BE­YOND BET­TER

The re­cent pre­view in Mel­bourne of the first Freight­liner Cas­ca­dia in Aus­tralia was far more than just a peek at a new model about to un­dergo an ex­ten­sive lo­cal test pro­gram. It was, in no un­cer­tain terms, that point where Daim­ler Trucks North Amer­ica off

Australian Transport News - - Truck Reviews -

Some­times, you just have to go with your gut. So, here’s a tip! In a few years from now, let’s say three or four, Freight­liner will sur­pass Mack as the sec­ond­most pop­u­lar con­ven­tional truck on the Aus­tralian mar­ket.

Yep, it’s a big call and al­most sure to set the dog bark­ing. Not only that, but with Freight­liner cur­rently skew­ered on less than 4 per cent of the heavy-duty mar­ket, I could be mon­u­men­tally wrong.

If so, it’ll sim­ply demon­strate a cou­ple of salient facts. One, that I’m not nearly as in­tu­itive as age and ex­pe­ri­ence might sug­gest, and two, that Freight­liner prin­ci­pals here and abroad re­main in­ca­pable of sat­is­fy­ing the sig­nif­i­cant de­mands of our supremely com­pet­i­tive mar­ket. On the other hand, I could also be right. If that turns out to be the case, rather than high­light any in­nate in­tu­ition on my part, it will de­liver de­fin­i­tive proof that Daim­ler Trucks North Amer­ica (DTNA) is fi­nally of­fer­ing the Aus­tralian mar­ket far more than plat­i­tudes and out­dated de­signs.

Crit­i­cally, it will con­firm the Amer­i­can mar­ket leader is, at long last, sup­ply­ing Aus­tralia a mod­ern, ad­vanced and long over­due con­ven­tional truck that has been en­gi­neered, tested and spec­i­fied to the point where Freight­liner can ac­tu­ally do what it has al­ways been ca­pa­ble of do­ing – that is, cre­ate ner­vous con­ster­na­tion among its chief com­bat­ants by scal­ing to sub­stan­tially higher heights on the heavy-duty heap.

The prod­uct be­ing fash­ioned to drive Freight­liner to this bold new fu­ture is the lat­est Gen II ver­sion of Cas­ca­dia, or ‘New Cas­ca­dia’ as the Yanks re­fer to it, which will be launched here in 2020 af­ter be­ing sub­jected to the most com­pre­hen­sive and ex­pen­sive test­ing and en­gi­neer­ing pro­gram ever un­der­taken by Freight­liner out­side the USA.

Ac­cord­ing to high-level sources on both sides of the Pa­cific, DTNA has com­mit­ted a stag­ger­ing US$100 mil­lion to a Cas­ca­dia right-hand drive pro­gram aimed squarely at ful­fill­ing the cor­po­rate gi­ant’s ul­ti­mate goal of be­ing the leader of ev­ery mar­ket it con­tests. And

ac­cord­ing to the same high-level sources, that in­cludes Aus­tralia more than ever be­fore.

Funny thing, though, I’m not sure I want to be right. Like its cor­po­rate co­hort Volvo, Mack is at least lo­cally as­sem­bled, em­ploy­ing Aus­tralians in an Aus­tralian fac­tory, and, for that rea­son, has ev­ery right to at­tract some de­gree of pa­tri­otic fer­vour. The same, of course, goes for that other lo­cal leg­end and undis­puted king of the con­ven­tional class, Ken­worth.

Not for a mo­ment, how­ever, does the gut or any other part of the anatomy pre­dict that Freight­liner will be knock­ing Ken­worth off its perch any­time in the fore­see­able fu­ture.

That’s not to sug­gest it can’t hap­pen but, right now, given Ken­worth’s cur­rent strength and the fact it has a cou­ple of ex­cit­ing new mod­els be­ing primed for re­lease later this year, it’s hard to see Bayswa­ter (Vic) los­ing its grip on the con­ven­tional crown. Again, I could be wrong but, in this in­stance, I think not.

