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THE CLASSICS LOCKER - FOR THE LOVE OF TRUCKS

Friday, January 17, 2020

With the family firm now in the hands of the next generation, a humble man who founded a Kiwi transport icon still loves nothing more than being immersed in a vehicle or machine restoration.


Photo: Mike Uhlenberg with the rare 6x4 KB6 International he’s restored.

Mike Uhlenberg was born in 1939 at Eltham in Taranaki, the eldest child of five born to parents who farmed at Mangatoki. He spent his early years at the local convent school before being sent to St Patrick’s College in Silverstream for two years. “I hated school, and I wanted to leave, and my father said I could not leave until I’d got an apprenticeship and had a trade. I really wanted to be a motor mechanic but the local garage here only took on apprentices every second year and had done that the year before.” The owner of the local triweekly newspaper, the Eltham Argus, heard Mike was looking for a job and got in touch. “He said, ‘well, it’s sort of mechanical but it’s not cars, it’s machines, would you like a job?’ So I took it. I was a linotype operator, but I was lucky, I did everything in the printing trade, from newspaper printing to all sorts of stuff. When I went to trade school each year, I was one of the few who knew every aspect of the printing trade

Mike’s apprenticeship was 10,000 hours or five years, whichever came first. Desperate to gain his qualification so he could then do what he wanted, he did overtime and back-to-back shifts to get his 10,000 hours. “About two months after I got out of my time, I left the printing trade, and went driving milk tankers. Is that a surprise? I just love trucks – my father was probably one of the first around here who had very early wheel tractors on the farm, and he had a little Caterpillar bulldozer, a 15 I think.” Mike’s first driving job was for the Eltham Dairy Company, driving a Thames Trader 75 with an 1800-gallon articulated tank on the back, a combination that was classed as a big unit in those days. In a dairy off-season in the early 60s, Mike and a friend went to Australia and went truck driving. “I did the Nullabor Plains a few times, but did mostly local around Wollongong to Crookwell. We carted fertiliser to there from Port Kembla, which is down near Wollongong.”


Photo: The Kenworth W923S2 in its prime on gas haulage.

After a few years, Mike’s father developed lung cancer and his mother asked if he would come home for a visit. “It was just coming on to the flush of the season, and the manager of the dairy factory said, ‘how long are you back for?’ I said I didn’t know how long, and he said ‘well, we’re busy, would you come down and drive a tanker for me, help us out?’ I never went back to Aussie! I stayed there until 1966 and then I bought my first truck, a C7 Commer.” By this time Mike was an owner-driver, carting metal and other products for the Ministry of Works, working out of their depot in New Plymouth. “We ranged between there and halfway through the Awakino Gorge, which was the end of our boundary north, and the end of the boundary south was Patea, round the mountain, State Highway 45, the road up through the Waitaangas to Ohura, which was all metal – it still is metal for most of that road today.” Mike had just the one truck, and says in those days you had to have a vehicle authority (VA) for the truck. “About 68, 69, I bought out general carrier Denis Butler in Stratford. He had another C7 Commer, but it was on a general goods licence, which meant I could work for anybody. With the Ministry of Works licence you could cart anything – and that meant anything – but only for the Ministry of Works and/or their contractors.

“A change in direction by the government and poor economic climate saw us get laid off from the Ministry of Works. I had just purchased a brand new Commer from W.R. Phillips in New Plymouth. I took it back and told Neil Phillips that because we had been laid off I wouldn’t meet the payments. He told me to keep the truck and see what happens: ‘you look like the sort of guy who will make a go of it, just pay us when you can’. I knew a fair few farmers from my milk tanker driving, so I brought the trucks from New Plymouth down to Eltham, and started carting metal around the farm tanker tracks and so on. “And I managed to meet the payments for the Commer.” Mike says all the drivers who worked for the Ministry of Works were very experienced in metal spreading, something a lot of the general carriers weren’t. “We got pretty good at it because we were doing it all day every day.” To protect the rail, the government limited the distance trucks could carry goods, initially to 30 miles (48km) in 1936, extended to 40 miles (64km) in 1961, and then 94 miles (150km) in 1977. Carriers were licensed to carry specific types of freight, within particular areas. Between 1983 and 1986 the government removed the limits on longdistance trucking, and the licensing system, which had controlled which goods could be carried and where, also ended.


