Glider kit basics

By Paul Abelson, Land Line senior technical editor

In the market for a new truck, but the sticker shock of a brand-new one has you exploring your options? Glider kits are likely to be one of the options you look into. Whether you're relatively new to trucking or a long-timer, you probably have a lot of questions. Consider this a running start at answering all those questions you have before investing in a glider kit.

What, exactly, is a glider kit?

A glider kit is a completed truck without two to four critical components: the engine, transmission, suspension and drive axles. All else can be new.

Why is it called a glider?

Gliders originally made use of the major components after a truck has been in a wreck. Early trucks were not as safe or crashworthy as today's, and even at the lower speeds driven "back in the day," bodies and lighter components didn't survive crashes. Often all that was salvageable were the heavy cast iron parts.

Rather than purchasing an entire replacement truck, dealer or fleet shops could lay out the major components' on the shop floor and "glide" the replacement chassis and body over the components until everything was positioned for attachment.

The reason steer axles were not retained was that at least one axle was needed to roll the glider into position.

What are the advantages of buying a glider?

First, you get the latest new truck appointments and conveniences at significant savings off the price of a new truck. You can get message centers, new seats, power assists, almost every amenity a new truck has to offer for thousands less.

Of course, you still have your same old drivetrain with whatever warranty may be left on each component, or you can have your components overhauled. Many customers choose to purchase gliders built with remanufactured major components. They get pre-emissions simplicity and reliability with proven engines like Cat's C-15, Cummins' N-14 or Detroit's Series 60.

Transmissions can be rebuilt, remanufactured or upgraded to automated manual transmissions. If your old transmission is an AMT, the latest software improvements can often be made.

And, in all the years I've written the Maintenance Q&A column, I've never been asked about a set of drive gears failing. Wheel ends, yes, but they are inspected and usually rebuilt or replaced before a glider is assembled.

When you buy a glider, you are recycling. It takes far more resources and energy to cast new engine blocks and housings and to forge and machine new steel gears than it does to reuse existing parts, even though some may have to be replaced after inspection.

The advantages sound good, but there must be some disadvantages, too. What are they?

The first is uncertainty about regulations. Currently, registration is based on the model year of the drive train in most states. Even though your cab and chassis may be the latest and greatest, if your engine was made in 2002, before the first round of EPA regulations, it is considered a 2002 truck, not a new one.

But other factors come into play. If, for example, the engine was remanufactured rather than just repaired, does the remanufacturer have to upgrade it to standards in effect at the date of remanufacture? What about running in California? The Air Resources Board there requires older trucks to be retrofit with diesel particulate filters to meet that state's standards. But these non-factory installed DPFs are suspected of causing more than 30 truck fires.

Warranty may become an issue. There are many providers of glider kits, from "shade tree mechanics" to full-fledged factories. Is a warranty offered? What is covered? Is it just the new body, the body and chassis components, just the drivetrain or the entire truck as delivered? And how strong, financially, is the warranty provider? A strong warranty from a weak provider may be worthless.

Another disadvantage is that you won't get the latest fuel-saving technology. Downspeeding, running at engine speeds often as low as 1,000 rpm, is proven to reduce fuel use as much as 5 percent. But you can't get those savings with an engine that stalls below 1,200 rpm or with a set of 3.64:1 drive gears. You may be able to do some specifying from a factory operation like Fitzgerald, but they didn't have 2.28:1 axles back when Series 60s were in production.

If, as they did in the early days of glider kits, you bring your own parts to your dealer, what will be covered under warranty? You may want to get your drivetrain rebuilt by the dealer or traded in on remanufactured components to maintain some sort of warranty.

Where do I get one?

The truck manufacturers that offer them and the models offered are Freightliner and Western Star from Daimler and Kenworth and Peterbilt from Paccar. Not every dealer in each network handles glider kits, nor is every dealer prepared to assemble them. In many cases, specialized components may be needed, such as instruments or even dashboards, to work with the less sophisticated electronics of an older engine.

Several companies manufacture gliders into finished trucks on a factory-like basis. Fitzgerald, in Byrdstown, Tenn., is one of the largest. Kustom Truck in Coos Bay, Ore., has a significant following in the western states. The Wheel Time Network is a nationwide group of distributors and repair shops that puts together gliders using remanufactured engines from Caterpillar Reman, Cummins ReCon and Detroit Reliabilt.

Warranties may vary according to what components are used, their source, and the amount of coverage desired. Fitzgerald, for example, offers Gold and Silver coverage for up to 300,000 or 500,000 miles. Each supplier warrants its contribution to the mix, so be sure you review your options, coverage and cost before you sign your contract.

Do I get a title?

Yes, glider owners obtain a title just as for any other truck. Some states require a copy of the old truck's title be presented.

Will I have a problem getting insurance?

Deborah Winkler, manager of the Truck Insurance Department at Owner-Operator Services, Inc., which is a division of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, says glider kits can be covered much as a standard truck would. "Our insurance does not have any issues with glider kits," Winkler said.

Some policies commonly purchased for new trucks, including limited depreciation coverage, do not apply to glider kits. Like many truck owners, glider kit owners may purchase breakdown coverage separately.

Are there federal excise taxes on glider kits?

Unfortunately, yes.

In a memo issued in January 2014, the Internal Revenue Service appeared to change its previous stance that allowed glider kits to be exempt from 12 percent FET if the cost of the transaction was 75 percent or less of the price of a comparable vehicle. The IRS clarified that it considers the tax base to be the price of the resulting vehicle, minus the value of used parts contributed to the transaction by the vehicle's owner, plus a 4 percent markup. The Iowa Motor Truck Association considered the 2014 memo to be a signal that the IRS would be aggressively auditing glider kit transactions.

Can I get financing?

Yes, financing is available for many glider kits. According to Fitzgerald Glider Kits, a leader in the glider kit industry, buyers can download a financing application and fax it to the company, which in turn works with a variety of lenders. "We understand everyone's credit situation is different," the company's website says.

Financing is also available for Freightliner and Western Star kits through Daimler Truck Financial.

I live in Canada. Can I order one from the U.S.?

Transport Canada has declared that trucks manufactured from glider kits that are less than 15 years old are not allowed to be imported into Canada. Even if you could, glider kits may not be viable in Canada for other reasons. Canada's federal government requires Class 8 truck engines to meet the emissions specifications for the year of the truck body. A 2014 glider kit, then, must include a 2014 model year truck engine.

I live in Canada. Are there Canada-based businesses that offer glider kits?

Google "glider kits" and "Canada" and you're more likely to encounter the Alberta Gliding Club than your area parts dealer. Still, some parts dealers appear willing to try to help customers in Canada work around the country's stringent glider kit rules. Canada requires that all three major drivetrain components must be used and two of the three must come from the same donor truck. LL