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In its heyday, Fitzgerald Glider Kits was the nation’s top glider truck manufacturer, building and selling thousands of the new truck cab bodies powered by older rebuilt engines.
Then the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came calling.
Now, Fitzgerald and its competitors have exited the glider business, gradually winding down as the EPA’s rigorous Phase 2 greenhouse gas emissions standards that took effect last year made the business untenable. The final rule contained greenhouse gas emissions and criteria air pollution emission standards, such as for nitrogen oxides and particulate matter for engines used in gliders. The rule also set emissions limits for glider vehicles similar to those for new trucks.
But the beginning of the end for the mostly Class 7 and 8 glider business began in 2017 and 2018, when EPA mandated that each manufacturer could produce no more than 300 gliders annually. It was then that a major downturn hit the industry, and companies began to search for ways to retool their businesses.
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“We played that out for a couple of years and then made our diversification move, which was into new trucks,” Tommy Fitzgerald Jr. said during a video interview posted on YouTube, recorded by the Asian Mai Show. “Now we’re selling brand new Peterbilts.”
Fitzgerald said he is the leading investor in four Peterbilt dealerships in Alabama and two in Virginia. Fitzgerald’s brother also currently runs a separate company collision and repair division.
Before the end, federal regulators estimated that the industry was annually producing up to 10,000 gliders — trucks that utilize a previously owned engine, transmission, and usually rear axle, but new body parts.
Attempts to reach three former popular glider makers — Fitzgerald, Harrison Truck Centers Inc. and Indiana Phoenix Inc. — were unsuccessful. None of the three former glider manufacturers returned messages seeking comment.
“I think it was a big hit to owner-operators,” Lewie Pugh, executive vice president at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said of the death of the glider. “In my opinion, as somebody who has owned trucks for 20-plus years, it was just the serviceability and the dependability of the glider that was enticing for an owner-operator.” When the downfall began, “we had a lot of people that were pretty upset,” Pugh said, noting some small truckers even called the loss a “gut punch.”
They also sold for far less than the cost of a typical new tractor, making them popular with mom and pop carriers and one-truck driver-owners. Pugh himself said he was planning on purchasing a glider for his own business — but saw the writing on the wall and instead bought a new truck.
Motor carriers who have invested in new trucks with emissions compliant engines were not among the mourners for gliders, according to Glen Kedzie, vice president and energy and environmental counsel for American Trucking Associations. “It’s not fair to those people in our industry who have bought new equipment to offset the higher emissions with the older equipment — and paid a lot more money,” Kedzie said. “We’re doing our part to offset emissions.”
Research into gliders released by EPA in 2017 concluded that glider trucks could emit up to 43 times more nitrogen oxides and 55 times more particulate matter than trucks in compliance with newer federal emissions standards.
While Fitzgerald has exited the glider business, it remains in a high-stakes David versus Goliath legal fight with federal regulators — specifically the IRS — over whether the company should have collected 12% federal excise taxes from glider buyers during certain tax years. The civil litigation is set for trial next summer.
“Fitzgerald is not nearly the company that it once was,” the glider maker wrote in a July court filing in the tax case. “During the years in issue, Fitzgerald employed over 200 employees; today it employs less than 10.”
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