Sollys Freight (1978) Ltd, known as Sollys Contractors, has built its transport business on the back of Japanese trucks since purchasing its first Isuzu in the 1970s.
The company now has 84 trucks, the majority of which are from the Nissan/UD and Isuzu stables. While awaiting the new Isuzu GIGAs and after UD's withdrawal from the 450plus horsepower group and a poor run with the earlier Isuzus, Sollys looked further afield, while still focusing on the Japanese suppliers. Enter their second Hino.
Photo: The Hino crests the summit north bound and heads for one of New Zealand's longest on-highway descents.
When Sollys' driver Mark Brunning's 2008 450hp Nissan had travelled 1.2 million kilometres and came up for replacement last year, it was replaced with a 480hp Hino 700 series 6-wheeler and new 4-axle trailer. It joined a Hino that was already a couple of years old and had proved itself as a livestock unit. The new unit is set up as a bulk tipper with the alloy bins and trailer built by Cowan Trailers in Rangiora.
The truck meets Euro 5 with SCR, and the DEF tank and big exhaust system combine with the sleeper cab, hydraulics and large bin to result in a tare of 10,080kg, 2000kg more than the naked cab and chassis. Nevertheless, the overall unit is able to cart about 29.5 tonnes of payload -- a decent load on a unit that has an overall length of 18.4 metres and the access advantages of a 6-wheeler.
Top photo: Loading 29.5 tonne of a Dolomite magnesium blend at the Golden Bay Dolomite Ltd quarry. Below photo: Drive at Sollys and you'll become proficient at all the skills required to keep the truck rolling. Mark's ability on the loader would give a bystander the impression he is a full time operator.
Perhaps the most unusual component in the truck is the 16-speed ZF AS Tronic automated manual transmission (AMT). Sollys chose the AMT over the traditional 18-speed and Mark is very pleased with its performance. The performance of AMTs in Japanese trucks is often criticised, but we had heard good reports about the ZF's capability behind the Hino engine and were keen to find out more.
Photo: The Hino's Intarder and engine brake combination gives it an amazing ability to descend quickly and quietly with little more than the occasional dab of the foot brake.
We met Mark and the Hino at Sollys' Richmond (a few kilometres from Nelson) yard one afternoon and did the trip over the Takaka Hill to their main depot in the town of Takaka with a full load of wheat in the bins. The Takaka Hill is one of New Zealand's iconic routes and a must for every truck driver to experience. For Sollys' drivers, especially Mark, who used to do it three times a day when he carted fertiliser in a Sollys company-owned Kenworth, it's their bread and butter route. It is the only route in and out of Golden Bay, an important rural and tourist region.
The trip is exactly 100 kilometres and usually takes one hour and 40 minutes. The run to the base of the hill is flat and effortless for the Hino. But the steep relentless climb from close to sea level to 791 meters in just a few short kilometres is a shock to any truck's system. You could be forgiven for thinking torque and horsepower would rule this hill, but it's very clear that even when going uphill loaded, Mark has to slow the Hino for the tight narrow bends. He clearly knows the road intimately and leans forward to look around corners that could conceal anything from an H-plated logger to a sightseeing tourist in a roller-skate rental car.
It's on the downhill run that the answer to effectively crossing the Takaka Hill becomes evident. Excellent retardation is the answer. The AS Tronic transmission has a ZF Intarder incorporated and the Hino engine has a Jacob's style engine brake. Mark has a four-stage lever on the right side of the steering column to slow the 44 tonne truck. He only needs to use the fourth stage a couple of times and says he is very wary of it in snow or ice because it applies massive retardation through the eight driving tyres; however there is a safety system that prevents it from locking the wheels. Coming down the hill at a reasonable speed with a large safety margin makes the crossing comfortable and quick.
Photo: Crossing the Aorere River Bridge. Note in the background the haul roadup the side of the hill to the dolomite quarry.
Sollys only has a couple of trucks with over 500hp; over the years owner Merv Solly has refined the business's medium horsepower Japanese truck business model and it's obviously worked well for him. He explained his operation when we met with him and his son, Ed Solly, who has been involved in the business since he was a child and is now the transport manger, allowing Merv to focus on his sustainable farming techniques and other business interests. This year Ed's son, Leighton, has become the fifth generation Solly in the business, since Ken Solly started with a Chev truck in 1928 in Collingwood. Merv's daughter, Adele, is another key member of the company.
