Tried and True

How to keep trucks soldiering on for thirty years.


Gary Wohlfeil has a truck for sale. He's finally getting rid of the oldest truck in his fleet sometime this year, and he's already got a couple of local buyers interested. Wohlfeil, supervisor of public works for the City of Oconomowoc, WI, knows he could probably get a few more years' service out of the truck. After all, it's only a 1972.

You read that right: 1972. The oldest truck in Wohlfeil's fleet is 35 years old, and still in regular service. And people are lining up to buy it. "There are several people already asking me, 'Do you have that cab & chassis ready to sell?'" he says with a smile.

The truck in question, a Ford F750, has got a gasoline engine and a stick shift. It's the city's water wagon, and as such it sees almost daily use every summer. And as far as its age goes, it's not at all atypical for Wohlfeil's fleet. He's also got 1976 and 1979 GMC 3500 utility dump trucks, as well as a 1979 International 2554 dump truck/snow plow/sander.

DOWNTIME

On the day I visit Wohlfeil at the city maintenance shop he has managed for the past two years, he's feeling a bit worn. He has been at work for five out of the last six days, since the area was blanketed with over a foot of snow the previous Friday. Most of the city's snow plows have been out working around the clock for six days, and a couple of the trucks have succumbed to mechanical breakdowns. One newer Sterling needs new rear wheel bearings, and an older Ford has lost its power steering hose. Luckily, Wohlfeil has two spare snow plows, so the work of keeping the City's streets free of snow can continue unabated.

Even with two trucks in for service, the maintenance shop is quiet. That's because Wohlfeil's one technician has had to run out to a local supplier to have a replacement power steering hose fabricated from scratch.

Why go to such lengths for a replacement part? Because they have no choice: the truck in question is a 1990 Ford L8000. "We called up for a power steering hose," Wohlfeil says, "and they called back yesterday and said it's obsolete; they can't get it. So we'll go to a place in the area where we can get a hose made up. In the meantime, that truck is out of service—that's the downside to having older trucks." But even that is not really a hardship, because, as Wohlfeil points out, he can get the new part custom fabricated in the same time it would have taken for his parts supplier to deliver a replacement part.

LONGEVITY

Wohlfeil has worked for the City for 33 years. If you haven't already done the math, that means the water truck he's about to sell has been on the job two years longer than he has. That's what you call longevity.

At the Department of Public Works garage, Wohlfeil and his lone mechanic are responsible for the public works fleet, as well as the parks department fleet and the wastewater treatment plant's fleet. The garage has exactly one bay, one lift, and two hoists: one for the bigger dump trucks and another for the pickups and one-ton dumps. The City's fire and police departments take care of their own vehicle maintenance, as do the electrical and power utilities.

"I've got 10 single-axle seven-yard dump trucks, I've got six one-ton dumps, I've got a tandem, a bucket truck, the vacuum sweeper, a regular mechanical sweeper, and then we take care of the sewer flushing machine, and six or seven pickup trucks," Wohlfeil explains. "There is also a 2007 Sterling LT7501 single-axle dump, that's a 2007 with a 2006 engine."

But that Sterling is the exception. The vast majority of the 27 vehicles in the fleet are from the 1980s and 1990s. Eighteen of the vehicles are at least 10 years old, and 11 have passed the 20 year mark.

THE BIG SECRET

You might think that Wohlfeil has some secret formula for keeping his trucks on the road and hard at work for such a long time, but the big secret is that there's no big secret:

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