Bulldog stands tall: The remarkable resurgence of Mack’s Super-Liner
The remarkable resurgence of Mack’s Super-Liner looks set to pick up pace with the release of a spacious 60-inch stand-up sleeper. In this detailed report, Steve Brooks camps out in the new bunk behind a 685hp Super-Liner hauling roadtrain doubles in western Queensland
Late in 2011, an invitation arrived to travel to Port Augusta to drive a couple of Macks up a stretch of the Stuart Highway. One was a SuperLiner pulling roadtrain doubles, the other a Titan towing triples.
It took a little while to soak into the brain box, but it was soon clear that this was no ordinary test drive, and definitely a big deal for Mack. The good folk from the kennel were, in fact, providing a first crack at their latest big bangers powered by the newly available 16-litre MP10 engine.
As Mack was quick to mention, it now had the world’s most powerful conventional production truck, and as sales stats would soon enough confirm, this event would mark the creation of an entirely new chapter for the bulldog breed.
Yet, not only was it an occasion that would be ultimately recognised as the launch pad for the iconic brand’s return to the multi-trailer tasks, on which so much Mack heritage has been built in this country, it would also signal the start of an incredible comeback by the Super-Liner.
In the decade and more before the Port Augusta exercise, the Super-Liner had virtually fallen into oblivion, with nothing other than the view of a dog’s bum in common with the big square-jawed V8 legends of the past.
From here on, though, everything – including a large part of Mack’s viability – rested on the big lump of in-line iron known as the MP10, and the automated mDrive 12-speed transmission attached to it.
Just as Mack’s 13-litre MP8 draws its existence from the D13 engine of corporate parent Volvo, it was no secret that Mack’s big six was a derivative of the Swedes’ gutsy D16 engine. Likewise, mDrive is derived from Volvo’s super-smooth I-shift stirrer and together they would form the platform for a bold new breed of dog. Still a bulldog, but with a quieter bark and a somewhat softer image masking a much, much bigger bite.
Even so, there would come those bemoaning the birth of a Mack fed on herrings rather than hot dogs. The thing is, though, without Volvo’s input in both funds and technology, the dog would’ve died years earlier, leaving the restored relics of trucks
like the original big-beaked Super-Liner to become nothing more than headstones for a once proud and powerful brand.
As for those who suggest the modern Mack is just a Volvo conventional with a dog on the snout, nothing confounds Dean Bestwick more. The head of Mack Trucks in Australia and a bulldog disciple to the bone, he insists it’s a suggestion that simply doesn’t stack up.
“I hear people say that, but really, I don’t get their point,” Dean told me some time back. “I mean, seriously, tapping into Volvo Group product has been excellent for the Mack brand, and people buy Mack because they like the performance, they like mDrive, they like the package.”
WHERE’S THE PROBLEM?
MP10 is, of course, available at ratings of 600hp and 685hp (441kW and 515kW) with thumping torque peaks of 2065ft-lb and 2300ft-lb (2800Nm and 3150Nm) respectively.
Back in Port Augusta, both the Super-Liner and Titan were equipped with the brawling
685 version. It initially seemed a better option would’ve been to run the 600 rating in front of the roadtrain double and the 685 in the triple, thereby providing at least some comparison.
But, Mack had reason for running both trucks with the 685, and that was to highlight the remarkable synergy of engine and mDrive transmission in high-power roadtrain applications.
While the 600hp MP10 has from the outset offered the choice of manual 18-speed and automated 12-speed shifters, the 685 comes with mDrive only. Why? Well, there’s a big heap of torque coming out of the 685, and the automated shifter provides a higher, more consistent degree of driveline protection than a stick shift, particularly if the stick’s in heavy hands and the clutch pedal sits under an insensitive left foot.
Anyway, with the Super-Liner grossing around 80 tonnes and the Titan triple at a modest 110 tonnes or thereabouts, the performance of both trucks was nothing less than outstanding.
As for mDrive … well, stunning was the only word to describe the synergy and intuitive relationship between engine and transmission. There was no doubt about it, Mack was back in the big time. In every sense!
