Upscale LTL

An Ohio independent finds Freightliner’s premium owner-operator truck fits hi niche well.

In his 28-year career, Russ Schaefer of Youngstown, Ohio, has owned eight trucks, four of them Freightliners. Now, at the age of 57, Schaefer says he owns the kind of truck he’s always wanted.

The 2001 Coronado Schaefer bought from FYDA Freightliner in Youngstown, Ohio, for $117,000 came straight off the lot, but to look at it you might suspect it was spec’ed within an inch of its young life.

Schaefer picks me up at the Pitt-Ohio truck stop in North Lima, Ohio, late on a Sunday, and we start for his Monday morning pickup in Crystal City, Ind., about 120 miles southeast of Chicago. In the fuel island lights, the two-tone brown Imron 6000 paint job seems subtle, yet striking. Dark-brown mocha fenders and a light-tan body, chrome tanks with toolboxes to the front and rear of the tanks, and chrome side panels topped with plenty of running lights give the appearance of customization, but the features are standard. Schaefer says he spends a lot of time talking about his truck to curious drivers. “I told the salesman he ought to give me a commission,” he says.

Released last year after an aborted introduction two years ago, the Coronado is Freightliner’s newest entry into the premium owner-operator market. Along with the Classic XL, the Coronado competes in style and substance with the handful of owner-operator trucks with big price tags and amenities to match. While Freightliner is unwilling to release sales numbers, spokesman Chris Brandt says, “We are very pleased with Coronado sales, in particular because the market for owner-operator trucks is currently depressed.”

Schaefer came to his trade in April after driving a Western Star owned by his son, Bill Schaefer, who was killed in a motorcycle wreck. A brass plaque on the dash dedicates his Coronado to the memory of his son.

As we hit the Ohio Pike, I learn that Schaefer, in spite of his tragic loss, is an affable man whose good humor is a big plus in a demanding business. Schaefer, who runs under his own authority but has hauled less-than-truckload freight for Destiny Transportation for seven years, attributes his success to an attitude of cooperation and good dealings with customers.

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“I peddle a lot of freight, and I know all my customers by name,” says Schaefer, who ran 62,000 miles last year. “They know I am dependable, and that cuts a lot of slack when I need to get in and out in a hurry.”

The run from the Buckeye-Keystone line to Chicago is as flat as Grandma’s pancakes and presents no test of his 500-hp Detroit Diesel Series 60. The only real grade – Cuyahoga Hill, just east of Cleveland – is not steep but it is long enough to tax nearly any power plant. Schaefer stays in 13th in his Eaton Fuller 13 and easily coasts up out of the river valley onto the flats below Cleveland. Schaefer tells me he pulls this grade close to gross often and loses only one gear.

A final ratio of 3:58 seems ideal for his mostly slow, mostly flat run across Ohio and Indiana. We are averaging about 6.5 miles per gallon in this terrain, which Schaefer says is typical for his highway average. Overall, he is getting 5.39 mpg. That’s due to idle time when he is peddling his 10 to 20 stops and would rather not shut down every few minutes. Equipped with optimized idle, a system that allows for heat or A/C while cutting idle time, the truck is comfortable, Schaefer says, and saves fuel when stopped for long periods.

As we approach Toledo, I ask why Schaefer went for the mid-roof rather than a condo. “In my neck of the woods, there are plenty of iron haulers. They don’t go for high-rises. They are flatbedders, and besides that they see the high-rise as a little sissified,” Schaefer explains. “They will be the potential buyers.” Schaefer timed his purchase to get a pre-EGR Series 60, expecting that it will be in demand when he resells in three or four years.

Engine sizes from 425-hp to 600-hp are available from Caterpillar, Cummins and Detroit for the Coronado. Available transmissions include the Eaton Fuller Autoshift for use in conjunction with Freightliner’s proprietary Smartshift, a clutchless, hands-on-the-steering wheel feature, or any of the Eaton Fuller standard transmissions.

I retire to the lower bunk and we ride for another hour before pulling in at the 100. I don’t hear a thing when Schaefer snaps down the top bunk and crawls in. The bunks in this 70-inch mid-roof sleeper are more than adequate, capable of accommodating anyone smaller than Shaquille O’Neal.

The fridge and television are well-placed, and the closets close solidly. The Chaparral interior with Oregon wood grain burl carries through from the dash to the living quarters, nicely accenting the plush rolled and pleated fabric interior. Over-and-under bunks were a selling point for Schaefer, who likes to accommodate the occasional run with a family member.

Over coffee two hours later, Schaefer tells me that after 17,000 miles he has no complaints with his new equipment other than a few noises. One is a squeak from the hood, the other is a clutch rattle. Freightliner officials say both problems will be fixed easily the next time the truck comes in for service.

