Myth­i­cal Mack

The B-model Mack was a mighty truck back in the day, and the B83 and B87 were the big­gest 'dogs around. And B85s are a rare 'dog in­deed. Matt Wood drives the only B85 ever to ar­rive in Aus­tralia

Deals on Wheels - - Contents -

Matt Wood drives the only B85 ever to ar­rive in Aus­tralia

Wool classers can tell what kind of year it's been by just look­ing at the fi­bres in a freshly shorn fleece. And sci­en­tists can look at tree rings to see how the en­vi­ron­ment has shaped a tree over the decades of its life.

How­ever, it's not of­ten that you come across an old ve­hi­cle that not only still car­ries the scars of time and toil yet also has an amaz­ingly doc­u­mented his­tory. I'd be tempted to cut through the chas­sis rails of this ex­tremely rare 1959 model B85 SX Mack and count the tree rings my­self, but I reckon owner Des Hock­ley would have a slight is­sue with that!

Ev­ery­where you look on this truck it bears the scars and sports mod­i­fi­ca­tions ac­quired over its jour­ney through the for­ma­tive years of Aus­tralian truck­ing. It's an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig site on wheels.

This truck was born in Plain­field, New Jersey, in Novem­ber 1959 and is one of only 45 B85 SXs made glob­ally. It's also the only one recorded as be­ing de­liv­ered to Aus­tralia.

The truck was built as a left-hooker then trans­ported to the Mack branch in Queens, NY, for right-hand drive con­ver­sion. By Fe­bru­ary 1960, the big Mack was on a boat bound for Cham­pi­ons in Ade­laide.

Its fi­nal des­ti­na­tion was Mt Rid­dick sta­tion in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, where it was put to work pulling stock crates through the never-never.

Its fi­nal des­ti­na­tion was Mt Rid­dick sta­tion in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, where it was put to work pulling stock crates through the never-never.

As an aside, that Plain­field fac­tory is still stand­ing to this day, even though it closed in 1962. The build­ing still sports Mack lo­gos on its door han­dles.

There's not a lot of ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence be­tween a B85 and the slightly more com­mon B87. Maybe some­one out there smarter than me can spell it out! Most B87s de­liv­ered to Oz used a 335 Cum­mins for power; this B85, how­ever, used a turbo-charged NH Cum­mins at 265hp. Some ex­am­ples even sported a su­per­charger. Ap­par­ently both power plants were avail­able in 85s and 87s.


Just let that sink in for a minute. At a time when most Aussies were wheez­ing around the coun­try in nat­u­rally as­pi­rated, petrol-pow­ered Pom­mie lor­ries, th­ese things were monster trucks. Ex­otic, myth­i­cal beasts that in­hab­ited the un­in­hab­ited in­te­rior of the coun­try or bel­lowed through iso­lated forests groan­ing un­der the weight of mas­sive jarrah logs, or haul­ing earth­mov­ing equip­ment.

This B85 also shared the same 5x3 main and joey `box set-up found in the B87. The Mack rear end housed gears that sported an eye-wa­ter­ingly short 9.11:1 ra­tio. With enough cable this thing could've raised the Ti­tanic.

Back in the States, the B85 was pri­mar­ily a se­vere-duty rigid and was most com­monly used as a fire truck plat­form.

As you can see this truck also started life as a rigid, tow­ing stock crate dou­bles on the Webb Brothers-owned Mount Rid­dick sta­tion. The turbo Cum­mins how­ever, while clearly be­fore its time, was less than re­li­able. One sta­tion hand who drove it on oc­ca­sion re­called: “It spent more time with the turbo off it than on it.”

A man­i­fold blank­ing plate was made up so that when the turbo in­evitably went bang, the driver could just pull it off, plug up the hole and keep driv­ing.

The Big B then found its way into the hands of NT-based RPM Haulage (later to be­come Tanami Trans­port) again as a rigid pulling road train crates and also some drill rig moves.

Around this time, some­one must have got­ten sick of the prob­lem­atic turbo Cum­mins and an 8V71NA Detroit was planted un­der the bon­net. Along with the heart trans­plant, the Mack scored a 15-speed over­drive `box that was slot­ted in front of a 3-speed Spicer joey.

It's also said to have done some work for the Co-Ord co-op­er­a­tive at some stage. But it's un­cer­tain whose ban­ner it was fly­ing at that time.


The story of how this truck caught the at­ten­tion of West Aus­tralian-based heavy haul pi­o­neer Vince Ri­dolfo isn't re­ally known. How­ever, by the mid-1970s it ended up a part of the Perth-based Ri­dolfo Trans­port fleet.

Ri­dolfo Trans­port was heav­ily in­volved in cart­ing tim­ber for the State Elec­tric­ity Com­mis­sion and heavy haulage for in­fra­struc­ture projects. The Mack was cut down into a prime mover and sent out on heavy haulage float work.

As WA pro­gressed into a re­sources-driven in­fra­struc­ture boom, a lot of big gear ended up on the roads. Prob­a­bly the most well-known big Mack op­er­a­tor in that part of the coun­try at the time was Bell Bros, which op­er­ated a fleet of B87s and B83s.

This Big B, how­ever, was not overly happy with the GM un­der that high-rid­ing snout. In short, it was a dud. With a big load on its back, it was al­legedly lucky to make it more than 100km from the de­pot be­fore los­ing its will to live.

So the dud 871 made way for a new 871. While work­ing for Ri­dolfo it also scored a sleeper cab and, re­mark­ably, even air-con­di­tion­ing! Some­where along the line it also scored dual head­lights as op­posed to the old-school sin­gle can­dles, which kind of makes it look like the bas­tard offspring of a B model and a Scam­mel!