Still, there’s a big gap be­tween Mack and Ken­worth, and it stands to rea­son that in any ef­fort to climb to higher rungs on the heavy-duty lad­der, forg­ing past the bull­dog will be Freight­liner’s first hur­dle. Like­wise, it’ll also be the first in­di­ca­tor of whether Freight­liner truly has its act to­gether or not.

None­the­less, it’s a highly com­pet­i­tive com­mer­cial world we live in and, no mat­ter where a truck’s made, the sim­ple re­al­ity is that if the prod­uct’s right, if the price is right, and if the sup­port net­work’s up to scratch, most trucks will sell well no mat­ter where they’re made or whose badge is on the hood. Still, that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and, up to this point, Freight­liner hasn’t done a par­tic­u­larly good job over the past two decades of achiev­ing even a re­spectable por­tion of its in­her­ent po­ten­tial.

In fact, it could be eas­ily ar­gued that no brand of heavy-duty truck in the mod­ern his­tory of the Aus­tralian trans­port in­dus­try has been ca­pa­ble of so much yet delivered so lit­tle of its in­her­ent prom­ise.

THEN & NOW

Freight­liner’s Aus­tralian his­tory starts in 1989, about eight years af­ter the troubled US brand was ac­quired by Ger­man gi­ant Daim­ler-Benz.

For our neck of the woods, the foun­da­tions were built on the durable ver­sa­til­ity of the sim­ple, strong FLC112 model, a truck con­fig­ured specif­i­cally for the Aus­tralian mar­ket and is still to be found earn­ing an hon­est keep in many ap­pli­ca­tions. For good rea­son, the FLC won a bur­geon­ing band of fol­low­ers and, for Freight­liner, the fu­ture looked re­mark­ably bright.

In fact, the fu­ture shone like a ris­ing star when the late ‘90s brought the Ar­gosy cab-over and Cen­tury Class con­ven­tion­als to an Aus­tralian mar­ket openly grate­ful for a US-sourced al­ter­na­tive to Ken­worth prod­uct, espe­cially the aged K-se­ries cab-over.

Com­pared to what was avail­able at the time, Ar­gosy was a rev­e­la­tion in US cab-over de­sign and, while they would never ad­mit it, Ken­worth in­sid­ers were wor­ried. How­ever, prob­lems weren’t long in damp­en­ing the early eu­pho­ria. Sim­ply put, Freight­liner had been in­cred­i­bly for­tu­nate with the FLC112. Based on a construction truck plat­form and with a cab largely sourced from proven Mercedes-Benz stocks, FLC sur­vived de­spite lim­ited lo­cal test­ing prior to its Aus­tralian in­tro­duc­tion.

On the other hand, Ar­gosy and its con­ven­tional kin were ef­fec­tively right-hand drive copies of their US coun­ter­parts and, with al­most no lo­cal test­ing to ex­pose dura­bil­ity de­fi­cien­cies in Aus­tralian con­di­tions, cracks were quick to ap­pear. Lit­er­ally and phys­i­cally.

Mak­ing mat­ters pro­foundly worse, US en­gi­neer­ing re­sources were slow to re­spond to dilem­mas down un­der and that, in a nut­shell, has been a ma­jor fac­tor in Freight­liner’s steady slide to medi­ocrity over many years.

TURN­ING TIDE

So, given these is­sues, and the some­what hol­low as­sur­ances by top-level US ex­ec­u­tives over many years that Aus­tralia was be­ing given a new im­por­tance in Freight­liner’s fu­ture, why should the pre­sen­ta­tion in Mel­bourne of a lone left-hand drive Cas­ca­dia pro­voke such gut-given con­fi­dence that things will be vastly dif­fer­ent this time?

Well, a num­ber of things, not least the sim­ple be­lief that Freight­liner has prob­a­bly learned more from lost op­por­tu­ni­ties than any other high-pro­file brand on the Aus­tralian mar­ket. Most com­pelling of all, how­ever, was a lengthy one-on-one dis­cus­sion with Richard Howard, DTNA’s senior vice-pres­i­dent of sales and mar­ket­ing, the day be­fore Cas­ca­dia was pre­sented to Aus­tralia’s trans­port press in a Mel­bourne stu­dio. The mes­sage was sim­ple: “Im­prove­ment means un­der­stand­ing why we didn’t get the re­sults we want. If you lose, don’t lose the les­son.”

