Taming The Two-Lanes

DWAYNE TATMAN’S VOLVO VN780

  • Cost: $108,000
  • Cummins ISX, 565 hp @2000 rpm, 1850 lb-ft @1200 rpm
  • Eaton Fuller RTLO-18918E 18-speed transmission
  • 15.5-inch Eaton Solo clutch
  • 231-inch wheelbase
  • Jacobs six-position C-Brake
  • Most Adelphi, Ohio, residents who do not till the soil drive to Columbus to earn their keep. Harold Tatman, owner of Tatman Harold and Sons, isn’t among them, though the drivers of his 37 Volvos cover much more territory than the 50-mile commute to Columbus.

    From 20-odd acres where giant mounds of bark mulch steam in the morning light, the Volvos turn out and ply the back roads of the Buckeye with loads that are always heavy. And on skinny roads that swoop endlessly over rolling hills, the need for premium equipment is paramount.

    Dwayne Tatman, one of three sons who run the operation for their retired father, recalls how the family business has long used Volvos and truck brands that were eventually acquired by Volvo. “My father started this place on the day I was born in 1966,” Tatman says. “He had a 16-foot straight truck and a shovel. We’ve come a long way from the days we ran GMC Generals and Whites. My father has stuck with trucks he knew, and it is natural for us to run Volvos now.”

    Tatman, besides doing the sales and marketing, drives the company’s newest Volvo, a VN780. Today, however, Tatman is headed in his motor home to the NASCAR races at Rockingham, N.C., to watch his car compete. George Dietz, Tatman’s foreman, will give up his new Volvo 670 to run for the first time in the boss’s truck to Toledo, a turn of about 400 miles.

    Tatman is backing across the yard where the loader, a monster 15-yard bucket, will fill his walking-floor trailer with five scoops in about 20 minutes. “The 780 has a more aggressive look than the old 770, and I like that,” Tatman says. “I am happy with Cummins power, and the drivetrain is solid. If I have a complaint, it is about the cup holders. They just don’t hold a drink stable enough.”

    Volvo, in response to customer comments, is redesigning the cup holders, says spokesman Jim McNamara.

    Sitting under the loader, the 780 has the look owner-operators love: all white with black fenders, the full chassis fairing also black, and metallic silver lettering. Tatman keeps it spotless – a difficult task in a 20-acre mulch operation. Pulling the spread-axle trailer Tatman has just bought, the truck looks more than capable of handling the 40 tons of mulch.

    “We run heavy all the time, and down here in hill country on these little two-lanes we need power and good handling,” Tatman says. “I spec’ed the Cummins ISX 575 with 3.70 rears.” Tatman also spec’ed a 13,500-pound front axle. “I gave up a little of Volvo’s soft ride over the short choppy washboard bumps to get less sway on the 780 when I spec’ed that heavy axle,” Tatman says. “If I had it to do all over again, I’d have the air ride on the 13,500-pound steer.”

    Tatman puts about 45,000 to 50,000 miles a year on his trucks in the Ohio operation. “I’m getting about 5.2 miles a gallon,” he says. “That’s good for this operation.” Tatman adds that his ISX, equipped with exhaust gas recirculation, has had no problems in its first 10,000 miles. Tatman says he will begin oil analysis with his first oil change, due at 20,000 miles, and continue them regularly to monitor for soot and acids.

    As Dietz and I pull out onto a skinny two-lane at the top of a knoll, the Eaton Fuller 18-speed shows plenty of startability in second and we are in high range in the shallow valley, pulling well against a slight crosswind as he powers into a steep uphill. The road winds to Route 23, the north-south four-lane that will take us 40 miles into Columbus.

    We are loaded close to the limit, making the handling and power of the 780 conspicuously necessary on a road where the berms drop off to dirt and the yellow stripes stay solid. “Getting on the berm can lift a trailer and throw it,” Dietz says. “It’s more sensitive with the air ride I have in my truck, and you have to get used to driving with air up front. This truck has a more positive feel.”

    At mid-morning, the traffic on 23 has ebbed from its normal racetrack madness. The 780 lopes easily in the flat, and we are both enjoying its excellent ride. “Volvos ride like cars,” he says.

    We catch a few miles of I-270, passing the spot where a woman was killed by the sniper roaming the interstates in central Ohio. Then we run I-70 in downtown Columbus, head northwest on 315, then back on 23 towards Marion. The road is encumbered by red lights and county mounties, but Dietz does not complain since the alternate route is much longer.

    On the flat, straight roads the power and comfort of the Volvo show in spades. There is little reason to run in 18th. For that matter, the truck runs well at low rpms in direct, given its 1850 pounds-feet of torque and the flat torque band of contemporary trucks.

    The relatively long 231-inch wheel base smooths plenty of cracks and buckled pavement, despite Tatman’s spec’ing of the heavy steering axle, and the dry weight of the Volvo, around 18,000 pounds, aids stability, given the wind-catching, eye-popping length of the cab and premium sleeper. Known as an aerodynamic truck, the Volvo 780 looks the part. Its exterior is clean and only the breakaway mirrors protrude. There are no stacks on the sides and its lines are clean.

    We hit I-75 not far below Toledo and roll into the nursery where we deliver about 2 p.m. Dietz backs in and hits the electric over-air PTO on the dash and releases his brakes. The walking-floor trailer has the 40 tons of bark mulch on the ground in about 20 minutes. On this cold, rainy day, Dietz is happy to sit and watch the load push his truck forward inches at a time. “And you can use this PTO to get you unstuck in these holes you have to back into to drop your load,” he adds.

    The paperwork is signed and we are quickly on our way – another nice aspect of Dietz’s job. Deliveries are 24/7 and unloading, even when the mulch is bagged, is a breeze. “The guys who haul bags take a spider and just set the load off,” Dietz says. “We don’t need appointments.”

    On my shift we take the big road and head south for Columbus. What I had not noticed about the 780 before is the ease of entry, partly because Volvo has lowered the cab a bit from the predecessor model, the VN770. Isringhausen leather seats are on both sides, heated and capable of swiveling to look back into the sleeper, where the dinette-style package provides space and the illusion of even more. Bench seats on either side provide ample room for four to play cards, for example. When not in use, the dinette folds down and a very large bunk is made available. You can watch television from the driver’s seat if you like, munching your bologna sandwich fresh from the fridge.

    There is also an attention to detail that makes the 780 a pleasure to operate. Soft-touch buttons for the power windows and locks is one example. Dietz and I agree that cruise is one of the best features, and this one catches where you set it rather than dropping 3 or 4 mph before taking hold. The six-position Jacobs compression brake is located on a stalk to the right of the steering wheel and the radio controls are on the full-tilt steering wheel.

    Dusk arrives, so we turn on the exterior lights. The light package is exceptional, particularly the headlights, which enable superior visibility without blinding oncoming traffic. The headlights add much to the truck’s appearance, recessed as they are to allow the clear shields to follow the contour of the sweeping fenders. Volvo’s McNamara says the bulbs are found in any auto store and the modular assembly is easily replaced.

    As we approach Adelphi, I ask Dietz if he’ll mind getting back in his 670. “No,” he says, “but this has been a real fine ride.” The mulch plant is dark. The only lights are from the motor home; Tatman is late leaving for the races. My guess is tatman would rather be driving this 780 than that Class A motor home.

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