It’s not often that you see an 80-year-old trucker, driving a 64-year-old rig, every day, but that is exactly what this month’s cover feature is about – and both of these old-timers are still going strong! Leon “Popcorn” Wheaton of Tolleson, Arizona has been driving since he was 12 years old – for 68 years – and the 1950 KW he drives has roughly 10 million miles on it, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it because it still looks pretty good, too. But this month’s cover story is not all about a pretty truck – it’s more about the trucker. In his 80 years, Leon has seen and done a lot – and he isn’t finished yet!
Born in 1934 on a dairy in Augusta, WI, Leon started driving when he was just 12 years old, running a Model-A Ford and pulling a 2-wheel trailer around the farm. At 15 years old, he started driving a Ford cabover milk truck for his uncle, picking up the cans of milk from the local farms and dairies, and delivering them to the creamery. When Leon was 16, his dad got a job in Texas and the family moved there. As the supervisor of the sheet metal shop, Leon’s dad played a big part in the building of the Falcon Dam, about 75 miles south of Laredo, on the border of Texas and Mexico.
While in Texas, Leon, who has gone by the nickname “Popcorn” since he was a teenager (“Corn” for short) because of his love for the tasty snack, was still in high school but really didn’t have much of an interest for it. After six weeks of the tenth grade, he walked out and went directly to the dam project where they hired him as a laborer and truck driver, even though he had no formal training or any type of commercial driver’s license. Starting out at just 75 cents per hour, he drove a K7 International truck and pulled a 30-foot trailer, hauling mostly bags of cement. But after about three years in Texas, it was time for Corn to move on.
Wanting to see the world, Corn joined the Navy in 1953 and was immediately sent to San Diego, CA for boot camp. While there, because of his background with construction and trucks, they put him in the Seabees right away. The Navy Seabees are the construction arm of the Navy – they build bases, roads, airstrips, piers, housing and whatever else is needed. Assigned to MCB-10 (Mobile Construction Battalion), he was sent to Guam, where he spent over a year driving construction vehicles and hauling around heavy equipment. Always one to have nice things, Corn tricked-out his military truck with custom paint, a doubled bumper and air horns on the roof. He always kept his equipment clean, and this made him stand out from the other drivers.
In 1955 he got transferred to MCB-5 and sent to a small island in Alaska (Adak Island) at the very end of the Aleutian Islands. While there, they resurfaced the airstrip, built new roads, a new fire department, and new piers and docks. After that, they sent him to a completely different climate zone – Litchfield Naval Air Facility in Goodyear, Arizona. He went from one extreme to the other, in regards to the weather. At this facility, about 6,800 aircraft, mostly leftovers from WW-II, were being parked and stored.
As his 4-year term in the Navy began to wind down, he met a girl named Shirley. Knowing that marriage was just around the corner, he decided to leave the Seabees and join the Air Force. When the Seabees were deployed, they could not take their spouse with them, but such was not the case with the Air Force. After joining the Air Force in 1957 and getting married in 1958, Corn, along with his new wife, was sent to France. While in France in 1960, they attended the 24 Hours of Le Mans automobile race as spectators, and then the following year, Corn ended up working for one of the race teams as part of their pit crew. The car finished 9th out of 54 entries – it was a very memorable experience for Corn, who has always been a gear-head.
After three years in France, the couple was sent to Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota where Corn operated a grader, plowed snow, hauled heavy equipment, and was in charge of maintaining three Titan missile sites, as well as ten Minuteman Launch Control Facilities, which were each surrounded by ten Minuteman missile silos. After their time in South Dakota, Shirley went back to Arizona and Corn was sent to Thailand where he ran a gas-powered International with a 90-ton lowboy, moving heavy equipment through the hostile jungles there. Not allowed to carry a gun in Thailand, Corn carried a machete with him in the truck, because it was not uncommon for buses and trucks to be stopped and the people robbed – sometimes even killed. Corn is grateful that he never had any problems while overseas.
