Changing tires the old-fashioned way: ‘A Trucker’s Tale,’ part 3

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Follow this link for the previous Part 2 in this three-part feature, excerpted from “A Trucker’s Tale,” a memoir by Maryland-based former trucker Ed Miller.


Michelin Tire CareIt is a wonder my brothers and I didn’t get killed changing tires while we were young. We did not have air-driven impact guns, so we began the process by breaking the lug nuts using a lug-wrench and a three-foot-long bar, all before we jacked up the wheel. Next, we would place a heavy piece of wood under the jack and raise the tire just off the ground. After removing the nuts and lugs, you place the long bar under the tire while holding the top of the tire with your other hand. When the bar was raised you could pull the top of the tire off the drum, and then roll it out of the way. After removing the spacer, the process was repeated with the inner tire.

Using a valve tool, we would remove the tire’s valve in order to let the air out of the inner tube. (Unfortunately, as with LED lights, tubeless tires had not yet been invented.) When the tire was completely deflated, the real fun began. The tire rims were composed of three pieces, so a combination of different-shaped tools was required to separate the rims. Separating the three-piece rims often required a helluva lot of effort (actually it was more like beating the shit out of them) due to rust buildup.

If a tire’s rim had not been broken apart for a long time, the steel rims rusted so badly that they were like one piece instead of three. (Similar to tubeless tires, the use of aluminum wheels had not yet caught on.)

One of the tire tools had a flat, one-and-a-half-inch-wide blade on one end. After working the flat end under the inner ring, you could hold the ring up until you placed another tire tool next to it. Using both tools, in something of a leapfrog fashion, the inner ring would eventually release from the outer ring. There were times that required placing the flat end under the inner ring, prying up the ring, and then beating the hell out of the flat end as you worked it around the ring.

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With the inner ring removed, you would lift off the outer ring, then lift one side of the tire in order to remove it from the rim. Once again, if rust had formed on the rim next to the tire, a bit of extra dexterity was required. Standing the tire up on the tread, you would have to hold the tire with one hand while you swung a sledge hammer with the other. Your goal was to hit the rim hard enough to break the rust away from the tire, and it didn’t usually take but a couple of well-placed blows to separate the rim from the tire.

We brothers had quite a few laughs watching each other swinging the sledge hammers — when you missed the rim and accidentally hit the side of the tire, the hammer would fly off the rubber at such a speed that it would fly out of your hands.

When you finally got the tire off the rim, you would remove the hard rubber flap, which provided a protective barrier between the tube and the rim, and then you could pull the deflated tire tube from inside the tire.

Regardless of the reason for changing a tire, whether flat or worn-out, each had to be reassembled using a tube and the three-piece rim. First we made sure there were no foreign objects inside the tire, then placed a new tube (or a patched one if the tube was in good shape) inside the tire. In the case of a flat tire, if we were unable to locate a nail or screw in the tire, we’d rub the inside of the tire with a piece of cheese cloth, which would snag, identifying the culprit.

When the size of the hole in the tire tube was so small that it could not be found, we would over-inflate the tube and then use a soapy rag to coat the tube. The leak would cause the soapy water to bubble, and then it could be identified and patched.

After placing either a repaired or new tube into the tire and setting the flap, the tire would then be placed over the rim. The outer ring would be set on the rim, and then the final (smaller) ring was placed inside the first ring. Using a sledge hammer, this ring was beaten into position (or submission). After inserting and tightening a new tire valve, it was inflation time.

You older drivers remember how dangerous these three-piece rims could be, which is why I referred to being glad we are still alive. For those who are not familiar with the three-piece rim, sometimes the final ring would not “seat” properly. During inflation, and without any warning that it was about to happen, both rings would explode off the wheel at an alarmingly high rate of speed.

I was traveling in a Camaro cross-country with a friend in 1970, and we stopped for gas at a truck stop somewhere in Utah. Since this was back in medieval times, attendants pumped gas for patrons, and while sitting at the pumps, I looked in the rearview mirror and observed a young man inflating a truck tire with one of these three-piece rims. He was sitting on the edge of the tire while using his hand to hold the air hose onto the valve. As I turned to tell my friend that the fellow should inflate the tire differently, we heard a loud “bang.” I got out of the car and observed that the rim had indeed broken apart and the young man’s arm was badly broken. (Sadly, I also know of a company that had a tire-changer killed when a separated rim blew him up into the rafters of the building in which he was working.)

