Kenworth's T659 is arguably the most well-thought-out truck ever designed to meet New Zealand's specific demands. John Murphy investigates...
New Zealand’s use of twin-steer 8-wheeler trucks is unique. Single-steer 6-wheelers are globally accepted for towing trailers, often at over 100 tonne gross combination weights, over almost all roading networks. But we use a differently configured prime mover. This makes it difficult for operators to get exactly what they want; it’s uneconomic for manufacturers to produce specific vehicles for such a tiny market, and what we get is often simply a construction truck, or a factory approved, or aftermarket modification. But Kenworth’s T659 is a full factory-designed and tested unit.
Trevor Masters Ltd is based in Kopu and operates log trucks throughout the Waikato and Bay of Plenty. It’s a key player on the Coromandel Peninsula, its traditional domain. The forests on the rugged Coromandel hills were originally logged for their kauri trees by bullocks and steam locos before significant trucks were available, and the remainder of the easily accessible native timber was logged in the latter half of last century. Since then the pine plantations have begun maturing, ensuring that logging still plays an important role in the local economy.
While the terrain can be compared to Gisborne, and the toughest logging areas in the country, the narrow winding roads are often clogged with overseas tourists and holidaymakers with baches in the popular bays. Getting logs out of the area safely requires patience and skills that not every truck driver has.
New Zealand Trucking editor Dave McCoid once drove log trucks for Provincial Freightlines and Trevor Masters Ltd.
Although Trevor is no longer involved, the business still has the culture he developed. Dave was asked to take a load of logs from Masters’ Kopu yard to Mt Maunganui on the T659 a couple of days before we were due to try it out, so he got a sneak preview and was joking about going back to driving – at least we hope he was joking! He hadn’t been behind the wheel of a T659 before and the big Kenworth made a positive impression on him during the drive.
We met the real driver, Brian ‘Brin’ Walters at Trevor Masters’ yard on a morning when a slip had closed the road up the western side of the peninsula to heavy traffic. This meant over an hour extra to get into the skid site off the infamous 309 Road, and a two and a half hour trip to travel the 100-odd kilometres from the yard to the skid site. Brin is a senior driver and has been behind the wheel of Trevor Masters’ log trucks since 2002.
The first leg of the journey is over the Kopu-Hikuai Road (SH25A), a road we’ve become familiar with recently. It’s steep and gives the Kenworth’s steering and engine brakes a good workout, even when it’s only piggybacking its trailer.
Brin comments that he likes the steering in the T659, and it’s lighter than that of his previous truck.
The empty truck handles the climb and descent effortlessly.
Brin doesn’t change the Eaton manual 18-speed down far and usually operates the engine at around 1300rpm. The 525hp Cummins ISXe5-powered truck accelerates comfortably on the few straight uphill stretches of road.
The interior of Kenworth’s conventional range has improved vastly since the original T650, but it still maintains the classic North American feel. An atmosphere, which is highlighted by the rich red domed upholstery lining the cab’s headlining, doors and back wall, and the walnut and gold bezels on the dash. The quality leather and fabric seats with decent headrests are excellent. The flat floor is dominated by the large gear lever and although the room in the cab is not excessive, it doesn’t feel cramped either.
Brin’s previous truck was a 2010 Kenworth T408, and he reckons it was a great truck. The new truck only has 15,000 kilometres on it and it’s still tight. Brin has to get used to it and it will be a while before he’s completely comfortable in the driver’s seat. He uses the cruise control and Jacobs brake a lot, but says he finds the Kenworth Smart Wheel doesn’t suit the hand position he uses when he drives and he prefers fixed steering-column-mounted controls. In defence of the Smart Wheel, we find the controls are easy to find and use and do prefer it over the older controls that required removing a hand from the wheel to operate.
The big bonnet appears to drop away more quickly from inside the cab than it does from outside, so it doesn’t hinder visibility or progress and we flow through the village of Tairua and the Coroglen farmlands, crossing a number of one-lane bridges before turning left onto the 309 Road. The 22-kilometre-long road is metal and comparable with most forest roads, except that it is a popular tourist route and used locally for travelling between Coromandel and Whitianga. The track into the skid site is at the far end of the road and usually trucks this size come in from the end closest to their destination; car drivers don’t really expect to find big trucks in the middle sections.
We follow a tipper through the road, it has a load of metal for road repairs close to our turn off, but the driver pulls over and lets Brin take the lead, while they communicate on the CB. Brin drops the tyre pressure to off-road levels and maintains a safe speed, in every case, stopping the truck before an oncoming vehicle decides how to react to the situation. Deep into the road, the bonnet does affect visibility and the seatbelt restricts Brin’s movement as he leans across to the centre of the cab to get a better view around the tight corners. The 6.74m-long wheelbase means we have to reverse to get around a particularly nasty corner. Traffic is light, but the nervous reaction of car drivers is clear when we meet them.
