Truck Restoration Projects
Freightliner ‘Bubblenose’ restoration
Daimler Trucks Australia brought a restored 1950 model A64-800 ‘Bubblenose’ Freightliner from the USA for display on its 2017 Brisbane Truck Show stand as a part of Freightliner’s 75th anniversary celebrations. The truck was found in a dilapidated state sitting in the Oregon state woods and had been lovingly restored by the Freightliner manufacturing team.
This restoration story combines two unlikely biographies.
In the summer of 1950 Michael von Mayenburg was a young school boy growing up in Carinthia, Austria, he was interested in cars, tractors and anything that moved. He wasn’t sure how, but he knew he wanted to be involved some day.
Ken Self, then production manager at the Freightliner shop in Portland, Oregon, had more immediate things on his mind. He was busy putting the finishing touches to Freightliner serial number 292, a new A64-800 ‘Bubblenose’.
The truck Ken was working on was virtually indistinguishable from most of the Freightliners being built. All but a few of the 116 trucks built that year were built for Freightliner’s parent company and road hauler, Consolidated Freightways, whose livery was a green cab and a red chassis.
Ken’s future was set and Freightliner was his life. He went on to become President from 1959 to 1975 and chairman of the board from 1975 to 1979. During this time he took Freightliner from a small shop that produced and maintained the Consolidated Freightways fleet to a major truck manufacturer.
Michael von Mayenburg followed his passion as well. After graduating with a diploma of engineering degree from Technische Hochschule in Vienna, he rose through the ranks of Mercedes-Benz’s truck division in Stuttgart, Germany.
Michael started as a young engineer in the diesel engine design department and worked his way through several positions, becoming staff leader in the commercial vehicle development department.
While Ken and Michael were pursuing their individual careers, Freightliner 292 did dutiful highway service for Consolidated Freightways for about 10 years, probably clocking up more than a million miles. It was one of the few Consolidated Freightways trucks built in the early fifties that remained a truck, when most were converted to 4×2 prime movers when interstate length laws changed in the late fifties.
Then, as with many of the old CF rigs, it was sold into logging service, where life got a lot harder. Poor road conditions and heavy loads took their toll and many of these rigs were literally run into the ground. Freightliner 292 narrowly escaped the scrap bin. It was parked quietly in the back corner of a logging yard on Mt Hood for many years.
These seemingly unrelated histories came together through an unlikely series of events.
Ken had built Freightliner into a successful truck manufacturer that had drawn the attention of Daimler AG – Mercedes-Benz parent company – and Daimler was looking for a presence in the US truck market. In 1981 Daimler purchased Freightliner and, in 1990, Michael was asked to go to the USA, to oversee the engineering operations.
On the way home from a ski trip at Mt Hood in 1994 he spotted, out of the corner of his eye, a glint of worn sheet metal in the woods, with a familiar shape. He had studied the history of Freightliner and appreciated the elegant design of the early models.
After wheeling his car around he discovered Freightliner 292. It had languished for many years and was in very poor condition. However, it was mostly intact and Michael knew it would be hard to find another example, let alone one in better shape.
Michael found the owner, who thought that a brand new Freightliner would be a fair trade for his aged treasure! After several months of negotiations, Michael convinced him that US$6000 would be a generous offer and towed the prized possession back to the Freightliner R&D facility in Portland for “a spit and polish”.
The chief engineer, Jim Tipka, took a deep breath and said: “Sure boss, no problem”.
Restoration work began in 1998, as time permitted, between the more pressing testing and development programs.
Firstly, the old truck was completely disassembled and catalogued. Parts were sorted into three categories: needs cleaning and minor repair; needs major repair, but at least we can tell what it is, and, lastly, what is this part that is largely rust molecules?
Unfortunately there were a lot more parts in the last pile than the first.
As the ‘resto’ team stood around scratching their heads it became obvious that the team could use the help of someone who was familiar with this rig and that’s when Ken Self came back into the picture. He, Glen Watkins, Chuck Willey and Bob Sloan had built these rigs in the first place and could seemingly do it in their sleep. It also made it easier that Ken had restored a similar truck years before.
