The steadily increasing trend of Australian truck operators moving to European brands is not just confined to the larger fleets. Paul Matthei met up with Tasmanian owner operator, Dave McCullagh, who recently bought a Scania R730 after owning a number of North American steeds.
The passage of time and ongoing technological advancement, particularly over the last three decades or so, have quite literally transformed trucks from smoke belching, rough riding and quite basic bits of machinery into the sophisticated and technologically advanced items of today.
While the European brands have long been noted for their comfortable ride and relative technological supremacy over North American counterparts, many were underpowered and slow in comparison and in an era when horsepower was king, this largely prevented them from being accepted by many operators back in the day.
Further working against them in this respect was the fact that even if the European examples did have similar horsepower and torque ratings, the quieter cab environment and supple ride combined to give drivers the impression that they weren’t as powerful as the less refined American trucks. There was also a perception among operators that US trucks were more rugged and reliable, particularly for heavy haulage applications.
Culture and chrome
Then there was the cultural thing. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s American TV shows like BJ and the Bear, and Smokey and the Bandit did much to glamourise the American trucking scene. And who could forget the movie Convoy with the mile-long line-up of Macks, Whites, Kenworths and Peterbilts pumping out their ‘synchronised sooting’ regime.
Of course, back in that time of Australia’s history Americanism was very much the flavour of the era and much of what happened over there was repeated here on a smaller scale. Thus, TV shows and flicks portraying truckers behaving badly were probably seen by some as a licence to do the same in the real world.
This was the pre speed-limiter era when some overnighters were regularly doing a dollar forty or more on what at that time were very sub-standard highways. Fatigue was also a huge problem with driving hours very under-policed. In those days it wasn’t uncommon for interstate truckies to notch up 80-plus driving hours per week with most self-medicating to stay awake.
These factors combined were alleged to have led to a number of highly publicised crashes, most notably two separate incidents involving trucks and tourist coaches on the Pacific Highway near Kempsey and Grafton on the mid-north coast of NSW. In both cases many lives were lost. The year was 1989 and these catastrophes were a catalyst for the start of a major shake-up in road transport that progressively led to the much safer industry we have today.
It was no coincidence that around this time savvy truck operators started to take the European truck brands more seriously, as they began to realise the benefits of safer and generally more fuel-efficient trucks. Over the next two decades as fuel became increasingly more expensive and driver comfort and safety more of a priority, the steadily increasing acceptance of European trucks, particularly in the larger fleets, continued unabated.
Naturally, the models of American origin also advanced significantly over this time, albeit at a slightly slower pace.
Seemingly the last frontier for the European brands to conquer in this country was the owner operator. Traditionally, favouring the big chrome stacks and either Cummins, Cat or Detroit engines in front of 18-speed RoadRanger ‘boxes, owner operators typically take great pride in their rigs, often considering them an extension of their own personality.
Yet at the end of the day they are running a business which must remain profitable in order to survive, and for the new breed of owner operator this inevitably takes priority over the glitz and glam. Which brings us to the story about owner-operator Dave McCullagh, a bloke who recently chose the most powerful version of Scania’s R-series to be his daily workhorse.