Sweet 16

| January 01, 2007

The Smithsonian Freightliner

Some of them are out there on the road every day. Some are long gone. But classic trucks will always turn a driver’s head and make his heart beat a little faster. They are the benchmarks of the industry. They make you proud to be in it.

They have a combination of an engineered toughness that gets the job done and a flair that means it gets done in style, and sometimes they’re loaded with surprising innovation.

So which trucks are modern classics? The question requires an answer so subjective it is one of the most debatable in the industry. To each his own, with some drivers seeing classic in a model others wouldn’t put in their top half dozen.

Longevity, design, innovation, engineering, looks, reputation, elegance, brand loyalty, panache or maybe just the way it feels at speed under load may all factor in a driver’s assessment of a tractor’s classic potential.

Collaborating with truck manufacturers, drivers and industry historians, we chose these 16 (in no particular order) to represent the best of the best.

The Smithsonian Freightliner
America’s physical history is stored most notably in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In its transportation exhibit “America on the Move,” the museum chose two tractors to represent long-haul trucking in its collections and exhibitions.

One is a classic 1950 Freightliner [the other is a 1984 Peterbilt 359].

The Freightliner tractor was the first made by that company and sold to a private carrier (Hyster). It cost $15,871.73 and weighed 13,800 pounds. The extensive use of aluminum (including the cab, engine supports, axle housings, brakes, fuel tank hangers and battery box) made this tractor approximately 2,000 pounds lighter than if steel had been used.

The tractor was the first transcontinental cabover sleeper tractor that could haul a 35-foot trailer through states with a maximum allowable vehicle length of 45 feet. The truck boasted the first fifth wheel installation attached directly to the frame without mounting plates or special cross members. It was the first Freightliner to use a 10-speed transmission, the first standard truck to have a 19 1/2-inch main driver line (the shortest at that time), the first Freightliner with a recording tachometer and the first Freightliner with electric sanders.

This old classic made its first trip from Portland, Ore., to Danville and Peoria, Ill., and back, a round trip that took seven days.

Freightliner Classic XL
The Classic XL lives up to its name, say the tractor’s makers, because of the traditional styling and the longevity. The truck has been popular, especially with owner-operators and small fleets, since it was introduced in 1994. And despite traditional looks, it features advanced engineering, an aluminum cab and lightweight components that allow for greater payloads and improved fuel economy, the company says.

Owner-operator Marc McElroy says his Classic XL is one of the great trucks.

“I like the room in the Classic XL. I don’t think there’s another truck on the road that has the room a Classic XL has,” says McElroy, who just got a 2007 model with an 84-inch sleeper to replace his truck show-winning 2001 model. “It’s above and beyond the rest.”

McElroy takes his Classic XL on LTL runs between southern California and Salt Lake City, with as many as eight pickups to load his dry van. The truck has all the comforts of home without sacrificing too much space, he says, and it handles well.

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