In the worst case, an oncoming car gets sideways, after Brin has stopped the truck, but the driver straightens up and slides between the right side of the truck and the bank, coming to a stop, miraculously without hitting anything. Lucky it’s a four-wheel-drive and can back out of the situation; Brin has a word to the car driver. We reach the turnoff and cross a ford marking the start of the seven-kilometre climb into the skid site. It ’s steep and rough, with the iconic Castle Rock looming above us. After reversing into the skid site, the 5-axle trailer is connected and logs neatly stacked on the truck and trailer. Brin pulls forward to a chaining area before beginning the slippery descent with an all-up weight of between 48 and 49 tonne.
Immediately it feels like we’re in a completely different truck and we’re reminded that this is exactly what the T659 was designed for – negotiating steep slippery country with a serious payload on its back. The truck is more surefooted than any other we’ve encountered. It’s easy to overlook the significant skills and responsibilities of New Zealand’s log truck drivers, but Kenworth understood what they were up against, and designed the T659 to make their job a little less difficult, and probably safer.
The positive steering, braking and traction off-highway is amazing. We’ve been in three different T659s hauling full loads out of skid sites, and whether they ’re towing 4-axle or 5-axle trailers, their performance is excellent. Loaded log trucks wisely avoid the 309 Road, and although the road down the western side of the peninsula is still blocked, there is an alternative – the equally notorious Black Foot Road. It seems there are few roads on the Coromandel Peninsula that aren’t notorious, but at least the Black Foot is restricted to forestry vehicles.
Once we’re on the seal Brin switches the CTI (central tyre inflation) to on-highway loaded mode. The route we take heads north on the western side of the peninsula, turning up SH25 (Whangapoua Hill) on the southern edge of Coromandel township to cross the peninsula. The crossing is a steep climb on sealed roads and the Kenworth handles it superbly. The 5-axle Patchell trailer tracks well behind us. Brin is a Roadranger expert and his down changes are so quick the truck loses little momentum as we accelerate out of the tight corners. He says he goes by engine sound and never looks at the rev counter. Glancing at his dash, we see that he usually changes down at between 1200 to 1300rpm. He does take it up to 2000rpm on the steep hill. It’s a hard climb, and the fan cuts in regularly to maintain engine temperature, but the noise is reasonable. Coming down into Te Rerenga, the three-stage Jacobs engine brake integrated into the Cummins ISXe5 gets a good workout. It peaks at 600hp retardation and Brin switches between second and third stage, touching the foot brake from time to time to control speed. The Kenworth is comfortable throughout the descent and Brin guides it smoothly around the sharp bends.
Before reaching Whitianga, we turn right, back onto a metal road, which after travelling through farmland, becomes a private forestry road and starts to climb. We’re on the Black Foot Road, a road through the steep heart of the peninsula. It’s a shortcut that bypasses the popular town of Whitianga and the beaches north of it. It’s a road that has been used by loggers for years and Brin recalls when it was more clay than metal. Even now trucks have to weave their way up a couple of sections to find traction.
The road is busy, due to the highway blockage, and Brin radios ahead whenever we pass a distance marker. We come across half a dozen Trevor Masters’ trucks on the road, they ’re all unladen on their way to Whangapoua for logs, and pull out of the way for us as we climb the hill. The road turns out to be better than the 309 Road or highway we’ve just come off, in terms of steepness and tight turns, but it’s soft on the climb and Brin does drop the tyre pressures and weaves the truck on one section.
At the peak there are magnificent views over Whitianga and out to sea. We drop down the other side and stop for a half-hour break before rejoining the highway. Dave McCoid has used the Black Foot Road many times and more than 20 years ago took the first load of logs that came out of Whangapoua on a Provincial Freightlines truck, a MH Mack. He recounts the ale of two occupants in a Pacific P600 that had a lucky escape when it lost brakes at the top of the hill and the loaded logger finally crashed over the edge of the road trying to negotiate the final bend. We can’t imagine the Kenworth, with an experienced driver behind the wheel, getting into trouble on the Black Foot. It’s just so surefooted responsive to input. Once we’re back on the seal, it ’s still an hour and a half to Trevor Masters’ yard, and there are still some hard climbs and steep descents, but it’s an effortless run for the truck and driver. Brin reckons Kenworth has always made a driver-friendly truck, and the T659 is particularly comfortable. At the yard we get a few photos before Brin heads the T659 towards his home in Paeroa. He’ll take the logs on to Mt Maunganui in the morning.
Kenworth’s ability to satisfy kiwi loggers with their combination of Cummins, Eaton, Meritor, Jacobs and other manufacturers’ products has reached new heights with the T659. Local input into the truck design and the trailer by logging specialists, Patchells, have all come together to produce a perfect combination for heavy-duty on and off-highway logging roles.