“Many young male neurotics find out early that hard labor is salve for an overactive mind,” Finn Murphy writes in his memoir about his career in long-haul truck driving. That may explain why as a young man he dropped out of college and left his comfortable suburban Connecticut life to become a hard-laboring trucker. That decision was made in 1980, and to this day he keeps on truckin’.
The mind: still overactive. He channeled that energy into The Long Haul, the story of his fuel-injected journey. We meet drivers, movers (and shakers) of all backgrounds, customers and properties of all classes and roads, and weather of all forecasts. If you’ve ever wondered who those people are behind those big rigs on the highway, get into this ride.
Finn lets us in on the secrets of a successful move and the rabbit hole that brings on a disasterous haul. We learn some trucker lingo that goes beyond “Convoy,” as well as how to maneuver a backroad, a parking space, and an irate customer. We also learn what’s actually inside those truck cabins.
In his decades-long career, Finn has covered more than a million miles driving, moving, packing, loading, and hauling. Here, he shares with us a small portion of that adventure, and shows us how a book about moving could be so moving.
Let’s start with the wheels. What was your first truck?
I started with a GMC Astro 95. It was a single screw, which means it didn’t have tandem drive wheels. It had a crawl-in sleeper in the back and a 290 Cummins diesel engine, which is small and it’s pulling a big, fat moving van. Moving vans are not really that heavy because household items are not really that heavy. We never really hit our [weight] limit. The windsheild and the steering wheel was right over the front left tire, so every time you run over a toothpick, you would get jarred. And if you had to start running over some really bad roads, you had to strap your seatbelt on or you would hit your head on the roof.
Then I moved to an International Transtar cabover, which also had a crawl-in sleeper in the back. I had a Kenworth cabover with a bunk in the back. It had a walk-in sleeper, and that just changed my life. And then I moved to a Freightliner Columbia, which was also a sleeper with a double-bed.
What are you driving now?
I’m driving a Freightliner Cascadia: walk-in sleeper, double-bunks, refrigerator, microwave, closet, and a desk for my paperwork. I picked it up in Indianapolis last November, brand new. The Freightliner is like the Buick of the trucking world. It’s very workman-like but not too fancy. The Cascadia I had cost $147,000. If you want to get one with an RV-type thing welded on, then you’re talking about $300,000. Telsa just came out with an electric Class-A truck, and that’s $380,000. But at least you don’t have to buy fuel anymore.
How important is the type of truck you drive to your reputation as a long hauler?
As movers, we don’t care so much about what we’re driving around. That’s not where our ego tickling comes from. That comes from our revenue.
What are some of the biggest long-haul driving challenges?
Weather is number one. And then you have congestion. And then you have topography. When we encounter these things, we encounter them often in combination. So you can have a bad road in bad weather with a bunch of people in front of you and a bunch of people behind you. Any kind of distracted behavior affects me, and that’s where the fear comes in. I am the most defensive driver you will ever see, mostly because I’m scared all the time.
You started driving in 1980. Was it easier back then to get your Commercial Driver’s License (CDL, Class A)?
Back then, if you could fog a mirror, you can get your commercial drivers’ license. I remember I had a 35-foot trailer, and an old Ford day tractor. In Stamford, Connecticut [where I took my test], there was an orange cone down at the end of the street. That’s how it was back in the day.
Today, almost all the drivers have to go to truck driving school, and that takes a month, and it costs about seven grand. And it’s probably a whole lot better than the training and the exam that I got, but it is certainly more expensive. It’s expensive and time-consuming now to get one, where it didn’t used to be.
When most people think of truck drivers, they usually don’t necessarily think of someone like you: educated, articulate and from the upper-middle-class. Did you have to deal with the truck-driver stereotype?
There is something like three million truck drivers in the United States. It’s not a homogeneous total of white rednecks from the South. And I don’t think it ever really was, except for maybe a very long time ago.
It’s getting more homogeneous as time goes on, partially because there are social implications. So many people have been pushed out of what used to be middle-class jobs in the United States. The average age of a long-haul driver right now is about 55.
What I see now are a lot of husband-and-wife teams. A lot of people choose that life because whatever middle-class job they had, say in Indiana or Kansas, it’s gone. And they have to make a living. So we’re seeing this huge influx of over-50s coming into the industry who have been downsized in one form or another.
In your book, you did a good job of describing long-haul trucking in cultural, historical and even philosophical terms.
There is a tribal aspect to this. Human beings for hundreds of thousands of years have been working together in small bands, whether it’s hunting or gathering or whatever that is. And it’s a wonderful/social cultural kind of experience with all different kinds of people.
Moving people across the country — and loading a truck properly — seems easier said than done. Is it?
It really comes down to how interested you are. If you are interested in loading a truck properly, if you bring some intellectual power to it, then you are going to be better than somebody who is just punching the clock. In the moving industry, there are some people who are just doing the job for the money, and there are some people who do the job for the beauty — and the money. And those are your better movers.
