By on May 5, 2007

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.

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12 Comments on “Auto-Biography 15: The Do-Dah Man...”

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Bloody hilarious – I’m jealous. Whenever I see anything weird or offbeat, my friends are stupefied that I want to drive it. A short list of must-drives includes: Unimog, transport tow truck, Zamboni and a jet plane. Not fly it mind you, just take it for a rip down the runway.
    Last year, I drove a new million-dollar aerial fire-truck on a slalom course. Not easy – and even trickier backwards.

  • avatar

    Wow, Paul. I worked on a Ford lot in my teens. I lived in Iowa City for 5 years. And now I can relate yet again. As an assistant team leader for a volunteer youth program, I got to cut down invasive Chinese elm trees around a fish hatchery in Wray, Colorado. For a week, I got to use a chainsaw and drive a dump truck–all day. She wasn’t a Ford, but a mid-seventies Chevy C65. A former CDOT workhorse, we fondly called it “Agent Orange.” My dream of driving a dump truck came true. The sheer simplicity of the thing–pull a lever and watch the load go bye-bye while keeping the rpms up with the right foot. The industrial roar of that old gas V8 was awesome…Once again, thanks for sharing.

  • avatar

    I read every one of your articles in this series.
    It wasn’t Iowa and the brands were different, some differences, but overall the parallels between your story and mine all the way back to the start are amazing.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    The price of new trucks – on average, about $35,000, for a half-ton – is perhaps the major reason people are shopping for trucks at collector car auctions. In February, an 82 year old seller parted with a 1960 Ford F-250 Custom Cab pickup, complete with camper, for just $2,600 (plus 8 percent buyer’s fee) at a collector car auction, conducted by Silver Auctions, in Puyallup, WA.

    More often, one is seeing everthing from vintage fire trucks to home built campers, set on one-ton frames. True enough, the braking systems may not be as sophisticated as those on the new trucks; but for the money saved, you can easily buy a disc brake system to retrofit most any old truck. Have you considered doing that to your ’66, Paul?

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer


    Some day scientists will discover the gene that makes us obsess about cars and compells us to get behind the wheel of anything we can get our hands on, no matter what it takes. Hopefully, they won’t find a cure for our “affliction”.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer


    The brakes on my ’66 F-100 are truly miserable and scary. That’s why I still have them; it keeps me on my toes and always in the right gear. I’m all about vintage originality and the experience it engenders. BUT, I never lend it out to anyone else. It scared the wee out of someone once, and I learned my lesson.

    You’ll hear more about it in a later chapter.

  • avatar

    A friend had a 59 Ford P/U with a transplanted 390-4V motor and C-6 automatic. Built to the hilt naturally it was a rocketship. Complete with Lincoln Versailles rear end with disk brakes.

    The speedometer didn’t work but there was no doubt triple digits were on the menu at wide open throttle.

    Burnouts took the entire road as the truck would lurch from side to side and white smoke engulfed the neighborhood.

    I helped him build the engine and it was a labor of love, one of the wildest rides I ever drove.

  • avatar

    My fun with big trucks includes circa 80’s helping a friend to drive a long Uhaul truck from Ottawa( Upper Canada) to Toronto. The steering has quite a bit of play. Worse when approaching Semi trailers, my truck got pushed by the Vortex of bad current. After a few pushes I learnt a way of turning the steering wheel into it. But has to figure out the timing not a sec too early or late, otherwise it counters the effect.

    few yrs back my bro was in Land scape. he needs a truck, we found a early 60’s Dodge 2 ton flat deck truck. Asking for un-Princely sum. Is kind of a basket case with the front brakes. We had to pickup from the relining place and put her all together again. After few weeks of evening fun we had her rolling. The truck’s brake do drag, in the end we found the brake master cyl has a small hole ( was plugged) to bleed the pressure back when not applying the pedal. It has a slant 6, manual steering and almost manual brake.
    To sum it up we really got a lot of bangs for our bucks.

    Now i have a tandem car trailer, thats double up the fun too.

  • avatar

    Interesting read…

    A 5 speed transmission with a 2 speed rear axle was seldom split Low / Hi in every gear to make a 10 speed transmission.

    The gas engines in those truck rarely went beyond 4500RPM and were governed at or slightly below 4000RPM – the ultimate gas engine was the 702 cu in V12 that GM was using.

    As for transmissions the drivers that could handle a main and auxiliary transmission were very adept at driving and using both hands to shift gears. When the Fuller Roadranger transmissions came along it was a giant step forward.

    Talking of air brakes, who remembers the early ABS on air brake trucks?

  • avatar

    Twenty years ago I fell in love with a camperized 1952 GMC Carpenter bus, and bought it without a second thought.I figured it would be no different to drive than anything else. I was facing a 500 mile trip home and I almost found religion that day.It took about 100 miles for the tires to warm up and round out.Half way through the trip, I had to dismantle the carb and clean out all the debris.She ran real fine after that, climbing the five switchbacks at Oosoyoos BC in three high. Coming into Castlegar,I shifted the rear axle when the vacuum was low(no gauge)the rear axle was in neutral and I was coasting at 60 MPH.
    I did the worst thing possible, using the brakes to slow it down. I found out that they were only good for one application at that speed, soon I was doing 80 on a steep winding hill. I had a mental picture of what that bus would look like hitting a concrete barrier at that speed and then a runaway lane appeared. No hesitation, I took it, and when my adrenalin subsided I was on my way.I still have the old bus, found out it was an old Brown & Root company bus from the Alberta oil patch.She probably will never be on the road again but that was a trip I will never forget.

  • avatar

    Paul, you can install front disc brakes on your ’66 so easily you won’t believe it. It’s a bolt on swap from a newer pre-80 pickup. I wrote a how-to on it on my web site. I did mine without drilling a single hole. I like the ‘charm’ of the column shift and Armstrong steering, but the brakes I just couldn’t live with.

  • avatar

    I like keeping them mostly original too. But one thing I would do to that 66 is install a dual master cylinder for safety. Those old single master cylinders do look cool though.

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