Many drivers have fond memories of the first new truck they ever drove, but few get the chance to own that same truck 40 years later.
Photo: Beautifully restored, the Mack R797 RS is a real head-turner.
In 1979 Ongarue Transport owner Bryan Wood was working for CR Poole of Taumarunui when Colin Poole bought the Mack R797 RS. Due to regulations at the time, it spent the first year of its life as a farm truck. “When buying a farm truck you got an investment allowance, but it wasn’t allowed to go on the road for 12 months,” says Bryan. “You got a 20 percent investment allowance, and then 25 percent depreciation.” The Mack, number 2479, was used to cart hay during that first year, before being put to work as a log truck, carting logs from Tokoroa to Taumarunui. “We carted slabs back to Tokoroa, carted timber back to Putaruru and Rotorua, and we used to bring timber back for the Taumarunui Timber Company too.” At the time, the CR Poole fleet consisted of just four trucks, and Colin’s son John remembers his father and Bryan familiarising themselves with the Mack. “I can remember you and Dad had to go out and load it up, and I still remember you coming back and saying to Dad, ‘Poole, you’re nearly stalling it again!’”
Photos: An iconic fleet of the era. The R797 Mack in Poole livery loaded with timber.
“It was the first brand new truck I ever drove,” says Bryan, “and it was powerful. I was 30 and I’d been driving for a while. I had it for 12 months and then I bought my own truck. “The truck I bought was a TK Bedford, it had a crate, and a hoist, so I could do a bit of general work, hay and all sorts of stuff like that. Went from 375hp down to 150!” The Mack stayed in the CR Poole fleet for about six years, then was traded in and ended up with JP Dittmer in Wellington, where it was made into a tipper. “And where it went from there I don’t know. It was doing house removals; it’s been around! It’s been in Whangarei, it’s had a few owners, it’s been all over the place,” says Bryan. In about 2012, Kerry James from Manawatu, who owned the truck at the time, contacted John to see if he was interested in buying the R797 back. It still had the original steering wheel with ‘Custom-built for C. R. Poole’ on it. “When John told me about it I said to him, ‘you should buy it’, but one of the reasons he wasn’t keen on buying the truck back was because it didn’t have the original motor. About six weeks later I saw it on Trade Me and I thought ‘bugger it’. I went and had a look at it and there was a rush of blood and I ended up buying it.”
The truck came with two cabs – the original and a spare. “That cab that’s on there now was a Freight Lines cab, and that came with the truck. Ben came over with me and we drove it to his workshop in Palmerston North, and that’s where it stayed.” Ben Tacon, who restored the truck for Bryan, started his working life as a mechanic, spending 12 or 13 years on the workshop floor, working his way up from being an apprentice to being a workshop 2IC. He worked at Jolly and Mills and says he’s known Bryan since the late 1980s. It was that relationship that led to Bryan asking him to restore the Mack. “Bryan had been an owner-driver on his own account, and so I knew him and Darryl [Gulbransen] before they took over Ongarue Transport. From there I had a lot to do with them, speccing the new vehicles and that type of thing, and I always had a lot to do with Bryan. He told me he’d bought the Mack from Kerry James, who is now at haulage company Vernon and Vazey.” Ben says Kerry had a couple of different Macks, including a Super Liner, and he’d bought the R model and was going to do some work with it but decided that he’d go another direction and bought a Marmon. “Bryan needed somebody to take on the task of getting it on the road and there was really nobody who stood out who wasn’t going to cost an absolute fortune. There are some very capable people who could do that type of work, but the cost of it would just get out of hand, not to say it didn’t really get out of hand anyway!
Photo: The old cab prior to having the interior stripped.
Photo: New cab doors fitted, right-hand air cleaner fitted. Working on left-hand air cleaner
“It’s a strange thing for someone who’s always worked on Fuso trucks, but I’d always been really quite keen on Macks and had quite a bit to do with them. The first job I applied for was to work for Motor Truck Distributors, but I ended up working for Jolly and Mills. And so I thought, ‘yeah, I’d like to have a go at it’.” The original cab had quite a bit of rust right at the front by the windscreen, so it was removed and swapped for the spare cab. “There was nothing in the replacement cab, so we swapped everything over, all the dashboard, the steering wheel, everything,” says Ben. “The cab was a later cab and so that’s why there were a lot of little bits and pieces that had to be done to it. Stuff like door catches all had to be changed to a different type. “I’ve got a reasonable size shed at home and I stripped the cabs and started to swap stuff over and did the modifications that were necessary. I fitted the doors and then got the whole cab panelbeated. It was a mission all right! I spent a lot of time doing it, which was easy enough because I could do it at home,” Ben says. When Bryan bought the truck a second air cleaner had been added on the left side, but it had been bolted to the cab, making it difficult to open the passenger door very wide. “So to make it easy, I built a bracket that was a mirror image of the one on the right and mounted it further forward on the left so you could open the door properly,” says Ben. “It was a lot of work; I built three versions of it and then had it pressed properly and it’s plated and everything.” Once the cab was finished, it was sent to Taumarunui to be painted by Dave (Shorty) Allen, and then the upholstery was done in Palmerston North by someone who used to do the original Mack upholstery. Tony Gulbransen [son of Darryl, who co-owns Ongarue Transport] did the signwriting.