Would you say that no matter how many technological advances evolve, there is always going to be a need for human movers?
In a way, until they perfect the matter energy transporters that Mr. Spock had.
I really like to navigate families from beginning to end during their moves. I like to be there at the beginning and I would like to be there at the end. I like to make sure the house looks like a home when I leave. And that’s what’s disappearing. There is less and less of a need for long-haul movers [as opposed to local movers].
What’s happening now is you still have a group of movers moving trucks, but they’re not trailers that are picked up by a freight hauler and then taken [to its final destination]. He’s not a mover; he’s a freight hauler. He’s going to drop the trailer at a local moving company and then the local moving crew will take the trailer to the final-mile delivery and take care of [the customer]. The idea of having somebody in charge of a move from soup to nuts is rapidly disappearing.
Manual labor like this doesn’t seem easy, but yet it seems somehow satisfying. Is that true for you?
There is a clarity to manual labor because there is a definite beginning, middle and end to it. It goes back to the tribal thing, really.
Click here to devour The Long Haul by Finn Murphy.
Find out more about Finn here.
Still can’t get enough of all things auto? Check out some of Chassy’s uh-mazing documentary selections:
Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story: Willy T. Ribbs was the Jackie Robinson of auto racing. Despite being a Formula Ford champion in England, Willy T. had another race to win when he returned to America—the race against bigotry. Many owners, mechanics, sponsors, and drivers in the racing world derisively referred to Willy as “Uppity” behind his back; death-threats, unwarranted suspensions, and engine sabotage followed him throughout his journey in racing. Despite the setbacks, he was an amazing driver and he became one of the winningest drivers in the history of the Trans Am series. The establishment did everything in their power to keep this great driver down, based on his defiant attitude and antics. Through sheer determination, Willy shattered the color barrier in professional racing, becoming the first Black man to race in the Indy 500.
We Live Machinery: This frenzied documentary is an on-the-go account of the 2015 running of the Targa Baja California. The event is a classic car rally, run annually through the deserts, mountains, and cities of Baja California, Mexico. High speeds, mechanical breakdowns, hard partying, and tense drama are all part of the journey.
Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman: The world knows Paul Newman as an Academy Award winning actor with a fifty-plus year career as one of the most prolific and revered actors in American Cinema. He was also well known for his philanthropy; ‘Newman’s Own’ has given more than 350 million dollars to charities around the world. Yet few know the gasoline-fueled passion that became so important in this complex, multifaceted man’s makeup. He loved racing so much it nearly sidelined his acting career. Newman’s racing career spanned thirty-five years with him winning four national championships as a driver and eight championships as an owner — Not bad for guy who didn’t even start racing until he was forty-seven years old.
Click here to see all Chassy auto docs!
Henry Ford was believed to have once said about his Model T, “you can get it in any color you want, as long as it’s black.” A hearty joke that became ironic; in the late 1920s, GM gave that punchline a counterpunch. Unlike Ford, GM began offering vehicles in all shapes, colors, sizes and especially designs (inside and out). As a result, GM surged ahead of Ford, leaving its Model T in the dust. The designer behind that revolution: Harley Earl, the first head of design at GM.
Auto enthusiasts remember Earl as the pioneer of the “concept car,” as well as the originator of clay modeling of automotive designs. He also introduced the wraparound windsheild, the hardtop sedan, two-tone paint design, and, of course, tailfins. A major component to his wheelhouse was the desire to lengthen and lower the design of the automobile, which came to pass. Oh, and he also created the Corvette.
Today, the Harley J. Earl Trophy goes to the winner of the season-opening Daytona 500 NASCAR race. The award features a miniature version of one of his concept car designs: the turbine-powered Firebird I.
Writer William Knoedelseder, author of I’m Dying Up Here, traces Earl’s high tide that lifted all the boats at GM: Fins: Harley Earl, The Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit.
Here, we ask Bill to fine-tune Earl’s legacy and shine some perspective on it:
If people know Harley Earl at all, it’s for his innovation of tailfins in postwar automobile design, but he was on the vangard of more than just that.
It was the least of his accomplishments.
What did he do before he came to General Motors?
Harley Earl, because of his unique background, grew up watching both cars and movies being made, side by side [in 1920s’ Hollywood]. He wound up making dream machines for this group of young people [silent film stars]. They had come from other parts of the country to become more rich and famous than anybody could have imagined. They were his clients and he was hired to indulge them in anything that they wanted. That had never happened before. That carried him forward: he found out what people’s aspirations were. Everybody wanted to be young and rich.
How did General Motors see a need for a designer like Earl?
GM chairman and CEO Alfred Sloane had this idea of the only way to compete with Ford. He couldn’t underprice Ford. The only thing he could do was offer something more, maybe make the cars look different more often. It was a very daunting task that could have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but Harly Earl devised a system in which you could do that [cheaply and effectively]. Do it gradually and continually so GM cars would look different every year, and in the third year, they would look a lot different. That literally blew open the car business, because it played to America’s aspirations.
