Resurrecting the Evel Knievel rig
Diversions — Evel Knievel
Photos and Story by Todd Dills
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Lincolnton, N.C., and apart from two video cameras rolling and the exclamations of one very excited trucking enthusiast, you wouldn’t know anything was different for BPW Transport small fleet owner Brad Wike and his lead mechanic, Frank Phipps. But after dealing with some exhaust-system issues on one of the fleet’s five Peterbilt 379s — something of a quotidian task for Phipps and Wike, who also runs the Brad’s Classic Trucks restoration and resale business on this property — Phipps has fired up a blowtorch to remove four steel supports from a safe that was found under a cabinet in the large Post Coach dressing room and office behind the cab of motorcycle legend Evel Knievel’s 1974 Mack F series cabover haul rig.
As the heavy old safe falls with a thump onto the North Carolina soil of Wike’s yard, “One bad Evel Knievel safe!” exclaims the trucking enthusiast, none other than “American Trucker” (Speed Channel) host Robb Mariani, who featured the beginning of the old rig’s restoration in the “Finding Evel” episode last year. Hickory, N.C.-based Skeet’s Towing hauled the rig to Wike’s in time for the annual show of the regional chapter of the American Truck Historical Society last summer, and Wike, with support from Mariani and the rig’s Beaufort, S.C.-based owner Jeff Lowe, began performing his piece of a full restoration of the rig to preserve for future generations what Mariani rightly views as a distinct piece of custom-truck history.
“I’ve been looking for this truck for 15 years,” he says, noting that as years passed “the truck became something of a phantom for me. For it to be parked and to surface as it did, it’s just a miracle.”
When Mariani found the old truck with its (by 1960s-70s standards) huge attached coach, and the display-type trailer it toted behind, it had been sitting for well upward of a decade in the yard of Clearwater, Fla.-based Jerry’s Custom Cars, whose owner was a friend of Evel Knievel’s, Lowe says. “The last 12 years of [Knievel’s] life, he stored the truck there.” Evel Knievel, born Robert Craig Knievel in 1938 in Butte, Mont., passed away in 2007.
Lowe’s association with Knievel stems from a brief time working with him on a museum project that would have been in Gatlinburg, Tenn., which association led to a relationship to Evel Knievel’s son Robbie, himself a well-known daredevil. “He wondered if I could help straighten up his career,” Lowe says. Over years, “we took it from three to four shows a year to 13 to 14.” During that time, too, Lowe worked to collect a lot of the Evel Knievel memorabilia in one spot in pursuit of the family’s ideas to potentially “put together a museum and a sports bar.”
The Mack haul rig was of a piece with the venture. “That’s the reason I bought the truck” just a few years back, Lowe says, one idea being to “cut it in half and put it on a wall in the sports bar. We would have used the coach as a doorway to an office. The ramps that he used all those years would have been the entrance to the sports bar.”
In the end, says Lowe, owner of a string of retail liquidation outlets in the Carolinas and Florida, that project was shelved, “and it wasn’t too long before [Mariani] came calling and wanted to do a feature on it.”
Today, Mariani has become the face of and networking muscle behind a project he credits to grassroots efforts of the truck-driving fan network he has built as one of the most prominent trucking enthusiasts in the country. Reaching out for help on the project via his Facebook page, Mariani has gotten a website (http://www.restoreevelrig.com) built through valuable fan assistance and has begun to secure sponsors for the Restore Evel’s Rig project.
A week prior to removing the safe, Wike and Phipps succeeded in getting the Maxidyne engine and automatic transmission running after a long process returning the fuel system to operating condition. Wike and company also unfroze the steering and made headway on restoring the trailer, tearing out the rotten floor and sandblasting, then coating with a weather-resistant treatment, all floor cross-members, among other tasks. At press time, Mariani was working with support from Cobra Electronics on logistics for getting the rig from North Carolina to New Jersey, where the well-known truck customizers and collision specialists at Elizabeth Truck Center will take over the restoration.
