After Victor Sheppard drove his 2007 Toyota Tundra pickup truck 1 million miles, the automaker wanted it back so engineers could tear it down and figure out what was working well and what needed improvement.
So Toyota swapped vehicles with Sheppard, allowing engineers to examine wear and apply what they learned to make changes to all-new Toyota trucks.
We will come back to these details shortly.
Sheppard, 60, of Hahnville, Louisiana, is a “hot shot” driver, someone who contracts with different companies to deliver small but large loads to ports and factories across the country. These loads are transported in the box of the truck.
He travels to Chicago, Philadelphia, and Kellogg’s Battle Creek factory carrying “worn” gears or metal parts that need to be overhauled or replaced, then he delivers the new parts. They can be for oil rigs, cargo ships or yachts. Pretty much anything that fits in the truck.
He also sleeps in this truck.
“Whenever I go on a long run, I don’t sleep very well in hotels,” Sheppard said. “First I make the delivery. If I’m tired, I stop at a rest area and sleep until I wake up.”
Oil companies like Chevron and Shell contract with United Vision Logistics, and if they need something picked up at a port, they negotiate a price and Sheppard hits the road. He averages 10,000 miles a month listening to channels showing NFL, wrestling, mixed martial arts, NFL and comedy.
Sheppard had no issues on the million-mile truck until it hit 767,770 miles. Then, of all things, the reverse went out. “The truck was driving well, so I kept working when the reverse went off and got into a position where I could move the truck around by pushing it.”
Eventually he had it fixed. Transmission was good, Sheppard said. “The craziest thing is I never changed the starter or anything. I changed the alternator at 400,000 miles. I changed the water pump once, not because ‘it was broken, but because that’s what they recommended.’
He also changes his tires every year, because Toyota has a special program where they are guaranteed all year round if something happens, a puncture or a nail in the sidewalls.
Sheppard has driven a Toyota Tundra for as long as he can remember.
“My first truck I bought out of college was a Toyota pickup, 1988. Not a Tundra. Just a little pickup, and I drove 400,000 miles on it,” said Shepard. “My brother-in-law destroyed it right around (Hurricane) Katrina (in 2005).”
Before Sheppard became a successful driver in 2007, he sold vehicles for Toyota for seven years.
The tundra is like nothing else. All Sheppard does is change the oil monthly and replace the tires as needed. Nothing else, really, he said.
“I put 400 miles on my truck yesterday,” Sheppard told the Free Press, then sent an image of his 2014 Toyota Tundra’s odometer showing 754,128 miles on Tuesday.
When asked if he had been paid to speak with the media about his experiences with Toyota, he laughed and said, “I wish so.”
Looking for clues
Mike Sweers, executive chief engineer for truck programs at Toyota, is based in Ann Arbor and has been with the company for 32 years. And he longed for access to the tundra a million miles away.
“We tore it apart and looked at every nut and every bolt,” Sweers said. “We have a lot of customers who put 500,000 and 700,000 miles on the vehicle. The million was kind of a surprise.”
The Louisiana dealer informed the Toyota company. “They said, ‘Do you have any interest in this truck? ‘ Sweers said with a laugh.
Oh, they did.
“We wanted to know what the truck looked like from a transmission, engine and body structure perspective,” Sweers said. He also learned that the driver had slept a lot in the driver’s seat.
“The engine, we took it apart, and there was nothing that was out of specification yet,” Sweers said. “Reverse went out at around 770,000. The dealer found the clutch pack just needed adjusting. Most surprising to me was the condition of the vehicle.”
There were no broken welds or cracked material of any kind, and the driver’s seat only had a small tear.
“But the bed of the truck was torn apart,” Sweers said. “They’re throwing pumps and motors and all kinds of stuff in the back of the bed. It looked like someone had detonated a bomb in the back – scratched, dented.”
The big discovery that the engineers made concerned the platform of the truck. Sweers said he lived on a farm in Williamston, Michigan, and often threw wood in the back of his personal truck. He also said owners are still debating whether a truck should have a spray-on bed liner or a drop-in bed liner, “which hides a lot of sins.”
So Toyota engineers started looking for ways to improve the design of the bed.
Aluminum is lightweight which is good for mass reduction but dents and fractures easily. High-strength steel doesn’t fracture, but it does dent and corrode, Sweers said. One of the engineers came up with a composite bed because it’s resin and doesn’t corrode or dent.
“We’ve never done this in a full-size truck,” Sweers said. “It’s heavier than aluminum but lighter than steel. It’s super expensive.”
Then Toyota assessed customer expectations and followed suit, Sweers said.
Later, while demonstrating the composite decision to dealers, Toyota sales manager Bob Carter dropped patio blocks in the bed, cinder blocks, bricks, river rocks – showing a weight of 500 to 900 pounds in the bed of the truck. Nothing was broken or dented.
“Then he dropped a 10-foot V-8 engine in the back of the truck,” Sweers said. “I said, ‘Bob, this is too much. We didn’t design him for this.’ And he said, ‘But it works!’ ”
Tundra owners transport bicycles, motorcycles and snowmobiles in their pickup truck.
And the condition of the truck’s bed was the only issue with Sheppard’s million-mile truck, Sweers said.
“We really haven’t found anything else,” he said, noting that lessons from Sheppard’s Tundra have informed the design since then.
Toyota has been in Michigan for half a century. Sweers, senior vice president of product development, has a team of some 2,000 people in Ann Arbor.
“Most of our truck customers wear that mileage as a badge of honor,” Sweers said. “The only complaint we had from Victor was that he didn’t turn around, he stopped at 999,999 miles. We never expected that.”
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Gary Haley, 48, of Gretna, Louisiana, is also a crush. He also drives his 2011 Toyota Tundra as a wide cargo escort on highways across the country.
“I don’t stop,” he said.
The odometer showed 396,743 miles on Friday.
Not bad for a $33,000 vehicle, Haley said
A little TLC
Joe Templeton, 38, a former truck driver who now works at Bohn Toyota in Harvey, Louisiana (near New Orleans), has serviced trucks owned by Sheppard and Haley since his early days as an assistant service manager there four years ago.
He is not surprised by the high mileage.
“They just need a little attention from you,” Templeton said.
David Amodeo, director of global automotive at JD Power, the Troy-based consumer research firm, said Toyota stood out when it came to durability and reliability.
Tundra competes in the same segment as the Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado and Ram 1500.
Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports, said its annual consumer surveys ask which vehicles have the best reliability, or in other words, don’t break. And the answer has been the same for decades.
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“Toyota stands out from any other automaker. That’s what the data shows,” Fisher told the Free Press. “They just make cars that last a really long time with very little or no issues. That’s what they focus on. A lot of reviewers will say they’re boring or they don’t have the latest technology. But it’s designed. They try to be methodical, to make sure they don’t cause problems.”
He added: “If you look at a used Chevy or Ford that has 150,000 or 170,000 miles, you’ll see the listing has replaced a lot of parts or is selling for a low amount. If it’s a Toyota, she demands top dollar. People used to joke that a Toyota with 150,000 miles has finally been broken in.”