We're not sentimental types here at Truckin'. We see a truck like this and the first thing we notice is the incredibly detailed, hand-built engineering that makes a custom show truck do what it is supposed to do: boggle our eyeballs. But the impact that the Heroes truck had at SEMA, where members of the industry first saw it, and in Washington, D.C., where military service members experienced it, added an unexpected factor to this truck's equation: You don't look at this truck, you feel it.
Those in the know might get lost in the twists and turns of its polished tube chassis, and the mechanics of its hydraulic actuators. But people who don't know anything about customization and who never paid attention to the smoothness of a perfectly executed weld still sense the immensely human scale of the project.
Hillsboro, Ohio, resident Dale Ison applied his money and desire to the launch of this project in 1999. He had already teamed with fabricator Jon Watts and airbrush artist Mickey Harris on a well-known-and hard to miss-big rig dubbed Dragon Master, notable for the mythical beasts and damsels in distress that went from Mickey's imagination onto the trailer and cab of this 18-wheeler. Dragon Master lured a lot of admirers into its lair, a result that motivated Dale to build something more spectacular. The next project was going to be different-a vehicle called American Spirit, a patriotic tribute to its namesake.
The Most Detailed Truck EverJon Watts has worked in collision repair for 23 years. He had always dabbled in custom work on the side, an interest that exploded into full-time work for most of the five years that it took to build this truck. Dale had been a customer at the shop where Jon had worked, and they have known each other for 18 years. Since the two had already worked together on other projects, Dale had the faith in Jon to let him apply his considerable, under-rated skills to this new task. But Jon couldn't do everything on his own, so he brought in Steve Garvie, a Hillsboro paint and body man and hardcore mini-trucker, who spent 2-1/2 years working with Jon full time and without whom Jon says the truck still wouldn't be finished.
At the time Jon got involved, the perimeter of the hollow-tubed chassis and some of the housings and much of the unique suspension system had already been built by a fellow named Bill Lemon. The air ride scheme on this vehicle triggered a lot of head scratching and confusion-and that was just to find the right words to describe it. Imagine trying to build it.
The four-link suspension has a rare setup, but it works. Four compressed air tanks (two in the bed, two in the lower chassis) force 2,000 pounds of pressure into four Firestone rolling sleeve airbags mounted horizontally in the upper chassis beneath the bed. These 'bags mount directly to four 18-inch cc hydraulic cylinders. When the 'bags expand, they push the cylinders, which in turn push hydraulic fluid to the four hydraulic cylinders at the axles. This system lifts the suspension.
As for the body-lifting mechanism, the two Optima YellowTops dedicated to it push 24 volts to a hydraulic pump that runs a Vickers four-way valve located in the bed that controls the two dual-action cylinders that push and pull the body up and down. Jon praises Steve's expertise with the suspension and body-lift systems, areas where Jon's experience was limited.
Weld Racing 16.5x12-inch wheels are wrapped in huge Super Swamper 19.5/44-16.5LT tires. The 12 King shocks don't actually do anything. Steering is a big issue, and not just because of those big tires-just getting it to work was a problem. A Flaming River column designed for marine applications measures 11-1/2 inches in length, and has a charlin valve at the bottom of it for the hydraulic steering setup. The hydraulics are powered by a power steering pump, which also serves as the booster for the brake system that came from a '96 F-350. The steering wheel came from Billet Specialties.
Other components on the chassis include a Dynatrac differential, a Dana 70 in the rear and 60 up front, 40-spline Dynatrac axles, Posi-Lok front and back.
