Decades APART

Deals on Wheels - - News & Reviews -

Just how far has truck tech­nol­ogy come over the past four decades? In our lat­est on-road duel, High­way 31, Matt Wood, with the able as­sis­tance of Steve Brooks, finds out by tak­ing a sur­vivor from the ’70s, a 1975 White 4000, and its modern-day in­car­na­tion, a brand-new Detroit pow­ered Western Star 4900FX, on a ride up Ra­zor Back, through the Hole in the Wall and over Ben­doo­ley Hill, among other old high­way land­marks

Bird scarer, screamin’ de­mon, Jimmy, win­dow rat­tler, mo­bile oil leak and even Drip­troit Diesel. The old two-stroke GM Detroit diesel can be called a lot of names, not all of them com­pli­men­tary; an engine famed as much for its au­ral drama as for its abil­ity to drink co­pi­ous amounts of fuel and leave an oily smudge of nos­tal­gia float­ing in a high­way sky.

But it’s not un­til you’ve driven one that you re­alise just how far heavy-duty diesel en­gines tech­nol­ogy has come. The Detroit brand re­vived

and pros­pered as a leader in truck engine tech­nol­ogy with the com­put­erised Se­ries 60 back in the 1990’s. Yet for a whole gen­er­a­tion of steer­ers the sound of an old GM engine con­vert­ing fuel into heavy-metal fury brings about a misty eyed af­fec­tion.

I’m a lit­tle young to have seen the GM Detroit’s hey­day but I have heard many a folk­lore shrouded talk down mem­ory lane.

So of all the old trucks I’ve driven over the years, none were GM pow­ered. I’ve spent

plenty of time with var­i­ous Detroit Se­ries 60s, DD13s and DD15s, but the ven­er­a­ble two-cy­cle an­ces­tor? No.

I fig­ured it may be time for me to take a look at this clas­sic engine and re­flect on the mas­sive changes in trucks since the high­ways of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.


En­ter Trevor El­wood and his 1975 White 4000, which is af­fec­tion­ately known as the ‘Big Red Noisy Shit Bucket’. This re­stored ex­am­ple looks like it’s fallen through time from a Hume High­way that wound its way through the vil­lages, towns and cities that dot­ted route 31 be­tween Mel­bourne and Syd­ney.

Look­ing more 1970s than a Sky­hooks al­bum cover, the old White is ac­tu­ally the same age as Trev, born in 1975, but de­spite the miles that it may have trav­elled, ac­cord­ing to Trev, “It’s still bet­ter look­ing”.

Be­hind the gen­uine Russ En­gi­neer­ing bull­bar and un­der that time­less bon­net pro­file lies a nat­u­rally as­pi­rated 9.3-litre (568ci), 318hp 8V71 Detroit. Cling­ing to the back­side of the green V8 is a 15-speed over­drive Road Ranger tranny.

Into the 1980s for many, the king of the high­way was the 892TTA Detroit with its twin turbo charg­ers and seem­ingly ad­justable red­line. And while this 871 may say it’s nat­u­rally as­pi­rated, it’s ac­tu­ally tech­ni­cally su­per­charged, as all

GMs are. This is be­cause a uni­flow scav­eng­ing two stroke needs air flow just slightly higher than at­mo­spheric pres­sure to guide air and fuel though the engine. A gear-driven Roots style blower helps feed the beast. It’s kind of mildy blown.


It’s engine tech­nol­ogy that can trace its roots back to the 1930s and through World War 2. Twostroke GM diesels have pow­ered ev­ery­thing from tanks to pa­trol boats to earth­mov­ing equip­ment and air-raid sirens. It can run clock­wise or counter clock­wise, which makes it easy to mount side­ways across the back of a bus. It was a triedand-true tech­nol­ogy that served as a cor­ner­stone for many truck­ing busi­ness.

The funny thing is that it seems that ev­ery­body that was in­volved in trans­port back then keeps telling me that things were so much bet­ter in the old days. So I was hop­ing that by tak­ing Trev’s old White 4000 for a drive I was hop­ing I’d find out what I’d missed out on.

