The enduring appeal of a disappearing truck style
By David A. Kolman
I hate to sound trite, but it truly was love at first sight when I spotted my first cabover heavy duty tractor. I remember that occasion as if it were yesterday. I can still envision every detail.
I was six years old. It was recess time at my elementary school and my class was outside playing Greek Dodge. From out of nowhere we heard a loud noise. We all turned toward the sound and there it was: a strange heavy-duty tractor pulling a trailer with a large bulldozer.
The sight of the peculiar truck stopped me cold. There was something about the bold, flat-faced look of the tractor that fascinated me. It seemed to project strength, solidness and “truckiness.”
Plus, it was awesome to see the driver in his high driving position. I figured a powerful engine had to be underneath the driver. Where else could it be?
I should mention I had been fascinated by trucks for as long as I can remember. My first toys were Tonka trucks and construction equipment. One of my neighbors owned a construction company. He let me sit behind the wheel of one of his big trucks and honk the ear-piercing air horns, then took me for a ride around the block. It was then that I made up my mind to become a truck driver when I grew up.
After the unusual tractor trailer had driven by the school I rushed home and waited anxiously for my dad at the door. “Dad, I saw this really neat truck at school today,” I shouted at him as he walked in, and then described it excitedly. My dad suggested we go to the library and look it up. I discovered that I had seen a “cabover,” that I was right about where the engine is situated and that the truck is so named because of the cab-over-engine (COE) design.
I revised my what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up goal. I would become a cabover trucker.
From then on, I was always on the lookout for cabovers. I got to know the various truck manufacturers and it wasn’t long before I could identify the make of a cabover within the first couple of moments of sighting one.
Being a tall kid and looking older than 12, I got a job in a small warehouse so I could be around trucks. Most of the drivers who came to the warehouse were kind enough to let me sit in their trucks while they demonstrated what all the controls did. This for me was better than being in a candy store with several weeks’ worth allowance in my pocket. Regrettably, though, no cabovers came.
As soon as I was old enough to get my CDL, I made a deal with a local freight company to have one of its drivers help me prepare for my driving test. I showed up at their yard at the appointed time and the driver walked me out to his tractor.
I didn’t think I could get any more keyed up, but I was very wrong. We headed straight for a cabover — a non-sleeper International Emeryville tractor. It would be my very first time in a cabover, and it was better than I had imagined.
I got my CDL and went trucking full-time, first with a car carrier, then with a paint company that operated cabovers. I went on to work for several other companies that also ran cabovers. I drove Ford, International, Kenworth, Mack and Peterbilt models. But no matter the brand, I loved climbing up into the wide cab and settling into the high-sitting position.
The broader field of view through the large windshield provided me with unobstructed visibility. That, in turn, gave me more confidence in being able to maneuver safely and avoid accidents.
Beyond that, the wrap-around instrument panel and controls and doghouse (engine cowling or tunnel) gave the feel of a cockpit. Driving was a pleasure because the short wheelbase of cabovers allows for a shorter turning radii, which makes for easier maneuvering — especially in tight spots, backing and sharp turns. Another desirable: cabover rigs require less parking space.
Then came a sad event for me: the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982. It did away with the overall 55-foot length restriction for tractor-trailers on U.S. highways, and thus began the demise of cabovers. More and more trucking companies and owner operators began switching to conventional tractors.
As time went on, there were fewer and fewer cabovers on the road. Then in the late 1980s, Peterbilt introduced a radically different, aerodynamic-designed cabover: the 372. It earned the nicknamed the “football helmet” for its sloped, angled windshield, angled front (which included a unique swing-up “hood”) and smooth sides all the way to the rear. At the time, it was reported to be one of Peterbilt’s most aerodynamically efficient trucks.
Surely, I thought, this would breathe new life into the dying cabover. It did not.
Hope revived in the mid-1990s when Navistar International came out with its International 9800 Pro Sleeper Flat Floor cabover. It was North America’s first cabover with no doghouse. It had a flat floor from the dashboard to bunk. That meant no more crawling over the engine tunnel to get back into the bunk (something I always enjoyed) and plenty of room to walk freely.
I figured these creature comforts, combined with the fact that all highways and metropolitan areas had continued to grow more congested, so a cabover — which requires less space and has great maneuverability —would bring much new life back to cabovers. Once again, I was mistaken.
My optimism was raised one more time when Freightliner introduced its Argosy cabover in the late 1990s. The model had a number of new driver-friendly features, including staircase-style steps that automatically pivot from under the cab when the door is opened or closed, making cab entry and exit more convenient.
