Journey to the STARS
There’s nothing like putting two trucks head-to-head to judge the differences. But when those two trucks are 40 years apart and share the same ancestral threads, well, time travel takes on a whole new meaning. In this far-reaching report Steve Brooks reflects on the fascinating evolution of Western Star from the ashes of White
Sure, I have a soft spot for old bangers, the heroes of yesteryear. I guess most truck nuts do! There is, after all, nothing like a trip down memory lane to recall the path to the present, to gauge where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and in the process gather the fertiliser for stories of great deeds done.
Besides, personally and professionally I owe a great deal to the past and specifically the men who by action and advice taught me so much about the right way to treat a truck and the inestimable value of a soft touch on a heavy machine. In my experience there have been several such people, the stand-out being an aged veteran and Hall-of-Famer named Don McGlinchie. That, however, is a yarn for another day. Even so, I don’t mind admitting my real soft spots nowadays are for the trappings of more modern machines with spacious cabs and splendid seats, bigger bunks, cosy aircon, friendly steering, softer ride, mirrors and windows that move by the flick of a button, and yes, thanks to the march of technology I’m actually starting to prefer gearboxes unattached to a stick. In a perfect world my modern truck would even come with a Disabled Parking sticker for specially reserved lanes at loading docks and roadhouses. (Pardon me, I just need to duck into the bathroom again.)
The same goes for trailers. I still know how to tie a rope and I’m reasonably sure I haven’t completely forgotten how to roll and tie a tarp with some degree of visual respectability. But that said, give me a curtain-sider any day, especially one like the Freighter drop-deck trailer equipped with the sensational Auto-Hold system hooked to the Western Star 4964 model in this story.
The thing is, I reckon the life of a long distance truck driver probably hasn’t changed much at all. It’s still long hours and short shrift. What have changed most spectacularly are the standards of drivers and trucks, with the latter compensating more and more for the former.
So the way I see it, the past is where it belongs and should only be brought out for special occasions … like vintage truck shows and giving Matt Wood an excuse to satisfy a spiritual sojourn into the myths of time. Or as some suggest, a time when real men drove real trucks, not these big sooks of today with all their quiet comforts, pretentious power, erudite efficiency, and gaggle of gadgets and gizmos. And dare I say it, greater reliability.
Nah, none of this soft stuff for Woody. At least, not on this occasion. He wanted the smell, the sound, the romance of yesteryear. History in the roar, so to speak. A man’s truck, where gearshifts are an art, where steering builds biceps, where comfort is a concept, where the dark haze of unburned fuel belching from twin sooters is the stuff of legend and lore.
And over a few days on the old Hume Highway he got it all at the helm of Trevor Ellwood’s lovingly restored White 4000. Forty years young, a two-stroke screamin’ demon under the snout, the trickery of a 15-speed overdrive box, all the torque of a yo-yo, the turning circle of a Sydney ferry, and a claustrophobic box for a bunk. Ahh yes, folklore at its finest on a strip of road fully deserving of its Sesame Street sobriquet.
Yet to his immeasurable credit, Matt conquered it all with skill, dedication, calm civility and sweaty palms. He had visited the past and emerged proud and pumped. A changed man … until!
After about three days, dullness in his eyes, left arm hanging like limp rope, a wistful and somewhat subdued Woody walked up beside the Western Star, indicated with the twitch of a finger for the window to be lowered, looked longingly up to the driver’s door and asked gently over the smooth hum of the 15 litre Detroit, “Hey mate, how about I drive the Star for a while?”
I looked down at the despairing figure, compassion and charity momentarily melding in mutual respect. “Nah, no chance!”
Poor thing. Not happy man!
Anyway, as he skulked back to the past in a cloud of verbal invective, it struck me that while the sentimental heart of this exercise was indeed the old White and Woody’s long-held quest for a hands-on history lesson, the truly inspiring story is actually Western Star.
After all, White is dead. Long dead, and if not for a few fateful interventions many years ago, Western Star would have most surely followed the same path to extinction.