Be­fore we get to that, how­ever, it’s worth putting Cas­ca­dia’s cre­den­tials into per­spec­tive. The first ver­sion, now re­ferred to as Clas­sic Cas­ca­dia, was launched in the US in 2006 and quickly be­came the flag­ship for Freight­liner’s as­cen­dancy to Class 8 (heavy-duty) lead­er­ship.

Rid­ing the crest of a wave, noth­ing much

changed on the prod­uct front un­til 2013 when aero­dy­namic en­hance­ments cre­ated Cas­ca­dia Evo­lu­tion. Then, in a huge re­de­vel­op­ment, which saw around US$400 mil­lion in­vested in a swathe of new de­sign, driv­e­train and safety fea­tures, ‘New Cas­ca­dia’ was launched in late 2016. Suc­cess was im­me­di­ate.

Cas­ca­dia re­mains Amer­ica’s top-selling Class 8 (heavy-duty) truck by a coun­try mile.

Ac­cord­ing to Howard, around 85,000 units have been or­dered since the new model’s launch, and Freight­liner cur­rently holds a stag­ger­ing 40 per cent share of a US Class 8 mar­ket that will con­sume at least 280,000 trucks this year.

What’s more, Freight­liner now holds sim­i­larly strong shares of buoy­ant Cana­dian and Mex­i­can Class 8 mar­kets, mean­ing Cas­ca­dia is pos­si­bly the most suc­cess­ful line-haul truck in North Amer­i­can his­tory. That’s big! As for the de­sign and fea­tures of the new model, an up­beat Howard said sim­ply: “Our cus­tomers have their fin­ger­prints all over this truck.”

Even so, his­tory shows suc­cess on the North Amer­i­can mar­ket is no guar­an­tee for suc­cess in any other part of the world, espe­cially ours, and while hold­ing true to cor­po­rate doc­trine, Howard was ea­ger to get the mes­sage across that Aus­tralia is vastly higher on the Freight­liner agenda than ever be­fore. One hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars higher.

“In years past,” he ex­plained, “we had more of an ex­port men­tal­ity. We dealt with 40 mar­kets glob­ally but three years ago we de­cided to move to a more in­ter­na­tional busi­ness struc­ture which will see Freight­liner bring the best of the best [a term he reg­u­larly used to de­scribe ‘New Cas­ca­dia’] to five key mar­kets out­side the USA and Canada.”

Those mar­kets are Chile, Peru, Mex­ico and the only two right-hand drive coun­tries, Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

“That means Aus­tralia will get the best we have in on-high­way trucks, as well as be­ing specif­i­cally de­signed for the Aus­tralian mar­ket. We know we have to bring that prod­uct here if we are to have the op­por­tu­nity to be an undis­puted leader in the Aus­tralian mar­ket.”

Vi­tally, Cas­ca­dia’s in­tro­duc­tion here will sig­nify that Freight­liner prin­ci­pals in Aus­tralia and the US are singing from the same song sheet at long last. Read­ing from the same script. Work­ing off the same plans. Pulling on the same rope. Drink­ing from the same trough. Tap­ping into the same keg. Shop­ping in the same store. Snug­gling in the same cot. Chew­ing on the same chop, if you get my drift. But if that’s not clear enough, it means right-hand drive mod­els are now an in­te­gral part of Freight­liner’s main game rather than a sec­ond-string ‘Spe­cial Projects’ off­shoot as it has been for most of the past 20 years. An En­glish­man based at DTNA head­quar­ters in Port­land, Ore­gon, Howard

“Freight­liner has prob­a­bly learned more from lost op­por­tu­ni­ties than any other high-pro­file brand on the Aus­tralian mar­ket.”

Be­low: A pen­sive Richard Howard. “We are com­mit­ting re­sources, money and time to the Aus­tralian mar­ket in ways we have never done be­fore”

Above: The first test unit is a stan­dard day cab model. Prac­ti­cal­ity is high but more elab­o­rate ver­sions are on the way. Aus­tralia will draw on an ex­tremely com­pre­hen­sive range of Cas­ca­dia mod­els

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