Awe­some Cold-war era MAN KAT

Birdsville is fa­mous for its an­nual rac­ing car­ni­val, and it’s also fa­mous for be­ing in the mid­dle of bloody nowhere. Matt Wood catches up with a truck that has built up its own fair share of fame

Deals on Wheels - - Con­tents -

The Aus­tralian out­back has a way of ab­sorb­ing man and ma­chine into its vast in­te­rior.

The skele­tons of me­chan­i­cal relics lit­ter the land­scape like the des­ic­cated car­casses of dead live­stock sink­ing slowly back into the parched earth. The cast-offs of man’s in­dus­trial flir­ta­tions in an an­cient land­scape.

But there’s one out­back relic that won’t be re­claimed by the shift­ing sands any­time soon. And that’s the MAN KAT tilt tray owned by Birdsville-based Peter Barnes.

It’s a relic of the Cold War from a time when the threat of nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion cast a long shadow over the globe. Tele­vi­sion news sto­ries from the ’70s and ’80s of mil­i­tary pa­rades of­ten showed these trucks labour­ing un­der a deadly ex­plo­sive pay­load; the sin­is­ter sil­hou­ette of the war ma­chine wait­ing for an ex­cuse to pounce.

So it seems quite ap­pro­pri­ate to find this nu­clear-age sur­vivor coated in mud and dust on the edge of the Simp­son Desert. A bat­tered old war­rior in an al­most post-apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scape.


I’ve driven plenty of trucks with the en­gine un­der the cab, of­ten the muted purr of a Euro­pean 6 or 8. I’ve even driven plenty with the en­gine un­der a bon­net out front, a 15-litre bur­ble that thrums through the floor. But un­til re­cently, I’d never driven a truck with the en­gine be­hind the cab.

‘Barnsey’, as he likes to be called, is a well­known fella out Birdsville way. To­gether with

“Con­vert­ing it to right-hand drive was a bas­tard”

his wife Judy, he owns and runs the Birdsville Road­house which keeps out­back travellers stocked with gro­ceries, fuel, per­mits and other knick-knacks as they pass through south-west Queens­land.

Bar­nesy also runs a work­shop at­tached to the busi­ness, tack­ing things back to­gether the bush may have bro­ken.

And, on top of that, the Road­house would have to be one of the most re­mote RACQ agents in the state.

Sit­ting in the ruddy dust out front of the servo is per­haps the Road­house’s most fa­mous staff mem­ber; the afore­men­tioned gi­ant ex-Ger­man army MAN KAT truck.

The tow­er­ing dark green (no, it’s not black!) 4x4 at­tracts ad­mir­ers as they trail into town each day.

But with a tilt tray on its back, the peo­ple who ad­mire it the most are usu­ally the ones stranded in the mid­dle of the Simp­son Desert with a ma­jor me­chan­i­cal is­sue. Be­cause it’s this old V8 brute that will be barg­ing through the dunes to drag them back to civil­i­sa­tion.


As the RACQ agent, Barnsey is of­ten called upon to res­cue crip­pled ve­hi­cles. But most jobs are han­dled by one of the two 6x4 UD CK320s also based at the Birdsville work­shop.

“She prob­a­bly only gets a se­ri­ous run half a dozen times a year, re­ally,” he reck­ons. “It sits around most of the time.”

In fact, most desert re­cov­er­ies are han­dled by his trusty 70-se­ries Toy­ota LandCruiser and a tow rope: “We just weigh up what’s needed to do the job.” So the big MAN only usu­ally gets a run if some­one is se­ri­ously bogged in the desert or, as Barnsey says, “some­one’s wheels fall off”.

Ba­si­cally, the KAT only comes to the res­cue when travellers break axles or blow mo­tors in the desert. It makes sense, of course, to only run the big Ger­man brute when needed. It weighs nine tonne and is eight-foot wide, so the nar­row tracks of the Simp­son aren’t ex­actly ideal for it.

Back in the 1970s, the orig­i­nal de­sign brief for the KAT was for it to be am­phibi­ous, which ex­plains the weird shape and en­gine place­ment on the MAN. But this proved to be a bit pricey for the pow­ers that be at the time. So the am­phibi­ous bit was dropped but the fixed cab and the cab-mounted en­gine was kept.

An­other el­e­ment of the de­sign was to make sure the truck could be squeezed into a mil­i­tary cargo plane, which ex­plains the rel­a­tively low cab pro­file.


These MANs were a main­stay of the West Ger­man army and Euro­pean NATO forces dur­ing the height of the Cold War. They’re a con­stant

4x4 with coil springs all round and have a wad­ing depth of 1200mm. The 6x6 and 8x8 mod­els sported tur­bocharg­ers and in­ter­cool­ers for more grunt. The idea was that these trucks should be

able to match the pace of bat­tle tanks over the same ter­rain.

Pay­load for the 4x4 model is about five tonne, but Barnsey starts look­ing at the dirt kick­ing stones around in the gravel with a lop­sided grin on his face as he mut­ters this, so I’m guess­ing its seen some big loads in its time.

In fact, one of the big­ger jobs this old truck had was to stand a triple stock crate road train back up on its wheels af­ter a rollover. With the help of a CAT grader, the KAT even­tu­ally winched the triple back onto its feet.


In a cup­board at the rear of the cab sits a

265hp air-cooled V8 Deutz diesel en­gine which is, in turn, mated to a ‘Rams­matic’ six-speed syn­chro­mesh ’box that also uses a lock-up torque con­verter. Power is then fed to the four wheels through a sin­gle-speed trans­fer case.