Perth-based Des Hock­ley bought the truck in 1980 af­ter his Peter­bilt turned tur­tle in the bush, which very nearly squashed him in the process. The Mack was quickly put to work haul­ing mas­sive logs, but be­fore long Des started sub­by­ing to Ri­dolfo, tow­ing a 100-tonne-rated Rogers low loader and dolly made out of a World War II tank trans­porter.

The old girl, with Des be­hind the wheel, made a crust by haul­ing equip­ment to mine sites dot­ted around WA.

Des wanted to get his crashed Peter­bilt back on the road. Be­ing a 351, cabs were pretty scarce to say the least. So Des re­built the Pete with a W900 cab and bon­net to get it back on the road. The B85 was then sold to WA heavy hauler Sam Gra­ham in the mid-1980s.

Sam gave the GM the flick and dumped the old joey box. Now the B was armed with a 420hp 14-litre NTC Cum­mins out of a dump truck with a heav­ier 1460lb/ft 15-speed over­drive and a

4-speed air shift 1241C Spicer joey. The diffs were re­built and it scored a shorter 10.11 gear set.

Pretty im­pres­sive specs for a truck that was then al­ready nearly 30 years old. This thing was rated to 200 tonnes! It was then put to back on the road where it con­tin­ued to work up a sweat on heavy haulage work.

By the time Des got his hands back on the yel­low beast some 30 years later, the Mack had lost its aux­il­iary trans­mis­sion, though it still sported the Cum­mins and the 15 O/D ‘box.

As it sits, there’s been very lit­tle restora­tion. Apart from some lit­tle touch ups, the Mack still ap­pears as a rolling time­line of a boom time in West Aus­tralia’s devel­op­ment.

From haul­ing out­back cat­tle and oil rigs to haul­ing tim­ber and ma­chin­ery, this B85 has sur­vived stu­pen­dously big loads, heat, dust and, no doubt, mud. Since Des got the keys back he has spent quite a bit of time col­lect­ing the his­tory of this rare beast and piec­ing to­gether its past.


It’s quite a climb up into the driver’s seat. But I set­tle be­hind that mas­sive wheel and peer through the split screen at the long-eared dog on the bon­net. There’s an un­de­ni­able charm to the B-model cock­pit. It’s just so evoca­tive of the era with its curved pan­els and pressed metal trim.

With the Cum­mins rum­bling away un­der that im­pos­ing snout, I grab 2nd slot in bot­tom ‘box and slowly let the clutch out. I’d al­ready made a boo-boo. With that short rear end, there’s no need for low range when driv­ing it bob tail.

I could work my way through the en­tire bot­tom box and still only be mov­ing at walk­ing pace. With this ‘box and th­ese diffs the yel­low B is gear­bound at about 83km/h. Which, given the size of this big old monster, is plenty fast enough!

I stop and flick the but­ton up and try again. And we’re in busi­ness.


It’s hard not to love be­ing be­hind the wheel of one of th­ese jig­gers. The land­scapes roll past and the tacho nee­dle climbs, and I grab an­other cog. The 14-litre an­swers with a turbo-charged bel­low and a very un-PC cloud of smoke erupts from the stack.

What I can’t get over is just how well this old truck drives. Sure it’s helped by the mod­ernised driv­e­line, but in this day and age it’s hardly state of the art. Only hav­ing one gear stick to con­tend with is ob­vi­ously a help for a rookie like me.

This old truck has fol­lowed wheel ruts in the sand, ne­go­ti­ated nar­row bush tracks, and has ground its way up mine haul roads in the sear­ing heat. You can feel the his­tory un­der­foot as you grab an­other cog and let the Cum­mins sing. Of course, I couldn’t help but flick the switch la­belled ‘Ja­cobs’. The an­swer­ing au­ral as­sault is rem­i­nis­cent of a vin­tage B-29 bomber fir­ing up its en­gines. An­ti­so­cial? Yes. Fun? Def­i­nitely.

I can only imag­ine what it would’ve been like seated in that air­craft-like cock­pit drag­ging 100 tonnes up a grade in mid-sum­mer as the drive wheels pull clods of black­top off the road sur­face.

The big B also rides and han­dles sur­pris­ingly well. It’s not like it’s had a bot­tom-up resto. This is, in part, down to a cou­ple of spring leaves be­ing re­moved from the camel back rear end.

The orig­i­nal power steer­ing is a help as I spin that mas­sive wheel.

Sure, this truck is a sur­vivor. And the rivet coun­ters out there will be an­noyed at this truck’s lack of orig­i­nal­ity. But it would be a shame to rub back and erase the lay­ers of paint and mod­i­fi­ca­tions to this truck. This B-Model tells a story and ev­ery mod­i­fi­ca­tion that has been made over the past five decades has been done for a rea­son. Ei­ther to make it more suited to the job at hand or more live able for the driver.

And that, re­ally, is the story of this Big Bad Bas­tard B. It’s a grum­bling, whistling por­trait of sheer brute force, bush en­gi­neer­ing and tenac­ity. It’s also a his­tory les­son on wheels. And, af­ter all, tenac­ity is what cre­ated the bull­dog leg­end in the first place.

Above: Still as a rigid but work­ing for RPM. This com­pany would even­tu­ally be­come Tanami Trans­port

Above left: There's some­thing quite spe­cial about climb­ing into the cock­pit of a B-Model. They have an evoca­tive style of their own Above: For the past 30 years the B85 has re­lied on a Cum­mins heart for power

Above: Des Hock­ley owned the truck back in the 1980’s as a subby. “I just love all the his­tory around this truck,” he says

Above right: Back when the B was nearly new, work­ing for Webb Brothers at Mount Rid­dick Sta­tion NT. Ap­par­ently the turbo spent more time off the en­gine than on it

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