It’s not often that you run across a guy that is well-known in the trucking world and who has a magazine-worthy rig but is not a truck driver. But, such is the case with Robb Mariani – a television celebrity and self-proclaimed big rig enthusiast and truckologist. Mostly known for his starring role on the hit TV series “American Trucker” and his infectious level of excitement, Robb (46) has made a career (sort of) out of his love for big rigs, which can be traced back to some of his earliest memories. Watching all of the movies and TV programs of his day, “White Line Fever” was one of his favorites, and from that, came his love for the Ford W9000 cabover. Recently building his dream hot rod rig, Robb and his “Low Patrol” W9000 are turning conventional wisdom (pun intended) on its ear.
Born and raised in a blue collar town near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Robb grew up in a large family that included seven kids – and Robb, in terms of birth order, fell smack-dab in the middle. During Robb’s childhood, his dad was an electrical engineer and his mom stayed home to raise the kids. His dad could build and/or fix anything. Robb learned a lot from his dad, but growing up, he connected more with his grandmother than his parents, so he spent a lot of time with her. Molly, his tough-as-nails grandma, owned and ran a tavern for almost 50 years, and Robb loved to hang out there. Both of Robb’s grandfathers were truck drivers – Rudy drove for Yellow and Gateway, while Emil drove B-model Macks for Schlitz, delivering beer to bars – which is how he met Robb’s grandma.
One of Robb’s earliest memories is flipping through the pages of Grandpa Emil’s Overdrive magazine. Back then, Overdrive was the coolest trucking magazine out there, and Robb loved it. To further fuel his passion for trucks, in 1971, when Robb was about four years old, his dad took the family on vacation to Disney World in Florida in their RV. Driving the interstates, stopping for fuel at truck stops, and marveling at the rigs on the road – especially the cool cabovers that dominated the industry back then – Robb fell head-over-heels in love with trucking.
Grandma Molly was a positive influence in Robb’s life. Running her own business, much like an owner operator with a truck, she taught him how to make good business decisions, to be tenacious, and gave him a solid work ethic, all through example. In addition to the tavern, Grandma Molly also owned rental properties, and she paid Robb to help her keep them clean and maintained. He also earned money by collecting newspapers and aluminum cans at the tavern and then taking them to be recycled.
Building scale models was one of Robb’s favorite things to do, so he would use all of the money he made to buy them – mostly big rigs, but some other things, too. On the weekends, his grandma and grandpa would take Robb down to the Oak Creek Union 76 Truck Stop where they would look at all the trucks, talk to the drivers, take pictures and eat pie and ice cream.
Throughout his high school years, Robb’s truck-driving dreams took a back seat to girls, goofing off and graphic arts. Robb excelled in the fine arts, but not much else. He loved to draw, sculpt and paint, so after he graduated (barely) he headed to the University of Wisconsin to study graphic design. While in college, he got a job at a local trucking company as a loader – a job he hated, yet loved! He once had a load of glass fall off a truck and smash over his head – he thought he was going to die. From that experience, he gained a lot of respect for the people who work on the docks. The main reasons he wanted that job was the high wage it paid and to be around all of the trucks. The company taught Robb how to drive a truck so that he could move trailers around the yard. The first truck Robb ever drove was a 1975 Mack Cruiseliner cabover with a 300 Maxidyne and a 5-speed transmission.
During his third year in college, Robb’s dad suddenly and tragically passed away. With money becoming an immediate issue, the school kicked Robb and his brother to the curb. Not knowing what to do, Robb turned to a friend who somehow got him a job in the newly-booming video game industry as a computer graphic artist – funny thing is, he had NO computer experience. But, he learned fast and did well. After designing games for huge companies like Atari, Sega and THQ for several years, he got into the licensing side of the business. From there, he landed a marketing and merchandising job with Dennis Anderson and the famous Grave Digger monster truck team. He did not work with Dennis for very long, but Robb was instrumental in some changes made to the truck that are still in existence today – it was Robb’s idea to put the iconic “Grave Digger” logo text on one line instead of two and he suggested that a purple mist be added to the well-known graveyard scene painted on the truck.
After a small misunderstanding abruptly and unjustifiably ended his employment with Dennis and the Grave Digger team, Robb, wanting to start fresh in a different business, turned to another talent he had – interior design. Living in Florida now, he earned a good reputation as an interior designer, creating all sorts of interesting spaces, including hot rod garages. This talent and reputation eventually led him to be chosen as a contestant for the second season on a popular design-based reality television show called “Design Star” in 2007. The winner of this competition would receive their own design show on the HGTV network. Robb, who had been quietly developing a trucking-based show on the side for years, was hoping that this would get his foot in the door for his show. Unfortunately, Robb did not win the competition (he placed fourth), but he was a very popular figure on the show.