Photo: Midway through rebuild.

“Across the road from here there used to be a bulk spreading outfit called Worthington Bulk Supplies. When the distance got lifted to 40 miles that meant we could cart between New Plymouth and Eltham. Before, all the fertiliser used to come in a railway wagon and be offloaded with a clamshell, and carted across into the bulk store. I went and saw the owner, Edgar Worthington, and said, ‘I reckon we can do a deal here, and I can cart it into your store cheaper than the rail and the clamshell costs combined’. We made a deal and that got me going again. We eventually bought that bulk store some years later.” In 1971 Mike sold one of the trucks and bought a White 2064. “It was a used truck and that White made our business. It had a GM in it, and it just never stopped.” Soon after Mike was asked if he was interested in carting logs for another client. “I said, ‘yeah, I’d do anything’. I got involved in native log cartage from out Whangamomona way into the local mill in Stratford for E.H. Fazackerley. So we ended up with a bit of metal, a bit of manure, and a bit of logs! We still only had a few trucks. “We did anything – because I had a general goods licence. With the native logging, some were one-log loads; they were big logs.” In 1974 Mike bought his first new Kenworth and started carting LPG to Auckland.

“The Kenworth was a W924,” says Mike, pointing to a photo of it on the wall. “That’s a photo of when it was new, and it’s when we changed our colours.” Mike goes on to explain the reason for the company’s change from dark green to its now iconic bright green and white. “A few times I’d be heading back into town with a log on and it would be a dusty day and I’d have local people nearly hit me. And I would say, ‘hell, couldn’t you see me, what’s wrong?’ They’d say they couldn’t see me and I’d say ‘bullshit! You know, a 40-foot log on, you must see me!’ but they’d say they didn’t. “Anyway, I had the misfortune of blowing two tyres out on the pole trailer one day, and my driver was bringing me out a couple of spare wheels for it. He came around a corner and just about buried the ute under the front of the truck. I said to him, ‘didn’t you see me?’ and he said ‘no, I didn’t see you’.” At a loss to understand why the trucks were seemingly invisible, Mike and the driver walked back up the road and looked back, discovering the dark green truck was blending with the bush. “About the same time, Chrysler brought out a twodoor Valiant Charger. My first wife, Carol, and I were driving into Stratford and we saw this Charger at the far end of Broadway. We had just ordered our first brand new Kenworth, which was going to be our flagship, and we both said at the same time, ‘that’s the colour it’s got to be, look at that car’. You could see it from one end of Broadway to the other. And that’s when our colour change came. “That colour has probably been our best marketing tool, because it stands out so much. It’s changed a little from the original, just by way of different painters, but it’s basically the same. You can see them a long way off.”

The gas haulage side of the business expanded and Mike says they still had to have VAs, and for the first 18 months or so they had to have a permit to cart against the rail. “I think if the road distance was one-third less than the rail, you could compete against them. There were also special permits for stock and loads that rail couldn’t cart – and LPG was one of them. They had a few rail tanks that they used but it wasn’t enough. For 18 months we worked on monthly permits, and to get these permits Carol went to the authorities in new Plymouth each month and waited for hours while the guy decided if they were going to renew them, something not many people know.” An International Transtar 4070 with four two-ton skid tanks chained to a 36ft flat deck was put into use as a tanker. “Rex Wood Truck and Tractor in Tauranga brought that in as a used truck from America. Along with the Kenworth, we had those two trucks on that job pretty much all the time then.” In 1978 Mike and Carol bought Eltham Transport, immediately selling the stock side of the business to Mack Brothers at Kaponga and retaining the general goods side of the business.

“We started to grow, quicker than I could actually keep up with it. We bought Eltham Transport to get the VAs really. They had a fleet of Bedfords and Ford Traders, and all sorts of small stuff. We put them into the fleet and then started getting rid of the small trucks and putting bigger ones on. “I was buying all sorts of secondhand Kenworths, ex loggers, all sorts of stuff. We had about 15 trucks at that stage. We were into everything bar livestock; we never carted stock. Not because I disliked stock, I just wasn’t a handler of stock.” Mike says the business just ticked along with the gas and the fertiliser, then later the bulk spreading side was sold to Gary Hooper and the log side to Mike’s cousin, Dave Uhlenberg. Throughout the late 80s and 90s all three of Mike and Carol’s sons began working in the business. Sadly, in 1997 Carol was killed in an accident, and Mike admits her death hit the whole family hard. “I didn’t want responsibility any longer; I just wanted to be a driver really. I was pretty lost there for a while. Carol had run the office and when the drivers came home they all came to her. She was really the mother of the place, and she ran all the trucks.”

