Bakewell Haulage and Freightliner Argosy’s final fling


When it comes to trucks, the adage of ‘saving the best for last’ probably applies more to Freightliner Argosy than any other. Despite the initial hype and high hopes, Argosy’s Australian journey was fraught with frustrations until engineering evolution finally fashioned a truck with the durability to match its world-class design. For Argosy advocate Kevin Bakewell, the only concern now is knowing his latest will also be his last

 Bakewell -004.JPG

As things stand at the moment, there’s just a handful of Argosy cab-overs still remaining on Freightliner’s books. When they’re sold, there will be no more. Ever!

While competitive interests are no doubt smiling at the imminence of Argosy’s end, proponents are already lamenting the loss of a model which, despite a decidedly chequered history, has been a critical platform for Freightliner operations in Australia since the day it first landed here more than 20 years ago.

According to Freightliner’s figures, upwards of 7,500 units have been delivered to Australian operators since Argosy hit our shores in early ‘99, making it arguably the most popular and productive truck in the brand’s Australian history.

SMART START

The early excitement around Argosy was almost palpable. 

Sporting a stylish, appealing cab bristling with innovative features, it was the first entirely new US cab-over to be developed in decades and, for many, an overdue alternative to Kenworth’s long-serving K-series. 

It seemed the only thing matching the hype and fanfare at the model’s launch was the expectation of Australian truck operators and drivers.

Even so, Argosy quickly suffered setbacks and there’s no doubt that for at least the first decade of life Down Under, the model was beset by quality and durability issues which caused considerable angst and disappointment for its leagues of early supporters. 

Equally, however, there’s no doubt engineering evolution has made this final generation of Argosy, first launched in 2011, the best of the breed by a massive degree.  

Driver Chris Lewis. A fan of Argosy’s space and convenience

SIZE AND SPACE

Nonetheless, the end is nigh and the prospect of life without the classy Yank cab-over does not sit well with the likes of Kevin Bakewell, a regional fleet owner who, in May last year, took delivery of the last Argosy to land on Australian soil. 

"I knew Argosy’s days were numbered but had no clue my truck would be the last to land here," Bakewell explains. "I’m happy to have the truck, obviously, but it wasn’t a planned event or anything like that.

"It just happened that way but if it was up to me, it most definitely would not be the last. I’d keep buying them if Freightliner kept building them," he asserts with blunt certainty and more than a hint of disappointment. 

Yet as he stands quietly for a few moments, eyeing the latest of his five Argosys as driver Chris Lewis puts the final glistening touches to a weekly wash and shine, it’s a thoughtful Bakewell who explains that this particular Argosy has special meaning for reasons other than the fact it was the last to land in Australia. 

For starters, it’s the premium 110 inch cab, whereas his usual Argosy spec is the 101 inch version. So why the bigger cab?

"Well, it was bought as reward for a driver named Errol Mitchell who’d been with me 10 years," he answers. Collecting his thoughts for a moment, Bakewell adds, "Sadly, Errol spent just a few weeks in it before he got terribly sick and passed away from cancer. He was only in his early 50s and a big loss to everyone. 

"Really, I doubt we’ll ever sell this truck," he says solemnly.

Later in the day, however, it’s an adamant Bakewell who remarks: "The truck’s in good hands with Chris. 

"He’s a good steerer and a gentleman. The sort of operator you want driving your trucks."

Almost five years with Bakewell Haulage, Lewis admits he appreciates the bigger cab’s ability to house his own sizeable dimensions. 

"This is the second Argosy I’ve driven for Kevin and yeah, I definitely like the extra space in this cab," says the quietly spoken driver with many years’ experience in trucks of almost every type. 

"The (swing-out) step makes it a lot easier to climb in and out compared to any other cab-over, especially if you’re carrying a bag or whatever." 

But then, in reference to Bakewell’s preference for automated transmissions these days, an earnest Lewis concedes, "I’m not a big fan of auto boxes. I’d definitely rather have a stick, but that’s just me," he smiles. "Other than that, there’s nothing not to like."    

Kevin Bakewell with the last Argosy to land on Australian shores

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

Based at Wingham, a resilient rural community just a stone’s throw inland from the NSW mid-north coast, Bakewell confirms he has been an Argosy supporter since 2010 when a second-hand unit first joined the regional transport, warehousing and distribution business he runs with wife Wendy and eldest of their three sons, Tom. 

It has, the 59 year-old says with a wry grin, been an interesting journey from formative days as an aspiring owner-driver who, at just 22 years, bought his first truck and trailer to serve two local customers – a soft drink maker and a timber yard – to a proudly regional business with 36 employees, a fleet of 28 well-presented trucks and more than 600 customers on the books.

