RETRO TEST - “And I say to myself, What a wonderful…ERF”

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Welcome to the first of a new, semi-regular series we’ve called Retro Tests. We’re going to sample trucks from the great era that spanned the early 70s, through until the early 90s, roughly…there are no hard and fast rules. To some degree we aim to investigate just how far we’ve come (if we’ve come that far at all), but the main thrust is to have a bit of fun, go on a nostalgic trip, enjoy a few laughs, and rekindle some fantastic yarns and memories from a great period in our transport history that’s now gone.

The main delivery media for the Retro Tests will be video, with print as the support; in other words, opposite from the magazine’s main test. We hope you enjoy watching and reading them as much as we do putting them together.

TR Group’s pristine ERF E14 and a trip from Christchurch to Auckland via Nelson. Is there any better way to kick off the Retro Test series?

“Are we right?”
“Yep, yep, yep, Houston we are go.” “Righto, I’ll shoot up the road and get you coming out of the city.” Select the gear, let the clutch out, the NTE Cummins drops a note or two, a toot, a wave, and we’re off. From that moment you know the next three days meandering home in this magnificent machine are going to be special ones. By the second set of lights you know some other things also. You know you have a new friend, a beautiful old tart, easy and cooperative, a pleasure to drive. You know again just how fantastic the NTE Cummins sounded from the inside as well as the outside, and with all that, you’re reminded how truck driving once was. It was more engaging, more inclusive, and a far more communicative act between driver and machine. A sister truck to this one was tested in the April 88 issue of New Zealand Trucking. Running under the Transpac banner, ‘Malt’ Mackay ran a nightly freight run ex Napier to Hamilton and return, towing a hard-side B-train at gross weights of around the 38 to 39 tonne mark. Malt had replaced a loyal S-Line and was after a similar spec with more comfort. Like the Fodens and S26 Scammells of the era, the ERF delivered just that. The non-American American truck with Euro comfort. Malt also commented on the ERF’s ease of operation. The conclusion on the day? The E-Series was a significant improvement on the C-Series in terms of comfort, appointments, ergonomics, and looks, and aside from a bit of a gap between the high and low range, the driveline was well set up for the task at hand.

Zoom forward three decades and here we are sitting in TR Group’s magnificently restored E-Series ERF, loping along in Christchurch traffic. There’s an utterly gorgeous note emanating from under the engine tunnel, you’re trying to just keep it rolling and not stop at the lights so you can just let her die back, ease on the throttle and have that baritone note come through the cab in waves.
Back in the day, this truck too spent the first six months in Transpac’s livery. It was one of the founding units at Truck Rentals Ltd, and then TR Group when it was formed in 98. Following its sale a short while later, the truck had a mixed life before ending up parked in a puddle in Napier in the mid- 2000s, having been traded for a paltry $8000. But TR Group’s Neil Bretherton arrived on the scene filled with Braveheart-like passion, and rescued his old mate from his watery depression, and the rest is history…well it’s a sidebar actually, just have a read of that on page 68. The ERF instantly rekindles the culture of the truckies’ wave. But they’re not waving at the driver. They’re waving at the truck.

“I drove one of those.” “Dad drove one of those.” Uncle, granddad, maybe even mum or auntie. They wave. It’s a beacon of the past, to great times, when you knew your dad because you rode with him in the weekends and holidays; when New Zealand was undoubtedly the world’s most cosmopolitan trucking nation – probably still is – when trucks had to be driven, and when the only real KPI was getting whatever was on the back delivered.

Driving out along the Balmoral straights south of Culverden you really are aware of what a nice place this is. Like nana’s old 70’s couch that’s way comfier than it’s supposed to be. Yes, as the test said then, at cruising speed you can still easily hold a conversation across the cab. It’s nowhere near as quiet as the cutting edge now, but it wasn’t back then either. The cab bobbles around a wee bit, probably wouldn’t get top marks by today’s standards, but could you drive it all day? Yeah, easy. Did we get sore backs at any stage? Nope. The dash has a slight wrap and everything falls to hand. The gauge set-up is cool, with the needle regiment pointing left and straight when life is bliss, except for the tachometer and odometer of course.

The big ‘yikes’ by today’s benchmark is the steering wheel position, mounted in that ‘Blighty trucks of the 70s’ dead flat position. What sort of gunja were those old designers on back then? It leaves a twenty-to-four as the only real option for relaxed tillering. This is a country that invented the bouncing bomb and Spitfires. Surely we had the know-how to design a nice, high, even semi kicked-back steering wheel. There’s no coffee cup holder, but in those days we didn’t spend the thick end of half a house deposit every three years on flash caffeine, and you’d have to say the four-drawer cassette holder is not as handy now as it was then. Hang on, maybe it is. What was space for 40 cassettes is now a place for 140 induction cards…perfect! Carpet on the engine tunnel, vinyls, plastics, and rubbers in an instant-coffee beigey-brown kind of tone…‘nooiiiice’. Gotta love the 80s.

Running gear wise she’s all there. The 14-litre NTE Cummins motor in the 88 truck produced 284kW (380hp) at 1900rpm – although the TR one’s 400hp by all accounts – and 1654Nm (1220lb/ft) of torque at 1300rpm. Behind that is the Roadranger RT14609A 9-speed transmission, and further back, Rockwell SSHD diffs. Front suspension is semi-elliptical taper leaf springs and shocks, and rear is Hendrickson RTA380 suspension.

