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Freight Focus: Portable Parking Lots

by Jim Park

The guy who invented the term 'Portable Parking Lot' had a way with words, and a keen sense of observation. For the men and women who drive them, getting in and out of a tight parking space takes on a whole new meaning.

The first time Jim Anderson, owner-operator and recent convert to the car hauling business, attempted to load his trailer, it took him over nine hours. He's since cut it to around two hours. He says it's much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Anderson works for Pinder Transport in Winona, Ont., hauling mostly Ford minivans and pickup trucks from a distribution lot in Grimsby, Ont., to auto auction lots in the U.S. It's a business driven mostly by the exchange rate on the Canadian dollar. "They buy at Canadian prices and sell them in U.S. funds. And business is absolutely booming," Anderson says.

Six or seven vehicles constitute a full load. The trick is to squeeze them into the limited space without exceeding the 13.5-ft height restriction, and without damaging the roof on a vehicle on the lower deck. The trailers are fitted with hydraulic lifters, run off a wet line on the tractor, which adjust the height of the various trailer sections. His tractor is fitted with a roof rack as well, which will accommodate one additional vehicle. Another configuration, called a stinger, can accommodate up to three vehicles on the tractor, and up to eight or nine more on the trailer. This is a commonly seen configuration - a long-wheelbase tractor fitted with a nearly ground-level fifth wheel.

Load 'er Up

Anderson's load is usually staged for him when he arrives, but he still has to inspect the vehicles before loading. "The dealers are always looking for a scapegoat to fix the dents and scrapes," he says. The usual routine is to remove the radio antennae, unlock all the doors, tuck all the mirrors in against the doors and verify the VIN numbers, while noting any damage to the vehicles, especially the roofs.

The top row goes on first, and whenever possible the lead vehicle is driven on frontward. Anderson says his fuel mileage suffers considerably when he presents the back doors of a minivan to the wind. Convertibles, too, he says, must be loaded frontward, as the rear windows are not designed to withstand a 60-mph breeze. "Picking the windows off the back seats is pretty embarrassing," Anderson notes.

I rode with Anderson as he put the first minivan up onto the nose of the truck. A tricky bit of work, knowing exactly where to stop. And after I had climbed down, he recounted a tale of a driver who had managed to wedge his right foot under the brake pedal when it slipped part way off of the gas pedal. The gas pedal, he says, was depressed about half way and the steel toes on the driver's work boots prevented the brake pedal from being depressed. "He launched himself off the front of the trailer, buried the nose of the car in the ground when he landed, then it took off out of the compound, across the street and crashed into a gas station," says Anderson. "Occupational hazard."

And speaking of hazards, car hauling can be one of the riskiest jobs in trucking because of all the climbing the drivers must do, especially when the trailers are wet, or worse, covered with snow and ice.

The bottom row gets loaded according to vehicle height. The taller vehicles in the belly of the trailer and the shorter ones at the front and rear. Down below is where the mini-vans become a pleasure to load - they have sliding side doors. Otherwise, the driver often has to climb out a window because there's not enough room to open the door. Definitely not a job for the full-figured driver.

Once everything's in place and tied down, the moment of truth arrives. "Am I too high?" Anderson wonders. The trailers are equipped with preset safety catches so the driver can lower the sections into place based on the clearance he needs. It's guesswork at first, but with repetitive loads, it's a little easier.

Anderson says he must pull the vehicle right down to the lower limits of the suspension. Otherwise, a severe bump could cause it to bottom out on its own, whereupon the tie-down chain may become detached, causing the suspension to force the vehicle upward against the bottom of the upper ramps, or worse, a low bridge. The other problem, of course, is when he measures the overall height of his load. If he's too high, he may well have to off-load a few cars and start again. That's how he managed to spend nine hours loading the first time out. Tons 'o fun.

Variations

The advantageous exchange rate has made the export of used Canadian cars pretty attractive, and lots of people are getting into the car-hauling business, with as many variations of trailers as one could imagine. The trailer Anderson uses is a 1988 Cottrell, once used by a large American car-hauling outfit.

Many owner-operators are using 1-ton dually pickup trucks with gooseneck trailers to carry as many as four vehicles, and some, like Serge Jardim, pull full fifth-wheel trailers with standard class 8 tractors. Jardim graduated from a dually pickup to his current rig after reasoning that the three extra vehicles would earn him that much more money. He works for Auto Connect, a broker in Oshawa, Ont. Jardim says that on a good day, he might earn as much as $600 and never leave the greater Toronto area.

On the flip side of that coin, he runs into stiff competition from the guys with the duallies, who can load and unload faster, thereby turning over more vehicles in a day.

Lately, Jardim has begun to specialize in hauling the high-end stuff like Mercedes and BMWs. "The money isn't much better," he says. "But the dealers tend to be a bit fussier about who hauls their cars. They like dependable service, and don't like scratches and dents." He says he once moved a $300,000 Rolls Royce for a client. "When is a guy like me ever going to get a chance to drive a car like that?" he asks. "Even driving it on and off the trailer was fun."

The Factory Guys

By leaps and bounds, the most common type of car carrier is the one who hauls directly from the factory or from rail/marine transfer facilities. Allied Systems Canada is one such carrier, and probably the largest car hauler on the continent. Dan O'Keefe is the manager of Allied's Vancouver terminal, which deals with many different car manufacturers, including overseas imports, domestics, and foreign makers who build in North America.

"We handle every make and model you can imagine," he says. "The best situation we can hope for is a straight load of one make and model to a single dealership. They're nice when you get them." The cars are different sizes and they all use different tie-down points and methods. So unlike the drivers who haul out of a particular factory, O'Keefe's drivers have to be familiar with a multitude of different cars.

Going to Extremes

Then there's the sport of extreme car hauling, as practised by Edmonton's Gerry Nault. He's an Allied Systems owner-operator who specializes in running north of 60 (a picture of his truck is on the contents page, lower left). Places like Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, Dawson City and Yellowknife are his regular ports of call. He's got plenty of tales to tell, but that's another story for another issue.

Nault says is wasn't that long ago that the vehicles were shipped north in pieces and assembled on location.

"Hauling cars up here in one piece is relatively new, and it comes with its share of challenges," he explains. "The first problem is protecting the cars from the roads

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