Stockman's Mate

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

 “I’ll ring Bruce Stephenson,” said Isuzu national sales manager Dave Ballantyne. “He’d be ideal for what you’re looking for.”

What we were looking was a big ‘Suzy’ working in rural stock transport, predominantly in a regional situation. Why? Because we wanted to see one in a job we think it was made for, strong, no-nonsense, reliable, profitable cartage. What we didn’t want on this test was illuminated whip aerials and enough chrome and lights to make it visible from Mars. We also wanted the right operator. A good stockman always has the welfare of the passengers in the rear at the forefront of every thought, and his truck has to be part of an overall package that helps optimise that. Reliability, manoeuvrability, traction, and ride are his or her key requirements, along with enough ‘bogie’ in the big country to avoid the passengers needing their hooves trimmed at the destination. Sixty-two- year-old Robert Wood fitted the driver requirement just as well as Stephenson fleet number 55 fitted the truck one. It was going to be a grand couple of days.

The last CYJ530 we tested was the R J Lincoln truck in June 2016. Like that truck, this one is set up as an 8-axle combination, but unlike the Tokoroa machine, this combination fits nicely into the no-fuss world of standard dimensions and mass. It also runs the 18-speed manual Roadranger, but most importantly it’s got 120,000 clicks under its tread. The Stephenson truck is the ideal age; young enough to still be enthusiastic but old enough to start telling its owner how the next five to eight years are going to go.

There’s cows that need-a-cartin’

Managing director and second generation in this most Kiwi-of-Kiwi family business, Bruce Stephenson, took us out to meet fleet 55 and Robert in the rolling Hawke’s Bay countryside. It was 7.00am and Robert had already completed his first load of the day. Greetings and handshakes done, we were in the cab and off to load 33 steers from two pick-ups, and then head for ANZCO Foods in Bulls. Following that it was a load of grazers from the parched Himatangi Beach area to Ongaonga, which just happens to be enjoying an unusually lush mid-summer.

As soon as we turned out onto SH2 and set sail for Ugly Hill Road in the lower eastern Hawke’s Bay, Robert started singing the praises of his ride.

“It’s a good, solid, reliable truck that’s nice to drive and gets the job done as well as anything else. Bruce asked me if I wanted it and I said ‘Yep’. It’s ideally suited for this type of work, an excellent fleet truck. They’ve improved the ride on the new ones no end. I enjoy driving them.”

Photo: Robert guides the Isuzu back into the trailer

First impressions always count for a lot and as Robert talked the CYJ gathered speed quickly and began winding its way through a series of left-right-left curves. It felt solid and stable and completely without fuss. Straight away you got the feeling this was a truck that placed no unwanted demands on the driver and allowed busy people to be busy doing what they needed to do.

‘Ugly Hill Road’ conjured up all sorts of thoughts, but as we headed up to load the truck, it was pretty much as you’d expect in this part of the country, a winding single carriage way with lumpy erratic edge seal and bugger all shoulder that you wouldn’t want to drop a wheel off with two-up cattle or four- up sheep on board.

Once loaded it was back to the 4-axle Jackson Enterprises trailer waiting patiently in the long roadside grass, and off to the second stop.

The frame height on the truck is set at 950mm from thefactory. Once the deck and crate are fitted, local Hastingsdealer and supplier Deakin Trucks Isuzu reset the computer to level the deck. There’s a hand control in the cab that allows the driver to adjust the deck height to suit the trailer for butting up. The system automatically resets to the default setting when the truck drives off.

Robert’s a skilful stock truck operator, quick to get the truck backed in and set up for loading and unloading. Avoiding the need to jiggle back and forth adds up to big chunks of time at the end of the week and is more important than ever nowadays where animal processing plants have decided to head down the unload booking time route. There’s no question the Isuzu’s nimble characteristics also assist greatly in the load and unload process – more on that later.

