I've had a long and abiding love affair with old pickup trucks. The functional gracelessness of these relics of the 40's and early 50's speaks eloquently of country ways and simpler days. They're cheap to buy, easy to maintain and more aesthetically pleasing than their angular descendants. And, unlike passenger cars (which offer little more than transportation and a steady drain on the pocketbook), a decent old truck can pay its own way used for hauling service and even provide its owner with a part-time income.
A Profitable Pickup Hauling Service
A good friend gave me my first pickup after it tired of the steep and rocky road to his mountain cabin and poked a connecting rod out through the cylinder wall. It may not have looked like much to those who saw us towing it down the canyon to my backyard, but to me it was a thing of beauty: a 1949 Dodge half-ton with a flathead six-cylinder engine and a floor-mounted three-speed transmission.
After I got my treasure home, I spent two months up to my elbows in 20 years' accumulation of dirt and grease … installing another engine that had been carefully selected from behind a clump of weeds in the neighborhood junkyard. The truck also needed new shocks and a muffler, and I replaced the rotted-out bed floor with oak planks. When the pickup finally ran and passed the Colorado safety inspection, I was proud as a new father and ready for the Dodge to start paying its way. I figured it owed me something for the skinned knuckles and the hours of time I'd put into getting it back on the road again.
Figuring there should be a lot of light hauling opportunities in the area, I put some ads in the paper and passed the word that Mother's Trucking Company was open for business. Sure enough, I picked up a few odd jobs here and there … moving furniture, cleaning yards and garages, and hauling trash to the dump.
In the process, the old Dodge and I became fast friends. I'd keep it filled with gas and oil and it would perk along at 45 miles an hour, giving me a relaxing ride and an unhurried view of the scenery. Those who whistle along the interstates at 75 miles per hour in air-conditioned supercars miss the smell of haying time and the sights and sounds of the countryside.
In 10,000 miles of driving, the truck stopped only once … when a thermostat stuck and the radiator boiled over. Otherwise it was the soul of dependability. With a little help from an engine heater, it even started one crisp Colorado morning when the thermometer nailed to the porch read 32 below and lots of vehicles 20 years younger remained immobile in their driveways.
In the beginning, my trucking enterprise was good fun and paid for gas, oil, and tires … but that was about it. Meanwhile, I still had to work at other jobs to support myself and cover college expenses.
Then one of my short-term deals gave me the idea for a shoestring business that keeps me, the pickup, and a couple of friends busy part time for eight months of the year … and turns a tidy profit too. (We get paid twice: once when we collect our stock and again when we sell it.) What's more, the work is ecologically sound and the schedule flexible enough for me to attend college full time and for one of my partners to hold down a 40-hour-a-week job. And the only real essentials are a truck, a large backyard (or rented storage space), and a little ambition.
Sound interesting? Read on!
I got my idea the day the employment office sent me out to a construction site where a contractor wanted me to clean up around two houses he was building. When such a job nears completion, the lot is littered with all kinds of scraps that must be cleared away before the landscapers arrive. I was amazed by the quantity and quality of discarded materials: 2 x 4's, planks, sheets of paneling and plywood, shingles, and siding — all usable — and lots of assorted scraps. While some of the stuff was obviously too small to be used in construction, there were boards up to 10 feet in length and plywood in 3 feet by 5 feet pieces.
All this waste was scheduled to be taken to a nearby landfill dump because it was simpler for the contractor to start anew job from scratch than to salvage odds and ends. My sense of ecology, however, was offended to see so much lumber-and the trees it represented-bulldozed into a heap with the rest of the garbage from our affluent society.
The economics of the situation were revealing. The contractor paid me $2.50 an hour to load the wood on his truck, haul it five miles to the disposal facility, unload it, and return to the site for another lot. The whole process took about two hours, and the dump charged a $2.00 use fee. Including gas and wear and tear on the truck, my employer was shelling out about $7.50 a load to dispose of the waste lumber.
I asked the contractor if he would pay me the same amount — as a flat rate of $7.50 a load — to haul the trash away in my own truck. After we'd agreed that "a load" would mean my half-ton pickup filled level with the cab-high sideboards, and that I would guarantee a clean job, he became my first customer. I had more very shortly: Two other builders in the same housing development were glad to be relieved of the search for someone to do clean-up work.
I spent the next week hauling lumber … but not to the dump. Instead, I took it to the backyard of my house where I sorted it into three piles: firewood, usable material, and waste. The last category included unrecyclable paper, paint cans, torn shingles … in short, anything that wouldn't burn and couldn't be reused.
Unloading the pickup by hand, I soon discovered, was a waste of valuable time so I built a sturdy skid from salvaged 5/8-inch plywood cut slightly smaller than the inside dimensions of the truck bed. Two 2 X 4's were nailed lengthwise to the bottom of the device and the front end was reinforced with angle iron. A sturdy eyebolt inserted through the metal strip, a tree stump, and a length of chain completed the project. If I hooked the bolt to the stump with the chain and drove forward until the plywood panel tilted out the back of the bed, I could tip the mass of rubbish out and empty an entire truckload in a few minutes. Then I'd replace the skid and be all set for another trip.
Next I put some ads in the paper and had business cards printed up for distribution to contractors' offices and building sites. Within a couple of weeks I had more work than I could handle alone, so a couple of friends got involved on an equal shares basis. Two of us would hit the construction sites while the third stayed home to sort the booty. At the height of the building season we averaged 20 to 25 loads a week.
The "trash" we gathered from the sites included large amounts of reusable lumber and many unexpected bonuses: nails of every size and type, for example, paint, copper tubing, and sheet and scrap metal. (One generous contractor saw me picking up nails — which we could sell for 50 cents a pound — and assured me that I needn't do that thorough a job!) Metal waste was sold to a junkyard and paper donated to a recycling drive. Some of the trash we picked up at the sites, of course, was no use at all but we discovered that for every ten loads we brought home, we took less than one to the dump! The other nine loads — of good, salvaged building materials — didn't remain idle for long. As soon as we had a selection of lumber, siding, shingles, nails, paint, and paneling, we put ads in the local paper and left notices on community bulletin boards in supermarkets, barber shops, and discount stores. Handymen, housewives, and others doing small home repairs found our prices much lower than those of the lumberyards.
Our best customer was a retired mailman down the street who supplemented his pension by building doghouses. The short boards and odd pieces of paneling were scaled just right for his work, and he turned out some very fancy models. Also, one of our partners had been active in scouting and contacted several local troops, which were able to use our lumber lot as a source of supply for birdhouses and other construction projects.
By fall, we had converted some old outbuildings to lumber storage and had several small mountains of firewood covered with plastic sheeting. When construction slowed for the winter, the other end of our business picked up. We advertised fuel at $7.00 a level pickup load (without sideboards) delivered, or $5.00 cash and carry. Deliveries kept us busy until January … when our supply gave out.
And that's how the Dodge ended up both paying its own way and putting me through college.
Anyone who wants to give it a try can operate this business quite inexpensively. Our only costs were the initial investment to fix up the truck (see MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 12 for tips on buying a used pickup), gas and oil, advertising, dump charges, and plastic sheeting to cover the firewood.
Another advantage of this work is the flexible hours. The business is ideal for students or people with other employment because there's usually no deadline for finishing a job, and you can go at it in the cool of the evening after the other laborers on the site have quit for the day. And think of all the trees you'll be saving!