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Land of the Long White ProStar


kscarbel2
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New Zealand Trucking  /  July 2019

It’s a great trivia question. Who are the world’s top five truck manufacturers? Sadly, nine times out of 10 you’ll take the booty on that one, as few will likely include Navistar, which rolls in at number four. The Illinois-based US company’s vast array of highway, vocational, and military vehicles catapults its annual product headcount into the over-300,000 unit category. You certainly won’t spend much time in the States on the side of the Interstate before the famous badge rolls on by. But of course our ProStars are special. Special because they’re assembled right here at Mt Maunganui at the incredible place that is Intertruck Distributors (NZ) Ltd.

Like the 9870 [COE], the ProStar is a parts list assembly so there is no kit as such. The main difference between the two trucks is the ProStar cabs come in trimmed and are customised here. The local assembly counts for a whole lot, especially when things change, things like Vehicle Dimension and Mass (VDAM). Because the Intertruck design and assembly operation can rapidly tweak things like critical axle spacings to maximise opportunity in the local compliance environment, they’re able to offer tailored vehicles.

Take the 8x4 ProStar conventional. The company build an R8 and T8 variant with different front axle spacings to optimise the worlds of application and compliance. There’s a level of flexibility and agility not available anywhere else. Kiwi-assembled ProStars are fully integrated on the Navistar build portal, meaning customers can see their truck in build and the components that go into it. And then there are the parts. Because there’s an assembly operation here, a truck won’t be left off the road at a service agent due to a lack of bits. “We don’t appreciate the level of expertise and passion there is here for the product,” says Brian Aitchison. The Internationals are also available with the in-cab fatigue monitoring Guardian System, as well as the full Bendix Fusion suite of safety features that includes ESP, lane departure, collision warning and mitigation.

Wide-eyed!
When it comes to wide-cabbed conventional trucks pretty much everyone else is playing catch-up when compared with International. Bonnets and breadth have been an International hallmark for decades and seen by many over the years a compelling purchase pro, even if the S-Line’s complimentary central heating was somewhat of a con. The ProStar carries the fine tradition of cab width on, but with a 21st century level of refinement. The cab itself was not unfamiliar here when the ProStar arrived in 2017, having been the one used in the relatively short-lived Navistar CAT JV. However, it’s here now in its own right, as it should be, with an International badge.

If aerodynamics is your thing, then so will be the ProStar. It’s reputedly the slipperiest big conventional in the real world, whether it’s headwind, or cross. Getting an actual coefficient figure is not easy, I guess in part due to the options there are for making them more, or less, slippery through the air, and the unknown of what’s in tow. Getting a comparative figure is equally hard, so there’s not a lot to be gained. Looking at the truck though, the ProStar’s arrow-like shape makes its aerodynamic prowess obvious.

The BBC measure on the day cab is 2870mm, which places it in the top two contenders in the setback front axle conventional truck market. Tying in with that comes the startling visibility. The rake on the bonnet is severe; from the seat your eye is just able to follow its line down to the grille, and there’s the road, right there! Depending on how tall you are, you’re seeing the road surface about four metres from the front bumper. Put it this way, from the ProStar’s driver’s seat you’ll see a dwarf on a Lime scooter at the lights, no problem. Because the mirrors are more orthodox in style and placement it doesn’t have the right-left clarity of view that the 2.1 Kenworth cab does, but it’s a leap ahead of nearly all cabovers and on a par with its other bonneted brethren. The cab’s a US house for sure, with 10 gauges in front of the driver in an elegant round-topped binnacle, with a modular wrap housing switchgear, climate, brake valves, and entertainment. There’s no infotainment centre or vehicle/ driver telemetry to speak of at this stage.

