Sunday, September 05, 2010

By Daniel J. Linss - Editor

Jeff Botelho has dreamed of building a convertible roadster truck since he was 15 years old. Over the 20 years since then, he has driven trucks, bought and sold trucks, ran the family trucking business, and learned how to visualize something and then create it with his own hands. When it comes to trucks and trucking, this guy has seen and done it all. So, when he was invited to participate in the Big-Rig Build-Off in Louisville, KY (an annual competition pitting truck builders against each other), he figured now was his chance to put all of his skills to use – and to finally build his convertible. But, as you can imagine, it was no easy task.

The "crazy" idea of building a convertible big rig came to Jeff and his brother Jim after a driver rolled one of their company-owned Petes on its side. Jeff was 15 and his brother was 18. They thought it would be cool to remove the wrecked sleeper, replace the hood, and chop the top off the cab. When they went to their dad to see what he thought of the idea, he dismissed them as "young and naive" boys. But Jeff never gave up on the idea. Later, when a driver rolled over his 1991 Peterbilt 377, Jeff bought the rig and sold the components – but he kept the cab, because you never know when you might want to build a convertible truck or something.

Last year, Jeff was invited to participate in the 2006 build-off but had to decline because of previous commitments to customers. Jeff really wanted to participate, but business is business. And that was that – until our photo shoot with him last year in Pismo Beach for our May 2006 cover. After the shoot, we gave Jeff a few 10-4 t-shirts that just happened to feature a chopped KW wide hood, sitting by the beach, with the top down and bikini-clad babes around it. He took one look at that shirt and decided he'd better build his dream before someone else does.

Hoping to be invited to the 2007 build-off, Jeff really started thinking seriously about his hot rod truck. A few months later, he purchased a burned 1998 Pete and then sold everything off of it except the frame rails and suspension, thinking maybe he could use them later. When Bud from Stars & Stripes called to officially invite Jeff to participate in the upcoming build-off, he was more than ready. He now had a "reason" to build his crazy roadster, and a few vital pieces sitting in his yard to help get him started.

The rules of the build-off stipulate that participants only have 90 days to complete their project. By the time Jeff actually began working, he was already down to 83 days. With help and inspiration from his hot rod, low-rider and custom mini-truck friends, Jeff worked out a concept for his convertible that included an air bag system, a wild paint job and a totally "California" look.

After pulling the chassis of the burned Pete into their shop in Los Banos, CA and stripping it down to nothing but the two frame rails, leaving only the front and rear cross members and the junk suspension to hold the wheels, they loaded it up and took it to Solo Customs in Patterson, CA, where it stayed for 53 days while it was getting a custom 4-link suspension and air bag system (similar to hydraulics in a low-rider). Owner John Chamoro and his assistant Todd Sinclair, with help every day from Jeff and his friend Joey Jorge, transformed what started out as something that looked ready for the scrap pile into something truly amazing. The chassis and suspension was by far the most challenging endeavor of the project – and the most time-consuming.

To prepare the frame for the suspension, which would allow the truck to raise up or (more importantly) drop down eight inches at the touch of a button, a notch had to be cut into the frame over each of the rear wheels. All of the pieces for the 4-link setup, including the brackets, rods and bushings, had to be hand-built. The suspension was mounted on the outside of the frame rails to allow for maximum travel. The air system that lifts and drops the truck features four small air compressors, mounted between the frame rails, in addition to the big one mounted on the engine, and four extra air tanks, in addition to the two that operate the air brakes. The truck's stock compressor takes the system up to 120 psi, and then a one-way check valve allows the four extra pumps to take the four rear tanks up to 200 psi without affecting the two front tanks. And there is no waiting for this system to "air up" like most trucks – it happens immediately. With a 9-switch remote controller in the cab, the front and rear of the truck can go up, down, left or right.

While the suspension was being built, Jeff and the crew started boxing out the frame rails with quarter-inch steel plating – which meant that every detail of the frame had to be figured out in advance. Once the frame was boxed, there was no getting inside (with the exception of removable "inspection plates" at each wheel for easy access to the plumbing and electrical systems). When it was all done, every fitting, pipe, hose, bracket and component between the rails was either painted, plated, pinstriped or polished. Even the air lines going into the brakes were "hard-lined" with polished stainless tubing.

To get the truck even lower, Jeff opted for low-profile car tires. He took his ten aluminum wheels to Santa Clara, CA where his cousin, Alan Botelho, runs a machine shop. Using a large lathe, Alan machined off the inner bead of each rim to accommodate the high-performance Pirelli 305/35 ZR24 tires. Jeff had a hard time finding rear fenders with the proper radius, but he eventually discovered that a set of old Hogebuilt half-fenders for a medium duty bobtail truck (which he just happened to have laying around) were perfect. But he only had a set of two, and he needed four. Jeff called his friend Bob at Cherokee Truck Parts and begged him to "pull some strings" with Hogebuilt, and three days later Jeff had another exact set of half fenders delivered to his front door. He then fabricated custom brackets and welded them to the axles.

Apparently, the latest craze in custom cars includes getting it low enough to drag the frame on the ground – a practice called railing – which produces a light show of sparks as the car (or truck) rolls down the road. Jeff wanted to be able to drag his light bar, so he fabricated it out of thick steel plate and then welded it directly to the frame. He also attached a strip of titanium to the portion of the bar that would drag. Titanium produces a brighter light, more sparks and can take a lot of abuse. Within the light bar, he mounted six small oval-shaped taillights (with the Peterbilt logo laser cut into them) that are completely flush with the bar. The process was too extensive to get into all the details here, but the end result is a perfectly smooth light bar with six lights and no bolts or gaps whatsoever.