Leaving the Air Force in 1966 after eight years of service, Corn immediately began driving a Freightliner cabover for Quality Drywall, hauling wall board from Plaster City, CA (near El Centro) to Phoenix, AZ. Later that same year, he bought his first truck – a 1956 Kenworth cabover and a brand new Brown flatbed trailer – and continued to haul the wall board. He did this for about nine years, and then there was a building slowdown, so he switched over to Ashworth Transfer out of Salt Lake City, UT and began hauling general flatbed freight throughout the eleven western states. Ashworth was bought out by F.B. Truck Lines, but Corn continued to run for them for two more years. Throughout this time, Corn had a few different trucks, including an International truck and pull trailer, which he hauled some hay with for a while, and a Freightliner cabover. This brings us to the truck Corn drives today.
The 1950 Kenworth seen on our cover and centerfold this month, as well as on these pages, has had a hard life. Purchased new by Garrett Freightlines, the rig, which was originally a two-axle daycab with a Buda diesel engine, was used as a line-haul truck and, basically, never stopped moving – the drivers were swapped out a couple times a day, but the truck was always going. When Danny Shimizu of Salt Lake City, Utah acquired it, he estimated that the rig had about eight million miles on it! While in Danny’s care, the engine was switched to a Cummins KTA 600, the frame was lengthened and another axle was added (along with a Ford spring suspension), a new two-stick transmission was installed with a 13-speed main and a 4-speed brownie, and the truck was given a gun-metal gray paint job. Danny had a driver in the truck for a few years and then sold it to Corn in 1978.
When Corn got the truck, it was a nice ride. Back to hauling drywall, in 1980 he bought an old Mercury sleeper and mounted it on the truck. Using a standard skill-saw (like one you would use to cut wood), he cut the opening in the back of the soft aluminum cab himself. He also added the spotlights, replaced the bumper, built custom steps, and did a few other odds and ends. He ran it like this for several years, racking up many more miles along the way, until he sold it back to Danny Shimizu. Corn did not remember why he sold it back to him or exactly what year it was, but he figured that it was sometime in the early 1990s. While back in Danny’s care once again, the truck was painted purple with silver fenders, and the engine was rebuilt for a second time.
Still hauling the drywall, which he did for a long time, Corn went through several trucks over the years, including a 1994 Freightliner Classic XL, among others. In 2004, Corn’s wife was diagnosed with cancer and Corn spent the next few years doing all that he could to help her get through her treatments and surgeries. Sadly, she passed away in 2006 and it hit Corn hard – they had been married for 48 years and she was the love of his life. After muddling around in a fog for a couple years, he ended up at Blue Ribbon Distributing in Phoenix, AZ. Meeting owner Elwood Richey and his right-hand-man Gary “Funky” Prewett, proved to be a blessing, as the two men took Corn under their wing and helped him to get back on his feet.
After years of flatbed work and military service, Corn’s body was getting tired and worn out and he was ready for a change. Buying a 1996 KW conventional and a reefer trailer from Gary Prewett in 2008, he began hauling Sunkist citrus products between California and Arizona (and occasionally to Texas) for Blue Ribbon. In 2011, Danny Shimizu died and the family called Corn to ask him if he wanted to buy his old 1950 Kenworth back. Corn agreed, and got his trusty ride back once again. At that time, it was purple with silver fenders, so Corn took it to a local painter and had the fenders painted metallic black and then had them pinstriped (he did not like the silver fenders). Aside from having a few pieces chromed, Corn pretty much left the truck as it was – until he was recently introduced to Rod Pickett and his dad.
