Back in the day

December 2019/January 2020

Bryan "Boss Man" Martin


Some of us don’t realize what an education you can get from the wisdom of a true veteran truck driver. Charlie Bates Sr. is an example of an old-school trucker who still runs full time today in his 1980 Kenworth W900A.

With all of the requirements, regulations and e-logs of today’s trucking, Charlie has stories of when trucking was fun, real, and risky from back in the day.

As a second-generation trucker, from the time he was a kid Charlie knew he would be following in his father’s footsteps. His father drove for a number of years, as well as Charlie’s father-in-law and brother, but his dad also ended up owning a truck stop for about 40 years. Charlie was often found hanging around his dad’s GMC trucks, which is what he learned to drive in, before trading a 1958 Corvette for a 1967 Freightliner cabover.

The cabover wasn’t around long, as Charlie spent a couple of years in the service, but when he got back home he purchased his first brand-new truck, a 1970 Kenworth W900A. Back then, he didn’t realize these trucks would be somewhat collectible and treasured like they are today, so he didn’t hang onto them too long. That is how he got into his second truck, a 1973 Kenworth W900A with a little more horsepower under the hood in the form of a 425 hp 1693 CAT.

Charlie Bates Sr
Meet “Old Red” – a 1980 Kenworth W900A owned by Charlie Bates, Sr. Photo courtesy Bryan Martin.

Back around 1980 during the midnight hours, with the power of a V8 CAT with a 6-and-4 transmission, Charlie was westbound just outside of Kingman, Ariz., by the Colorado River heading to Needles when he started to feel a vibration in his truck.

He passed another semi that was heading east, and hollered on the CB radio, “How’s it look behind ya?” and the driver replied, “Clean and green.”

Charlie decided it was a good time to run through the gears and see if he could figure out where that vibration was coming from. He had her moving at about 100 mph as he crested the hill and saw red taillights in the distance. He choked her down and realized it was a trooper, so he brought the truck all the way back down and pulled over on the side of the road, at which point he thought surely this wasn’t going to end well.

To start, it was an older trooper who mentioned he had always heard about these fast trucks and had hoped to have the opportunity to write a ticket to one of them before he retired. The cop said he was about to doze off when the radar kept going off, and he looked up and saw the headlights coming over the hill. As luck would have it, the trooper was retiring in about 60 days and presented only a warning to Charlie after inspecting his truck and stating how well maintained the truck was. The trooper’s final words were, “Keep it down under the speed limit until you get out of this state,” which Charlie did all the way to his destination.

Charlie used to run slower “gear-bound” trucks, but when he finally bought a big horsepower truck that was properly geared to his liking, the nationwide speed limit change went into effect from 75 mph to 55 mph, and all of a sudden, his truck practically idled at 55 mph. He recalls the time he went to California while the speed limit was 75 mph, unloaded and reloaded in two to three days, and by the time he was heading back east all signs were changed, and he had never seen so many troopers and flashing blue lights.

About 20 years ago, Charlie bought this previously mentioned 1980 Kenworth W900A and about eight years later, stopped in the middle of the night for a shower at the Petro in Laramie, Wyo., loaded with potatoes out of Idaho Falls, Idaho, heading to Springfield, Mo. After the shower, he came out to kick the tires and get back to rolling when he got to the passenger side and saw his bumper pulled out and headlight busted out.

He called his wife, Peggy, and said he was going to park “Ol’ Red” as soon as he came home and was buying a throwaway L model. After a few throwaway trucks and an offer by a local guy to buy the most recent L model Bates had, Charlie accepted and brought out Ol’ Red and put it back to work. He parked his reefer trailer and settled in with a full time gig pulling a Timpte hopper bottom.

Charlie turned 73 in November and doesn’t intend to let the system push him out of trucking. Agreed, he will eventually retire, but on his own time. He still runs five loads a week of soybean meal as part of the chicken feed ingredients from Deerfield, Mo., to Westfield, Okla., which is around 340 miles roundtrip.

Folks, Charlie is without a doubt the real deal when it comes to trucking and how it used to be.

Sometimes it isn’t the truck that makes the man, but the man that makes the truck.

Ol’ Red has seen plenty of changes over the years but her horsepower remains respectable, boasting a 500-hp B model CAT. Charlie shifts his way down the road with a factory double over 13 speed transmission and 3.70 rear gears.

New paint took the formerly black cherry truck to red, they stretched the frame to a 300-inch wheelbase, changed out the original 5-inch stacks to 7-inch stacks, and around 15 years ago custom ordered a 22-inch Valley Chrome bumper, when at the time Valley Chrome seldom offered anything over 20-inch bumpers.

Other additions included replacing the cab lights with glass lenses, new visor, Bostrom Wide Ride seats, Hogebuilt full fenders with a rear light panel, swapped out the Budd hub wheels for hub-pilot wheels, added extra grille bars, a late-model tilt steering column, stainless deck plate, stainless tank steps and changed out the original eight-bag Kenworth air ride to a four-bag Hendrickson.

What most don’t notice unless they are up close to the truck or really paying attention is the sleeper had been stretched from 60 inches to 80 inches. It is an extended hood, and the back of the cab was cut out for the big sleeper opening and made into a unibilt on a four bag subframe.

Words of advice? 

Never park at an end row at a truck stop, always find a spot where you can at least protect one side of your truck, such as next to curb or a dropped trailer. Charlie opted to park his refrigerated trailer and start running the hopper bottom so he could completely avoid the possibility of someone backing into him like the potential at the cold storage facilities.

With the way trucking is these days, you have to make sure you have a solid lineup of work.

He recalls a time when all you had to worry about was a four-wheeler cutting you off. Now it is worrying about drivers in the same industry wrecking your equipment.

Charlie also mentioned drivers need to be presentable, to not only represent themselves but representing the industry in a professional manner as well as physical appearance. To this day, he still wears crease-pressed Wrangler jeans and ostrich cowboy boots mimicking the dress code of trucking’s past.

In his younger years, Charlie remembers about four or five guys, including himself, who were known to run big horsepower, haul heavy and cut a fast trail coast to coast. There was no mention of being an outlaw, as most know outlaws don’t want to be found out. That was a time when triple-digit trucks mattered, time was of the essence as there was no revenue made by sitting still, and they always got the job done-no matter what. Trucking back in the day was still a job, but with that job was pride in the task at hand, pride in your equipment, a good work ethic and a living up to the owner-operator brotherhood and lifestyle which has drastically changed over the years.

All that being said, credit where credit is due. “Hats off, Mr. Charlie, we salute you!”