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"The Joys of Driving a Big Rig: And We’re Talkin 42 Wheeler Baby!"

Updated on April 16, 2011

What's It Like Driving A Big Rig?

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to drive an 18 wheeler? You know, those big rigs that roll down the road with their turbo diesel engines whistling like a sparrow at day break. Most of the time you have no idea as to what type of load they are carrying because the long trailers are totally enclosed. Other times they’re pulling a flat bed trailer and you can plainly see what they’re transporting.

But what’s it really like to be behind the wheel of one of those monsters? What’s it feel like when you slowly let the clutch out and the big wheels start turning? Well first of all, the tractors (that’s what the truck part is called) are one big piece of machinery. Their engines typically have horsepower in the 400-600 range or more.

On the inside they are rather comfortable, and you have a bird’s eye view of the road not to mention everything else. Being that you can see so much from up there, you have a whole new perspective of what’s going on around you. You can see things happen before they unfold which is a big advantage for obvious reasons.


How Much Do One Of Those Suckers Weigh?

Your typical 18 wheeler has a gross vehicle weight of about 80,000 pounds fully loaded. That’s about 20 times heaver than a 4 wheeler (you car). The transmissions can have anywhere between 9-18 gears (that’s a lot of shifting!).

To make a right hand turn around a tight corner, an 18 wheeler needs to swing way out (sometimes into oncoming traffic), so that the trailer is able to go around the corner without running over the curb or the sidewalk for that matter. 

What About Backing Up And How Fast Do They Go?

Backing up an 18 wheeler can be very tricky in that you have to turn the wheel the opposite way you want the trailer to turn. If you ever backed up a trailer you know what I’m talking about.

As far as speeds, a 18 wheeler can go over 100 MPH, but you won’t see that happen too often; speeds of the high 70’s low 80’s is fairly typical though.

For the most part, 18 wheelers make up the majority of all the big rigs on the road. For those of you not sure where the term 18 wheeler came from it’s based on the number of “wheels” on the vehicle. Your typical 18 wheeler has 5 axels. The trailer has two and the tractor has 3. Each axle on the trailer has 4 wheels/tires. The tandem (the two rear axles) on the tractor also has 4 wheels/tires. Of course the front axle only has two wheels/tires for a total of 18; hence the term “18 wheeler.”

If you’ve ever paid attention to some of the big rigs driving down the road, you’ll notice that some of the trailers and even the tractors have more axles; more axles means more wheels. Some trailers have 3 or even 4 axles that would add an additional 4 or 8 more wheels making the unit a 22 wheeler or even a 26 wheeler. Most people would still classify that truck an 18 wheeler only because the term 18 wheeler is so widespread. 

A 42 Wheeler?? That The....

If you’ve ever been to the state of Michigan you’ll run across the biggest, heaviest monster on the road which is called a “42 Wheeler.” 42 Wheeler you ask? That’s right; count em. The two trailers have 8 axles with 4 wheels per axle which is 32 wheels. Counting the 10 wheels on the tractor makes an impressive 42 wheels. When you see one of these babies rolling down the road you can become mesmerized by all those wheels.

Now the first question you may have is why so many wheels? It’s all about weight and weight distribution. As said earlier, a typical 18 wheeler can legally have a GVW (Gross Vehicle Weight) of 80,000 pounds (that’s the weight of the vehicle fully loaded).

Each axle on the vehicle can only have so much weight. So the more weight, the more axles needed to distribute the weight. With a 42 wheeled vehicle, you can legally have a GVW of about 154,000 pounds. Each axle is allowed about 13,500 pounds with the front axle being about 18,000 lbs.

When it comes to turning the type of truck I drove, it was actually easier to make a right hand turn than your typical 18 wheeler. Why? Because first of all, the overall length of my truck was about 60 feet compared to an 18 wheeler than was 70’ or more. But the big difference was the front trailer on my truck was all I had to worry about when turning a corner.

If the front trailer was able to make it around a corner, the rear trailer (called a pup) would follow in exactly the same fashion. With the tractor and the front trailer only being about 40 feet long, going around a right hand turn was a piece of cake for the most part. 

Check This 42 Wheeler Out...

Backing Up A 42 Wheeler...

Backing up a 42 wheeler was actually pretty easy too. Before backing up, you have to get the double trailers in perfect alignment with each other. Once they were perfectly aligned there was a switch in the tractor that when flipped, would drop a metal pin (about 10” long and 3” round) that would make the dolly (the dolly was the first two axles on the pup trailer which would pivot and turn so it would follow the lead trailer) stationary so it wouldn’t turn when backing up.

Ultimately it kept the 5 axles on the pup trailer in alignment so that you could back up. If the dolly wasn’t stationary, it would be impossible to back that truck up.

The big difference was that when you backed up a double bottom truck like that instead of turning the steering wheel the opposite way you wanted the trailer to turn, you’d turn the wheel the same way you wanted the trailers to turn. The reason being is for the two trailers as opposed to one. I know that sounds like it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way it works. 

How Fast Will A 42 Wheeler Go?

As far as speeds on a 42 wheeler, they are geared extremely low because of the pay load they could carry. With all that weight, you need a truck that’s geared low to get the thing moving. And once moving, they didn’t move to fast with all that weight either. Any sort of incline would keep the truck in a low gear which would equate to a low speed.

The truck I drove had 13 forward speeds. The first gear was mainly for getting the wheels to move with 40 tons of weight on the back. Second third and forth gear were also extremely low gears. I think 4th gear had a maximum speed of not much more than 10 mph.

The top speed on a truck like that was about 70 mph. Some of them were geared a little higher so their top end might be 75 mph, but that was about it. However, depending on the road with inclines and hills, getting the truck to a top speed fully loaded usually took a pretty good downhill incline. It could take several miles to get it opened up on the highway. Suffice to say, zero to 60 mph fully loaded wasn’t achieved in under a couple of minutes unless you started off on a big downhill slope. 

My 42 Wheeler

This was the actual truck I drove for about 5 years. It was a 1978 Trans Star International. It had a 430 Detroit Diesel Engine and a 13 Speed Road Ranger Transmission.
This was the actual truck I drove for about 5 years. It was a 1978 Trans Star International. It had a 430 Detroit Diesel Engine and a 13 Speed Road Ranger Transmission.


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    • Jessica Chiverton profile image

      Jessica Chiverton 3 years ago

      I just love truck driving and seeing everything from so high above ground. I learned a few things in this article about backing a 42 wheeler. Very informative writing and easy style. Thank you.

    • profile image

      Jashard Hall 3 years ago

      Well driving a truck is very fun I must say but it can also be very dangerous. I am a 17 year old who has been growing up in a trucking family my whole life. I also drive as well and been rolling for 2 years now. I just love it

    • LegendaryN8 profile image

      LegendaryN8 6 years ago from USA

      I love big rigs! You all are awesome.

    • sklein profile image

      sklein 6 years ago from Atlanta, Ga

      Sorry to hear about being terminated. I'm sure with your experience you'll find something fast. Good luck and thanks for the comment.

    • www.lookseenow profile image

      www.lookseenow 6 years ago

      Hi sklein:

      I linked your post to mine, because of the phrase: “18-wheeler.” You taught me something I didn’t know, the pin-lock system to back up tandem trailers, very interesting. I’ve been driving 18-wheelers 41 years, until I got terminated March of this year. I Love driving a truck, it was, and is a dream come true.

      Love your post, exciting reading, and very informative.

      Regards: jghn