Like the captain of a sailing vessel, long haul trucker Brett Leonard of Vineyard Haven has to be aware of the tides when leaving or returning to Martha’s Vineyard. He transports cars, mostly expensive cars, five to eight at a time — a one-man, 10-wheel operation called Motor Age Transport. If the tide is either too low or too high, his long, low-slung trailer will hang up on the ramps leading up to the ferries even when empty. He has a habit of returning to the Island without a reservation and waits, sometimes overnight, until there is space for him on the right boat on the right tide.
An affable man with an indestructible smile, Mr. Leonard looks younger than his 56 years. His business is hauling cars in his enclosed trailer. He carries just about anything on wheels that will fit, from bicycles and motorcycles to small trucks, but he mostly carries expensive cars costing on average around $150,000, from coast to coast or from Boston to Florida and anywhere in between.
He recently transported a car worth $1 million, a new Bentley worth around $500,000 and three 1970s project cars worth about $3,000 each.
His home base is his home, on a quiet, tree-shrouded residential street off the Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road where he lives with his wife, Barbara. They have two children and one granddaughter.
On the left of his single story house is a built-in one-car garage where he parks his Island car, a restored 1970 MG. There is a two-car garage on the right where he once restored English sports cars for a living. Next to that is the classic 1967 Autocar tractor he uses in his trucking business. In front of the garage is a long, black, stealth-like, 13-foot, 4-inch tall trailer that extends 53 feet to the road. It has no visible markings.
When Mr. Leonard is not on the road, the trailer dominates the front corner of the small yard. It dwarfs the boats that many Vineyarders keep as ornaments in their yards, but it is partially camouflaged by trees that are so close it looks as though they grew up next to the behemoth. This might explain why his neighbors have not complained.
The trailer can hold as many as eight small cars. His usual load is five to seven at a time.
Trucking cars allows him to combine his love of trucks and cars. He attributes his truck fascination to a cross-country road-trip he took with his parents and three siblings when the family moved from California to the East Coast in a Volkswagen van.
“I know for a fact that I had no interest in trucks until my family took that big road trip when I was 13,” he said. “By the time we got to the East Coast I was interested in trucks. None of it makes sense. You can’t figure these things out, but I have good memories of that trip.”
Not many of the cars he moves end up on the Vineyard. In the spring he usually brings a few cars to the Island from warmer climates, cars he trucks back when their owners head back after a winter in the south. Much of his freight is collectible cars going to or from auctions, and renovation projects headed to new owners, and even a few cars parents send to their kids in college. Mr. Leonard makes 10 to 12 roundtrips most years, moving some 150 to 200 cars.
It usually takes him three weeks on the road to California or Arizona and back, and a week to Florida, his most frequent destinations. He sleeps in his truck most nights on the road, avoiding truck stops at night because they get too crowded.
He said the going rate for car transport is about 70 cents a milem, but it can vary with size and schedule requirements. He pays $2,000 a year for his license plate and over $10,000 for insurance. The fuel for his last trip to Florida cost him over $2,000 dollars. He averages about 6.5 miles to a gallon.
The Autocar tractor is a classic. He restored it eight years ago after literally pulling it from a scrap heap at John Leite’s junkyard in Oak Bluffs, now called MV Auto Salvage, where he had been eyeing it for years.
“I first saw the truck sitting in a field in Falmouth over 30 years ago,” he said. “We got it running and ran it out of John Leite’s for a while but it had constant engine problems so it was left in the junkyard for almost 20 years. I kept my eye on it, and in 2005 I hauled it out and began rebuilding it.” He said that if the truck hadn’t been made mostly of aluminum it wouldn’t have been salvageable.
He replaced the original engine, drive train and suspension system with more modern ones taken from a Freightliner that had tipped over. The sleeper behind the seats he described as old style, small and without many of the amenities of newer trucks with larger sleepers, but he said it fits his style.
Mr. Leonard has only put 450,000 miles on the engine, which he said isn’t much in the life of a truck. He does almost all of his own work except the heavy lifting. “I leave the heavy lifting for the guys at Leite’s.”
He sculpted an impressionist winged figurehead for the hood from a piece of the old aluminum frame. It resembles the “Spirit of Ecstasy” Rolls Royce hood ornament.
His all black trailer is a custom conversion from a furniture trailer. It has a hydraulic lift system that allows him to stack cars two high. His usual load is five or six cars, but he can carry up to eight if they are not too big. He paid about $70,000 for the trailer eight years ago; it would cost him over $300,000 to replace today.
After moving east, Mr. Leonard’s family settled in East Falmouth. He studied electricity and residential wiring at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School because they didn’t have a course in trucks. “I wanted to learn about trucks. The whole time, every spare moment I had I was around trucks. It was what I was really interested in.”
While a senior in high school he got a job at a garage in Falmouth working on trucks, and it wasn’t long before he was sent to help out with some truck work at John Leite’s shop in Oak Bluffs. He began spending more time on the Island. He drove a tow truck and transported crushed cars off-Island.
By the time he was 21 and could legally drive a truck he was trucking tomatoes from Florida to Boston on a regular route. He had his own refrigerated truck not long after.
When he and Barbara, a Vineyard native whose family owned and ran Tony’s Market in Oak Bluffs for many years, married and had kids, he wanted to work closer to home. He gave up his trucks, temporarily as it turns out, and began restoring British sports cars in his garage for almost 20 years.
He financed the truck rebuild and trailer by selling two cars he had restored, a 1968 Triumph TR4-A and a 1954 Ford pickup. His Island car today is a cherry 1970 MGB he rebuilt from three cars he found in The MV Times Bargain Box. He got the cars when he offered to take them away at no charge.
When at home, Mr. Leonard keeps a garden, plays a little tennis with his wife and friends, brews his own beer, and works on his truck which requires occasional trips to the junkyard. “The junkyard has always been a fun place for me,” he said with a smile.