Not Buying It
The long search for a cabover project truck
By David A. Kolman
I’ve been on a quest for a good many years now, as you regular Road King readers are aware. For those who aren’t, my pursuit has been to find an affordable, reasonable-looking, used cabover tractor. It will be my project truck.
The intent is simple. I do what needs doing to get this cabover into a condition where I could put it to work. Should I not be able to find a carrier to lease to, I’ll have one heck of an only-drive-it-on-nice-weather-days vehicle.
From the start, I made some specific decisions about what cabovers I would consider. I wanted one that was operable. It could not be a product of neglect, sitting unused for a long time or missing a ton of parts. These, I figured, would be cost and time prohibitive. Besides, having a “hulk” parked outside the house wouldn’t endear me to my wife. With a running truck, I could drive it while I worked on it. And that would be more fun.
Dialing for cabovers
I began my hunt in earnest. After all, I know a gazillion people, many with the truck OEMs and their dealers. So I’d ask every truck person I came in contact with to be on the lookout for a used cabover for me. Having been a founder and longtime member of the Used Truck Association, I also contacted board, regular and associate members and asked them if they had or knew of a good used cabover.
One of my calls struck pay dirt.
A used truck manager friend at a truck dealership in the South said he had something for me. Saying I was elated doesn’t do justice to how I felt. My friend described the truck as a calendar cabover. “It’s such a good-looking cabover — inside and out — it needs to be on a calendar,” he said.
My exuberance grew considerably when he told me the asking price. I grabbed my checkbook and bought a one-way ticket. Arriving at the dealership, I found my friend. This was it. I was about to be the owner of a beautiful cabover that needed little work, and would be mine. All mine. We exchanged pleasantries, and with each word I was anxious to move on and see my new truck. And then …
“I have some bad news,” my friend finally said.
My mood rapidly crashed. I had a good idea of what he was going to tell me.
“I’m sorry to tell you that the truck has been sold.”
“WHAT?” I exclaimed, rather loudly. Who stole my truck?
“We just couldn’t refuse the generous offer that guy made on that cabover. My sincere apologies.”
I was devastated. Back home I went, putting the situation behind me. I continued my cabover quest, sadder and wiser.
What eventually dawned on me was that my mission to acquire a cabover was bumping up against one of the most fundamental concepts of economics: supply and demand. With the onset of less restrictive federal tractor-trailer length laws in 1976, cabovers lost their popularity in favor of conventional tractor configurations that provided more comfort, less engine noise and easier entry and egress. Who needs all that?
There just aren’t many cabovers around these days. When a product desired by buyers is available in very limited quantities, the price goes up. But as my dear father used to tell me: “Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success.”
A dependence on others
I kept making calls, but I also began scrutinizing trucks-for-sale publications, doing online searches and exploring eBay.
One of my challenges has been to find a suitable cabover that is fairly close to where I reside. It’s very difficult, time-consuming and costly to travel across the country to visit potential project cabovers only to be disappointed, and I’m too afraid to buy a vehicle sight unseen. I’ve come to find out you can’t depend on friends to help with a cabover hunt. In a few areas of the country where I’ve found potential buys, I have friends who know trucks. I’ve called them and asked if they mind visiting the truck for me and checking it out. No friend denied my request. However, once I had the OK for their visit and phoned the friends back, they were always “too busy.”
For the most part, I’ve found that truck sellers are good about providing details and photos, and noting “flaws” with vehicles, such as a fuel tank leak, a broken cab jack and tires that need replacing. They’ve also been nice about sending along additional photos and discussing their truck over the phone or by email. Some even have provided videos of their trucks, showing the exterior and interior, and “listening” to the engine running.
A few have not been quite so forthcoming. Like many an online dater, I’ve been intrigued by a posted photo, only to discover that it is not of recent vintage. The beauty I’m considering picking up has seen a few more years and hard knocks since that picture reflected reality.
I recently got out to take a close-up look at a 1977 Peterbilt 352 with a 13-speed transmission and a 350-hp Cummins diesel. The truck had about a million miles on it. Among the issues I found which were not reported in the for-sale notice: transmission shifter air leak, missing speedometer cable, cracked two-piece windshield, door leaks, power steering leak, worn steering tires, huge chunks of tread missing on two inside dual tires and body work required.
Used cabover buyers and sellers view the truck’s value very differently. The absolute, no-negotiation, firm price for this perforated Pete was $9,000. Really?
Another lesson learned: On eBay, the bidding typically is slow until right before the deadline. That’s when the “feeding frenzy” occurs and the bidding accelerates rapidly. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement. So I passed on a 1953 Kenworth Bullnose with a 262-hp turbo Cummins diesel (no mileage listed), a 5+4 speed transmission and a button tuck interior in great condition. The starting bid price was $20,000 — way out of my league. What did it sell for? I was afraid to find out.
I kept looking for the right deal. And much to my astonishment, I recently “won” an online auction for a 1991 Kenworth K100E with 11.1-liter Series 60 Detroit Diesel. With nearly 1.4 million miles on it, it was in pretty good condition, all things considered. The person selling the truck, located in Florida, contacted me and said the auction ended without the reserve on the tractor being met but he’d accept my offer. Finally, I thought, a dream fulfilled.
I told the seller I’d have my brother, who happens to live in the Sunshine State, come by and do the deal. I just can’t bring myself to buy a vehicle sight unseen, and I couldn’t get to Florida in short order. But before my brother could get by (about a week), the seller re-listed his K100E on a different online auction. This time he sold the truck. At least the seller let me know.
Among the inspirational quotes I have on my office wall is one from renowned football coach Vince Lombardi. It reads: “It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get up again.”
The will to persevere is often the difference between failure and success. I’ve got plenty of keep-at-it. If I had a penny for every business card I’ve handed out strictly for finding a used cabover, I’d be able to purchase a spiffed out, late model cabover.
So, I’ve no doubt that it’s merely a matter of time before I end my project truck quest successfully.
Of course, I thought that when I first started looking. In 2002.