But all that’s largely irrelevant. She’s retired, her days of meaningful earning well behind her. The ERF drove beautifully, and slipped in and out of gear like a dream. She was still lively and full of beans, keen to have something heavy on board that needed delivering. Sadly, the ute and all its guff probably gave her 3 tonne at best. The 88 review said the 9-speed was well suited apart for the gap through the range change. The prophecy of the increasing uptake of such gearboxes we now know didn’t come to fruition, and the all-conquering 18-speed, matched to a new generation of motors, would sweep the scene, giving the best of both worlds. Drive it how you like, whether you’re a traffic light gear-jamming junkie or a chilled-out skip-a-roo, there’s always a ratio just waiting for you. There’s no doubt the 9-speed would struggle in today’s world where GCMs are up 12 tonne on the 88 test truck.


Photo: From the south’s rivers of blue to the north’s silt and estuarine clay ‘delights’. Crossing the Waihou at Kopu and almost home.

Steering and handling wise she was spot on. Her recent birthday of all birthdays gives you taste of the truck as it was. Having a pendulum brake pedal and the bobbly cab meant we went through an initial familiarisation period, but once acquainted with this truck you just never want to leave. What an absolute joy rolling through the Lewis Pass, Shenandoah, and a day or so later letting her babble her way over the Whango’s and then barrelling along past the endless grape vines of Marlborough (no pun intended). The bulk of the North Island was done in the dark, but that beautiful engine note was emotional comfort food for a trucker rolling through the peaceful night.

Three days after we left Christchurch it was a reluctant farewell to our old yellow friend. She absolutely hadn’t missed a beat the whole way. You had the sense that three of us had been on an adventure, Carl, me, and the ERF. Have we come far since Malt Mackay’s test in 1988? Well, there’s still an engine, gearbox, and diffs with suspension and chassis rails, and a shed with a window at the front. Boffins will hold you ‘captivated’ with the technology they’ve injected, making trucks more productive, and safer. The sad part about all that though, is they won’t hear a word you’re saying when you’re trying to explain to them the unexplainable – that in all their cleverness they’ve left something behind. Something that’s still very much alive in an old, beautiful, yellow ERF parked in a shed in Penrose.


“The Rolls Royce of trucks”
Many moons ago, the early 90s to be precise, Ron Carpenter needed one of his ERF E-Series trucks relocated from Christchurch to his property in Palmerston North. At the time, Neil Bretherton was at university in Christchurch. Ron’s son Andrew and Neil had been mates through school and so Ron called Neil and asked if he could bring the truck home. “So I brought it up,” said Neil. “It was the greatest trip of my life. I left Christchurch at one in the morning to catch the six o’clock ferry and drove up with the window down the whole way. I remember Andrew saying to me when the truck was parked in a paddock in front of Ron’s place, ‘You know, this is the Rolls Royce of trucks’, and in my mind it’s never changed.


Photo: The complexity of the modern truck cockpit is best exemplified by the simplicity of the ERF. A functional easy-to-use workspace that you could still spend a working day in.

This truck is the epitome of a truck.” Over the years Neil kept track of E-Series ERF number plates, harbouring a desire to track down one of the original ERFs and bring it back to full glory. “I think it was 2007 down in Napier and I saw this thing sitting behind a workshop in a huge puddle, and I thought, ‘That’s our old truck.’” It wasn’t just any old truck, it was the truck that Neil had driven to Palmerston North all those years ago. Neil bought the truck and for the next 10 years it would serve as the company yard tug in TR Group’s Penrose yard. As the 25th anniversary of the company loomed, the planned restoration was undertaken. The truck is in its original Truck Rentals Ltd livery. As he casts a glance at the ERF sitting beside us there’s a glint in Neil’s eye. “This is my truck in terms of a bonding experience.”


Photo: Scaring the Kereru on the Shenandoah with you know what.


Photo: Two grand old ladies.


Edwin Richard Foden’s best mate, Jake
As a schoolboy I was out for the day in an LW Kenworth logger; we are in the midst of unloading at Thames Sawmilling Company near Thames when above the din a rumble resonates right through us. I turn towards the entrance of the mill trying to glimpse what it was generating this diesel-based orchestral wonderment. Into view came Graeme ‘Gunner’ Wright in his MW ERF.

The moment you mention ERF in front of any diesel junkie, whether they tend to a Euro or Yankee flavour, they will immediately recount a love for the brand’s ability to combine the Jacobs heads on a Cummins, with a Donaldson muffler, and produce a wind instrument that would cause Beethoven to go back and rewrite the 1812. A note so enjoyable and addictive that some operators even today tinker with their late model Euro 5 units – sometimes at huge risk – just to try and get somewhere close. While bureaucrats continue to acknowledge your The truck that started a love of the British Jacobs Brake symphony for Carl. product’s effect on society with the placement of ‘No Engine Braking’ signs at the entrance to their municipalities, we salute you Edwin Richard Foden with a 21 ‘Jake’ salute.


Photo: The truck that started a love of the British Jacobs Brake symphony for Carl.

Thank you TR Group
We’d had the idea for the Retro Tests for a wee while and it was the wonderful team at TR Group who offered the ERF to kick us off. Thanks so much to everyone in the TR family for their time, patience, and generosity in getting this first one on the road.