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Introduction: The View from 1946
The article Wanna Buy a Truck? on this page was published in the January-February 1946 edition of the Coast Artillery Journal, a publication for members of U.S. Army artillery and antiaircraft units. It was just after World War II and hundreds of thousands of excess property jeeps and trucks were scattered across the globe. Many a GI thought about acquiring one of these gems.
While collectors today become dizzy just thinking about such enormous stocks of olive drab wonders, the GI of 1946 was probably thinking about starting a truck-based business rather than historic vehicle preservation or MVPA-style get-togethers. The author of Wanna Buy a Truck? urges prospective buyers of GI trucks to think pragmatically about the nature of military vehicles, the competition from commercial vehicles, business requirements, and finding the balance.
Vast changes have taken place since 1946. Where 1946 prices are mentioned, you will no doubt shake your head in disbelief. But other truths are eternal and many of the points made in Wanna Buy a Truck? still deserve consideration in the 21st century.
Find additional photos and hi-res versions of military trucks at the Olive-Drab Military Mashup:
Wanna Buy a Truck?
By Tec/3 Bernard L. Miller
"If I could pick up a couple of six-by-sixes, I could set myself up in the hauling business in Chicago."
"With a little fleet of jeeps, I could start a little city-delivery service in Philadelphia."
"I'm gonna get me one of them closed-body maintenance trucks, paint a sign reading 'Mr. Fixit' on it, and just travel around the West Virginia hills fixin' washing machines, vacuum cleaners -- anything the lady's got that needs fixin'."
Today, many a GI dreaming of independence and a cosy livelihood wanders mentally through the rich waste of machinery left high and dry by the tides of war -- generating units, metal-working tools, trucks, tractors and trailers glitter in the sun as far as the mind's eye can see.
Most GI dreams center about the Army's excess motor transport, where the surpluses are greatest and the opportunities seem the ripest. But the answer to how practical are the dreams depends on how well adapted to commercial use military trucks are.
How economically can a jeep be operated? Does the tandem axle make the 2 1/2-ton 6x6 too expensive for commercial operation? What can you do with a Diamond T Wrecker? Find the answers and win a fortune.
Basically, it makes plenty of sense to consider military trucks in a commercial light. Army trucks and civilian trucks are sisters under the tin; practically every Army truck is an adaptation of a commercial model, if not in whole then at least in component parts. You never saw a jeep before the "emergency," but the jeep engine, axles, gear boxes and controls are all thoroughly civilian. We have few if any military freaks.
The only thing left to consider is whether the details of military design hang too big a handicap on the Army truck in the keen competition of commercial life. But even so, in many cases such handicaps may be turned into advantages by clever operators who can think of novel ways of converting military features to profitable use.
For instance, the jeep has been damned as too expensive to operate for the load it will carry; it is geared down too far, they claim. But the jeep is cute, it has won the hearts of the country-and therein lies an advertising value. Paint it red, put the name of your meat market on it in big white letters and every time you deliver two pounds of chops to Mrs. Clancy the whole neighborhood will be reminded that you are in the flesh and fowl business. The advertising value more than offsets the slightly higher cost of operation.
Accentuating the positive of jeep design, the small size of the vehicle makes it easy to maneuver in heavy city traffic, and easy to park. Time being money in business life, the jeep can thus also be a profit-saver. With the jeep, as with practically every other Army truck, city and highway work demands one major alteration; removal of the live front axle. Where there's any kind of road at all, there's no use for added traction provided by front-wheel drive. Simply operating in rear-wheel drive alone and forgetting the front-wheel drive is not enough; power is wasted just by turning the ring gear and pinion, differential and propeller shaft, not to mention maintenance and lubrication that have to be expended on the rotating but useless appendage.
On the other hand, in all off-the-road operations, front wheel drive is an asset. Surveyors, geologists searching for oil and mineral deposits, and timber prospectors would find front-wheel drive invaluable.
The Army's 3/4-ton truck, such as the weapons carrier or command car, steps into a fast class in commercial life -- it must compete with the 1/2-ton pickup in small deliveries and light hauling. And the 3/4-ton has some very serious disadvantages for ordinary commercial work -- the body styles for one. The command car has a truck engine and chassis, and a touring-car body. There seems little to do with this combination except remove the body and put on something more suited to hauling. The weapons carrier has a "soft" (tarp and bows) body that might be all right for hauling such things as garden produce, but your driver would never forgive you if you presented him with the soft top to work in. Especially if he's wearing a little gold button in his lapel. The carryall might do as a panel-delivery, but it still steers like a truck.
