The recent preview in Melbourne of the first Freightliner Cascadia in Australia was far more than just a peek at a new model about to undergo an extensive local test program. It was, in no uncertain terms, that point where Daimler Trucks North America off
Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut. So, here’s a tip! In a few years from now, let’s say three or four, Freightliner will surpass Mack as the secondmost popular conventional truck on the Australian market.
Yep, it’s a big call and almost sure to set the dog barking. Not only that, but with Freightliner currently skewered on less than 4 per cent of the heavy-duty market, I could be monumentally wrong.
If so, it’ll simply demonstrate a couple of salient facts. One, that I’m not nearly as intuitive as age and experience might suggest, and two, that Freightliner principals here and abroad remain incapable of satisfying the significant demands of our supremely competitive market. On the other hand, I could also be right. If that turns out to be the case, rather than highlight any innate intuition on my part, it will deliver definitive proof that Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) is finally offering the Australian market far more than platitudes and outdated designs.
Critically, it will confirm the American market leader is, at long last, supplying Australia a modern, advanced and long overdue conventional truck that has been engineered, tested and specified to the point where Freightliner can actually do what it has always been capable of doing – that is, create nervous consternation among its chief combatants by scaling to substantially higher heights on the heavy-duty heap.
The product being fashioned to drive Freightliner to this bold new future is the latest Gen II version of Cascadia, or ‘New Cascadia’ as the Yanks refer to it, which will be launched here in 2020 after being subjected to the most comprehensive and expensive testing and engineering program ever undertaken by Freightliner outside the USA.
According to high-level sources on both sides of the Pacific, DTNA has committed a staggering US$100 million to a Cascadia right-hand drive program aimed squarely at fulfilling the corporate giant’s ultimate goal of being the leader of every market it contests. And
according to the same high-level sources, that includes Australia more than ever before.
Funny thing, though, I’m not sure I want to be right. Like its corporate cohort Volvo, Mack is at least locally assembled, employing Australians in an Australian factory, and, for that reason, has every right to attract some degree of patriotic fervour. The same, of course, goes for that other local legend and undisputed king of the conventional class, Kenworth.
Not for a moment, however, does the gut or any other part of the anatomy predict that Freightliner will be knocking Kenworth off its perch anytime in the foreseeable future.
That’s not to suggest it can’t happen but, right now, given Kenworth’s current strength and the fact it has a couple of exciting new models being primed for release later this year, it’s hard to see Bayswater (Vic) losing its grip on the conventional crown. Again, I could be wrong but, in this instance, I think not.
Still, there’s a big gap between Mack and Kenworth, and it stands to reason that in any effort to climb to higher rungs on the heavy-duty ladder, forging past the bulldog will be Freightliner’s first hurdle. Likewise, it’ll also be the first indicator of whether Freightliner truly has its act together or not.
Nonetheless, it’s a highly competitive commercial world we live in and, no matter where a truck’s made, the simple reality is that if the product’s right, if the price is right, and if the support network’s up to scratch, most trucks will sell well no matter where they’re made or whose badge is on the hood. Still, that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and, up to this point, Freightliner hasn’t done a particularly good job over the past two decades of achieving even a respectable portion of its inherent potential.
In fact, it could be easily argued that no brand of heavy-duty truck in the modern history of the Australian transport industry has been capable of so much yet delivered so little of its inherent promise.
THEN & NOW
Freightliner’s Australian history starts in 1989, about eight years after the troubled US brand was acquired by German giant Daimler-Benz.
For our neck of the woods, the foundations were built on the durable versatility of the simple, strong FLC112 model, a truck configured specifically for the Australian market and is still to be found earning an honest keep in many applications. For good reason, the FLC won a burgeoning band of followers and, for Freightliner, the future looked remarkably bright.
In fact, the future shone like a rising star when the late ‘90s brought the Argosy cab-over and Century Class conventionals to an Australian market openly grateful for a US-sourced alternative to Kenworth product, especially the aged K-series cab-over.
