First love
Through the years, OOIDA Member Boyd Coleman never forgot his love for the classic long-nosed ‘Western’ conventional 1951 Kenworth. At 80 years old he finally bought the truck of his dreams.

By Bill Hudgins, contributing writer

It was love at first sight for a homesick young Seabee a long way from his Tennessee home. On the edge of the Pacific Ocean, wondering if he’d soon cross it to a place called Korea, Boyd Coleman stared, transfixed, as she passed by. He told himself one day he’d have her, and, 60 years later, his dream came true.

Coleman’s California girl wasn’t a leggy, suntanned blonde, though she certainly spent lots of time under the brilliant West Coast sky and moved with uncommon grace. Her purring voice was really more of a growl, though music to his ears, and she had a heart of iron.

Coleman had fallen for the long-nosed “Western” conventionals that were common in this region but exotic to a boy raised east of the Mississippi River among cabovers. And he especially loved the 1951 Kenworths that were almost new when he entered the Navy in 1952.

And last year, he and his first love were finally reunited.

Coleman’s love affair began during Seabee training near Oxnard, Calif., where he became friends with a couple of guys who loved trucks as much as he did. When they could, they’d go down near the freeway and watch the rigs motor past.  

“I just fell for them. Those kinds of trucks didn’t come this way back then,” says Coleman, who is now 81 and lives outside Chattanooga.

Coleman trained as a mechanic in the Seabees and served on Guam in 1953-54, where he occasionally scratched his trucking itch by driving military vehicles. After leaving the service, he drove trucks back home to work his way through college, and later to put food on the table.

Though he eventually earned a BS, an MBA and a law degree, he kept his CDL current all these years – just in case. And he kept admiring trucks and joined the American Truck Historical Society (ATHS).

When he saw in the spring of 2013 that a 1951 Kenworth would be auctioned off at the ATHS show in Yakima, Wash., he decided it was time to go for it. He called the ATHS president and asked if he’d bid on it for Coleman.

“He agreed, and I was on the cell phone with him when it came up for sale,” Coleman says. The truck went for about $4,000 – around a grand below what the estimated price had been – and Coleman finally had the ride of his dreams.

At this point, some 80-year-olds would be wondering how much it would cost to have it shipped the 2,400 miles back to Chattanooga. Or who they could get to go out, load it on a trailer, and tow it home.

Not Boyd Coleman. Though his family and others had misgivings, he decided to fly to Yakima and drive it home. Solo.

“My wife was gentle about it,” he says. “You could tell she wasn’t excited about it, but she didn’t say don’t do it. Though a good friend of mine told me I was a damned fool.”

The auction was held in June, but business commitments kept Coleman from arriving in Washington state until September.

Mind you, the truck had not been restored. The auction photo showed a vehicle that had run hard all its life and been put up wet much of the time. ATHS auction rules decreed auctioned vehicles be in running order. The seller, Carl Wagner, said it was – although he “was a little less than enthusiastic” about Coleman’s driving it home alone.

The western sales manager for Kenworth Corp. had heard about Boyd’s plans and offered to provide $500 worth of parts and labor to ensure the truck was safe to drive. Coleman paid an additional $350, and Kenworth Northwest greased the vehicle; set the toe-in; inspected the wheels; adjusted the clutch, tires and brakes; changed oil and air filters; and checked the engine and the truck’s two transmissions.

But Coleman didn’t ask them to check the electrical system, and when night fell he discovered the headlights didn’t work. He pulled into the next truck stop he saw and, with the help of a couple of truckers, discovered that the lamps weren’t wired up. They helped him get the lights working, and he was off again.

“It was my own fault for not checking. Nobody with walking-around sense would have failed to check the headlights, and I didn’t. And I didn’t ask Kenworth to check them either,” he said with a laugh. Wagner, the previous owner, almost never drove the vehicle at night and was unaware of the problem, Coleman adds.

