Back to be­fore

Twenty-five years ago, trucks might have looked much the same as they do now but, as any­one who’s been around a while will know, things aren’t what they were. Not by a long shot

Australian Transport News - - Contents - WORDS STEVE BROOKS

Trucks might have looked much the same as they do now but as any­one who’s been around a while will know, things aren’t what they were

After al­most 40 years writ­ing about trucks and road trans­port, the worst thing for me about a stroll down mem­ory lane is that the lane nowa­days stretches a fear­fully long way.

While some may rue the end­less pas­sage of progress, the pace of change was well and truly on the boil in 1992. The old ways were dis­ap­pear­ing fast and, across the board, Aus­tralian in­dus­try was haul­ing it­self out of the so- called ‘re­ces­sion we had to have’ and into a slow but cer­tain pe­riod of eco­nomic growth. (Even the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis 15 years later would prove to be lit­tle more than a speed bump on the Aus­tralian truck­ing land­scape.)

Eco­nomic growth drove in­creas­ingly strong de­mand for road trans­port and, of course, trucks. The rush was on! After the hia­tus and hard­ships of the pre­vi­ous few years, truck and com­po­nent sup­pli­ers were pumped and primed to make the most of bet­ter times, though some were quicker out of the blocks than oth­ers.


Heavy- duty spe­cial­ist Ken­worth cer­tainly wasn’t caught nap­ping and the much-ad­mired and proudly home-grown T950 made its de­but, ar­riv­ing al­most two years after the launch of the orig­i­nal T900.

Clas­sics in the mak­ing, the T900 and T950 would not, how­ever, be Ken­worth’s great­est ini­tia­tive of the era. That ti­tle would emerge from the ar­rival of Cat’s C12 en­gine and Ken­worth’s sub­se­quent abil­ity to take its ‘baby’ T4 model and cre­ate an en­tirely new plat­form which would be­come the most di­verse and suc­cess­ful model range in the brand’s Aus­tralian his­tory.

There’s no ques­tion the foun­da­tions of the heavy-duty mar­ket lead­er­ship Ken­worth con­tin­ues to en­joy to­day were in large part cast through­out the ’90s, driven by clever engi­neer­ing and an un­com­pro­mis­ingly strong and sta­ble man­age­ment cul­ture.

It was also in the ’ 90s, 1998 to be ex­act, that Ken­worth par­ent Pac­car added an­other string to the Aus­tralian bow with the in­tro­duc­tion of the DAF brand. With an un­en­vi­able pre-Pac­car his­tory in this coun­try, DAF has been a hard sell in a mar­ket rid­dled with strong Euro­pean brands.

None­the­less, more than 4000 of the Dutch trucks have now been sold into Australia since join­ing the Pac­car port­fo­lio and, de­spite as­ser­tions of be­ing Ken­worth’s poor cousin, the brand has be­come an in­creas­ingly valu­able con­trib­u­tor to the Pac­car purse.


No­body’s poor cousin is Isuzu. Suc­cess came early and by 1992 the Ja­panese maker was al­ready look­ing at close to five con­sec­u­tive years as the num­ber-one truck sup­plier in the coun­try. To­day it’s eye­ing 30 straight years at the top,

which is no mean feat in a mar­ket as fiercely com­pet­i­tive as ours.

The rea­sons for such ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess were bla­tantly ap­par­ent from the start: trucks of ex­cep­tional dura­bil­ity; a prod­uct range con­stantly evolv­ing and expanding to cover ev­ery pos­si­ble crevice in the light- and medium-duty cat­e­gories; and, by no means least in those early days, the dis­tri­bu­tion af­forded by the Holden dealer net­work.

