Bull­dog stands tall: The re­mark­able resur­gence of Mack’s Su­per-Liner

Deals on Wheels - - Contents -

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!

FAST FOR­WARD

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.

HEAD BANGER

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.”

BRIDGETOWN FARMS

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

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