Fleet Horror Stories, Pt. 1

Though some places require regular vehicle inspections, many do not. Opinions sometimes differ on what classifies as “roadworthy”. Company-owned fleet vehicles are often held to a higher standard. Here are some examples of cheapness that I witnessed firsthand.


Why is maintenance more important on a company vehicle than on my car?

It’s not. However, these fleet breakdowns hurt a company financially in ways that go beyond the cost of repair. When a truck breaks down, the downtime stalls the profit a company is in the process of trying to make.

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Fleet vehicles often include the company name. It’s free advertising! But rust, smoke, body damage, and infrequent washes can hurt the company image.

Although I have more stories to share, this first article will focus only on one truck in this abominable fleet. “The Red Truck”, or “Red TK” for short (though I often reckoned that TK stood for “torque kitten”).

1994 Chevrolet C1500

In 2007, I began working for a construction company in SE Michigan whose name is not relevant to this article. I was one of those rare employees with the ability to drive stick: a skill that was soon paired with the only manual transmission truck in the fleet. I do not know what circumstances brought it to the company, but it had a few previous private owners. It was red, a standard cab with an 8’ bed and a cap on the back, powered by a 4.3L V6 originally rated at 165hp.

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This truck was pretty well suited as a work truck (except for the under-powered LB4). It even had the easy-to-clean vinyl floor. It had a cracked windshield, and oddly, the horn pad was missing, so you had to touch the wire to ground to make it work. I wasn’t surprised that the AC didn’t work. More issues arose as I drove this truck toward and past its 200,000 mile mark. Unfortunately, I soon found out that all trucks in this fleet received oil changes ONLY, every 5000 miles. Only a completely debilitating problem would warrant a repair. Getting repairs performed was an ordeal in itself, and would often take several days to schedule.

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Being the sole driver of this truck, I did my part as a driver to take care of it. I even bought some fish-eye mirrors for it. Regular application of fresh duct tape to the top of the windshield helped to keep rain water out of the cab. I also paid attention when refueling to find it got about 16-17 MPG. In the years that followed, that number shrunk. The over-worked oil-burning V6 hauled some pretty heavy loads that should have been dealt with in multiple trips. Compression became so low that it could not be parked in gear on an incline without chocking the wheels. [EDIT: Now with video!] On the freeway, flooring the accelerator in 5th gear resulted in almost 70mph unless going uphill.

Rev-matching was helpful in trying to preserve the 5-speed transmission which had crunchy synchros. It had also lost any spring action to hold the limp handle near 3rd & 4th gears when in neutral. When the wiper blades got worn, I learned to scavenge passenger-side ones from the other trucks in the fleet. (My car doesn’t take 18” blades, so I don’t know how prohibitively expensive they are.) The fleet manager was helpless, as the company owners kept a tight grip on purchasing power. They did, however, pony up for a fuel pump, and after a while, I eventually managed to negotiate a simple tune-up.

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But in time, I started to notice the MPGs decrease more. The inside of the tailpipe turned black. It was running rich. But replacing a faulty sensor was deemed too expensive, and the truck was still technically driveable. I started to calculate how much “extra” money was being spent per fill-up due to the wasted gas. The muffler rusted off, and was replaced after a few WEEKS of loud driving.

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Then it started to backfire. Sometimes a light *puff*, sometimes a loud *pow*. Then one day *BANG*, loud as a gunshot. This time it tore the new muffler open and I started wearing earplugs again, a habit I had developed while waiting for the previous muffler replacement. It kept backfiring loudly as it managed 13 MPG.

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I drove around like this for several months. *POW* *puff* *BANG!* I was starting to embrace the poor image this reflected on the company. I actually hoped to get pulled over so I could march that ticket right into the main office. But instead, one of the tires blew out on the freeway. And the spare was no good; big surprise.

New tires were, as you might have guessed, not an option. The used replacements lasted, well, a few months. In the meantime, a bad vibration developed, warranting a replacement of one of the ball-joints, and ONE driveshaft u-joint. That’s right; with the driveshaft out of the truck, only one of the $10 u-joints was affordable enough to address. (The other one failed soon after.)

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As these tires grew bald, the time for replacements soon resurfaced, and the local shop had a full matching set that actually looked quite good. But the company declined an alignment, and one of the fronts quickly developed a lopsided bald spot.

Then what to my wondering eyes should appear? One of the company’s new recruits had the ability to handle three pedals. Sucker! My savior!

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I no longer work there, but I wonder if this zombie truck is still around. Last I saw, it was sitting in the parking lot, not having been moved in a few months due to undiagnosed “gear trouble”...

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