On the Road

Twin-Sticks to No-Sticks (Trucks have sure come a long way, Baby)

October 21, 2013

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Back before they invented automated manuals with dash displays, driver had to remember which gear they were in.
Back before they invented automated manuals with dash displays, driver had to remember which gear they were in.

New truck drivers don't know how easy they have it today. Air suspensions, power steering, climate control, air ride seats, no gear shift ... Today's big trucks are Cadillacs in every way compared to the trucks industry pioneers worked with. I had many opportunities to reflect on how far trucks have come in the past half-century when, over the past two weeks, I spent a few days at Mack's Customer Center in Allentown, Penn, driving one of their prized restorations -- a 1957 B61 Mack -- and then a week later, I found myself Orlando, Fla. judging the 2014 Truck of the Year contenders for the American Truck Dealers.

You simply can't compare today's trucks to their predecessors. They are as different as a DC3 aircraft and a Boeing 767. Alternatively, the Phillips console radio our grandparents (or great grandparents) had in their living rooms and an iPod. And let me be perfectly clear; I'm not denigrating the B61. It was state of the art in its time and remains an iconic reminder of trucking's early days. Mack produced the B-model between 1957 and 1966 in all sorts of configurations for many different applications. Lots of them are still running today -- most as restoration projects but there are a few still working. I wonder how many Cascadias, Pinnacles or ProStars will still be running in 2065?

Mack's 1957 B61 can be seen at the Customer Center in Allentown, Penn.
Mack's 1957 B61 can be seen at the Customer Center in Allentown, Penn.

The truck Mack entrusted to me that day rolled off the assembly line 1957, making it a year older than I am. It's probably in better condition than I am too, but that another story. One of the earlier versions of the truck, it had a 170 hp / 600 lb-ft Thermodyne engine mated to a 5-speed main transmission and a 2-speed auxiliary -- a duplex in other words. They came with 5x3 and 5x4 transmissions as well. The seat had no suspension save for a thick foam cushion full of springs. There was no heater or air conditioner, and the beefy steel springs on the front and rear axles ensured the driver became vividly aware of every pebble, crack or pothole on the road.

The giant steering wheel provided leverage to help with tight turns.
The giant steering wheel provided leverage to help with tight turns.

The steering wheel is gigantic -- part of the armstrong steering system. For those too new to get the gag, 'armstrong steering' means the driver reefs really hard on the big wheel to turn it. It was of necessarily large diameter to give the driver some extra leverage in tight spots. And don't kid yourself, the big wheel was of little advantage. When the truck isn't moving, it's near impossible to turn the wheel. When reversing into a dock, the tight maneuvering often required even with the much shorter trailers of the day meant the driver had to inch the truck forward or backward to even begin turning the wheel. Palming the wheel as we do today wasn't even a possibility. You got a real workout just alley-docking the truck.

Two Sticks -- One for Each Hand

Then there are the transmissions -- yes, plural. The main and the auxiliary. Today, they are bundled together in the same box, roughly speaking, with the two gearshifts replaced by the shift lever and a hi-lo range selector, roughly equal to today's 9- or 10-speeds. The triplex and quadraplex transmissions (5x3 and 5x4) roughly parallel today's 13-and 18-speed gearboxes.

In principal, they are easy enough to command. First gear on the main box, low then into high on the auxiliary. That's the easy part. Next, shift the main into second, but before engaging the clutch, you pull the auxiliary out of high, rev the engine, slip it into low and engage the clutch. Now you're in second low. Depending on the load, you might have to do that all the way up through the gears 'till you get to top speed. More likely, you'll cheat and run through a few gears in low before you have to start splitting them. It only gets worse when you get into the 3- and 4-speed auxiliaries.

Talk about distracted driving. Both hands on the wheel -- even one hand on the wheel -- wasn't always possible.
Talk about distracted driving. Both hands on the wheel -- even one hand on the wheel -- wasn't always possible.

Shift timing had to be impeccable, and good drivers could often skip shift and even split odd gears. If you missed a shift, the old bulldog would bite you but good. The teeth on the gears were spaced pretty widely apart, so there was a good chance that a partially engaged gear would kick the shifter back. If you were lucky, the meaty part of the palm of your hand took the brunt of it. Drivers have had wrists and fingers broken by the kickback.

If you happened to miss a split shift, you wound up in what they called double-nothin' -- both transmissions in neutral. That often meant a full stop to get the thing back into gear, though some of the better drivers could finesse them back into gear, if they could remember which gear they were in.

You've no doubt seen pictures of drivers with one arm wrenched through the steering wheel gripping a shifter while to other arm grapples with the other stick. God forbid you happen to hit a pothole at that moment, because the big steering wheel with all its leverage could whip around and easily break an arm.

The first tractor-trailer I drove back in '78 was an R-model Mack with a twin-stick 6-speed and a 283 horsepower Maxidyne engine. A relatively simple transmission to sort out -- the taller stick was hi-lo and the shorter was 1 through 5. It usually only required one range shift from lo to hi, usually in fourth. Often, you could start in hi forget about a range shift.