Porangahau is a lovely part of the country this time of year. Sadly, we couldn’t stay, as we weren’t supposed to be there. We’d got separated from Robert and he was some distance away heading in the other direction. The lovely chap in the main street on the stop/go summed it up beautifully...

“Man! You guys are lost as!” It wasn’t long before we were reunited with Robert, swapping hilarious stories about the missing ute and stock truck.

A big ole heart that never gives up

Stephenson Transport Ltd is renowned for its use of the Isuzu product. Bruce is certainly not shy when it comes to extolling the virtues of the brand, neither for that matter is general manager and third-generation Stephenson, Todd. In Bruce’s words, “Todd’s a fan of the old adage ‘There’s no replacement for displacement’”. And when it comes to displacement the Isuzu’s 15,681cc 6WG1-TCS engine certainly delivers. A turbo intercooled unit with electronically controlled direct injection and a high-pressure common rail fuel system. It’s a Euro 5 unit deploying SCR to deliver the emissions figure. It produces 390kW (530hp) at 1800 and 2255Nm (1663lb/ ft) in a flat line from around 900rpm to 1300rpm. The power curve is a rapid ascender and the relationship between the two is evidenced by the generous green band on the tachometer from 800rpm through to 1600rpm. Interestingly, at 1600rpm the Isuzu’s heart is producing about 355kW (473hp) so there’s still 35kW left in that last 200rpm that allow Isuzu to put ‘530’ on the door. It makes for a truck that’s available to multiple driving styles, none of which is necessarily incorrect. You might say it lends itself more to the power end as torque is modest in relation to some of the competition. Take the Regal’s Volvo FM we tested last April. That’s a 397kW (540hp) truck that produces 2600Nm(1981lb/ft); Noel Aiken’s Sinotruk has vital statistics of 397kW (540hp) and 2500Nm (1850lb/ft), and Waitomo Petroleum’s DAF CF85 sports 375kW (510hp) and 2500Nm (1850lb/ft). From a pure numbers game you could argue that in the Isuzu you’ve essentially got a Fuso HD performance profile at 346kW (470hp) and 2227Nm (1644lb/ ft), but if you did you’d be missing out one key – somewhat enigmatic – number that still stands for a lot when you’re at the coalface...displacement. The big ole heart in the Isuzu is a toiler and certainly didn’t throw in the towel as quick as the 12-litre unit in the Fuso did last July. The Fuso needed to be kept spinning; and the Isuzu felt way more comfortable in the basement. Deakin Trucks’ John Somerville told us that getting people to not change gear is the challenge when out training. It’s interesting because Robert did say early on, with no prompting from us, “It would just make the truck if it cracked the magic 1850 to 1900lb/ft mark that so many trucks in its power league seem to produce. I think it would make a hell of difference”. While we ‘tend’ to agree, we have to say again that after the run back over the Saddle Road at max weight, this is a big-hearted truck which Robert himself reinforced with a story about passing one of the company’s DAFs in recent weeks, both trucks load for load.

Photo: Displacement still puts up a good case for itseld. There's no shortage of it in the Isuzu CYJ

Moving on back down the drivetrain is the bulletproof Roadranger 18-speed RTLO18918 manual transmission and even further back are Isuzu RT210 hypoid type axles rated at 21,000kg sitting on an Isuzu 4-bag air suspended rear end with stabiliser bars and hydraulic shock absorbers. Up front are Isuzu FO66 axles rated at 13,200kg on parabolic leaf springs and double-acting shock absorbers.

Photo: The engine has a wide work band and Robert took advantage of both ends on the climb over the Saddle Rd.

The Isuzu in 8x4 trim comes with a GVM of 29,000kg and GCM of 55,000kg. That obviously has implications for operations in the higher HPMV bands; however one local operator is fitting Hendrickson PRIMAAX suspensions, ex-factory, allowing a larger crown-wheel and pinion with a 62 tonne rating, so future-proofing the trucks somewhat.

Saddle up stockmen!

