The Old Sheila
Back in 1982 two trucks quietly rolled into the Mulgrave headquarters of Mercedes Benz (Australia). Not well known at the time, only a handful of truck fanatics and industry commentators recognised them for what they were; the first Right Hand Drive Freightliners ever built. Australian Roadtrains in Action Editor, Howard Shanks recently took one for a run.
It was an invitation that an eccentric truck fanatic like myself couldn’t pass up, a test drive in a very rare Freightliner FLC120 affectionately dubbed, the ‘Old Sheila’. While some enthusiasts may argue that these trucks are a little young to deemed Classic or historic trucks, they are truly classic vehicles in their own right. Especially considering that they covered over 3.5 million kilometres from 1982 to 1998 in various test roles and survived. For any truck manufacturer the introduction of a new model is a major exercise culminating from years of development, proving and manufacture. For the MBA organization, as they were then known, the introduction of an entire new brand of vehicle signaled a mammoth task and the ease at which this happened may well be attributed in part to the success these two test trucks enjoyed in the development stages of the launch. Imported under a special agreement, the two units can never be sold and are of little use back in their home country because of their right hand drive configuration. So the decision was made to restore the machines to showroom condition as a testament to the tenacious ability of the Freightliner product. unit is specked with an NTC400 Cummins, 15-speed Roadranger and Rockwell SSHDs at 4.11:1 on a 4-bag Freightliner Airliner suspension. The second unit is specked with an NTC350 Cummins 15-speed Roadranger and Rockwell QR40s at 3.54:1 on a Freightliner 4-Spring rear end. They arrived originally without sleepers, these were added at a later stage when they entered the MBA delivery fleet. How do you tell the two units apart? The lavishly restored red FLC120 is the 400HP model. It was originally white and fitted with a fibreglass bonnet. The light blue unit is the 350HP model and has the alloy bonnet with alloy rims while the red unit originally came with spider hubs. Flick through some old US Freightliner brochures and one quickly learns that this basic cabin shape was introduced in late 1973, with full production ramped up during the spring of 1974 (translated that’s our Autumn). This model was the first completely designed Freightliner conventional. Incidentally, the first run of these models displayed a non-standard ‘Freightliner’ badge on the grill only. Prior to the introduction of this conventional, Freightliner`s core market was in the manufacture of cabovers. At the time these were built by Freightliner and sold and marketed by the White Motor Corporation and badged as ‘White Freightliner’ in the coat hanger frame. As the US market was, and still is, a predominantly bonneted truck market, how did Freightliner ever succeed by specialising in COE vehicles.
The answer is found in the humble beginnings of a company that has since risen to become market leaders in heavy vehicle manufacture. Leland James was an innovative transport operator; a truck driver since the age of 19, he founded a carrying company known as Consolidated Freightways Inc in 1929. Consolidated Freightways was based in Portland, Oregon and serviced ten western states in a cooperative deal with five other carriers. James never wanted to become a truck manufacturer. He simply wanted a lightweight, more durable truck with better ride that could legally haul more freight to boost his trucking company`s revenue. He approached established truck manufacturers but they showed little interest in his lightweight cab-over-engine concept. So the Oregon based business maverick decided to tackle the project himself. Fleet’s mechanics had customised parts and rebuilt rolling stock to lower operating costs and boost efficiencies. Besides, back then it was impossible to buy trucks to a customer`s specifications and replacement parts were not often easy to come by during the Depression. So his mechanics were ready when James decided to pursue his own design for a COE truck. James was intrigued with the potential of aluminium, a new comer to the metal scene. He encouraged the use of aluminium parts to save weight. The first experiments were with brake shoes and suspension hanger brackets on his refrigerated trailers. By the mid 1930s mechanics in his Portland shop were experimenting with a hodgepodge of used trucks and cab-over-engine designs. history books will reveal what appear to be many COE style vehicles prior to the introduction of James’ COEs. These are not COEs however, they are in fact what were known as a forward-control; the cabin was actually in front of the engine rather than on top of it as is the case with a true COE. Of the prototypes built, the first successful one was installed on a 1937 Fagol chassis with a six-cylinder Cummins diesel. These early COEs consisted of mainly sheet metal cabs mounted on the chassis of old conventionals. While they were around four feet shorter than the conventionals they replaced, according to James, they were still too heavy.