Another selling point was this cabover’s tight turning radius that came from a front wheel cut of up to 50 degrees that worked with the mid-axle-back setting for superior maneuverability in tight spots.
Still the market for cabovers remained in decline.
I didn’t care. When I went to buy my first used tractor, I planned to buy a cabover. There weren’t many good ones around, so it took much searching nationwide before I found a “calendar” cabover (that’s one that’s pretty enough to be featured on a calendar) out of state. It was sold before I got to the dealership. Since I had a contract to haul, I had to settle for a conventional, and a long-nose model at that.
Having spent considerable time in that tractor, I will acknowledge that it was easier to get in and out of. It also had a somewhat smoother ride compared to a cabover.
However, I remain a hardcore cabover man. My next tractor will be a cabover, if I can find one. Today, cabovers have all but disappeared from America’s highways. The last of them are used in applications such as ports and rail yards, where space is at a premium and a tight turning radius is needed. Still, I’ll search for that elusive model because my road life on top of a powerful engine in a cabover was great. I am proud of the nickname a trucking buddy of mine bestowed upon me, and still go by it.
Just call me: Cabover Kolman.
Some Notable Dates in Heavy Duty Cab-Over-Engine Tractor History
- Kenworth introduces its “bubble-nose” cab-over-engine truck.
- Late 1930s
- Leland James, president of Consolidated Freightways, oversees design of an aluminum cab-over-engine design tractor.
- Freightways Manufacturing, now Freightliner Corp., introduces the FTL cabover.
- Peterbilt introduces its first cabovers, the Model 280 and Model 350, commonly called “bull-nose” tractors.
- Hyster becomes the first private carrier to order a Freightliner cabover.
- White-Freightliner introduces a cabover with an overhead sleeper to maximize cargo capacity.
- Mack introduces its H Series cabover, nicknamed “Cherry Pickers” because of the high cab.
- Peterbilt introduces its Model 351 cabover.
- Kenworth introduces its flat-faced cabover model CSE (cab surrounding engine).
- GMC replaced its “bubble-nose” cabovers with the “Crackerbox” Series, so named because of its very square look.
- Mack introduces its flat-face G Series cabover.
- Peterbilt introduces its UniLite 352 and UniLite 282 cabovers, nicknamed the “Pacemaker.”
- White Trucks introduces its 5000 Series cabover.
- Late 1950s
- International introduces its cabover Emeryville line, nicknamed the “Highbinder.”
- Early 1960s
- Ford introduces its H Model cabover, nicknamed the “Two-Story Falcon.”
- Marmon Motor begins building road trucks, offering only cabovers until 1970.
- Dodge Truck introduces its L Series cabover.
- Freightliner introduces its TurboLiner cabover, powered by a gas-turbine engine.
- International begins phasing out its Emeryville cabover and introduces its CO-4000 Series cabover.
- Ford introduces its W Model cabover.
- GMC replaces its “Crackerbox” cabover with the Astro Series cabover.
- White Trucks introduces its Road Commander cabover.
- The action film White Line Fever — about an independent trucker and his “Blue Mule” Ford W9000 cabover — hits theatres.
- Kenworth introduces the industry’s first raised roof cabover sleeper, the K100 Aerodyne.
- The television show B.J. and the Bear — about a trucker (Billie Joe McKay) and his pet chimp companion (Bear) who travel around the country in a Kenworth 108-inch Aerodyne VIT cabover tractor pulling a refrigerated trailer — airs from October 1978 until May 1981.
- Ford introduces its CL9000 cabover with an advanced cab air suspension system.
- Peterbilt introduces its Model 362 cabover, replacing the Model 352 as its flagship cabover.
- The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 was enacted. It abolished overall-length restrictions for tractor-trailers on the nation’s Interstate Highway System.
- Until about 1986, the cabover was the most popular configuration in the U.S. because of overall length laws. However, after the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, the conventional started to become the overwhelming truck of choice.
- Peterbilt introduces its aerodynamic Model 372 cabover, nicknamed the “Winnebago” and “Football Helmet.”
- Peterbilt ceases production of its Model 372 cabover.
- Navistar International introduces its International 9800 Flat Floor cabover.
- Freightliner introduces its Century Class Argosy cabover.
- Late 1998
- Navistar International reports: “Since 1988, the cabover segment of the heavy truck industry has declined by approximately 90 percent.”
- Navistar International ceases production of its International 9800 cabovers.
- J.B. Hunt and Freightliner announce an agreement to replace Hunt’s cabover fleet with new conventional tractors.
- The last Peterbilt Model 362 cabover rolls off the line.