As an aside I think I should men­tion just how hum­bling it is to meet some­one who is more of a truck tragic than me. To say Trev is truck mad is an un­der­state­ment; Trev out-geeks me by a coun­try mile when it comes to truck­ing. Se­ri­ously, I am in awe.


This White 4000 was bought by Trevor as a pro­ject. It’s a truck that he re­mem­bers from his child­hood in Western Syd­ney. It was owned by Billy An­drews, who was a sub­bie for Seaton’s Trans­port. By the time the White came into Trevor’s pos­ses­sion it was a shagged-out tip­per that had spent its twi­light years groan­ing un­der the weight of de­mo­li­tion rub­ble.

The main aim of the resto was to cre­ate some­thing that wasn’t a show truck but that looked as if it had driven straight out of the late 1970s as a work­ing truck.

There’s no bling, as Trev wanted to keep the beast hon­est. So after a two-and-a-half-year resto, 80 per cent of which was car­ried out by Syd­ney-based Do­minico Oliv­eri at Oliv­eri Heavy Ve­hi­cle Re­pairs, the red 4000 fi­nally saw light of day … and then the engine promptly ex­ploded.

Trev mopped the oil from his brow and started col­lect­ing parts to re­build an­other GM in his pos­ses­sion. Then an­other com­plete engine came his way and the White was mo­bile again.

Many parts such as diffs and the afore­men­tioned bul­bar were sourced from a White 9000 that Trev used as a donor in the build.

The steel-sprung rear end now runs a high­wayap­pro­pri­ate 4.1:1 fi­nal drive on SP40s.

The cosy 27-inch crawl through sleeper came off a Road Boss.

The truck was orig­i­nally equipped with a 13-speed ’box, how­ever, that was turfed in favour of a 15-speed over­drive at some stage in its work­ing life. No wussy low-in­er­tia ’box for this lit­tle black duck.

When I turned up for a drive there was an exSeaton’s Trans­port spread tri­axle clamped into the White’s turntable jaws. All that was re­quired to com­plete the pic­ture would be a tarp load and it would’ve looked at home parked in Yass’s famed Gaso­line Al­ley back in the day.

Trev asks me if I’ve driven a 15-speed be­fore. I re­ply that I have, but not for about 15 years. He smiles, “All right then, see how you go”.


The 4000’s cock­pit is snug, but not as skinny as an equiv­a­lent vin­tage Ken­worth con­ven­tional. The roof line feels a lit­tle low by modern stan­dards but vis­i­bil­ity is bet­ter than I ex­pected. I park my butt in the rel­a­tively new El Do­rado seat, flick on the ig­ni­tion and hit the starter but­ton.

The re­sult­ing me­chan­i­cal ca­coph­ony is al­most vi­o­lent in its ex­e­cu­tion. The sound of a rum­bling Detroit V8 is like an au­dio x-ray of in­ter­nal com­bus­tion. The me­chan­i­cal fuel sys­tem, valves slid­ing open and slam­ming shut, pis­tons climb­ing and de­scend­ing in their bores, and the re­sult­ing ex­haust rum­ble through the twin 7-inch soot­ers. It’s as if you can hear the whole me­chan­i­cal process.

I haul the clutch to the floor and grab a gear to get go­ing. While we idle away from a stand­still, I re­alise that I’ve for­got­ten about first gear, which is around the corner in the 15-speed ’box. I make a men­tal note to self.

I grab the next shift at 1,600rpm, flat chang­ing rather than us­ing that big heavy clutch. “C’mon get up it!” bel­lows Trev over the engine roar. So I give it some jan­dal and go for the next gear. Fail.

The 15-speed re­quires you to go around the corner for the fourth gear stick po­si­tion, and then for­ward for the fifth gear stick po­si­tion. I’d tried to grab fifth from third.

So I re­grouped and rolled out onto the main road and chan­nelled my in­ner road war­rior. I buried the hoof and made a men­tal note of the gear pat­tern and we were un­der way. Many birds took flight. In fact, I sus­pect the au­to­matic doors of the lo­cal shop­ping cen­tre opened in­vol­un­tar­ily as I shifted into over­drive at 2,000rpm.

