Worthy of your trust - Fuso

Thursday, June 29, 2017

You could say ‘stick around long enough and you’ll become part of the furniture’, but the margins in trucking mean that’s never going to happen. Whether it be man or machine, you either prove you’re worthy or you’re gone.

If you look at the trio that comprises the substance to this month’s main test – the Fuso product, Keith Andrews, and Warwick Rhodes – the one assertion you couldn’t level at them was a lack of tenacity, and in the case of the non-mineral members of the threesome, passion.

We’ve been reminded a couple of times recently, when sampling newcomers to the market, just how far the original brands from Japan have come in their quest for acceptance in the antipodes. For Fuso, like the others, it’s been a roller coaster four-plus decades with highs and lows, but the end products are now well suited, reliable and have a regional feel that’s uniquely theirs and not an attempted copycat of something else.

Fuso, though, has recently entered the next stage in its story here. The importing and wholesale business has changed hands from long-standing Mitsubishi Motors New Zealand to Fuso NZ, a wholly owned subsidiary of Keith Andrews Trucks Ltd (KAT).

Ask any operator in the greater Auckland and Northland region who’s had dealings with KAT over the past quarter century and you’ll hear about brand passion, exemplary service and product support. If KAT’s history as an innovative customer-focused dealership is a yardstick, the folk at Daimler have played a blinder in selecting someone whose record speaks volumes for their belief in the brand.

What we need in the story now is a customer. Like the other two, ideally someone who arrived on the scene in the past 25 to 40 years, who needed good, reliable, well-supported gear at an affordable price to get them though the days when everything’s on the line. Enter Warwick Rhodes Contractors Ltd in Warkworth, better known by the convenient and catchy ‘Rhodes for Roads’ painted on the distinctive fleet of Aztec red trucks.

Warwick Rhodes is a dyed in the wool Fuso and KAT supporter, two brands that have played a key part in him building his own brand. And what’s more he’s old school, meaning he’ll stand by those who stand by him.

To the hills!

We met driver Roger Prictor in Helensville on a clear autumnal day. He was in his two-month-old Fuso HD-Euro FK470K1, resplendent in the Rhodes livery and sporting a brand new Transfleet body and 4-axle trailer. Handshakes were quickly exchanged and we were on our way to a farm race development at South Head on the lower Kaipara, with a tad over 29 tonne of gravel in the bins.

We chose this truck because it represents a few firsts in the Rhodes fleet. It’s the first of the HD Euros in the fleet, it’s the first with an AMT gearbox, and it’ll be the first to wear an H plate, although not quite yet. In 6-wheeler and 4-axle trim the combination tares at 15,620kg, meaning it’s good for a healthy pile of fill even without H plates.

The first thing that’s immediately apparent in this generation of big Fusos is the cab height. From the ground to the roof is now a lofty 3125mm in the standard spec, and with its bigger front feet in offset placement you can add a few millimetres to the Rhodes truck. It certainly warrants the extra step the truck has in the ascent to the driver’s seat, and it gives the driver a commanding view. Roger agreed visibility was good, but it’s no longer a jump in and out scenario as it was in his previous ride, an FV430. That’s possibly not a bad thing in this ‘three points of contact’ era we live in.

The Mercedes-Benz origins of the engine are well known and the Euro 5 (SCR) 12-litre OM457-T5 has no trouble propelling the Fuso out of town and the 12-speed Fuso INOMAT II G230 AMT picks away at the gears without issue.

But this is Northland, and it doesn’t take long for Northland roads to do their thing. Of all the crappy roads in Auckland’s hinterland, Northland scores the highest on the crud scale. They’re a sad indictment of who the losing parties are when it comes to roading budget allocations in the wake of mega projects and earthquakes, not to mention super-city implications.

The road out to South Head is a 45-kilometre maze of steep nasty little climbs, twists and turns, and it’s not long before the driveline has plenty to do. The engine produces 335kW (DIN), (470hp (PS)) at 1900rpm; and 2200Nm (DIN), (1644lb/ft) of torque at 1100rpm. The torque curve is nice and flat from about 950rpm to 1300rpm, the magic crossover point with the power line at just over 1200rpm where the engine’s producing roughly 209kW (279hp).

So the trick in this country is hit it hard, keep it spinning and let the torque drag you over the crests. The reason for this strategy is the characteristics of the INOMAT II AMT gearbox, and, to be fair, almost any AMT in a truck of medium power operating in H plate territory.

There’s been a heap of development work done on this gearbox to improve shift times, with the thick end of .4 of a second peeled off the original incarnation’s 1.3 seconds. There’s no question it’s come a long way and in 90% of applications it now performs admirably. However, if you don’t have 3000Nm of torque waiting at the bottom of the green band in country like this, you’d better know what’s about to happen just up the road, if you’re going to lean on the torque end of the performance curve. In this country, a climb can sharpen considerably even if for just 80 metres.

The Fuso will see plenty of dust in its life.

