Road train off the rails
Riding the historic AEC was filled with thrills for James Stanford
RIDING in Australia’s first road train, you can forget luxuries such as an enclosed cabin. The driver and passenger in this 1934 AEC are exposed to all the elements.
They are also extremely close to mechanical things, such as the engine which sits between them above the floor with no protective covers.
It is quite something to sit there next to the thunderous engine, an in-line six-cylinder diesel, hoping it is not about to throw a conrod through the block, because chances are it would hit you.
And there’s an incredibly big cooling fan whooshing around behind you. AEC engineers decided against a front-mounted radiator and decided to locate it behind the so-called cabin, with the massive fan drawing air on to it.
The idea was to move it away from where it could cop accidental damage and there was also a concern it could be choked by grass seeds if located on the truck’s nose.
There is mesh over the fan and the belts behind the driver’s head. But the belts are exposed nearer the engine and not that far from where I am sitting on the flat cushion of a passenger seat in front of two batteries.
I contemplate what would happen if one of the belts was to let go — and decide the best option is to not think about it.
There is another fan at the front of the engine, designed to draw cool air in and around it.
It is hard to imagine how tired you would be after driving this for a while, the engine is so loud and the vibrations run through the steel ‘‘cabin’’ and the seats.
The engine and exhaust manifold also throw off a lot of heat.
I’m very hot despite it being a fairly mild day in Alice Springs, where we are driving.
Just how the original drivers managed on 40C days under the beating sun of the Outback I will never know.
This incredible truck was built by the British Associated Equipment company AEC in Southall, Middlesex. It was developed by the Overseas Transport Directing Committee, set up to investigate road transport in underdeveloped parts of the British empire.
The idea was to replace camel trains with something that could carry heavy items long distances over tough terrain.
The AEC uses an 8x8 tractor designed to give it go-anywhere capability and it originally lugged three eight-wheeled trailers. The length, including the tractor and all the trailers, was 21.5 metres and the maximum payload 40 tonnes.
This might not seem that impressive compared to modern road trains, but it was the biggest overland load-carrier at the time.
The lack of a windscreen or side windows was not seen as such a big issue because the AEC’s top speed was 45km/h and its average speed was about 26km/h.
The AEC diesel, which generated about 96kW, sat up high with the clutch, main and auxiliary gearboxes, with the four axles making up the lower section. A ‘‘staircase’’ between the two levels was made up of a train of three gears.
Only three such trucks were made and it was reported it struggled in soft sand, mud and some creek beds.
The AEC’s wide track might appear a positive, but was seen as a weakness when following other vehicles. Instead of being able to run along in the wheel tracks of other trucks, its wider tracks meant it had to run wheels either side of the ruts.
After the war, the AEC truck was sold to a commercial operation but wasn’t used for long.
It was discovered in the 1970s in a junkyard and narrowly missed being turned into scrap metal.
The Northern Territory Museums and Art Galleries Board bought it in 1981 and had it restored. It is on display at the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs.
Train drain: the AEC, Australia’s first road train, was lacking in comfort and safety, and didn’t even do a very good job.