All the wiring and hydraulic lines were snaked through the hollow tubing that comprises the frames in order to keep the overall presentation tidy, but this also made it very difficult to accomplish and to later troubleshoot these hidden elements. Teams of polishers brought the chassis to a high shine: J&M Polishing in Covington, Kentucky, and the folks at Super Fine Shine in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Fast Racing in Colombus, Ohio, transformed a 502ci block bought from GM into a 540ci powerplant. Stacked like a polished atomic pile, it generates more than 1,000 hp or .000000032 the energy of a nuclear explosion. Leading the mushroom cloud assault is a 871 BDS blower, followed by a grip of other high-performance components: a Super Chiller intercooler, an MSD BTM6 ignition, an MSD distributor, full-metal-jacket spark plug wires, a BDS fuel injection with 16 injectors, Brodix aluminum heads, two 200-amp alternators built by Street Performance (from Mena, Arkansas), and an Edelbrock reverse-flow water pump. Jon designed the aluminum radiator, and Be Cool built it to include two 16-inch electric fans. Be Cool also built the trans cooler, which is a mini replica of the radiator but uses 5-inch fans. The truck has six YellowTop batteries, two in the lower chassis and four under the amplifier rack in the bed. Two are for the engine, two are for the audio/video system, and the last two are for the telescoping air cylinders. Street Performance also chromed the engine. The engine is completely computerized by BigStuff3, which, among other things, allows the engine to be tuned remotely via Internet.
The exhaust is fully custom from the heads to the pipes, built by Classic Autoworks in Cleveland, Ohio. The setup looks like straight pipes, but it has internal mufflers to keep the neighbors at bay. Heck, the engine sounds powerful enough as it is. A three-speed 400 Turbo tranny was already built into the chassis when Jon got it, as was a 1-ton 205 Saginaw transfer case, already chromed and beefed up. The front driveshaft was built by Custom Arizona Driveline Solutions, in Phoenix. Called the Big Boy model, it has a compressed length of 26 inches and a slip yoke that extends approximately 10 inches when the vehicle is lifted. Two rear driveshafts were built by Power Train in Cleveland.
The Heroes truck cab came from a '99 Chevy Extended Cab Silverado bought from a salvage yard. The Chevy had only 16 miles on it before it had been junked. Jon and Steve attached a Caddy front clip from an '02 Escalade. They kept the factory headlamps, tweaked the fog and marker lights, and swapped the stock taillights for APC units. A hole cut into the hood makes way for the engine, and strengthening along the center of the hood bolsters its structural integrity.
Jon teamed with Gaylord on the tonneau to design one that would open backwards. The tonneau was then smoothed and attached to two Autoloc actuators with 14 inches of stroke to lift it. Both the tonneau, amp rack, and the body lift at the same time.
Speaking of the amplifier rack, it's a relatively straightforward affair built of wood and fiberglass. Seven amplifiers from MTX lie atop the amp rack. Five Thunder801D 400-watt mono amps push the subwoofers and two Thunder684 60-watt, four-channel amps drive the mids and highs. Under the rack are four of the YellowTops. The tailgate is actuated and its top trimmed by 2-1/4 inches to accommodate the tweaked tonneau. Other body modifications include shaved door and tailgate handles, as well as the gas door. Dale has to lower the tailgate to access and fill the 13-gallon fuel cell. Polished stainless steel panels line the channels of the crossmembers on the underside of the bed.
Inside the cab is a fiberglass wonder world that took Jon four months to craft. Everything has molded 'glass except for the seats and floor. They went through five sets of seats before finding the GM leather models that are in there now. A Dakota Digital instrument cluster and air ride gauges (on the center console) keep a finger on the pulse of the truck's systems, and rocker switches from Autoloc are also on the center console. The LoKar shifter that protrudes from the center console stays fixed to the chassis when the body scissors upward.
An IVA-D901 mobile multimedia station/CD/DVD/Ai-NET controller from Alpine sports a 7-inch flip-out monitor that routinely displays patriotic fervor, as does another Alpine 7-inch monitor, five Accele screens (two 4-1/2-, two 9-, and one 5-inch), and four Icon-TV monitors (5-1/2- and 7-inch), two of which are in the wheelwells outside. Ten 10-inch MTX Thunder8000 subs behind the seats and one 8-inch sub in each front door pound out low-frequency mayhem. Two component speaker systems from MTX inhabit each front door, while half a set (mid and tweeter) are in the third door, with the other half residing in the cab.
All these A/V components are connected by miles of Streetwire and 40 relays, while video distribution is handled by Accele. Around 300 small, blue Varad LEDs are chained together and snaked throughout the chassis. Four sets of larger LEDs under the tonneau and inside the cab can be programmed to flash in specific sequences. Another fellow started the audio and video install, doing much of the fabrication and installation for it, and Marty Moore finished it, including the vinyl flooring.