Knowing the danger of these rims, Obie taught us to lay a heavy steel bar on top of the air hose to hold it in place, turn on the compressor, and get the hell out of the way. He eventually welded steel tubing together to make a cradle to hold each tire while it was inflating. For obvious reasons, this same practice became standard operating procedure for most tire-changing facilities.

After a tire was inflated, and before a valve cap was screwed into the valve, the final test was to cover the top of the valve with an extremely high-tech liquid — your own spit. If the spit didn’t bubble, then you knew the valve was properly tightened. (I suppose it might have made better sense to use some of the soapy water we used on the tire tubes, but the spit method was more fun.) We would then roll the first tire up close to the brake drum, place the long bar under the tire, and then raise the bar while, at the same time, pushing the top of the tire onto the drum. After sliding the tire all the way back into position, we placed the four-inch spacer on the drum, then used the same method to place the outside tire on the drum. After inserting the lugs over the bolts attached to the drum, we finished by placing the lug nuts and hand-tightening them. Using the four-pronged (different sizes) lug wrench and the long bar, we would begin tightening the nuts, alternating from side to side, until all nuts were moderately secure.

Another of Obie’s pet-peeves was that all tires, whether on tractors or trailers, had to be perfectly balanced. Wobbling caused the tires to wear out more quickly, caused the steering wheel to shimmy and the cab to shake, and this wobbling also produced an aggravating road noise. There is not one single older trucker who hasn’t observed another driver trying to hold on to a steering wheel as it shimmied because of his unbalanced steering-axle tires. Chances are, you experienced it firsthand!

We did not have the present day type of lug-less wheels, which do not need balancing, so we learned Obie’s art. As there was a hole in the middle of the four-pronged lug wrench, we would insert the long bar through the hole. With the lug wrench standing up on two legs, we would insert one end of the long bar into the hole. The other end would rest on the ground, which held the wrench in a slanted position. (This kind of resembled the jacks of the children’s game.) The tip of the long bar would be placed against one side of the tire. As we rotated the tire, the bar would show which section of the tire was out of balance, because there would either be space between the tire and the tip of the bar, or the tire would push the tip of the bar out of the way.

By tightening the lug nuts at the location where the tire tool was pushed away, we would continue rotating the tire while tightening however many lug nuts necessary to achieve a perfectly balanced tire. Of course, the achievement made us feel good. A side benefit is we didn’t get one of Obie’s ass-chewings.

All of Obie’s tractors were equipped with a tire jack, a tire tool, a heavy piece of wood and at least one mounted spare tire, which was carried in the spare tire rack under each trailer. Back then, it was common practice for a driver to change his own flat.

In the event a driver sustained two flats, Obie wouldn’t pay what he called “highway robbery” by purchasing two tires on the road — if the incident happened within 400 miles of home. He’d load two tires into the trunk of my Grandmother’s Cadillac, strap it down and haul ass to Kentucky or Tennessee. Once, I remember Granny giving him hell because he used her new car two days after he had given her the brand-new Sedan Deville for her birthday.

Worn-out tires often got hauled off to the county dump, but we brothers could find much more fun and competitive ways to get rid of them. We would hook three tires together with a chain and use the “M” to drag them several hundred yards to the top of a hill where the hay field met some woods. At this juncture, a road cut through the trees, winding down for about three quarters of a mile and ending at the 40-acre river bottom field, which sat alongside the Catawba River.

Heaven only knows how many truck tires are still in those woods. We had countless contests to see whose tires could travel farthest down the road.

The tires gained a lot of speed as they headed down toward the first curve, which had some nice banking — the majority of the tires made it through. After they went out of sight, we listened to them making their final revolutions as they tore through the rhododendrons, bushes and small trees. Some actually rounded several curves and traveled impressive distances. Those that fell over, or stopped before rounding the first curve, lived a second life — because we retrieved each one and helped them finish their runs.


Run back through all three installments of our excerpts from Ed Miller’s “A Trucker’s Tale” memoir via this link.