The same plat­forms still drive the brand to­day but with one mas­sive dif­fer­ence. Back in ’92, Isuzu’s Aus­tralian op­er­a­tion was part of an en­tity called Isuzu-Gen­eral Mo­tors but, by 2005, with the Ja­panese par­ent grad­u­ally drag­ging it­self out of an eco­nomic abyss in which ex­tinc­tion had been a very real pos­si­bil­ity, Isuzu parted from its Amer­i­can ally.

On the lo­cal front, this led to the for­ma­tion of Isuzu Australia Ltd and from here on Isuzu has been the ab­so­lute mas­ter of its own des­tiny. And the des­tiny, it seems, is to re­main Australia’s top truck sup­plier for­ever and a day.

Still, Isuzu hasn’t had things all its own way and there have cer­tainly been com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als keen to knock the mar­ket leader off its perch. None more than Hino, and never more than when the brand’s Aus­tralian op­er­a­tion was run by a wily, mer­cu­rial and of­ten er­ratic in­di­vid­ual named Roger Hall. Like

him or loathe him – and there were plenty on both sides of the fence – ‘the Dodger’ had a pas­sion for the Hino brand which could some­times ap­pear fa­nat­i­cal.

By hook or by crook, what­ever it took, Roger Hall’s goal in life ap­peared to be noth­ing less than snatch­ing the top gong from Isuzu’s grip, and sev­eral times he came close. Very close. Closer than any­one be­fore or since.

Hino is, of course, part of the gar­gan­tuan Toy­ota em­pire and it was per­haps in­evitable that Hall’s unique busi­ness an­tics and man­age­ment meth­ods would one day go un­der the mi­cro­scope and, ul­ti­mately, never be seen again as Toy­ota prin­ci­pals in­stalled more com­pli­ant ex­ec­u­tives with a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion for cor­po­rate sys­tems and sen­si­tiv­i­ties. These days, Hino hangs tena­ciously to its hard-won sec­ond spot in the over­all rank­ings of Australia’s truck sup­pli­ers, seem­ingly se­cure and sat­is­fied in its place as the peren­nial brides­maid.

The other big player from Ja­pan which un­der­went a mas­sive swing through­out the ’90s and be­yond was Fuso.

For­merly known only as Mit­subishi, by the end of the ’90s it was be­ing touted as a Volvo ac­qui­si­tion un­til Daim­ler stepped in and took con­trol, form­ing the Mit­subishi Fuso Truck and Bus Cor­po­ra­tion in 2003. Yet other than the supremely suc­cess­ful ‘not-so-squeezy’ cam­paign for its en­dur­ing Can­ter light-duty truck, Fuso has been some­thing of a silent part­ner in the Daim­ler con­glom­er­ate.

How­ever, the Ja­panese brand to­day shines bright on the radar, no­tably as the epi­cen­tre of Daim­ler’s push into a rev­o­lu­tion­ary era of elec­tri­cally driven trucks, com­plete with a new brand called E-Fuso spear­headed by the e-Can­ter light truck and, most ex­cit­ing of all, the ‘Vi­sion One’ medium-duty model.

On the lo­cal front, Fuso has cer­tainly been the rock for Daim­ler’s truck busi­ness in Australia. In fact, with­out Fuso, Daim­ler’s over­all truck num­bers would be sig­nif­i­cantly less than they al­ready are.


Take Freight­liner, for in­stance, a brand which has promised so much yet, in many ways, de­liv­ered so lit­tle. Freight­liner came to Australia on the back of the amaz­ingly durable FLC112 model. A con­sid­er­able pres­ence was forged through­out the ’90s, aided by a cou­ple of smaller heavy-duty mod­els and an aged FLB cab-over which at least added to the brand’s col­lec­tive vol­ume. Then, late in the back half of the ’90s, a new era ex­ploded onto the Aus­tralian mar­ket with the launch of the slick Cen­tury Class con­ven­tional and its cab-over sta­ble­mate, Ar­gosy. It would be a big fib to say this new Freight­liner fam­ily didn’t have the com­pe­ti­tion wor­ried – par­tic­u­larly Ken­worth. The po­ten­tial was tremen­dous, es­pe­cially for the in­spir­ing Ar­gosy, a cab-over which for many years made Ken­worth’s K-se­ries ap­pear ar­chaic in com­par­i­son.

