Bill Chambers - NORDIC KNIGHT

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Fifty years in trucking is good reason to celebrate; however 50 years trucking for the one organisation is a completely different milestone celebration.


Photo: The Volvo N12 sporting its famous bug deflector blazoned with the ‘Nordic Knight’, making no secret of its heritage.

Talking with Bill Chambers with regard to his professional driving career you quickly learn how unique his employment history is. Bill proudly presents the one and only employment reference letter he received from BP Fuels in 1968. With a laugh Bill said, “they don’t give those away any more, it’s all verbal references over the phone nowadays”. Bill’s family roots are from farming stock near Piopio in the King Country. Upon leaving secondary school in Upper Hutt Bill found a full-time position working with the local Electric Power Board. This job provided the opportunity to gain his H/T licence, as he quickly found himself sitting under a load of power poles behind the steering wheel of the jinker on delivery duties. In 1966 a chance meeting and conversation with a manager from BP Fuels brought about change. “The chap said to me, ‘you’ve got your H/T, you should be driving for us’,” Bill said. Bill made the transition across to BP Fuels and was based out of the Palmerston North depot.

Bill drove a mix of TK Bedfords as well as a petrol-powered International articulated unit on all manner of local and farm deliveries. The Palmerston North depot was also where the jet fuel for Ohakea Air Force base was railed to, so there was a continual delivery run from the railhead to the base, keeping it supplied and operational. The need for a change of scenery and adventure had Bill crossing the ditch in 1968 to explore Australia. After 12 months of driving a furniture removal unit in and around Melbourne, Bill decided to head home. The move back to New Zealand found Bill in Auckland looking for employment. With his previous BP Fuels experience Bill figured the best place to start searching would be with similar fuel companies. Armed with his BP Fuels reference letter Bill fronted up to the Shell Oils depot on Wynyard Quarter in Auckland and asked for a job. The very next day he was in a Shell uniform and behind the wheel, the beginning of a now 50-year journey in the company’s colours.


Photo: Based out of the Napier depot for Pacific Fuel Haul, Bill is now called upon as a regular relief driver.

The City of Sails at the dawn of the 1970s certainly was an interesting place. With National in government and Sir Keith Holyoake at the top, his right-hand man Rob Muldoon, then Minister of Finance, was at his side. New Zealand was in the midst of embracing an explosion of industrial independence and an ever-increasing appetite for energy. The North Island natural gas network was very close to commissioning with the newly completed Kapuni gas treatment plant about to come online, so diesel boiler use in home heating, hospitality and industry was still immensely in vogue. The constant thirst for diesel oil kept Bill extremely busy on deliveries behind the wheel of a Thames Trader, as well as TK Bedfords. The opportunity to escape the Auckland isthmus and venture beyond the ends of the Northern and Southern motorways distributing lubricant oils to the motor industry was embraced by Bill, and this saw him at the helm of a 6-wheeler Austin lube truck travelling the upper North Island. After the Austin Bill enjoyed a mix of D series Fords and Leyland Mastiffs. “The work has always been interesting,” said Bill.

“I have found myself on all manner of fuel deliveries, the likes of Devonport Naval Base and the Auckland Ports, at a time when the unions had a real stranglehold on proceedings.” Bill described how he would arrive onsite to deliver, and the moment he started up the pump motor all the wharfies in the immediate area would down tools and head off to the smoko room for a ‘hot cup of chatter water’ as they could not possibly wear hearing protection and continue working, heavens no! Another incident from Bill’s time based at Wynyard Quarter was being on duty the night the Rainbow Warrior was bombed. “I distinctly remember hearing and feeling the explosion and thinking that did not sound good at all.”

In 1984 Shell opened the door to owner-driver positions. There was an opportunity to deliver bulk LPG pulling a company trailer, and Bill accepted the task and enjoyed this run for 16 years. “I looked at many options for my first truck, including an R model Mack but found the cab far too small for me. Looking over the new N12 Volvo the numbers were where I wanted to be and promised to be a good fit for the job, and it certainly was that. In 560,000km the ‘Nordic Knight’, as it was affectionately known, only ever required two clutches, the oil cooler fell off it once, and I had to fit a new water pump to it. Resale was good as well; I paid $140,000 for the truck and in the end sold it for $50,000, so a great truck all-round,” said Bill. This trouble-free run in the N12 led to it being replaced with a new FL10 Volvo (refer New Zealand Trucking October 1993, main test), again, another good truck.