The Western Star story is, in fact, a little like road transport itself; a chronicle of survival and success despite the odds and it is only through a cold, hard look at people and events of the past that an accurate record of Star’s evolution becomes appreciably clear.
These days, of course, Western Star is a highprofile player on the Australian market and the reasons for that prominence are blatantly obvious in models such as the superbly presented 4964 FXT model provided for this pounce into the past and present.
The bulk of the credit for the truck’s excellent presentation belongs to Penske Commercial Vehicles’ marketing operative and loyal Western Star advocate Pat Cook. In typical ‘Cookie’ fashion, there was nothing left to chance and more to the point, lots to like. It was, to put it mildly, spec’d to the max.
Meantime, only those living in a cave atop a Mongolian mountain would be ignorant of the fact that the key to the ‘star chamber’ is these days held by automotive icon and billionaire businessman Roger Penske, operating under the Penske Commercial Vehicles title. Following much speculation, it was Penske who in
2013 acquired the Australia and New Zealand operations of Transpacific’s commercial vehicle group — Western Star trucks, MAN trucks and
buses and Dennis Eagle trucks – for a reported $219 million.
Since then, the redoubtable Mr Penske has also moved into the truck rental business and taken control of Detroit Diesel interests in Australia and New Zealand, renaming the engine entity Penske Power Systems.
This is, of course, the same Roger Penske who in 1988 took control of Detroit Diesel from General Motors and with the then revolutionary Series 60 as the launch pad, masterminded the engine brand’s spectacular rise to market might and profound profits before selling to Daimler little more than a decade later.
We’ll get to a tad more detail on Roger Penske’s relatively recent involvement in Western Star a little later but for now it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the power under this particular Star came from a 14.8 litre Detroit DD15 EGR engine dispensing a healthy 560hp at 1800rpm and 1850ft-lb of torque at 1200 revs.
At this point it’s worth pointing out that the lively Detroit actually dispenses 585hp at the same engine speed as peak torque which suggests, of course, that a high level of tenacity comes on stream as revs slide back through the range. On this occasion though, hauling an empty trailer for the entirety of the exercise, the outfit didn’t even come close to raising a sweat.
Whatever, you don’t need a loaded trailer to appreciate the finer features of a truck. It had, for instance, been a few years since I’d last been inside Star’s Stratosphere sleeper and in the space and comfort of this 54 inch version, it took no time at all to realise why it remains widely regarded as one of the best bunks in the business for long distance work.
Likewise, the overall fit and finish of the truck were nothing short of outstanding while road manners and steering quality were second to none. With Eaton’s Ultrashift-Plus automated 18-speeder taking care of shift duties it was simply a case of sit back and enjoy the ride. Literally!
Still, there were some aspects of this unit which from a personal perspective smacked of overkill. The truck, for instance, was fitted with a broad array of advanced multimedia and telematics wizardry which may appeal to some tastes yet demand a vast amount of system familiarity.
As for a push button start/stop function, why create more electronic complexity when the turning of a key is hardly a fatigue-inducing or physically compromising effort? In effect, where’s the benefit?
Benefits were, however, at least apparent with external cameras at the back of the cab for hooking up, another at the front to sight objects hidden by the expansive hood, and blind spot cameras fixed to each side of the hood, all viewed through a screen mounted on top of the dash.
With Eaton’s Ultrashift-Plus automated 18-speeder taking care of shift duties it was simply a case of sit back and enjoy the ride. Literally!
No doubt about it, Western Star has sure come a long way since the brand was created in 1967 as the Canadian offshoot of the White Motor Corporation. It was a clever move by White. Even back then, Canadian truckers ran bigger and heavier than their US counterparts and with the obvious intention of capitalising on Canada’s burgeoning mining and construction tasks, White built a dedicated Western Star factory in Kelowna, British Columbia. It wasn’t big by US standards but it was certainly big enough to service a Canadian market eager for a tougher truck than those coming from factories below the border.
For a decade and more, everything ran along smoothly with Star recognised as Canada’s own truck and apart from taking the lion’s share of sales in the heavy end of the business, building an enviable reputation for dependability and strength.
