Per­fect Peter­bilt

Be­hind the wheel of a cou­ple of spe­cial pieces of his­tory

Deals on Wheels - - Contents -

Sto­ries of mi­grant suc­cess in 1950s Aus­tralia are quite com­mon. Aus­tralia’s boom­ing post-war econ­omy was fer­tile ground for those equipped with grit, de­ter­mi­na­tion and a solid work ethic.

The story of a Si­cil­ian bar­ber by the name of Vince Ri­dolfo, who first stepped onto Aus­tralian soil in 1956, could be repli­cated in many fam­ily his­to­ries. How­ever, Vince Ri­dolfo was equipped with more than just a work ethic – he also had busi­ness nous and vi­sion. Ri­dolfo went on to build one of West­ern Aus­tralia’s most in­no­va­tive heavy haulage out­fits.

Ini­tially, Vince Ri­dolfo started out fruit pick­ing and what­ever labour­ing work he could find.

How­ever, in the early 1960s Vince saw an op­por­tu­nity in the forests of south-west West­ern Aus­tralia. Lo­cal in­fra­struc­ture was rapidly be­ing rolled out and the State Elec­tric­ity Com­mis­sion needed tim­ber for power poles – a lot of tim­ber.

Ini­tially, Vince, along with a busi­ness part­ner, ven­tured into the for­est in a 1958 F600 Ford prime mover, which ap­par­ently spent more time bro­ken down in the bush than haul­ing huge logs of jar­rah.

Those Ford Y block petrol V8s weren’t ex­actly cut out for the kind of op­ti­mistic loads that were the or­der of the day.

This was a time when Aussie truck­ing was still largely tied to the mother coun­try. Ley­land, Scam­mell and Fo­den were the main­stay of heavy haul, though In­ter­na­tional was spear­head­ing an Amer­i­can in­va­sion as the Mack bull­dog leg­end was just start­ing to build with the le­gendary B model.

BIG DEAL

In 1963, Vince Ri­dolfo saw that he needed some­thing out of the box. He needed a big truck for a big job. And he did some­thing no one else in West­ern Aus­tralia had done to date – he bought a Lau­rie O’Neil-im­ported Peter­bilt.

In this day and age, it’s hard to imag­ine just how ex­otic this Peter­bilt 315a ac­tu­ally was at the time. It was a mas­sive truck with a nat­u­rally-as­pi­rated 250hp Cum­mins, a 4-speed Spicer trans­mis­sion with a 4-speed joey ‘box and alu­minium chas­sis rails.

The com­pany started to thrive on the back of in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment in the west. In a few short years, mas­sive min­ing projects up north would see an al­most in­sa­tiable ap­petite for power. Com­pa­nies like Ri­dolfo Trans­port an­swered the call.

Ri­dolfo Trans­port con­tin­ued to grow and by 1967 Vince was off the road and run­ning the show as more trucks and equip­ment came into the fleet.

In­no­va­tion con­tin­ued as Ri­dolfo brought the first Nicholas heavy haul plat­form into the coun­try dur­ing the 1970s – at the time it was the only one in the south­ern hemi­sphere. This 400-tonne rated plat­form fea­tured 20 rows of eight axles and was de­liv­ered with a cou­ple of French en­gi­neers to get it up and run­ning.

The Peter­bilt, how­ever, only stayed with the com­pany for about three years. Vince re­port­edly didn’t re­ally trust the alu­minium chas­sis rails as a few cracks started to ap­pear around the rear.

This 351 Pete was moved on to make way for a sim­i­lar-spec truck but one that fea­tured a steel chas­sis rather than an alu­minium one.

It’s pretty safe to say that there were some pretty big loads be­ing lumped onto the back of some long-suf­fer­ing trucks at this time in Aussie trans­port his­tory!

At one stage Ri­dolfo Trans­port was the only com­pany in the south­ern hemi­sphere to own and op­er­ate all three Pac­car brands – Peter­bilt, Ken­worth and Hayes.

