Magnificent Obsession: Fred Heim’s Half-Size Universe Creates Big Buzz

Fri October 19, 2007 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla



Fred Heim does something that no one in this country does. And he does it as well as anyone could do.

Heim, 68, a woodworker for 58 years, makes exact replicas of popular earthmoving vehicles — a Peterbilt 379 pulling a 26-ft. Hill dump trailer, a Cat D8R and a Rogers 60 ton dropside goose neck trailer with air suspension, fully functional hydraulics, a Cat 345CL excavator and a radio-controlled Cat 980H wheel loader.

All half size.

Not a miniature, not a shelf model, actual working vehicles with engines, carved out of mahogany, aluminum and plastic and fiberglass, and all to exacting specs 50 percent smaller than the real machines they honor.

Heim’s creations also have created a world of buzz at machine shows and museums over the past four years. His extraordinary replicas have been seen at trade shows, toy conventions, in parades, at classic and antique machinery events from Indiana to Maine, to the September grand opening of Joseph Equipment Co. in Manchester, N.H. He’s been featured in several videos, including the TV news show “Chronicle” in Boston. They are masterpieces of museum quality.

Once seen and touched, Heim’s mahogany marvels draw hundreds of people away from whatever they happen to be looking at of ordinary size.

“I’m a craftsman myself, and there is nobody, and I mean nobody, even close to him,” said Gabriel Audette of Marlborough, whose been a cabinet maker and woodworker for 40 years. “He’s the best there is.”

Making Truck Models at 10

Heim grew up in Lovell, Maine, and at the age of 10, began making astonishing truck models out of wood and cardboard.

“My father was the road commissioner of Lovell, Maine, and, at that time, I was more interested in designing and building models than I was with scholastics. I was able to look at something in a brochure and then build it. We didn’t have cameras back then.”

His childhood model dimensions always surprised adult craftsmen, as they were dead on specs to their life-sized equivalents. “I’d made them out of construction paper and LePage’s glue, and the plows, wings and the dumper would all work,” he said of his first models.

Heim is entirely self-taught. “I was always fascinated with wood. I knew, at a very young age, that I would always be working with wood,” he said.

Again at age 10, Heim began building 10-ft. Cris Craft Boats from a kit. His father bought a boat yard in the early 1950s and he began a boat-building business in his own yard — canoes, rowboats, canvas-covered boats. He went to the Newton Trade School and built a boat there some 51 years ago at age 18, and, added proudly, “No one’s done it since.”

By age 20, Heim was married and building a career in boats — 20-ft. cruisers, hydroplanes, world cup boats. “My last boat was a 38-foot boat, V-bottom, with a PT engine, 1,350-horsepower. There were only two built in the world,” smiled Heim.

Along with 40 years of boat building, Heim had a hand in constructing more than 450 new homes.

Building the Peterbilt

In 2003, a friend of his bought a $12 Jada plastic Peterbilt and showed it to him.

“I’m finishing a boat, I looked up and this truck is sitting there,” said Heim. “I thought, ’Wouldn’t it be nice if I built that truck at half-scale and get in it and motorize it.’”

After measuring a full-size Peterbilt, Heim made a cardboard silhouette of the truck cab “to see if I could get in.” It was painful, but he could.

“It’s still painful to get in and out, but I do it,” he laughed. “I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, ’Get in there, then.’”

Once the cab was set, Heim dug into his wooden Peterbilt, unlike any in the country.

“My intention was to put a battery in the truck and have it run by a golf car motor in the rear end,” he said. He started with aluminum frame rails, cut out of a stock. A friend in the trucking business told him he needed a diesel engine, so he found a small, 26-hp Yanmar diesel with two cylinders. It runs through hydrostatic drive connected to a 12-in. driveshaft.

Water-cooled, the truck has a 12-volt electrical system for the fan.

The truck is fully gauged, the windows go up and down and it has a hydrostatic transmission and hydraulic brakes that also work. There is a fifth wheel that looks and works like the real article and the interior of the fiberglass cab is fully upholstered. The engine, mounted to the rear of the cab so Heim can put his legs under the hood to drive it, is enclosed with the typical wet system that one would see on a dump trailer chassis.

The 13-gal. fuel tanks are made out of 26-quart aluminum lobster pots. Heim cut them in two at 6 in. each and formed the aluminum fabricated center. He welded under strap supports for the two fuel tanks. The air cleaner tops were 7-in. pizza pans covers. All the running lights are turned from billet aluminum, and the headlights are classic Harley-Davidsons.

All of the interior braces and supports are made from mahogany.

“Every rivet is half-scale and you can count every single rivet to see that the number matches the number in the original,” said Heim.

But that isn’t all. Heim’s attention to detail went far beyond just the working half-truck. He also built the air suspension trailer that went with it — at half-scale, of course — to pull it along.