After a couple of years during which Mike was still out on the road, doing 800km a day as well as running the trucks, he decided to step back a bit. “I buggered off to Canada for a bit, and put the boys in the driver’s seat of the business. We all decided that it would always be a family member in charge of the place; it won’t be a general manager or something. Daryl had also done his time as a motor mechanic, so he ran the workshop and the office, Chris looked after the despatch and operations, and Tony picked up anything else that needed attention. To this day they all run different aspects of the business and they work well as a team, they’re pretty close.” Mike says upon his return from Canada the boys asked if he was going to take control of the business again. “I said, ‘What for? You guys look to be doing good job.’ So I just went back driving and left Daryl in the office and Chris and Tony running the trucks and it’s just carried on from there. The boys, in my eyes, have run it tremendously well since that time, and they’ve driven it to where it is now.” Mike says when the gas side of the business was doing well, he let a lot of the general work slide away due to not having enough time to look after everything.

“If the phone didn’t ring, I didn’t worry; we had plenty else to do, it didn’t worry us. But the boys have now built up the general side of the business quite big again, as you can see by looking out at the yard.” Uhlenberg Haulage now has approximately 30 trucks and 35 staff. “We go up as far as Whangarei, down to Wellington, sometimes it used to be Nelson too, and over to Gisborne. We travel everywhere in the North Island, with gas and that. We’ve had the gas distribution since 1973, and while there have been a lot of business changes over the years, we’ve survived and have still got some of it after all that time – and there are not many guys in New Zealand who have had a contract that long.” Mike says although he hasn’t worked as a driver for about 16 years, he hasn’t lost his love of trucks.

“I just love the comradeship with the other drivers. The old days of being out on the road doing long-distance haulage was great because there weren’t that many of us in those early days. You got to know so many people around the country, different characters, and I loved all that. I loved my truck, I just loved my truck.” Although he’s a confirmed Kenworth fan, Mike says his favourite trucks are the 378 Peterbilts. The company has run many of this model over the years, and it seems that because they are so fond of them, they are quite hard to part with. “I enjoyed driving the Peterbilts, you sit in the driver’s seat and everything is where you drop your hand, it’s where it should be. That’s why the drivers here who have had the same trucks for a few million kilometres don’t want to get out of those trucks; they’re just so nice to drive.” Mike says in those days the extent of the electronics in the Peterbilt was electronic injection for the motor and power mirrors, which made them very reliable because there was nothing to break down. “And if it did, you could fix it – nowadays you break down and you don’t know what the bloody hell is wrong. And it’s always two o’clock in the morning when it’s hosing down with rain!”

Since Mike stepped back from the day-to-day running of the business, he’s got stuck into rebuilding trucks. “I did quite a bit on the S2 restoration [the 1981 Kenworth KW923S2]. That little dump truck, we’ve owned that truck since brand new, it’s never left the yard. I would hate to think how many ks it’s done.” The first six or so years of the truck’s life Mike says it was operating at 38 tonne as a tractor unit, carting gas to Auckland six days a week. “And it went every day. After it had done I don’t know how many ks – it would have done heaps – we decided to retire it to an around town metal delivery truck. We put a tipper body on the back of it and carted metal locally, then we put a trailer on it, which was never the intention, and it did that for many, many years. The boys decided they were going to sell it and then Daryl in his wisdom came up and said ‘well I’ve always wanted to restore one, let’s do this one’. “We took that truck right to pieces, it had what they call chassis heave, so we pulled it down to every last nut and bolt. Jeff, one of the mechanics at Uhlenberg’s at the time, took it to pieces, storing every last piece in boxes.” Unfortunately Jeff ’s father had a serious accident, meaning Jeff returned to the South Island, and the dismantled truck sat around the shed in pieces for quite some time. “Then I decided we better get it back together, so it was a pretty big joint effort between Peter Jackson from McCurdy’s and myself, also Tony had quite a bit of input into it too.