When it came time to install the drivetrain, Jeff decided it would be easier to downsize the motor and transmission than to deal with the size and weight issues larger models would create, so he dropped in a small, chromed-out Cat 3116, (tweaked to 300 hp) and an Allison automatic transmission. This change forced him to make custom motor mounts and brackets, as well as a few other "adjustments" under the hood. Not liking the way the factory steering box looked, Jeff replaced it with a hydraulic steering system out of a Caterpillar loader. He then covered the firewall with a sheet of polished stainless steel.

Now that the chassis and drivetrain were complete, it was time to start working on the cab, which, of course, came from that wrecked 1991 Pete 377 that had been sitting in his yard for nine years. Jeff brought it into the shop late one night and then just sawed off the roof. Dave Jones of Jones Performance fabricated custom fiberglass fenders for Jeff and Mike at Roadworks provided the side hood panels and a few other custom body pieces. Jeff did some fancy work on the windshield, too. After chopping eight inches off the top of the windshield mask, he cut it loose from the cowl and slid the bottom center of the windshield forward two inches to give it more of a "V" shape, then pushed the top back one inch to give it more lean, and then riveted it all back together. Adrian Rocamontes of ACW Specialties (last year's build-off winner), built the body skin panels for the back of the cab. Now complete, the cab and hood were almost ready for paint.

With only one week to go, the cab and hood still needed to be painted, the interior needed to be done, and quite a bit of assembly was still required. The five-man crew of painters from Cen Cal Creations, led by Rich Gallindo, did all of the interior, as well as the paint. Rich and his assistants (Will, Kenny, Tony and Chivo) worked their magic in a very short time, creating a unique fiberglass interior that feels much like an airplane cockpit – everything is integrated into a smooth and clean "shell" that wraps around the two leather seats, including the shifter, the air brake knob and a bunch of stereo speakers. There are no gauges in the dash (yet) but there is a flip-out DVD screen audio deck. It's a very simple, sleek interior, complete with a billet steering wheel and custom pedals.

With the interior done, it was finally time for the paint. The painters sprayed the cab and hood "Botelho Blue" like all of Jeff's working trucks, and then covered the fenders with multicolored green and orange flames and skulls. By now, everyone had been working for two or three days straight without any sleep, and it was the day before they were supposed to leave for Kentucky. At that point, they decided that there just wasn't enough time to flame the rest of the truck, so they just started putting it all back together. At noon on Sunday (the next day), they fired up the truck for the very first time and it sounded great. Now, they were beginning to think that they might actually leave on time that day at 4:00 PM.

But when they fired it up again later to load it, the fuel pump took a dump. Jeff made a few frantic phone calls and had a replacement lined up for first thing in the morning (Monday). By noon, the pump was replaced and they fired it up again. Everything seemed fine and then the power steering pump quit working. Jeff was at the end of his rope – exhausted and frustrated, he collapsed into a chair and fell asleep. While he slept, a local Caterpillar mechanic named Harley Duarte showed up and fixed the pump in record time. The guys woke Jeff up, loaded the truck, and then took off for Louisville – and 31 hours later, they were at the show – a little late, and extremely tired, but they made it. Unfortunately, the truck did not win the build-off, but it sure did turn a lot of mid-westerner's heads.

After returning from Kentucky, Jeff had the rest of the truck painted and then we did our photo shoot. What a great time! Special thanks go out to Francisco Murillo for getting the rig ready for the shoot and helping us out all day. Some other folks that Jeff wanted to thank include Tuey Dickerson, Rocky Machado, Paul Gaxiola, Rodel Melgoza, Danny Flores, Jimmy Greer, Junior Coria and Jeff Coria. Jeff also wanted to thank a few other companies that provided parts or services for his truck including PPG Industries, Double JJ Enterprises, Valley Chrome Plating, Addictive Audio and Tri Valley Truck & Glass. Last but not least, Jeff wanted to give special thanks to his wife Rosie and their kids, Taylor and Jeffrey, for putting up with him through all of this, as well as his sister Dianna Alexander, his brother Jim, and his parents, Jim and Alvina Botelho.

Jeff is proud to say that he will never forget the look on his father's face when they wheeled the truck out of the shop for the first time and dropped it on the rocks in their gravel yard (hence the "On The Rocks" name they gave it). It was a "Kodak moment" in Jeff's life that he recorded with his own eyes, not a camera. And after everything was said and done, Jeff handed the keys of the truck to his dad and said, "It's yours." But his dad did not accept it – not yet, at least. He told Jeff, "You worked hard on that truck – go out and have some fun with it, and when you're done, if you still want to, you can give it to me then." Being a man of his word, I'm sure Jeff will honor that deal – but not before he has a lot of fun with his finally-realized dream – a convertible big rig roadster. No, it wasn't easy, but fulfilling a dream never is – that's why so few of us ever do it. But win or lose, Jeff Botelho will always be a champion in our book!


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Anonymous Serge said...

That's one massive vehicle! I'm pretty sure that's only intended for use within several areas.

10:38 PM  

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