Main Test June 2017 - Service all masters

Tuesday, May 30, 2017



Multipurpose trucks are common amongst rural carriers who regularly swap between flat deck, tipper and livestock work, but few would dare to use a bonneted 8-wheeler for fear of losing capacity…

Not so for Switzers Valley Transport Ltd (SVT). The Southland rural carrier recently chose a Mack Trident to do the same tasks as a number of Argosys in their 13-strong fleet. The common belief is that a bonnet wastes overall length, resulting in reduced volumetric capacity when compared with the combined deck lengths possible on a maximum legal length cabover. We’ll come back to this point later.

We caught up with the Mack at SVT’s yard at Wendonside, about 40 minutes from Gore up the Waikaia Valley. The company’s trucks are in an impressive deep blue livery and the new Trident suits the livery perfectly. Extras such as the stainless sun visor and DEF tank, offset front wheels, D-shaped fuel tanks and bug deflector enhance its appearance even more.

It was a perfect autumn morning as we climbed aboard to pick up a load of fertiliser at Ballance in nearby Riversdale. Cab access is easy, but the passenger’s lower steps are narrow; the muffler sits between the left steerers, and with the set-back front axle it doesn’t leave much room for wide boots. Inside it is the familiar Mack cab; this is a day cab and there’s no wasted room, but it’s very comfortable and certainly not cramped. What is unusual is the prominent gear lever announcing that this is a rare model with an 18-speed Eaton manual transmission.

MTD Trucks general manager Murray Sowerby saysmanuals are only bought to order and they only supply one or two a year nowadays.

Jason ‘Jas’ Bruce is the driver, he’s been with SVT for three years but has been driving a lot longer. He handles the gear lever and truck comfortably as the 535hp MP8 engine powers it towards its first load of the day. A loader soon has the unit full of fertiliser and Jas rolls the covers over.

Depending on your upbringing, the bodies are usually called dropside or liftout tippers. They are easily transformed into flat decks, but one of the downsides of dropsides (as we’ll call them in this article) is that folded covers usually have to be manhandled into place and secured. Between the engineer, Riversdale Engineering Ltd, and SVT, they have come up with a practical rollover solution that works in most of the situations the Trident is likely to face.

The trailer is a secondhand 4-axle unit; although it’s not old, was built by Riverside and matches the truck deck, it will eventually be replaced with a new 5-axle model. The truck is not currently H-rated; that will happen when the new trailer is completed later in the year. While the trip is relatively short, it consists of a high speed run on good sealed flat roads, before a run into a farm on a winding, rolling metal road, followed by a steep farm track up to an airfield where the load will be dropped on a pad for the topdresser. It’s an ideal test run.

The Mack mixes tradition and up-to-the-minute design features to produce a high performance truck that satisfies those who want efficiency, return on investment, safety and nostalgically long bonnets. But the Trident is another example of how well their designers have done.


Photo: The dash is unmistakable Mack.


Photo: Jas can comfortably lift the sides into position; note the rollover cover and stays.

Loaded, the Trident sits on the road well, surface undulations and rough patches are well controlled and it’s comfortable and predictable in the cab. Mack steering has always been considered a strong point of the brand and the Trident’s steering gets a good test once we’re off the highway and onto the rural roads; the steering appears perfect and making tightturns is no problem for the truck and driver. Even on the metal roads, the drum brakes apply smoothly.

Once through the farm gate we start the climb through a narrow gully with matagouri overhanging the track. Although the Eaton transmission’s original design is from a different era than the Volvo Group engine, the two combine well to perform like a well-practiced duo on the road. But it’s off highway that the manual clearly proves itself. The mDRIVE AMT, which is the standard transmission, is a 12-speed, and sometimes an extra couple of gears are an advantage. Volvo has added crawler gears as an option in their I-Shift and it’s probable that they will eventually become available in the mDRIVE, which is essentially the same gearbox, but in the meantime the versatility of the rugged Eaton is ideal for a climb such as this and it appears SVT have made an excellent choice.

