Hooked on Classics

| April 02, 2002

Jack Norton, who’s leased to Packerland Transport, loves his Kenworth W900L. Norton says his tricked-out, chromed-up prairie schooner is at least as fuel-efficient as Kenworth’s aerodynamic T2000, though he also believes “fuel efficiency is a state of mind.” Furthermore, he says, “I bought this truck with resale in mind.”

“Sure, a classic owner takes a small hit in the fuel mileage department,” says Alan Wechsler, a longtime W900 owner, “but I make up for this with increased resale value and the sheer pleasure of driving a classically beautiful rig.”

Thousands of owners of classics, such as the Peterbilt 379, Freightliner Classic XL and Kenworth W900L, are so wedded to their machines that they’re willing to rationalize away, if not totally ignore, what many engineers say are considerably higher operating costs because of rough air flow and extra weight. Other traditionalists fully acknowledge the extra costs but make enough money to afford whatever styling, bells and whistles they want.

Intangible benefits – pride, beauty, image – keep many owner-operators loyal to these trucks over aerodynamic models such as Volvo’s VN770, Peterbilt’s 387 or Mack’s Vision, even during tight economic times.

“All things being equal,” says Gary Ziebell, a fuel economy expert at Kenworth’s research and development lab in Renton, Wash., “the T2000 is approximately 15 percent more fuel-efficient than the W9L. And the go-fast guys drive this percentage higher. They are the ones who need the aerodynamics even more.”

Ed Saxmann of Volvo Powertrain expressed this in terms of horsepower. “At 75 miles an hour there is a 56-hp advantage to driving an aerodynamic truck. This is true despite other variables like weather, age of truck, driving style. It adds up to a savings of 5 to 6 cents per mile.”

Adding to fuel cost are the weight of extra chrome and engines spec’ed more for want than need. “A lot of owner-operators are looking for the classic look, buying chrome they don’t need,” says David Farkus, owner of the 75 Chrome Shop in Wildwood, Fla. “They will pay $425 for a chrome bumper, a grand for a polished stainless turbo wing, $100 for stainless battery box covers – and won’t think about weight. If they asked, I wouldn’t know what to tell them about how much chrome and stainless weigh. But the chrome adds considerable value at resale.”

Chrome is also essential for drivers such as Darian Stephens, who enters 10 truck shows a year, or those who simply like the show truck look. Stephens has spent $30,000 to $40,000 in the past seven years on chrome and stainless. His ’95 Freightliner Classic XL has chrome from oil pan to tool box.

The value that chrome, chicken lights and similar options add to resale is difficult to estimate. Norton, who paid $126,000 for his ’99 W900L and has since added between $6,000 and $7,000 in chrome, says that value includes plenty of functional options such as power mirrors on both sides, a full gauge package and all the creature comforts associated with top-of-the-line owner-operator trucks. Those extras account for about 1,500 pounds of Norton’s 20,000-pound behemoth.

Darian Stephens has won dozens of trophies with his 1995 Freightliner XL.

The fuel efficiency vs. resale value debate is “pretty much of a wash,” although length of ownership and actual miles per gallon must also be taken into account, says Dan Sobic, assistant general manager of Peterbilt. He says Peterbilt maintains the classic look while adding cosmetic, ergonomic and technological changes, increasing value even more. More significant, according to Sobic, are the intangible factors Peterbilt is known for, such as its heritage. “Owner-operators know the value factors like image add to their investment,” he says.

“A Pete 379 always demands the highest resale of any truck,” says J.R. Wilcut, fleet sales manager for Doonan Trucks in Wichita, Kan. “Our rule of thumb is that a comparably equipped Volvo will resell for about $10,000 less than a 379.”

The new 379 does cost more than the comparable new Volvo, but not necessarily $10,000 more. A fully loaded Peterbilt 379 costs about $120,000. A new Volvo VN770 fully loaded costs between $110,000 and $115,000 – $5,000 to $10,000 less than the comparable Peterbilt. While the Volvo may afford more living space, more maneuverability and better visibility, as well as lower operational costs because of its aerodynamic design, the classic look and difference in resale are enough to keep many buyers focused on traditional styling.

Manufacturers go to great lengths to reduce tractor weight in order to cut fuel costs and to maximize cargo capacity, but the second factor is a minor issue in many applications. Owners such as Norton often know what their payloads will be because they have a dedicated haul with a known payload or are paid a percentage on their loads and do not load heavy to make more money.

Take Mike Hopper, who has five Peterbilt 379s running for Kingdom Transport out of Sonora, Texas. Because he pulls flats and loads many types of freight, “fuel efficiency is a minor factor” since his loads tend to minimize the possible fuel savings of an aerodynamic tractor. Hopper, a one-time driver who built a fleet of his own, says one reason he chooses 379s is “to attract good drivers who will stick around.” That helps fuel economy because, Hopper says, “Good drivers get good mileage.”

The same philosophy drives Marvin Van Kampen, owner of Van Kampen Trucking in Grand Rapids, Mich., who has 86 W900Ls in his fleet. In addition to resale value, he says, “Low maintenance, image and happy drivers also influence my decision to populate my fleet with W9s. At any rate, I want real trucks in my fleet. Real trucks have chrome air cleaners and big hoods.”

Buyers of classic trucks often sacrifice a certain amount of handling and visibility to get the look they want. Maneuverability and sight lines can be restricted by lack of wheel cut, long wheel bases and stacks that appear in the mirrors at crucial times. David Speck chose a Classic XL in part because he says the seat’s position gives better visibility than some other classic models. “I can see more around stacks trying to get into a hole,” he says. “But the first thing I did when I bought my truck was to turn out the stops on the steering axle to give it more wheel cut.”