At Himatangi Robert again had the truck backed-up, butted, loaded, and stretched, all in about 40 minutes, and he had worked up a good sweat in the blazing sun by the time he finished. This 62-year-old has some secret elixir to youth stashed away and his whole approach is certainly a lesson to many well under half his age. When we left Manawatu bound for Ongaonga, the load of rising two-year-old cattle on board set the Isuzu right on 45 tonne.

Fixing the Manawatu Gorge isn’t going to be an easy task and will likely take the thick end of a decade. Even with a big chunk of improvement work on the Saddle Road it’s not a heart-warming thought when you realise this will be the go-to corridor for that period.

The toughest part of the climb comes early on the western side and the Isuzu finds itself recovering from third gear high split into fourth gear high split and holding a steady 30km/h at about 1700rpm (that’s power). The nasty bit is a pinch Robert knows well and he’d predicted the loss and recovery long before we got there. The broad useable band of the engine was prevalent on the climb as there were times Robert let it drop back to the other end and she chugged away over crests happily at 1100rpm or lower.

“It’s happy to pull away from down low. You can feel the trailer being dragged around the corners and she just dies and recovers (that’s torque). Prior to this one I had a 460. That was a bloody strong truck, it could pull too. The best I got out of that was 1.7kpl, and this one’s doing 1.9kpl,” says Robert. For the old school amongst us that’s 5.36mpg and the reality is that’s pretty good considering the conditions the truck works the cab design department in the factories of Japanese truck manufacturers need to catch up to 2018 and think about cross-cab access and sensible storage. Out of interest we went back to the Isuzu EXZ New Zealand Trucking magazine tested in March 1989 and there was heaps more room for the driver to move around the cab if needed. So what happened? The driver in the CYJ is very much in an enclosed driving compartment and even climbing into the bunk for a kip involves clambering over fixtures, fittings and cab furniture.

The driving position is fine and Robert liked a high, forward position in the ISRI 6860 – no eyeballs over the windowsill for him.

The dash is typical Japanese with eight gauges and a multi-display showing consumption and distance metrics. The (very slight) carbon fibre patterned wrap housed the entertainment and connectivity area, climate management and assorted switchgear, flowing around to gear lever, trailer and park brakes. The right column stalk took care of indicators, lights and cruise control, and the left wipers and auxiliary braking. Easy.

There’s a heap of headroom and storage in the high roof cab; sadly the headroom can’t be optimised as there’s nowhere to stand up. The bunk is more than useable for a night away and we guess one advantage of the central consul island for a growing percentage of the population is there’s plenty of room for the CPAP machine to sit.

From a cleaning point of view the cab is easy maintenance with nothing that can’t be spray and wiped, although that consul melange would make vacuuming a long and torrid affair.

The in-cab environment is comfortable enough and we’d certainly have no issue trundling around the country in a CYJ. The ride in the electronically controlled 4-bag setup is on the firm side but provides positive feedback. A lot of Kiwi R&D went into this truck and it shows in the way it handles; it’s a rapid responder.

Climbing hard with the engine fan on recorded a solid 81dB and climbing without it about 10 less than that. Humming along State Highway 2 at 90km/h (1500rpm) the meter was bobbing around 69 to 70. It’s a very relaxedenvironment when the big engine is loafing along.

Daily checks are under the front flap for oil and clutch fluid, and left rear of the cab for coolant. in, not to mention that empty with the Total stock crates on it weighs 22.5 tonne.

“We build our crates a bit heavier because of the number of bulls we cart,” says Bruce Stephenson later on. “They’re really hard on crates so we make them stronger to cope.”

Down the other side of the Saddle we were able to sample one of the truck’s real strong points, the auxiliary braking. The Isuzu has a two-stage set-up operated from a wand on the left side of the steering column. First stage engages an exhaust brake (X-Tard) and the second a magnetic driveshaft retarder (Giga-Tard). Activation of the retarder certainly throws the anchor out, and what’s more it’s all done without noise.

