CCJ Career Leadership Award: ‘King of Corrosion’ Roy Gambrell finally gets his crown

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Updated Nov 22, 2019
Retired from Truck It, Inc., since 2009, Roy now fills his time serving many of the churches in the middle Tennessee area, fishing, camping, driving a school bus for the local school district and – in a bit of irony – working on his acreage behind the wheel of an old Ford dump truck encased in rust from bumper to bumper.Retired from Truck It, Inc., since 2009, Roy now fills his time serving many of the churches in the middle Tennessee area, fishing, camping, driving a school bus for the local school district and – in a bit of irony – working on his acreage behind the wheel of an old Ford dump truck encased in rust from bumper to bumper.

Roy Gambrell, his wife, Linda, and their dog, Susie, make up almost a full percent of the population of New Deal, Tenn. For more than 60 years, the couple has called the quiet country town just south of the Kentucky state line home, and it serves as the backdrop for Roy’s rise to trucking royalty.

“Our home is 10 feet in front of where my wife was born,” he says. “We are not ones who like to move around much.”

Known to many as “The King of Corrosion” – “Rusty” to others and “Mr. Rust” to several more – Gambrell etched his legacy in trucking on the corroding undercarriages of trucks and trailers nationwide.

But more than 40 years before he would become king, Gambrell started out as a farmhand, as is the case in many rural Southern towns.

Growing up on a farm opened a window through which Gambrell eventually would climb through into trucking.

“I have always had a knack for equipment and how it functions,” he says, adding he learned to fix and fabricate out of necessity. “Most of the equipment or machinery we had was either so old that parts were not available or they were just plain worn out. We did not have ready funds to buy better, so we learned to make do with what we had, and we learned to either make parts or rebuild what we had with scrap that we were able to find.”

Gambrell’s father and uncle were both mechanics by trade, although he says today they would be called technicians. They passed their knowledge along to the youngster in between his parts runs.

“Both of them would do extra jobs at home, and I was the parts cleaner and tool getter,” he says.

While still in high school, Gambrell got a part-time job at Harbin Transmission Shop, where he learned how to disassemble and reassemble various types of manual transmissions.

“From three speeds up to 10-speed,” he recalls. “I had some experience with about every make there was during the time – Eaton, Spicer, Saginaw, Muncie, Clark and many others.”

After high school graduation, the farm beckoned, but a local wrecker and auto salvage service allowed Gambrell to work after finishing his morning chores.

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“I did all types of repairs and also made wrecker runs,” he says, adding it was there he learned the finesse of boring blocks and grinding valves.

With this newfound skill – and now a newlywed to his wife of 48 years, Linda – Gambrell struck out on his new career in 1969.

“My father came in contact with John Adair, who was the service manager for Hertz Truck Rental in Nashville, Tennessee,” he says. “This opened the door for my career in trucking.”

Gambrell worked the evening shift at Hertz and was charged with washing the trucks and checking for repairs before passing the work off to the night foreman. But he wasn’t looking to make a career out of washing.

The King of Corrosion was ready to claw his way to the throne.

“The fuel pumps were at the front of the building near the service bay where preventive maintenance and oil and lube services were done,” he says. “If I was caught up with fueling and washing, I would help the mechanic and be his assistant.”

Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to the maintenance shop full time, trading in his sponge for a wrench.

T.G. McNeese took the young mechanic under his wing and told Gambrell about the classes Hertz offered in conjunction with its suppliers.

“Mr. Mac told me that if I wanted to make trucking my career, I should get all the education I could,” Gambrell recalled.

Training classes were offered only during day shift, and Gambrell – still working the evening shift – was able to attend classes during his time off.

The education paid off. Gambrell graduated from the preventive maintenance lane to “grunt work,” he says. “Removing and replacing defective parts and repairing units to get back on the road. With the many training aids and classes and my own study, I was able to grow my knowledge and perform even tougher repairs. I got very good at troubleshooting and diagnosing problems.”

Gambrell rode the success at his job in Nashville – about 35 miles south of New Deal – to get a private phone line at his and Linda’s home.

“It was the first private line,” he says. “At that time, everyone had either an eight-party line or a four-party line.”

On-the-job training

Gambrell’s ability to figure things out was instrumental in his developing career, but a heavy reliance on wits and good sense certainly doesn’t make your life any easier – especially if you’re in charge of making things that should move, but don’t, move again.

“At Hertz, about the only time a wrecker was dispatched to a unit was if it had been in an accident,” he says. “If a unit was down for a mechanical reason, a mechanic was given a replacement truck and took it and parts and a toolbox and went to the downed unit.”