How did an industry leader like Ford not envision this strategy first?
GM came up with the key to what turned out to be the future of the car business. Henry Ford had a genius manufacturing mind, but he didn’t have an artistic bone in his body. He didn’t have much of an idea beyond making a self-propelled vehicle that carried you and your shit from one place to another economically and efficiently. And to make it as cheaply as possible so that everybody could afford it. Beyond that, he didn’t have a vision.
The Model T was already on its way out. Henry Ford wouldn’t make any changes: “That’s it. It’s perfect. Leave it alone.” Model T sales just hit a wall and GM was ready. GM took over the lead and had it for the next 30 or 40 years. There was this window and GM moved into it. They basically ended Ford’s dominance.
At GM itself, Earl was not exactly welcomed with open arms. Why was that?
The car buisness was built by mechanics. It had a mechanical engineering culture. And this guy comes along with his wild clothes — they thought he was a “pansy;” they called him “Hollywood Harley” — and he was going to take the design out of their hands. They didn’t want to hand that power over to him. So they fought it. With his will and fearsome temper, and the backing of Sloan, Harley won out.
He took a huge industrial enterprise, and changed the focus from mechanics to aesthetics. He was like Steve Jobs by asking, “How should it look?” Looks are just as important as function.
He was reportedly hell to work for. True?
He had a vision that not everybody shared. He pushed it through. This runs among great men who are trying to accomplish things that haven’t been done before. They’re trying to get their troops in line to get it done. And you don’t have time to deal with someone who doesn’t get it or is pushing back. They have to go. Plus, he was impatient. He would fire people at the drop of a hat, and he had that kind of power back then. You could fire people back then for something like not liking their suit. Harley was a man of the age. And he knew he had the backing of Albert Sloan and there wasn’t anything anybody could really do about it.
How did the tailfin design of the late 1940s and 1950s catch on?
Airplane imagery was the imagery of the future. It was exciting. We had just won a global war. It seemed that anything was possible. Also, fins on a fish or a whale is all about power and stability and maneuverability. Then it just took off. Nobody forced that down the public’s throat. People just liked them.
The ‘59 Cadillac was the fin that ended all fins. The only one keeping fins after that was Cadillac. They slowly but steadily reduced them, but Cadillac defined the car by its fins. It took a few years for them to disappear.
The ‘59 Cadillac could be the single defining image of the 1950s. You can’t look at that fin and not think of the 1950s.
Although the public carries an ongoing love affair with the ’57 Chevy, designers actually prefer the ’55 Chevy. Why is that?
The designers who made it just loved that car; that was their favorite car they ever worked on. They actually liked the ‘57 the least, but the public liked it the most. The designers liked the ‘55 better because it was cleaner, it was unadorned. It appealed to their designers’ aesthetic.
The ‘57 is the collectible; that’s the car that Eric Clapton sang about, not the ‘55. I like the ‘57 better. There was something about it. It had more pizzazz. It had more panache. Buying a ‘57 Chevy is much more expensive than buying a ‘55 Chevy today.
Harley’s job was to make sure that what they designed appealed to the public.
What was his inspiration for the Corvette?
His mantra was always longer, lower, wider. At some point, he had gotten there. He couldn’t make them any longer, lower or wider. The only way to go was to go smaller. And he saw all the college kids driving around in MGs, Triumphs, and Jaguar XK 120s. That’s how the Corvette came about.
How would you describe Harley Earl’s legacy?
After Henry Ford, he should be remembered as the most important person in the development of the American car. He changed the game forever to focus on styling over mechanics. There was a problem with that after a while, but it took the car business to the heights because it did appeal to America’s aspirations.
Click here to devour Fins.
Click here to find out more about author William Knoedelseder.
Ya like automotive history? Check out Chassy’s great selection of documentaries:
The Bug Movie is a feature length documentary film about the most recognizable and beloved vehicle on the planet: The Volkswagen Beetle. From its dark past in pre WWII Germany to the Summer of Love, this car captured the hearts of millions of people worldwide. This film explores not only the history of this automotive icon, but also the intense emotional connection it has with its owners past and present, including actor Ewan McGregor and his experience with his first VW Bug as a sixteen-year-old.
The Ford versus Ferrari rivalry at Le Mans is one of the most famous battles in racing history. It started in 1963 when Henry Ford II tried to buy Ferrari to save the ailing Ford Motor Company, which was being crushed by GM and the Corvette on the track and at the dealerships. Ferrari was the most successful racing team in the world at that time. After months of intense negotiation, Enzo Ferrari said no — refusing to allow Ford to interfere with what he loved the most: racing. Henry Ford II was furious, and vowed to build a racecar that would dethrone Ferrari. Ford engineered a revolutionary racecar called the GT40. The battle would be at the most famous race in the world, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Ferrari had reigned supreme for decades. In the 1960s only two teams ever won Le Mans, Ford and Ferrari — Cementing dynasties that would last for generations.
Yep, there’s much more. Click here to check it out.