As for the truck’s attributes, Schaefer finds many features that fit his operation well. The owner-operator who pulls frozen food in the less-than-truckload market, as Schaefer does, needs big power to pull high gross weights and the capability to maneuver in the alleys and minuscule docks of one of trucking’s least friendly destinations: Pittsburgh. Schaefer gets what he needs with a 50 percent wheel cut and a hood that, while big enough to enhance the Coronado’s classic styling, is designed for good visibility. The stacks are side-mounted, but do not obstruct the view when backing, as when Schafer picks up frozen eggs in Crystal Lake.

“The square spot mirrors are great,” Schaefer says. “I get a good view, and the motors help, especially on the blind side.” Schaefer finds the blue-faced clock just above the windshield split, attractive and convenient. He likes how the fog lights go off automatically when he is using high beams. Under the hood, he notes, “I can see all my fluid levels when I pop the hood because the containers are clear and at eye level.”

When he bought the truck, Schaefer was adamant about having plenty of tool space. His Coronado sports four tool boxes, two on either side of each tank, giving him plenty. They also increase curb appeal, making his truck look even longer than it is and adding extra chrome. The running boards extend to the drive tire wells so that there is a wide, unbroken expanse of chrome that streamlines the truck.

We are in and out of Crystal City quickly with a little more than 3,000 pounds of frozen eggs, which Schaefer blanket wraps and secures with load locks. Noting that Schaefer drives very gingerly out of concern for his load, I am just as careful when pulling out for my first drive time after lunch at Crazy D’s (“The best food on 30,” Schaefer says) in Plymouth, Ind. The Coronado feels quite solid and does its fair share for a smooth ride, with no help from ruts in the parking lot that could make milkshakes out of ice cream.

The driver’s seat, like the passenger’s, is a premium EZ Rider, a true confidence builder for an ex-driver who doesn’t get behind the wheel every day. I notice the dash is farther away than I expected and sloped away from the driver at its windshield edge. It’s reminiscent of the Century, upon whose platform the Coronado rides. The gauges are legible, bright and plentiful, lacking only a pyrometer, but including an air filter minder, which adds a touch of old-fashioned style.

Schaefer, who trusts me enough to take a nap after my first 15 minutes behind the wheel, crawls out of the bunk, and I ask him about the temperature control center, which has more positions than usual. “The climate control is very good in this vehicle, very adjustable,” he says.

The driver information center is fully equipped to provide instant fuel mileage and other pertinent data. For the operator looking to maximize fuel efficiency by meshing driving style with the engine’s performance, two indicators can help. One is a sliding blue scale that measures fuel consumption strictly from pressure on the fuel pedal. The other is a turbo boost gauge, which does not always rise proportionately with fuel consumption.

There is an exceptionally solid feel to the steering, and shifting the Eaton Fuller is silky, with no undue vibration in the column nor any noise coming up through the boot. Freightliner’s leaf-and-a-half taper leaf steering axle suspension seems to provide a solid base for a solid truck. Freightliner offers an air-ride steering axle to further boost comfort.

The Detroit Series 60 performs well under a fully loaded wagon, showing plenty of energy in merging situations and good throttle response from a standing start. Some cruise systems lag between the setting and the point at which the cruise actually takes over. In the Coronado, Schaefer says, “It catches where you set it.” Schaefer says he is also happy the cruise holds well on downhills when used in conjunction with the two-speed engine brake. The toggles are well positioned, but because of the sloped dash they are a little far away to be reached without leaning forward slightly.

The slope of the dash and the split windshield give the feel of grace one expects from seeing the exterior. Through the windshield the sloped hood provides an expansive view, one in which cars cannot hide near the front of the hood, as becomes obvious when Schaefer takes over in Lake Station, just before Chicago’s anytime traffic begins to slow us down.

Schaefer loads to nearly gross weight at Destiny Transportation’s dock on 47th Street, taking nearly seven hours to arrange his LTL in reverse order so that it will come off correctly. We are on the Skyway in no time headed east. Neither the crackle of the radio nor the piggy bank stops keep me awake. At midnight I take my shift through most of Ohio. By 6 a.m. we are sitting in Youngstown, waiting for the sun to grace the windshield. It’s time for breakfast, then a visit a block away with Ross Wise, general manager of FYDA of Youngstown.

By 10 we are driving on 680. Soon we reach the Pitt-Ohio truck stop, where we indulge in a fine peach cobbler and talk about the disappearance of moms-and-pops like this one. My ride comes and I leave Schaefer to peddle his route after a weekend at home. It is clear from the last 1,000 miles that he’s found a truck with performance well-suited to his operation.