Since then, I’ve driven a number of Super
Liners but the Port Augusta exercise was the last time at the helm of a Super-Liner in roadtrain configuration … until now!
It’s early morning, mid-week at the new BP Westbound truck stop on the outskirts of Toowoomba.
The night before, an exceptional young man named Clinton Bridge from Nolan’s Transport in Gatton had hauled a dolly and pair of nicely detailed fridge trailers to a quiet corner of the truck park, coupled up and ready for the spanking new Super-Liner to slide under. Taking the task upon himself, Clinton soon had hoses connected, landing legs up, checked all lights, and confirmed that all clearances between truck and trailer were good to go. Top bloke!
Only then did he ask, “Do you mind if I have a look inside?” It didn’t take long. “Now, that’s what I call a sleeper.”
There’s no question that even at first glance, Mack’s new 60-inch sleeper is quick to impress. Sure, you still have the issue of no standing room between the seats, but with this bunk, it’s only one stooped step from the driver’s pew to a place
where even big blokes have the space to stand bolt upright, stretch out, get changed, lay down, hang clothes, get something cool out of the fridge, and generally unwind after hours in the chair.
A word of warning though: take care when moving from the bunk to the cab. There’s a huge height difference, and in the middle of the night when Nature calls, it’s easy to forget and knock the noggin’ – and knock it hard if you’re in a hurry.
Still, it’s bigger and better appointed than any bulldog bunk ever offered in this country, and it’s no great surprise to learn that it’s actually derived from a premium Mack line-haul sleeper in the
US. Mack’s local team, however, was not about to take any chances with durability and build quality. After all, it’s a sprawling bunk targeting the big end of the business, where many long and often dusty days away from home are the norm: namely roadtrain, livestock and heavy haulage.
Consequently, it’s a sleeper that was subjected to two years of real world work and engineering evaluation before Mack ticked the ‘go’ box.
We’ll get to the details later, but right now, with breakfast on board and the sun cracking the horizon, it was time to head 600km west to Charleville to overnight in the new ‘kennel’ before driving back again.
Standing on a 5.8m wheelbase, and with a specification limiting gross weight to just 90 tonnes, the Super-Liner was on its maiden voyage, and with two trailers in tow, performance and fuel consumption obviously weren’t expected to be at their best. Or so it seemed.
From the outset, however, the 685 made a mockery of two trailers and a gross weight estimated between 75 and 80 tonnes. Sure, it’s fair to suggest that’s exactly what a big bore engine dispensing 685hp and 2300ft-lb of torque should do. Yet even so, with mDrive’s tall 0.78 overdrive ratio feeding into a reasonably quick 3.73:1 rear axle – notching 100km/h at a touch over 1450rpm – the Mack’s tenacity and willingness to hold onto top gear was nothing short of awesome.
In fact, there were numerous times when the truck’s traits could be quite astonishing. Even disconcerting. For instance, under light throttle at lift-off, it was not uncommon for mDrive to skip two or three gears in succession and haul away from as low as 900rpm and even 800rpm, well into the top half of the ’box. Still, the outfit’s ability to simply grunt ‘n’ go at such low engine speeds was extraordinary and with the knowledge that the combination is programmed to perform in just such a manner, initial concerns soon dissolved.
Another plus is what Mack calls ‘Grade Gripper’. It’s dog talk for a hill start function and, standard on mDrive, it makes uphill lift-offs immeasurably easier than using the trailer brake handpiece.
It wasn’t long before it simply became a pleasure to sit back, steer, let the electronic wizardry do its thing, and be impressed. And, as the kilometres kept clicking away, reflect on the reasons for Super-Liner’s evolution to top place on Mack sales charts.
According to Dean Bestwick, month-to-month sales figures make it a toss-up between Trident and Super-Liner as to which model is Mack’s best seller. In 2015, Super-Liner won by a whisker, highlighting yet again what an amazing turnaround this model has had since MP10 and mDrive came into the picture five years ago.