Photo: The Sollys Hino 2848 is a mere speck on the landscape at the bottom of the Takaka Hill in Golden Bay.
Photo: Standing at the top of the Eureka bend switch back the truck almost passes directly under us.
Photo above and below: Dragging the 44 tonne GCM around the 15km/h bend.
Before sunrise the next morning Mark tips the load of wheat at a farm in Collingwood and then picks up a load of Dolomite magnesium fertiliser from Golden Bay Dolomite, a quarry Merv owns in Collingwood.
We get a chance to have a look at the Cowan Trailers bins before loading on the quarry weighbridge. Mark spent some time driving side-tipper road trains in Western Australia and had an idea for an eliptical cover system and a two-way tailgate. Gary Cowan designed the system and it works well.
Although the covers must be rolled back before tipping, it means Sollys has a versatile unit that can easily be loaded with a few pallets or bagged bulk and the cover can be rolled across in a few seconds. The ladder system is another of Mark's initiatives; it extends to the ground, ensuring a stable and safely angled climb to access the bin and get the last of the product out of the corners when using the grain door.
The truck does have scales operated through the air bags, but Mark is not convinced of their accuracy and prefers to verify weights on a weighbridge.
The Dolomite load is bound for Christchurch and we get the opportunity to have a look over the truck before Mark heads south through the Lewis Pass to the destination seven hours drive away.
Photo: The interior of the Hino is well laid out, quiet and an ideal no fuss driver's environment. Mark would prefer the shift tower a little further left.
Photo1: Air bag scales are a great 'extra' but no substitute for checking on a bridge. Photo 2: A good four steps up into the Hino. Photo 3: The 16-speed ZF AMT came with a good reputation behind the Hino product and to date had done nothing to tarnish that.
The truck looks solid, Sollys' green and white livery is strong and the polished alloy bumper balances the bins and alloy wheels. The painted cab extenders, white sun visor and raised air intake finish the cab off nicely.
It's a long way up to the driver's seat, with four decent steps to take, but the grab rails are excellent. Inside the engine cover dominates the cab, indicating that the 13-litre engine is not particularly petite. Nevertheless, it's a roomy cab with a reasonable sized bunk that Mark rarely uses because the company prefers their drivers stay in motels.
The dash is typically Japanese, everything is there and easily accessed. It's just the way Mark likes it, and after a few years watching the gauges in American trucks, he's happy to view his uncluttered Japanese layout. The vinyl floor covering is particularly practical as well as easy to maintain. But the truck doesn't miss out on modern necessities, it has the technical advantages we would expect in any heavy-duty truck's cab, such as cruise control, remote locking, a decent audio system with Bluetooth, heated mirrors, and an ISRI air seat. The narrow bunk looks comfortable and the truck is equipped with blackout curtains to maximise privacy when required.
The cab is air suspended and safety features include ECER29 compliancy, a driver's airbag and front underrun protection.
There are eight bridges in the four kilometres between Collingwood and the quarry, and the route is not approved for high productivity combinations. The relatively short and light unit provides an advantage for the rural sector; not only is it able to negotiate farm tracks more effectively, but it can also work in areas where more productive units are not permitted.
However the powers that be are not convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs of seven axles on the road and are proposing to make units like this less cost-effective in the VDAM changes. Merv Solly is convinced that the rural sector does not benefit significantly from the high productivity regime and has some strong views on the limitations of the regime and its impact on the rural sector.
Mark tops up the 400-litre polished aluminium square fuel tank at Sollys' Takaka depot and takes a half-hour break before hitting the road.
We're soon negotiating the 15kph Eureka Bend at the foot of the Takaka Hill, but the engine and fan are remarkably quiet as they answer the demands placed on them during the climb.
Mark keeps the revs up and manually controls the AMT on the hill. At around 1600rpm the truck drops to ninth on the steepest section, but still maintains 30kph. The traffic often includes cyclists and unpredictable tourist drivers, factors that when combined with the narrow, tight curves, means Mark cannot take full advantage of the truck's torque and the speed it is capable of going up the hill. He knows all the spots were he can pull over to let traffic past and gives camper vans and caravans a fair go.
