Behind the wheel of a couple of special pieces of history
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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