Yet, the model’s resurgence is not due solely to renewed momentum in roadtrain and heavy-duty realms. Not by a long shot. Mack has, over the past four years or so, done a lot of development work to make the model suitable for 26m B-double
An entirely new Mack cab … is now under development.
duties and it has certainly paid off. In fact, around 65 per cent of all Super-Liners are now sold into line-haul work.
But, as Dean Bestwick added, it’s not uncommon to see Super-Liners running with a single trailer: “When they’re running a 100 per cent loaded and up on their weights, the MP10 comes into its own.”
Again though, Super-Liner’s success is not attributable to the engine alone. Nowadays, it’s all about the package and the key is unquestionably mDrive. So accepted has the automated transmission become that around 90 per cent of all Mack Granite, Trident, Super-Liner and Titan models are fitted with the super-slick shifter.
As for the suggestion from some quarters that the 685 rating should also offer a manual option, it’s now totally out of the question. For starters, word has it that neither Eaton nor Mack have an 18-speed manual able to cope with the prodigious 2300ft-lb torque output of the 685. More significantly, however, is the recent release by Volvo of an extremely low geared crawler function for its I-shift transmission.
Right now, Mack isn’t saying when or even if the crawler option will become available on mDrive but with the Mack shifter based almost entirely on I-shift hardware, it’s easy to speculate that before too much longer, the dog will be digging deeper than ever before. Put simply, Mack would be crazy not to.
CRUISE ‘N’ SNOOZE
There was still an hour or so of daylight left by the time the Mack strolled into Charleville. It certainly hadn’t been a hard day.
The big dog just bowled along without raising even the hint of a sweat and, according to the on-board trip computer, hadn’t drunk much either, with a consumption rate of 1.7km/litre, or 4.8mpg. By comparison, the return leg drew a bigger thirst of 1.5km/litre (4.24mpg), but much of that increase can be attributed to a few more hills, lots of stops and starts for video and photography purposes, and an extraordinary amount of roadwork stoppages.
To my mind, both fuel figures are acceptable given that the truck was on its maiden voyage.
Back in Charleville, a near new Super-Liner 685 also happened to be parked in the Gull truck stop on the southern edge of town. A demonstrator unit, the truck was on trial with livestock specialist Gary Athorn from Cunnamulla, about 200km south.
Fitted with Mack’s existing 52-inch high-rise sleeper, and hooked to three trailers (12 decks) of sheep headed almost a thousand kilometres north to Hughenden, we soon kicked up a conversation and it wasn’t long before Gary was having a good look inside the bigger bunk.
Despite an entrenched regard for Kenworth, he admitted the relationship was having a few issues and was quick to concede that the 60-inch sleeper could be just the thing to swing him back for another bite at Mack.
“It’s just the sort of sleeper you need when you’re away for days on end,” he said, adding that the 685hp engine and mDrive combination had already done plenty to impress. “They definitely make the job that bit easier.”
What didn’t impress, however, was the position of the twin exhaust stacks behind the 60-inch bunk, particularly for livestock or fridge work. In their present position, exhaust would be fed straight into the faces of top-deck livestock or the fascia of the lead fridge unit. Mack is apparently well aware of the issue and says repositioning the stacks is not a major hurdle.
It was almost dark by the time Gary Athorn left Charleville, and it wasn’t much later before a hot shower and dinner had this head contemplating an up close and personal test of the new bunk. The day had reached into the 30s and the evening was still warm, so half an hour of ‘Icepack’ action seemed like a good idea to bring the cab and bunk down to a comfortable temperature and, in the process, take stock of the sleeper’s features.
For starters, the mattress is 890mm wide and certainly comfortable enough for this body to enjoy a good night. Again, the only distraction was a hard head bang on the rear edge of the cab roof when I didn’t duck low enough during the ‘wee’ hours of the morning.
The Mack cab is, in fact, starting to show its age with the complete absence of a stand-up option to complement the several tall sleepers already offered by the brand.
Meanwhile, with air intake pipes impeding cab door opening angle, entry and exit are well short of ideal.
