This is turning out to be a great year – and it’s only June! It’s that time when the schools are letting out for the summer and the kids and grandkids want to ride with dad or mom. All of us are looking to relax a little, do some family stuff, fire up the outdoor cooker, and maybe even enjoy an adult beverage or two. The season for truck shows has finally arrived here up north, as well. Now, if Mother Nature will get off the snowing and blowing kick it would be greatly appreciated.
My original thoughts for this month were to write about detail and prep work for summer salvation of our chrome and aluminum. In the process of doing research, we made plans to attend the truck show and drag race at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Arizona. What better place to get new ideas on show prep. The show didn’t disappoint, as Pickett Custom Trucks (PCT) and the NHRDA (National Hot Rod Diesel Association) knocked it out of the park. I have included some pictures from this event on these pages.
We arrived in Buckeye, Arizona, the week before to see if they needed any help getting ready for the show. That’s the new location of PCT’s shop. Upon arrival, they put me to work. You know what they say, “Idle hands will do the devil’s work.” As you can guess, my hands stayed busy. What started out as a couple days of show prep turned into a job interview, and then a test of my knowledge and/or abilities. I know some of you reading this are wondering how I ended up getting the chance to rub shoulders with the guys building the finest large rides in America. I guess it helps if your son is their top fabrication specialist. The rest is just luck.
We have vacationed in the Phoenix area a couple times and stopped by the shop to see projects our son is working on. Yes, it’s a lot like being a child and going to the candy store. If you don’t see what you want, just ask – they probably have it somewhere in the back or “The Steve” can cut it out of sheet stock and then bend it into shape so Mr. C (Chris) can body finish it and squirt color over it. All this happens on a daily basis under the watchful eye of The Big Guy – no, not sleepy Joe – Rod Pickett.
All of us have looked up at the truck stop and seen one of the Facebook famous drivers come slowly strolling into the parking lot. I don’t think any of us have not thought about driving one of those showstoppers. Let your mind’s eye wander… the sun is beaming down on that ribbon of blacktop, your reflection is blinding, all that polished paint and the grill is cutting through the wind like hot butter. You can just feel the rumble of power, glancing in your mirrors to see a puff of black smoke roll off the chrome tipped straight pipes as you catch the next gear. If this were a fashion show, others would say you were dressed to impress, but this is trucking, and we say, “Man, that’s pressed out!” Okay, back to reality, before you crash or spend all your fuel money at the chrome shop.
The question is, where do those fancy trucks come from and how do you get one? Let’s start off with the first question – they don’t come from the factory, at least not completely. Now, for the second question, there are any number of shops that can build a dialed in, pressed out, and eye popping ride. The only factor remaining is how much time do you have and what is your price range? As with most aspects of trucking, time and money can be a definite factor, but if you have the time and money is not a problem, then the sky is the limit. Most of these builds take more time than we can imagine, and during that span of time – between the conception and final delivery – they take on a character of their own. Most of the trucks being built from new inventory are ordered plain Jane so there are less wasted parts when they finally arrive from the manufacturer. Remember, not only are these extra parts unnecessary, but the time to remove them will be charged back, as well.
I think probably the most often asked question is, “Why would you have a custom built truck in the first place?” Answer: because the factory won’t build what we want. What constitutes “custom” is as varied as are the customers that order them. Most of us look at these beauty queens and assume they are new, or nearly new, but there is always that possibility of a remake, especially after an unfortunate accident or failure in judgment. Who is to say when a driver misjudged a skiff of snow up on I-80 in Wyoming, it sure didn’t look like an 18-inch deep snowbank. The end result required an insurance claim and $100K to put it back in service. This is a case where you should be talking to a custom shop like PCT (Pickett Custom Trucks). I was surprised to find their prices were very competitive when checked against the local truck dealerships.
Yes, I had some work done while I was there, too. I now have their shaved 379 headlights, toolbox covers, seat plates and grill, and I just picked up my new 9-inch big hole rims with 315 tires. I was able to score some frame rail, too, before I left, for the next step on my rebuild. These shops are an excellent source for second hand usable parts if you are working on a tight budget. Even if they don’t have what you’re looking for at the time, they know when there may be some parts coming in. That’s how I happened to get the takeoff tires, from a motor home, and they ordered in the correct rims, then added the big holes. Why, of course, that machining was necessary, at least that’s what I told my wife. Shhhh…
Many of us have watched the television shows on Discovery Channel. Those shops look impressive, with shoulder high toolboxes, full of every conceivable device known to a service person. Everything is polished and clean, and all the parts fall apart in the removal process. Any new part needed is always on the table, ready to be replaced, and they always fit perfectly. Well, that’s television, not reality. So, let’s get back to my working vacation.
I rolled up on Monday morning unsure of what to expect or what they expected from me. Their new facility is much larger than their old shop and still not as large as their new building will be when it’s finished. There were hints there could be a new grand opening later this year or next spring. Shoot, once they gave me a job, just finding the right tools took me a couple days. I don’t believe I have ever seen so many tools in one place. I have to remind myself I don’t work as a full time mechanic, so my assortment of wrenches at home could be incomplete. When you are working with professionals, it shows. The more I looked around, the more I questioned why they asked me to help out!
