The Cute Little Forklift Story1975
And how Barney Kaplan modernized me
Written 12/2011 Re Written 8/2015 uneditedHoward Yasgar
This is a story all about how stubborn I was, and how a good friend, had to threaten me, in a nice way, to get me to change my way of thinking about forklifts, and once he did that, it set in motion circumstances that was worthy of me writing about it.
It all started in 1973 when I had started a new division of our company called API Marine. We had started the new company in Miami at the same location as our original automotive company, Automotive Parts Industries or API.
We had just started doing business with a parts dealer located in Detroit named Barney Kaplan, and soon our supplier Barney had become our friend and business mentor as well as our supplier. Every time I talked to him, he gave me a lot of suggestions on how to improve the running of our business.
The reason we were doing business with Barney in the first place was because he was buying most of the excess marine electrical parts surplus from a company called the Prestolite Corporation, and we were purchasing almost all of it from Barney. It was because of that reason, that I would travel to Detroit every few months and sort through what Barney had bought from Prestolite, and I would fill up fifty five gallon drums with all the parts we needed. Once I had picked out a full truckload, which was about thirty to forty thousand pounds, Barney would contact a commercial trucking company and he would then, using his heavy duty forklift, load up the trailer with the filled barrels and ship it to our company in Miami. Each barrel that was on the truck, depending on what I had in it, weighed between four hundred and eight hundred pounds.
Every time I went to Detroit to see Barney, as he was a bachelor at the time, he would have me stay with him in his apartment. This gave him the opportunity to give me his mentoring advice twenty four hours a day, and that was whether I wanted to hear it or not.
Now at the time Barney was in his late fifties and he had a lot of experience in the automotive rebuilding business. Barney had experience from just about every aspect of rebuilding, and he never once stopped advising me about how to improve my business. Barney didn’t care at all if I disagreed with him, he just wouldn’t stop advising me, and sometimes I would get so tired of listening to him, I would go so far as to tell him that I thought he was dead wrong. But usually, many months later after telling Barney he was wrong, I would find out that Barney’s advice was actually correct.
Whenever that happened I usually called to apologize and I told Barney he was right, and naturally that always inspired him to give me more advice. In the long run I estimated that my friend Barney was giving me good advice at least seventy present of the time.
One day he asked me how we were unloading the truckloads of parts he was shipping to us. I told him exactly how we did it.
At the time, our receiving of a full truck load of parts was a relatively new experience for us. We didn’t have an unloading dock, forklift or anything like that, so I told Barney how we unloaded his parts. We would put about six used rubber tires on the ground, then I would climb up into the truck with three husky helpers, and two or three more guys would wait below on the ground. We would then, by hand, jockey the heavy barrels into position on the end of the truck and let them drop on to the tires on the ground. The three fellows standing below would kind of steady the barrels as they bounced off the tires. Occasionally a barrel would bounce the wrong way and tip over, then my guys standing on the ground would pick the barrel back up and refill it with what had fallen out. We knew this was a crude way of unloading a truck, but the cost of me buying a forklift just seemed too expensive for us at the time.
One day, Barney said, “Don’t you have a forklift”, No I told him we never had one and I don’t think I need one. Then Barney said, “How many of your guys show up for work the next day after unloading a truck”. I had to think, Barney was right, most everyone complained about sore shoulders and arms the next day, some of the guys even stayed home two or three days with aches and pains.
Barney said, “It looks like I need to get you a forklift”. I replied, please don’t do it, I don’t want one, and besides, I really can’t afford one.
I had hoped that was the end of my forklift conversation with Barney. I felt that owning a forklift would be an expensive situation, and as our business was just growing and I certainly didn’t need any more expenses at the time.
About a week went by, and Barney was on the phone, and he was again talking about a forklift. He said, “Listen to me, on your next truck load, I am sending you a forklift, and when you get it, and the forklift is running 100 percent to your satisfaction, send me two hundred and fifty dollars”. Barney then said, “If you don’t take the forklift, I won’t sell you any more parts in the future.
