The price is ripe

Trucker Albert French, of Vassalboro, Maine, remembers getting a truck stop meal for $1. The same meal today costs as much as $10. “And that’s not eating ribeye; that’s getting country fried steak,” he says.

Food, fuel and other trucking expenses have gone up at widely varying rates since 1961, the year Overdrive was founded. Now, as the magazine celebrates its 40th anniversary, most of its readers’ business expenses bear little resemblance to the seemingly fictional price tags of the 1960s.

According to the American institute for Economic Research, a 1961 dollar equals $5.87 today. Based on that six-fold increase, the nation’s average 1961 income of $5,300 should be $32,000 today, which is about what it is. Owner-operator members of the Overdrive Round Table fare better – an average of $39,300 during 2000 – though continuing high prices for fuel and a slowing economy may have pushed that average lower since last year’s survey.

Fuel, $1.40 to $1.50 per gallon in recent months, is generally more than six times the 1961 levels of 16 cents to 25 cents. With some forecasts calling for even higher diesel prices, owner-operators may see their margins shrink even more.

French remembers paying19 cents a gallon in the ’60s, and last winter he paid $2 a gallon. He grossed about $45,000 to $50,000 40 years ago and now grosses $150,000 to $175,000. “But I end up with less money at the end of the week now than I did back then,” he says. French, who used to haul potatoes out of northern Maine, says he would get 80 cents to 90 cents per 100-weight in the early ’70s. “I would get $360 for a load of 40,000 pounds, and it only cost about $75 to run from New York City to Rooster County, Maine,” French says. “Now, they get about $2 per 100-weight, and it’s 30 years later.”

Linda Hayes, who takes care of the books for her husband Jim and father-in-law James Hayes Jr., in Issaquah, Wash., says her father-in-law’s experience has been similar. “He was making more per mile then than he is now,” she says. Deregulation was the culprit. “People would cut prices so low that they weren’t making any money, and they would go under,” she says. “But the company still wants that rate.”

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Bill Renner, 70, of Vancouver, Wash., remembers driving from Washington to North Carolina in 1962. “The company gave you $500 when you left, and it wired you $500 when you wanted to come back,” Renner says. “I usually had $300 left when I got home.”

Another item that’s risen faster than freight rates is the cost of a truck. While newer trucks offer huge advances in safety, comfort and efficiency, those features add to the price, which affects an owner-operator’s profits.

One way that Donald Ridzon Sr., of New Springfield, Ohio, gets around the cost of a new truck is to drive his 1971 Peterbilt 359, which he bought new for $21,900. He gets 4 to 6 miles per gallon. Ridzon remembers paying 16 cents a gallon for fuel in Georgia and 25 cents in Ohio. The most prominent expense for Ridzon is paying for tools to do his own maintenance. He owns $50,000 worth of tools, but he considers it a good investment. “I remember paying someone $19 an hour to work on my truck, and now it costs $119 in New Jersey,” Ridzon says.

Renner also drives an antique truck; a 1959 Kenworth that he bought three years ago. “It’s a fun truck, and I get 6.5 miles per gallon.”

Tom Ireland Jr., whose dad started Thomas H. Ireland Inc. in Myrtle Creek, Ore., still has one of the Kenworths that his dad aquired in 1958. “My dad bought the truck and the long logger trailer together, and it was about $26,000,” Ireland says.

The cost of truck tires hasn’t changed as dramatically as other things over 40 years. “In the ’60s, tires cost about $200 a piece, about the same as now,” Ireland says.

Ridzon remembers paying $82 for a new Star tire in the late ’60s. French says that new steer axle tires cost him $90 to $120 in the early ’70s and recaps were $60 to $70. Today, the price of a recap, at close to $200, is more than a new tire was 30 or 40 years ago.

Other than the major expenses, the little items in every trucker’s budget have also seen varying degrees of price hikes. In the 1960s, a Norelco electric shaver went for less than $24. Today, a Norelco shaver can cost $90 to $160. Hanes T-Shirts used to be three for $2.95, and today they are $4 each. Frisko jeans used to be $4.95 a pair; brands such as Wranglers and Levi’s now cost $30 to $50.

In the 1960s, spending the night on the road cost $5 at Perry’s in Hope, Ark., or $25 at a swanky hotel. If you didn’t need a bath, rooms were even cheaper at the friendly Frontier Hotel in Denver: A room without a bath was about $2.

Ridzon remembers paying $1.50 for a full breakfast. Even cheaper was fast food in 1961 – a cheeseburger went for 20 cents, and fries, as well as many beverages, cost a dime.

Renner remembers eating at a steakhouse in the Southeast in 1964. “I had a filet mignon with bacon around it and all the trimmings for $4.50,” he says.

French recalls paying 10 cents for coffee, though in most places that’s gone up more than six-fold. “I don’t know why I’m so worried about fuel costs – I’m paying $6 a gallon for coffee,” he says. “But at 3 to 4 miles per gallon of diesel, I’m getting better mileage from the coffee.”