“Evel wanted it returned to its original red,” as opposed the largely white and blue scheme whose remnants you see on the truck today, says Lowe. The current scheme stems from the truck’s use in Robbie Knievel’s own touring daredevil act through the early 1980s — you can still make out the “Evel Knievel II” legend on certain sections of the living quarters and trailer. After retiring the rig, the family had stored it in Arizona with friends, Mariani says, until the early 1990s, when Evel had the rig moved by train to Florida, where he was living and “wanting to restore it himself.”
But it sat. Then, Lowe adds, “one of the famous Evel Knievel stories is a painter came to him in 1999 or 2000 and said, ‘Evel, I can do all this for $5,000.’ They towed the truck to this guy, and once they got the trailer stripped down, he went back to Evel and wanted another $5,000. Evel got mad and towed it back.” That was the end of restoration attempt No. 2.
All parties involved are hoping the third time’s a charm and not a strikeout. With any luck, ETC will culminate work on the rig in time for the Charlotte Diesel Super Show in October, Marianai says: “Now, hopefully we’ll get this thing rip-roaring finished.”
As for the safe, Phipps uses every ounce of muscle he can muster to drill a half-inch hole in its side. And as with many such endeavors, “we came up a little bit empty in terms of treasure,” Mariani says. Fortunately, he adds, we still have the treasure of the Evel Knievel rig.
For video of the process and a tour of the rig with Brad Wike, check out the “Editorial videos” queue at TruckersNews.com. Scan the QR code with your smartphone to pull up the safe-cracking video direct.
Cranking it up
Taking into consideration the fact that the Knievel’s Mack and Trailmobile trailer sat in a Florida yard collecting about a foot deep’s worth of pine needles for a couple decades, the 300-horsepower Maxidyne engine, made to run again by Brad Wike (pictured) and his lead mechanic, Frank Phipps, sounds great after resurrection. “The fuel tank was dry and full of dirt,” Wike says. Once he got some clean fuel going to the pump he realized there were problems there. “We eventually sent the pump off with the injectors and had them calibrated — once we got that primed up, we got it running.”
The steering was locked up “from all the corrosion and rust built up,” he adds, “so we took the steering box apart and got everything cleaned up,” hooked all the driveline pieces back up and, “believe it or not,” says Wike, the automatic transmission did work. Though the rig had no brakes, they could then at least move it slowly around the yard as needed, making Brad’s Classic Trucks’ work on the trailer that much simpler.
Meet the Driver
Wichita, Kan.-based medical equipment salesman Mike Draper, 59, has been doing his current work — traveling all over the state of Kansas in a four-wheeler — for about 16 years, he says, after many years working as an officer with the Wichita Sherriff’s office. Before that, as a green 19-year-old working with Hugo Shea, owner of a series of Harley-Davidson dealerships around Oklahoma and Kansas, he lucked his way into the driving gig of a lifetime.
Evel Knievel had been driving his haul rig himself — with his wife and kids in tow — when Draper first met him at a promotional event at one of Shea’s dealerships. “Shea had a Titan 90 semi that I drove,” as well as another truck, moving equipment and inventory around between dealerships, Draper says. Knievel asked Shea if he knew someone who might be willing to drive the truck for him. Draper wasn’t the only big-rig-capable hauler in the outfit, and ultimately Knievel got two drivers out of the deal: Draper and a man Draper taught to drive diesels, Lee Ratliff.
When on tour, in the trailer “we used to haul three motorcycles, all the aluminum ramps,” and one or more of Knievel’s Cadillac station wagons and pickups, Draper says. “He’d pay us twice a week, and for whatever we spent we’d turn in our receipts and he was good with reimbursements.” The drivers were paid $500 a week salary, otherwise.
What was it like driving a truck for the arguably most famous man on the planet at the time?
“We never had to drive near as hard as most of the truck drivers, unless scheduling difficulties required it,” Draper says. Nonetheless, the rig drew plenty of interaction with working long-haulers. “The truckstops we’d pull into — nobody saw many automatic transmissions on over-the-road trucks in those days. And at that time nobody was putting that big a coach on the back of a semi truck,” Draper says. “A lot of guys got to get in there and give it a look, too.
“It was quite an experience for a 19-year-old to start out with.”