I knew Barney couldn’t be serious about not selling us, and even though I didn’t really want the forklift, how could I say no? I felt it was easier for me to accept the forklift from Barney than to have to listen to him talk to me about it every time I spoke with him.
A few weeks later, a truck arrived from Barney and I went out to look at what he had sent to us. The truck driver opened the rear doors and laying there laying on its side in front of the loaded barrels, was the smallest rustiest forklift I had ever seen. I have to admit that at first, I didn’t even know what I was looking at, because it had faded yellow paint and there was rust everywhere, I thought it was a pile of scrap iron.
We called a neighbor and he came over with his forklift and he carefully unloaded the piece of junk Barney had sent me. Once it was unloaded and standing on four hard rubber tires, I could see it actually was a forklift and I could see what horrible shape it was rusty and full of mud and leaves and it was missing parts. Especially noticeable was the missing front forks which were needed to lift pallets with. I was just livid, it was truly a piece of junk and you could be sure I intended to call Barney and give him hell. It was pretty obvious that this forklift had been laying in some ones out door junk pile for a very long time. Did Barney think I was a complete idiot to buy it?
I was so mad, my hands were shaking, so I instructed my men to push the tiny forklift off to the side of the warehouse, and out of the way. I needed to compose myself before I called Barney and raised hell with him for sending me such a piece of crap. I was steaming mad, but once I was in my office, I sat at my desk and got busy with phone calls, and I soon forgot to call Barney.
After a day or so, and when I was a bit calmer, I walked out to look at the forklift again. I looked at the data plate. What I saw was that the forklift was a 2000 pound Towmotor, and it was built in 1942. Besides from that, it was only about three feet wide, it was so narrow that it probably could fit through my office doorway.
So here it was 1975, and Barney had sent me a 1942 forklift, it was like an antique piece of junk that was over thirty two years old. I felt that it had probably outlived it’s usefulness a long time ago, and someone had thrown it into the junk pile. But as a mechanic myself, I admit I was curious, so I forced myself to look at the rusty antique Continental four cylinder engine. It looked like it hadn’t run for many years. The more I studied it, the more I smiled, I had to admit it was the smallest and cutest little forklift I had ever seen in my life, so I instructed one of my men to go ahead and put a new battery in the thing so we could see if the engine would turn over. I did that even though I was sure I was fiddling with an antique that I knew wasn’t going to run.
Well two hours later, the new 12 volt battery was in, and I sat on the torn forklift seat and I turned the starter key several times, but nothing happened. By now I had collected a crowd of all my curious employees. So I kept trying even though it was obvious to all of us that the starter motor was not turning the engine over.
Well, I considered the situation, and as long as we already wasting time putting in a battery, I asked one of my men to remove the starter motor, after all, rebuilding starters was our business.
Later that day, the rebuilt starter was installed, and I again turned the start key, but the little four cylinder motor wouldn’t turn over, it didn’t move, not even a little bit. I tried turning the engine by hand, by grabbing and turning the cooling fan and belt, but nothing happened, the engine was obviously frozen solid.
Well, I was a mechanic and I knew how to fix a rusty engines, I thought that perhaps it needed some oil in the cylinders, and since I had gone this far already, what the heck, wasting a little more time wouldn’t hurt anything, so I then proceeded to remove the four sparkplugs and I looked down the sparkplug holes into the motor. I could see there was nothing but rust inside the engine. So I checked the dip stick to see if the engine had any oil in it, the dip stick was clean and the engine had no oil in it. Well like I said, we had already gone this far, so I figured I couldn’t hurt anything by putting some oil in the engine. So for two days, I poured oil into the four sparkplug holes, I did it until they were full, and then I watched as the oil slowly went down the sparkplug holes and into the valves pistons and cylinders, all the way down into the engine oil pan. By the next afternoon, I tried the starter again, and believe it or not, this time the engine turned over. The entire shop was watching me and just like me, they couldn’t believe their eyes, the engine was actually turning. Now I looked down the sparkplug holes and I could see the tops of the intake and exhaust valves, and they weren’t moving, they appeared to be rusted in the open position, so I poured more oil down the spark plug holes and pushed the valves down with a hammer and metal shaft. Then when I turned the engine over, to my surprise the valves came up. So I then poured more oil in, and repeated the process of pushing the valves down while turning the engine over with the starter. I did it until the valves went up and down without me having to push them.