On the other side of the fence, aerodynamic trucks are not without stylistic attributes. Volvo designer Ruben Perfetti says harmony in aero styling comes through proportion, application of accents, flowing lines and the way a truck’s design is broken by elements such as mirrors to make the eye take notice. Volvo designers are working to enhance the emotional appeal of the VN770 without detracting from the truck’s known assets – ride, quietness and visibility through the windshield and in the mirrors.

Owning a classic is like owning the biggest house on the block. The appeal is as much in the power to attract attention as in utility. The dream for many owner-operators is to make enough money to drive the truck they most desire and make good money doing it. Given the right mix of business and equipment savvy, many owner-operators are owning and living the dream and losing no sleep over fuel economy.


IS IT A CLASSIC?

  • Classics typically have walk-ins, if not condos.

  • Roof-mounted horns are among the common bells and whistles.

  • Sun visors are the sexy sunglasses on the celebrity.

  • The square, straight, horizontal hood profile ending at a big grill is the most obvious feature of classically styled trucks.

  • California mirrors are short on aerodynamics and long on chrome.

  • External air cleaners, along with chrome stacks, are the turrets to an owner-operator’s castle.

  • Forward front axles, especially with extended hoods, accentuate the lean, muscular profile.

  • Large, flat, rectangular bumpers, which add to curb appeal, are perfect for showing off chrome.

    WHAT MAKES CLASSIC STYLING?

    The owner-operator looking for a truck with classic styling will probably have in mind his own set of characteristics as he searches the market.

    For Dave Schaller, Navistar heavy product manager, five come to mind: square hood-to-grill relationship, set-forward front axle, flat bumper, external air cleaners and dual cab-mounted exhausts.

    Scott Pearson, Peterbilt marketing manager, notes that some of the contemporary 379′s identifiers have been around since 1939. “The swept-back windshield, the pod headlamps and the bike fenders give the Pete a timeless design,” Pearson says. The 379 has a long, lean look thanks to its front-to-back V-shaped body. It also has the distinctive steel crown and the only aluminum hood available.

    Chrome, too, cannot be ignored. Darian Stephens, one of the show truck circuit’s biggest winners, has no shortage of shiny metal on his ’95 Freightliner Classic XL. Stephens credits customization by show truck enthusiasts with influencing manufacturers’ designs.

    “Texas square bumpers, Vortox air cleaners, light panels on the bottom of the cab, bigger sleepers with plenty of luxury fixtures, single headlights and custom running boards came from the shows and into production classic trucks,” Stephens says. At least some elements of the classic look have come full circle, from owner-operators with show trucks through manufacturers’ design process and back into the owner-operator market.

    All the classics now in production are conventionals, reflecting the owner-operator’s penchant for hoods, square grills and flat windshields, but also reflecting the changing regulatory environment. For example, Peterbilt built nothing but hoods from 1939, when the company began, until 1950, when it introduced its 280/350 models in response to developing length regulations, especially in the East. The 350 is not absolutely flat below the windshield. Its nose sticks out slightly, quite possibly representing a shortening of the 1949 Model 360, which has a snub nose that makes it look like half a short-hood conventional.

    In the early 1980s, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act effectively lifted overall length requirements, and equipment manufacturers began producing and marketing conventionals again. Wayne Simons, Kenworth’s engineering manager for its research and development lab, believes there was pent-up demand for hoods. “Conventionals have several advantages over cabovers,” he says. “They are easier to get in and out of. They provide a better ride, are more easily serviced, and they get to the scene of an accident before the driver does. When the rules allowed it, buyers were ready to get into conventionals.”

    But not all conventionals, even the less aerodynamic models, represent classic styling. Freightliner’s FLD 120 might be considered a classic given the number on the road, but it is a fleet truck without many of the substantive features and gewgaws that turn a basic workhorse into an owner-operator classic.

    The Peterbilt 379 and the Kenworth W900L are the most popular of the current crop of classics, though others show similar style. Freightliner’s Classic XL is even younger than the 379, though its profile and performance put it in the same class. International’s 9900xi is a top-of-the-line classic, though its hood has slightly rounded corners and lines sculpted in homage to wind flow. Western Star’s Constellation, with its big hood and big sleeper, also belongs in the category.

    Mack’s current production shies away from classic styling, though plenty of older Macks fit the bill, such as the R model with a maxidyne 5 speed. Volvo, too, has disavowed traditional styling. Putting its eggs in the aerodynamics basket, it has made significant headway in trying to attract the owner-operator who values pennies, above stares, per mile.

    For many owner-operators, engine and sleeper sizes are as important to classic styling as the shape of the hood. Salesman Jim Jahnz at Stoops Freightliner in Lima, Ohio, says that although the Classic is available without big power and big sleepers, few are sold. Ditto for the W900, says Kenworth spokesman Jeff Parietti. “You can buy the W9 with a 42-inch flat roof bunk and a Cummins ISC 300, or a C10 with 305 hp, or a Detroit Series 60 with 350 hp, but its resale value will be low. Buyers of classic trucks want big power and big sleepers.”

    Beyond big hoods, big engines, big sleepers, what turns a truck into a classic? For Kenworth engineer Dan Farmer, some elements create a mystique that propels a truck into this realm. The W900, Farmer says, gives the driver “a feeling of being part of the machine” through two design features: one, he sits low in the cockpit and looks out over a vast expanse of hood; two, Kenworth has purposely “retained noise feedback.”

    “W9 buyers want to hear their engines,” Farmer says. This may seem odd to those who covet quiet and aerodynamics, but it is one of the many emotional hot buttons for the buyer to whom a truck is more than just a machine for pulling a trailer.

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