Used Trucks: First Steps

Making time to read the clues takes the mystery out of buying a used truck.


Used Trucks: Checklist And Inspection Diagram

Used Trucks: The Price Is Right

Used Trucks: Make An Offer

Used Trucks: Reading The Oil

Used Trucks: Getting Financed

The used truck market, glutted with equipment in the past few years, has enjoyed a moderate resurgence. That’s due to buyers unwilling to consider engines using exhaust gas recirculation, the technology employed by most engine makers to help meet emissions standards that became effective Oct. 1. With owner-operators and fleets combing the used truck inventory harder than ever for the best deals, it’s important to learn everything that will help you make a fully informed purchase, whether it’s readily available information or less apparent analytical data.

The odometer is a good starting point, but mileage tells you only so much. “Buyers should ask what kind of operation the truck had been used in,” says Martin Osborne, manager of sales and marketing for Freightliner Development Corp. For example, “Trucks with power take-offs that have been used in pump-off operations will have more wear than the odometer mileage shows,” says Vince Anselmo, president of National Truck Protection Plan, which provides used truck warranties. Off-road and heavy-haul operations, too, can add wear that’s not readily apparent.

Osborne and Anselmo also stress that idle time, a major wear factor, can be known only with an electronic control module printout. Anselmo adds, “This printout will also show total miles, fault codes and engine rating.” The ECM report can reveal a high idle percentage – 30 percent to 50 percent – that could indicate engine wear out of proportion to mileage. Detroit Diesel engineer Chuck Blake says that fault codes will show engine over-temps and number and duration of low oil pressure incidents. However, Blake cautions that some codes will be erased before a truck is put up for sale.

Sometimes you can feel the results of excessive idling and other long-term engine wear. With the engine running, hold rpm at 1,500, then release. Watch the mirrors – excessive vibration when engine returns to idle indicates an engine that runs roughly.

On your test drive, be sure to shift up and down through all the gears under a load. A bad synchro will show up here; clashing during a shift may mean an auxiliary drive or bushings going bad. Pin slap indicates excessive play in the fifth wheel.

In addition to hands-on analysis, you want to check the truck’s paper trail. A seller should have complete maintenance and repair records so a buyer can determine type and frequency of repair. Such information is useful not only for determining the truck’s condition, but also in creating a maintenance schedule after purchase. Dealers often have more detailed information than an auctioneer or a private seller.

If buying from a dealer, ask about the life of replacement parts or when parts are replaced as part of a preventive maintenance program. For some trucks, parts availability may be a concern. For others – Freightliner FLDs, for example, whose production will be discontinued Oct. 1 – parts will be available for many years.

A buyer also needs to look ahead toward an engine overhaul. “They should have some idea how long they want to own the truck,” Osborne says. A vehicle with 200,000 miles, for example, ought to have at least 400,000 miles left before an overhaul. A truck with half a million miles not only has less life left, but the buyer must also plan to overhaul as soon as a year after purchase.

Even in this day when engines last a million miles, the older truck still costs much more in parts and downtime. When warranties lapse, those costs rise considerably. While many truck-selling entities offer warranties, not all warranties are created equal.

All original equipment manufacturers offer some type of used truck warranty. Even extended warranties – up to two years or 200,000 miles – are available. Some OEM warranties are complicated by having to deal with warranties from various component manufacturers, while some can be tailored to the needs of the buyer.

Third-party warranties, such as those offered by National Truck Protection, can be a simpler approach. NTP’s warranty covers engine and drivetrain and is not issued until the truck undergoes a strict inspection at one of NTP’s vendors. Anselmo says that a dynamometer test, including a printout of ECM data, is part of its pre-warranty testing. The engine, transmission and rears, along with other drive train components, will be tested at NTP shops for $445. Engine-only testing costs $395. NTP will also examine the chassis for $125 and put the truck on a stand to check wheel bearings and related parts for $250.

Even the best evaluation cannot uncover every possible fly in the ointment. Nor do warranties generally cover anything beyond the drivetrain and engine. Make sure you know what a warranty covers and who underwrites it.

Pre-purchase inspections are not the place to skimp on effort expended or money invested. A thorough inspection and the purchase of a warranty can mean investing hundreds of dollars with no immediate return. The payoff comes, though, with peace of mind and a higher likelihood of avoiding premature major repairs and needless downtime.

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