Stand Out Outstanding

In International Truck Stop, September 202110 MinutesBy Niels JansenOctober 24, 2021

Our intrepid continental correspondent uncovers another classic American truck that’s received a beautiful Euro restoration – a classic Autocar heavy hauler.

In the early 1900s, Autocar was one of the first American automobile manufacturers that also offered ‘commercial vehicles’. Autocar, which later became part of the White Motor Company, built heavy-duty trucks from the start. Quality and durability were paramount for the manufacturer, based in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. As a result, it was one of the few brands besides Mack that managed to build up a good reputation outside the United States.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the engine importer Cummins Distributor Belgium SA started the assembly of Autocar chassis as a sideline activity, specifically the heavy truck and tractor models DC9364 and DC10364 with 6×4 drive and, of course, a Cummins diesel engine. These were bought from the United States as CKD (completely knocked down) kits. According to the statistics, a few hundred chassis rolled out of the assembly plant in Schaarbeek, Belgium.

This is how Frans purchased the truck in 2003.

The sturdy Americans were mainly used for heavy haulage transport or as concrete mixers and tippers. The large DC10364B that Frans van Dam from Well bought from a used truck dealer in 2003 was a rig from the first category.

“From childhood, I have had something with heavy trucks and earthmoving machines. My interest in American trucks was triggered by a Mack DM685 with low-loader that my employer, Ballast Nedam, had purchased for transporting its own construction equipment.

“The simple, solid technology of the US trucks really appealed to me,” says the 65-year-old Dutchman.

Long before it was completely finished, Frans took it out for a test drive.

When Frans bought the Autocar, it had done less than 65,000km and had almost 4000 hours on the clock. “But you could see from everything that it must have had a very hard life. The first owner in 1979 was Zeebouw in Zeebrugge, Belgium. It used it to transport large concrete blocks from the concrete factory to the piers. The second owner in 1988 was the Gruwez SA company from Brugge. It also had big cranes and used the Autocar with a ballast box plus a multiaxle trailer for heavy-haulage work. In 1995, the tractor ended up in the Netherlands, apparently. After eight years of negotiations, I was able to buy it there for a fraction of the asking price. In fact, it was no more than the scrap value…”

Frans had no experience restoring old vehicles, but he was technically skilled. After the purchase, the dismantling soon started – when the rig had been taken apart to the last bolt, restoration could begin.

Frans explains: “On many points, the tractor was much worse than I had anticipated. A lot of parts were so worn that they could no longer be used. Luckily, the differential, the clutch plates and the Fuller Roadranger RTO12513 gearbox were not too bad. The air-assisted four-circuit brake system received new lines and air tanks.”

The home-built rear cross-member sports a 250-tonne capacity Rockinger hitch.

But that was just the beginning. When it comes to tinkering with machines, Frans does not need to be taught much. Despite this, overhauling the 14-litre Cummins NTC350 was quite a job.

“When the heavy six-cylinder diesel was hoisted from the chassis, I tried to solve a persistent problem in the fuelinjection system. It turned out to be, among other things, an overpressure valve in the governor. To be sure, we also checked every part of the engine for wear, and where necessary, replaced small parts.

“That also applied to the Cummins VT50 Turbo and the Jake Brake engine brake. The radiator had also had its day and was beyond repair. In the end, I managed to get hold of a good one at a generator-builder for a reasonable price. But I did a lot of the conversion myself, just like the louvres in front of the radiator. That was a lot of work.”

Frans has worked on Mack trucks and US construction equipment and feels right at home in the big Autocar.

Much pointed to the fact that the Autocar had been outside for most of its life. “The steel cab was badly rusted. It could very well be that the work on the piers so close to the sea was partly to blame. For me, there was no other option than to look for a replacement cab. Via an acquaintance, I eventually found one in Canada. Because its floor was also bad, they gave me a second cab for free. From the second unit, I also bought the exhaust pipes and fuel tanks. To make one good cab of this lot was still quite a job. A good friend of mine sandblasted the ‘new’ cab and gave it a nice red paint job. He did this free of charge because I had done up two engines for him.”

Because the Autocar did not drive comfortably, Frans installed air suspension under the cab. “That really made the difference,” he says.

The complete dashboard from the second cab was also used. The bonnet and mudguards are original but have been refurbished. By the end of 2008, the tractor was ready for its first test drive. “That was an important moment because after all these years of working on the rig, I sometimes doubted if it ever would be something. Luckily, the motivation came back when I could go on a test drive and let loose the 350 horses!” says Frans.

The typically American dash comes from a donor truck. Facing page: The restoration was a giant task but the result is mindblowing.

It still took nearly eight months before the big Autocar could be inspected by the road authority and registered. “It helped that the original Belgian papers were still there and everything was technically okay. Hence, obtaining a Dutch plate was fairly easy. But the inspectors did raise an eyebrow when they heard that such a heavy vehicle was just a hobby project,” Frans says.

In due course, the truck was further built up. The cab interior was newly upholstered, and on the outside, all the typical US accessories were fitted. For looks, he mounted a demountable ‘ballast box’ that also doubles as a place to sleep. The front axle has a reasonable amount of suspension, but the 30-tonne Rockwell tandem hardly does. At the rear, a 250-tonne capacity Rockinger hitch was fitted.

That finished, Frans could proudly take part in the first classic truck events. During an outing to the famous Dorset Steam Fair in Britain, the Autocar proved that it could also pull a big lowloader with a heavy dozer on the bed. Another adventure involved a 3500km trip to the south of France through Germany and Switzerland. Although the Autocar, with its unsynchronised 13-speed box, clearly audible turbocharged diesel, and harsh Rockwell suspension, is not ideally suited for long-distance trips, Frans has put more than 28,000km on the odometer since it was rebuilt.

“One of the most notorious moments happened one early morning when I had to cross a sleepy French mountain village with the Jake Brake on. The roar of it made a man in his underpants run out of his house and take a picture of my truck! For sure, you do stand out with this machine,” Frans says with a laugh.

The ballast box is not only for looks – it also houses sleeping quarters.

The double oscillating turntable was specially built for heavy-haulage duties.

The mighty Cummins NTC350 turbodiesel is coupled to a Fuller 13-speed transmission.

The Autocar only does 75kph but driving it is great fun.