Sadly, this will be the last Max’s Mutterings. We intended putting it up in a few instalments, but have decided to publish it in its entirety.
Dad passed away quietly in the early hours of Thursday morning 13th January, 2022, 50 years after he started Vintage Motor Garage. He was 87 and suffering from congestive heart failure, his health deteriorated rapidly over the last few weeks. The end of an era, he will be greatly missed.
– Truckie Tales –
Some of Max’s pre Vintage Motor Garage life
It was a typical North Queensland day, pretty hot and hotter still sitting on top of ten and a half litres of Gardner Diesel, with 25 or more tons behind. We never went into Mackay, there was a well used bypass which saved us some miles. Where the bypass rejoined the Bruce Highway there was a very inviting swimming hole. I think it was at Calen.
I was cooling off when I looked up to see a Kombi van camper, and a skinny looking bloke busily cleaning the dust off the door of my Foden. Then he took out a camera and took a picture of the clean door. A nut or a weirdo?
I shook the water off, plied my towel and said G’day. He told me that he worked in the UK for a Company called – MAXTON TRANSPORT. That was what was painted on my door and was my trucking business name. For some years Maxton Transport (UK) used to send Maxton Transport (Aus) their Christmas give away, a little desk ornament or whatever.
The skinny bloke’s name was Alec Kimber, a genuine cockney (born within the sound of the Bow Bells). He ran an old truck during the week so he could afford to race his motor bike, a Manx Norton at the weekend. We talked trucks, loads, tonnages etc and a bond was formed, we became good friends.
Alec raced at Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Isle of Man etc claiming he had taught champions to ride such as Mike Hailwood and John Surtees.
He was travelling with his wife Marlene. They rented a backyard flat near Centennial Park, but moved to Caringbah, near my workshop when it seemed a joint arrangement might be advantageous to us both.
I offered him a job to take a load on my Leyland to Mt Isa. He rang me from near The Isa telling me he hadn’t seen a living soul for 3 days. Not like the Great North Road out of London.
He was not affluent but managed to finance himself into an old 600 Leyland Beaver and a single axle trailer. There was no Joey box (2 speed auxiliary gearbox) so it had a top speed of about 35 mph.
All our trucks were on Interstate rego, which means all loads must cross the state border. I don’t know how he made the connection but he did a number of illegal loads of grain to Sydney from farms on the Liverpool Plains, around the Breeza district.
Having been interested in trucks for some time, finishing the last year of my apprenticeship at a truck repair place, when I sold Gymea Bay Garage, road transport seemed a logical direction to take.
There was a young bloke at church named Dick Brook, who talked trucks a lot and was also influential. I bought a 600 Leyland Beaver with 35 ft bogie trailer. It had Wolf suspension with Army Blitz axles and 3-1/2 inch wide brakes. Kind of odd rocker beams so the axles could move. It also came with work, which turned out to be Johnson and Johnson products to Perth. I was in at the deep end! Because tissues etc are not excessively heavy the truck was “loaded to the sky” covered by two 18 x 24ft tarps and a 45ft cap tarp, 5 foot gates, with side curtains. A lot of hard work!
Because of the type of load we were not allowed to travel all the way by road, too dusty, some hundreds of miles of gravel road on the Nullarbor Plain between Pt Augusta in South Australia and Northam in WA. The truck was put onto a flat bed railway truck with a number of others. The truckies were accommodated in an old railway goods van with bunks and cooking facilities. All very primitive. It took about 3 days I think. At some point the train stopped and a number of local aboriginal people, a large family group of all ages with all their gear, weapons, tools and cooking pots etc got on and then off after a day or two later. 1961.
There was no backload to be had, at least not for a learner and his talkative mate Dick.
We drove back across the Nullarbor. Stopped at a place called Cocklebiddy for breakfast. A galvanised iron shed, toilets about 300 yards across the desert.
I only did 3 or 4 trips in the Beaver. Melbourne and Brisbane, better things beckoned. Although it did have a good sleeper cab, known as a Bendigo cab I was told.
