Dream Wheels

| October 05, 2005

Horseless Carriage driver Warren MacDonald very carefully backs a $350,000 Ferrari 430 Spyder, its convertible roof with a stain protector still attached, for delivery to Ferrari of Atlanta.

If Batman needed to get his vehicle moved across country, he’d call one of these guys.Exotic, classic and vintage car haulers load some of the world’s most expensive and rare vehicles into their trailers. Unlike other transported cars – chained down on open-air trailers and at the mercy of the elements and flying road debris – these sweet wheels are pampered and treated with kid gloves.

And while they are made of metal, fiberglass and plastic, many drivers consider them to be as “alive” – and unpredictable – as livestock.

“It’s almost like they were a living thing,” says veteran driver Ron Gore. “You have to get to know how each one will react because that determines how you handle it when you load it, haul it and unload it.”

Car shows run year round, from major events introducing new models to antique shows, so expensive cars roll across our highways in vans every day. Other specialty cars are hauled to race tracks, corporate events and movie, TV or music video sets. And then there are those that are hauled to test tracks, museums and private homes and collections.

Warren MacDonald has been with Paterson, N.J.-based Horseless Carriage since 1973, hauling cars since 1977. Behind the wheel of a 2001 Kenworth T2000, he mainly hauls the East Coast. The prime asset a driver hauling millions of dollars in exotic cars must have is “simple common sense,” he says. “You don’t load them too close, don’t drive it like it was a freight trailer and don’t go jamming on the brakes if you can help it because no matter how well they are tied down, they are going to react.”

But the most demanding part of the job, says MacDonald, 51, is making sure you find every scratch and dent – if there are any – before a car is loaded. “Sometimes owners or dealers haven’t noticed every little thing, but I have to. I don’t want to deliver and have someone think I scratched the car. With these cars, scratches cost thousands.”

As in most segments of the trucking industry, there are odd loads. For example, MacDonald cites the oddities of hauling armor-plated vehicles for the State Department. “They are longer than most cars for a start. Then you have windows a couple of inches thick that don’t roll down.” That last little detail is an annoyance for MacDonald because he uses the open driver’s window of the car he is unloading to reach the button that lowers the liftgate.

Sometimes the vehicles these drivers haul aren’t real cars. Sometimes their cargoes are model cars, full-sized clay models. Sometimes they are “concept cars,” one-of-a-kinds made with the latest technology and materials to look like the real thing (although most of them aren’t drivable). [See "Clay Models and Concept Cars" on page 25]

Reliable Carriers hauls some of the most expensive street sedans ever built, the latest Rolls Royce and Bentley models, for example. The company also hauls for manufacturers in Detroit, not only new models but concept cars and clay/fiberglass models of cars of the future that are taken to top-of-the-line auto shows.

Most exotic cars are not hard-tied (chained into motionlessness) but soft-tied, held by a special strap apparatus.

The idea, says Reliable President Tom Abrams, is to let these luxury vehicles ride the way they would on the road – with their own systems in control of the vehicle’s movement up and down and sideways as the road under the trailer bumps and tilts.

“The cars ride on their own suspension,” says Abrams. “These automobiles have extremely sophisticated systems under the car and in their electronics. For example, they could have advanced self-leveling systems. To chain them down so they couldn’t move would interfere with that and maybe affect their calibration. But secured with a special nylon webbing or strapping, they use their own systems to handle bumps and stops and starts. All the trailers are air ride today, and if they are hard tied, they will feel all the jolts in their own suspension.”

If tied down too tight, it is possible the car might try to correct a situation. If the car is built to react in a certain way to, say, hitting a deep pothole, it is possible a jolt from the trailer might activate the car’s response. There is then the chance that the car might try to “recover” from the shock of the pothole, and if the car is chained down and immovable, the systems might be straining against the chains, and damage can occur.

Some systems in the exotics are turned off to avoid just such a spontaneous reaction. For example, it might be possible for an air bag to deploy if the car “senses” it has struck an object in front of it when all that has happened is that the trailer has come to a sudden stop and the vehicle has been snapped to a halt by its soft-tie harness. Or, for example, says MacDonald, the air has to be let out of the suspension systems of Lincolns and Land Rovers.