A New MissionViolent discontent washed across the eastern seaboard on September 11, 2001, downing four airliners, toppling the Twin Towers, puncturing the Pentagon, and extinguishing thousands of lives. A shocked America reevaluated the perils of this world and went to war. Dale realized that his tribute to the American Spirit required a broader scope that embraced soldiers, astronauts, statesmen, firefighters, police, nurses, and others who have personified heroism throughout American history. This story is told in the mural painted by Mickey Harris.
Before September 11, the concept for the truck had already been defined as patriotic. After the tragedy of that day, the slant of the truck's message changed to one that is respectful of the loss we incurred as a nation, but refuses to shrink away from the blow.
Two great challenges faced Mickey: One was collecting all the photo references that he needed to transcribe onto the vehicle. He leaned hard on Denny Pfiefer who did most of the legwork researching these materials, saving Mickey tons of time. The other challenge was the change in direction away from the military, technical theme and more toward the new spirit-inspired one. Plus there was the challenge of combining a series of disparate panels into a flowing, coherent whole.
Mickey sprayed on DuPont paints, reformulated by Jon, on the truck's exterior. He applied Auto Air water-based paints inside the cab in order to eliminate that harsh chemical smell. And "inside" the cab means everything inside the cab: the seats, the dash, floor, ceiling...everything got the attention of his airbrush. The same goes for the outside of the body. Every side, every nook, and every cranny has a gem of an image painted on it. And where did he handle the paintjob? Not in a well-equipped paint booth, but an improvised space built from plastic sheets and two-by-fours. As for Jon and Steve, they worked in an ordinary garage barely equipped with the essentials (as Jon quipped, "Vice grips and a girlie calendar.")
The impact? Almost impossible to describe. The story told by this truck, emphatically underlined by the volume and quality of the fabrication, has moved everyday onlookers to tears and motivated service members to hand over hard-fought combat medals. Because of this, Mickey considers the artwork that he did on the Heroes truck to be his Sistine Chapel: his finest work. He finds it "damn satisfying" to have touched people like he has with this project.
Built With Heart And SoulDale had originally set aside $300,000 for this project. But after five years and 50,000 hours of labor, the cost ballooned to a cool $650,000, driving Dale into debt. Twice he almost dropped the project over the edge of desperation, but he couldn't bring himself to that point. He decided that he had to follow through with his dreams. That's a gutsy choice for a man who grew up poor, managed to start a business in the logging industry, and build a secure life for his wife, Connie, and four kids, only to turn around and spend a fortune on a custom truck. Like Mickey, he doesn't regret his decision and is overwhelmed by the emotional response that the Heroes truck evokes.
The vehicle never propelled itself until three weeks before SEMA. Until then, there had been no "ground truth" to confirm that everything on the truck would work well or if some components would even function at all. Of course, not everything worked perfectly. After some hurried, last-minute troubleshooting, they loaded the truck onto the Dragon Master and headed to Las Vegas, where it was displayed outside the convention center. What did people think? The president of SEMA confided that in the 30-plus years he had been in the business, he had never seen a vehicle like that.
Aside from the ripples that it creates in the crowds that form around it, the truck has forged strong bonds of respect between Dale, Jon, and Mickey. When asked what he thought of the others who worked on this project, Dale said that Jon "is not just a paint and body man, he's a sculptor." His remarks for Mickey were in the same vein: "I had one artist tell me that there's only a handful of painters in the world that can do what Mickey has done with an airbrush. I've never been dissatisfied with any job he has done. It's been an honor to be a part of this." Perhaps Mickey said it best: "The three of us will always be connected because of this truck." This project changed the lives of Dale, Jon, and Mickey both professionally and personally. Jon has worked for other people his whole life, but now has taken the leap and started his own shop in Hillsboro.
Meanwhile, Mickey has been a paint-and-canvas artist for almost 30 years but now realizes that he has found his medium as a storyteller in the automotive world. In addition, he is a high-demand speaker at auto paint seminars and sells how-to videos and other paint-oriented products at www.mickeyharrisart.com. Dale and Connie are taking the truck on the road, showing it at truck events and other venues to share it with spectators and have fun with it (check www.heroestruck.com to keep tabs on their adventures).