Editor’s note: Today we feature a special contribution from long time truck enthusiast Frank Leparik.
Anyone who is involved in trucks no doubt will have a sentimentality – perhaps even a fondness – for the iconic, long-snouted Autocar. I can trace my roots in the truck hobby back to a sunny day in 1973, when I was a 12 year old 8th grader. In those days I was an avid truck model-builder, and I often would take walks across the tracks to a somewhat industrial neighborhood in Mineola, here on Long Island, New York. Mineola was an exciting place for me in those days, as a variety of Midwest rigs would arrive on Monday mornings, delivering swinging beef to the coolers of five meat packing houses, each a stone’s throw from the other. On this particular day, just as I had crossed the tracks, I was stunned to find a rig backed up to the Swift’s cooler – a rig that was ancient – in comparison to the fiberglass and aluminum rigs of the day. What caught my eye was the bright red day cab, the rusty chains draped across the bumper, the shiny stainless steel Great Dane reefer, and the nameplate: Autocar Diesel. As luck would have it, the driver was perched on the fender, his head under the butterfly hood. Ignoring all my parents’ admonitions concerning not talking to strangers, I was drawn in and just had to approach this still -working antique. It took a moment, but the driver eventually hopped down from the fender, and found me staring, awestruck, at his rig. I recall asking, “How old is this truck, Mister?” The driver – a wiry, bald fellow with blood on his lower lip – appeared to be as ancient as his rig. He looked me up and down and then declared, “Older ‘n YOU!” And that was it – the beginning of my friendship with Mr. Bob Lees of Des Moines, Iowa, and his classic 1951 Autocar with a 220 Cummins, R-96 Roadranger, and a tag axle – all very primitive compared to the Peterbilts, Kenworths and even the new Transtar conventionals that frequented the packing houses in the early 1970’s.
Bob had a regular run to Swifts, and would arrive early Monday mornings and back up to the cooler, parallel to the adjacent railroad tracks. I typically arrive to visit him before 7 AM, finding him asleep across the generous buddy seat as I looked into the passenger window. Bob was in his late ‘60s when we met initially, and he was a good family man who was proud of his three sons. As time went by, I would visit Bob as often as my school schedule permitted, and we would stay in touch via letter writing. Bob learned of my model building – much later he would be tickled when I presented him with a 1/25th scale model of his tractor –and he was very much impressed that I knew trucks as well as I did. Realizing my enthusiasm, he introduced me to his friend Bill Drew of Melrose, MA. I would learn that Bill, who was disabled from childhood polio, corresponded with truck enthusiasts world-wide, and possessed a huge photo and literature collection. Bill later played match-maker, and introduced me to my life-long friend and fellow Long Islander, George Fiebe. George was in his early twenties when we met, and I was thirteen, and my life was forever changed. Through George I was able to get a taste of the trucking life, and I followed George’s lead in the truck photography hobby. I have amassed a large collection through the years – both my own photos, and photos shared with me by the dozens of pen pals with whom I would correspond during my high school years. Forty-five years later, I count George as my closest friend.
While Bob was trucking, I invited him to our home at the suggestion of my Mom. He would often park his rig at a small motel, a couple of miles east of our home. I look back now on the few occasions that Bob was able to join us, and find it all very curious. Despite being educated in accounting, Bob opted to pursue a career in trucking; it was his belief that he could better support his family as an owner-operator. So here was Bob, in his flannel working man’s attire, joining us at the table for dinner. My Pop was a trial attorney for All State Insurance in those days, and we often felt like we were being “cross-examined” during dinner conversations. I remember him inquiring of Bob whether or not he typically checked an intersection prior to passing through a green light. Bob’s answer was a flat no, and my father was taken aback by that. I recall thinking that if I were driving that battleship of an Autocar, I probably would not bother to check either! On a couple of occasions Bob used our guest room, and it made me feel good as a kid to offer some New York hospitality to my friend from a faraway locale.
Bob retired around the beginning of 1976 as I recall, and his Autocar was parted out. I believe his Cummins went to powering a pump. We continued to stay in touch, and I was pleased to learn that Bob and his wife Alberta planned to visit our area, as they would be touring the northeast in their Mercedes. I have included photos from that brief visit; I’m sure Bob took Alberta over to Swift’s for a last looksee at what had been his regular drop for so many years. When I think of old -time truckers, I think of Bob – men of responsibility, grit, and loyalty – and Bob was most definitely loyal to his old Autocar. He was rewarded by a tractor with an amazing lifespan of service. I lost track of Bob after his visit I’m sorry to say, and I’m not sure what became of him and Alberta. Perhaps it is better that way – Bob made an indelible and positive mark on my young life, and I would prefer to remember him during those truckin’-crazed, carefree days.
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