Tale of the tank: EnTrans revitalizes vintage vehicle

March 22, 2024
Newly restored 1937 tank wagon, revealed during a ceremony Feb. 27 in Juarez, Mexico, to serve as powerful reminder of Heil’s rich legacy at the manufacturer’s most prolific tank trailer plant

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico—Oh the tales this tank would tell, if only tanks could talk.

Thankfully, Engineered Transportation International’s newly restored vintage tank wagon doesn’t need a voice to deliver a powerful message to customers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso, Texas, to visit this Heil Trailer and Polar Tank plant—the most prolific tank trailer production facility on the continent.

“It combines the old and the new,” EnTrans CEO Ryan Rockafellow said. “It highlights our heritage, it’s something employees can be proud of, and customers will understand when they come through that we’ve been doing this a long time. Then fast forward to 2024, with where we’re at right now, introducing TANK Ai and developing new trailer lines, and they’re walking into the largest and best tank trailer plant in North America.

“We truly believe this vehicle ties it all together.”

The first customer to visit the expansive, 425,000-sq.-ft. facility after EnTrans uncovered the antique vehicle on Feb. 27—in a ceremony for Mexican officials and other special guests—was duly impressed.

“It’s amazing to see a trailer like that, fully restored, from the late 1930s,” said Jon Sarrazin, president of Quest Liner and Foodliner Mexico, whose team travelled here to discuss their equipment needs. “It’s like going back in time when you see it. So anytime you get to appreciate an antique like that, which ties into the history of the company, the business, and the industry overall, it’s great. It’s a really cool preservation of history.”

Read more: EnTrans’ Juarez plant snares 2022 Plant Safety Award

The reveal was the culmination of an all-consuming effort spearheaded by Jarrod Johnson, EnTrans marketing director, to rescue, revitalize, and repurpose the classic tanker as a show-stopping piece with help from ColorKraft Auto Refinishers in Columbia, Tennessee, one of the top vehicle restoration companies in North America, along with the assistance of  Josh Lemon, ColorKraft founder and managing partner, who spent more than a year on the most complex project of his career.

“We didn’t really have the full appreciation for it, or really understand what we had done, until it was totally finished,” Lemon said in a 42-minute-long documentary video played on loop during the unveiling and factory tour.

“To be honest, I’m [still] somewhat dazed, and kind of in shock, as to how it looks now.”

‘A piece of history’

Shell-Mex BP (British Petroleum), a joint venture between Shell and a Mexican oil company, commissioned the vintage vehicle in 1937. Thompson Brothers built and mounted the 500-gallon, two-compartment tank on an Albion ELP615 truck chassis at its factory in Bilston, West Midlands, England.

The tanker was designed to deliver petroleum in the London area—and often brought fuel to Buckingham Palace, according to EnTrans.

Heil acquired the vehicle when it purchased the Thompson-Carmichael plant in 1998.

“That’s a piece of history down there,” Rockafellow insisted from an office overlooking the lobby-turned-showroom floor.

It is now. But it was a discarded piece of rusted-out junk when Johnson discovered it in an outside storeroom at EnTrans’ headquarters in Athens, Tennessee, where the vehicle sat neglected for 20 years after Heil closed its U.K. facility in 2002.

Johnson, who previously led a project to restore Heil founder Julius Heil’s desk, alerted Rockafellow, who tasked Johnson with restoring the tanker.

After a prolonged search, Johnson selected ColorKraft, which cautiously agreed to accept the challenge. The rest is recent history. And the result is an awe-inspiring restoration that fully reflects the trailer manufacturer’s 123-year-old legacy in one vehicle.

“Clearly the technology has come a long way, and the overall size of the tank has changed significantly, but in our industry, the tank trailer industry, fleets take pride in what they haul behind their truck, and it’s interesting that it was no different way back in the 1930s,” Rockafellow said.

Now EnTrans proudly displays the tanker at its flagship factory in a fitting, full-circle finish.

Read more: EnTrans, Drōv extend Tank Ai partnership

“It looks awesome,” EnTrans CCO Jake Radish enthused. “It absolutely appears original, but it’s also brand new. A lot of detail went into the truck, just like a lot of detail goes into everything we do every day on that plant floor—and that’s the point.”

A painstaking process

Lemon and his apprentice, Daniel Heffelfinger, spent countless hours bringing the truck back to life, starting with the tank, which they removed, attached to a custom stand, and then sand-blasted to reveal the bare metal. “We found the whole bottom of the unit had holes in it, incredible amounts of body filler, and tons of paint,” Lemon said. “So as soon as we got it stripped, we went, ‘Uh oh, this is going to be an enormous amount of work.’”

First, they sealed the tank with a corrosion-resistant epoxy primer. Then they smoothed the side seams and end-cap welds with filler, shaved it for a uniform profile, and applied three coats of red paint for like-new coverage and gloss. Lemon’s team also restored internal tank components and much of the truck’s hardware, including “thousands” of fasteners and 40 bolts with thread pitches and head sizes that no longer exist.

“A hundred years ago, there was no major manufacturing, so everything I took apart was designed specifically to go back where it came from,” Heffelfinger said. “That was the best part of working on this tanker project.”

Equal amounts of time and energy went into renewing the truck body, window frames, and chassis, which was coated with a powerful rust inhibitor, POR-15, in satin black. ColorKraft also restored the wheels without removing the original tires—which still hold air—and carefully preserved the “centerpiece” radiator with a red Albion logo. Then Lemon painstakingly recreated the gold-leaf lettering using an electro pounce machine to make chalk outlines on the tank in a task that took 72 hours and reapplied the highly detailed royal crests on both doors with tiny brushes and magnifying glasses. “It was an incredibly long process,” he said.

Lemon phoned a friend for the cushions with cross-diamond green stitching that replaced the old horsehair-filled seat and back pads, providing a “tremendous amount of character” in the cab, which features a wood panel with brass instruments and a black box covering a four-cylinder flathead engine. “It’s incredibly close to my heart,” Lemon said. “This is the largest project I’ve ever been involved with.”

An atypical tanker

Relocating the finished vehicle to Juarez was another massive endeavor.

“I wanted a trucking company to pick it up in Columbia and drive it all the way to Juarez,” Johnson explained. “That was my big idea, but it didn’t pan out that way.”

Instead, one company hauled the tank wagon to the PSC yard in New Horizon, Texas, just outside El Paso, and a second company with the proper authorization transported it to Mexico after two weeks of searching and securing permission from Mexican authorities. A Conestoga trailer protected the vehicle on both legs of the trip, and EnTrans added extra security for its final journey. “An armed guard followed the tanker across the border, and another armed guard escorted it here,” Johnson said.

German Performance Options, ColorKraft’s sister shop in Nashville, made the truck run again, and EnTrans disassembled the front lobby for Johnson to drive it in—with some muscle since it’s a heavy vehicle with no power steering.

“When I first took it out to drive, I didn’t know it would be as rough as it was,” Lemon said. “It’s like driving something with straight axles and no suspension. What’s crazy is the driving position you’re in is such a foreign position to all other types of vehicles we have today.”

You’ll have to visit a foreign country to see this tanker.

It’s in a class by itself—a showstopper, for sure. But it’s unlikely to trek back across the border to tour any U.S. shows.

“It really is here to stay,” Rockafellow said.

About the Author

Jason McDaniel

Jason McDaniel, based in the Houston TX area, has nearly 20 years of experience as a journalist. He spent 15 writing and editing for daily newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, and began covering the commercial vehicle industry in 2018. He was named editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter magazines in July 2020.