What this means is you can pretty much go as slow as you like in any gear and the torque con­verter will keep the wheels turn­ing, which makes for pretty in­cred­i­ble tractabil­ity.

Bar­nesy has owned the MAN for about 20 years af­ter buy­ing it in Brisbane.

“I saw it and I just liked it,” he says with a shrug. “Con­vert­ing it to right-hand drive was a bas­tard, but we got there.”

A coat of drab army green was ap­plied over the MAN’s white civil­ian clothes and a mo­torhome body was fit­ted.

The Barnes fam­ily used the truck as a home base as they trav­elled through parts of Aus­tralia.

Af­ter stints work­ing in Pa­pua New Guinea and man­ag­ing a sta­tion down the Strz­elecki, the Barnes fam­ily set­tled in Birdsville. The mo­torhome was re­moved from the old girl and eight years ago a Boz­mac tilt tray body was fit­ted.


The MAN is over-en­gi­neered in true mil­i­tary fash­ion. And it hasn’t missed a beat. Just a reg­u­lar grease and oil change.

“She just plugs away, it al­ways does the job,” Barnsey says.

In fact, the only thing the MAN does go through quite a lot of is tyres. As it never re­ally sees as­phalt, they cop quite a flog­ging, and Barnsey usu­ally runs only about 50psi in them. That desert sand can get pretty soft, es­pe­cially in the sum­mer months.

We stuck our heads un­der­neath the mud­splat­tered beast, and Bar­nesy points out the strength of the driv­e­line and the plan­e­tary drive hubs.

“You’ll never break those diffs,” he says with a con­fi­dence that I can’t help but share.

Climb­ing be­hind the wheel presents a Spar­tan and ba­sic con­trol lay­out, as you’d ex­pect.

This is an in­te­rior you could hose out if you spilt your cof­fee.

Bar­nesy fires up the big bent eight to get some air up. At ground level the rum­ble makes its

pres­ence felt, but sur­pris­ingly in the cab it’s not that in­tru­sive at all.

We had to make do with a drive around the out­skirts of Birdsville as Barnsey had to head to Lon­greach that af­ter­noon.

How­ever, he was keen to show off the MAN’s off-road prow­ess be­fore I climbed be­hind the wheel, so we needed a Plan B.

It was peak tourist sea­son in Birdsville when I ar­rived, and just a cou­ple of weeks be­fore the races were sched­uled to take place. As a re­sult, there were peo­ple camped ev­ery­where.

With a truck like this you don’t re­ally need a road, so we just pointed it where we wanted to go along the banks of the Dia­mantina River.

The look on the faces of some campers we sur­prised was price­less as the mud-streaked MAN barged out of the scrub be­fore them, bel­low­ing like an en­raged wa­ter buf­falo.

Af­ter de­mon­strat­ing the KAT’s off-road prow­ess, it was my turn to take the wheel. The beauty of the lock-up torque con­verter is that I was able to se­lect sixth gear and start off from a stand­still.

Once up to speed, the con­verter locked up and we were cruis­ing down the dirt. The V8 main­tained a civilised rum­ble be­hind my head, and I was amazed at how quiet this thing was in­side the cab.

Maybe I’ve been driv­ing too many old bangers of late, but I re­ally thought I’d be yelling to make my­self heard. You’d even be able to lis­ten to the ra­dio if you wanted to.


Top speed for the KAT is about 90km/h, but happy cruis­ing speed is 80. And the big old army truck was com­fort­able cruis­ing along the dirt.

The coil sus­pen­sion all round even made it quite com­fort­able.

I was ini­tially quite sur­prised at the thought of long-dis­tance travel in this truck, but it’s more comfy than it looks. Plus, be­ing quite lazy my­self, I was taken with the idea of a truck that you only had to change gear when you wanted to, rather than when you needed to. For an old mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle, the KAT is a re­ally nice bit of gear to drive. That driv­e­line would make it al­most un­stop­pable off road. Though I’d hate to get it stuck; you’d need a D11 dozer and pos­si­bly some gelig­nite to get it out again!

As a fan of all things off-road, Barnsey has a his­tory of flog­ging Suzuki LJs and Sier­ras around race cir­cuits. His son also cam­paigns an off-road buggy. But there was an­other off-road sur­prise lurk­ing in Barnsey’s shed. An Aus­trian-made Haflinger pow­ered by a two-cylin­der, air-cooled Steyr-Puch mo­tor. Of course we had to take that for a spin as well. It was like rid­ing in a mil­i­tary­grade golf buggy!

But the MAN was a great bit of gear, a relic of the nu­clear age, and no doubt it will con­tinue to chug out into the dunes to an­swer the call of duty on a reg­u­lar ba­sis for many years yet. My­self, I just love the idea of hav­ing a truck with a gun hatch in the roof!

1. It may not look lux­u­ri­ous but the MAN is sur­pris­ingly quiet and

com­fort­able in­side

2. So I may need to brush up on my Ger­man, but I reckon any­thing that lights up red is bad news

3. I al­ways wanted my own gun tur­ret. This thing would be per­fect for spot­light­ing!

4. The un­der­side may have a healthy coat­ing of clay pan mud but the

plan­e­tary drive is tough!

5. The six-speed ’box also fea­tures a lock up torque con­verter which

gives awe­some tractabil­ity in any gear

6. A 265hp air-cooled Deutz V8 lurks in the back of the cab

Barnsey in­spects the driv­e­line un­der the Boz­mac tilt tray.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.