Bob concentrated on the cab. He ran a custom truck body shop and had salvaged much of the original tooling that was discarded from the factory. Most of the sheet metal restoration was done on that tooling.
The interior was completely rebuilt, using original materials. Plumbing and wiring were re-done and instruments disassembled and cleaned or replaced. The beautiful cast-aluminium grill was welded, ground and polished. All of the trim and accessories were re-built, or replacements were hunted down from various sources, including some Freightliner suppliers.
Closer inspection revealed that sometime during the life of this truck it was a platform for some kind of a crane. The frame rails were rusty, bent, full of holes that had been drilled over the years and about five feet shorter than original. Many hours of work brought them back to their standard condition.
The cross members and springs were in even worse shape and most were re-manufactured, using Ken’s truck for a pattern.
Some of the aluminium castings were missing or broken beyond repair, but the team was able to find at least one of each casting to use as a pattern and Consolidated Metco, Freightliner’s casting supplier, manufactured replacements.
Donaldson pitched in with a reproduction muffler and Ventra with the air tanks.
After all of this effort, there were still several unique pieces missing, but, fortunately, Chuck had accumulated a trailer full of old parts, from brand new cab weather stripping and air cleaner hose to the original tools used to build the fuel tank and battery box.
Freightliner 292 was originally built with a Buda 844 engine, but Consolidated Freightways had problems with blown head gaskets early on and replaced them during the ‘50s with more reliable Cummins NHB 220s. Cummins Engine Company was called upon for help and came up with all the parts needed to re-manufacture the engine to as-new condition.
Similarly, Eaton Corporation re-manufactured the original Fuller main and Brown ‘joey’ gearboxes.
Back in 1950, many truck component suppliers didn’t recognise Freightliner as a true truck manufacturer and would not supply parts. When Freightliner was unable to buy drive axles, for example, it designed and manufactured its own.
Another factor in this arrangement was that West Coast trucks needed to be as light as possible, so Freightliner’s early axles were built around a single aluminium casting, with brass ring and pinion gears and magnesium and aluminium hubs.
The younger team members had no idea how to set up the gears and bearings, but Ken and Glenn did it easily, not with feeler gages but by ‘feel’, just like the old days.
Freightliner 292’s brake drums and linings were still in beautiful condition and we needed only to be cleaned and reassembled.
By this time, the 30-strong restoration team was fascinated by the unique collection of parts used to build these rigs and wanted to showcase the chassis as well as the cab. All the steel chassis parts were painted ‘steel grey’ and all the aluminium was given just a protective coat.
With the hundreds of newly finished parts completed and arranged on the floor, so all that remained – and it was still a big job – was to bolt everything together. Brand new cadmium-plated bolts were used to assemble everything and the result was impressive, letting all the individual parts stand out.
It’s interesting to compare Freightliner 292 with the trucks made today, seeing how many things have remained unchanged, while others are dramatically different.
The day finally arrived when the treasure was rolled out of the shop. Jim Hebe, then president of Freightliner, stopped by for the occasion. All crossed their fingers as Michael pushed the start switch. With a crack of the big series/parallel switch the Cummins roared to life and Michael drove it off.
That was relief for everyone concerned, not only because of all of the people present, but the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Truck and Bus Convention started the next day and Freightliner 292 was scheduled to be on display there. It was a fitting debut for this beautiful restoration that looked right at home alongside some of the most technically advanced, over-the-road equipment available.
Today Freightliner ‘Bubblenose’ 292 spends most of its days in a heated shop, in what is well deserved retirement for a hard-worked truck. Guests are frequently brought by to admire it. Before his retirement, occasionally, Michael would take it for a spin with a lucky guest, with both of them probably appreciating the air suspension and quiet cabs of newer Freightliners.
Mostly, the old truck serves as a reminder of Freightliner’s humble beginnings and that with enthusiasm and hard work anything is possible.