Manufacturers, owners or model makers tell the haulers just what the vehicle needs and how it will react to different highway conditions, allowing the driver to work out the best way to tie it down.

Older cars, for example the muscles cars of yesteryear, are usually still hard-tied. But each car has its quirks; for example, tying a vintage Mustang down too tight might buckle a quarter panel if you don’t do it right.

Another major concern for truckers loading super-expensive cars is leaks. Corrosive or staining fluids, brake fluid or coolant for example, can seriously damage the paint of classic cars. While they anticipate more problems from antiques, drivers check all cars they load. Drop cloths and curtains are used anyway, just in case, to catch whatever might drip. Potential leaks are also the reason convertibles always go on top. In the absence of convertibles, the most expensive cars go on the top shelf.

“We don’t cover the vehicles; they are completely enclosed in the trailer. Covers could chafe the paint,” says Abrams. But other companies do, using special covers and sometimes plastic wrap atop that layer.

When a vehicle is rolled up to the rear of the trailer, a handover ritual takes place. The driver will check the vehicle over along with the car’s owner or agent. He’s looking for any scratches or blemishes, and these will be noted. The trucker will then cover the driver’s seat and either wear gloves or cover the steering wheel and drive the vehicle onto the trailer’s rear lift gate. With these gates, exotic and classic cars do not need to be driven up or down steep ramps. Once on the gate, the vehicle has “changed hands” and is the responsibility of the trucking company until the driver rolls it off.

As you can imagine, insurance for these loads can be massive. Reliable, for example, carries at least $10 million and will carry more than that for really special loads. MacDonald has driven with a single super-expensive Ferrari as his load because the insurance company wouldn’t let the company carry any more at one time.

Security is also a constant concern, and advanced electronics provide the key security today. Companies are naturally tight-lipped about just what measures they use, but they say that they generally employ the very latest range of security, both electronic and human. In any case, en route the vehicles are disabled and cannot be driven.

Loads are checked at every stop, of course, if possible at a secure location. MacDonald says when he has to open his doors to check at a truckstop, he can quickly draw a crowd, “and that can make you nervous.”

But the crowds of “regular” people who come to see his load sometimes surprise MacDonald. “They look right over a Ferrari or Rolls Royce and go crazy for a ’67 Cobra Mustang or a nice ’55 Chevy.”

Some say the most difficult job is getting the cars in and out of the trailer. “You’re driving a lot of different vehicles. They all handle a little differently, and they are not as straightforward as everyday cars,” says Gore, 42, who has been with Reliable for 26 years and drives an ’86 Pete 359 with a 180-inch sleeper fitted out with all the modern conveniences. Gore started hauling cars at the age of 13, helping his father, also a Reliable driver. “They have different wheelbases, so you have to keep it in your head and adjust or you could find yourself getting dangerously close to the edge. You have to get used to every car. Muscle cars you have to be extra careful with. Backing them out of the top level onto the lift gate can be tricky.”

Cars will be “chocked,” an assistant literally chocking the wheels as the vehicle is maneuvered on and off the lift gate.

While the cars are on, show drivers – including Gore – will usually remain. Sometimes their job is helping with the show setup and the cars. They will also remain at test tracks or private functions, where they sometimes have other duties beyond loading and moving the vehicles. Helping assemble, install and then dissemble the stages show cars are displayed on is a common chore. Gore will stay with a show whether it is a day or two weeks.

Non-stop Christmas
Jim and Donna Gallagher from Bowdoin, Maine, haul fabulous vehicles all over the country for Intercity.

“With us it’s like Christmas every day,” says Jim Gallagher. “When we arrive, a lot of owners haven’t seen their new cars. They may have bought them at auction or on the Web or from another country. When we roll off the covers, you can watch their eyes light up.”

Gallagher drove for almost 25 years before he got into high-end vehicles. “I was hauling produce and meat from Maine to California and back, and one day my accountant asked me if I’d thought about getting into cars. Well, the kids had all grown and gone, and I wanted Donna out with me, so I looked into it. We hooked up with Intercity, and we’ve never looked back.”