Photo: The Austin lubricants delivery truck that saw Bill leave the confines of the Auckland CBD to travel the upper North Island.


Photo: Wynyard Wharf circa 1984, before becoming a craft beer and vaping precinct for trendy Millennials, is where Bill ventured into the realm of owner-driving for Shell Oils with his first new truck, a Volvo N12.

It was the demise of the LPG being delivered in bulk to Auckland via rail that forced Bill’s hand to replace the FL10 with a bigger FH12. “It was asking a bit much of the FL10 to drag a full load out of Taranaki back to Auckland every day,” said Bill. In 2000 the contract to distribute Shell products throughout the North Island was granted to Provincial Freightlines of Kopu, bringing about the end of the owner-driver positions. The timing was a good catalyst for change as Bill and his wife had decided they wanted to be closer to family and grandchildren who were living in the Hawke’s Bay, so Bill requested and received a transfer to the Napier depot.

Bill’s time operating out of Napier has seen many changes, again driving many different and varied rigs. A Scania rigid 8-wheeler and 4-axle trailer with Provincial Freightlines to start with, then not long after Linfox acquired the business. From there Hooker Pacific gained the contract (now Pacific Fuel Haul) and with this MANs and Western Stars became the marques of choice. A few years back Bill earned himself a Beaurepaires Highway Heroes award through his cool-headed approach when faced with an adverse situation. While refuelling the Tamatea Shell, a bunch of yobbos raced past in a car and lobbed a lit Molotov cocktail onto the forecourt. Bill’s instincts kicked in and he immediately reacted by grabbing one of the buckets filled with windscreen washing water and dousing the flames before the very real risk of disaster could unfold. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Bill, the panicked Shell station attendant had run inside to call the fire brigade. When they arrived the situation had already been well and truly addressed by Bill, who to their astonishment they found casually going about the final stages of his delivery to the site, not fazed at all by the possibilities of what could have transpired.


Photo: The demise of bulk LPG deliveries to Auckland by rail required Bill to collect the LPG himself from the Taranaki, proving a step too far for the FL10 and instigating the purchase of a new FH12.

On reflection Bill describes how he has truly enjoyed his career choice and that along the way has met and made many friends. “I must admit that there are some health and safety stories that we probably cannot print as WorkSafe would raise an eyebrow or two, not to mention the greenies, but in the day a lot of it was common work practice and no one batted an eyelid. Now we have the polar opposite, with all manner of health and safety rules to abide by, including full overalls on a hot summer’s day – that would have been dreamed up by someone sitting in an air-conditioned office for sure. At least one plus is we no longer have to climb up on top of the tanks as everything is at ground level now,” said Bill. Throughout his journey Bill has seen many advances in technology. One to note was being present with the ‘Nordic Knight’ at the official opening of Shell Oil’s first Transerv 24-hour electronic diesel refuelling point in July 1985. The Sylvia Park Road site (still active today) was the first of its kind in New Zealand, developed on the back of the recent introduction of eftpos. We take this convenience for granted in this day and age, but back in the day it was revolutionary. New Zealand was an early adopter of the eftpos system, and it was companies like Production Engineering Ltd of Marton that put their thinking caps on and produced the hardware used at the Sylvia Park Road site.


Photo: Bill’s personalised plate ‘HI YAWL’ that his trucks sported when he was an owner-driver, now finds a new home on the Camry.

A personal accolade Bill has achieved throughout his 50-year career as a professional driver is the ability to have remained accident-free, and considering the kilometres he has clocked, that in itself is a colossal triumph. “I have always maintained that we are generally the slower vehicles out on the road, so pull over and let the faster traffic through, and keep an eye on your mirrors; it is common sense really,” Bill said, and we could not agree more. Moving into the retirement phase of life is where Bill is focusing his energies now, having taken up lawn bowls and planning a trip to the UK next year. However, it sounds like it will be a slowly does it approach to full-time retirement. Pacific Fuel Haul now has Bill’s number on speed dial as a relief driver, and in fact Bill had four days of work already booked for the following week. You cannot blame Pacific Fuel Haul really; you never want to lose conscientious operators who achieve the daily deliveries with the minimum of fuss, taking care of the rig, and most important of all, acting as an ambassador for the company on the road in front of the motoring public. From us all here at New Zealand Trucking we wish you well Bill with your future travels and enjoying some quality time with family and friends.