My Trusty Old Freightliner
If you’ve ever seen a semi with a coating of black oil down the side of the trailer, the whole way from nose to tail, you can be fairly certain that someone who recently pulled that trailer experienced a failure of their turbocharger. As the seals in the bearings failed, the oil that was being pumped through as lubricant escaped into the truck’s intake, traveled through the engine and partially unburnt, out the exhaust, where it dripped out the stacks, turning to a mist and coating anything behind.
I arrived as early as possible that Monday to load a heavy load of plywood from the Plum Creek mill in Columbia Falls, MT. No matter, by the time I got through the mill’s safety class, collected my reward (a pink ball cap with their logo), actually got my truck loaded, tied it down and took my turn latching into the overhead fall prevention system to throw my tarps, the sun was high in the Rocky Mountain sky. The people, who lived with the constant threat that their mill would be the next one mothballed if lumber prices went a little too far in the wrong direction, were very friendly, and soon had my paperwork ready. I gave them my driver’s license number and my John Hancock, and was on my way.
The drive south, around Flathead Lake was breathtaking, and the day and the miles passed quickly. Presently the sun set, and I began to tire. I found a gravel parking lot on the edge of a small Wyoming farm town and parked for the night. The late summer air was brisk but not cold. I’d sleep under the blankets with the engine off to save fuel and wear and tear on an engine approaching a million miles in service. I turned the key. The engine grumbled and shook to a halt. All was quiet…or should have been. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick…a quiet, sharp, metallic tapping that continued for a minute or so, then slowly tailed off to nothing. A quick mental checklist and I reached an initial conclusion. Only one part of the engine continues to move after it’s shut down. I pulled out the flashlight and a screwdriver, pulled the hood open and unscrewed the clamp on an intake duct to gain access to the pressure side of the turbo. Sure enough, there was enough play in the shaft for the vanes to touch the housing. Do a quick mental picture of a turbine wheel with 30 or 40 precisely machined vanes coming into contact with its metal housing at speeds over 1,000 revolutions per SECOND. The coming failure would be ugly and could throw pieces down the intake converting the engine from exquisite machinery to scrap metal in less time than it takes the thought to cross your mind. There was nothing to do but sleep and worry about repairs in the morning.
The sound of tires crunching gravel. I brushed the sleep from my eyes, and pulled aside the sleeper curtain. Ugh! The sun was not even over the horizon. With my problems, I knew I’d never get back to sleep, so I pulled on some clothes and made my way to the building where all the pick-ups were parked. Someone was nursing a fire to life in an old woodstove, while farmers poked fun at each other and ordered their breakfasts, some of them downing shots of whiskey while they waited. I might well have been invisible, “Any diesel mechanics here?”. The room went quiet, as all eyes turned to the interloper. It felt like I was on stage, “Any diesel mechanics here? My turbo’s shot.” Convinced there was nothing to see, conversations renewed and someone gave me the name of a local guy who worked on tractors. After a phone call it was apparent that if he were to do the job, he’d drive 80 miles to Casper to get the part, then back before he could even start the job, and that was after he dealt with the local work to which he’d already committed. “Let me get back to you.” I borrowed a Yellow Pages, found a Casper towing company and made the call, “I have some emergency repairs to make. Are there any local mechanics you especially trust or distrust?” He recommended the Peterbilt dealer. Another call. A short hold, and I was talking to a mechanic.
I described my problem.
“Any visible damage to the compressor vanes?”
“No. That’s the first thing I checked.”
“Is the ticking only when you turn the truck off?”
“Are you sure?”
“Is it safe for me to try?”
“Not necessarily, but it worked ’til now and it’ll help know how bad of a fix you’re really in.”
“Ok, hold on.” I start the truck, let it idle for a few seconds, rev it just a hair, then turn it off. “Yep, it only starts tapping a few seconds after I shut down the engine.”
“Here’s the deal. The oil pressure when the engine is running is enough to hold the shaft in place, at least for now, so the tapping you hear is the vanes scraping the housing after the oil stops pumping. You can either get a tow truck if you want to be absolutely safe, or you can take what I think is a pretty good chance. Start the truck and drive it to our shop, but don’t turn it off again ’til we get you in a bay. Chances are if it’s lasted this long, it’ll make it one more start/stop cycle.”
“If it were your truck?”
“No question, I’d take the chance before I paid a couple grand to a tow truck company, but it’s your truck, and I can’t make any promises.”
His advice was good, and I made it to Casper uneventfully. Though I was lucky enough not to spray oil from my exhaust and ruin my tarps, it had leaked into the intercooler, so I had to have that removed and steam cleaned, but they had me repaired and on my way with a new turbo by mid afternoon. The price was very reasonable.
Just a couple hours later, in Colorado, I blew a tire. I was approaching an exit, and just off the ramp was a tire shop, so I had it replaced quickly.
The next exit was a DOT check, but they waved me by.
Not fifty miles later, my almost new, chrome, smoke stack fell off. The clamp hadn’t been properly tightened. I walked back a quarter mile, found it only a few scratches worse for the wear, replaced it on the side of the road, and made the rest of my trip uneventfully.
I can’t even remember my destination. I think it was in Texas, but I did beat my deadline. The customer got their load early and never even knew there had been trouble on the way.