time but of course sadly today that’s mostly over with. They’ve been replaced by road-rage impaired drivers of all size vehicles. No, there’s not a lot of independent moments nor joy of driving left while sitting long hours behind the wheel anymore. I think sometimes it’s really a damn shame that truckers of today will never experience what we had some thirty plus years ago..

  • Fageol

    Your comments were spot on. And it made me recall so many good old events. I started trucking full time in late 1965 or early 1966. In those days few trucks had single sticks (at least in or around the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up and began my work life). So maybe my comment might not register with many skinners. But in those days most of us carried a couple of chromed gear shift extensions, a couple of handles (drilled out and threaded 8-balls were highly favored as was a any type of beer tap handle), and an 8″ or 10″ Crescent wrench. Truck stops had big displays of the extensions and handles. When one driver left the truck he took his extensions and handles and just put the stock ones on the shift levers. Then the next guy jumped in and one of the first things that he did after bumping the tires, etc., was threading on his extensions (of various lengths and angles) so that the sticks were identifiable by feel (very handy in the closely spaced levers of cab overs) and were convenient for him. Thanks again for some good memories.

  • Greg Haymon

    I just lost a good friend that had been trucking since 1949 he had 65 years n trucking and the stories he could tell. Like driving big trucks with gas engines and no sleepers. I dont know how those tuff son of a guns did it back then trucks were primative back then no ac a fan on the dash and the windows down was ac no interstates we have it easy n our rigs. Any of u old hands know him, jimmy Burt ft payne al. Had 03 purple pete ran LA a lott pulling flats last few years.

  • martymarsh

    We didn’t really know we had it so bad, until we compare it to today, now I cringe just thinking about it. Didn’t know old Jimmy, and you didn’t lose anyone, they will all be there when you get there, God Bless.

  • Kendall Oakleaf

    Great stories

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  • Dean F. Corp

    I, too, started driving in ’95…I was 17.75…hauled to the meat-lockers in Pittsburgh; after driving school bus in the a.m., I’d go back and hop into the truck, deliver the beef (or whatnot) in 4-6 hours and get back in time to drive the kids home (I was a kid calling kids ‘kids’, hehe!!!) I do know, FOR CERTAIN, if it wasn’t for you graybeards, I never would have been able to complete that first trip, for the knocking together of my knees while trying to dock…hahaha…I miss some of those guys as much as I miss my own Daddy….

  • RichieC

    You would never see me peeing between my tandems……I pee between YOUR tandems…so mine dont smell….anyways…you need the adjustment. Whats worse…a scumbag…or a little pee ?

  • RichieC

    HMMMMMM Murdock……I learned on a two box hanging on a cummins 250…to make a spicer 5 into an 8 speed. Later I learned the rice burner and ten speed…10 gears in 10 seconds…with your left foot through a strap on the floor…and a rod for smacking the hand if you scratched the gears.

  • BX

    I’ve noticed that as the trucks got bigger so did the drivers.

  • BX

    My 1st tractor was also a ’68 Krackerbox
    12 speed transmission with a separate lever for forward & reverse. It could go just as fast backward as it could forward. (I tried it)

  • Cam

    Anyone who took keen interest in this great article summarizing trucking in the mid-’70s forward is encouraged to join the American Truck Historical Society at aths.org! I used to have a long wheelbase KT-powered Freightliner Powerliner that started out life as an O/O for IT’s Western Division. Like all trucks ’75-’78, it started out life with a 121 system…

  • James P. Lamb

    I remember in the 70s as a kid thinking truckers were cool… watching BJ & the Bear (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._J._and_the_Bear) and listening to “Truckin’” by Greatful Dead… We encourage truckers to join the new Small Business in Transportation Coalition as we work to improve truckers’ image for the next generation: http://www.smalltransportation.org.

  • Pingback: ‘America respected and loved truckers a lot more back then’ | Commercial Truck Insurance | Benton & Parker

  • Kidd

    I would like to say THANK YOU to all of the TRUCKER’S who came before me. I have been driving since ’96 and I too am very disgusted with the way the trucking industry has become extremely cutthroat and predatory. I am very saddened and appalled by the way these steering wheel holding, key turning, mutants are running rampant. And that are nothing more than poorly trained circus chimps that have destroyed the reputation and good name for those of us who are Truckers..! Instead of us being respected and revered for our contribution’s to the country and the economy as a whole. We have been made into bad punchlines for terrible jokes! And again I say THANK YOU TRUCKER’S…!

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