We cleaned and gapped the sparkplugs, and drained the fuel tank and then filled it with fresh gasoline, that’s all it needed, the engine started right up, none of us could believe it.
It was a 12 volt battery I had installed, so I immediately removed the 6 volt ignition coil and replaced it with a late model 12 volt coil, then put in new points and condenser in the distributor. I removed the old 6 volt generator and put on a new 12 volt alternator and voltage regulator.
First thing the next day, I saw everyone was standing next to the forklift. We couldn’t believe it, when I started the engine right up. We all were one hundred percent certain this was the first time the engine had run in over twenty years.
For some reason, I wasn’t mad at Barney anymore, for us, it was now a challenge to get this little Towmotor working.
So I called Barney, and I told him what a beautiful and cute little forklift he had sent us. I told him the engine ran absolutely perfect but the forks for the forklift were missing. Barney said, he would find a set of forks for us somewhere. He also said that in the meantime I should check the forklifts transmission to be sure it had oil, and make sure everything was working OK, before we paid him the two hundred and fifty dollars.
I went back out to the warehouse and looked at the forklift transmission. It had a tall gear shift lever that was held down with eight bolts, I loosened all the bolts. I already knew from my old hot rod days that you always lifted the transmission shift lever forks up very carefully, you did that so you could install it back exactly the same way it was removed. This was very important as the shift lever forks could rotate and could be accidentally installed incorrectly. So I removed the entire shift lever assembly and gently placed it on a shelf, I did it without moving any of its parts.
Then when I looked into the transmission, my heart nearly stopped, I could have cried, as it was full of water, and the water was reddish brown like milk chocolate. The water had been in there so long it had completely rusted and pitted up the entire inside of the transmission. I stuck my finger in the mud and it was a solid thick brown, it was the kind of reddish brown mud that stuck to your finger and wouldn’t come off.
I again thought that dirty bastard Barney had sent me a piece of junk.
It took two days for me to calm down, and then look closer at the forklift transmission. I studied it from all sides and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t like a simple car transmission, and the only way to remove it was to take the entire mast assy off of the forklift, and then move the whole engine forward, once that was done, then the transmission could be unbolted from the engine, slid backwards, and lifted out, boy was I pissed off.
At that point, I could see that the entire forklift needed to come apart. And by now I had so much time and money invested in this piece of junk that I knew I had to do it, like it or not.
It was certainly a major project, but by using heavy duty jacks, levers and wood blocks and a lot of sweat, I was able to disassemble the entire mast which was the entire front of the forklift. Most of the work had to be done with me laying on my side on the concrete floor of the warehouse.
When I finally unbolted the transmission from the engine, it wouldn’t slide back. I called out to a few of my shop mechanics to come and look at it, perhaps I had missed taking out a hidden bolt. But everyone agreed there was no hidden bolt so we proceeded to pry the transmission out with a crowbar, but that was only until we heard a sickening cracking noise. There was a hidden bolt, and now I had broken off the top of the transmission bell housing.
I tried to remain calm, as I removed the transmission and unbolted the broken piece of housing off the engine. Then I had one of my men thoroughly wash out the inside of the transmission out removing all the brown mud, so I could see what was going on.
As I looked inside the transmission I was surprised to see that all the gears were still intact, and yes they were all pitted from rust. So my solution was soaking everything two days in mineral spirits, until all the gears in the transmission turned by hand. Then I proceeded to disassemble everything, carefully putting all the parts all in proper order on a bench so we could sandblast the rust off them. I knew that I could easily reassemble the transmission as long as I kept everything in the correct order, and not mix the parts up.