On the downhill stretch Mark is wary of the AMT being out of gear for more than a split second, so he continues to select gears manually and changes at points when it's clearly safe. He had difficulties with an AMT in a Japanese truck a few years back and is still cautious around them, although he stresses the ZF has been problem-free and he likes it. He adjusts the retarder lever constantly and rarely touches the footbrake.
Mark drives the Hino downhill faster than we would expect, his experience and the excellent retardation ensure safety is not compromised. He compares the technical advantages of the new truck with earlier ones, such as the 350hp Isuzu he drove a few years back, which took 20 minutes longer to complete the Takaka to Nelson run, and the Nissan he drove immediately prior to the Hino, which he pegged back to 30kph on sections where the new Hino is comfortable at 45kph.
We avoid the narrow Motueka Bridge and head up the west bank of the Motueka River (another route without HPMV approval); it's less congested than the main route. Mark lets the AMT decide when to change gear. Villages like Tapawera have speed restrictions that he is very aware of and complies with to the letter. He selects 15th gear because the transmission will switch between 15th and top gear (16th) too often if left on its own in the lower speed limit zones.
Below photo: Mark Brunning is a native of Golden Bay and still lives there today. No driver would know the infamous hill any better. A year into the Hino's life he is more than impressed with the truck.
Mark is very happy with the AS Tronic transmission and we have to agree that it performs excellently, the changes are remarkably fast and it decides when it should skip gears perfectly, even skipping three (or was it four?) gears at once when it changed up on a long downhill section. While we didn't let it change our long-held view that the Volvo Group's I-Shift is still the best AMT, it came a lot closer to our idol than any other transmission has. It matches up with the Hino engine's characteristics superbly.
The stretch along the Motueka River's west bank is your typical sealed country road -- narrow with reasonable straights, bends and bumps, plenty of bumps. The ride in the Hino's cab is excellent, the single steer configuration helps, but even so it's significantly better than we expected. It's quiet too, and the automatic gear changes are hard to detect. Mark likes the comfort and comments on the driver's seat quality, some of the other trucks have been fitted with different seats after driver complaints, but the Hino's ISRI is comfortable.
His only comment is that the gear lever mount is too far to the right and he would prefer not to have to rest his leg against it all the time.
Vision is great and the mirrors superb, although Sollys did add a downward spotter mirror above the left door to help in tight spots. Mark was not especially impressed with the high beam lights and they have been supplemented with Great White LED units. But Sollys has a policy of adding auxiliary LED high beam lamps, and is currently fitting Hella ones to all new trucks.
One of Mark's requests was for the spray suppression brushes fitted to the front mudguards. The truck has 385 tyres and Mark says the super singles can throw spray onto the mirrors, but the suppressors overcome that issue.
We make the turn on to SH6 and head over the Hope Saddle, another steep hill that the truck handles comfortably in 10th gear. Coming down the other side we easily catch other trucks and have to join the queue, another indication that a horsepower rating on the low side of 500 is not necessarily a disadvantage.
On the other side of Murchison we turn on to SH65 and take the Shenandoah Highway alongside the Maruia River all the way to Springs Junction. It's another climb, but much longer, and the ZF transmission only drops to 13th on the steepest section. Mark watches his mirrors on the busy narrow highway and lets traffic past whenever its safe, but only one truck catches us, a 600-odd horsepower logger piggybacking its trailer.
At Springs Junction Mark tops up the tank, 180 litres burnt in 263kms (1.46kpl/4.12mpg) is higher than we expected, but it is tough going and over better terrain the fuel consumption would surely be much better. The 212km run from Springs Junction to Christchurch is much easier and it only requires 105 litres (2.01kpl/5.69mpg) to top up the tank on the east coast.
Hino's 2848 is a great truck for the role it plays with Sollys.
It's solid, comfortable, easily driven and safe. What's more, it can get into places, especially rural places, that are not accessible by 8-wheelers and larger units. But the key to its value is its quick passage times and an overall average speed that is enhanced by the great retardation system.