In today’s world of customization, the frame stretch is viewed as essential. How you attack the project is dependent on why you are doing it in the first place. On my first day, I was paired up with an old friend and a fellow driver from back home, who was also working through his vacation. Ken Taylor is a driver for MBH Trucking back in Michigan, but his skill-set ranges from heavy haul driver to head mechanic. Did I mention he is an excellent welder, something I’m not, so we make a good team.
Our first job was to reattach the new rear frame and axles to the original frame of a 362 Peterbilt COE. For those of you who have never seen this done, it takes longer than you would think. I have stretched a few trucks over the years, and there is definitely a RIGHT way and the other way. If it’s done the right way, you may never know anyone worked on it, but if it is done any other way, it shows. Quality comes at a price, and this is not a place to cut corners.
That project was short lived, and in a few hours, my part was done. Ken set about “burning rod” or, in this case, wire in their frame. Next, I was sent to change out a wheel seal in the new freshly drilled frame rails for a 389 Peterbilt remake. Once again, this is not the place to cut corners. Money spent in the front of a project will drive the build price higher, but a little money spent now may save a bunch later.
In the process of fixing them, I discovered a major problem with the rear ends. Note to self: when purchasing used equipment be prepared for the seller to “tell tales” about the product they are selling. They wouldn’t dream of lying to another truck driver, however the facts about mileage and maintenance could have got lost in the transaction.
I don’t believe I have ever seen that much wear in a set of rears with only 400K miles on them. Could be they didn’t count the first million miles. It doesn’t matter at this point, as we sent them to town and had a local shop rebuild them and change the ratio from 3.55 to 3.36 gears. A couple hours after they were returned, they were back in the frame, and ready to be painted.
When they build new trucks at the factory, everything rolls down an assembly line, and they all go together in a set order. That works great and is quite efficient. Things don’t work that quickly when you’re making one-off parts or waiting for parts to arrive from a specialty shop. I was feeling really confident in my ability to fix stuff, then Rod told me there was a 359 in the back I should work on to see if I can get it running. How hard can that be? Since I’ve had a few of these trucks and still own an antique 1974, I felt confident that this job wouldn’t take long.
I have to admit, this job was a real challenge, and it really tested my old brain. When Rod Pickett said it had some wiring issues I wasn’t prepared for the project at hand. This really is a cool old truck – a 1984 Peterbilt 359 – as it was originally, but the wiring harness wasn’t complete, so much of it needed to be reproduced using old wires from some extra harnessing. If anyone has chased wires in their dash, they can appreciate how time consuming it can be when mechanics run all one color wire to make repairs, then fail to label where they go. Most of the cables are plug and play or grouped together for easy repairs, and now I understand what “plug and play” means… plug all of them together and play around with the loose one until two of them fit together, cross your fingers, and hope they are the right ones!
As you can guess, it was not as easy as the directions suggest. It was fortunate we found an old Peterbilt service manual that had all the wiring schematics and the color codes for all the wires. By the time I was finished, the complete dash worked, even the stuff that didn’t work back in the day. It felt a lot like the Johnny Cash song where he says, “With a little help from an adapter kit, I pulled the switch, and all the lights came on.” Mission accomplished, well, almost. I am supposed to get it running so, as you can guess, I spent several days checking fuel lines, plugging tank drains, flushing the radiator, rebuilding a clutch fan, and plenty of other stuff, including routing all the air lines and hooking up the brakes. Whew, what a fast couple of weeks! But on Friday, before quitting time, I heard it run for the first time.
Getting this old Peterbilt to run was a group effort, and I needed to call in some outside help since the fuel pump didn’t function as it should have. But one new fuel pump later, and it can roll coal with the best of them. I would be remiss not to mention the guys who do much of the grunt work, like polishing the finished trucks and prepping for paint. The amount of bump and body work required there shocked me. Juan does much of the heavy work, along with The Steve, like doing air ride front axles and assembly of drop body panels, and some light welding (there is always someone welding). Brice does a lot of the general labor and spends much of his time prepping parts for paint and sanding. With the amount of polishing required to keep all these trucks rolling, they have a full time detail man on sight, and I got some really good pointers from him (Zeke) before I left.
The time to quit before I got fired finally arrived, as I needed to head for home, and end this working vacation. This has been a dream job and something I have had on my bucket list for a while. Not only did I get to work hand and hand with my son, but it all happened in one of the best custom truck building shops in the world. I have considered myself to be very knowledgeable when it comes to Peterbilts and building custom rides, but after three and a half weeks of working in a real build environment, I have come to the realization I’m not as proficient as I may have believed. My advice to others is, when in doubt, call and make an appointment with the professionals. They have the tools, the knowledge, and the abilities to make all your truck dreams come true, 10-4.