Photo:The bill when new in 1979.
“And then it came back down and we started to reassemble everything. We spent quite a bit of time and effort getting the cab right inside. All the gauges and everything were functioning okay. I did a lot of work with the wiring, and remounted it all to the cab and then I re-plumbed the braking system because it was pretty shabby.” The Mack was just a tractor unit when Bryan bought it, and it had been shortened. It still had the original gearbox, a 12-speed Mack gearbox with two sticks, but a different motor. Originally it had a 375 Mack V8, but now it’s got an 8V92T Detroit 430hp. Ben says the motor and gearbox were in mint condition. “We never touched the engine apart from giving it a service. It was in really good order. Still is, it starts and it drives beautifully, it really does.” A new front bumper was fitted to the truck, but as it was not the original R model bumper, Ben had to make new brackets to mount it. Metalform in Dannevirke made the custom-made new rear bumper. “But the mudguards and everything else it has, Bryan bought. It’s had checkerplate and toolboxes added too.” Ben says a lot of people helped him during the restoration. “We got a lot of help from a chap in the parts department at Truck Stops. It’s got a new hood lining in it, all the windowwinding mechanisms are new, and there are new quarter-light windows. They potentially could have been hard to find but he was really helpful and it surprised me how it was quite easy to get that stuff.” Ben says they tried to get away without replacing the windscreen but it was cracked and they had no choice.
Photos: The interior is very familiar to Bryan, as apart from the communications equipment, it’s all original. The iconic ‘custom-built’ steering wheel hub.
As is the case with most restorations, Bryan says the process “took a while”. “It was too long and too much money! A lot of money, and it took three or four years.” Ben says Bryan was very, very patient. “I took it on, and – as you do – underestimated the time it was going to take. When I started I was working on it every Sunday, I would work on it for like 10 hours a day for probably four months to break the back of it in the end to get it right. It was well worth it. “I really enjoyed it as a challenge. It did my head in a lot of the time, but it was really interesting. People were very helpful and a lot of people would just lend you a hand, give you some information or tell you who to talk to. It was good.” Ben says the reaction to the truck has been really interesting. “There’s a real core of people who are really, really Mack orientated. And so of that era, they know where every single one of them is. And it was one that had dropped off the radar to a large extent. And the first question they ask is, ‘did it have that engine in it originally?’ because it didn’t.” Ben says it’s likely the engine was replaced purely because of cost.
Photo: John Poole (left) and Bryan Wood.
“Bryan drove that truck brand new, and I think it had two engines in it before it was two years old. They would have wanted to keep it going and they probably looked at doing up the Mack engine and it would have been too expensive so they just bought a Detroit and bolted it in. I don’t know what happened to the original engine, I’ve never had any conversations with anybody about where that engine was or what had happened to it.” Ben says he knows of a couple of other restored R797s, including Vera Lynn, owned by Bryan Menefy. “His is beautiful, absolutely original, but better than brand new. This was put back together to a nice usable standard, but it’s still an old truck. I suppose you’d call it a sympathetic restoration – it was about making it so that it was completely drivable.” Bryan says it’s a great feeling to own something that he drove and enjoyed all those years ago. He says in those days, not many trucks passed the 375 Mack. “They certainly could pull. They were the first truck with power – all the other things were sluggish. You put your foot down in those things and they were just bloody into it. And when the turbo was whistling, you knew something was going on. It was a beautiful sound, they popped away – pop, pop, pop.” The Mack is now in the colours of Ongarue Transport, the company Bryan and Darryl own together, and the end result of four years of work is a great testament to the passion put into the restoration. “Jesus, it was a big job. Ben did a lot of work to get it up to spec, and he’s very fussy, Ben,” says Bryan. Wherever the Mack goes, it attracts attention. “We’ve been to a truck show at Manfeild, and we’ve been on the odd run with the Northern Classic Commercials club, and last year we took it down to Mangatainoka,” says Bryan. “When we stopped at Taihape people would come over and comment on it. And once a fella was following me along the road near Bunnythorpe and when I pulled over he got out and he wanted to have a look at it. He worked at Motor Truck Distributors. And when I got to Manfeild a guy pulled up at the motel, another guy who used to work at MTD. People like to look at it, it’s a bit like with old cars, isn’t it?”