However, relief is on the way. Word is slowly seeping out that an entirely new Mack cab, which will tackle all current issues, is now under development in the US. It won’t arrive this year and maybe not next, but it is coming. On that, we’re certain.
Back in the big bunk, there’s plenty to like with a tall wardrobe cabinet between the bed and the back of the driver’s seat, while on the other side there’s a 44-litre upright fridge with a slide-out work tray and drawer on the top. A TV was fixed to the wall above the fridge.
There are swing-out vents on each side, and higher up on each side are sliding windows with mosquito-proof mesh and sliding curtains for privacy or just keeping the sun out. Full length curtains separate the bunk from the cab. A single large hatch is on the driver’s side and personally, I think it’d be a good idea if this also had a mesh screen door for those balmy nights when it’s just nice to have a heap of fresh air, but without the bugs.
Another worthwhile inclusion would be a rack for a wet towel. It’s the little things that count. Storage is plentiful with a large area under the bed, accessible from the inside by lifting the bunk and from the outside through wide locker doors on each side.
And while we’re on the outside, it’s worth mentioning the AdBlue tank. Adapted from a locally developed Volvo design, it’s a 200-litre moulded container that sits inside the chassis rails and curves over the prop shaft with the fill nozzle tucked neatly under a swing-up access grate on top of the driver’s side rear fuel tank. Whether it’s on Mack or Volvo, it is without doubt the smartest and most efficient AdBlue tank design in the business, leaving chassis space free to house emissions hardware and maximise fuel capacity.
That’s about it. All up, the 685hp Super-Liner in this exercise was an absolute delight, delivering a superbly smooth mix of manners and muscle.
Yes, the cab’s showing its age with some aspects that aren’t up to scratch when compared with other premium brands. Time and an entirely new cab will fix that in due course but when it comes to performance and technological harmony, the Super-Liner sits at the top of the conventional tree.
As for the 60-inch bunk, its sheer size obviously precludes it from length-sensitive configurations such as B-doubles. But then, it’s not meant for B-doubles, and is unashamedly aimed at the biggest, heaviest end of the business. For those roles it adds an entirely new and welcome dimension to Mack. Literally and physically.
Now that’s what I call a sleeper.
After 43 years on the road, Graeme Witnish reckons his days behind the wheel are coming to an end. But not before a few runs across the Nullarbor in his 2008 Sterling. Peter and Di Schlenk write
Although the Sterling brand is fast becoming part of truck history, Graeme Witnish’s 2008 model looks as good as the day it first hit the road.
Graeme, based in Donnybrook, Western Australia, is the Sterling’s second owner, having had it for close on four years. First owned by fuel haulage specialists Maktrans in Toowoomba, it has now clocked up more than 1.3 million kilometres.
Graeme says Maktrans had around “seven or eight” Sterlings.
“They look after their gear and this one has the 54-inch sleeper, and a 14-litre Detroit under the bonnet set at 550hp,” he says.
Graeme rates the Sterling’s sleeper among the truck’s good points.
“It’s air-conditioned, and there’s nothing wrong with the bed. The struggle is getting out of it,” he grins.
It’s a long way from his early years, when he slept across seats with his feet dangling out the window. No coolers, no air-con, and just a breeze if he was lucky.
“At least we did our apprenticeship in the oven,” he says.
Before he signed up for the Sterling, Graeme was considering buying a Western Star, but he baulked at the extra $75,000.
“I couldn’t justify buying the Star – the Sterling has done the job and is very comfortable. “The long wheelbase helps, and it’s got a nice interior.
“I’ve had a few Volvos and I love them for the comfort, but this is just as good.”
Graeme regularly hauls light freight across the “paddock” and is happy running at 95 to 96km/h.
“It doesn’t work very hard with me just doing the single trailer work,” he explains. “The others that fly past you are barely out of their truck, but at the end of the day you are not far behind them.
“I back off to look after the gear. I’ve been doing this a long time and have learnt that there isn’t much point in rushing.”