There was another bloke at church named Merv Blinman who had a Foden. It was painted red and white and he was subbing for Cousins transport at Blakehurst. So the Leyland departed in favour of a red and white Foden. Fodens came with 3 options. A 220 hp Cummins, Rolls-Royce 250HP and the poverty pack Gardner 6LX 150 hp. They all had a 12 speed gearbox, either double under drive or under and over. 4 speed main box with a 3 speed epicyclic spring loaded pre-selector box mounted behind. Mine was the double under with 4.8 diff ratio, about 44 mph top speed. There is a special gear sequence which gives 9 useable gears. I went to Melbourne before I was indoctrinated. It was difficult to drive and had no performance. I wonder if I could drive it today? The gears were called low and super low in the double under box. The gear sequence was super low 1st, super 2nd, super third, super top, low second, low third, low top then high third and finally high top. Bottom gear was 72 to 1 – 1mph. That would take you up Victoria Pass with 30 tons. It gave the impression that the truck was not moving. I drove the Foden mostly and occasionally employed drivers at other times. Not so easy to find a driver for a Foden because of its gearshift. There are drivers and then there are Foden drivers.
Merv Blinman introduced me to North Queensland. There are a number of sugar mills in North Queensland. Macknade and Victoria Mills at Ingham and two others further north, Goondi at Innisfail and Hambledon Mill near Cairns. They had all been running since the 1880s, powered by ancient but beaut steam engines. Spreading out from each were some miles of narrow gauge railway lines which snaked out through the tall waving cane and brought the cane to the mills on a row of small stake sided trucks pulled by steam locos. These were beautifully maintained by the drivers and crews. Royal Blue and polished brass. They were a tourist attraction for the area. The whole thing operated for some months non stop, so I think there was time for some serious repairs to be carried out the rest of the year. In the off season as a result of this there was a lot of loading going to North Queensland, mostly loaded by crane at the CSR workshops at Ultimo. CSR also had sugar mills on some Pacific Islands, so there was a good chance of a backload of stuff bound for the CSR wharves.
The little steam locos were being replaced by diesel engines. Some were GM diesels and there were some with 8 cylinder Gardners. They were 8LW which were 150 Horsepower, same HP as my 6LX. LW came in 4, 5, 6 and 8 cylinders. Gardner engines are governed to 1745 RPM. One of the drivers told me they ran them at 1250 RPM, so no wonder they couldn’t wear them out.
Back loading was timber plywood and veneer from a mill at El Arish. (Named I was told after a WW1 Egyptian desert location). In season there were melons up on the mountain, Mareeba, Atherton etc.
I didn’t have the Foden long before the old trailer became a problem. The Wolf suspension with its 3-1/2 brakes was not a good setup. There was a welder bloke at Marrickville who made nice bogies using his own design of 4 spring suspension, sheet metal pressings braced by tubular crossmembers and using square Q7 axles with Mack 7 inch brakes and Westinghouse air operation. This was a good thing, light but strong and good brakes.
The Foden was single drive and in search of better capacity, I fitted one of the old trailer axles in front of the drive axle as a single wheel pusher axle. I made up some spring hangers with some adjustment to vary the load on this axle. It was never a good thing. I acquired another Foden axle and a rocker beam 4 spring suspension off something else, an ERF or an Atkinson. For the rest of its life it was a bogie drive or 6 wheeler.
In 1964 I bought a bonneted 680 Leyland or Super Beaver. It came from a mob called Austen and Buta. They had 2 of these pulling coal out of the valley below the Bells Line of Road near Mt Victoria. It was about a 1960 model, it didn’t have a worm drive like the earlier models but a double reduction diff. This dropped in to the top of the axle housing like the worm type did. It had a massive crown wheel and pinion and then helical reduction gearing. This meant that the crown wheel and pinion were closer in size to each other. It had the same 5 speed gearbox and the 2 speed joey box as the earlier model. The engine was governed to 2000 rpm and was good for about 50mph with a 6.5:1 rear axle. It had enough power to pull overdrive top gear with an average high load on a flat road such as the Hay Plains. I think the joey box was meant to be a reduction gear but the Aussies turned it around and made it an overdrive. Because it didn’t have the bottom gear capability you had to be careful about very steep hills. There was a short cut out there between Dalby and Maryborough that had a short steep “jump up”. We called it the “goat track.” To take the Leyland through there you had to approach it in 3rd gear and go direct to low low halfway up the jump up at fairly high revs otherwise it wouldn’t pull out of it. To split change it you used two hands at once while holding the steering wheel with your chest or stomach as convenient. By comparison you could stop in the bottom with the Foden and it would just walk away out of the gully.
The 680 was mostly driven by an enthusiastic young bloke called Peter Pemberton. I met him when his Morgan Plus 4 broke its chassis outside the workshop on the Kurnell Rd at about 2am when I was getting a truck ready to go north. There was a bang and then a scraping noise in the middle of the intersection.