Robert says from his point of view his only minor grumble with the Isuzu is traction. The cattle ride much better on the air set-up, but traction could be better.

“It’s got diff lock but no cross locks. The Argosys have all the fruit and way better traction but my turning circle means I can often sneak into a place and get around without cutting the surface up too much. What I can do in one swing takes the Argosys three, maybe four goes, and the DAFs two. Because the others need to go back and forth more there’s not much in it. It has this fancy traction button but I’m not sure it does much,” chuckles Robert.

From a safety perspective the truck is equipped with ABS and so all is well in the stopping department.

Here I come and there I go

Without doubt the Isuzu’s party trick is its turning circle. Once the flaw of any 8x4 this truck’s ability to make a radical direction change is gobsmacking and never more evident than when Robert needed to make a U-turn on a narrowish dual carriageway road. Put it this way, it certainly was not SH2.

Photo: Rural NZ trucking on a postcard

“Bugger. I’ve gone the wrong way back there. I’ll have to turn around. Here will do.”

“Where?” we thought. But he did it right there. In three points we were on our way, 180° from the direction we’d been heading two minutes earlier. We think the stock would have been almost dizzy. Coming from a Mack Ultra Liner back in the day, the thought of executing that turn boggled the mind. To keep everything in the undercarriage happy on such occasions Stephenson Transport use the BroLube central greasing system. Bruce says they tune it to their own circumstances to prevent over-greasing in places but have been using it for many years and find it invaluable on ground spreaders in particular.

Photo: Robert beading in to make sure everyone on board is happy.

The Isuzu’s pirouetting abilities are in no small part due to a shortened wheelbase of 5525mm, a standard alteration done to any stock unit with 7.3m decks and supplied through Deakins. The snip is done in their own engineering workshops in sunny Hastings.

Age is just a number

Photo: The youthful Robert Wood has spend his life on one side of the globe or the other, although as far as trucking's concerned it's been an all-Kiwi affair.

There must be something in the water in Hawke’s Bay. Both Bruce Stephenson and his driver Robert Wood present like men 15 years their junior. Both are energetic and enthusiastic.

Robert Wood, 62, was born in Herefordshire (that’s prophetic) England, immigrating to New Zealand when he was six.

“Mum and Dad were two of the Ten Pound Poms,” says Robert (the 1945 post-war government scheme gave the English an opportunity to immigrate to Australia for only £10, with kids travelling for free. In 1947 New Zealand followed Australia’s lead with a similar scheme). The Woods settled in Omakere and Robert’s Dad took on a share-farming role.

In 1973 an 18-year-old Robert hit up Bruce for a driving job, having done hay for him since he was 15. He stayed on for six years before union frustration sent Robert to the farm again. He returned to Stephenson Transport for another stint before he and wife Barbara headed back to the motherland for what was to be a five-year stint, allowing Robert to reacquaint himself with his roots. The family still had a 50-acre landholding in England to look after and he also worked shearing and farming in South Wales for the guy who had the largest John Deere agency in South Wales. Interestingly enough he never drove trucks in England. That’s been a Kiwi thing.

“My New Zealand HGV licence wasn’t valid in England and it was going to cost £1400 to get it. Anyway, the roads over there are just too congested. It’s totally different.”

As it turned out, five years turned into 23. They’d always intended to come back to New Zealand, which they did in 2010.

On their return home Robert drove a controlled temperature unit for his brother-in-law before returning to work for his old boss, Bruce Stephenson.

“You keep fitter doing this work, and being a farmer myself I enjoy talking to the customers. I’d like to think I’ll be able to keep going until I’m 70; we’ll see.”

Based on the youthful Robert we met, if he keeps doing what he’s doing there’s no doubt he’ll be picking up some farmer’s stock and taking it somewhere else in eight years time.

Smile and wave

The cattle arrived safe and sound in Ongaonga and seemed over the moon with the pasture presented to them. By now we were well accustomed to Robert’s docking and stocking abilities.

