Why Rebuilding and Restoring an Older Semi Truck May Work

Peterbilt 387 and 1984 Kenworth W900B Big Rigs

You may be wondering if it is better to buy a new truck or to rebuild an older semi truck.

This trend in the trucking industry is a knee-jerk reaction to the ever-increasing equipment operating costs for the trucker and the volatility of the industry.

Rebuilding an older semi truck can be a great option for owner operators who can do repairs themselves, want to reduce start-up costs, and can do the research to prepare themselves for the work involved with maintaining an old rig.

1984 Gray and Blue Kenworth W900B Big Rig Truck

Why Do People Prefer Older Rigs?

Big rig restoration projects are more common than ever these days. Rather than buying a new truck, many truckers are leaning toward rebuilding and repairing older model semis, especially if the engine is ‘pre-emission’.

New trucks come with a high cost of new equipment, DEF fluid, and emissions equipment.

Combine that with mediocre pay rates and you’re left with a large number of truckers turning to repairing and restoring older big rigs to keep costs down.

Purchasing a new truck just isn’t an attractive or practical alternative for many.

There are many advantages to buying a used rig, if the circumstances are right.

Older Model Rebuilt Kenworth Big Rig Truck

Why Restore/Rebuild Rather Than Buy New?

  1. Used Semi Trucks Have Lower Initial Cost

Cost is everything when it comes to starting as an owner-operator. It’s less expensive to get a small loan for an engine overhaul than it is to finance a new truck. New truck financing comes with a guaranteed minimum commitment of 5 years of payments. Keep in mind also, just because a truck is new, doesn’t mean it won’t need repairs. Regular maintenance, issues with the computerizes systems, or simply the added costs of emissions-approved trucks add up fast.

  1. Repairs are Simpler and Cheaper on Older Rigs

The older rigs are simple enough so that when they break down, they can be repaired rather easily. New trucks components are computerized and nearly impossible for most owner-operators to work on.

The older trucks could be repaired by the average trucker as they were relatively simple to fix. It’s possible to save thousands of dollars and downtime, if you are able to learn some basic maintenance and repairs rather than paying the current $120+/hour shop rate.

  1. Tried and True Truck Engines are More Reliable & Predictable

Older model semi trucks have “cut their teeth” so to speak out in the trucking world. You know what type of issues to expect and whether an engine has been proven reliable over the years. Things like fuel efficiency, common repairs, performance, and life expectancy of the engine have been fleshed out so you know what you’re investing in.

Engines and transmissions that have been around for a long time, with good track records for longevity and rate of repair, are good choices. The latest and greatest gadgets may seem appealing at first, but without a proven track record, they are often unpredictable.

Kneworth W900 Show Truck
  1. Easier to Quit Driving

So many truckers are uncertain of their future in the trucking industry, due to equipment costs, and increasing job demands. Keeping their present truck, without payments, will allow them to bow out of the job gracefully if need be.

Many don’t wish to sign-up for a long-term commitment for a new truck when they are uncertain of their future plans. If they decide to pull the plug, retire and hang up the keys, they don’t want to be stuck with an expensive truck with unrealistic payments.

Buying and restoring an older semi truck lets the trucker buy their truck outright, or at least have a reasonable payment plan that allows them to have an out without taking a huge hit financially.

Related > 7 Things You Need To Know About Your First Year as a New Truck Driver

1979 Kenworth Cabover

When Buying a Used Semi May Not Be the Best Answer

While there can be many advantages to buying and restoring an older model semi truck, it is not the best option for everyone.

Buying a used rig comes with risks. Buying new may be a better option for you if:

  1. You can afford to buy new.

 If you research your rig and can afford a newer model, it may be worth it.

You do take a risk by purchasing used, especially if you don’t know how to do some of the work yourself. You may nickel and dime yourself trying to fix up a poorly maintained semi truck.

If you have the financial ability, consider buying new but make sure it is from a respectable company with dependable designs.

  1. You don’t have the know-how to fix your rig.

Restoring or rebuilding an old semi isn’t going to save you much money if you don’t know how to do at least some of the repairs yourself.

If you are paying a shop to install new parts, the ROI can tilt the other way fast with dealer shop labor rates. You could be drowning in repair costs if you buy a lemon.

Something ALWAYS seems to be broken on an older truck. If you can’t fix it yourself, it could mean limping your truck to the nearest repair shop and losing a day or two (or more) to do repair work.

  1. You don’t need a specialized truck.

What are you going to use the truck for? OTR or specialized?

If I were looking for an OTR truck, I think I would look at used fleet models before I looked at new simply from a cost standpoint.

But a specialized truck may need to be modified before taking on loads anyway. Working with an older truck lets you invest into the necessary add-ons, rather than the high cost of new plus the specs.

Related > 8 Things You Should Know When Buying a Used Big Rig  

Peterbilt 387 and 1984 Kenworth W900B Big Rigs

Disadvantages of New Semi Trucks

New trucks are too expensive. That’s the gist of the problem.

Not only has the cost of manufacturing gone up but the cost of labour and materials has as well. Payments on a $160,000+ truck are ridiculous. Especially with the wages many truckers earn.

Not to mention, there are a lot of hidden costs with emissions trucks.

For example, emissions equipment adds about $4000 to the price of a truck spec.

Then There’s DEF!

DEF is $290 /gallon on top of the high cost of diesel fuel/gallon and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t forget about DPF cleaning plus the DPF injector and more.

Cost of Buying New

New trucks have a higher price tag, hidden costs, and may not even be reliable.

With some of the newer model rigs, most truck owners can’t work on the computerized components to fix them.

And some of the shops can’t fix them either!

Some people opt for newer trucks hoping to save money in the long-term with better fuel efficiency.

New truck dealers like to promote better fuel mileage.

But they surely do not tell you about the numerous problems with sensors and other emissions-related parts.

Better mileage is a JOKE! The mileage can drop significantly due to regen burns, high temps, and power robbing emissions!

Big fleets will survive and be able to finance new trucks, and a select few owner operators who have carefully budgeted.

Presently one of the best financial options for big rig owners is to rebuild and restore, depending on the circumstances.

Related > The Best Truck Engines + The Worst – A Trucker’s Guide to Getting the Right Engine

How to Pick the Right Rig for a Rebuild

Not just any truck should be a rebuild project.

Some have serious issues, such as wiring problems which can be hugely expensive to fix and can’t be rectified by just a patch job.

You should know the truck’s history.

Preferably you know the previous owner personally and how they drive/maintain their rig.

You can definitely luck out on a great deal from a dependable fleet. It’s not unheard of but it is still risky.

Do It Yourself

I think much of the choice one makes depends on how much work on an old vehicle you can do and how much you have to ‘farm’ out to a dealer or heavy truck mechanic.

You will also need to have the cash to pay for parts and repairs up front.

Also, be certain you can fix it.

As a new owner operator or someone with mechanical experience looking to get their own truck, you could benefit from buying an affordable truck and investing the time and parts to restore it.

Keep in mind though, you should allot more money for repairs than you initially want.

Make sure the type of problems this old semi truck has are the kind you can fix.

Don’t always trust the shop to do the repair.

It’s best if you can at least oversee what works needs to be done.

Sometimes shops will overestimate the repair, the cost of the replacement part, or the amount of labor needed.

1988 Freightliner FLC with Custom Big Sleeper

Ready to Rebuild?

The #1 purpose of a working class big rig truck, is to make money, period.

You have to weigh the pros and cons of buying new or restoring old.

Your ROI buying old can get flipped on its head if you aren’t prepared to do repairs yourself or aren’t certain you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Likewise, buying new can result in a lemon that has high recurring costs and traps you in an industry you may not want to continue in.

Rebuilding the truck engine can be expensive but the end result can be a very reliable solid engine which carries on for many years to come.

If you decide to rebuild an older semi truck and restore it to working order, you’ve definitely got a big project ahead.

Be sure you are prepared to spend the money it takes and the time.

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