We made up some sort of partnership. He bought a new spread bogie trailer and I provided the Super Beaver to pull it. He wasn’t a skinny bloke, strong enough to steer the truck with its spread bogie. This caused a lot of resistance when turning tightly as all the trailer wanted to do was go straight ahead. No power steering of course. The Foden wasn’t too heavy to steer, it had a sophisticated lower ratio steering box. We got involved with a mob called R and H Transport at Cardiff. They had a contract to carry bagged nitropril (ammonium nitrate) to the open cut coal mines in central Queensland – Moura and Blackwater were the two main destinations. Moura was run by a company called Thiess Peabody Mitsui and the mine at Blackwater by B.H.P. At Moura the overburden was removed by the biggest dragline excavator in the world. They said three Holden cars would fit in the bucket. As you approach Moura the piles of overburden this machine dug out looked like a small mountain range.
We were always from a legal point of view, overloaded. The weight regulation did not suit heavy trucks. A lighter truck could carry more as tare weight did not account for as much of the allowable gross weight. Fodens and Leylands were rated by the manufacturers at a significant percentage more than the lighter trucks such as International 180’s, 190’s and Dodges.
The Department of Main Roads used to use railway weigh bridges as well as mobile scales carried in the back of a station wagon and set up by the side of the road. My intention was to load 25 or so tons on the Foden and about 20 on the Leyland. Both trucks being legally loaded at about 16 tons. Before leaving for a north Queensland trip we used to ring the Golden Fleece servos at Singleton and Parkville to get info as to where the DMR were weighing, then plan our route accordingly. If it looked seriously dicey we went over the Blue Mountains, Lithgow, Mudgee, Coolah to Gunnedah. Once over the hill at Quirindi heading towards Gunnedah it was unlikely to find them weighing. The route was via Moree, Goondiwindi, Moonie, Condamine, Taroom, Theodore and on to Moura. Blackwater was a couple of hundred miles further on, west of Rockhampton.
At the intersection of the Moura road was a place called Banana. Nothing there but a little restaurant that served good steaks. I enquired why the place was called Banana, when there were no bananas growing for hundreds of miles. Apparently in the old days of bullock wagons one of the animals was ailing so he was turned loose to fade away and die. He defied the odds and lived there for some years. His name was Banana.
There is a place called Texas near the Queensland border. Silver had been mined there years before and there are enormous piles of slag left from the smelting. It was thought that by crushing this slag the end product might be zinc. They rented a bloke on a council loader and sent 4 or 5 trucks to take loads to the sulphide works at Newcastle.
This stuff looked heavy and of course there was no possibility of weighing the load I had on the Foden. Because of the truck’s performance I guessed it weighed high twenties. As I approached the intersection by the railway yard at Muswellbrook, a bloke stepped in front of the truck with a little sign that said “DMR STOP”. He directed me to turn left to the railway yard.
When I got there he was waiting and directed me on to the weighbridge. It was a small one only big enough to weigh an axle or a bogie at a time. I had to turn tightly to get onto the bridge, he stood on my left and directed. When you turn tightly the sideways drag on the tyres will stall the engine if you are not careful. I was not careful. When I went to restart there was a clunk but the engine didn’t turn…. or start. I jumped out quickly to attend to the batteries which are on the drivers side by the footstep. There are four 6 volt batteries to make up the 24 volts. Very smartly I changed the battery connections. Now I had less than 24 volts, mumbling all the while about the battery trouble I had been having all the way. The DMR bloke came around the truck telling me it was 5 o’clock and his knock off time. He told me he would see me the next morning, closed and locked the gate then left. I told him I would have to take the batteries up to the Golden Fleece and get them charged. I found a taxi, took the batteries out and headed for the service station.
I sat around, had some dinner while waiting for the batteries to be charged.
Mysteriously some hour or two after midnight the truck started at the first touch of the button, Gardners were known for their cold starting ability. The gate to the yard was made of steel pipe, pivoted on a thing in the ground and held to the wooden post by a steel strap with 2 coach bolts. While waiting for the batteries I had rung my other driver to come and help me ASAP. He drove the truck away while I tried to lift the gate back on to its peg – too heavy, so I leant it against the post and left. I often wondered what the bloke said the next morning when he undid the chain on the other end of the gate and it fell on his foot….
