17 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineSeptember 21, 2020

Two decades after it arrived, the Freightliner Argosy‘s time here has come to an end. In hindsight it was a truck built for New Zealand, and we were the ones who loved it most.

Photo: Freightliner. If it needs explaining… well?

A large merchant vessel with a rich or heavily laden cargo‘ is what the word Argosy means, and was there ever a moniker more befitting the product of Freightliner? It‘s all the company‘s legendary founder Leland James ever wanted for his creation, to be heavily laden, in fact, more laden than any other truck on the road. As the sun set on the 20th century, Freightliner‘s new Argosy was the cutting edge of what US technology could deliver in pursuit of his dream. Jim Hebe was Freightliner‘s top man at the time, and he attempted to relight the founder‘s fire for trucks built to earn money through productivity in terms of payload. Built on Freightliner‘s Century Class platform, the Argosy was light and powerful, but unlike James‘ early creations, it would bring the cabover engine truck bang up to date and eliminate all that detracted from a truck with no hood, allowing more room for paying freight. The floor was as close to flat as possible, and inside there was comfort and space to burn. Additionally, those famous swing-out steps were all about making entry and exit every bit the equal of its conventional siblings and counterparts. But in all reality, none of it was to be. At this point in history things were different. Political and cultural forces thwarted the Argosy‘s success on home soil. With federal laws imposing a maximum length on trailers only, the bonneted truck had – and still has – the US truck market all to itself. As such the Argosy was binned in the home market in 2005, a mere seven years after its arrival.

Photo: The first 8×4 went to Godfrey Holdings Ltd.

Photo: One of the original four that went to C.W. Nicholson Transport Ltd

Photo: The Argosy has played a huge role in rural transport. Todd Stephens rates its steering, stability, and traction as having no peers.

Photo: Laurie ‘Ferg‘ Ferguson‘s truck sporting classic drop-sider configuration.

All was not lost
Argosy was also an exported vehicle, sent to far flung corners, even to places with steering wheels on the wrong side: places like South Africa, Australia, and of course New Zealand. All three of those markets had vehicle dimension and mass constraints that kept cabovers in play. The numbers stacked up enough to maintain supply, and therefore Freightliner‘s return on investment. The physical constraints on vehicle size and weight applied to us especially; you might say we were the Argosy‘s spiritual home. It was unwittingly built for us, we just needed our SANZAR buddies to keep the numbers right. In 2014 the announcement came that Argosy would cease in South Africa, and from there the dominos quickly fell. Daimler was working to a global strategy around platforms and safety architecture, and the Argosy wasn‘t part of that plan.

Photos: Logs (above) or transporting, no job was too savage.

Back we go… and there it was
Following the Australian launch in late 1998 the crowds flocked around the first example of the Argosy on our shores at Transport 1999 in Hopuhopu, a 110” high top tractor in factory gold and swirly paint. The first new US cabover since the Mack Ultra Liner, the soft lines of the big American replaced the hardarse no-nonsense look of the FLB. The Argosy promised much, and twenty years later there‘s no question that, with few exceptions, it delivered on its promise. The reason for that is twofold: firstly it was a great market fit, and secondly the people selling it believed in it. “The Argosy was underrated by the traditionalists when it first arrived but paved its own way as shown by the sales figures. It was powerful, spacious, comfortable, and lightweight; it proved to be everything operators wanted,” said Mark Wright, dealer principal at Trucks and Trailers. The first four Argosys to hit the road here were bought by C W Nicolson Transport in Auckland (New Zealand Trucking magazine; March 2000). All 6x4s with Caterpillar C12 power, the trucks were put into line haul work, two in the company‘s own blue and white livery, and two in the colours of customer Ansett Express. The first 8×4 was again C12-powered and snapped up by Godfrey Holdings Ltd in Rotorua on residue cartage. Unlike the FLB it replaced, the Argosy came ex-factory as an 8×4, and Don Wright, Trucks and Trailers founder and director, says in his mind it‘s still the best US 8×4 setup there‘s been. “We‘d done the FLB here and they sent out an engineer, Wayne Brock, to look at it.

