By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
I can’t recall what scared me the most on the first load of steel I hauled to Chicago after buying my truck — driving into Chicago or trying to find my way through the Windy City driving a truck with two gear shifts. The two-stick 4-by-4 transmission in my 1965 Freightliner presented a unique challenge to me since I learned to drive on a 13-speed Roadranger transmission. The only other transmission I had worked with at the time was a 10-speed Roadranger, but it was almost like the 13-speed.
Of course, that wasn’t necessarily true. There were four notches to go forward with the 13-speed and one reverse notch, but you could split each forward notch high and low after the first time through the gears before activating the Roadranger button. That totals 12 speeds, of course, but a driver couldn’t split reverse ... the 13th speed. Reverse was located against a driver’s right thigh, and back near the hip.
Reverse on the 10-speed was located in the same place, with first up beside the driver’s right knee, second back in the middle of the pattern, third in the middle beside one and so forth. After going through the gears the first time in a 10-speed, you just had to pop the Roadranger on the side of the shifter and go through gears six through 10.
But driving a 4-by-4 was more like art. The gears were kinda sorta in the same place, but not necessarily where you would think. The tachometer would instantly remind you if you made the wrong selection, but each forward-heading decision had to be done within a 1,001, 1,002, 1,003 count, or else a driver could forget it, drift to the side of the road and start all over again.
John Whitt didn’t tell me any of that stuff when he talked me into buying the ’65 Freightliner and 38-foot trailer from him. His smart alec response to my singular question about driving a 4-by-4 was this: “If you break off one of the shifters, start using the other.” I understood the principle of the four forward shift positions on the main shifter and the four forward positions on the auxiliary shifter, but the art of handling that kind of a transmission took time, and on my first load, I was headed to a part of Chicago where I had never been to before.
I’m not too proud to admit that I drifted off to the side of the road a few times during the trip each time I missed a gear. Still, each miss was a new learning experience. By the time I reached the Dan Ryan Expressway, I was feeling pretty comfortable. I had driven other trucks for two different brokers on the Dan Ryan, but I was less familiar with the Stevenson Expressway although I had been on that highway at least one time before.
I remember I was headed to a steel fabrication plant on Lake Shore Drive, but I wasn’t sure of the address. Back in those days, I drove around with the large Rand McNally Road Atlas on my doghouse open to the page of whatever city I was headed to. On that particular trip, I was working my way through the gears, trying to focus in on the lines of the map and attempting not to hit anything on the road around me.
Apparently God didn’t think that I had enough of a challenge that afternoon, so He put the image of Soldier Field on the horizon in the distance. That made me smile. I had not been a Chicago Bears fan in particular, but I really enjoyed watching Gayle Sayers run the football. That trip was in the fall of 1974, so Sayers was already out of the game, but I had only seen Soldier Field on television before that moment. I was so excited that I missed a gear. I drifted off to the side of Lake Shore Drive and had to start all over again.
What I remember most about that trip was the feeling I had when I got my load of steel off, and literally jumped through the gears on my way back to the Ace Doran terminal in East Chicago, Ill. Under a load, my Freightliner had labored as the six-cylinder, in-line 270 Cummins diesel struggled to pull a 45,000 pound load of sheet steel to its destination. When it was empty, my truck seemed to leap into the air with joy. Without a load on my trailer, I could miss a gear, and simply run the RPMs back up and get another. I didn’t have to drift to the side of the road.
In time, shifting my 4-by-4 became like second nature to me and I could make it operate as smoothly as a passenger car with an automatic transmission whether I was under a load, dead-heading or even bob-tailing. The repetition of going through the gears both up and down thousands of times taught me the idiosyncrasies of my Freightliner’s transmission and became one of the best learning experiences of my life. Even as I wrote this column, I was going through the shifting motions with my hands and in my mind — never missing a gear.
Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com.