Getting the hang of the duplex Mack let me drive wasn't much of a chore, but I'm glad I was careful to get out of hearing range of its caretaker before attempting a range shift. I ground a few gears, but didn't cause any permanent damage I don't think. After all, it's a Mack. The palm of my tender, keyboard-toughened right hand continues to remind me of my lack of shifting finesse.

Drivers had two shifts to make before revs and momentum were lost.
Drivers had two shifts to make before revs and momentum were lost.

Off with the Rose Colored Glasses

It was a noisy, rough and physically demanding truck to drive, and I was just bobtailing around the course at the now-retired proving grounds at Mack's Customer Center. My shoulders were a little stiff at the end of the day, and still ached the next morning when I went in to drive a couple of Mack's contemporary models. It was a good way to illustrate how far truck technology has come. I can only imagine how drivers would feel after eight or ten hours of banging around the city in one of those trucks. We look at them nostalgically today, but they beat drivers up pretty good.

The other makes and models of that vintage were the same. There was almost no suspension to speak of, drivers baked in the summer and froze in the winter and there was barely enough room behind the wheel for even a 200-lb driver. Sharp metal edges were everywhere in the cab. There were no seatbelts or air bags, no adaptive cruise control or stability control systems and certainly none of the comforts drivers enjoy today like upholstery, air conditioning, lumbar supports, automated transmissions, subwoofers, GPS, etc.

The old trucks were primitive mechanically, too. They lacked the massive torque and horsepower we take for granted today (hence the larger number of gear ranges). I recall reading the spec sheet on a Caterpillar engine from the 60s. I can't remember the model, but compared to Cat's recent C13 engines, the old engine was more than twice the weight for less than half the horsepower.

Under the hood purrs a 170-hp, 600 lb-ft, 6-cylinder naturally aspirated Thermodyne engine.
Under the hood purrs a 170-hp, 600 lb-ft, 6-cylinder naturally aspirated Thermodyne engine.

But primitive wasn't necessarily bad in all respects. It wasn't uncommon for drivers to tear an engine down at roadside if they threw a bearing or something. Most of what could go wrong with them could be fixed or jimmied with a bit of whiskey and some baling wire. Sadly, that's no longer the case. With today's telematics capabilities, the truck can self-detect a fault, notify a nearby shop and book itself an appointment. But they can still sit for days waiting for parts.

Say what you want about them, I love the old trucks. They smelled like trucks -- hot oil, grease, diesel, sweat, etc. I guess they didn't invent those stinky little Christmas tree air fresheners 'till sometime later. And while I really like new trucks too, I doubt many of today's trucks will still be running 50 years from now, so enjoy them while you can. The upside is few of them are likely to break your arm just because you missed a shift. That has to be seen as an improvement.    

For a video of me grappling with the old Mack, and comparing it to the newest Mack mDrive automated manual transmissions, click here.

A friend and fellow gearhead sent along this link to a video of a guy driving a B-model with a 5x3 triplex. He really knows what he's doing. I emphasize, the fellow in the video is not me.



  1. 1. Rocco Cavallo [ October 22, 2013 @ 06:15AM ]

    A fun story Thank You!

  2. 2. Larry [ October 25, 2013 @ 01:19PM ]

    That driving video is of me in my '59 B61. I made that video long before Youtube and it got passed around on the internet. I also did a two handed version.

  3. 3. Doug [ October 27, 2013 @ 09:45AM ]

    Thanks for the memories, Jim. I never had the privilege of driving a B61, but I rode in a few with my Dad. My driving career did start out however, with gas engines, armstrong steering 2-60 air, (2 windows down at 60 MPH) and spring ride suspension. I love seeing the old truck that have been restored.

  4. 4. Dave Westlake [ March 10, 2016 @ 06:49PM ]

    I drove a B Model with a duplex back in the late 70s. I didn't find the steering that hard. One thing you NEVER do is hook your arm through the wheel. It was much safer to hold the wheel with your left knee and shift without the clutch. Not difficult once you get the Han of it.

  5. 5. Marcel [ July 11, 2016 @ 07:32AM ]

    I drove my 1964 B-61 last week. First time it ran in 17 years. Oil change and filters.. good to go. Now that we know that it runs i can spend some money on it with a big grint on my face.

  6. 6. John Robinson [ November 04, 2016 @ 06:14PM ]

    Automatic transmissions should be illegal in commercial vehicles. It's takes control away from the driver of the vehicle just as it does in a car. I know I will NEVER EVER DRIVE ONE! ONCE WAS ENOUGH.

  7. 7. magnus pettersson [ July 27, 2017 @ 01:23PM ]

    Ah, I remember driving the old Volvo F86 COE trucks while I did my military service in Sweden, in the early 80's. They had pneumatic powersteering so they were not too hard to drive though. But they had twin gearboxes, 5x2, where the hi/lo gearbox was operated by a huge pneumatic switch on the stick. The switch didn't change gears until the stick passed the neutral, so one could "prepare in advance". While driving without a trailer or not too heavy loads, one could skip the low on the secondary gearbox, use using hi all the time. The F86 had a 550 cui 6 inline cylinder turbodiesel producing approx 200 hp. The where used for heavy distribution trucks, one size below the big riggs.


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Author Bio

Jim Park

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Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.


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