We carried a lot of bulk grain back from Queensland. It went to Allied Mills at Rhodes. They had a huge tilt table which could lift the truck and trailer – undo the back gate on the trailer and it unloaded like a tipper. Used to lose some oil from the back of the engine it went to such a steep angle. With a big load it was 7 hours from Singleton to Windsor down the Putty road, then along the Windsor Road and Parramatta Road. Desirably to come in with the morning peak hour traffic. I had Gary Coxon, an Alvis mate with me on this particular trip, when the DMR bloke waved his little sign at me out of the left hand side of the white station wagon – nowhere to stop in peak hour traffic. We were at Lidcombe where Diesel Motors were who I had bought the Foden from. I made a left turn off Parramatta Road and then another left turn into the back street so that a third left turn would put me facing Parramatta Rd again opposite Diesel Motors side door.
As I made the last turn. Gary was leaning out of his window and said “if you keep going you going to run over this bloke, he is right up the back of the truck.” I pulled the wheel as tight as I could and made the turn. As I got out to go into Diesel Motors the DMR bloke was yelling “you ran over my car”. I replied that he was making an illegal turn passing a turning truck on the left hand side.
I glanced at his car as I walked away. It was graunched front and back, back where my trailer wheels had nudged him against the kerb. DMR sent me a nice letter asking for 50 quid (pounds) for refusing to weigh.
We used to get paid 7 quid a ton to go to Melbourne, 8 quid to go to Brisbane, 10 to Moura, 12 to Blackwater, 23 to Townsville and 25 to Cairns – the longer the trip the more incentive to overload, and of course I had the trucks to handle it. There was another sugar mill at Goonyella west of Mackay, but I didn’t go there.
It rains a lot in North Queensland and a lot of the low level bridges can be submerged. Someone told me about a Bugatti in a derelict shop at Ingham. There was about 2 feet of water through the shops but the story was true to a degree. It had a Ford V8 engine and was much cut about. I didn’t bother. The Herbert River at Ingham used to flood regularly in the wet season, which is the early part of the year. You could drive across the bridge in a truck at night when it was in flood, but not in daytime. At night the headlights would show up the bridge through the murky water, so you didn’t drive off. One of the blokes who had an old ex TNT 680 Beaver tried it one day and put a front wheel over the coaming. The brake lever and air cylinder held him up. They came down from Macknade Mill with a crane and lifted the truck back onto the road. He was a character, little old wizened bloke, he had been doing North Queensland for years and should have known better.
His name was Denis Mouncey. When he went into his regular cafes, he would sit down and they knew to bring him a large teapot. He would drink many cups of tea before thinking of eating.
I think he ate once a day. He traded the Leyland in for a new bogie drive E.R.F. Last I heard of him he tried to knock a train off the line in W.A.
North of Mackay the road had collapsed in the wet season and about ten trucks were stuck. A hole big enough to take a truck had developed in the middle of the road which ran alongside the railway line on the eastern side. The Main Roads people had given it up and were building a new road on the other side of the railway. Because they were working on it cars and light vehicles were allowed to use the new part but they wouldn’t let heavy vehicles use it until it was finished. So there we sat for about a week. Every day we would walk across the railway line and hitch a ride to the next village, about 5 miles away to get a decent feed. We all carried tins of Tom Piper (meat and vegetables) in the toolbox. Its an emergency ration in case you have a breakdown or such, but you get sick of it and yearn for something better.
I had a talk with the foreman of the road gang. He explained not much could be done in the wet season and in the dry season all the workers went cane cutting for higher money.
We hot footed it to Cairns and got there at dusk. We used to eat in a cafe on the corner in the shopping centre, called the Busy Bee. We were seriously hungry and all had steak (best trucker tucker). It was so good we ordered an encore. Then two of them looked at each other after we had eaten the two steaks and winked. Not me, I think I’ve had enough. They ordered and ate a third steak each. Joe, a Hungarian and Dutchy.
I got to know the young accountant at Victoria Mill he told me a story of the retired accountant, A Mr Heath who lived above Ingham past Mt Speck who had an old Vauxhall. I was up there driving my Armstrong Siddeley dual cab ute. One night we set out to find this Vauxhall, supposedly from the description a 30/98. Up the mountain and down the other side, dirt road, lots of twists and turns and eventually our guide said, OK we’re there. There was a glimmer of light from a shed and then realised there were a number of sheds. Our friend knocked on the door and it opened a little and then almost by magic flung open. Ha! You’ve have come to see the Thirsty have you. The old man got a lantern going and took us out to the next shed. There it was. An original 30/98, faded red paintwork but otherwise intact. I walked around it examining for missing parts etc. It had non original headlights – I remarked on this. Oh yes he said “coming back from Mackay one night I came over the hill at about 80mph and there were cows all over the road. It took me 5 cows to stop!”