Jas negotiates the path carefully; any scratches are likely to be on the deck and trailer as he swings the front bumper clear of the paint-destroying bushes. Some of the rocks are loose, but the steering is faultless. Jas points out that he has engaged the diff locks and they can overpower the steering on the steep sharp turns we encounter. But the truck has central tyre inflation (CTI), which is a valuable tool in these conditions, adding significant traction easily and safely. Traction on the ever-varying surfaces the Trident will encounter is a vital factor and something SVT have addressed better than most rural carriers doing this type of work. The truck and 4-axle trailer are soon at the airstrip pad, which commands a magnificent view across two-thirds of Southland.


Photo: The MP8 engine looks at home under the big hood.


Photo: CTI is proving an asset.

As Jas is tipping off, the topdressing plane arrives and buzzes the landing strip to chase wild deer off it. A few farm workers arrive to sort out the areas to be fertilised, and shortly after the loader truck fills the Fletcher 400 and we watch it carry out a spread before heading down the hill and back to the yard. The truck handles the steep downhill run comfortably – we wouldn’t expect any nasty traits – and Jas points out that it’s a pleasure to drive such a predictable truck on farm tracks.

The Trident is used for stock too, although it’s the backup truck to four stock units, and two new Kenworth K200s dedicated to stock will go into service over the next few months. The Mack is expected to cart sheep, cattle, deer and even horses when necessary. Jas prepares the truck for a crate by removing the dropsides and tailgate before reversing under the crate and raising the air suspension and hoist a little to lift it off its supports. The J hooks are screwed down and he picks up a stock trailer. It’s a quick process and the truck heads off to a local farm in no time.


Photo: The steps on the passenger side are narrow.

It’s just a local load from a large station that has been arranged for us. We have to admit we were pretty excited about the opportunity to see the truck with crates on and appreciate the fact that SVT management did it especially for us. The matching trailer and crate does make a great sight and invokes plenty of nostalgic memories.

Later in the afternoon, the sides are refitted for a run up north to Ashburton. The dropside unit is a practical setup; although the rollover cover makes some loads difficult, the setup is perfect for SVT. The two-way tailgate is nicely engineered and is equipped with what is clearly essential in the South Island – a grain door. The side panels are about as large as we would want to see, any larger and they would probably be difficult to handle, but Jas stacks them against the side of the truck before climbing onto the deck, inserting the posts and deftly lifting the panels into position.

They can be stacked against either the headboard or tailgate, or even laid on the deck if it’s only hay or straw that’s being carted, but when the crate is on the sides are left at the yard. On this occasion Jas used a forklift to lift the tailgate out and replace it with the two end posts attached, but the alloy tailgate can be manhandled without the posts if he has no one else to help. The way SVT operate, most of the changes are done in their yard, which means the panels and cover can often remain on site. It also means Andrew ‘Jock’ Sharp, one of the company owners, is usually around to help.

 
Photo: The Trident’s standout looks have been enhanced by a few tasteful extras.

Jock took the truck north later in the day and we caught up with him on SH 1 north of Dunedin the next day. On the highway the Trident stands out like no other truck. Often trucks tend to blend in on the road, but the Trident, with its sparkling blue livery and tasteful extras, is unmissable. The deck is a full 7.1 metres long, which is the same length as the decks on the SVT Argosys with a 90” sleeper cab.

Having a deck this long on a conventional truck is achieved through a number of factors. It is a day cab, with the axle set well back; in fact the front axle to back of cab measurement is about the same as it was on the Freightliner Argosy with the 101” sleeper cab we tested last month. Nevertheless, the SVT team haven’t left a big air gap between the back of the cab and the deck; Mack’s convenient exhaust routing means they can have a stack without the deck being pushed further back.

Is a conventional suitable for this type of work? While it does have theoretical limitations and compromises when compared with a cabover, such as front overhang and cab space, none of these factors appear to impact on the role the Trident plays with SVT. The number of cabovers in the fleet indicates that SVT prefer the design, but as a flagship, the impressive presence of the Trident, its comfort and driveability, easily outweigh any downsides.

Photo: A typical fertiliser loading site; the loader driver easily drops the product over the rollover cover.