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Tales of a Hay Hauler: ‘Rudolph, the rabbit killer’

Brad Nelson Published on 15 May 2013
Red and white truck

Almost every vehicle develops a personality. And every vehicle that does indeed take on its own persona needs its own name.

This is not the chrome script on the nose, fender or rear that identifies the maker and the model. This is personal.

My first car, a 1953 Mercury, was given the moniker of “MJ special” by the fellow I was working for at the time.

I never called it that – and most of what I did call it cannot be printed here.

My friend Tom had a 1956 Chevy. It received a name from the same fellow, and for now, the “Blue Schmuck” is close enough.

The Chevy had the 265 V-8, and my Merc had the last of the flathead V-8s, at 255 cubic inches in Mercury trim.

Both cars were stock, other than replacing things that fell off. The old Merc actually passed Tom’s Chevy one day, and we had to listen to Tom go on and on about why his cherished Chevy was not up to par that day.

My next car was a 1959 VW. It was named “Herman the German,” most often pronounced with a fake “Jersey” accent, as “Hoiman de Joiman.”

This is the car I once got stuck in the mud. I got out, took hold of the rear bumper and got it to bouncing up and down, then on an “up” bounce, jerked as hard as I could and landed its rear wheels on new footing. I then got in and drove away.

My first diesel truck already had a name, as one of the previous owners had painted on the nose “Arkansas Traveler.”

My last one was “Humpernickel,” for no good reason other than it needed a name. Then, in those times when mud or snow was making further forward movement tricky, I could say to the truck, “Come on, Humpernickel, you can get through this,” and most of the time the old rascal did.

In the mid-1990s, the GMC-Volvo-White conglomerate assembled a truck tractor with the “integral sleeper,” which was a marketing gimmick to note a truck with the cab and sleeper area that were one.

They cheated when they made this. Generally, when a conventional truck (with the engine and hood in front of the cab) had a sleeper, it was an add-on.

The early units were called a “crawl-through” sleeper, since the means of getting from cab to sleeper was no larger than the rear window of the truck cab.

One of my friends over the years was having a time making it through the opening and was not amused when I offered to fetch a calf-puller to get him from the sleeper into the cab.

The next generation was the “walk-through,” in which the passageway was larger, but the sleeper still an add-on.

When a truck is retired from over-the-road service, it generally will become a farm truck, and for that usage, the sleeper is often removed.

It is easier to remove an add-on sleeper than a walk-through, but doable. The Volvo folks cheated.

They took the cab from their cab-over-engine truck, added a flat floor where the “doghouse” for the engine had been, mounted it lower on the frame, added a hood in the front to cover the engine and named it the “integral sleeper.”

It’s all one piece, and the sleeper cannot be removed without cutting the cab apart with a saws-all.

When this particular truck was about 13 years old, the current owner purchased it at auction for $4,000.

The truck has the Detroit Diesel series 60 engine, rated at 470 horsepower, and came from the factory with a 10-speed transmission. “That was a good buy,” commented the owner.

“It’s run now for four years, and we swapped out the transmission, but other than that, nothing major in the way of repairs.”

One of the drivers tagged something, and the spare hood that was available was a bright red one. Of course, the truck is referred to as “Rudolph,” after Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer of Christmastime fame.

As is the current practice, the engine in Rudolph is governed at 1,800 rpm. The idea is to keep the engine turning slow, which the engineers feel enhances fuel economy.

In the good old days, when a diesel engine in a truck got down to 1,800 rpm, it was time to start looking for a lower gear.

Most engines were governed at a stated 2,100 rpm, which was usually an actual 2,200, and lugging the engines down to 1,700 rpm was said to be harmful.

Mack trucks developed the Maxidyne engine, which was governed at 2,100 for the in-line six cylinder engines but were to be lugged down to 1,100 rpm before downshifting.

The idea was to reduce the total engine revolutions per mile, which seemed to save fuel. It seems to be easier to make slow-turning engines than to train drivers to drive for fuel economy.

I can understand the logic, but from the driver’s seat there is something left to be desired. Rudolph has nine forward gears, of which the highest gear is of no use until the truck is running over 65 miles per hour.

Since the Washington State speed limit for trucks is 60, that makes Rudolph an effective eight-speed truck.

Most of Rudolph’s life was spent as a line-haul truck, pulling flats or vans that maxed out at 80,000 pounds gross weight.

The current owner of Rudolph has the rascal pulling a B-train that is legal for 102,500 pounds. Add to this hill country, and it would be nice if there was more overlap in the gearing.

With 25 percent more weight than originally engineered for, it takes some fast foot and hand coordination to get up a steep grade without missing a gear and facing the embarrassment of walking the truck up the hill in first gear. If only the engine would rev up to 2,100 rpm and I had about five more gears to play with ...

The other improvement would be the usual for me: a driver’s seat that slid back just a couple of inches more and raised about four inches higher.

In the mid-1980s, most parts of the Northwest experienced a rabbit plague. Jackrabbits had a population explosion, and neither Wile E. Coyote nor the hunters could keep up.

In southwest Idaho, the hay growers were begging us to haul off their hay before the hordes of rabbits ate it – and the ranchers in northern Nevada were begging us to hold off hauling it in so fast because the rabbits were eating it as fast as we hauled it in.

The hay had not been purchased for rabbits. When we got home in the rabbit plague years, we noticed that all the neighborhood dogs would spend a lot of time under the trucks – snacking. Rabbit jerky. Yum.

There are jackrabbits in the Nyala, Nevada area, but nothing like the rabbit plague years. Some of them have indecision when headlights find them crossing a road at night.

Most will keep moving. Some will try to get off the road one way, change their mind and go back, some changing direction three or four times before the truck finally runs over them.

I don’t try to hit them, nor do I do anything that would put the truck in the ditch or on its top. On the way home on the gravel superhighway from Nyala the last trip, two rabbits did not survive. This is why the truck was officially named, “Rudolph the rabbit killer.”  FG

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