The mechanic’s job was to swap units with the driver, then get the downed truck repaired and back to the Nashville shop.

“I remember my first trip I was sent out on,” he recalls. “It was a GMC gas straight truck that the newspaper company used to deliver papers to the route people.”

Gambrell delivered the replacement truck and helped them unload the newspapers. With the customer on their way, Gambrell quickly found the downtime culprit – a faulty clutch – and walked about a mile to the nearest phone to call Mr. Mac for a wrecker.

“He told me to get the truck in, or he would send somebody who could, and he hung up,” Gambrell says.

Undaunted, Gambrell walked the mile back to the truck, cut six limbs off a bush and flattened each side with a small taper. He used a bar to push down the clutch pedal and wedged it against the seat to hold it down.

“I knew the clutch was out,” he says. “All the lining was in the cover. I took the limbs and a hammer and drove them between the flywheel and pressure plate. I placed them in six different places around the plate and removed the bar to release the clutch pedal.”

Gambrell drove the truck back to Nashville, shutting it off to stop at red lights.

“I didn’t want to push the [clutch] pedal down,” he says. “I was afraid the sticks would fly out. When the light changed, I would start the truck in gear and go again.”

Gambrell’s reward for a job well done was the affirmation from Mr. Mac. “See, you didn’t need a wrecker,” he laughed.

“From that time on, I was sent on many of the road calls,” Gambrell says.

In 1977, Gambrell accepted the night shop foreman’s position at Tennessee Cartage Co., a refrigerator and logistics company covering all of Tennessee, north Alabama and southern Kentucky.

There, Gambrell was paired with Jeff Madison, a confessed Yankee and graduate of Nashville Auto Diesel College.

“Jeff had lot of book knowledge but had a hard time getting it to his hands,” Gambrell says. “He helped me gain the book knowledge, and I helped him with the hands-on. We made a pretty good team.”

Gambrell’s Nashville location eventually became the company’s go-to for major repairs, and his services were in demand.

“If an engine would go down at another location, we would go and rebuild it and get it back on the road,” he says. “When other repairs would build up at the other locations, I would go and help the mechanic that was in that area to get caught back up.”

Wrecker 2017 02 26 14 51In spring 1982, Gambrell opened his own shop – Gambrell’s Truck Repair Company– in Portland, Tenn., situated between Nashville and Bowling Green, Ky.

“I had already been doing some side jobs on my days off,” he says. “I did very well, had 12 employees, and we were open 24/7.”

The company had three service trucks and a couple of wreckers, but Gambrell’s father, who had been helping oversee the shop, got sick, and Gambrell was struggling to fight the attraction to working in Nashville.

“Getting dependable people to come in was getting hard,” he says. “I would spend all this time training them, then they would move off to Nashville.”

Gambrell already was doing maintenance and minor repairs for Franklin, Ky.-based Truck It Inc., so he agreed to pack up his tools – and three of his most loyal employees – and join Steve Ligon’s company, in the maintenance department.

The king ascends to his throne

Truck It’s 45 tractors ran all 48 lower states and Canada, and the flatbed company’s Caterpillar engines featured a complicated mechanical/electronic hybrid system that began to deal Gambrell fits.

“The mechanical was a breeze,” he says. “It was the electronic that was the killer. This was a new thing, and we were still in the learning phase.”

But help and good advice were hard to come by from the manufacturer and local dealers.

“No test or diagnostic information was readily available, because the manufacturer did not know,” he says. “I was struggling, and everyone I knew was.”

Shop Talk Picture 2017 02 26 14 51In search of solutions, Gambrell –anointed Director of Maintenance and Safety a year earlier – turned to the Technology & Maintenance Council.

“I made up my mind that I should check into this organization,” he says. “It was 1991. They had a meeting in Nashville, and I checked around to gain more knowledge of what they were and if it would benefit me to go to a meeting.”

Gambrell’s travel was complicated in that he was not only the shop foreman, he also was an active-duty mechanic. Truck It hardly could afford to lose its best man for a meeting, even if it was hardly 40 miles away.

Gambrell skipped the meeting, and the fleet’s problem got worse.

Ligon and Gambrell agreed that he would attend TMC’s meeting in June in Scottsdale, Ariz., in search of solutions to a range of company maintenance issues.

“I knew by being a member, I would have the access to information that I knew I would need to solve my issues,” he says.

Over the years, Gambrell attended meetings and became involved with many different task forces. He even was able to see the end of the sensor diagnostic task force and have it approved – the reason he went to that first TMC meeting in Scottsdale.