South of the border, however, the news was increasingly bleak. White was sliding deep into an economic abyss from which there would be no escape and by 1980 the once proud and prosperous White Motor Corporation was acquired by Volvo. It was a huge gain for the Swedes, providing an entrée into the vast
North American market. It was a death sentence for White.
Of course, the news wasn’t great for White in Australia either and despite the brand’s solid reputation forged by conventional models such as the 4000, 9000 and ultimately the hugely popular Road Boss, Volvo had nil interest in the Australian operation.
Some Brisbane-based people tried valiantly to keep the brand afloat in Australia but ultimately, White slid quickly into oblivion here as well as the US. Others, however, had other ideas but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Back in North America, Western Star held no appeal for Volvo and effectively stripped of funds, the Canadian operation was suddenly stranded with decidedly dim prospects. Until, that is, a couple of Canadian resource companies — Bow Valley Resources and Nova-Alberta — saw potential in the brand and took control. The truck manufacturing business was, however, far outside their realms of expertise and over ensuring years Western Star’s extinction was again looking likely despite the Canadian Government’s ongoing efforts to find a buyer and protect jobs at the Kelowna factory.
Meantime, a group of eight former White workers in Brisbane firmly believed Western
Star was a path to a new future founded on the reputation of trucks like the Road Boss.
So, in 1983 this collection of White-minded men formed Western Star Trucks Australia with the determined objective of assembling Stars from kits imported from Kelowna, putting the trucks together in the same Wacol facility which even today remains home to Western Star’s Australian operation.
Still, it was a slow start. Very slow. The
Australian market for heavy-duty trucks was down, competition was typically fierce and as a completely new name in the game, Western Star struggled for business despite its White heritage. However, the seeds had been sown and as time would reveal, survival was the first step to ultimate success.
In Western Star’s case, the key to both — survival and success — came to lay in the hands of Brisbane-based business magnate and Transpacific founder Terry Peabody. A fierce businessman with a reputation for brutal dealings, Peabody was an early supporter and eventual owner of the Western Star venture in Australia and like or loathe him, he would ultimately become the brand’s saviour both here and in Canada.
By the early ’90s Western Star’s Canadian operation was in dire straits. No doubt keen to protect his Australian investment, Terry Peabody pounced with split second timing on the eve of
total collapse to buy the Western Star business in its entirety at what was reputed to be a bargain basement price. Indeed, word has it the Canadian Government and Terry Peabody each contributed $10 million to save the business, with Peabody taking full ownership and quickly recouping his outlay in operating income.
Critically, the deal also came with stellar guarantees of support from the Canadian Government. Nice!
From here on, Western Star was on a roll and by 1992 the Australian assembly operation was being gradually replaced by fully imported trucks built with full appreciation for the demands of the Australian market.
Surprising to some, Terry Peabody revealed a detailed understanding and intense passion for truck manufacturing, turning the entire Western Star operation and particularly the Kelowna manufacturing plant into an incredibly efficient and profitable entity. Importantly, research and development investment were high on Peabody’s agenda, climaxing with the 1998 debut of the much-applauded Constellation cab and later, the first of the Stratosphere sleepers.
Perhaps most important of all though, he recognised product quality and production efficiency as the keys to the brand’s ongoing viability in North America and vital export markets such as Australia.
So whether he’s revered or reviled, there’s no escaping the fact that Terry Peabody’s skill at not just saving Western Star as a custom-builder but making it an entirely viable business was a phenomenal achievement.
Even so, Western Star’s Peabody era wasn’t without its wobbly bits, the most obvious being a couple of failed attempts in the early to mid ’90s to cash in on the local demand for B-double cab-overs. Utilising his short-lived relationships with DAF and later ERF, locally developed models known as the Western Star 1064 Series (DAF) and Western Star Commander 7564 (ERF) came and went without raising much more than a ripple of interest. To some, including me, they were an insult to the brand.
Behind the scenes though, far bigger business was brewing. Terry Peabody is a businessman first and foremost and with the century drawing to a close, rumours circulated that Freightliner’s enigmatic US chief Jim Hebe had Western Star on his shopping list. In an exclusive interview in his Kelowna office late in 1998, Peabody told me that yes, he had discussed the sale of Western Star to Freightliner but right at that moment, Hebe hadn’t come up with the right sort of money.
