As Bruce Thomson and I sat around his kitchen table on a sunny afternoon this past September, he was reflecting on a driving career that spanned more than 50 years. He had recently sold his last truck and was pondering the implications of retirement. After five decades in perpetual motion, what would it be like to finally sit still and savor all he had worked for? He seemed pretty sure he was ready to find out.
Readers can probably imagine how the conversation went; two old truckers gassing away about good old days. There was some of that, but over the course of the afternoon Bruce revealed himself to be a trucker’s trucker.
He can spout off the gear-shifting sequences of any transmission ever made, along with the gear ratios and torque and horsepower ratings of anything with 10 wheels or more. Our conversation was peppered with references to trucks he had owned or driven at one time or another. He recalled their quirks and qualities with a fondness usually reserved for pets and close cousins.
“I drove anything I could get my hands on, from B-model Macks with 5×3 transmissions to Western Stars with V-12 Detroits and 6×4 overdrive trannies, cabovers with triple-nickel (5×3) gearboxes and backwards 13-speeds,” he says. “And then there was the infamous 4×4 ‘rock-crusher’ gearbox that nobody like driving because, if you missed a gear, you pretty well had to stop to get it back into gear. That one quickly separated the men from the boys.”
He talked about running naturally aspirated Detroit Diesel engines in the rarified air at higher altitudes west of Denver, Colorado. He recalled pushing snow so deep across Wyoming it was coming straight up off the bumper and going over the roof of his cabover tractor, making it very difficult to see through the windshield. He talked about the bone-chilling cold on the high plains and blistering heat of the Arizona desert, back when air conditioning consisted of two windows wide open at 60 mph.
Bruce, 69, grew up in the farming community of Waterford, Ontario. Located south of Brantford, north of Simcoe, west of Niagara and east of St. Thomas, there was no shortage of foodstuffs to haul around. Practically everyone in the area was in the ag business in one form or another. His father had a milk hauling route picking up cans from farms and delivering them to a dairy a short drive from Waterford.
Before he was eight, Bruce was slinging 85-pound milk cans on and off a flatbed truck. They weighed more than he did at the time. He says there’s a knack to getting them off the ground and onto the truck.
“You straddled the tank, picked it up with two hands, and swung it back and forth a few times to build a little momentum. And then with a mighty swing, you hurled it up onto the deck,” he says.
As soon as he could reach the pedals, young Bruce was moving the truck around on the property. In the mid-1960s, his father acquired a milk tank trailer. At 2,800 gallons (13,000 liters) it was one of the largest in the province at the time. It didn’t take Bruce long to figure out the gears and learn to maneuver it forwards and backwards with the family’s single-axle International tractor. Before long, he was out on the road, steering and gearing with dad at his side.
A questionable beginning
Very early in his career, he was flagged into a roadside inspection on Hwy. 6 near Port Dover, Ontario.
“I thought it was all over for me when the officer asked for my driver’s licence,” Bruce says. “At first he didn’t believe me when I told him I was only 15 and didn’t yet have a licence.”
That escapade cost his uncle, the owner of the truck, $32 for letting an unlicensed driver operate the vehicle. Bruce got off unscathed.
Thus began the 52-year, 7.5-million-mile, chargeable-accident-free odyssey that taught him more about life and living than any academic pursuit ever could.
He earned his operator’s permit (a licence to drive tractor-trailers) when he turned 16 in 1968. It was his first driver’s licence, and he took the test on his father’s truck. He worked several years for his father and a few other local farmers after school and on weekends before taking his first job as a company driver — hauling locally grown farm products around southern Ontario for Kauk Bros. Transport.
He bought his first truck in 1980. A 1979 International Transtar Eagle II with a 318 Detroit (350 hp with the optional blower installed, not a turbocharger) and 13-speed double-overdrive transmission. He paid just $12,000 for that two-year-old truck and put it to work at J.K. Stockwell in Leamington, Ont., hauling reefers and flatdecks all over the U.S. and Canada.
As tough as trucking was back in the 1970s and ’80s, Bruce says it made better drivers of everybody. “You got good fast, or you washed out,” he told me. “If you respect this job and you’re good at it, the paybacks are enormous.”