Un­for­tu­nately, re­al­ity never quite matched the po­ten­tial due mainly to a suc­ces­sion of dura­bil­ity is­sues which pro­gres­sively bat­tered the brand’s rep­u­ta­tion to the point where Freight­liner to­day ac­counts for just 4 per cent or there­abouts of the heavy-duty sec­tor. Right now, Freight­liner’s best hopes rest with greater up­take of the well-cre­den­tialed Coron­ado 114 model and, in an­other few years, the lo­cal in­tro­duc­tion of the Cas­ca­dia con­ven­tional that

cur­rently dom­i­nates the US heavy-duty mar­ket. As for Ar­gosy, it is to­day a bet­ter truck than ever be­fore, but with cab-overs about as pop­u­lar as square tyres in the US mar­ket, the model’s fu­ture de­vel­op­ment and ul­ti­mate sur­vival re­main highly un­cer­tain be­yond the next cou­ple of years.

Still, no story on Daim­ler’s last few decades would be com­plete with­out some ref­er­ence to the Ster­ling brand and, on a broader scale, the so-called ‘merger of equals’ which led to the com­pany called Daim­lerChrysler.

When Freight­liner ( Daim­ler) bought Ford’s heavy truck busi­ness in 1997, two things hap­pened: the clas­sic Louisville name dis­ap­peared and the Ster­ling brand was born.

Ford had al­ready launched its HN80 suc­ces­sor to the ubiq­ui­tous Louisville and it was from this plat­form – mi­nus the Louisville name which Ford re­fused to part with – that Ster­ling emerged.

In dura­bil­ity terms, Ster­ling cer­tainly had its early is­sues but while engi­neer­ing evo­lu­tion many times ap­peared to move at snail’s pace, over the fol­low­ing decade the prod­uct im­proved markedly. Then, late in 2008, with the brand do­ing re­spectable busi­ness in the US and here, a strange thing hap­pened. Daim­ler Trucks North Amer­ica (DTNA) dumped Ster­ling al­to­gether “to con­sol­i­date man­u­fac­tur­ing op­er­a­tions with Freight­liner and West­ern Star”.

Many pun­dits sug­gested DTNA would’ve been bet­ter served by dump­ing the low-vol­ume West­ern Star brand but, as for­mer DTNA chief Martin Daum con­ceded in an in­ter­view, there was far more to be gained (and saved) by slic­ing Ster­ling from the fold rather than West­ern Star.

As for Daim­lerChrysler, prob­a­bly the only thing re­motely equal in this al­leged ‘merger of equals’ was the ex­penses of the ex­ec­u­tives run­ning each brand. For­tu­nately, san­ity even­tu­ally prevailed and Daim­lerChrysler was no more.

How­ever, the good news for Daim­ler Trucks these days is its star brand, Mercedes-Benz. There’s lit­tle value in re­call­ing the dis­mal his­tory of the orig­i­nal Ac­tros range be­yond say­ing it did more to dim the star than any­thing ever be­fore it. After a decade of dilem­mas and with its rep­u­ta­tion in tat­ters, Benz needed some­thing spectacular to turn its Aus­tralian for­tunes around. So far, that ap­pears to be the case fol­low­ing the launch lit­tle more than a year ago of an en­tirely new fam­ily of trucks. There’s still a long way to go but, from all ap­pear­ances, Benz is back. Big time!


Like Daim­ler, Volvo Group Australia also boasts trucks with Euro­pean, Amer­i­can and Ja­panese her­itage – Volvo, Mack, UD. While each had its own his­tory long be­fore be­com­ing part of the cor­po­rate tri­umvi­rate, each has also evolved dra­mat­i­cally un­der the group ban­ner.