And it’s come up better than brand new.” In the early days of his driving career when Mike worked at the dairy company, the early morning starts meant he had time to do some parttime driving elsewhere when he had finished for the day. A regular was driving a KB6 International for a local carrier. “It was one of their older trucks in those days, and that was the truck I always drove if they wanted someone to do a bit extra.” When he retired, Mike decided he was going to rebuild one of those old Internationals. “I got talking to Jim Wilkinson, who used to own Cambridge Transport, and a big part of his fleet were KB6 Internationals. He had the remains of three of them under a tree at Cambridge and I bought them off him and I was going to build up this truck I used to drive. “One of the three was a tandem drive one, which was obviously a rarity so I decided rather than build exactly the same truck as what I used to drive, I’d rebuild this tandem drive because it was a little bit rarer than the others. That took me quite a while, used up a fair bit of my spare time!” Mike said he had three complete chassis, engines, and gearboxes, but the tin work (cab, bonnet and guards) were all pretty buggered. “I found another KB6 in the South Island which had good tin work but the engine was buggered and so was all the other stuff. So it took about four trucks to build what I’ve got. It took me about five years, because I only did it when I felt like it.”


Photo: What most people think of when they think Uhlenberg. A Pete delivering gas.

The rare KB6 was put back to a 6-wheeler, but Mike says what he did next would horrify the purists. “When I got it going and it was driveable, I thought ‘how the hell did we used to drive these things with a load on?’ because it was struggling empty. So I repowered it with a little wee Cummins engine out of a late model 3500 Dodge. The purists probably wouldn’t like it, but at least it’s an American engine in an American truck. A lot of people said to me ‘why don’t you put a little Isuzu in it or something?’ And I said ‘No! Like hell I’m going to!’” Uhlenberg Haulage has just the one Japanese truck in the fleet, but Mike would love to see that replaced with something American. “We had an earlier model Japanese truck, and when the boys were replacing it, I said ‘well, why don’t you put a wee single drive Kenworth in its place?’ They reckoned it would be too hard on it because it does the awkward little jobs, and said we had to go to the cabover. “There’s only one out there that’s not American, and my wish before I pass on is that I end up with a total North American fleet. I don’t think I’ll see that thing gone; it’s actually been quite reliable. But I would like to see a little Kenworth in there.” Once Mike got the KB6 going, he continued doing various bits and pieces around the yard, rebuilding an old Cat D6 bulldozer and doing a few bulldozing jobs.

“I sort of went off the highway. I’ve sold the D6 and I’m working on a Terex 8230, quite a big bulldozer. That’s currently in the sandblaster’s getting painted. I’ve got it mechanically good. It’s quite a big machine. “I love the sound of GM engines – and because anything that’s powered with a GM had to be good, in my eyes, that’s one of the reasons why I’m rebuilding it.” Mike’s also into classic cars, owning a 1949 Buick convertible and a 1941 Buick Club Coupe, the latter the only one of its kind in New Zealand. He also raced a Jaguar Mark 2 on tarmac and at car club events before selling the race car some years ago. In 2017 Mike was inducted into the New Zealand Road Transport Hall of Fame, something that came as a surprise to him. “I still feel there were a lot more worthy people than me who could have had that nomination. I still don’t know why I was nominated really. There are a lot of carriers around who have done more than I’ve done.” Always humble, there is no denying Mike put in the hard yards getting his business established. Even he admits there weren’t many operators carting long distance in the early days.


Photo: Looking resplendent on the far right with its SAR and W924 brethren also beautifully preserved.

“You could drive from Eltham to Auckland at night and not see another truck. And there were some characters amongst the drivers too! In those days the Ministry of Transport thought it was a privilege that they were issuing you with a temporary permit, and I suppose it was. We were favoured with good staff, and maybe that’s part of it as well, because your business is only as good as the people you have working for you.” Mike says the success of Uhlenberg Haulage today is down to the fact his three sons all get on well together. As mentioned earlier, Daryl looks after the admin side of the business, while Tony and Chris are picking up other bits and pieces as well as being out on the road as drivers. Family means a lot to Mike, and in his retirement he loves spending time with his grandchildren. “If you ask me what I do with my time, well, in the summertime I’ve got six grandkids and out of the six, five of them race speedway, so I have plenty to do! They’re all good kids, it keeps them off the streets, and it teaches them things.”