We wanted to sample a CYJ in an environment we thought it was made for. A simple, practical, impeccably reliable truck for a job with a very special skill requirement. The big Isuzu was exactly that. This truck truly is the stockman’s mate.

We haven’t mentioned the EGR and AMT issues of the previous generation in this part of the story; that’s history and more than well documented. What needs to be said now is that Isuzu stood by their customers and have presented a new model that could well measure up to legendary models like the GIGA400 and 460.

Mel Bradley, who together with husband Duncan owns the farm where the grazers went, summed it up best. Without any prompting she said: “Robert’s great, Duncan likes him. They have a lot of banter but he always backs in first time. Others take a while. And those trucks, like the one he drives, they’re really good. When you see them coming you know they’ll just turn in, back up, load or unload and leave. No drama.”

Then she was off to tend to some cattle.

What’s in a name?

Photo: The presentation of the Waipawa head office gives a firm indication of the style of operation you're about to walk into and the inherent respect for this brand on the part of owners and staff.

Stephenson Transport Ltd is one of those Kiwi companies where the livery is more than simply pigment on steel, more than just a brand. In such a young country any company that can celebrate 82 years in business, as one brand, owned by one family, has something special to say.

Seventy-seven-year-old Bruce Stephenson is managing director of the company and obviously drinks water from the same fountain of youth as Robert Wood. Today the fleet is 50 trucks strong, dominated still by the Isuzu brand, with a healthy smattering of Freightliners, DAFs, and some MANs and Scania ground spreaders. Company headquarters are in Waipawa with another depot in Hastings.

One of the biggest ticks against the Stephenson name is succession. Bruce and his brothers took over from their father and then Bruce bought his brothers out around the turn of the century. Todd, Bruce’s son, is 47 and general manager, and by all accounts generation four is not far from bursting onto the scene with enough enthusiasm and energy to power the planet for a year. This family has the ability to not only instil a work ethic, sense of purpose, and respect for the industry into each new generation, but also hand the reins over progressively. A picture of company founders Septimus and Mary Stephenson hangs proudly in the foyer of the immaculate Waipawa offices, along with a picture of their first trucks. Lineage is important here. The pride and philosophy pervade the premises and the many staff who have been there a long, long time.

Photo: Generation three and general manager Todd Stephenson, with father, generation two and managing director Bruce Stephenson.

Septimus James Edward Stephenson and wife Mary (Nelly) started S J E Stephenson Transport Ltd in 1936 with an International and a Morris, based in Waipawa, carting Kahikatea for the manufacture of butter boxes from just south of Waipukurau back into the town. Like most businesses, entrepreneurial endeavour was hog-tied by the government’s protection of rail. S J E Stephenson Ltd grew slowly and organically until deregulation in 1983, when the company could spread its wings more. By this stage Bruce and his two brothers had been involved in the business for some time and it continued this way until Bruce bought them out in 2000, at which time it became Stephenson Transport Ltd.

“As you could image we all had our own opinion on trucks and the company was a real mixture of brands. I had to try and standardise. My wife’s nephew was a salesman at the local Isuzu dealer and truck wrecker Russell Deakin,” says Bruce. “We had a couple of Isuzus and so I decided to head down that path.”

Bruce bought his first new Isuzu from salesman John Somerville in 1998, a 380hp CXH 8x4 stock unit, and that was closely followed by a tipper. Those trucks paved the way forwhat was an armada of Isuzus over the next 20 years. Pictures of the original two hang proudly with the pictorial history of the company that hangs in the operations office.

“They’re an incredible truck, and have served this company so well. Those early machines just went and went. We never touched the engines, and had some run to 1.6 million kilometres without any work at all,” says Bruce.

No Isuzu story can pass without mention of what Bruce describes as the ‘AMT era’.