Born and bred "just down the road" at the village of Nabiac, Bakewell acknowledges the importance of a strong local trucking company to the wellbeing of towns like Wingham, especially in maintaining employment both directly and indirectly.  

"We work where we live and vice versa, so we buy local whenever we can. Always have, but it’s getting harder in smaller towns," he concedes, citing the difficulty of ‘buying local’ when many major facilities for fuel and mechanical services have centralised to bigger centres. 

Like regional towns large and small around the country, Wingham’s social and economic structures have been hit hard by drought, bushfires and most recently the pestilence of Covid-19. 

"It seemed that no sooner did the rains come to give everyone some relief from the drought, then we get the worst bushfires in living memory and no sooner were they over, then this bloody virus arrived. 

"Seriously, you sometimes have to wonder what’s going on."

Argosy’s innovative swing-out step makes cab-over entry and exit easy and safe. Problematic in earlier models but rarely an issue in this latest and final generation of Argosy

IMMEDIATE CHALLENGES

As for the impact of these maladies and specifically Covid-19 on the Bakewell business, he admits that while drought and bushfire affected the company in various ways, the speed and extent of the virus’s impact have been extraordinary. 

He cites, for example, a 40 per cent drop in the haulage of beer kegs since the virus lockdown but quickly confirms that packaged beer loads have increased by around 17 per cent. 

"So, what we lost with one, we’ve picked up with another to some extent. Robbed by Peter but paid by Paul," he quips. 

"It’s not equal but it’s definitely better than nothing." 

Fortunately, the customer base is diverse, ranging from an occasional parcel delivery or pallet for a local business to a healthy number of ‘blue chip’ clients each making a seven-figure contribution to the company’s turnover.  

With a satisfied grin, he adds that among the clientele is Saxby Soft Drinks, one of his original two customers, which prompts a stern defence of a simple business principle: "I only lose customers on price, never on service. 

"Every job we have is priced on service and as far as I’m concerned, that’s how it should be."  

However, Bakewell is quick to emphasise the business is based more on intrastate work than linehaul, with the bulk of the workload committed to fast turnarounds between Sydney and regions along the mid-north coast of NSW.  

What’s more, and largely at odds with the great majority of modern trucking operations, Bakewell Haulage operates no B-double combinations. 

"We’ve built the business on single trailer work," he emphasises. 

"That’s not to say we won’t end up with a B-double someday but as the business exists now, singles are what work best for us and our customers.

"About 80 per cent of the operation is what you’d call regional linehaul and 60 per cent of that is between Taree and Sydney on a daily turnaround, so the extra complexity of a B-double for most of our loads, particularly where the trailers have to be broken up and then hooked up again, would be detrimental to turnaround times." 

"We do some interstate work but around half of that is contracted out. Like I said," he continues, "I’m not saying we won’t ever have a B-double but with the workloads we have now and the way the business operates, singles give us the flexibility we need. 

"Besides, we get 24 pallets inside the 48 foot Freighter curtain-siders and with a mezz (mezzanine) deck for the lighter loads, we can get 42 pallets. 

"As things stand at the moment, the case for a B-double in our work doesn’t stack up."

Committed to Cummins but Kevin Bakewell concedes future cab-over choices will force consideration of other engine options

ARGOSY AND BEYOND

While Freighter T-liners are the established standard in trailers except for a lone fridge van hauling "millions upon millions of eggs every week", it’s a forthright Kevin Bakewell who says truck choices have seen many makes and models come and go after almost 40 years in business.

His first combination was a second-hand UD towing a McGrath trailer but, as he asserts, hardship and experience are tough teachers.  

Time and toil have etched strong opinions of what works and what doesn’t, and while annual prime mover mileages between 160,000 and 180,000 kilometres aren’t great by interstate linehaul standards, Bakewell resolutely cites high standards of performance, efficiency and service as no less critical to his business as any other. 

Yet these are not the only priorities. 

Drivers, for instance, rate high on the list. 

As he puts it: "This is largely a one truck, one driver company and I buy trucks that attract good operators.

"And I mean operators rather than drivers. 

"As far as I’m concerned, there is a difference." 

Driver turnover is, he emphasises, "Very low."

Indeed, Bakewell asserts that driver comfort and convenience were strong influences on his initial attraction to Argosy which started with the purchase in 2010 of a second-hand unit. 

"I liked the size and features of the cab," he remarks, "and most of the blokes who drove that truck were happy to stay in it." 

There was more to it, though. 

The truck was powered by Cummins and it’s a definite Bakewell who isn’t shy about lavishing praise on the engine maker. 

