Last summer we accepted an invitation (challenge?) to drive somebody's privately owned big rig around New Jersey. Turns out there's a reason you're meant to spend six weeks at trucker school before being unleashed on the public in one of these monsters... it's harder than it looks.
Is this even legal?
This 1998 Kenworth T2000 is privately owned outright and plate'd as a non-commercial "passenger vehicle." It was purchased to lug an off-road race rig all over the country, and yes... you can drive it without a CDL.
"Actually, this thing was cheaper than a used F-350," we were told as we inspected the behemoth we were about to board. "I'd had some experience driving these around my parent's farm growing up so I figured I'd go for it."
In many states, it seems that as long as you don't fit commercial license plates or use the truck for business purposes you can drive your very own big rig to your heart's content. When you see a big ass truck with "NOT FOR HIRE" written on the side, now you know why– that's a privately owned toy. My Class-DM driver's license says I'm good in "any vehicle below 26,000 pounds," which you can keep a truck like this under as long as you don't load it up too much.
So what kind of MPG are we talking about here?
A 15 liter Caterpillar inline-six puts power to the wheels. Two massive diesel tanks below the doors keep the engine fed and a full RV setup inside lets somebody sleep or take a dump while the rig's in motion, all essential features for when it carries the Molten Motorsport Ultra4 car to desert races on the other side of the country.
"We can make it to about New Mexico without refueling. That's usually out first stop."
That's partially because the truck carries enough fuel to fill the community pool. The owner reported "6 or 7 MPG across the country," through his casual observance.
Starting and stopping are the tricky parts.
Automatic transmissions are becoming more commonplace in semi-trucks, but this Kenworth is a classic three-pedal special. It has twelve forward gears operated by what looks like a regular six-speed stick. Once you're done with sixth, flick a switch on the shift knob that looks straight off a medieval crossbow and slide back to where first was, which is now seventh, and work your way back up the gears to max-efficiency low-RPM cruising.
But you don't use the clutch and throttle like in anything else I'd ever driven. The clutch is required to bring the truck off a stop, but once it's rolling you just lift off the juice and slip the shift knob into the next gear.
"Just kind of... let it pull itself into gear," the truck's owner said as I floundered and made his rig scream like a rhino getting his dick powersanded.
You can't just clutch and log-jam it. There's a unique pace required in releasing the throttle, nudging the truck out of gear, and guiding the stick to the next cog. I'm struggling to describe it because it was impossible to master in ten minutes of puttering around a parking lot.
Lucky for me, lurching the truck up to 20 MPH was enough to merge onto the road and get our truck test underway.
On the road, get the hell outta my way!
Without a trailer in tow, the Kenworth had heaps of surplus power and brain-jarring stiffness to pair with it.
"It's a lot happier when it's heavy," said the owner. Same issue you get into driving a one-ton pickup with nothing in the bed, especially an older one. Basically, it's optimized to run with payload. With no cargo to compensate for the suspension feels like it's trying to teach you a lesson. Or remind you "you forgot something."
Once you're rolling, steering and throttle input is basically the same experience as it is in any other car. Except you're towering over everyone at about twice their cockpit height.
Panic only set in as we started mixing it up in traffic. There's no sudden-stopping when people pull out in front of you, no quick passes around some idiot doing twenty under, and no diving across lanes when you see the "Dunkin' Donuts this exit" sign too late.
It's like being a striped-shirted boatman in Venice piloting a canoe full of explosives. Everything careful, gentle, more careful, thinking three steps ahead all the time.
You want to rev-match slowing down, but not quite the same way you would in a car. You just blip and back the stick through the gears, slowly, gently, like you're giving the lever suggestions and its taking your advice. At least that's how this fourteen-year-old beast seemed to run best. Reaching for the clutch is only for stops; otherwise the truck kicks back and bucks its way around the road until you can reel it in.
"Driving through bigger towns like Indianapolis does make me a little nervous," our host confessed "and I have no idea how guys get these things through Manhattan. But once you get out west where the lanes are like fifteen feet wide, you can almost take a nap."
Plenty of fun pushing buttons anyway, even if you can't drive the thing.
Pulling a chain-activated air horn is right up there with firing a gun or the moment you realize you're starting to genuinely enjoy the taste of whiskey. There's no doubt you're a bigboy now, godammit! It's awesome and you need to try it. Get your ass to AutoZone and fit one for your Camry if that's what it takes!
The central-inflation system was almost as fun. With a click you could purge the tires of air for squeezing under a low overhang (or driving in sand I guess) and then re-inflate as needed.
How about haulin' stuff? Do you need an entire trailer?
Obviously, the full potential of a big rig isn't reached until you're lugging 80,000 pounds of anything... but you can't do that on a private driver's license and I damn sure hope you don't try without going to trucker school.
But you can pull a camper or car trailer "like it's nothing," according to this Kenworth's owner. Or use the flat space behind the cab as a tray and just carry crap right there. You can even load a car up if has got the breakover angle of an Ultra4 racer.
The Mercedes G63 we were testing at the time couldn't quite make those ramps, but with a longer runup you could park pretty much anything there.
CB Radios are still the AOL chatroom of the open highway.
"Do you ever chat with other truckers on this thing?" I said as I prodded the CB radio, which looked a lot cooler in the cab of this Kenworth than mine had in my old Land Rover.
"Oh I don't have a handle or anything... and trucker humor, oh god," I pressed our guide to elaborate, but he'd only say "you hear a lot of shittalk when somebody can't back into a space," and that drivers from the company Swift are the butt of many jokes I probably wouldn't get.
With more than a decade and hundreds of thousands of miles of use under its axles, this old Kenworth looked pretty clean and ran perfectly. Aside from fluid changes, the owner hadn't done anything to it in several crossings of the continental US.
The caveat there is that when things do break, they break big. Parts are heavy and built to last long as cockroaches but that great durability comes with a price tag to match. A new set of tires is worth half a lease on a new F-150... so a used semi-truck is the kind of "bargain" you want to approach with caution and knowledge.
Yeah, that diff's about the size of a beer keg.
Can a big rig be a better buy than a comparably-priced pickup truck?
As much as I want to say yes, because driving this thing was a lot more exciting than lumbering around in another 3500 chassis cab, it was a hell of a lot less convenient and so much more stressful. Also unbelievably uncomfortable in comparison to the rolling luxury offices that big pickups are today. The torn and stained carpet of this KW had its charm, even the Recaro-branded driver's seat started to get uncomfortable after you got over the novelty of bouncing on its suspension spring.
So before you price out a used big rig and realize it ain't a bad deal compared to a fully-loaded towing pickup... make sure you take the time to get a real license, or at least a really good mentor, before you start putting too many miles on it.
Thanks to Liquid Iron Industries for letting us play with their truck and showing us around their shop! Images by the author, Mike Ballaban, Scott Diekmann