RI­DOLFO AIR­LINES

In its hey­day, the com­pany had its own light air­craft and was shift­ing big loads all around the coun­try. We take for granted mod­ern con­ve­niences like mo­bile tele­phones and the in­ter­net. Back then, the Ri­dolfo fleet used HF ra­dio to al­low driv­ers to keep in touch with head of­fice from re­mote lo­ca­tions. V&D Ri­dolfo had de­pots in Perth, Darwin, Syd­ney and even Sin­ga­pore at one stage.

Vince Ri­dolfo passed away in the late 1980s. The fam­ily ral­lied around Vince’s wife Domenica and kept the busi­ness go­ing. Even­tu­ally sons An­thony and Daniel were at the helm.

The rest is trans­port his­tory as the busi­ness evolved, di­ver­si­fied and grew. By the late noughties it had be­come In­ter­con Mil­lar and even­tu­ally IML Lo­gis­tics be­fore it was ul­ti­mately sold.

Daniel Ri­dolfo did his time on the tools as a diesel me­chanic as a young bloke be­fore en­ter­ing the fam­ily busi­ness. While his mates were han­ker­ing to build their own street ma­chines and hot rods, Daniel had an agenda of his own – to track down and re­store his fa­ther’s first new truck: the orig­i­nal ’63 Pete.

This was no easy search, but the truck was even­tu­ally found. The bas­ket case Pete sat aban­doned on a farm near the far north Queens­land town of Ing­ham.

“If it was any other truck I wouldn’t even have con­sid­ered try­ing to re­store it,” Daniel says. “We needed a chain­saw just to get it out.”

Daniel knew what he was af­ter. He even knows the chas­sis num­ber and en­gine num­ber off by heart just in case you’re in­ter­ested: 16473 and 858838! Over the years the orig­i­nal joey box and Spicer main box had been lost to time. A 13-speed Ea­ton over­drive took their place be­hind the Cum­mins.

BIG JOB

Once home, the mam­moth resto task be­gan. Daniel han­dled all the me­chan­i­cal work while the sig­nif­i­cant amount of panel work was farmed out.

“It took about seven years to com­plete,” Daniel says of the job. “There were stops and starts but I wanted it to be fin­ished in time to use at my wed­ding.

“It gave a goal to work to­wards,” he says with a grin.

The re­sult is stun­ning. This truck presents as brand new and, gear­box aside, is true to its orig­i­nal spec. Mod­ern touches like a stereo and UHF ra­dio are all stealth mounted, adding to the time-warp fac­tor.

Back in the late noughties, the last truck bought by Vince Ri­dolfo was still work­ing in the fleet.

The 1986 W model Ken­worth was haul­ing lo­cal loads with its me­chan­i­cal 3406 Cat rum­bling away un­der that clas­sic snout. How­ever, in 2010 the yel­low power plant called it a day. Daniel de­cided to take the truck home and re­store it to its for­mer glory.

As with the Peter­bilt, the W model is a stun­ning ex­am­ple in the flesh. Daniel has re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to cus­tomise or mod­ify.

“There’s no chrome or big pipes,” he says, “We’ve made it pretty much as it was back in the day.”

BIG W

The big Kenny lets out a se­duc­tive whistle as it purrs out of the shed for some pho­tos. It’s easy to see how afi­ciona­dos of th­ese old bangers get so en­thu­si­as­tic about them. The W model cuts a clas­sic pro­file as it rolls on its spi­der rims.

But it’s the Pete that I’m keen to get some wheel time in. Those clas­sic lines echo to­day even in con­tem­po­rary Pac­car mod­els.

The nat­u­rally-as­pi­rated Cum­mins has a dis­tinc­tive roar. The lack of a turbo or su­per­charger gives the old diesel a raw note. You can al­most hear it chew­ing on the di­nosaur bones as it gulps down fuel. The whole com­bus­tion process res­onates through the cab.

Peer­ing through the dis­tinc­tive split screen evokes an­other time in truck­ing. The Peter­bilt wheel­house still looks the goods to­day with its asym­met­ri­cal wind­screens.

BOX JUG­GLE

The old 13-speed uses a three-switch se­lec­tor for re­duc­tion, di­rect and over­drive. For some­one who cut their teeth on mod­ern low-in­er­tia ’boxes like me, it presents some­thing of a chal­lenge. It’s hard to over­ride the mus­cle mem­ory of a few

thou­sand gear changes and re­think it. My fingers still scrab­ble for a range change switch that doesn’t ex­ist.

