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.”