The shift module in the ProStar is a push-button job just down to the driver’s left. It’s easy to see and works fine. It’s an interesting digression for a moment, the AMT control options. For well over half a century we never really had a discussion about how you change gear in a truck. MAN had a column shift manual option years ago, as did one or two others, but the people who thought them up were probably made available to industry within weeks of launch – well, we hope they were. But now we’re all deciding if we like buttons on boxes, Cobra stalks, or busy little wands with a million things happening on them. Soon, we won’t have to worry, they’ll all be gone, there’ll just be ‘F’ and ‘R’ and they’ll probably be voice-activated. Anyway, back to the cab…

The steering’s adjustable for telescope and rake and there are in-spoke controls for cruise. On the left side of the steering column is the dip, wiper, and indicator wand, and on the right the trailer control. Brian rides on an air seat with all the necessary adjustments. The ProStar’s accommodation is mounted on rubber blocks front, and airbags rear. The MMM truck has the top trim package in grey tones with diamond patterned vinyl on the hood lining and rear cab panel, along with flashes of Rosewood, heavy wear plastics, and rubber on the floor. It’s an ideal set up to keep looking smart in this line of work. A good hour with the vacuum and rag and she’s bonzer.

Storage-wise these trucks are always a challenge, but the ProStar’s enhanced with the optional centre storage cubby between the seats to complement the overhead cubbies and door pockets. Brian puts the cooly bag in front of the cubby and he’s away. On the outside, access is really good with plenty of handles and wonderfully cascaded steps. It’s a cab you sort of walk into, sort of like an R Model Mack with the old recessed tank step, except the door actually opens and it’s completely different…never mind. If you get it, you’ll get it. I guess we’re saying low, sleek, conventional trucks are a piece of cake to get into. Beneath the bonnet nestled down there is Big Red. It’s a snug fit with minimal cab intrusion considering what they’ve put where. An engineering marvel.

No dress rehearsal!
What New Zealand schools need are careers advisors who aren’t the run of the mill, over-planning, over-thinking type, the sort who help make our kids way too complicated way too early. We need more who understand that kids are free spirits about to launch themselves on a planet full of opportunity. We need the Brian Aitchisons of the world to be mentors and career advisors. We think he’d probably dispense advice like ‘Life’s a gift to be enjoyed, life’s an adventure to be had, life’s a challenge not to be afraid of, life’s a mat to get back up off when you’ve been knocked down. Life’s the people you interact with every day, so make it positive and say sorry when you need to; and most important, life’s not a dress rehearsal.’ That’s our guess anyway, because from what we saw that about summed up Brian.

This 67-year-old 30-year-old starts every day with weights. Not aggregate – free weights. “You have to look after yourself, Dave. Half an hour in the morning just to get things moving and keep you upright and flexible, because you can get stooped easily in this job, eh.” Six decades and seven years into the adventure, paying for a new truck, striding around unhooking trailers, darting here and there, hungry for the next load, stopping to buy Pam, the office lady at the quarry, her favourite pie from the bakery in Tairua. Brian’s not rehearsing, he never has, he never will. Wairoa-born, Brian was adopted out after the death of his mother. His childhood in Cambridge hadn’t been a bucketful of the fondest memories for the irrepressible young man when he cut out and headed for a carpentry apprenticeship through the Department of Maori and Pacific Island Affairs at the age of 16. Three years into that and the urge to drive trucks was too great so he started working for Bruce Clothier at Waharoa Transport. But it wasn’t long before an inherent sense of adventure saw him head for Australia, having organised a job with Northern Transport in Alice Springs…a job he hitchhiked to from Melbourne – yes, hitchhiked. He was there in two rides!

Brian worked a couple of jobs in Alice; driving twin-engine motor-scrapers was a favourite. But what happened that was most significant was a chance meeting in a bar with Ian Emery, the coach of Alice Springs United, the local police rugby league team. Ian had goals and aspirations of greater things in terms of coaching. “Oh, it was great, eh. The ground was like concrete. There were lots of older players who’d played in the higher Sydney leagues and they knew what they were doing. When you were tackled you stayed tackled. Loved it, just absolutely loved it.” As Ian moved around from job to job, progressing his coaching career in the process, he’d call Brian, who’d follow on also. Ian would jack up work for Brian and Brian would play in Ian’s league teams. For almost a decade it was a boys-own work/sport adventure come true.

