Loyalty is earned, and Western Star Trucks has definitely done it through the years. "Durable," "well-built," "attention to detail," and "it never sees the inside of a shop" are among comments I've heard about the truck over the years from owners.
Their numbers are comparatively few because Western Star is a low-volume make, though there are pockets of popularity in various locales in North America.
One spot is Gratiot, Ohio, a small town east of Columbus where Dennis Moorehead & Son operates 13 Western Stars. Twelve are multi-axle dump trucks and one is a tractor. "Durability and the way they're manufactured" is why the fleet's proprietor, the son whose name is also Dennis, buys them.
"My dad started the company in 1981. Around the late '80s, we got a used Western Star, and we were impressed with it right away," he says. "It never had a breakdown. So we started buying them new, and since the early '90s, it's all we've bought for heavies."
Almost. Moorehead says he recently had to buy a 2004 Peterbilt tractor because he acquired a new haul and needed a power unit fast, but couldn't find any Western Stars in stock at dealers. But he's ordered a 2005 'Star, also a tractor, so this will remain the dominant make in the fleet, which also includes a pair of Ford F700s for lighter hauls. The '05 tractor will be spec'd as the ones he already has, which means an almost posh interior and fancy bright-metal trim and extra lights outside.
Freightliner bought Canada-based Western Star in 1998 and added it to its Sterling Truck operations. The plant in Kelowna, BC, continued turning out 'Stars until corporation-wide cost-cutting became necessary during the precipitous sales slump that began in 2000. Analysis showed it would be less expensive to build 'Stars in a Freightliner plant in Portland, Ore., and that's where production moved in late summer of 2002.
Freightliner executives were adamant about keeping build quality where it was in Kelowna. They continue to buy parts from the same suppliers that fed the old plant, so some British Columbia firms are still in business. Top managers transferred to Portland, and soon-to-retire Kelowna supervisors spent several months showing Portland workers exactly how to bolt together their beloved vehicles.
Most other truck chassis are initially assembled upside down, with suspensions, axles, tanks and other components lowered onto frame rails and crossmembers. Then the entire dressed frame is flipped over. Western Star frames start right side up, and components are lifted to the rails where necessary instead of being lowered onto them. Does this make for less confusion among workers and therefore a more precisely assembled vehicle? Maybe.
Here's another assembly detail unique to Western Star: Front bumpers are attached to frames with nylon washers separating bolt heads from the bumpers' surface, which keeps the chrome or polished surfaces from being marred. It's a small thing, but one that impressed an owner-operator I met.
The same pride going into the trucks continues among owners such as Dennis Moorehead and drivers like Dale Stotts, who's assigned to the black 'Star. Stotts spent more than 20 years driving concrete mixer trucks, and he has been driving dumpers for Moorehead for about five years. He says he likes his job and his truck, and somewhat reluctantly let me take it for a spin.
With "only" a 475-hp Cat, it didn't have quite the power of his boss' truck, which has a 600-hp C-16, but it was plenty for me. Its 8-LL transmission seemed to have the right number of ratios for the on/off-road work this truck sees and the 21-ton loads it carries on its six-axle chassis. The shifter itself was rather precise, and almost as good as on a Kenworth or Peterbilt. The 20,000-pound front axle is fitted with wide-base tires, but these seemed to hinder steering less than on other trucks I've driven.
High-capacity steer axles are common on dumpers, but still a sight to some guys' eyes are the axle configurations seen in bridge-formula states such as Ohio. The state's restrictive weight law requires poundage to be spread among multiple axles and a long wheelbase. That's why the steer axle is set forward, and there are three liftable pusher axles between it and the tandem. The pushers are steerable and aren't lifted during turns, and the center one is reversible so it can shoulder part of the load during backing.
All Western Stars use a large Constellation cab, which in '95 replaced a narrower Autocar-style cab that was assembled in Akron. The Connie cab's main benefit is for live-in over-the-road truckers, but big guys like Moorehead and Stotts (both are well over 6 feet tall and push 250 pounds) appreciate its roominess. Windows are big enough for good outward visibility and all switches and controls are within easy reach. Toggle switches are a unique push-pull style that works as well as a rocker, and gauges have domed glass covers that catch less dust and are easier to clean than flat glass, although I find that they glare more from external light sources.
The cab is steel, but Moorehead says he's not had any corrosion problems on any of his 'Stars due to aggressive chloride solutions now used by deicing crews. The steel is galvanized, and he orders a sound- and rust-proofing undercoating that covers lower surfaces with a rubber-like substance. A steel cab and hefty frame components are among the things that make a Western Star 1,500 to 2,000 pounds heavier than other trucks, he says, "but I'll trade weight for durability any time."
During my visit last October, some of Moorehead's trucks were hauling stone to home construction sites. One became stuck in mud, and another chained up to pull it out. The towing truck had locking differentials, a recent addition to the specs list which gave it good traction, and its smaller Cat C-12 had more than enough torque to free the stuck truck.
The engine in the 2005 tractor now on order marks another change in specs. It will be a 500-hp Detroit Series 60, a departure from the Cats in his other trucks. "They tell me the Series 60 is doing well and gives better fuel economy than Cat ACERTs," Moorehead says. "And it costs substantially less than a Cat, about $7,000 less."
There are two reasons for the price differential: Cat is charging premium prices for what it says are superior products, and Detroit is part of the Freightliner family and is aggressively pricing its engines. The Series 60 will have exhaust-gas recirculation, which will also be new to Moorehead. Last month, he told me that he's been assured that the equipment is reliable and a non-issue maintenance-wise. Detroit's experience with EGR began in the mid-'90s with four-cylinder Series 50s in transit buses, where some initial bugs were dealt with. If there's a service rougher than dump trucking, it's the constant starting and stopping of city buses.
If there's a service rougher than that, it's logging. And the very first Western Star off the line in Portland went to a British Columbia logger, Ryan Lucas, whose five rigs run on rough trails most of the time. So how's the tractor, a 4964 with setback front axle, holding up?
"It's pretty good," he says, noting that the truck is generally solid and "rides like a Cadillac, even with a steel-spring suspension," a Hendrickson extended-spring walking-beam type. But he was critical of other things: Mounting brackets on the hood broke and the hood almost fell to the ground when he tilted it. "Should that happen on a truck that's less than a year old?" The grill is flimsy; it rattles around and "the grill is the first thing another person sees when he sees your truck."
Lucas says that except for the broken hood mounts, which used to just loosen up, these minor problems are not new and were present in older Kelowna-built Western Stars he and his friends ran in British Columbia.
So yes, the Portland plant still makes the trucks like before, and they're very good but not perfect. Is anything?