I get lost in the box a cou­ple of times as I try and get my head around the un­fa­mil­iar pat­tern.

But it’s the steer­ing that takes even more get­ting used to. With no power steer­ing it’s a se­ri­ous ef­fort to get it around a cor­ner, even bob­tail. Daniel sits in the pas­sen­ger seat talk­ing me through it.

“You’ve got to start turn­ing about five me­tres be­fore the cor­ner, oth­er­wise you won’t get around it.”

He’s not kid­ding; the steer­ing box ra­tio is that slow.

Af­ter a cou­ple of three-point turns at round­abouts I get into the rhythm. The ’box starts to make sense and I can start to truly ap­pre­ci­ate this old piece of his­tory.

Com­pared with to­day’s big bangers, this truck seems quite small. It can be hard to imag­ine how it must’ve looked parked next to an F600 Ford in the early ’60s – it would’ve been mas­sive.

This truck hauled tim­ber out of the forests on log­ging tracks and dirt roads. What a job that must’ve been! I’m whinge­ing about the steer­ing bob­tail!

WORK­OUT WHEEL

The job would’ve en­tailed a dif­fer­ent breed of driver. Prob­a­bly one with bi­ceps the size of bas­ket­balls and not a pudgy mid­dle aged guy who wasn’t even born when this truck rolled off the pro­duc­tion line.

This truck de­mands me­chan­i­cal sym­pa­thy. It bucks, snorts and breathes. It re­quires the skill of a horse breaker to make it work. As we wind through the hills there’s a clang from the front end; the ra­di­a­tor grille shut­ters flick open to get some more cool­ing air through the front.

It’s hard not to smile as the Cum­mins growls through the hills east of Perth. The jake brake snarls in anger, bark­ing at the eu­ca­lypts and snap­ping at passers-by. It’s a beau­ti­ful piece of ma­chin­ery that de­mands skill and per­se­ver­ance to op­er­ate.

I can only imag­ine what it must’ve been like hang­ing off the wheel as fo­liage whipped past the mir­rors with a 40-tonne lump of jar­rah on the back. There would’ve been no sec­ond chances with this jig­ger; grab the gear and go.

It’s a take-no-pris­on­ers ap­proach to driv­ing. Some­times the past is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there!

This pigeon pair of Pac­car clas­sics book­end not only a com­pany story but an amaz­ing fam­ily his­tory: a chron­i­cle of in­no­va­tion and hard work that started on a Fre­man­tle dock more than 50 years ago and con­tin­ued into a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion.

Daniel’s pride in th­ese trucks and their her­itage is ev­i­dent, and rightly so – they’re a part of his fam­ily’s story. And hope­fully they’ll con­tinue to be a part of it for gen­er­a­tions to come.

This stun­ning 1963 Peter­bilt 351a has a lot of his­tory for Daniel Ri­dolfo. It was the first new truck that his fa­ther bought

The last truck that Vince Ri­dolfo bought: a 1986 W-Model. This truck is equally as stun­ning as the Peter­bilt in the flesh

1990 Peter­bilt 362. Prime Mover – 6x4. Odome­ter

115,487km • NSW 1800 049 814

2006 Peter­bilt 379X. 1,000L fuel cap, 107,540kms,

C15 Ac­cert 550hp • QLD 0455 128 667

Above left: In­side the Peter­bilt is spot­less, and that mas­sive wheel is needed. No power steer­ing here! Above right: It’s a 1980s flash­back in­side the Kenny

1993 Peter­bilt 379 prime mover. Detriot S60@

550hp, 18 spd, 70T B-dou­ble • VIC 03 9998 4887

2014 Peter­bilt 388. 388 se­vere duty CAT 3. Plat­inum in­te­rior, leather • VIC 0418 989 382

1992 Peter­bilt 379. Day cab, 970,394kms, Detroit 550hp, 18 spd • VIC 0418 101 320

Above left: Daniel Ri­dolfo cut his teeth on the tools; th­ese trucks have a lot of sentimental value to the Ri­dolfo fam­ily

Above right: At one stage Ri­dolfo Trans­port op­er­ated all three of the Pac­car brands: Hayes, Peter­bilt and Ken­worth

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