Without too much surprise given Jim Hebe’s seemingly insatiable appetite for acquisitions, the right money eventually arrived (a cool US$690 million) in September 2000 and from that point on, Western Star was part of Daimler’s ballooning North American empire.
There was, however, one giant addendum to the deal which still shocks the socks off some Daimler executives: Peabody was allowed to refund a relatively small percentage of the purchase price — said to be between five and 10 percent — to keep control of the Australian and New Zealand operations of Western Star. From any angle it was a ridiculous decision by Daimler, effectively making Star a competitor rather than colleague of Freightliner in Australia. The only one laughing was Terry Peabody, all the way to the bank.
That aside, Daimler didn’t waste any time rationalising Western Star’s North American manufacturing operation. Foremost on the hit list was the Kelowna factory. This remarkably efficient facility had been the brand’s body and soul since the late ’60s but was eventually abandoned in favour of an existing plant at Freightliner’s home base in Portland, Oregon.
From here on the Western Star story settles into chapters characterised by stability and steady growth, with the Australian market continuing to play a critical role in the brand’s success. Yet with Freightliner as the high volume flagship of Daimler’s conventional truck range and the subsequent creation of the Sterling brand following Daimler’s purchase of Ford’s heavy truck business, it was easy to form the sceptical view that Western Star was becoming something of a poor cousin.
That view, however, was smashed into oblivion in late 2008 when Sterling was dumped from Daimler’s armoury and Western Star retained. Again, the Australian market’s contribution was a significant factor in Western Star’s continuing status as a respected custom-builder within Daimler. As one senior manager at the Portland plant told me in late 2012, “We have become very good at righthand-drive and there have been times when it has been critical to the workload of this factory.”
Never more than during the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 and 2008 when, “We really needed Australia then. Big time!”
Even so, from around 2010 onwards, things started to change dramatically at Western Star Trucks Australia. Terry Peabody was losing his grip on control of Transpacific and likewise, the commercial vehicle group which had Western Star as its main attraction. Sure, he remains a major shareholder in Transpacific but these days has no operational or management input.
Fortunately, he had at least gathered a highly professional and dedicated management team to guide Western Star and its MAN and Dennis Eagle stablemates. The thing is though, Transpacific is fundamentally a resources and waste management conglomerate, so without Peabody’s hands-on passion and power to keep the commercial vehicle group within Transpacific’s domain, the truck business became increasingly foreign to the company’s core activities.
Enter Roger Penske!
On July 29, 2013, it was announced that the Penske Automotive Group would acquire Transpacific’s commercial vehicle group (CVG).
As already mentioned, rumours of Penske’s interest had been rife for some time but there was also speculation Terry Peabody, a billionaire buddy of Roger Penske’s, was a silent partner in the deal.
The only way to find out for sure was to go to the man himself and it was an emphatic Terry Peabody who denied any financial involvement in the purchase, though he did confirm that he and Roger Penske had discussed the deal long before the July 29 announcement.
“Roger did discuss with me his plans for the acquisition but I have no financial interest,”
Terry Peabody told me in a phone conversation soon after the Penske announcement. “Yes, I did consider it (having a stake in the deal) but Roger
has his own agenda which I believe will be very good for the group.”
Retaining a strong attachment to the brand (understandable given his achievements with Western Star), Peabody strongly endorsed the Penske purchase saying, “Roger Penske is one of the most accomplished business people I know and I’m very pleased this transaction has taken place.
“It puts Western Star in great hands.”
However, whereas Terry Peabody’s timing in acquiring Western Star in 1991 had been pinpoint perfect, Roger Penske’s timing appears to have been the exact opposite as a number of factors conspired to make life extremely tough for Penske Commercial Vehicles.
The biggest hit of all was the Aussie dollar’s heavy drop in value against the US greenback, taking the gloss off a Star which in sales terms had been shining particularly bright over the previous few years.