“Still today, I have the three-and-a-half floppy discs that it was put on,” he says. “Also, I have the original documents for our engines from the manufacturer.”

He became Vice Chairman of the S.4 study group and then served as Chairman for several years. In 2003, he was elected Director at Large and served until 2008.

A 2005 Silver Spark Plug recipient, Gambrell was elected Study Groups Chairman in 2009 and Vice Chairman and Chairman of Meetings in 2010. The following year, he was appointed General Chairman.

But 2008 was an especially important time in Gambrell’s regal rise, as he was named to the newly-formed Corrosion Control Action Committee (CCAC) – now study group S.17. It’s on this committee that Gambrell’s legacy would be etched in rust forever.

A king is born 

“I felt that corrosion was the biggest issue facing the industry at that time,” he says. “I had begun to see it five years before anyone else in the industry. I brought it up at every meeting at TMC.”

With nationwide coverage, Gambrell’s fleet spec’d trucks to withstand winter conditions but was being ravaged with corrosion after runs through western states.

Li2 A7069 2017 02 26 14 51“They were the first states in the country to start using [de-icing] chemicals,” he says. “I started seeing cracking on my brakes.”

Gambrell started making calls to his peers to see how widespread the issue possibly could be, but he kept hitting roadblocks.

“I kept getting the same answer – ‘We are not having the issue,’ ” he says.

Gambrell asked if he could visit some of the fleets, hoping to learn how they managed to avoid the problem. Instead, in most cases he became the bearer of bad news.

“The ones I visited were amazed at just how bad their fleets were with the corrosion issue,” he says. “The industry had worked hard to cover rust due to salt and salt spray, but now we had a far greater element – calcium chloride.”

Gambrell, his peers and CCAC pushed manufacturers to find a solution and even helped develop a test for the materials being developed to withstand the effects. “Different manufacturing designs were also developed, and maintenance practices were changed and developed to try and combat the issues,” Gambrell says.

TMC eventually published its Corrosion Manual to help fleets spec and maintain equipment, and Gambrell says that work continues today because of the equipment’s life expectancy. “Manufacturers continue to develop the parts to meet this expectation,” he says.

Life away from the throne

In 2009, Gambrell hung up his wire brush and WD-40. Today, he fills his time fishing, camping and working in the vegetable garden with his wife, a woman to whom he credits much of his success.

“It has been her thoughtfulness and forgiveness that has allowed me to become the person in the industry I have been able to be,” he says. “The understanding that she has shown over the many years when I have missed coming home on time or taking her somewhere. She became adjusted to the late-night phone calls and my leaving in the middle of the night to get a unit back on the road.”

He also is active in the churches near and far from his North Tennessee community. He’s involved with the order of services each Sunday morning and evening at his home congregation and oversees the building maintenance.

Gambrell also fills in for the preacher when asked and teaches the adult Bible class on Wednesday nights as needed.

He coordinates and attends the first Sunday singings in Sumner County and helps with the Friday Night Singings in the middle Tennessee area, attending one every Friday night.

The third Sunday of each month, he speaks for the congregation in Pikeville, Tenn. – a day that starts at 4 a.m. and ends about 16 hours later.

When he’s not running the roads to area churches, Gambrell drives a bus for his local school district in the mornings and afternoons.

Advice for newcomers

In a 40-plus year career, there’s not much Gambrell hasn’t seen or been asked to repair. However, trucking has changed around the wily veteran who once “fixed” a transmission with a fistful of sticks and a hammer.

“New trucks are tougher to work on because they’re so compact,” he says. “And a lot for trucks are more modular. You just take the module off and replace it. There’s not as much repair today.”

College Graduation 2017 02 26 14 52Much fuss is made over how techno-savvy technicians need to be, but Gambrell says there always will be a demand for the men and women who are good with their hands.

“Computers are a must, but it will still take a lot of grunt work to keep them running,” he says. “Not everyone will be able to do just the diagnostics. There will have to be the hands-on person willing to get dirty. They are the ones who will really be in demand. Yes, it will be heavy and dirty, but if you put forth the efforts in learning and doing, the industry will be profitable to you.”

Learning is a lifelong endeavor. An ASE Certified Master Medium/Heavy Truck Technician, Gambrell also holds an Associates of Science Degree in Business and Commerce from Volunteer State Community College.

But through all the classes and all the training, Roy says a simple piece of advice from his early days at Hertz has paid endless dividends: “Never turn down a class.”

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected]