Our subject today, a monster truck, in retirement but looking fine and in fully running condition, that once hauled coal in the Crowsnest Pass of Alberta. A shiny bright blue, an almost playful colour belying its brutish, all business/no-nonsense demeanour, it’s taken out once in a while for a shakedown run. And for this one Team BIGDoer gets an invite. We’ll take a spin around town with the truck’s owner, Ken, turning heads as we go. It’s rough, noisy, the ride bone shaking, the cab a bit cramped.
It’s heaven! The power, it’s raw, palpable and not only we can feel it, no doubt everyone can as we pass!
The truck dates from 1969 and comes from specialty maker Autocar. Not an off-the-shelf model, it’s essentially custom built but seems to fall within the firm’s broad “DCxxxx-OH” heavy duty series model range (in production: 1950s-1970-ish). It’s really more suited for off-road applications than highway running but can hit the pavement in a pinch. The original engine was a Cummins Diesel, upgraded in 1980 to one of larger capacity, also a Cummins, just before the Pass coal market collapsed. No doubt those extra ponies would have been welcomed, had they actually had a chance to put them to real use.
The transmission is a twin-stick manual. The main box offers four road gears, plus a bull-low, while the auxiliary allows each to be split four ways. Near every last gear is needed when fully loaded. Just keeping tab of what stick is where looks a challenge. Is that four, double under or single under? Many shifts require moving both sticks in quick succession. And don’t miss a shift, what ever you do. Just don’t! Ken makes it look easy.
The heavy steel frame, the beefy axles, the dozens of springs, the gazillion-ply tires, everything, down to the last nut and bolt, is heavy duty. No, SUPER heavy duty. The cab is all steel, the hood included (and of a butterfly style). Even the doors use piano-hinges. Talk about over built! A heavy steel brush guard protects the radiator. Nice road-warrior look there.
A water-spray brake cooling system was used when descending steep grades. Without, they’d likely cook from the heat and fail. And with that the driver would meet his maker. Air conditioning is an open window – however in coal county that might be a bad idea – coal dust everywhere you know – not that much of time you’d be moving fast enough to create a breeze anyway. Seats are hard, the ride, empty, is quite rough. Creature comforts? Come on! This is coal mining.
The truck is outfitted with a thirty five ton coal box. It’s made from steel framed wood planks, with a sheet steel interior. It’s equipped with an end-dump for off-loading. The hydraulic system needed some attention, so Ken couldn’t show us it working. Darn! The blue paint? It’s always worn this colour.
The truck is stored in a specially modified garage. They had to lower the floor to make it fit, but even then it’s a tight squeeze. Just inches to spare. Beside a once in while run like this, the truck often appears in local parades and shows. Getting it to fire up after sitting takes a great deal of patience. Prime this, prime that, fill this, check that, cross fingers and hope she cooperates.
The Autocar Company dates back to the 1890s and is still in business. In the 1960s, when this beast was made, they were under control of conglomerate White Motors (Autocar has has many owners but is now independent) with their factory being in Pennsylvania (later it’d move to Utah, today it’s in Indiana). The modern Autocar manufactures cab-over/cab-forward vocational trucks, mostly used in the garbage industry, and terminal tractors.
If one was in need of a severe duty coal hauler back in the day Autocar might be one of firms you’d turn too. The job was and is incredibly demanding and an off the shelf truck could rarely do. One designed from the ground up for extreme service was needed. Even with the firm’s solid reputation in the field, the make was never terribly common in this part of the world. In that era and around here Kenworth and west- coast built Hayes or Pacific were typically more often seen.
The owner of the truck, Ken, inherited from his father who purchased it new. Both drove the truck, his father into the latter half of 1970s and Ken, afterwards until the early 1980s when mining in the area ceased. Each worked as contract haulers for Coleman Collieries and operated out of the firm’s Vicary Underground and Racehorse Open-Pit Mines north of the Pass, and their Tent Mountain Open-Pit Mine a bit to the southwest. These were the last in the Crowsnest Pass and closed variously in the 1970s and early 1980s. There’s been no mining since. To see remains of the Tent Mountain Mine, go here…Tent Mountain was torn a new one.
Coal was hauled into the Coleman Collieries plant just opposite downtown Coleman where it was processed and loaded onto trains. Most output eventually found its way to Asia. Some of the historic Coleman plant still exists, but is threatened. To read about the place refer to these two articles…Coleman Collieries plant (part one)…going…going… and Coleman Collieries plant (part two)…going…going….
The Crowsnest Pass was built on coal. From the early 1900s to the 1980s many mines operated in the region. Well into the 1950s, that industry was the major employers here. There used to be dozens of mines. Been a long time since any of the black stuff was pulled from the ground here, although reserves show there is still plenty of it in the hills about. Recently, there has been talk of a new mine trying to open in the Pass, but given coal is in the toilet (and adding in the public’s disdain for these operations) one can’t help but be skeptical it’ll happen.
Ken also owns a nice Chrysler 300 from 1965, white with deep-red hard top and gorgeous red interior, also inherited from his father. It’s in original conditional, never being rebuilt or ever heavily worked on, the odometer, in miles, reading the low five figures. Yes, fifty plus years old and almost nothing for mileage. Taking us for a ride about town, it’s a compete opposite of his coal-hauler, smooth, comfy, a real dream like we’re floating on air. Production figures show this model to be pretty rare.
Looking at these machines, it’s clear Ken is a stickler for keeping things up. They’re both so stunning. We notice he beamed, as though a little boy, when speaking of them and while showing us around. That they’re both connected to his family since new must surely be a source of pride.
Badly scarred Turtle Mountain makes a nice backdrop for many of our photos. It case you’re not from the area, it was source of the famous Frank Slide of 1903, which was disastrous for people living below it.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2016.
Location: Crownest Pass, AB.
Article references and thanks: Ken P., Hank Superman, Hank’s Truck Forums, Autocar Trucks, Chrysler300Site.com.
The vehicles seen are in a private collection.