On the show, Robb was dubbed and edited as “the bad boy” who they called “Diesel Robb” (which is a nickname he still goes by today). Robb learned a hard lesson about the power of editing – those people can make you look like whatever they want and create any persona they wish – real or not! But, it did get him into the TV world. From there, he started pitching his show to producers and attending truck shows to gather video footage and get ideas for possible future episodes. Robb never thought he would be in front of the camera – he just wanted to create and produce the show. But, most of the people
he spoke to wanted to see Robb and his big personality host the show. Eventually, he realized that he would be the best man for the job.
With Robb at the helm, “American Trucker” made its debut on the Speed channel in 2011. Over the next two years, Robb traveled all over the country and filmed 26 episodes of him doing all sorts of trucking stuff – he traveled with a NASCAR team, a rock band and the circus; he delivered relief supplies to Joplin, MO after a tornado leveled much of their city; he harvested tomatoes in California; he went to truck driving school and earned his CDL; he hauled bulls in Kansas; and a host of other things. But, after the second season, the Speed channel, who owns the rights to the show, became Fox Sports 1 and shelved the show, along with a bunch of other popular Speed channel programs.
Two years ago, “Diesel Robb” became the national spokesman for Cobra Electronics. When asked about this job, which he loves, we quickly got an education about all of the new technology that Cobra is involved with. Beyond the CB, which Cobra created over 50 years ago and is still a major portion of their business, they also now specialize in Bluetooth devices, radar detectors, professional navigation systems, dash cameras, advanced wireless products, antennas, and all sorts of other cool tech products. Check out their website (www.cobra.com) – you will be surprised and amazed at the things they have. In addition to the Cobra gig, Robb is also developing another TV show, which he was not at liberty to discuss at the time of our interview – but we could tell he was very excited about this new project.
Jumping backward about fifteen years, while Robb was still doing interior design, the advent of the modern-day internet had opened up a whole new portal to the trucking world. Scouring every website in search of his favorite trucker films, truck pictures, truck stories, trucker items, you name it, Robb’s passion for big rigs was rekindled. Eventually, as with most addictions, the pictures and information were no longer enough. Considering how much he loved the movie “White Line Fever” from 1975 and the “Blue Mule” Ford cabover that co-starred along with Jan Michael Vincent, Robb set his sights on finding that movie truck – or one just like it. Even though he didn’t have a CDL, was not a trucker, and he did not own a trucking company, it didn’t matter – he needed a Ford W-Series big rig!
After years of searching, Robb found a Ford W-Series cabover for sale in Tennessee and bought it. This truck had a pretty rich history, too. Bought new by the Tennessee Highway Patrol in 1974, the Ford spent much of its life pulling their mobile command unit trailer. After running the truck only 38,000 miles, it was auctioned off to a guy in Smithville, TN who owned a car lot. Using the truck to haul cars around locally for several years, the truck only had 53,000 original miles on it when Robb purchased it in 2003. Back then, it was painted all black, had a tag axle, and was in relatively good shape, but it was in desperate need of some TLC. Not knowing exactly what he wanted to do with it, Robb basically put the truck in storage, where it sat for almost ten years.
A few years ago, Robb befriended Brad Wike of BPW Transport in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Brad is an old truck nut – his shop is full of neat restored rigs and his yard is full of old iron just waiting to be restored. Robb calls Brad’s place the “Humane Society for Big Rigs” because dying rigs are brought there to be saved and/or reborn. Brad also hosts a truck show on his property every year, and it has become quite the event (last year he had over 300 trucks on the beautiful grass-covered field in front of his shop). In 2012, Brad convinced Robb to take the old Ford out of storage and bring it up to his show. After the show, Robb just left it there, knowing it would be in good hands. One day, while talking to Brad on the phone, Robb mentioned how much he hated that tag axle and wished it was gone. Well, thirty minutes later he got a text and picture from Brad showing the truck without a third axle! Brad was ready to begin restoring the truck, but Robb had other plans for it – plans to make it a unique hot rod – and so the project began.
Over the next twelve months, Robb, Brad and a handful of others transformed the old W9000 into an amazing rig, which Robb describes as “the workin’ man’s hot rod” – partly because Robb considers himself to be a workin’ man, and partly because the Ford W9000 was not a fancy truck – it was a worker. And, we have to admit, in over 20 years of publishing 10-4 Magazine and over 250 covers, this is the first Ford to ever grace our cover. To try and describe in great detail what was done to this truck would require several more pages (our interview with Robb was four hours long), so we will just go over the big modifications and the final product here.
Looking for that true “hot rod” look, the guys chopped thirteen inches off the top of the truck, took nine inches out of the rig’s original Reyco suspension, and then shaved off all of the door handles and vents for that clean look. Extensive modifications were made to the cab and chassis to get everything lower and cleaner. The battery boxes were removed (the batteries were relocated to a compartment between the frame rails) so the fuel tanks could be moved forward as far as possible, the air intake for the Ford’s original 290 Cummins was removed and replaced with a custom louvered rear cab panel, a window was cut into the back of the cab, and 79 holes were plugged and filled in the frame. A square dual exhaust system was fabricated from scratch, along with custom steps and mirrors. The side wind-wings were also removed from the doors and replaced with one-piece electric windows. Now, it was time for paint.