In the eyes of many, UD has al­ways been the best Ja­panese heavy-duty truck on the Aus­tralian mar­ket and that opin­ion has only in­ten­si­fied since Volvo’s 2007 pur­chase of the brand from Nis­san Diesel. Even so, UD’s early CK and CWA mod­els at least showed the Ja­panese maker knew what it took to build a heavy-duty truck ca­pa­ble of meet­ing Aus­tralian needs and ex­pec­ta­tions.

Fast for­ward to the present and the lat­est Quon is un­ques­tion­ably a far cry from its pre­de­ces­sors, yet in many es­ti­ma­tions is eas­ily the best Ja­panese truck for prime mover roles, es­pe­cially with Volvo’s in­put into so many ar­eas of the truck’s de­sign.

As for Volvo’s pur­chase in 2000 of the iconic Mack brand, it’s hard to think of two more cul­tur­ally dis­parate en­ti­ties than the Swede

“Even the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis … would prove to be lit­tle more than a speed bump”

and the Yank. Those in­her­ent dif­fer­ences were bla­tantly ev­i­dent dur­ing the dif­fi­cult and com­plex in­te­gra­tion of the bull­dog breed into the Swedish sys­tem.

The thing is, though, de­spite Mack’s long her­itage and what some might see as a glo­ri­ous past, the ail­ing dog would to­day be dead and buried if Volvo had not stepped in and bought Re­nault’s trou­bled truck busi­ness which then in­cluded Mack.

In prod­uct terms, Volvo’s plans for Mack were rel­a­tively sim­ple: Mack’s Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion was moved into Volvo’s Wa­col (Bris­bane) truck plant, pro­duc­ing and sell­ing con­ven­tional mod­els only, leav­ing Volvo and, to a lesser ex­tent UD (lim­ited to an 11-litre en­gine to avoid clash­ing with Volvo’s pop­u­lar 13-litre FM model), to tackle the cab-over busi­ness.

There are those who say Mack is to­day noth­ing like its fore­bears, and they’re right. How­ever, Mack to­day also pro­duces and sells more trucks than any time in its ‘glo­ri­ous past’.

As for Volvo, the jour­ney to the new mil­len­nium was not par­tic­u­larly smooth. Try as it might, a suc­ces­sion of prod­uct is­sues ham­strung the Swedish maker dur­ing the ’90s. Its ini­tial 16-litre en­gine, for ex­am­ple, was so un­re­li­able the Swedes stopped mak­ing it just as the B-dou­ble busi­ness in this coun­try started to build mo­men­tum. Then, keen to of­fer some­thing around 500hp for B-dou­ble du­ties, Volvo in­tro­duced a turbo-com­pound ver­sion of its 12-litre en­gine only to dis­cover it was ba­si­cally a boy on a man’s er­rand.

Con­se­quently, strug­gling for some­thing to sat­isfy the big end of the busi­ness, Volvo in­tro­duced a 14-litre Cummins op­tion. Ex­ec­u­tives in Gothen­burg were prob­a­bly con­vuls­ing in hor­ror.

What­ever, Cummins was never part of Volvo’s long-range plans and, with the ad­vent of a 13-litre en­gine and a new 16-litre de­sign along with smart FM and FH cabs – the lat­ter with a lo­cally de­signed en­larged sleeper – plus a string of in­no­va­tive tech­ni­cal ad­vances ul­ti­mately led by the I-shift au­to­mated trans­mis­sion, the new cen­tury brought a bold and boun­ti­ful fu­ture to Volvo’s Aus­tralian op­er­a­tion.

The crown­ing glory of Volvo’s as­cent was un­ques­tion­ably the ar­rival of the lat­est FH and FM mod­els a few years back. While the FH cur­rently lacks the big XXL sleeper cab of its pre­de­ces­sor, there can be no ques­tion that Volvo is on a roll like never be­fore. In fact, the col­lec­tive sales of Volvo, Mack and UD eas­ily make the group the big­gest sup­plier of heavy-duty trucks to the Aus­tralian mar­ket.

