His Truck’s ‘Built Chevy Tough’

As a young man, James Dillard started his business with a new septic service rig, and he expects to retire behind the wheel of the same truck.
His Truck’s ‘Built Chevy Tough’
Lely Manufacturing recently added a new tank and pump to James Dillard’s 1988 Chevy vacuum truck. (Photos courtesy of James Dillard)

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Getting the most out of a vacuum truck: It’s the goal of every pumping professional.

And pumpers follow different strategies of truck ownership. Some want to turn over their entire fleet every five or 10 years to ensure good resale value, hold down maintenance costs and avoid work stoppages when a truck is in the shop after a breakdown. They prefer the certain business expense of monthly payments to rolling the dice on the price of long-term maintenance.

Others buy a truck with an aim to hang on to it for the long haul. They take pride in providing meticulous care for their rigs, from strictly following manufacturer’s guidelines for routine maintenance like oil changes to washing and waxing the exterior every week. They pay off the loan, and then every month the truck keeps rolling means putting more money in their pockets.

Pumpers will give sound reasons for following each path of truck ownership. You can surely make each strategy work.


I’ve met many pumpers on both ends of the truck ownership spectrum, but I’ve never met another pumper like James Dillard. The owner of Dillard’s Septic Service in Annapolis, Maryland, picked up his first truck from Lely Manufacturing in 1989 while he still had his Class B heavy hauler learner’s permit. He’s still driving that truck today and expects he’ll be running it right up until he retires. One pumper, one company and one truck spanning four decades so far.

It’s true. Dillard’s truck, a 1988 Chevrolet C70, was a Classy Truck of the Month selection in 2008 after it was restored and resprayed following a devastating crash. Then recently, Dillard sent me some photos of the truck after he had the original tank replaced — using the same 2,300-gallon tank and Masport pump combo as before. Dillard is understandably proud of his effort to keep the beautiful throwback truck on the road.

Dillard, 53, is closing in on 30 years in business, and he’s pumped every tank with that reliable old Chevy. The truck has about 500,000 miles on the original 366-cubic-inch engine, five-speed transmission and PTO. That engine has never been cracked open and the rig is riding on only its third clutch while pulling heavy loads of septage. He replaced a finicky carburetor with a simple $150 Holley 600 model that’s worked perfectly for 20 years. He replaced the radiator one time. Common wear parts have come and gone, but that’s about it.


“Everything I own is Chevy. I have a Chevy pickup truck. My wife has a Traverse. My daughter has a Camaro. I’m loyal to Chevy,” Dillard says. “If someone gave me a Ford, I would probably take it. But I’m not going to pay for it.”

Let’s not veer off into the Chevy or Ford debate … no stick-figure little boys urinating on a Ford logo here. However, Dillard’s service record with the truck is quite remarkable. Consider the working end of the rig.

Dillard pumped his first tank in April 1989, after picking the truck up at Lely in North Carolina. The tank and Masport 15 pump cost $11,000 and the full price of the truck was $37,000. Two Masport pumps each worked a little more than 13 years before the steel tank needed replacing in December 2015. He drove the truck to Lely for the new tank and a third Masport pump, then had the unit painted a 1995 Honda metallic burning red color to match the cab. After adding identical white lettering by “Signs By Tomorrow” of Annapolis, he was back on the road.

Most Chevy C70s were worked hard and retired to the scrapyard years ago. So how did Dillard keep his in service all these years? He’ll tell you longevity comes down to keeping ahead of maintenance and having dependable help with the mechanical issues.

“I don’t wait until something snowballs,” he says. “I know every little sound this truck makes. If I hear something I’ve never heard before, I figure out what’s going on. I’m the only driver and I’m going to take care of it. When you have the same truck and the same driver, it lasts longer.”

He listens for ticking lifters and puffing noises from the exhaust intake. He notes changes in the sound when idling or pushing the pedal to the metal. “Even the sound of the wheels and the tires, everything. I’ve been in this truck almost 30 years, day in and day out. It’s like a human coughing. I know when something on this truck is sick,” he explains.

He regularly runs diesel fuel through the vacuum pump to clean it out. The grease fittings are lubed every few months when his mechanic comes by to adjust the brakes. He changes the oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles and has stuck with Pennzoil oil and Fram filters throughout the life of the vehicle. He takes the truck in for an annual rust inspection and gets it touched up by Ziebart. Rust has never been an issue.


Dillard is building an inventory of parts for the aging truck to shorten the search when something breaks down.

“It’s an antique. When it comes to finding parts for it, everything you can think of has been discontinued on this truck. I usually have to make several calls before I can get the part I need,” he says. “When I do find something, I try to buy two of them just in case I need it down the road.”

He’s thinking of scanning junkyards to locate a replacement steering column he may need in time. And he’s already sourced a rebuilt engine from parts chain Jasper Engines and Transmissions, which will cost about $3,500 if and when the time comes, and it will come with a three-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

As much as Dillard knows about this truck, his mechanic and welder are just as well acquainted with it. Both have been working for him since he bought the truck. Edgar Wooden, 70, of Woody’s Repair, runs a mobile mechanic service and regularly brings his tools to Dillard’s to maintain the rig. And welder Arnold Miller, 83, of A.H. Miller Welding, alerted him to tank deterioration that led him back to Lely last year.

Good service from longtime mechanics make it easier to live with a truck for a long time, he says.

“I’ve only had to be towed three times. The first time the clutch went out. Then it was something to do with the starter. And the last time the fan came loose and I couldn’t drive it like that,” he recalls. “Three times in almost 30 years isn’t bad.”


Dillard almost lost the truck — and his life — in a horrific rollover crash in 2005. He and wife, Renee, were riding on a two-lane highway when a vehicle from the other direction drifted over the centerline. Dillard swerved off the shoulder to avoid a collision, then lost control of the truck coming back onto the pavement. The truck rolled into a drainage ditch and the cab was crushed. He was seriously injured, but recovered and restored the truck.

With a new tank and fresh detailing, Dillard thinks the Chevy will last as long as he’ll need it.

“My plan is to retire with this truck. If I got another truck, I couldn’t get rid of this one now. It’s such a part of me,” Dillard says. “I’m sure some guys are probably scratching their head and thinking, ‘How is this truck still going?’ Especially after being turned upside down. I guess it’s true what they say: Built Chevy Tough!”


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