In a nutshell, the 3/4-ton is just too much truck for the work it can do in civilian life. Its 230-cubic-inch engine is a fuel eater compared to the 216-cubic-inch engine of the usual 1/2-ton; engineered for a rougher existence, its replacement parts are heavier and much more expensive than the 1/2-ton's. A replacement engine would cost you $316.99 compared to about $159 for the 1/2-ton, a replacement steering gear is $17.25 compared to $11.25 for the 1/2-ton.
On all ex-Army trucks, this same high-cost-of-replacements stares you in the face. It's something to think of when the man with the hammer asks for your bid.
Using the 1 1/2-ton weapons carrier for general hauling has all the disadvantages of the 3/4-ton and one of its own; the tandem rear axle -- it has just that many more tires to wear out. There is, of course, the faint possibility that you are in the business of hauling heavy-things-in-small-packages like metal ingots, sheet steel, or bricks, and in this case the extra brawn in the two rear axles will give you service. But like all Army trucks featuring extraordinary tractive ability, the 3/4-ton and the 1 1/2-ton seem best suited for the farm and the tall timber. In this connection, a northwestern truck distributor pointed out one special advantage of the 1 1/2-ton that comes, strangely enough, from its low silhouette. "That low silhouette would be fine for work in orchards under the low trees, especially in combination with the load-carrying ability which you need in harvesting fruit."
The 2 1/2-ton 6x6 has been called by many GI's "the best engineered military truck in the worId," and one middlewestern commercial hauler expressed the opinion that it would be a good truck for local heavy hauling.
But the 6x6 suffers the same disadvantage as the 1 1/2-ton -- it's got too many feet. Tire expense would be needlessly high in long-haul operation, considering that commercial fleets commonly average 150,000 miles a year. And again, the soft cab is a disadvantage in bad weather.
Such trucks as the 2 1/2-ton dump can jump right into civilian life without even a change of uniform. Working under a power shovel, dump trucks are normally given all the load that can be piled on. When such loads consist of broken brick and similar heavy rubble, clay or wet earth, the tandem rear axles are in their element.
The dream of some GI's is to start in with a little senrice station in a small- or medium-sized town and build up a number of allied services on the side. One of these would be delivering fuel oil; the 2 1/2-ton, 750-gallon tank truck sounds right for the job. But it must be remembered that at least twice that load is normally carried on commercial tankers in the 2 1/2-ton class without a tandem rear axle.
And here it is not simply a matter of obtaining economy by overloading; the capacity of the tank is fixed.
The usual recommendation in cases like this where the Army truck doesn't guite fit, is "modify it." But the businesswise GI will tote up the cost of all these modifications, add them to the initial cost of the truck and decide whether he's still getting a bargain. It's easy enough to say, "Knock out the front-wheel drive and put on a new body," but it's all hand-tailoring and likely to run into important money.
In the 2 1/2-ton and 4- or 5-ton truck tractor department, especially the 4x2's, the prospective vet will be buying right into a truck that is already a commercial stand-by. No guesswork about it; the same goes for the semitrailers they pull.
When it comes to wreckers, the opportunities are much whittled clown. In the MAM company the wrecker was good for any and everything. but a sawed-off old Cadillac with a superstructure can be seen doing the same thing on smooth streets and highways. However, in rough occupaions like lumbering, the wrecker many find a home.
For trucks above four tons, the field is even smaller. As a matter of fact, it gets so small that maybe it disappears altogether. A 6-ton, 7 1/2-ton, or 10-ton prime mover is no trifling matter. A lot of truck, and unless the prospective businessman has some very clear-cut ideas on what he's going to do with it, he'll find himself with a white elephant in O.D. paint on his hands. For one thing, state weight laws put a very definite kibosh on operating these behemoths over their nice clean roads.
In the beginning, Uncle Sam designed his trucks with an eye to angle of approach and departure, flotation on soft terrain, heavy-duty pulling and carrying ability. Did all this make Army motor transport too muscle-bound for life in the smooth-roaded civilian world? The answer is yes ... no ... and maybe. It all depends on what you're going to do, how you are going to do it and where.
Do your dreaming with paper and pencil.
A note in Coast Artillery Journal indicates that Wanna Buy a Truck? appeared originally in Firepower, but that original source has not been located.