Roger said that it’s certainly taken a bit of getting used to, and there have been a couple of occasions where the show has ground to a halt. But as they say it does still go on, and with all of the modern driving aids like hill start assist and traction controls, it’s simply a matter of selecting low and wandering to the top, but it’s frustrating nonetheless. With training and familiarisation Roger has the Fuso broken in now, and if in any doubt it’s into manual mode, grabbing two at a time toward the upper end of the tach, and make sure there’s some wriggleroom in reserve.

“Even in manual the gears are still being changed by the computer so you can only change the ‘when’, not the speed of the change, or number of gears beyond two,” said Roger. Asked if he’d still prefer the 18-speed manual option available, he said, “Yeah, probably at the moment. There’s plenty I like about it though, like the auto [mode] when it comes to descending. It’s early days still, it’s just about learning it.”

The lowest gear we saw all day was sixth at about 1600rpm with plenty on tap in that cog. Roger’s closing comment was, “It’ll be interesting to see how things go with the H plate.”

The Fuso’s certainly no diminutive wallflower, its cab imposing as it leaves the Winstone Flat Top quarry in Wainui.

Out there and doin’ it!

But when it comes to delivering the goods in what is a modern, well-appointed, quiet and comfortable truck, the Fuso is a gem. We all know this truck will burst into life every time Roger puts the key in the slot and turns it, and in the end that’s the bottom line.

Warwick Rhodes won’t say too much about his first truck, a Ford N Series 5036, but start on the Mitsubishis or Fusos in the company’s lineage and it’s a different story. Likewise the Transfleet bodies and trailers.

“Transfleet have always built our alloy bodies. We get great service from them and it’s a great product. Matthew [Gillies] and the team are great people to deal with.” The same sentiment is directed at Keith Andrews Trucks.

“A great company to deal with who support the product well. They’ve been great to us.”

Roger’s been in and around this type of work most of his working life. He’s timely and immensely competent around the truck, with fast turnaround times and generally making it look easy. He’ll get though three complete trips from Winstone’s Flat Top quarry in Wainui out to the South Head site. It’s only about a 140km round trip so that’s an indication of the terrain.

There’s no room for concentration to lapse for a second on the run, because rarely does the twisting undulating road have a shoulder of any kind and half a metre off-beam will either see the Fuso cross the centreline or end up on its side in the water table. There’s no doubt the Fuso has the comfort to facilitate the necessary focus and sufficient power to keep fatigue at bay. Roger said the big front feet (Goodyear Omnitrac MST II 385/65 R22.5) make the truck a bit more fidgety on the road than his 430, but he’s used to it now.

The Fuso comes with all the modern-day handling and operational enhancements, including ASR (Anti Slip Regulation) and hill start assist as well as old staples like inter- axle diff lock. Rodger said the 4-stage Powertard with exhaust brake is more than adequate, especially when descending with the gearbox in auto.

The transmission has an economy mode to minimise fuel consumption as well as a slow manoeuvre mode, which is handy in Roger’s line of work when it comes to hooking up the trailer and negotiating the tight stuff.

When we left Roger the overwhelming feeling was one of satisfaction. Here in a single truck were three brands that have all come from tough beginnings where the only road ahead was hard work, followed by more hard work. All three – Fuso, KAT, and Warwick Rhodes Contractors – have matured to the point where they can all deliver their customers a premium and well refined product along with quality service, and in the case of the human members of the trio, exceptional support.

Manoeuvrability is king in this work.

It’s an easy to use, easy to keep smart environment. A selection of switchgear on the

main tunnel requires a turn of the head to select.

A strong back-rower

“The teacher used to refer to me as one of the ‘back-rowers’ in the classroom. One day he asked me what I wanted to do when I left school and when I told him he said, ‘someone’s got to do it I suppose’.” There’s not the slightest sense of ego or notoriety in Warwick’s recollection of the exchange; he’s not that kind of man.

Photo: Warwick Rhodes, like so many other Kiwis of his era, has proven just what can be achieved by combining vision, opportunity, and good old-fashioned graft.

Within five minutes of climbing into the cab of the Fuso, Roger was talking about Warwick, the company, the team, and what Rhodes for Roads was like to work for. We passed Warwick shortly after in his work vehicle and the RT crackled into life. A quick rundown on what was going on, the plan for the day, and it all ends in words like ‘mate’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘have a good day’.

Visit the company head office in Warkworth and the atmosphere is little different. There’s an air of comfort, everyone’s happy in both their own and the company ‘space’. The company’s pictorial history progresses around the walls. Like so many Kiwi success stories, you’re instantly aware that today’s accomplishments have come off the back of colossal effort, sacrifice and the sweat of many brows.

You also realise that the big, rich-voiced, laconic bloke who started it all with one grader knows that, and genuinely appreciates the efforts of his troops in building the company. There’s a sense of mutual admiration and respect.