Coleman discovered his battery wasn’t charging, a problem that was later diagnosed as a bad voltage regulator. He replaced the old battery in Laramie, Wyo., but because it wasn’t charging, he needed several jumps between there and home. The electrical problem also meant his headlights were as dim as the last fireflies of summer, which made night driving dicey.

“But other than that, the truck did fine – no major breakdowns or repairs. That’s pretty good for a 62-year-old truck,” Coleman says. “The fact that we made it without a serious problem is a testament to the accuracy of Mr. Wagner’s description of it over the phone.”

Coleman stuck to interstates most of the way. Whenever he stopped, people asked to take photos and peek inside. State troopers provided some needed jump-starts. When Coleman ran out of fuel in Utah, a friendly passerby drove to his father’s place and returned with a pickup equipped with a diesel fuel tank.

The truck burned oil and had a small leak (“it holds 42 quarts, and I put 40 quarts in it coming home”), and it ran slow. “I think I would do about 55 miles per hour,” he says. Most traffic simply blew past him, including truckers who were in a hurry to get someplace and chafed at being behind the ancient vehicle.

At dusk on Route 412 near Jackson, Tenn., a weary Coleman spotted a state trooper with a car pulled over on the other side of the four-lane highway. A few minutes later, blue lights came up behind him, and he pulled over.

“He got out of his cruiser and came up to the window and asked me, ‘Did you know you’re going 20 mph and your headlights are no good? You see that motel over there? It’s $32 a night,’ and he stopped talking right there, but I knew what he meant.” Coleman thanked the officer for his advice and obediently checked into the motel for the night.

Coleman says he met helpful strangers all along the way – until he got into Tennessee’s Williamson County south of Nashville, whose McMansions and horse farms make it one of the wealthiest (and most conservative) counties in America. He inadvertently killed the engine and sat by the side of the road as cars passed by. Finally, a couple of sheriff’s deputies stopped to help. They admired the truck and then gave it a jump. Coleman finished the last leg of his trip to Chattanooga with no more problems.

After getting home, Coleman took the voltage regulator and generator to a shop. The generator was fine, so Coleman replaced the faulty voltage regulator and fixed other minor problems. The vehicle has been in a parade, and also appeared at a classic car show that raised funds to help the widow of a cancer victim.

Coleman says he doesn’t plan to restore the Kenworth, just keep her in running order so the duo can take part in parades, car shows and the like. That seems fitting; the two of them have earned their character lines.

In its day, the vehicle was state-of-the-art, but time and hard work have weighed down on her. The cab lacks insulation, so occupants get the full-on roar of the 220 Cummins. Its worn seats don’t offer much posterior protection, but the AM radio works.

A tachograph is mounted on a stand on the passenger side. The device recorded speed and driving time long before the feds started thinking about onboard recorders.

The shifters for the four-speed Spicer main transmission and three-speed “brownie” rise up through holes neatly cut in the tractor’s heavy-duty plywood floor – and you can see the road below them.

Coleman says he has gaskets to seal the holes, but hasn’t gotten around to installing them yet. Since there’s no air conditioning, the holes provide some extra ventilation on a warm day.

Coleman points to a small fan mounted on the dash. “That was the defroster, and, if you had a sleeper, you’d turn on the heat and turn the fan around to blow some of the heat in there for your co-driver,” he says.

Though it’s set up as a daycab, Coleman’s thinking about adding a small sleeper for authenticity. Currently, the vehicle has a couple of wood boxes mounted on the back of the frame, each loaded with a 500-pound block of concrete “so the brakes will work,” he explains.

Tall and spare – like this truck – Coleman doesn’t like to pose for photos, preferring to show the truck only. But he relents and self-consciously sits on the running board for a couple of quick shots.

Afterward, as he walks around the tractor, Coleman gestures with big-jointed, long-fingered hands to noteworthy components – the secondary transmission, the Alcoa wheels, the almost delicate compression chain that the driver has to pull as part of the starting ritual.

And as Coleman pats the metal and gazes at the truck, you get the feeling that the years have melted away, leaving behind a young Seabee and his California baby.