After Ricardo and Will of HKY Customs in Hickory, NC gave the truck an amazing base paint job using custom-mixed two-blue flake called “Texas Blackberry Attack” from House of Kolor (www.houseofkolor.com), painter Tex McDorman (www.texefx.com) was brought in to do all of the custom blue striping and matte black flames. Special thanks go out to Sata Spray Equipment (www.sata.com) for providing all of the paint spraying equipment and accessories. After that, it was time for final assembly and accessories.
One of the coolest things on this truck are the chrome-plated Dayton wheels, done by George at Wheel Creations Plus in Fresno, CA. Wrapped with quality American Goodyear rubber from Bingham Tire (www.binghamtire.com), the wheels and tires on this hot rod really help give it that ‘70s look. Sonny Farris of Cherryville, NC made the one-piece aluminum grille, Truckmate (www.truckmate.com) and Valley Chrome Plating (www.valleychrome.com) built the engraved front bumper, All Glass (www.allglassnc.com) provided all of the custom-cut windows, and Tony at Big Rig Chrome Shop (www.bigrigchromeshop.com) provided the Fibertech rear fenders and other accessories for the truck. The final details also included chromed spring hangers, five tiny but super-bright LED cab lights, LED headlights, a removable solid steel rear bumper fitted with four taillights off a 1950 Pontiac, and a stainless steel one-piece deck plate. As a tribute to the truck’s state trooper heritage, Robb had a special logo “badge” added to each side of the cab.
Moving inside the cab, the beautiful blue interior with chrome accents was done by Randy and Alan Davis of Davis Trim in Hickory, NC. Most of the custom fabrication done inside, as well as outside, was done by Frank Fhipps (AKA Frankie Fab). Although the dash is original, it has been modified. Frankie built a custom box with trap doors (for easy access) to hide the “junk” behind the dash. Cobra (www.cobra.com) provided dual CBs, navigation and assorted electronics for the truck, which was also fitted with dual air-ride Knoedler seats. Thanks to a booming Pioneer sound system and Memphis subs, there is plenty of available noise to fill up the compact cab. To get the right look after the chop, the steering column had to be shortened a few inches, and that was a big job! Back in the bunk, the Ford also has its original “Western Motif” back wall, which was an extra option at the time that featured the embossed names of some famous mountain passes and highways in America.
No project as big as this is accomplished alone. For that reason, special thanks go out to Brad Wike of BPW Transport (Robb’s partner on this project), Frank Fhipps (welder/fabricator), Carolina Steel, Tom and Bobbi at Stitches and Scribbles, Daniel Fulton, Ronnie Teague, Eric Dilley, Kelly Travis, Joey Annas, Kiperly Hall, Chris Kooistra at Cobra Electronics, and Robb’s marketing partner and girlfriend, Rachel. Robb also wanted to thank Roy Hartis of Skeet’s Wrecker Service for allowing them to use their paint booth and for transporting “Low Patrol” wherever it needed to go, including the truck show in Louisville, KY. One last special thank you goes out to Art Alvarez of Black Bone Studio (www.blackbonestudio.com) for helping Robb with his merchandising and artwork.
We had been planning on doing a photo shoot in Louisville with Robb and his Ford after the truck show for months – he first told us about the project at the Dallas truck show in August 2013. Robb brought the truck to Louisville where it made its debut in the Cobra booth at the show. After the show, we attempted to finally get our pictures, but the truck had starter issues and the shoot had to be canceled – everyone, including us, was bummed. Then, Robb asked, “If I can get you guys out to North Carolina next week, can we still get the shoot done in time for the May cover?” Four days after returning from Louisville, we found ourselves back on a plane headed to Charlotte, NC. We spent three days with Robb and Brad and had an awesome time. The weather was not perfect, but we made due and got the job done! We would like to thank everyone who made our trip possible and who more than made up for our disappointment in Kentucky.
Building a hot rod show truck on a budget with simple tools, in a no-frills shop, and on a part-time basis is no easy task, but Robb, Brad and everyone else involved stepped up and made it happen. Robb hopes to continue his ongoing relationship with Cobra Electronics and to keep moving forward with his new TV show. In addition to having fun with his “Low Patrol” Ford W9000, he also plans to use it for various marketing and promotional projects, too.
Creating this modern-day “Blue Mule” was an enormous job, but “Diesel Robb” and all of his friends got it done. Wanting to resurrect this old ghost of the American highway and relive some of those fond memories from his childhood, Robb Mariani can now recreate and live out all of his “White Line Fever” dreams in style!