Having just recently moved to Arizona from Washington and opening up a new shop in the Phoenix area (Pickett Custom Trucks), Corn and the Picketts hit it off right from the start. Not long after that, Rod started helping Corn spruce up his old rig. Over the past year or so, they have stretched the frame to 270-inches, filling all of the holes and repainting it, as well, removed the old Ford spring suspension and replaced it with a four-bag air-ride system, installed larger diameter Peterbilt fuel tanks and new (longer) Hogebuilt stainless steel quarter-fenders. Now, because of these changes, the bumper, steps, tanks and fenders all line up. They also installed a new sleeper boot (it never had one before) and new carpet, complete with insulation. Other nice touches include chrome headlights, chrome sticks inside, and chrome dash pieces. The truck also has extra LED lights, seven-inch exhaust (for now), and chrome “naked girl” grab handles on each side of the cab.
Elwood Richey’s son, Benjamin, runs the shop at Blue Ribbon and he, along with a helper named James, take extra good care of Corn and his truck. Finding someone to work on the old KTA Cummins is getting harder and harder these days – even the mechanics at Cummins have no idea how to work on them. Thankfully, Corn has found two guys in his area that still know how to work on this awesome old engine – Ray Palmer and Kenny Taylor. Both of these guys have been a big help to Corn and keep his classic engine running great – so great, in fact, Corn averages between 4.8 and 5.2 mpg, which is amazing for a powerful old engine like a KTA 600.
No story about Corn would be complete without talking about his love for hot rods and hot bikes. Over the years, he has had all sorts of cool and custom rides, dating all the way back to his teenage years in Texas. At his home in Arizona, Corn has a barn filled with all sorts of neat old stuff, including a 1940 Lincoln Zephyr, a 1973 Jaguar, a 1962 Studebaker service truck, a 1933 Ford four-door sedan with a chopped top (he has owned this car since 1956), and his prized possession, a custom Barris-built 1972 Lincoln Continental Bugazzi. Starting out as a normal Lincoln Mark IV, George Barris, a famous car customizer, transformed the car into “an American version of the Rolls-Royce,” as some have put it. Barris only built twelve of these custom Lincolns and, somehow, Corn has two of them (he found and bought a second one just for parts). If you have never heard of George Barris, look him up on the internet – he has made some unique vehicles over the years, and many you will recognize from movies and TV shows. Out in the barn, Corn also has a 1946 KW conventional. Right now it is in pieces, but all of the pieces are there, so if he ever decides to put them all back together, he will have another sweet ride.
Corn has had medical “issues” for most of his life. After taking a fall when he was a child and dislocating his hip and breaking his pelvis, he ended up in a full body cast for six months. He healed from that injury, but you can imagine his aches and pains today – especially after decades of flatbed work, moving heavy machines, and a total of 20 years in the military (he spent another eight years in the Navy Reserves after leaving the Air Force). Over the years, Corn has had both of his hips replaced (one of them twice), a knee replaced, and a quadruple bypass (his heart was good, but the arteries around it were not). Today, he walks with two canes, but he still gets around pretty good.
Sustaining a trucking career for this long is no easy task, so Corn wanted to thank a few folks for helping him. As mentioned before, Elwood Richey and Gary Prewett have been a big help to Corn over the last few years (they keep him busy, but they also allow him to run at a pace he is comfortable with). Benjamin and James out in shop deserve some thanks, too, as well as Rod Pickett and his dad, Dale. We wanted to thank a few people, too. Special thanks go out to Sharon Rodriguez and Dennis McFarlin of Reedley, CA for helping us find some nice orange groves to take our pictures in. We’d also like to thank our friend and past cover trucker (twice) Ron Kelsey for opening up our eyes to see the uniqueness of Corn and his neat old Kenworth.
Corn estimates that he has driven about five million miles in his sixty-eight-year career, and he isn’t planning to stop anytime soon – he will keep running until someone says he can’t anymore. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with Leon “Popcorn” Wheaton – he is knowledgeable, funny, and sharp as a tack. And although he might have trouble walking and getting in and out of the truck at times, once he is in that driver’s seat, look out! In a world where “old school cool” is all the rage, sometimes a timeless classic, that is still going strong, is even better.