The American Truck Historical Society treasures classic rigs
By Paul Abelson
Many truck shows feature customized rigs — those muraled and chromed beauties that compete for trophies and bragging rights. Some are derisively known as “trailer queens,” a term applied to trucks brought to beauty shows inside trailers. These pampered specimens are limited mileage, nonworking trucks with nary a speck of road grime on them.
But at another kind of truck show, plenty of the rigs on display will be babied and carried by trailer, and not a tsk tsk will be uttered. These rigs are more “trailer workhorses” than “trailer queens.” The owners are transporting them for the American Truck Historical Society (ATHS) show, held this past May in South Bend, Ind. Members are enthusiastic about showing their rigs, not for the medals and trophies, the “bling” of truck beauty contests, but as examples of trucking history.
A 1921 Mack Model AC may not run anymore, but as an icon of trucking history it is worthy of being handled with care so it can be shown.
Past and present
ATHS was started in 1971 by several owners of trucking companies. The original intent was to record and preserve the history of the industry. Over the years, the emphasis moved from the history of trucking companies to the evolution of trucks and equipment. The ATHS show makes that history tangible.
Peter J. Crooks of Harpersville, N.Y., brought his 1957 Mack H63 cabover to this year’s show. Like many trucks of the era, Peter’s Mack has been modified over the years.
It now sports a H67 Cab and the original 673 (cu. in.) engine was replaced with a 1984 237 (hp) Maxidyne. The 9-speed Rockwell RT 11509 had the back of an overdrive ransmission added, making it a 13-speed.
Crooks, a veteran of 42 years of over-the-road driving as both a company driver and owner-operator, always liked Macks. He got the truck in 2007 and started by replacing the batteries and air lines to make the truck drivable. “The real work started in 2008,” Crooks says. “My friends helped quite a bit, and, except for some complex work where we had to send things out, it became a community project.”
Before he retired, Crooks owned a ’92 Peterbilt 379 that he kept “good enough to show,” though he never did. After he retired in 2010, Crooks made it to two antique truck shows.
“The Mack is a never-ending project. Before this show it needed some painting, but we just used some ‘rattle can coating’ (spray paint from a can) rather than a body shop job,” he confides.
Trucks at ATHS shows are not judged for trophies, so spray paint touchups are perfectly acceptable.
A full range of models
At ATHS, not all the trucks are tractor-trailers, or even over-the-road. Many are straight trucks used in trades or vocational applications. John Sterly’s 1959 Divco Model 200C refrigerated milk delivery truck is a good example.
Sterly taught 8th grade science in Lowell, Mich., for 34 years before his retirement. As a child, he had worked as a milkman’s helper from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. on school days. When he was old enough to drive, he got his own route for the summer, earning tuition to Central Michigan University in various Divco trucks.
Sterly found the Divco Club of America in 1999 through an online search. In 2004, while planning for his retirement the following year, he found and bought his truck. It had been sitting for 17 years and took two years to restore to the point where he could take it to shows.
“It’s a work in progress,” he says. “With an old truck, there’s always something to do.” Sterly is now the membership director of the Divco Club.
This year was Sterly’s first ATHS and — just as he does at the Divco shows he attends — he dressed the part of a milkman, wearing a short sleeve white shirt and a black plastic clip-on bow tie.
It’s not unusual to see people in period outfits while showing their trucks. It’s part of the heritage of trucking that ATHS tries to preserve.
“We draw ATHS membership from a wide variety of people with a wide variety of interests,” says Bill Johnson, ATHS Executive Director. “The membership can be roughly divided into thirds. One-third have pickup trucks, one-third have medium duty classes 4 through 6, and one-third have tractor-trailers and large vocational trucks. We even have what we call class one-fourth. It consists of early Jeeps, Crosley pickup trucks and similar small trucks.”
Johnson joined the ATHS in 1988 and became a staff member in 1999. He’d been a driver, owner-operator and even a dispatcher during his career in trucking, and is now able to support his industry through preservation. His goals for ATHS are to grow membership, utilize more of their 30,000 sq. ft. building in Kansas City, Mo., for research and resources and to grow the National Convention and Antique Truck Show. As a measure of his success so far, this year’s show drew 854 entrants, a far cry from the 26 at the first show in 1980 and, despite the economy, the second highest in ATHS history.
Eventually, Johnson would like to see ATHS have its own 50,000 sq. ft. museum.