Fitzgerald Glider Runs Like a New Truck

Sept. 28, 2010

Nearly everything about this dump truck is brand new, from its virgin tires to the wiring and gauges in the cab to its still-shiny Ox steel box. It's an FLD Classic built at the plant in Portland, Ore., and is titled from its year of manufacture, 2007. It drives like new, too. But crank over its engine and the faint blue clouds coming from its twin exhaust stacks say that the diesel under the hood is not one of the smokeless wonders made since January 2007 or even October '02.

That's the main point of this truck. It's assembled from a glider kit, so called because, like a glider airplane, it leaves the factory with no engine. That, plus a clutch and transmission, and sometimes axles, are added later at a facility run by Fitzgerald Truck Sales in Crossville, Tenn. The major power train components are rebuilt or remanufactured, so they're long lasting but considerably less costly than new ones. Moreover, the Detroit Diesel Series 60 in this truck delivers better fuel economy than later diesels with exhaust-gas recirculation (EGR), saving additional money for its owner.

Those are compelling arguments for buying a glider-kitted truck or tractor, say the folks at Fitzgerald. And they're why the family-owned company has done well while the rest of the truck-building industry has fallen precipitously since the economic slowdown became a recession, and then a crisis caused by mortgage and investment fiascoes. Fitzgerald has sold more than 200 Fitzgerald trucks and tractors in each of the last two years, making it the largest builder of gliders in the country, according Tommy Fitzgerald Jr., co-owner (with father Tommy Sr. and three brothers) of the business.

The company has also done Peterbilt, Sterling and Western Star gliders. But most are Freightliners, and if Fitzgerald were a dealer, it might be one of the biggest in the USA. In addition to the Classic-based dumpers, the shop crew assembles Columbia and Coronado tractors, some of them daycabs but most with big sleepers, and on the lot along Interstate 40 about an hour east of Nashville is a big selection of completed vehicles.

The inventory when I visited last September included this bright-yellow Classic dumper, and salesman Danny Reneau walked me out for a look-see. As I said a few paragraphs ago, the truck looks and feels new because most of it is. The doors slam solidly, the seats feel firm and unspoiled, all glass is crystal clear, and the cab's interior smells fresh. The blue smoke at start-up faded as the engine warmed and, while the exhaust still had the characteristic diesel odor (most of it from NOx, which is all but eliminated in current diesels), it meets federal EPA limits for 1998.

This engine is typical of those used in most Fitzgerald trucks — a 12.7-liter Series 60 that's been rebuilt by Covington Detroit Diesel in Nashville. (Fitzgerald gliders can also be had with rebuilt Cummins N14s and Caterpillar C-15s, all pre-EGR, like the Series 60s.) This engine was set at 500 horsepower and 1,650 pounds-feet, which was one of Detroit's strongest ratings in the late '90s. It was plenty gutsy on a pleasant half-hour drive on nearby county and state highways, and I'm betting it would propel the truck well with a heavy load in the box. All Series 60s (even current ones with particulate filters) make a nice, throaty note as they exhale, and this one was a delight to my ears.

The remanufactured Eaton Fuller 13-speed transmission was only a bit stiff — pretty much like new — and I could do clutchless float shifts much of the time. Its top ratios were overdrives and, with 4.11 gears in the rears, the engine loafed along at 1,500 rpm at 65 mph. Though unladen, the stiffly sprung suspensions allowed the truck to ride well, at least for me, as I had the air-ride driver's seat. Reneau bounced a bit in the solid-mounted passenger seat, but he didn't complain because like me, he's old enough to remember when trucks really rode hard.

The 16-foot Ox box is among several dump bodies available and is installed complete with a hoist, wet tank for hydraulic fluid, and transmission-mounted PTO to run the pump. Dump controls were on the cab floor between the seats. This long chassis Fitzgerald truck was set up as a 10-wheeler, usable in bridge-formula states, and there's room on the frame for a pusher axle for some axle-weight states. Fitzgerald can also get frames to accommodate multi-axle configurations.

This was a "rolling" glider that came from the factory with new Meritor rear axles and the Chalmers suspension. Rebuilt or reman'd axles could also be fitted and this would further reduce the purchase price. As it sat the truck listed at about $105,000, but in January Reneau said it had been discounted to $97,500, primarily because it had been in stock for a while. A glider that meets Internal Revenue Service guidelines also avoids the 12 percent federal excise tax (FET) on new Class 8 trucks, which is a big chunk of saved change.

Fitzgerald has customers in many parts of the country, some as far away as California. Two Freightliner dealers in Tennessee and another in Michigan sell these gliders, and a few dealers assemble gliders themselves and promote them locally. Yet they remain largely unknown, which is partly why more truckers don't buy them. But the word's getting around, Reneau says, especially because new diesels have gotten so expensive to buy and run, and '02 and later models were in some cases troublesome.

But for all their financial advantages, gliders present question marks. For starters, how well does a dealer assemble them? "Workmanship is very important," Reneau agreed, because in addition to the mechanical assembly there are many electrical and electronic hookups. What's the resale value of a glider? Official used-truck valuations don't spell this out, but "in the last couple of years it's actually been as good or better than anything, primarily because of the fuel economy," which is 1 to 2 miles per gallon better than trucks with EGR diesels, he said. And if the truck is still under a third-party warranty that Fitzgerald sells, which a long list of dealers and shops honor, there is some peace of mind.

Emissions regulations might become a concern later. California's Air Resources Board has passed regs requiring that diesel particulate filters be installed on older trucks that don't have them, starting in 2011. Detroit Diesel now has no retrofit program; one that does is Cummins Emissions Solutions, which quoted a price of $9,500 to $10,500 for the high-tech filter, plus installation at $600 to $1,000. What you saved on the FET would pay for that, though you'd want assurance that the engine would still perform well.

Freightliner is developing a replacement for its FLD Classic and FLD-SD series, which has been in production since the mid-1980s, and it should be ready in January. It hasn't said what the truck will look like or be called, or if it will be available as a glider, like the Classic. It will if Fitzgerald has anything to say about it. In the meantime, buy one of the current models, put a driver in it, and he might never realize that it's anything but new. You'll know, though, when you write the check.

Fitzgerald Glider Specifications

  • Truck: Freightliner FLD Classic glider, conventional-cab for on/off-road service, BBC 120 inches, assembled by Fitzgerald Truck Sales.
  • Engine: Rebuilt Detroit Diesel Series 60, 12.7 liters (776 cubic inches), 500 hp @ 2,100 rpm, 1,650 lbs.-ft. @ 1,100 rpm, with engine brake
  • Transmission: Remanufactured Eaton Fuller RTLO16713A, 13-speed-overdrive
  • Front axle: 20,000-lb. Meritor FL941 on 20,000-lb. taperleafs
  • Rear axles: 46,000-lb. Meritor RT46-160P w/4.11 gears and locking differentials, on 46,000-lb. Chalmers 800-46 mechanical suspension
  • Wheelbase: 227 inches
  • Brakes: Meritor S-cam w/Meritor Wabco ABS
  • Tires & wheels: 425/65R22.5 Michelin X front, 11R22.5 Michelin XDY3 rear, on Alcoa polished aluminum discs
  • Fuel tank: 80-gallon polished aluminum, right side
  • Body: 16-foot, 14–16-yard Ox steel end-dump