Compared to what was available at the time, Argosy was a revelation in US cab-over design and, while they would never admit it, Kenworth insiders were worried. However, problems weren’t long in dampening the early euphoria. Simply put, Freightliner had been incredibly fortunate with the FLC112. Based on a construction truck platform and with a cab largely sourced from proven Mercedes-Benz stocks, FLC survived despite limited local testing prior to its Australian introduction.
On the other hand, Argosy and its conventional kin were effectively right-hand drive copies of their US counterparts and, with almost no local testing to expose durability deficiencies in Australian conditions, cracks were quick to appear. Literally and physically.
Making matters profoundly worse, US engineering resources were slow to respond to dilemmas down under and that, in a nutshell, has been a major factor in Freightliner’s steady slide to mediocrity over many years.
So, given these issues, and the somewhat hollow assurances by top-level US executives over many years that Australia was being given a new importance in Freightliner’s future, why should the presentation in Melbourne of a lone left-hand drive Cascadia provoke such gut-given confidence that things will be vastly different this time?
Well, a number of things, not least the simple belief that Freightliner has probably learned more from lost opportunities than any other high-profile brand on the Australian market. Most compelling of all, however, was a lengthy one-on-one discussion with Richard Howard, DTNA’s senior vice-president of sales and marketing, the day before Cascadia was presented to Australia’s transport press in a Melbourne studio. The message was simple: “Improvement means understanding why we didn’t get the results we want. If you lose, don’t lose the lesson.”
Before we get to that, however, it’s worth putting Cascadia’s credentials into perspective. The first version, now referred to as Classic Cascadia, was launched in the US in 2006 and quickly became the flagship for Freightliner’s ascendancy to Class 8 (heavy-duty) leadership.
Riding the crest of a wave, nothing much
changed on the product front until 2013 when aerodynamic enhancements created Cascadia Evolution. Then, in a huge redevelopment, which saw around US$400 million invested in a swathe of new design, drivetrain and safety features, ‘New Cascadia’ was launched in late 2016. Success was immediate.
Cascadia remains America’s top-selling Class 8 (heavy-duty) truck by a country mile.
According to Howard, around 85,000 units have been ordered since the new model’s launch, and Freightliner currently holds a staggering 40 per cent share of a US Class 8 market that will consume at least 280,000 trucks this year.
What’s more, Freightliner now holds similarly strong shares of buoyant Canadian and Mexican Class 8 markets, meaning Cascadia is possibly the most successful line-haul truck in North American history. That’s big! As for the design and features of the new model, an upbeat Howard said simply: “Our customers have their fingerprints all over this truck.”
Even so, history shows success on the North American market is no guarantee for success in any other part of the world, especially ours, and while holding true to corporate doctrine, Howard was eager to get the message across that Australia is vastly higher on the Freightliner agenda than ever before. One hundred million dollars higher.
“In years past,” he explained, “we had more of an export mentality. We dealt with 40 markets globally but three years ago we decided to move to a more international business structure which will see Freightliner bring the best of the best [a term he regularly used to describe ‘New Cascadia’] to five key markets outside the USA and Canada.”
Those markets are Chile, Peru, Mexico and the only two right-hand drive countries, Australia and New Zealand.
“That means Australia will get the best we have in on-highway trucks, as well as being specifically designed for the Australian market. We know we have to bring that product here if we are to have the opportunity to be an undisputed leader in the Australian market.”
Vitally, Cascadia’s introduction here will signify that Freightliner principals in Australia and the US are singing from the same song sheet at long last. Reading from the same script. Working off the same plans. Pulling on the same rope. Drinking from the same trough. Tapping into the same keg. Shopping in the same store. Snuggling in the same cot. Chewing on the same chop, if you get my drift. But if that’s not clear enough, it means right-hand drive models are now an integral part of Freightliner’s main game rather than a second-string ‘Special Projects’ offshoot as it has been for most of the past 20 years. An Englishman based at DTNA headquarters in Portland, Oregon, Howard
“Freightliner has probably learned more from lost opportunities than any other high-profile brand on the Australian market.”
Below: A pensive Richard Howard. “We are committing resources, money and time to the Australian market in ways we have never done before”
Above: The first test unit is a standard day cab model. Practicality is high but more elaborate versions are on the way. Australia will draw on an extremely comprehensive range of Cascadia models