Support at home
No one knows better than another driver how difficult the over-the-road lifestyle can be for a family. Bruce says he was blessed with his wife Sharon’s support and participation in his business, as well as the understanding of his daughter, Tracey, and eventually her family.
“We missed a couple of Christmas mornings because I was still on the road,” he admits. “We just did Christmas the next day, or when I got home. It was hard on them at times I’m sure, but they were 100% behind me all the way.”
By that time in our interview, Sharon joined us, bringing a plate of egg-salad sandwiches to the kitchen table. She recalled her own upbringing and her parents’ appreciation for the value of a dollar (and Bruce’s parents, too). They ran their small trucking business with that sort of discipline. The truck had to come first, she emphasized. “So many people worry about holidays and new cars, but our priority was always the truck. It was our bread and butter, so we had to make sure everything was okay there first and foremost.”
They had their share of difficult times, to be sure, but they are both debt-averse. They credit their reluctance to taking on debt as one of their saving graces. “We didn’t have to worry about servicing big debts when things got a little lean a few times over the years,” she says.
In fact, Bruce gratefully acknowledges her focus on managing finances for the business. “Her pencil is so sharp it hurt just looking at it,” he jokes.
Bruce began driving at a time when drivers’ earning power was considerably better than it is today. He says rates paid to owner-operators in the early to mid-1980s — before deregulation kicked open the doors to anyone who want to open a trucking business — were running somewhere around a dollar to a buck-twenty a mile. Fuel at the time was around forty cents a liter and a new truck could be had for well south of a hundred grand.
He paid $85,000 for his first new truck, a 1985 Ford LTL 9000 with a 42-inch custom Mic Mak sleeper. He told me that when the sleeper arrived from the factory in New Liskeard. Ont., it had been loaded on the truck backwards, so the back was covered in dead bugs. Rather than wash them off, he told people he was really good at backing up at high speed. He’s a bit of a comedian.
The truck show circuit
One of the Thomson family’s few indulgences was truck shows. After buying the Ford, Bruce started spending a little money and considerably more time dressing it up for truck shows. He also took great pride and satisfaction in doing things that weren’t yet common at Canadian show ‘n shine events.
He started opening his cab doors up revealing a detailed interior with lots of custom work. Same with the hood. He chromed the valve covers on the Cat engine and the support arms holding the rad in place. He wrapped the fuel filters in chrome jackets and used braided stainless steel hose for air lines, for example.
“It was Sharon’s idea to build a display area for the truck,” Bruce says. “We started using a custom-made tarp for a mat, then we added a small white fence, artificial cacti, beach sand and more to the display. That was intended to compliment the western motifs air brushed on the truck.”
The couple were early adopters of what would prove to be a winning strategy. Other competitors followed, and eventually categories were added to the judging to include interiors, engines, and overall displays. “We tried to bring something more to the display every year, and that kept the competition hopping,” he says.
They worked the summer truck show circuit in southern Ontario relentlessly, eventually carting home more than 40 awards with the old Louisville over nine years — the sweetest of which was a first-place finish at the Truck Nationals competition in Englishtown, New Jersey.
Bruce Thomson isn’t the type of guy who would appreciate being called God’s gift to a 13-speed, but he certainly left his mark. He was named a Highway Angel by the U.S. Truckload Carriers Association four times, all for acts of generosity and kindness, like helping stranded trucker drivers and motorists change frozen fuel filters and fix flats tires.
He doesn’t sound at all bitter about everything he gave up being a longhaul driver. Instead, he’s profoundly grateful for the friends he met along the way, all the places he had a chance to visit and everything he experienced along the way.
“I have no idea what’s next for me,” he told me over lunch. “I want to spend time catching up with my family and friends right here at home.”
He’s not under dispatch anymore, so his time is once again his own to spend with his wife of 42 years, Sharon, and his daughter and grandchildren.
“Saying farewell to an industry that you were born into seems a little strange,” he noted, a little wistfully. “I guess what I really want to do is thank this industry for providing a successful living and a lifetime of experiences.”