Most trucking stories you hear revolve around a young boy riding with his grandfather or father in learning how to drive a truck. But this is a story about an Autocar coming back home, a man crazy about trucks and a brother’s guidance, which played an important role with the driver he came to be.
Born and raised in the St. Louis, MO area, Dennis Stegall (66) has always been crazy about trucks. There was never a question of what he would do when he got older, and with the help of his older brother Darrell, it solidified the passion he had for trucks – it was all he could think about. Along with his brother, Dennis is the second generation of truckers in their family, with his dad and uncle being the first generation. Their father was older and had retired before Dennis had a chance to ride with him, so it was Darrell who mentored Dennis’ unyielding determination to drive. Dennis started driving locally at the age of 17 and, once he turned 21, he started running over the road.
In trucking’s past, it was a different era, where you did whatever you had to do to keep trucking. Back then, it was common for most drivers to either fix (or temporarily fix) their trucks while on the road. Dennis told me of a few different stories about how items were used for a quick fix to keep the trucks running.
One time, when Dennis was still young, he was riding with his brother, and they ran out of fuel about eight miles from the fuel stop. Darrell always carried a case of motor oil with him in the sleeper, so he poured motor oil in the fuel tank, which allowed him to get to the fuel stop. Dennis mentioned how this method only worked on the older motors, by comparison to the engines in the newer trucks today, where it won’t. Fast forward to when Darrell and Dennis were both driving for the same company, driving twin 1967 Peterbilts, and Dennis’ truck froze up after they had stopped in Lake Station, IN. They put charcoal in a pan, put a tarp around the pan, and lit the charcoal, leaving it to burn until the truck finally thawed out.
Dennis may have owned some of his own trucks over the years, but he was always leased-on to a company, otherwise he was a company driver. He purchased his first truck in 1980 – a 1974 White Road Boss – but, unfortunately, not long after that, the motor blew up in it.
In October 1981, Dennis married his wife Kathy and, combined, they have four children and seven grandchildren. Darrell passed away in 1985 from an extreme hemorrhage of the brain. He was Dennis’ mentor and hero and is both thought of often and greatly missed.
One thing Darrell instilled into Dennis is to always run a truck the way you feel comfortable. When I asked Dennis what advice he would give to others who wanted to get into trucking, those were the first words out of his mouth – along with keeping up with the maintenance and safety of the truck. He also said to have respect for others out on the road, and to watch their movements closely, to keep yourself safe.
In 1990, Dennis bought the Autocar seen here and hauled LTL freight on a flatbed trailer with it. He explained to me how he had problems in the winter with his Autocar because of where the fuel filter was located (it was exposed to the elements). To remedy this problem, he would sometimes wrap a diaper around the filter to keep it from freezing. He also said when the temperature would drop below freezing, he would put five gallons of unleaded gas in his tank and run like that all winter long. Keeping an eye on his pyrometer, to make sure it never got too warm when running with that unleaded gas in his tank, was a near constant chore for Dennis.
Eventually selling the Autocar, Dennis later purchased a 1984 Peterbilt in 1995, but then sold it in 1996, when he started driving for Hull Trucking out of Old Appleton, MO. This was also the same year Dennis and Kathy moved to Perryville, MO. While still running as a driver for Hull Trucking, Dennis had the opportunity to purchase the Autocar back in 1998, and the truck will now stay in the family. Dennis’ son James, owner of Stegall’s Truck Shop LLC, has played a vital role in working on the Autocar and what the truck looks like today.
The truck is a 1973 Autocar with a 380 Cummins, a 13-speed double-over transmission and a 240-inch wheelbase. The truck has a single rear end with one air tag axle. Originally, the truck had a 36-inch sleeper, but after Dennis bought the truck, it was replaced with a 60-inch Mercury sleeper. As seen today, the sleeper has been removed to restore it, which is still a work in progress. In the sleeper’s place is a wood platform, which was added for one of the fairs, but will eventually be removed.
Retiring from working at Hull Trucking in August 2017, Dennis still works part time, currently for TAG Truck Center in Jackson, MO, moving trailers around the local area, along with the occasional regional run mixed in.
I had planned the trip to Perryville back in June to attend the Laid Back on I-55 Truck Show and to photograph Eric Dias’ 379 (which was featured in last month’s issue), but the show was rescheduled due to rain in the forecast. Later, I decided to take my chances and still go to Perryville to photograph Eric’s truck. He had told me about this Autocar, owned by his friends, and after seeing a picture of it, I decided it would be a good idea to photograph this truck, too. If you’ve never been to Perryville, MO, please consider taking a visit – it is definitely worth the trip (I love it). I will be back there again for the 2nd Annual Laid Back on I-55 Truck Show, which was rescheduled for August 23-24. If you decide to check the show out, be sure to find me – I’d love to meet ya.
Special thanks go to Eric Dias for bringing this rig to my attention, Dennis and Kathy Stegall for their time and allowing me the honor of telling their story, and Tom Davis of Davis Implement for the use of his farm property for the photos. As always, to all the drivers out there doing the deal, truck safe.