It all culminated in the semi-professional presidents grade at the St George club in Sydney when Ian got the big time assistant coach’s job. Knocks and injuries eventually took their toll and Brian headed for home aged 29, landing a job in Wellington driving a 6V53 Detroit-powered White for Alex Burrell at Burrell Demolition. After Burrell, Brian worked at Dixon and Dunlop carting metal and clearing sections before a spell with Ross Fitchett, someone he credits with teaching him a huge amount about running trucks and businesses. “With Ross I learned everything from mending tyres on split rims, to servicing, to running a manual ledger. He was a great teacher, willing to impart knowledge, and to this day we’re still mates.”

Following that, for the next three decades Brian’s life was itself a living timeline of line haul trucking in New Zealand, plying the Auckland – Wellington and Auckland – Christchurch routes. He drove for Jim Halliday’s Halliday Haulage and Kim McCarthy at TNT among others, progressing from fleet driver, to owner-driver, to multi-truck subcontractor working for well-known names like Peter Baker Transport. It was the realisation that as a subcontractor the returns weren’t what they should be that led to the formation of his own freight and warehousing company, Goldlink Warehousing and Distribution Ltd. The key service differentiator was an overnight service ex Auckland to Christchurch, and it was a business Brian said went really well for quite a while. It was with this company that the relationship with Comer Board and Intertruck Distributors (NZ) Ltd was forged. “We ran 9800i Eagles and Comer and the team would move heaven and earth to service and COF the trucks, keeping us as close to schedule as possible. However many techs it took to turn them around is what he’d put on them. They were bloody great trucks, 525 Cummins; they were unbreakable.

“In the 20 years I’ve known Comer we’ve never had an argument, we’ve always been able to sort things out. Just a top bloke. I can’t say enough about the guy, and his team. Hugh Green, he’ll always answer his phone, 24/7. The team at the Mount workshop – Noel, Charlie, Jerome – all top people, we go back a long way. Wes on the front desk is so helpful and Dwayne and ‘Fish’ in parts. I’ll call and next day whatever I need is on the courier. Amazing! I still go over there for servicing just because we’ve known each other for so long.” The restructuring of a key customer’s freight, and the GFC, ended the Goldlink years, after which Brian and his partner Kim dabbled in the racehorse feed business. Following that Brian worked for Mainstream helping Greg Halliday set up the core fleet there.
“Greg’s a great bloke and a good businessman. I went in to do that job, help set up the fleet and it was a great project.” After the Mainstream project was complete Brian moved on to Emmerson Transport Ltd as Northland area manager. Like many in the industry Brian found Ian Emmerson a “Top, top bloke”.

Then things went full circle, working in the world of loaders and tip trucks, as a salesman for the late Murray Ward at Ward Quarries in Te Kauwhata. But Brian’s a truck man to the core and the sales job introduced him to contacts that led to the purchase of a C12-powered Sterling and 3-axle trailer on contract to Fletchers, servicing one of their road projects in the Waikato. As the Fletcher work wound down a little over three years ago, Brian was keen to keep busy and approached Kaipara Ltd having carted out of their Smythes Quarry south of Auckland. The rest as they say is history, and the story of this amazingly upbeat bloke continues to roll on. Brian’s full of praise for working life at Kaipara Ltd. “Great workmates, and an awesome company to work for Dave, I’d like to make a point of that. They really are eh.” A cool side note to Brian’s work life are the iconic trucks he’s driven and/or owned over the years. As a driver he drove one of the Halliday Haulage R Model Macks and he owned the ex Paul (‘Butch’) Hopcroft R Model Mack ‘Overdraft’, and the ex Tony De Latour Child Freighters Mack MH.

Today Brian and Kim live on the banks of the Waikato at Rangiriri and both enjoy horses and hunting out of work. There’s no desire to expand the fleet and have the hassle of staff any more. Brian’s two daughters, Sarah and Jessica, are well set up and enjoying the journey of their lives as it unfolds. But for all this history, the highs and the lows, the one overarching thing you get from an hour or two spent with Brian Aitchison is his praise and acknowledgement for the people he’s encountered along his journey. It’s not about him: for Brian it’s the people he’s met and worked with who have provided the richness to his own life’s fabric, and he realises and acknowledges that. For many today, both young and old, there’s a lesson or two in there somewhere.

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