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Hard working Fodens never die, they return as tour buses


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New Zealand Trucking / April 26, 2015

The Harrison family of Kaitaia over the past 20 years have used all manner of vehicles in their tourism operations, that extend to Cape Reinga and along the Ninety Mile Beach.

It's an area blessed with stunning and varied scenery enjoyed by thousands of visitors from around the world looking for a genuine New Zealand experience beyond the ubiquitous souvenir shops and cafes.

However, the Far North presents a challenging environment for vehicles with rough roads, changing beach conditions, abrasive sand and corrosion that results in sky-high maintenance costs and limited lifespan.

The Harrisons have owned a succession of Toyota, Hino and Isuzu buses as well as Unimog 4x4s but despite having their own workshop and panel-beating facilities found none could be kept on the road for more than five or six years.

An alternative approach began with the purchase of three 2004 model 8x4 Fodens that were ex-Fonterra milk tankers, all of which were mechanically sound despite all having more than a million kilometres on their clocks.

Driveline components such as the Cat C12 engine, 18-speed Roadranger transmission and Meritor double drive axles all checked out, although these components are common to many heavy trucks and replacement units can readily be obtained.

Basic but functional 36-seat bodies for two of the Fodens were constructed in Harrison's own workshop based on a wealth of experience gained from other manufacturers' designs.

Simplicity, strength, safety and corrosion resistance were key objectives, met by a sturdy framework of zincalume coated box section steel covered by impact resistant aluminium composite sheeting. The build process was done in close cooperation with a local design engineer who oversaw construction and stability testing.

The body sits on its own sub-frame with heavy rubber mounts allowing for chassis flex. It has a separate air-conditioning unit, powered by a three-cylinder Toyota diesel engine, and can be readily lifted from the truck chassis if needed.

Building a bus on a heavy duty bogie drive truck chassis might seem overkill but seems to work well in this application.

Murray Harrison pointed out the Foden single skin chassis will make it easier to keep rust at bay and the on-board lubrication system, originally specified by Fonterra, keeps sand out of critical components.

The biggest changes needed involved the removal of the second steer axle and fitting of 'super single' 385/65R22.5 tyres on alloy wheels all round.

These have raised the gearing slightly but this didn't seem to bother the 430hp Cat engine as we travelled on one of Harrison's Cape Runner day tours heading for the Cape.

Trips to the Cape are based on tidal conditions on the beach and today we head up SH1 and will return along 'our best highway', as driver Jason Stanbury puts it.

The Foden happily settles into a 90kmh cruise at around 1500rpm, managing most hills with just a slight deepening of the exhaust note in top gear. With an all-up weight of around 15 tonnes, Jason needs only about six of the 18 available forward ratios, with the Cat engine brake easily holding speed back on downhill sections.

The landscape contrasts are surprising. Between Awanui and Waitiki Landing, it is largely flat with huge sand dunes on the western side leading down to massive peat bogs which contain the remains of ancient kauri forests, probably flattened by a massive tsunami or other tidal event over 40,000 years ago.

The area is now home to huge pine plantations and despite some rough sections of tarmac road, the Foden bus delivers a comfortable ride for passengers.

After a short detour to take in the stunning beauty of Houhora Harbour we call at the Te Kao store for ice creams and this gives an opportunity to find out more about the vehicle from Jason.

He is actually a panel beater by trade, helped construct the two bus bodies, skippers the company's Jet Runner boat and turns his hand to any other jobs that are needed around the yard.

It pays to be multi-skilled up here, yet a closer inspection of bodywork and underside of the frame reveals a standard of finish that any volume bus manufacturer would be proud of.

What makes this application different is that it all has to be hosed out at the end of the day. Fancy carpets, seat finishes or electronic gizmos are not part of the equation.

A side trip to Tapotupotu Beach for lunch demonstates that the Foden handles narrow corrugated metal roads readily. These would, no doubt, have been a regular feature of its previous life at much higher weights than we are running today.

From Tapotupotu, it is a short run to Cape Reinga and completion of a personal ambition, set on my first visit here, to see New Zealand from end to end. Doing that journey in a Foden bus is an unexpected highlight.

Our return journey takes us via the famous Te Paki dunes and stream for access to the Ninety Mile Beach. It is only 64 miles (102 kilometres) long, Jason explains, but must have seemed further to early travellers on horseback.

On better sections of beach, the Foden sits readily on a governed 90kmh as we head southward a couple of hours after high tide. Jason points out that the six-wheeled configuration and big tyres fitted do not compact the sand as much as conventional four-wheeled buses we follow along the beach.

Ample reserves of power from the Cat C12 reduces the need for gear changes on soft sections and the only time he requires low range and to lock up the drive axles is for our exit from the beach at Waipapakauri.

From here it is a short run back to the Kauri Kingdom at Awanui where the bus is washed down with fresh water while passengers learn more about the famous forest giants.

After passenger drop offs around Kaitaia township we catch up with Murray and Cheryl Harrison and their sons Tristran and Craig for a look over the company's workshops and a hospital transit bus currently under construction.

Murray is pleased with the way the Foden buses are performing and has a third one set aside for conversion or spare parts. He believes being able to tilt the cab and remove the body for maintenance purposes will make inspections and major repairs a lot easier.

Foden no longer builds trucks or buses but is one of the oldest names in road transport with a heritage dating back over 130 years. To find two proud survivors still enjoying the sunshine a long way from home is perhaps a fitting part of their final chapter.



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