Rise and Shine

Chad Blackwell spent nearly $50,000 to add custom chrome and stainless features to his truck.

The summer sun glints off dozens of tricked-out rigs at the Bosselman’s Travel Plaza in Grand Island, Neb. It’s June 25, and the mild Great Plains weather offers the perfect opportunity for truckers to stroll down aisles of trucks adorned with stainless steel, polished aluminum and chrome at the 2004 Shell Rotella SuperRigs Truck Beauty Contest.

Everywhere bright light reflects off mirrored surfaces, a reminder that prospects are bright for an industry that’s finally back on track. In fact, the improved market – more freight, higher rates, stronger demand for owner-operators – has translated to more sales, say chrome shop owners, as owner-operators and even company drivers have upped spending on truck accessories. They’re adding spinning wheel hub covers popular with four-wheelers, stainless steel frames, neon and LED lights, chrome toggle switches and other details that sparkle and shine. Chrome shop owners say truckers are buying more stainless steel than chrome, another sign that truck buffs have more discretionary income.

“Stainless steel has really taken over chrome,” says Jack Oin, product manager for United Pacific Industries. “Chrome peels. The salt spray used back east to keep roads de-iced is corroding the chrome. It’s also easier to polish stainless.”

Chrome is still popular in the cab of the truck, where knobs, switches and even entire steering columns are being covered in sleeves of shiny metal. When Andre Bellemare, an owner-operator from Quebec, bought a new Peterbilt recently, he spent $85,000 customizing it. He figures $55,000 of that went to chrome, stainless and other adornments. “Now I’m broke,” Bellemare says.

Owner-operators are also making the switch to LED lights, says Jim Morris, manager of the Iowa 80 Chrome Shop. “LEDs have started to take over as the preferred choice,” Morris says. “The prices have come down. Upgrading costs a little bit more, but the performance and cost is better over the lifetime of the light.”

At Iowa 80, sales of accessories are up 6 percent over 2003, Morris says, and truckers aren’t necessarily buying bigger-ticket items. Chad Blackwell, a cattle hauler from Greenville, Va., has added items like a custom stainless bumper with steer heads stamped in the metal and, on his hood, chrome steer horns. He’s even tricked out the interior of his pale green rig. The features drew the attention of SuperRigs officials, who photographed his truck for the 2005 Rotella SuperRigs calendar.

Blackwell’s favorite feature is his floor – hardwood spaced with stainless steel strips. He’s also proud of his custom logos, shaped like Peterbilt logos, that complement his paint job and say “Cattle Lac.” “I’ve wanted this truck since I was old enough to walk and talk,” Blackwell says.

He buys his accessories at the Chrome Shack on I-81 in Tennessee. “When I bought the truck in August 2003, I put all the chrome and stainless in,” Blackwell says. “A real good estimate of what I spent is about $50,000. Not having a wife and a kid makes it easier.”

Married truckers are often more sensitive to the touchy issue of their expensive addiction. “I started keeping track of my chrome and stainless expenses when I first bought the truck,” says owner-operator Doug Perkins of Le Center, Minn. “Then I stopped. It got painful. That’s when my wife bought me the sticker.”

Sported by several truckers at the show, the sticker says: “How much chrome can I buy and stay married?”

Perkins, who buys a lot of his chrome from America’s Truck Wash & Chrome Shops and Four States Chrome, keeps his spending in check by budgeting for his toys. “I find myself something new every year,” he says. “It’s too expensive to do it at once.”

Lake City, Fla. owner-operator Clint Dicks went the extra mile with his Peterbilt straight dump. It has a stainless floor, large-bore stacks, chromed gauges and air horns. Dicks has even added neon to make the truck glow at night and recently put spinners on his wheels. The trucker, who buys his chrome at the I-75 Chrome Shop in Florida, won the lights competition at Rotella SuperRigs.

Independent Chris Lewis revamped his Peterbilt this year, adding headlamps that look like chrome eyeballs and produce intense white light. “Once you look at the road through these, it’s hard to adjust to other headlights,” Lewis says of the high-intensity discharge lights.

LED lights in special chrome wraps are also adorning show-quality trucks in greater numbers. Dino Guadagni, vice president of Western Distributing Transportation Corp. in Denver, Colo., used a number of new retro-styled LEDs on his reconditioned 1951 Kenworth. “We’re buying LEDs because you can add more to the truck without straining the alternator,” Guadagni says.

While much of the chrome and stainless on display at the 2004 Rotella SuperRigs was superfluous for working trucks, one owner-operator showed up with a new polished aluminum cattle catcher he says is essential on his routes. A.J. Leonhard of Byron, Ill., says the trailer-grade tubing isn’t just about looks – it’s designed to deflect deer on Leonhard’s northern rural routes.

“A friend bought the same bar and hit a UPS truck,” Leonhard says. “The UPS truck came off the ground, but the cattle catcher only had a scratch in it.”

But even owner-operators who know the investment in chrome won’t pay off in a business sense say they get an emotional boost from each piece of flare. Owner-operator Troy Elder, whose truck sports the marriage sticker, says he hasn’t figured out how much he can spend and still stay married, but thinks his wife understands his passion for shiny objects.

She learned about the value of the chrome when she accompanied him on a trip and motorists gave the couple lots of positive feedback. For Elder, a thumbs-up from a kid makes the expense worth it. “When I get a compliment, it makes my whole day,” he says.


2004 ROTELLA SUPERRIGS WINNERS
BEST OF SHOW

  • Winner
    Tony and Robin Bartels
    1994 Peterbilt 379
  • 1st Runner-up
    Chris Lewis
    1999 Peterbilt 379
  • 2nd Runner-up
    Neal Dykman
    2000 Peterbilt 379

TRACTOR-TRAILER

  • 1st Place
    Max Haertling
    1997 Kenworth W900L
  • 2nd Place
    Tod Job
    1996 Peterbilt 379
  • 3rd Place
    Thomas and Kimberly Turner
    1999 Freightliner Classic

TRACTOR

  • 1st Place
    Scott Batten
    1999 Kenworth W900
  • 2nd Place
    Ryan Avenarius
    2001 Freightliner Classic XL
  • 3rd Place
    Pat Eileen
    2003 Peterbilt 379

CLASSIC

  • 1st Place
    Bill Culver
    1990 Peterbilt 379
  • 2nd Place
    Dan and Zack Kemerling
    1980 Peterbilt 359
  • 3rd Place
    Gabe and Brad Hansen
    1984 Peterbilt 359

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