Suddenly, costs exploded and margins imploded, and it has largely been that way ever since. The stats tell the story loud and clear:
In 2012, Western Star finished the year with strong sales of more than 1000 trucks and a heavy-duty market percentage of 8.8 percent.
In 2013, the year Penske moved in, a respectable 950 trucks were sold for a market take of 8.5 percent.
The next year, a disappointing 658 Western Stars were sold for a mediocre slice of 6.1 percent of the heavy-duty sector.
It was noticeably worse last year with just 501 sales and a modest 5.1 percent share.
Unfortunately, 2016 is shaping up as a poor year for heavy-duty truck sales and at the end of the first quarter just 102 Western Stars had been delivered, annualising to a tad over 400 sales for the year.
They are figures which must surely rankle a man famous for fiscal acumen.
Still, only a supreme pessimist or someone with no knowledge of Roger Penske’s amazing record of success in a multitude of automotive and business endeavours would dare suggest that Western Star’s Australian operation is in dire straits.
It begs the question though, what will — or rather, can — Roger Penske do to slow the slide?
It’s a critical question for Penske Commercial Vehicles and make no mistake, the response will have ramifications stretching all the way to Portland, Oregon.
Unfortunately, Mr Penske has been extremely elusive since the acquisition despite numerous trips to Australia and several requests for interview. Hopefully, an upcoming visit will provide the opportunity for at least a couple of questions.
In the meantime, there can be no question Roger Penske has very serious intentions for the Australian market and equally, Western
Star will play a vital part in the Penske agenda … whatever the ultimate goal of that agenda may be.
For now, the next chapter in the Star story is still being crafted and as always, time will tell.
The only certainty is that today’s events will soon enough be tomorrow’s past.
Above: The Old timer and the young gun — the 1975 White 4000 up against the latest
4964 FXT Western Star heading along the old Hume Highway south of Sydney
Head to head: Truck driving is still long hours and short shrift, but at least trucks and trailers have come a long, long way in the 40 years separating the latest Western Star 4964 FXT from Trevor Ellwood’s 1975 White 4000
Engine Outputs Trans Rear axle
Sleeper Fuel Wheels Tyre Western Star 4964FXT
DD15 EGR 14.8 litres displacement
Power 560hp at 1800rpm; torque 1850ft-lb at 1200 rpm
Eaton Fuller 18-speed overdrive UltrashiftPlus automated with hill start aid and auto traction control
Meri tor RT46-160GP drive tandem; 4.3:1 final drive ratio
Meritor MFS-16-122A; capacity 7.25 tonnes (16,000lb)
Airliner airbag 20.8 tonnes (46,000lb) capacity
7.25 tonnes (16,000lb) capacity
Western Star Stratosphere 54 inch hi-rise
Four x 473 litre round aluminium tanks
Alcoa 10-stud aluminium discs
Front – Michelin Multiway XZE 295/80R 22.5; Rear – Michelin Multiway D 11R22.5
Above: Shining Star. Big on bling, Western Star 4964 FXT cuts a fine figure on the open road
1. Terry Peabody. Tough businessman who not only saved Western Star from extinction but built it into a world-class custom-builder. Without his involvement, Western Star would today be like White … dead! 2. Roger Penske. One of the world’s greatest automotive businessmen, his Penske Commercial Vehicles operation now controls Western Star’s interests in Australia and New Zealand. But so far, it hasn’t been an easy road
Above: Smokin! Roarin’ up Razorback with twin sooters steamin’, Trevor Ellwood’s nicely restored White 4000 is a flashback to days long gone in more ways than one
3. On the inside. There was plenty to like and it was a case of just sit back and enjoy the ride. Ultrashift-Plus automated transmission makes life easy but position of dash-mounted control panel didn’t inspire. Still, Stratosphere sleeper remains one of the best in the business
4. It’s not just trucks that have come a long way. The trailer world has also undergone major developments, typified perhaps by this Freighter drop-deck with the innovative Auto-Hold system
White-minded men. In 1983 these eight former employees of White were responsible for bringing Western Star to Australia. The man with the tie is Bob Shand, former general manager of Western Star Trucks Australia