Gallagher says he’d never go back to regular freight.

“I did more than 20 years sitting at a dock waiting for my number to be called,” he says. “These days no one wants us to be there in the morning or at night, so we work normal hours. Get up in the morning, shower and have breakfast and go to work, and the day ends at a reasonable hour.”

The Gallaghers roll in a 2005 379 Pete with an aftermarket sleeper that’s “like home.” But like a lot of top-end vehicle haulers, they are heavy and long (84 feet). Empty, the rig weighs 55,000 pounds, so a lot of hauls run almost up to 80,000. So when Gallagher spec’d the rig, he opted for an automatic transmission that saved 450 pounds and Michelin singles on the drive axles to save another 100 pounds.

It’s not uncommon for drivers – especially ones with extended sleepers – to avoid busy truckstops with their million-dollar vehicle loads. The Gallaghers look for rest areas or maybe a Wal-Mart parking lot. “If I go to a Wal-Mart to overnight, I’ll go check with the security guy. And he can see from our rig that we’re self-sufficient; we’re not going to need anything from him, and we’re not going to leave anything behind when we pull out.”

The Gallaghers will stay out for three or four months on average, sometimes longer, and go home to Maine mostly in the winter (which sometimes makes it hard for them to drive their own collection of sports cars). To Jim Gallagher the hardest part of the job is staying focused.

“We can’t let anyone interfere with our work or our thoughts when we are loading or unloading,” he says. “If you damage some of these, they can’t be replaced or repaired. Some of the others can be fixed, but the costs are extremely high. The vehicles have to arrive exactly the way they left.”

And each car is different, so drivers must know the vehicle before hauling it. For example, Gallagher spends time examining every one he hauls, not only climbing into it and testing its handling, but also climbing under it. MacDonald also test drives any new model until he feels comfortable he knows what it will do in low gear before he loads it.

“Before we load, I get under to see what’s what,” says Gallagher. “For example, before I put a tie-down around an axle, I want to be sure there is no brake line there that could break if I didn’t know it was there.”

Like most experienced classic car haulers, the Gallaghers will not go far before they stop and crawl all over their load. They can determine from looking closely at a vehicle they haven’t hauled before how they expect it will react in the trailer. That first stop lets them check to see if they have been correct and to make any adjustments.

Like household movers, the top exotic vehicle haulers arrive in a way that lets you know who they are.

“We’re always fresh from the shower and have our Intercity uniforms,” says Gallagher. “The tractor has a unique paint scheme, and we keep it spotless, and the trailer is always clean. We have to let people know we care for our vehicle as much as they care for theirs. They’re letting us drive away with something of incredible value to them, and often not just in terms of money.”

Dan Bemben, 47, a 26 year over-the-road veteran, 11 of them with Reliable, believes the hardest part of hauling exotic and classic vehicles is customer relations.

“When you haul vehicles this expensive, you have to deal with owners from company CEOs to billionaires, and they all have things they want, and you have to be able to deal with them,” says Bemben. “You have to be able to calm their nervousness.”

Bill Newman, owner of Newman International, a Tampa-based exotic car hauler specializing in the lucrative Southeast-to-California corridor (and the company has in fact shipped the movie Batmobile), says all of his drivers are experts in dealing with customers.

“They have to make plans ahead of time because we’re dealing with some unique individuals,” Newman says. “They call them before we load the cars and then the day before arrival, and they keep in touch if anything changes. There’s constant communication. These are busy people.”

MacDonald says “people skills” are essential when picking up from private homes. “You have to be able to deal with all kinds of people. Owners are obviously wealthy, powerful people. At other times you might have to deal with a house sitter.”

And sometimes an owner will ask to drive his car onto the truck. MacDonald says he will allow it if he knows the owner, but only if the owner asks (MacDonald won’t offer) and only if the car is to be loaded on the floor of the trailer. It’s easy to see why the top shelf is off limits. Watching MacDonald back a $350,000 Ferrari 430 Spyder out on the liftgate and inch back closer and closer to the edge can be nerve-wracking.

