Truck reflections: Back to before

By: Steve Brooks


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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.

 

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.

Yet 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.

Industry Benchmark

Heavy-duty specialist Kenworth certainly wasn’t caught napping and in the same year as Owner-Driver came into being so, too, did the much admired and proudly homegrown T950 make 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, over 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.

Japanese Juggernaut

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 in 2003 the Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation.

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.

US Forces

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 four percent 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 which 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 and 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!

Corporate Collective

Like Daimler, Volvo Group Australia also boasts trucks with European, American and Japanese heritage – Volvo, Mack, UD – and 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 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 (purposefully 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 500 hp 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 a few years back of the latest FH and FM models. 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 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, Peabody in 2000 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.

People Power

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.

Roger 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 five percent 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 there’s only now 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, when it comes to punching out a high quality publication every month, the last 25 years certainly haven’t been short of things to write about.

Nor, I feel, will the next 25.

Read the full feature in the January edition of ATN. Order your copy here.

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