Strangely per­haps, Volvo also fig­ures in the early his­tory of West­ern Star. In 1980, Volvo bought White Trucks but de­clined to buy its Cana­dian off­shoot, West­ern Star, which stag­gered along pre­car­i­ously un­til 1990 when it was bought on the cusp of col­lapse by businessman Terry Pe­abody. Over the next decade, Pe­abody turned the brand’s for­tunes around, with Star be­com­ing a se­ri­ous heavy-duty con­tender, par­tic­u­larly in Australia.

He did, how­ever, also do some odd things with the brand. In an ap­par­ent bid to cash in on B- dou­ble growth, Pe­abody pur­sued a cou­ple of Star-branded cab- overs based on

“Any or­gan­i­sa­tion is only as good as the peo­ple driv­ing it”

ERF and DAF cabs and chas­sis, pow­ered by Cummins and Detroit Se­ries 60 en­gines re­spec­tively. They did not do well and, un­sur­pris­ingly, fell quickly into obliv­ion.

Later, in what was ob­vi­ously an of­fer too good to refuse con­sid­er­ing his warm re­gard for the brand he’d saved from ex­tinc­tion, in 2000 Pe­abody sold West­ern Star to Daim­ler.

Yet in a move which still de­fies un­der­stand­ing, if not logic, Terry Pe­abody some­how con­vinced Daim­ler prin­ci­pals he should, for a rel­a­tively mod­est $60 mil­lion or so, re­tain the brand’s Aus­tralian and New Zealand busi­ness. Op­er­at­ing as a com­mer­cial ve­hi­cle off­shoot of Pe­abody’s ex­ten­sive Transpa­cific group, West­ern Star con­tin­ued to shine bright in our neck of the woods, even after he lost con­trol of Transpa­cific.

By this time, Germany’s MAN and UK’s Den­nis Ea­gle waste truck had also joined the busi­ness. Even so, the Transpa­cific board de­cided trucks weren’t its main game and, in the back half of 2013, sold the com­mer­cial ve­hi­cle di­vi­sion to US mo­tor­ing mogul and bil­lion­aire businessman Roger Penske.

Penske’s record of com­mer­cial suc­cess is leg­endary yet un­der his own­er­ship West­ern Star sales in Australia have fallen dra­mat­i­cally, with pric­ing and prod­uct is­sues caus­ing the brand’s slide to less than half of what it was when Penske took over. On the other hand, MAN is to­day achiev­ing the great­est suc­cess of its che­quered Aus­tralian his­tory, due to some de­gree by a TGX D38 flag­ship which has sur­prised and im­pressed in equal mea­sure.

As for Den­nis Ea­gle, it’s a waste spe­cial­ist which ranks only one rung from the bot­tom of the heavy-duty sales lad­der. In fact, only Cat cringes lower but that’s some­thing we’ll come to shortly.


The other Euro­pean brand with a che­quered his­tory in this coun­try over the past quar­ter cen­tury and more is ‘the other Swede’, Sca­nia. Rarely, if ever, com­ing close to the mar­ket strength of its Volvo coun­try­man, Sca­nia’s per­for­mance over the past 25 years or so is as much about peo­ple as it is about prod­uct. In fact, the prod­uct has largely been more pre­dictable than most of the peo­ple sent to Australia to guide the brand’s busi­ness.

For what­ever rea­son, Sca­nia’s Swedish mas­ters have his­tor­i­cally ap­pointed and re­placed more man­ag­ing di­rec­tors here than any other brand and, of course, each new MD came with a new agenda and a new for­mula for the fu­ture. Sta­bil­ity and, in its wake, greater mar­ket suc­cess than ever be­fore, fi­nally ar­rived when an ar­tic­u­late, com­mer­cially as­tute and

pa­tient Pom named Roger McCarthy ar­rived in 2009 to be­come the brand’s fourth man­ag­ing di­rec­tor in lit­tle more than two years.