That old Detroit note was on-song as we thun­dered down the back roads. Fun­nily enough it seems as if the bulk of the engine noise is com­ing from the engine it­self rather than the ex­haust stacks. At 2,000rpm it sounds as if the 871NA is try­ing to suck that big red bon­net down its gul­let in an in­sa­tiable me­chan­i­cal frenzy for air and fuel.

Once in the zone, and up to speed with the gear pat­tern, I let the big red White have its head. My hands were never still on the mas­sive steer­ing wheel as I pi­loted the 4000, the left grab­bing cogs when re­quired, a de­cent throt­tle blip from the right foot re­quired to down change.

This re­ally was time-warp stuff as the steel­sus­pended rear end bucked on rough sur­faces. Turn­ing cor­ners was a chal­lenge in its self as the 4000 has a power steer­ing pump the size of a

The sound of a rum­bling Detroit V8 is like an au­dio x-ray of in­ter­nal com­bus­tion

thim­ble. Thank god for that hu­mungous steer­ing wheel. The steer­ing lock it­self is the stuff of prawn trawlers.


I try and imagine what it would be like to be run­ning through the night on an old and wind­ing road in a truck like this. Those old timers must’ve had balls of steel.

Even with­out a load on I’m us­ing all the gears, the ex­cep­tion be­ing not us­ing the re­duc­tion split­ter in bot­tom ’box.

The Detroit has vir­tu­ally no torque, just 800ft-lb at 1,600rpm. No won­der Trev keeps yelling at me from the pas­sen­ger seat to keep the right foot planted. He then gig­gles like a lu­natic. He’s clearly hav­ing as much fun as me.

There’s no ques­tion of just sit­ting be­hind the wheel of a truck like this and watch­ing the scenery slide by. You are driv­ing it, all the time.

It’s an in­sight into what the job en­tailed back then. Load ’er up, tarp it and get mov­ing. The night a diesel sound­track, com­pli­mented by squawk­ing AM CB ra­dios and the flash­ing of fes­toon clear­ance lights.


Tele­graphed in­ten­tions are dis­played to oth­ers by an in­tri­cate code of flash­ing head­lights and in­di­ca­tors. Road­houses now long gone serv­ing com­fort food for the road weary and tall sto­ries that are told of a time be­fore ster­ile flu­o­res­cent lit eater­ies. It’s all be­come the stuff of myth and leg­end.

Forty years after the birth of Trev’s ‘Big Red Noisy Shit Bucket’, the White brand is no more.

This White, how­ever, is a di­rect an­ces­tor of the cur­rent Western Star range. These days the Detroit brand lives on, though, and is now the tech­nol­ogy arm of Daim­ler’s North Amer­i­can busi­ness.

The Detroit logo can now be found on en­gines, trans­mis­sions and even diffs and axles. In the US you can buy a Western Star with a full Detroit in­te­grated driv­e­line. And the brand has even moved into telem­at­ics.

How things have changed in the space of just four decades. After half an hour at the wheel of the White 4000 I felt as if I’d al­ready driven from Mel­bourne to Syd­ney! But I want to have a closer look at just how far things have come.

So to find out we’re go­ing to go for a wan­der along the old High­way 31 — up Ra­zor­back, through the Hole in the Wall and over Ben­doo­ley Hill, among other old high­way land­marks.

And I’m tak­ing Trev’s White with me. Com­ing along for the ride we’ll have a brand-new Detroit­pow­ered Western Star 4900FX — the mod­ern­day in­car­na­tion of the old White 4000.

So maybe things were bet­ter in the old days. We’ll find out. I’m hop­ing to glean a bit of an in­sight into those days of yore. High­way 31 awaits. Let the night roll on.

Make/ model

Engine Trans Power

Fi­nal Drive


Freight car­ried 1975 White 4000 Detroit 8V71NA

15-speed Ea­ton Over­drive

318hp/ 800lb/ ft@1,600rpm

4.1:1 42,500kg Gen­eral

Above: The fac­tory-fresh Western Star 4900FX




1. This truck looks as if it’s fallen through a

time warp from the late 1970s

2. Turn the key and push the but­ton, the

re­sult­ing roar is some­thing to be­hold 3. Cool and taste­ful

4. Real steel and just the ba­sics

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