Which Truck Should You Buy as an Owner Operator?

The choices you make will dramatically affect your chances of success – and your likelyhood of failure too.

Sad fact – most owner operators WILL FAIL.


Because they do not make the right decisions. That is as simple and as nicely as I can put it, and like it or not it is what it is.

If you want to dramatically improve your chances of success in trucking – and want to achieve Trucking Business Success – then take the time to learn what you need to know BEFORE you just jump in and go out and make a bunch of bad decisions that will end your new trucking business before it ever even has a chance.

There are many things you need to know – such as general knowledge about the trucking industry, specific specialized information about your intended business, including all risk management issues (authority, insurance, regulatory, general business, accounting, and financial management, etc. etc.) and one of the other key things you really need to consider carefully and choose wisely involves selecting your first truck.

What to Consider When Choosing Your First Truck

First of all – be very careful not to choose your truck based primarily on emotion. That is a huge mistake.

For example, many truckers consider Peterbilt to be the desired ride of choice – yet for a brand new owner operator that may be a very bad decision.

Pete’s are expensive. They cost more to buy and to repair than many other trucks because they are sought after. Think Harley vs Honda for another example. You are paying for the name and the reputation – not just the equipment itself.

The reality is that the name isn’t going to move any more freight for you, though it will cost far more in most cases.

Now do not get upset if you love Peterbilt trucks – I am not bashing them at all, and I too like them quite a lot – but just not as first trucks for new owner operators, unless you already have tons of money somehow. That is unlikely and certainly not the case for the vast majority of people just starting trucking businesses who are trying to do it all on a  shoestring budget.

The same is true with Kenworth. You will be paying more for the emotional value of the name than anything else, in my opinion.

So the first two names you should remove from your list is Peterbilt and Kenworth. (both of which are built by PACCAR by the way).

That leaves you with quite a few other choices remaining, including;

  1. Volvo
  2. Freightliner
  3. Western Star
  4. International
  5. Mack

Think about this. You want the cheapest quality truck you can get your hands on, one that can do the job, has decent fuel mileage, good reliability and safety records, and which has plenty of parts and service options available. Also, one which there are thousands and thousands available on the market (making them readily available almost everywhere and CHEAP to buy relatively speaking).

To get a better idea – look at what trucks the mega carriers and many smaller midsized fleets are buying by the hundreds and have on the roads by the thousands.

The number one and the number two choices are Freightliner and Volvo – and from them, I would say that Volvo is going to be a better choice for most people just starting their own trucking companies.

Why? They are plentiful and they are cheap to buy and own – yet they are also quality trucks that will get the job done for you. They also happen to be comfortable and quiet trucks to drive too.

Year and Age of Your Truck

This is another key thing to consider. On the one hand, if you go back before all the pollution stuff mandates to pre 2000 units and older you can avoid all that goes with it. Yet it isn’t that simple either for a couple of reasons.

The first one is that any truck that old is going to be worn out (unless it has already been rebuilt) and you can count on needing an engine rebuild, replacing all the rubber (including airbags), replacing the kingpins, and many other things which are going to all cost you big time when added together ($30k or more in parts and labor) just to make it a reliable and road-ready truck.

So that is a huge consideration – and while you might be able to buy the thing cheap – remember these costs too.

The next issue is that many carriers will not allow you to lease on (that may or may not be an issue depending on your goals) and you may run into a problem with some shippers because of the age of your truck. Maybe not an issue either depending on your area and what you intend to haul.

Generally speaking many fleets and shippers too prefer trucks that are less than 15 years old. Some will specify the engine must be less than 15 years old – others the actual truck needs to be less than that.  Just do your homework before you run out and buy a truck.

In my area I know several owner operators with their own authority who have 1999 and older trucks and have no problems at all – but they are already experienced owner operators with their own record of reliability and own relationships already established with both brokers and shippers.

If you are going to need to finance your truck most heavy equipment/truck financing companies will not lend money on trucks that old because they have little if any book value in the event of repossession, and they know they would have a very hard time getting any of their money back if they had to take the truck back and sell it.

But for you, that may not be a concern if you are paying cash or obtaining your start-up funds in some other way. It is just something else you should be aware of going in.


Engine and Transmission Selection

All major truck brands share some common engine and transmission choices.

You will find Detroit’s, Cummins, and Cats under many different hoods.

Which is best?

Again that will come down to which is better for you right now.

All three have a good reputation for quality (though it does vary by year and engine model) but repair and maintenance costs can be different.

My number one choice is Detroit – simply because it is an engine choice I know very well and have years and years of experience with. The next most favorite choice to me is Cummins. After that comes Cat.

I personally do NOT like Volvo engines (love their trucks – but not their engines!).

Automatic vs Manual

Lots of experienced truck drivers still poo poo automatics. The funny thing is that most of them have never driven one for any period of time!

I love automatics. They are less work, and a pleasure to drive – especially in heavy traffic.

While I have years of experience with 9, 10, super 10, 13, and a few others – my personal favorite of all time is the super 10. My next favorite is the automatic, followed by the 10.

There is one thing you really need to keep in mind when selecting your first truck – what will it cost to repair or replace it if it fails?

In the case of an automatic vs a manual transmission – it will be a huge difference it cost.

The direction the trucking industry is headed is clear – it is going to automatics. Having said that, at this time there are hundreds of thousands of non-automatics in use and plenty of used and new parts available as well as more than enough shops to work on them.

That makes a non-automatic transmission a better choice for an older truck – so long as you know how to operate it. That is another issue – many new drivers these days are being trained only on automatics and are not even being taught how to shift anymore – if that is you, then you will either need to get an automatic – or do some more learning.

Money wise the standard transmission is MUCH cheaper to repair and replace when necessary.


You will have to make your own decisions, and one of those is ultimately choosing which truck to buy.

Each one has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. What I suggest you do is take a little time to think it all over, then narrow down your own preferences.

You have my top two choices – Volvo (VNL 670 ideally) or Freightliner Cascadia.

Whether you choose one or the other – or one of the other trucks available – do yourself a big favor and conduct your own research. Figure out which year you want or year range, then look up that specific truck or trucks and look for known issues and problems – and associated costs to repair.

Then look for available trucks – start with truck paper. You can also search Craigslist and many other sources. Make some lists and in a short time, you will begin to get a sense of what is available and what the price ranges are.

Keep in mind you can negotiate the price in most cases and get it down another thousand or two (or a few thousand less than the asking price) if you know the actual value and handle your negotiations effectively.

You can buy a good solid truck that will make you money for less than $30,000 easily all day long – and probably for even less than $20,000 if you do your homework.

I have seen many deals work for between $10,000 and $20,000 – for solid work trucks that make money and that is the objective – to make money!

Get a cheap truck for minimal costs, put a little more into it to fix it up (mechanical – not chrome!), and get it working for you. At that price it will be paid for in less than a year… maybe less than 6 months even. Then you can pump more money into it and rebuild it over time, making it every bit as nice and as good as any brand new truck – but at a fraction of the cost, and on your own terms as you can afford it. Another option is to get it paid off, then save up your money as fast as you can and trade up to a nicer truck when it makes financial sense to do so – even if it is eventually that large car Peterbilt you fancy.

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