Bemben recalls an occasion when he had to deal with the very wealthy owner of a very rare vehicle. “He was a retired banker in California, and he owned a 1927 Maybach Roadster. He told me they’d only built two, and the other one was apparently pretty much destroyed and in Russia. We were loading in Beverly Hills and going up to a show in Palm Springs. He wanted to drive it onto my trailer and take it off. I figured he could do it and do it better than I could, so I let him. I had to be sure he could do it, and that was a judgment call. But I chocked him all the way. Once we got it on, he followed me all the way to Palm Springs, right there in my rear view mirror. He offloaded it, then he loaded it there after the show and followed me back to Beverly Hills.”

You’d think truckers hauling these vehicles would be fascinated by them and probably want one. MacDonald says that’s unusual. “I need to understand them to haul them safely; I don’t need to fall in love with them. If you do this enough, they are just cars you want to get from Point A to Point B without messing up. I’m not nervous unloading a $400,000 car because it’s what I do. It’s my profession.”


Tangling With the Carparazzi
Exclusive shots of new models or prototypes years from possible productions can bring big money to the photographers from trade papers and magazines battling for a scoop.

When new models are taken to a test track, photographers looking for exclusive sneak-preview pictures for auto magazines are known to have ways of hearing about it and trying to get a shot. For their daring and nuisance value, they have been dubbed the “carparazzi,” the auto equivalent of the celebrity-hounding paparazzi.

According to Reliable Carrier car-hauler Dan Bemben, you always have to watch out for the carparazzi when hauling new models.

“You know they might be there. The manufacturer knows it and everyone, drivers like us included, have to be alert to that,” he says. “You don’t want to unload a vehicle the manufacturer wants to remain a secret when you know they are there – or might be just around the corner hiding – and make it easy for one of them to get a picture.

“We’ll sometimes have to shoo them away,” Bemben says. And that can get nasty, although usually for the test drivers or manufacturer’s reps.

Truck drivers might be asked to block a view with their trailer, block a road or just keep an eye out in motel lobbies. Unpacking their new models means casting a wary eye, sometimes with binoculars, for anyone who may be waiting to snap a picture. And in these days of smaller electronic wizardry, even a camera small enough to be held inside a clenched hand can take magazine-quality pictures.

It is a legal form of industrial espionage. While a few car company execs say the publicity is valuable, most say it is a bad thing for them because it lets competitors see their new models and maybe steal some of their innovations. At the same time it can stop people from buying the current model and dent sales because they are waiting for the new one.

To see some of the carparazzi’s work, check out the car magazines or try this site and click on the Enthusiasts tag to find their Spy Shots section.


Clay Models and Concept Cars
It’s usually very close to life size. When automakers want to introduce a new car, they start with sketches; then they build computer models to test the vehicle in theory, then build a small clay model. Next comes a full-size clay model.

Why not use a computer and “create” a new car on the screen in 3-D? The beauty of clay models is that they are real, and people can stand back and look at them (and touch them). And changes are easy to make if someone prefers the headlights or the grille to be modified.

If everyone loves it, a concept car may be built. Some concepts go all the way and can be driven. Some are just parts of a car, say the body, or the body with an interior but no engine, many of them built for shows. Innovation is common in the building of concepts, and a wide range of materials may be used to build the concept. Since a big rig will haul it, weight is usually not a factor. If the concept is a big enough hit, it may make it into production.

Models of the cars of the future are susceptible to heat and cold, so trailers are temperature controlled. These models are also unique, so extra care has to be taken not to bump or dent them because there are no spare parts to replace what’s damaged. A new one would have to be made from scratch. And with clay cars you can’t chain or tie them down – what look like axles aren’t really axles but part of the model. They aren’t drivable, and they don’t steer, so loading and unloading is a different job entirely. Dollies and jacks are commonly used to move them. Reliable’s Dan Bemben often uses pipes, rolling the models over a series of pipes to push them onto and off the trailer. If a model is really heavy, and many are, they may be jacked up in the trailer to take the weight off the “wheels,” so the model doesn’t lose shape in transit.

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