In 1939 James hired a group of engineers, sketched out what he wanted and sent them to work in a house owned by Consolidated Freightways in Northwest Portland. Construction of two prototypes began in the back of the Portland workshop in 1940 and the very first aluminium COE slipped in at 2,000 pounds lighter than anything else on the road and performed admirably, according to Tom Taylor who headed the design team. In 1941 the trucks were badged as ‘Freightways’, with the common spec being a rigid pulling a dog trailer to maximise benefits of the current length laws. At the same time work on conventional models also began. The first of these models were dubbed the `No-Name` conventional due to the fact they had no badging. The first trucks to bear the `Freightliner` name were released in the middle of 1941, a COE Model-600 which became known as the `Shovelnose`. Then the war came and development was wound down as the company contributed to the war effort by taking on the role of manufacturing aeroplane components. So it wasn`t until after the war in 1948 that the first Freightliner was sold. The buyer was Vince Graziano, a Portland produce hauler who subbied for Consolidated Freightways during his slow season. In 1950, the Hyster Company of Portland became the first private carrier to order a Freightliner outside the Consolidated Freightways group. This truck was dubbed number one and was a Model-900, or `Bubblenose`. It came with a built in sleeper, quite a luxury for the times. This truck was purchased again in 1976 by the Freightliner Corporation, restored to its original condition and is now on display in the Smithsonian Institute. In 1951 Freightliner signed an agreement with the White Motor Corporation to market, sell and service Freightliner trucks. This enabled Freightliner to concentrate on the design and development of new models. The slogan at the time was ‘Lightweight’. Moremandatory anti-skid braking system by the US government in 1975 saw orders for trucks skyrocket towards the end of 1974.
However, in 1975 the Class-8 market bottomed and consequently Freightliner production dropped 67 per cent from the previous year. It was the first time in their history that they did not make a profit. A decision was taken to sever the arrangement with White at the end of the contract in December 1977. During this interim period Freightliner began to ramp up their own distribution system. In 1975 Freightliner advertised their recently released conventional bearing the new nameplate against a western scene. This was to emphasise the company’s western heritage and to clearly identify it as one of the desirable western truck brands. It was to be another seven years before we`d see the bonneted Freightliner on Aussie soil. When they arrived they were taken west to strut their stuff on the outback tracks of northwestern NSW. This testing was their shake down run. “We tried to determine what would rattle off, crack, break or literally fall apart,” John Grosser Head of Daimler Chrysler Australia`s testing team recalled. “We weren’t concerned about cooling as the radiator size was already a known quantity. The components were standard items already proven both here and in the US in both competitor vehicles and our own. It was mainly the suspension, chassis, all the different brackets and mounts, the cabins and fittings that we needed to test for durability. I can tell you that when a little bracket snaps out in the scrub it’s a special contract all on it own just to get new bits sent out. Thankfully we didn`t need many. The trucks also did a lot of accelerated wear testing at Monegeetta Military proving ground.
When we finished our testing program they were moved into the haulage division of Daimler Chrysler for long term everyday haulage evaluation.” The FLC120 test trucks more than proved the durability of their aluminium cabins and components during rigorous testing programs and working in Daimler Chrysler’s haulage division. Yet this model range was never marketed here as sceptics doubted the long-term viability of the aluminium cabin design. Instead, the new steel cabin model developed in the US, known as the FLC112 became the first production Freightliner released in Australia. It would take almost two more decades before aluminium cabins became available in production models, those being the newly released Argosy and Century Class models. Twenty two people working under the guidance of workshop foreman Andrew Varitisiotis did the major restoration of the FLC120 at Daimler Chrysler’s Somerton branch. Andrew described the restoration as a labour of love. “We enjoyed dealing with such a significant vehicle in Freightliner`s Australian history,” Andrew continued. “We were able to clearly see what 3.5 million kilometres means in terms of wear and tear pretty reasonable shape. We checked the airlines for leaks, serviced the radiator, relined the brakes and checked the Airliner rear suspension system. The engine’s bottom end main and big end bearings were replaced and a set of standard changeover cylinder heads fitted. Beyond that there was just a little bit of minor electrical work required. There was no reason to work on the turbocharger or fuel pump or any other vital areas.” As for the FLC120’s test drive? The old Cummins ticked over nicely, the long throw clutch is typical of a US truck of that era; very light compared to some of today’s high engagement clutches. The dash is a wraparound style with most things easy to see and touch. Visibility is surprisingly good over the long straight bonnet. Ah, to heck with the in depth report, old girl rode well and drove well.
I wouldn`t have any hesitation greasing the turntable, backing under a trailer and heading north to the Territory for a couple of weeks. She`s still got what it takes!
Words by Howard Shanks: Photos courtesy of Freightliner Trucks.
April 17, 2014
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