The trailer dump is a Hill 26-ft. replica, also made of wood and aluminum. All of the aluminum on the tractor and frame was powder-coated, instead of spray painted. “It looks like it’s brand new and 100 years old at the same, time,” beamed Heim.

The dump body of the trailer, so metallic in look, fools virtually everyone. It is really made of Honduras mahogany.

“The first thing people do is tap it,” laughed Heim. “They have trouble believing it’s wood. A lot of people will say, ’It’s a kit!’ No, it’s not a kit. You can’t buy it. There’s only one half-scale in the country.”

With the Peterbilt pulling the Hill custom-built trailer, with its diesel engine puffing grey smoke out of its twin stacks. At night, it’s even more impressive, with all 98 of its lights flashing.

After a year’s work, Heim’s Peterbilt got immediate attention. He brought it to the American Truck Historical Society in Brooklyn, Conn., and drew an overwhelming crowd. A writer from a national magazine wrote of his work. Soon, he was at trade shows and exhibitions, gaining national notoriety.

Project Two: a Cat D8R

The next year, 2005, Heim, inspired by his success, was at it again. He made a half-scale Cat D8R with a Rogers trailer, all made of aluminum. The Cat undercarriage was a real challenge. The frame is boxed mahogany, and the sprockets and idlers are all turned mahogany.

He made the track links of Corian with PVC pins and bearings. Each track has 88 links. Axle shafts are aluminum, but the track pads are made of marine mahogany plywood. While this model doesn’t run, it all works. The trailer has air suspension and the tracks and bogies move and roll like the real thing.

Again, the interior is upholstered with too many details to name.

The rig really turns heads on the highway, especially with its “Wide Load” sign, which isn’t really all that wide.

While the D8R is static, the Rogers 60-ton tri-axle dropdeck trailer is just like the real one. Rogers Co. itself provided Heim with graphics, mud flaps, plans, and photos to give him all the details he needed. The trailer, completely fabricated from aluminum, has decking planks of solid mahogany with operating running lights.

When Heim took this pair of beauties to the National Toy Truck N’ Construction Show in Indianapolis, Ind., the remarks were off the charts. It was worth the long drive to Indianapolis, he said. Everyone enjoyed seeing the display in person after seeing it in the magazine, “ToyTrucker.”

Project Three: a Cat 345 C L Excavator

The next year, 2006, Heim created another extraordinary model, his half-scale Cat 345 C L excavator. Again, a labor of love in mostly wood and aluminum, the Caterpillar model can rotate 360 degrees over its undercarriage. Hydraulic cylinders are made of PVC tubing and aluminum. For the tracks, Heim had to produce 104 PVC links at nine pieces per link.

The 18-in. pads are made of wood, but the idlers and bearings are also PVC, and like the real ones, are adjustable.

The “real” 48-in. bucket is, of course, only 24 in. in the replica. It features removable teeth and real-style wear pads. Heim said he used 20 sheets of Okoume mahogany to complete it.

The cab features an opening door and the precise interior detailing matching its inspiration. Heim hand-carved a female “driver” out of white pine.

Project Four: a Cat 980H wheel loader

In 2007, Heim greeted his increasing fan base with his fourth half-scale project, a Cat 980H remote-controlled wheel loader.

Working in his spacious garage workshop in Marlborough, Heim tried to top himself this past winter building a new addition to what has turned from hobby to a small (half-scale) cottage industry. How? That working remote control to handle the more intricate engineering.

The tires on Heim’s new Cat represented the biggest challenge, so that’s where he began his work. Rubber? No, marine and solid mahogany — 3 ft. in diameter and 15 in. wide, with 2-by-6 fir used in the treads.

Not solid, Heim devised a system of interior baffles to keep the weight down and to add strength to the tires. They are screwed on and filled, but resemble real rubber.

It took 12 gal. of automotive Bondo to complete them. The only rubber is used on the bands slipped over the center of each tire to protect them from cracking when the machine is moving. Once he solved this problem, Heim moved to the body, again using marine mahogany, aluminum and fiberglass, with aluminum in the main frame.

The engine is a 6.5-hp Techumseh with a hydraulic pump and transmission. Six custom-built hydraulic pistons operate the bucket, arms and steering.

The remote control lifts and turns the bucket, starts the motor and moves the wheel loader in all directions. The hood, cab and fenders also are mahogany with upholstered seats inside, an adjustable steering column and sliding windows. The realistic quality staggers the viewer studying every corner and each inch.

With this fourth piece, Heim said his full-time hobby of half-scale work is done.

“I’m trying to sell all four to a museum. All have to go at one time, as a set,” he said. “If anyone is interested in buying “the collection” contact me.”

Write to Fred Heim, c/o Carl Cioppa at 508-259-0818 or by e-mail, carlcioppa@aol.com. CEG