Warwick Rhodes loved machines from as far back as he can remember. His dad Ron was a roading overseer at the Rodney County Council, and as a lad Warwick wasn’t far from the action. Once the obligatory ‘back-row’ requirement was completed, the condescending schoolteacher was left to demean essential tasks with other students, and in 1975, 15-year-old Warwick started work at the council also.

“The industry was struggling to get machine operators back then,” he says. “Me and two mates who also had jobs in the area were given exemptions and fast-tracked through wheels, tracks and rollers, and Class 5 trucks. I got my Class 5 in a J5 Bedford with a pole trailer the council used for hauling bridge beams. Oh, and incidentally my two mates had been ‘back-rowers’ in the same class at school as me,” he laughed.

In the 10 years he worked at the council Warwick gained experience on all manner of machines, especially grader operating where he spent a lot of time on seal extensions within the council boundaries. Because this was an era where councils completed infrastructure projects from start to finish, he also worked with the bridge building and utilities divisions  on construction and maintenance work.

The first Mitsubishi in the Rhodes Fleet, an FV433 Twin Turbo.

Warwick saw change coming in the political turmoil that surrounded the mid-eighties. He moved to secure a secondhand 6x6 Aveling-Barford grader off the Hokianga District Council, along with a J1 Bedford runabout and a Perkins powered Commer, and in 1985 he and wife Katie started Warwick Rhodes Contractors Ltd.

Initially the bulk of work was on sealing extensions. Warwick was working as a subcontractor on Quay Street in Auckland, pulling tram lines and resurfacing, when Alain and Dominique blew up the Rainbow Warrior. He remembers vividly seeing the boat stricken against the wharf.

“Things were so different. The commercial fishing guys who moored their boats in what is now the apartment and marina area used to bring us fresh snapper tied together with flax twine.”

In time the trusty old grader was upgraded with another Aveling-Barford, this time Detroit powered with PowerShift.

“It was a good machine, and it served me well.”

What really signalled big change and growth in the operation however, was the maturing of the Mahurangi Forest Block. Initially a New Zealand Forest Products stand, Warwick immediately got involved in roading work alongside Warkworth Contractors and Berger’s Transport. When Carter Holt Harvey took over some time later they offered Warwick the opportunity to put on trucks, providing a complete service. The first tip truck was a secondhand Ford N Series 5036 V8 towing a 3-axle trailer.

Its tenure in the firm wasn’t long but it’s a significant truck in the company’s history as its purchase signalled the beginning of the Warwick Rhodes – Keith Andrews relationship. The first Mitsubishi arrived shortly after, a FV433 Twin Turbo, rated at 320KW (433hp). Considered a big truck in the application, the new FV433 was one of the ‘pin-up’ trucks Mitsubishi Motors used to celebrate 25 years of the brand here in 1996. The truck also heralded the arrival of the well-known Rhodes Aztec red colour, a shade Mitsubishi were able to supply ex-factory for the trucks, and Toyota for the utes.

As a result of the forestry and a general increase in work that was coming from a rapidly growing area, the company was equipped and able to tender for bigger road building and contracting jobs.

Today, at 56 Warwick directs the operation from the company’s head office in Warkworth. There are 38 staff on the books, with the business focus still road preparation, civil and agricultural contracting work, and cartage.

“Our work is mainly between the Waiwera bridge and the foot of the Brynderwyns, although we’re happy to go anywhere. There’s plenty here to keep up busy though,” laughs Warwick.

As for Rhodes further down the track, sons Troy (33) and Tyson (27) are both working in the business, currently doing just what their father did, operating machines at the coalface, moving dirt and material, ensuring a great job is done for the customer.

“They both love it, so it’s looking favourable at the moment;" said Warwick.

A local lad doing just great

Like his boss Warwick, 36-year-old Roger Prictor’s a local lad as well. Schooled at Mahurangi College, he has spent his working life around machines and trucks.

Roger enjoys the Rhodes culture and is making the most of the opportunities the job and region offer, with a new rig, new house with partner Julie, and the sea on the back doorstep.

In fact Roger’s dad Joe and Warwick worked together as young, fresh-faced lads at the Rodney County Council. At the time Joe was working for Berger’s Transport Ltd (BTL), a company Rhodes for Roads eventually bought from Ron and Merilyn Berger in 2002, an acquisition that further strengthened the Mitsubishi presence in the Rhodes business.

Roger started out at Rhodes for Roads Contracting but has also worked elsewhere in the district. He did five years on diggers, crushers and dumpers, and three years ago he came back to Rhodes, saying it was the right move.

“I got sick of staring out of a digger at a rock wall,” laughs Roger. “Rhodes is a great place to work, the team are tight and everyone seems to work well together. There’s lots of variation too. With my experience, I can be put on a digger or a roller. I quite enjoy rolling actually. It’s quite a skill.”

Roger and his partner Julie have recently decided there’s no place like home and bought a house in Mangawhai. Roger has worked hard and made good decisions. He’s found himself with a new house and new truck and trailer, working at a great company in a picturesque part of the country. It doesn’t get too much better.