It was a successful launch, and I was going for the record books. The 534 cubic inch Ford V8 bellowed and roared through the two short pipes exiting under my feet. The wide-open Holley four barrel noisily sucked the cool morning air. The air-scooped hood rose and dropped on the passenger side with each banging shift, a visual testament to massive torque. As my speed approached record territory, I had my hands full keeping the snorting beast under control. I glanced down on the big round speedometer and confirmed my victory: ninety miles per hour.
I was abusing a 1966 Ford F-900 Super Duty dump truck loaded with some 10 tons of gravel down a narrow country road. Normally, the Metro Pavers fleet would top out at sixty-five. But Number 8 had an erratic engine governor, as well as an Allison six-speed automatic. Every so often, when you first floored it, the governor didn’t engage. And it stayed that way, until you backed off.
These unpredictable moments of Holley-anarchy were the equivalent of turning on a bottle of nitro or a turbo (or both) and an irresistible invitation to explore the true top end capabilities of the giant hot-rod Ford– as long as the engine held together.
The odds of an untrammeled blast were about one in ten; kinda like playing the slots. The random inevitability of a noisy payoff kept me on my toes (literally), and helped break the rapid-growing ennui of hauling gravel all day.
Ford trucks play a recurring theme in my life; from my first truck drive to my most recent (yesterday). My initiation to Ford-truckin’ arrived via the usual baptism by fire.
I was a seventeen-year old car jockey at the local Ford dealer. I had noticed the big F-900 when I came to work after school. A salesman walked in and asked if anyone knew how to drive a truck. Without hesitation, I said yes. The cab looked just like an F-100. How hard could it be?
The salesman imparted his minimalist directions: “follow me”. I had no idea where we were going or what I was doing. Man, everything sure looked small from way up there. Was that warning alarm ringing away a novice driver detector, or something to do with air pressure?
I found the first of ten gears (a five speed and two speed axle), and released the heavy clutch. A groan and shudder, and then… nothing. The engine stalled. Painfuly. I finally found the air parking-brake release and set off.
The first order of business: keep the big rig in my lane while sorting out the 10 gears. Once I figured out how to stop locking the unloaded rear wheels with the grabby air brakes, people stopped staring at me.
Our route included the busiest and curviest piece of freeway around, followed by surface streets through the heart of downtown Baltimore. I sweated bullets keeping up with him. It was another righteous, riotous rite of passage.
A couple of years later in Iowa City, I grew tired of washing dishes (surprise, surprise) and answered an ad for dump-truck driver. Inexplicably, I was hired without a commercial license. A female state trooper showed up to give me the driving test. There was just one problem: the trucks had no passenger seat.
I found an old rickety wooden chair whose legs I rudely shortened. She gave me a look of disbelief. I gave her my best killer smile. She was a real trooper to perch on that wobbly chair while I drove her around. Mission accomplished.
It was mostly fun driving those gnarly old Ford Super Duty’s (back then that name was reserved for Ford’s biggest commercial trucks). But the day I lost my air brakes wasn’t a lot of laughs.
I had just loaded eight yards of gravel at the quarry. Getting back in the cab, my knee must have hit the air-brake switch. The low air-pressure warning alarm was broken. As I approached the stop at the highway, I realized my predicament. Trees blocked the view in both directions. I seriously considered bailing out. But I stayed with my truck and barreled into the highway, hoping for the best. It’s a good thing traffic was lighter back then.
I still rent a dump truck (Ford, of course) every now and then. Today’s big turbo-diesels have a wonderfully intense but short torque curve. And the transmissions now offer blazing quick clutch-less shifts.
My ’66 Ford pickup with its manual steering, non-power brakes and three speed (plus two speed transmission) keeps my skills in shape. It has the exact same cab as those hoary old Super-Duties, just a whole lot closer to the earth. I’ve even hit 90 with my pickup, but it wasn’t loaded with gravel. So the old record stands.