Graeme was 22 when he bought his first truck, an 1810 International eight tonner. That was two years after he started driving farm trucks in nearby Bridgetown.
“I just loved trucks. Why? I don’t know,” he ponders. “I started gophering for Harold Doust at Bridgetown for a couple of years and then bought my own.
“You made more money back then than you do these days. Then I got a dog trailer and one thing led to another.
“I have been in all sorts of transport; I’ve still got a school bus – I’ve run them and had taxis too.”
Graeme’s wife Bev runs the bus and Graeme drives the truck. Graeme added that he wouldn’t know how to turn a computer on, so Bev handles the paper trail and invoicing.
In the early days, Graeme was carrying everything, including hay, cattle and general, but later sold the truck and spent up to 16 years driving for Donnybrook transport companies, mainly running up to the Canning Vale markets.
However, the past seven years has seen him regularly driving back and forth across to the eastern states.
“I never ran over to the east coast while my kids were little,” he states.
BY THE BOOK
Graeme is 63 now, with 43 of those years spent on the road. During that time he’s seen many changes in the industry, although he laments that they’re mostly for the worse.
“We were much better off than we are now, with all the rules, regulations and the paperwork,” he says. “They all go on about the law and, touch wood, but I can’t say I’ve had a lot of trouble with the law. I just abide by the book.”
Graeme believes there are too many idiots in the industry who don’t have a clue.
“You can’t just go out and buy a bus, but anyone can buy a truck and that’s what’s wrong,” he says.
He recalls a recent conversation with a motorist who had finished work, driven east from Perth
The long wheelbase helps, and it’s got a nice interior.
to the border, and was intent on continuing the trip. “They would be lucky to do 15,000km a year and they were allowed to do that. Then they fall asleep and cause an accident. If a truck is involved, we all know who would have caused it,” Graeme grimaces.
However, for all these negatives, Graeme readily admits that he still enjoys being behind the wheel. He says he still has a couple of years to go and, anyway, it’s too late to start doing anything else.
“If Lotto came in I think I would buy a caravan and go around and annoy every bastard that has annoyed me over the years,” he grins.
This is Graeme’s third stint running west-east. He previously vowed he wouldn’t go back across ‘the paddock’ again, but he’s still criss-crossing the country today, keeping the Sterling’s wheels turning.
His recent couple of runs were big, including one around Adelaide, up the east coast, across the top and back down.
“That was 14,500 kilometres. This trip I went over to Melbourne, up to Brisbane and then back home,” he says.
Bev prepares most of the meals. Graeme stocks up both freezers before he leaves and then mixes and matches as he travels, depending on where he ends up on any given night.
“I’ve got that flexibility to stop where I want,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll have takeaways as I can’t carry everything.
“I’ve got four toolboxes now and with all the cooking gear, I can’t fit anymore in.”
Graeme says the Sterling is definitely his last truck and he keeps it in good condition.
“I always try and keep my gear looking tidy; it’s a reflection on the operator,” he continues. “To start with, I’m the only one who operates it. If anything needs doing, you just do it, you can’t afford not to.
“And I keep it clean,” he grins. “I’ve got to live in the bloody thing.”
1. The Mack Superliner fitted with trailers kindly supplied by Nolan’s Transport.
2. Top dog. Mack chief Dean Bestwick with Super-Liner test truck. Aimed largely at roadtrain, heavy haulage and livestock work, the new 60-inch sleeper adds a new dimension to Mack in every sense.
3. Heart of the matter. Coupled with the mDrive automated transmission, MP10 engine at 600 and 685hp has taken Mack back into the big time. and completely rejuvenated Super-Liner
Above: Taking a short break at Charleville, livestock specialist Gary Athorn from Cunnamulla was trialling a Super-Liner 685 on triples work. A look through the new 60-inch sleeper didn’t fail to impress but he much preferred the exhaust position on this truck rather than the unit with the bigger bunk.
Snapshots inside Mack’s spacious 60 inch sleeper … There’s a lot to like
Graeme Witnish says the Sterling has all the comforts he needs