Daring to restore a daredevil's decaying truck: The Evel Knievel Mack haul rig

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Robb Mariani near the beginning (left) and end of an almost five year period as he helped spearhead and promote the restoration of the 1974 Mack that was daredevil Evel Knievel's last tour truck.Robb Mariani near the beginning (left) and end of an almost five year period as he helped spearhead and promote the restoration of the 1974 Mack that was daredevil Evel Knievel's last tour truck.

There is no pairing of photos I could come up with that better exemplifies the years-long restoration of the piece of history that is Evel Knievel's former Mack haul rig than the two above. I took both, the first (left) on the occasion of the rig's arrival at the small fleet and sometime custom shop of BPW Transport owner-operator Brad Wike in Lincolnton, N.C., in February 2012, the second upon unveiling of the resto job at the Great American Trucking Show in August of 2015. 

This story is part of a series of Monday installments through the rest of year of pieces of history on the occasion of Overdrive's 60th year in publication in 2021. Find more from the series via this link.This story is part of a series of Monday installments through the rest of year of pieces of history on the occasion of Overdrive's 60th year in publication in 2021. Find more from the series via this link.

Both feature the same man who, though the rig was never his to do with just what he would, is synonymous with its revival in my mind -- Robb Mariani. 

Mariani's familiar to many readers as the man behind the "American Trucker" TV series that caught the eyes of so many among owner-operators in the early part of the decade on the Speed Channel. Mariani's subsequent involvement in all manner of trucking business-, culture- and history-related efforts, too, did their part to remind Overdrive readers of the man Truckers News memorably called "Trucking's biggest fan."

His obsession began with his grandfather's Overdrive subscription, as he told around the time of his television show's debut. The story of the Evel Knievel 1974 Mack's rebirth starts there, too, with the "Finding Evel" episode of the show in Season 2, premiering in September of 2011. 

There, Mariani and crew documented the then-current location of the 1974 Mack FS700L cabover and Post Coach living quarters, rescued from the weeds in a yard in Clearwater, Fla. The trailer was with it, all  still showcasing faded signage from Knievel's touring days of motorcycle-jumping and other daredevilry. 

In 2012, the truck and trailer was moved to Wike's shop in North Carolina for some initial work Wike described in the video below. The steering had been locked up, the fuel tank dry and full of dirt. Wike managed to get the Cummins engine started after plenty of clean-up and trial and error, and plans for the rig at the time were for a cab replacement via Elizabeth Truck Center in New Jersey, where a replacement cab had been located. The ultimate goal in the restoration, too, was to restore the painting to Knievel's original red-dominated scheme, in place before Knievel apparently reversed the red and blue of the original paint colors when he went on his European tour late in his career.In 2012, the truck and trailer was moved to Wike's shop in North Carolina for some initial work Wike described in the video below. The steering had been locked up, the fuel tank dry and full of dirt. Wike managed to get the Cummins engine started after plenty of clean-up and trial and error, and plans for the rig at the time were for a cab replacement via Elizabeth Truck Center in New Jersey, where a replacement cab had been located. The ultimate goal in the restoration, too, was to restore the painting to Knievel's original red-dominated scheme, in place before Knievel apparently reversed the red and blue of the original paint colors when he went on his European tour late in his career.

 

With time, the resto project, thanks in part to Mariani's and others' efforts at promoting the value of the project, found a buyer in motorcycle and Knievel enthusiast and collector Lathan McKay. It landed for the finale with Mike Patterson of Historic Harley-Davidson in Topeka, Kansas, to finish up entirely in 2015. Patterson then told Overdrive that his dealership was one of the more than 96 partner individuals and businesses that contributed to the truck and trailer’s full restoration, managed by Patterson’s shop over the preceding year and a half.

Patterson was drawn into the project after McKay, an ex-pro skateboarder, actor and Knievel memorabilia collector, “called simply for advice for somebody who could restore the truck.” Patterson “blurted out that we restore Mack trucks,” he recalled, and McKay “believed me.”

“We teamed with Kansas Powertrain in Topeka,” which rebuilt both the chassis and motor in the tractor, and “Topeka Trailer for the trailer portion of it,” Patterson said then. “Todd Williams, nationally known for restoration of all kinds of vehicles, did the restoration of the cab.” 

When the truck came to Mike Patterson’s Historic Harley-Davidson shop for restoration, the cab roof showed “more sky than metal,” he says. Left photo: Bruce W. Smith. Right: Todd Dills, of the rig in 2012.When the truck came to Mike Patterson’s Historic Harley-Davidson shop for restoration, the cab roof showed “more sky than metal,” he says. Left photo: Bruce W. Smith. Right: Todd Dills, of the rig in 2012.

Mariani remained to tell the tale and emphasize the importance of the unit for the trucking community throughout the years-long process.

Mariani (foreground) at work with McKay to re-create some of the original detail paint work on the Mack. Its scheme ultimately took on elements of Knievel's various promotional signage for his many big-ticket jumps, as Mariani explains in the following edition of the Overdrive Radio podcast from 2015.Mariani (foreground) at work with McKay to re-create some of the original detail paint work on the Mack. Its scheme ultimately took on elements of Knievel's various promotional signage for his many big-ticket jumps, as Mariani explains in the following edition of the Overdrive Radio podcast from 2015.

For the world of trucking, the combination unit made a triumphant debut at events late in the summer of 2015 as it began a Mack-sponsored tour, including a stop at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas that year. 


Two Mack Pinnacles hauled the truck to appearances across the country through 2016, then it came to rest in a newly built Knievel museum at Historic Harley-Davidson in Topeka, Kan.

The truck and trailer -- all done.The truck and trailer -- all done.

This picture, featured on the website of the museum, shows part of the display of the rig today. Visit EvelKnievelMuseum.com for more about it.This picture, featured on the website of the museum, shows part of the display of the rig today. Visit EvelKnievelMuseum.com for more about it.

Read more in this series of stories attendant to Overdrive's 2021 60th anniversary. 

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