There was an upper main shaft that had a large sliding gear on it, the gear had a place on one side for the shifter yoke to slip in, so it was important to make sure the gear didn’t get taken off the shaft and reversed by accident.
I called over my trusted sandblaster Jose, who had worked several years for me, I knew he would do as he was told.
While I welded the transmission case, Jose sandblasted all the gears, bearings and shafts. He did a beautiful job, oiling all the parts after sandblasting them. I was a little nervous, so just to be sure, I asked Jose if he had taken off the gear the main shaft. Jose looked me in the eye and said “No Mister Howard”.
I decided that even if all the bearings and gears were badly pitted, I could reassemble the transmission, and because worked in oil anyway, the rust pitting would actually help lubricate everything. The transmission assembly job went like clockwork. I then bolted the transmission on the engine, and reinstalled the forklifts mast. It took two days to complete but there was a big sense of satisfaction by me and everyone involved.
I got on the torn seat and started the forklift up. I put it in reverse gear and backed the forklift out of the warehouse and onto the street, everything was going just fine. Then I shifted into first gear, and the forklift took off just like a race car up the street. When that happened, it was an incredible feeling, I was so proud of my accomplishment. Well, that was until I went to shift into second gear. There was no second gear, nor was there a third gear. I kept trying to shift and eventually discovered that I had three speeds in reverse and only one speed forward. At that point, all my employees came out to see what was wrong. We all diagnosed the problem at the same time, I had probably put the shifter forks in wrong, even though I had carefully taken the assembly out and placed it on a shelf so no one would change its position. Someone in the shop must have been fooling around with it.
Well, I again took the shift lever off and tried installing it in several different positions, none of which worked. I peered into the transmission and quietly studied every gear and what was going on. The problem became obvious, Jose had reversed the large sliding gear when he had sandblasted it. I questioned him about it and he gave me a blank stare, that’s when I found out that Jose didn’t speak a word of English, he never understood when I told him not to reverse the gear. The only English he spoke was “Yes and no Mister Howard”.
It took another two days to take apart the whole forklift and take out the transmission again. It was easier the second time, we knew where all the nuts and bolts went. Finally to the clapping hands from all the shop guys, the little 1942 two thousand pound Towmotor was all together and actually worked, and the 35 year old engine ran perfectly.
By now we had invested so much time and labor into the little forklift that I probably could have bought a brand new fork lift cheaper.
Well we paid Barney and we used that 1942 Towmotor for over ten years, unloading hundreds of trucks. We used it continuously until 1985, when Barney sent us a much bigger, used, thirty five hundred pound forklift.
We then retired that cute little Towmotor by parking it under the pallet racking in one of our warehouses, and it just sat there for another 20 years, until 2005.
My wife Katherine was now running our company and I told her the story about the
$250.00 dollar, 1942 Towmotor forklift that Barney Kaplan had sent me in 1975. When she heard the story she brought that little Towmotor forklift back over to our main building, and we gave it a new coat of yellow paint, wrapped it in clear plastic, put a giant red bow on it and loaded it on a truck, sending it back to Barney Kaplan in Detroit, along with a note thanking him for the use of the machine.
Over 30 years had passed since Barney had talked me into buying the rusty little Towmotor and we thought sending the little Towmotor back to Barney would be our little joke on him, we thought he would display it at his company as an antique. After all Barney was then close to 90 years old at the time.
When I called Barney I was surprised, when he told me that he had again sold the
Towmotor forklift. Barney said that he had sold it to a mutual friend named Mike Murley, of Murley’s Marine, in Fairhaven Michigan, so I just had to call Mike Murley to find out how his new little 1942 Towmotor forklift was doing and to tell him my story. Mike said, he loved the machine and only the gas was bad. After all the years of storage in our warehouse, he said that all he did was change the gas and the carburetor and the forklift was running just fine.
On January 2012, Mike Murley called to wish us all a happy new year, and he said that he had just converted the 1942 Towmotor to run on propane gas.
It that a cute Towmotor forklift story, or is that a cute Towmotor forklift story?