McCarthy, too, was re­cently re­placed but not be­fore build­ing the brand’s busi­ness over the past eight years to its best ever re­sults with a mix of mar­ket­ing guile and prod­uct ini­tia­tive. Care­fully tar­get­ing niche mar­kets, he also made Euro 6 some­thing of a Sca­nia ex­clu­sive long be­fore it will be re­quired on the Aus­tralian mar­ket.

McCarthy was, in ef­fect, ab­so­lute proof that any or­gan­i­sa­tion is only as good as the peo­ple driv­ing it. And that, per­haps, is an op­por­tune in­tro­duc­tion to ar­guably the most fas­ci­nat­ing and per­plex­ing story of the past 25 years: Iveco and its some­what tu­mul­tuous as­so­ci­a­tion with In­ter­na­tional.

It was 1992 when Iveco first took own­er­ship of the com­pany then known as In­ter­na­tional Trucks Australia.

From then on, only the en­dur­ing ACCO sur­vived the process of re­plac­ing stal­wart In­ter­na­tional mod­els with a mix of lo­cally as­sem­bled and fully im­ported Iveco trucks. Iveco’s heavy-duty prod­uct was not, how­ever, kick­ing enough goals and, with vi­a­bil­ity of the his­toric Dan­de­nong (Vic) fac­tory as mo­ti­va­tion, for­mer Iveco Australia boss Alain Ga­jnik en­gi­neered a new deal with the US for lo­cally as­sem­bled In­ter­na­tional mod­els.

With re­spectable sales of the 9200, 9900 and 7600 mod­els, ev­ery­thing ap­peared to be go­ing well un­til around 2010 when In­ter­na­tional par­ent Nav­is­tar did its du­bi­ous deal with Cat and, al­most overnight, the Iveco and In­ter­na­tional re­la­tion­ship came to a shud­der­ing stop. At the other end of the scale, though, Iveco is at least con­tin­u­ing to build a good busi­ness in the light end with its in­no­va­tive Daily range.

Mean­while, sales still re­main neg­li­gi­ble in Iveco’s heavy league with the brand cur­rently strug­gling to cap­ture 5 per cent of the cat­e­gory.

Con­se­quently, with the Cat de­ba­cle dwin­dling to cer­tain death, the Iveco and In­ter­na­tional re­la­tion­ship is again back on the books, this time fea­tur­ing the slip­pery ProS­tar model which formed the ba­sis for the Cat Trucks ex­er­cise.

Con­fused? Me too! It’s more than a year since the deal was an­nounced and only now come the first ten­ta­tive signs of In­ter­na­tional’s re-emer­gence.

As for Cat, well, what’s left to say? Just as those loyal in­di­vid­u­als with yel­low blood were flum­moxed be­yond be­lief by Cat’s 2008 de­ci­sion to sud­denly quit the on-high­way en­gine busi­ness, so, too, have most peo­ple been dis­mayed by the de­ci­sion to walk away from the truck project after so much ini­tial hype and hubris. In many es­ti­ma­tions, both the Cat truck and its lo­cal ad­vo­cates deserved bet­ter. Much bet­ter!

Still, maybe it’s best to look on the bright side. After all, the last 25 years cer­tainly haven’t been short of things to write about. Nor, I feel, will the next 25.

Above: Strange. Freight­liner bought Ford, cre­ated Ster­ling, then dumped it

Above: Early Ac­tros. For­tu­nately, the new ver­sion is bury­ing the bag­gage of the past

Above: To­gether again. Iveco and In­ter­na­tional are rekin­dling the past

Be­low: Clever. Sca­nia’s Roger McCarthy achieved more than any of his many pre­de­ces­sors

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