I used to ring him regularly to try and wrest it from him but was never successful. I think it is now owned by Vic Nicholson at Hornsby.
I brought back a few bags of crocodile skins in the ute. 100 dollars an inch!
We took a bridge launching truss to North Queensland. It was a weird looking tapering girder frame about 60 feet long. We put a cross beam on the turntable and chained one end of the truss to it. We moved the trailer away a suitable distance to support the rest of the truss. It was chained to the trailer in two places. Now it was as if there was a very long trailer. Part truss, part ordinary trailer. We had to have long load signs all over the place, it was just below the length at which you had to have escorts in front and behind. It worked fine. Truck and Bus magazine came and took photographs. It was on the front cover of the next issue.
There was a mob called Joye Manufacturing at Alexandria. They made tunnelling machines for coal mining. They asked if we could bring them a box of stuff from the wharf at the bottom of King Street. It would go on the trailer but weighed over 50 tons.
This meant driving through the city and eventually to O’Riordan St. Dead of night sounded like a good time to do it. This would bring the Foden’s bottom gear into play, seriously.
We got involved with a bloke called Geary who had road repair contracts in Queensland. He told me “the streets of Cairns are paved with gold.” He was using gravel road base which was gold bearing. It needs to be 2 pennyweights to the ton to be viable as gold ore and the stuff he was using was about half that. I picked up a half ton excavator near Singleton, for him, to go to Queensland. The machine rotates on its caterpillar tracks. Problem was the locking mechanism had a lot of slack. Every time the road camber changed the machine would flop around and then change of camber flop back again. Most disconcerting on a 1500 mile trip.
About 1965 the Mt Tom Price iron ore deposits were being developed in W.A. This included a railway line to the coast and a new port called Dampier being built. Many trucks were pressed into service run by a contracting company in Adelaide. Clive Woods my driver at the time drove the Super Beaver and I drove the Foden. They loaded us with tank ends – large steel saucers to be welded into the rolled cylinders to make underground fuel tanks. They hung over the edge of the trailers by a few inches, and were very heavy.
Clive left the day before me. I had a phone call before I left. He was detained in Truro in South Australia. Drove into town at 5 am, it was almost as if the police were waiting for him. They wanted $500 to let him proceed. The Nullabor was all dirt in those days, corrugations and bull dust. Clive pulled off the road for a sleep, and when he went to move the realised the truck was in sand, it shook a little and broke an axle. It took a couple of days to get an axle to us. I would have made more money without him.
We reached Northam and decided to go by the shortest route to the north coast from Kalgoorlie. The roads were red gravel with endless corrugations. We were stopped by the Police from proceeding past Lawlers for a couple of days as it had rained and they didn’t want us to get bogged. The next stop was Meekatharra where we waited for the road to dry out again. It was just before Christmas and incredibly hot. To cool off we climbed up into the sheep watering tanks. Not that great. Warm water. Not far out of Meekatharra there was what looked like a small lake and right in the middle an old 600 Leyland Octopus (8 wheeler) bogged. We managed to get round him and in front of him. We unchained our loads temporarily, hooked him up so we could both work together. The manoeuvre was successful and we managed to snig him out of the water.
Next place of any consequence was Wiluna. The further we went the more the road deteriorated. It was little better than a bush track – the main North Western Highway.
There was a soft section with a hollow and as I drove through it I could feel the trailer sink in, but I had enough speed to pull out of it, pulling the super low lever quickly. Looking in my mirror I saw the Leyland dip as it went through and then, the ground having been suitably softened the trailer went down. The whole bogie was in a hole deep enough that you could step onto the coaming. We stood and looked at the scene in despair. Hundreds of miles from anywhere of consequence, no way to unload the truck and certainly too deeply buried to pull it out of that hole, even though the Foden was in the right position to do that. We had barely realised the impossible position we found ourselves in when we heard the sound of an approaching truck. There waving about through the scrub was a crane jib. A 4 wheel slew crane mounted on another truck obviously bound for the same destination we were. There was plenty of fuel in the crane’s tank and better yet, the truckie knew how to operate it.
It took us 24 hours almost to the minute, to unload the truck, back the Foden up and pull the Leyland and trailer out of its hole, reload and be ready to head for Wiluna. During that 24 hour period no other person or vehicle was seen on that main North Western Highway in W.A.
Another day or two and we were at our destination, a work station with accommodation huts and workshop.