This Old Truck

By on May 1, 2008
RoadKing Mag

When Bill Donnelly drove out of the parking lot of the Kenworth dealership in Perrysburg, Ohio, his new, long-nose, double-sleeper had five miles on it. Donnelly doesn’t take credit for those miles. He will, however, proudly take the credit for the other 3.75 million miles of smooth running on his 1980 chassis.

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“If you keep it up, you won’t have problems,” says the veteran driver. “That’s what I’m always saying. If something breaks, it is going to break something else if you don’t fix it.”

Bill Donnelly is my father, and when he drove that 1980 Kenworth into our driveway for the first time I was crushed. Why did he have to replace the 1978 Peterbilt? Everything I knew about truck driving I learned at the wheel of a Peterbilt cabover. I walked around truck terminals praising the Peterbilt. The pictures on my wall were never of a Kenworth. And, geez … that long nose? Wasn’t it better to be up in the air, looking down into the seats of passing cars from a cabover, not a conventional?

Still, the 1980 Kenworth was a sight to see in our driveway — a model W900 with an extra long hood and a Cummins KTA 525 motor. The blue beauty had a 14-speed Spicer transmission. I missed the “doghouse” that I would sleep on when I was growing up, but walking around inside the cab, turning on the TV and having a place for the refrigerator had its advantages.

So I warmed up to the Kenworth over time and became accustomed to watching Dad go through his usual ritual once he got home. He always believed in keeping up his outfit, figuring that as long as he was behind the wheel he wanted the best. After every trip, he would walk around the truck, put up the hood and look for spots of oil or loose bolts, check for hanging wires or cracked light covers. If something needed fixing — no matter how small — he fixed it right then.

“I know how my truck handles,” he says. “I know what it feels like and what it is supposed to feel like and what to expect from it. Another driver might not know. If something doesn’t feel right while I am out on the road, when I get home I check it out and look for where it is coming from. You have to go over those things.”

A turning point

But even the strictest attention to detail can’t prevent the unexpected. Seven years to the day after dad brought the Kenworth home there was an accident. While the truck was parked at a fuel pump in Gary, Ind., another truck turned sharply, striking the hood, taking off the front fender and damaging the right wheel and hub.

At that point Dad could have justified replacing the truck, but he saw the accident as an opportunity to improve it instead. “I decided to do a makeover,” he says.

Makeover is describing it lightly. As always, he did the work himself. He cut the sleeper in two and expanded it by another foot. He added an aerodyne top. He stretched the frame by two feet. He painted the truck red.

He also completely custom-made a new interior. Today, the sleeper has a 40-by-72-inch bed, oak cupboards, a closet on the passenger side, a built-in refrigerator and sink with hot and cold water. The bed stands up under the cupboard, and a table drops down from the bottom of the bed. The rig is equipped with a 1,700-watt invertor and a microwave.

Naturally, there have been a few engine changes over the years — Dad always was tinkering with the engine on his truck. Whenever it needed work, minor or major overhauls, he did the work himself. He owned the Kenworth less than a year when he switched the 525 to a Cummins KTA 600. He bought a used engine in 1992, overhauled it and turned it into a 600. It lasted five years, until 1997, when he turned to a 3406B Caterpillar engine. He had to do several things to the frame — drilling, remaking motor mounts, changing the radiator tubes — and it remains in the truck to this day.

No wonder he doesn’t want to let this rig go.

The man behind the truck

Dad is a second-generation truck driver. His father hauled furniture and Dad has been a meat and produce hauler since the mid-1960s. He’s driven the Kenworth to 46 states and five Canadian provinces.

Company names and just about everything else you can think of have been fashioned and re-fashioned in one way or another on the truck. The constant, however, has been Bill Donnelly behind the wheel, and as an owner-operator he sure wasn’t going to climb into anyone else’s rig.

Several years ago that issue came up when he applied for a job. The company owner liked Dad’s experience, then found out his truck was a 1980. “When you go to sign on a lease with someone, they don’t like a truck that is more than four years or a half-million miles old,” Dad says.

So the owner offered up one of the company trucks. No, Dad only drives his own. The owner hesitated, asking to see the rig before any deals were made. Dad took it to one of the company’s terminals soon afterward.

The owner took a look at it and said, “Oh, yeah. You can drive that. Let’s sign you up. When can you load?”

The fact is that the Kenworth is as impressive today as when he pulled it into our driveway for the first time. “Almost every day I get some kind of comment,” Dad says.

The miles have piled up over the years and odometers have been replaced. But, through logbooks and fuel permits, Dad is very aware of the miles he’s traveled.

For years he ran across I-80, coast-to-coast. Then he began running more north and south routes in the Midwest. Whatever the location, Dad always stays by his rig. In truckstop restaurants he sits at booths where he can see the truck. I always respected him for caring about his truck like it was a member of the family. In a lot of ways, it is. Inevitably, conversations either start or end up centered around that Kenworth.

Today, Dad lives in Illinois and makes a few trips a week to the south side of Chicago. The round trips are a lot closer than going from Sunshine Biscuit in Oakland, Calif., to Hunts Point in New York City — the places I remember so well from the road stories he told. But the miles still count. And keep adding up.

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