“I took one for a drive and thought ‘yep we’ll have some of these’ and I bought 13 of the things. Thirteen headaches as it turned out. Man, it was a desperate time. The electronic loom was on top of the gearbox between it and the crate, and when a wire in the bundle broke you couldn’t get to the thing!” Bruce almost shudders as he thinks about it. “But I need to say this and make it very clear. Isuzu stood by us like you wouldn’t believe. The level of support they gave their trucks and customers, I’ve never experienced anything like it. Not just that, but they came out from Japan and did the homework on the new one and we’re back on track. Interestingly we never experienced any of the heating issues some engines in the same era were having, yet they sent out overhaul kits that had to go in. I hate to think what that whole thing cost them globally.

“It’s looking like the new model has put them right back where they should be and is shaping up to be another exceptional product, although we won’t have another AMT while I’m here. The Roadranger is such a bulletproof piece of kit.

“It takes time to fix a problem and we had to go elsewhere in the interim, hence the Freightliners and DAFs. The Freightliners also fill that longer haul HPMV slot too, where power and extra torque give them that little bit more punch.”

Having the opportunity to spend time with Bruce we quizzed him on the state of the industry.

“The driver shortage is the big issue, especially for a company like us. Stock truck drivers are specialists. They drive with the welfare of the animal first and foremost and that makes them highly skilled, gentle, and good off-road too. We have six apprentices coming up through the ranks in the rural and freight divisions, and of late we’ve had good enquiry. Companies aren’t doing enough to contribute to the fix, choosing to poach off others instead. It’s really frustrating.

“And of course rates. As farming has evolved and practices have improved the animals have got bigger and bigger. Farmers are paid on weight and carriers on number. It needs addressing.”

Photo: John's sold Bruce every one of his Isuzus and the product has been a pillar of the Stephenson success in modern times. Number eight's nearing the end of her term in the iconic Hawke's Bay company.

“It sounds good. Don’t know when I’ll get there.” 

Hawke’s Bay Isuzu sales icon John Somerville laughs as he tries to figure out when he’s going to be able to set off on his upcoming retirement adventure. And what an adventure. After 22-plus years of selling Isuzus – and Internationals before that – in the Bay, it’s time to hand the mantle to the next generation as he and wife Lorraine head for Fiji to retire, and spend time with their son and his family who live over there. In typical Somerville fashion...

“I still have trucks on the water that I want to see to their customers, so it could be April...yeah April... I think.” He then erupts into laughter and you get the feeling that if a new sale walked into the office he’d almost have to run and have a cold shower before he’d be able to hand it off, such is the energy and enthusiasm this man has for his product.

“I’ve sold Bruce every one of his Isuzus,” John says with immense pride. “They’ve been great machines. I’ve traded many of them back, and sold them again. There’s two on the go now. One’s in the workshop and the other’s down at the painters.”

When asked about the Stephenson relationship, John had this to say:

“Stephensons – to me the quintessential Kiwi rural carrier, their operations and values. They’re not a small rural carrier any more, but the values haven’t moved. He’s very honest, Bruce, he has integrity, his handshake is still his bond. John’s sold Bruce every one of his Isuzus and the product has been a pillar of the Stephenson success in modern times. Number eight’s nearing the end of her term in the iconic Hawke’s Bay company. Fantastic people. I’ve known them a long time.”

With that we were off in the ute to see the next two lucky machines that will go into the burgundy, red and green and play their part in the history of this remarkable company.

Deakin Trucks Isuzu managing director Russel Deakin said: “John has worked with me, not just for me, since 1985. I have really appreciated his input, knowledge, and views on the product, the business and transport industry in general. Another ‘old school’ individual moves on and he’s going to be a very difficult person to replace. I would like to take this opportunity to wish John and his wife Lorraine all the very best for the future.”

Everyone at New Zealand Trucking magazine would like to wish John a fantastic retirement, although we just can’t help thinking that in 10 years time there’ll have been an unexpected spike in the sale of Isuzus in Fiji.