Bakewell -006.JPG

GOT YOUR BACK

Accordingly, loyalty begets loyalty and, in his experience, few companies rival Cummins for performance and product support. 

One of the few in Bakewell’s estimation is the Mavin Truck Centre dealership, further up the Pacific Highway at Kempsey. 

Starting with the purchase in 2007 of a new Freightliner Columbia, an enduring relationship has developed between the truck operator and truck supplier.  

"It’s just an excellent family company to deal with, in every respect," he says of the Freightliner and Hino dealership, citing dealer principal Dean Mavin and sales manager Steve Pinkstone as "… the sort of blokes you’re always happy to deal with because they really know their stuff and they’re always up front with you.

"Besides, I’ve been friends with Steve for 30 years, way back to when we were both owner-drivers. It’s easy to work with people you like and trust."

On the strength of the relationship with the Mavin dealership and the favourable impression of that first second-hand Argosy, Bakewell’s first new Freightliner cab-over arrived in 2012. 

There have been, he concedes, a few issues at different times but overall, backed by the strong support of Cummins and the Mavin dealership, performance and durability have done nothing to change his high opinion of Argosy. 

"I’ve heard some of the stories about earlier models," he says with a shrug, "but I can honestly say our trucks haven’t had those problems. 

"They’re not perfect, no truck is, but Argosy has been a good thing for us, no question."

THE OPTIONS

On the inevitable comparison of how Argosy stacks up against Kenworth’s K200, the straight-talking fleet owner says there are good reasons why there’s only one K200 in the fleet and as he bluntly explains, "It has nothing to do with the service we get from Gilbert & Roach in Newcastle. 

"They look after us pretty well.

"It’s all about cost."

With his preferred US powertrain available in both brands – namely a Cummins X15 at 550hp (410kW), Eaton Ultrashift-Plus 18-speed automated transmission, Meritor drive axles and 4.11:1 diffs on airbag suspension – it’s a succinct Bakewell who asserts, "When it’s all boiled down, Argosy’s a better price proposition than a K200."

Reporting a price difference of "30 grand or more", he accepts Kenworth’s argument that the difference is often recouped at resale but quickly adds, "In our work, we often keep trucks for eight or 10 years, so the 30 grand you spend now probably won’t have the same buying power in years to come." 

Quiet for a few seconds, "I’d rather invest the money in my own business rather than Kenworth’s," he remarks with a shrewd grin. 

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

Yet while Freightliner outranks Kenworth in the cab-over class, it’s a different story in the choice of conventionals, where Kenworth T610s are quickly establishing ‘flagship’ status and earning high regard in the Bakewell business. 

As the fleet currently stands, there are 19 prime movers consisting of various Freightliner and Kenworth models, and a lone DAF while among nine rigids are seven Hinos and a pair of DAF eight-wheelers which Bakewell describes as "very impressive trucks."

Right now though, the loss of Argosy availability does not sit well with him. Not at all! 

"I’m bitterly disappointed about it," he says abruptly. "It means I can’t buy what I want."

STINGING LOSS

The reasons for Argosy’s departure are understood, yet the US market’s departure from cab-overs and the subsequent withdrawal of basically all North American cab-over development and production do little to appease him.

"I accept that the US is no longer a cab-over country but like I said, if Freightliner kept building Argosy, I’d keep buying Argosy," Bakewell says sharply. 

However, it’s clear he is not alone in his disappointment at the demise of Argosy. 

There is, for instance, little likelihood of the Mavin dealership or any other Freightliner dealership for that matter, being particularly enthused by the loss of Argosy. 

After all, Argosy’s retirement effectively hands the US cab-over business to Kenworth on a plate.  

Moreover, just an hour or so north of Wingham at Port Macquarie is Jim Pearson Transport, the biggest Argosy fleet in Australia. 

Yet, whereas the Pearson operation largely appears to be filling the Argosy void with Freightliner’s Mercedes-Benz stablemate, Bakewell isn’t yet sure of his next cab-over choice.

For starters, the Cummins connection runs deep and strong but, in the cab-over class, that leaves only Kenworth’s K200 which he contends, "… appears to be doing a good job of pricing itself out of the market."

Consequently, and for the first time in a very long time, Bakewell admits a continental brand could be coming into contention.

"But, like I said, if I had my way, I’d keep buying Argosy," he insists. 

"Freightliner has it just right. They definitely saved the best for last."

 

You can also follow our updates by joining our LinkedIn group or liking us on Facebook

 

Trucks For Hire | Forklifts For Hire | Cranes For Hire | Generators For Hire | Transportable Buildings For Hire