The Best Of TTAC – Autobiography 15: The Doh-Dah Man

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

It’s a little problematic having me make selections for The Best Of TTAC, but in keeping with the new Saturday truck theme, I offer up this from the vaults.

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.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Sortahwitte Sortahwitte on Dec 13, 2009

    I too cut my teeth on many a Ford Super Duty. The most memorable was a F-900 water truck I drove hauling water from a gas engine powered water pump at the river to a mud pit at a drilling rig site. This all happened in Louisiana in about ‘68. The track I followed through the woods was nothing but aroad of pure dust. They told me it was a poor truck driver that let the dust catch up to him. Finally, one day, I got to break in my replacement. He got in the cab and I came from the other side. First thing I said was “you have to double clutch it.” He replied " I'm not falling for that, one of them is the brake." Yes, he fit in very well.

  • Baabthesaab Baabthesaab on Dec 14, 2009

    Wow! You guys learned on some pretty nice trucks! My first was a 1956 Dodge Model H (in 1969) with a single-speed rear, 5-speed tranny, and a flat-head six. If you had to start off on a hill in first, you had to stay in first topping out at about 8 mph, because, in the time it took to double clutch to catch second, you were rolling backwards and couldn't engage it. The shift pattern was conceived by a masochist - 2nd to the left and forward, 3rd right behind it. 4th in the center and back, 5th in center forward. Reverse to the right and forward, with 1st in back of reverse. At least with double-clutching, you had time to look around. On the highway, any slight upgrade caused a downshift to 4th to hold the 40 mph minimum. You got up to 90? I was good for about 52 after a mile or so, on the flat, with the go pedal on the floor. What a beast! And I didn't even mention steering the thing.

  • VoGhost It's funny, until CDK raises their prices to cover the cost. And then the stealerships do even more stealing because they're certainly not taking the hit - why do you think they make all those political donations? So who pays in the end?
  • VoGhost I was talking today to a guy who pulled up in an '86 Camry. Said it ran like a top, got 30 mpg, the AC was ice cold and everywhere he goes, people ask to buy it. He seemed happy.
  • VoGhost TL:DL. Younger people less racist.
  • VoGhost None of the commenters who won't buy from China think twice about getting their oil from Saudi Arabia. They may even be filling up with Venezuelan or Russian petroleum, for all they know.
  • Johnny ringo In a word, no-the usual Chinese business model is to invite foreign companies into China as a joint venture, insist on a 49% share in the company-along with technology transfer and then push the foreign partner out and take control. And now with all the sabre rattling going on between the United States and China over Taiwan and the South China Sea and the possibility of a war, I'm not giving any of my money to the Chinese.
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