With better resources they were able to improve the drop-arm and you couldn‘t fault the result. They also put rubber bushes in the front springs, something that set the Argosy apart from the opposition until the end.” The Argosy came in a number of cab variants from day-cab, through mid-roof sleepers, up to the superimpressive 110” raised roof travelling condo, but it was the 90” mid-roof sleeper that proliferated. “A great bread and butter truck,” said Don. “Perfect for stock, and pallet footprint.” In those days you could also have a choice of engines, Caterpillar, Cummins, and Detroit. Due to its time in history, the Argosy was never available with an N14 Cummins. “Was a time there that an Argosy with a Gen2 Cummins Signature ruled the road,” said Mark. Of course when you‘re talking Freightliner Argosy salesmen, Trevor McCallum, formally PCV in Christchurch, and now Cable Price‘s Freightliner man, has to be shoulder-tapped. Trev‘s Argosys are pretty much his babies, and he‘s known far and wide for his association with the brand. “It‘s sad days,” he said when we rang. “I‘ve been with it all the way, and there‘s a tear in the eye for sure. Eighty percent of the Freightliners I‘ve sold have been Argosys. They‘ve made a lot of people a lot of money, but in the end it‘s just about numbers I guess. South Africa took 3500-odd a year and when that stopped, you can‘t do much.”

Photo: An original still hammering out a good mile in 2015.

Photo: The ‘Biggs‘ grille in Booth‘s Transport livery. What Argosy story would be right without a Booth‘s truck.

Photo: Argosys have been key in the Riordan and West story.

Time for a grilling
Development of the Argosy for the antipodes wasn‘t exhaustive. “A truck built for Interstate 5 isn‘t going to stand up too well to places like Northland,” as Don put it. Although the 90 tonne GCM gave it ‘good bones‘, a comprehensive PD programme was undertaken here, strengthening aspects of the dash and tending to the cab in the raised roof sleepers. Other refinements included reconfiguring intercooler mounts, replacing nylon hoses with more heatresistant materials, and trimming fan blades in severe duty applications so they didn‘t foul the shroud. “The dashes in the US trucks were injection moulded,” said Don, “but they vacuum moulded ours due to numbers. With vacuum moulding you can‘t guarantee density of material in the key places. That was largely the issue around the dashes.” In time other refinements were added, including air assisting the clutch, and reconfiguring the shift tower on the manual transmissions so the cables had a less severe path in. For many that change was transformational. One of the interesting anecdotes surrounded the first grille update, around 2006. “That grille was developed here in New Zealand by Greg Biggs, who drove for Tranzlink owner-driver Paulus van Zantvoort at the time,” said Mark. “He wanted something different. Initially they were made up of two pieces but eventually he had a single piece overlay made and we fitted them as part of the PD. The truck itself was the same.” Logs (above) or transporting, no job was too savage. As global corporate acquisitions and emissions rules moulded the engine OEM landscape, your choice of ‘horse‘ under the floor disappeared, and by the late-2000s Argosys came with Detroit power only. Interestingly Cummins made a return, fleetingly, late in the piece in 6×4 tractors only, to meet demands in the Australian market.

Over the years Freightliner made subtle embellishments to fairings and cab corner vents, as well as minor improvements to the interior. However, real change for the Argosy came in 2012, with the second-generation truck, affectionately tagged the ‘cheese grater‘ due to its imposing grille, an early incarnation of the style that appeared on the 2018 Cascadia. This machine was significantly different, a switch to the Coronado platform emissions and electrical architecture. Argosy Generation 1 was a cabover Century Class, 2 was the cabover Coronado. “The whole front end was different,” said Mark. “Doors, radiator mounts, guards, grille, header tanks, electricals, and master switches.” As part of the 2012 model, Freightliner also now injection moulded the dashboards and adopted some of the bracing the New Zealand sales agents had been building into the trucks. Trevor said at that point PCV stopped what they‘d been doing in terms of PD bracing, and things were fine. Trucks and Trailers continued with their programme. In the succeeding eight years Generation 2 Argosys have done nothing to diminish the model‘s reputation as a strong, honest truck for the bulk of people who have bought them, and then returned to them again and again. We tested several Argosys over the years and repeatedly the sentiment was an honest truck for a hard-earned dollar spent. In the August 2018 test, Riordan & West‘s Dave West said, “They‘re very good trucks. Very good, not perfect, but nothing is.” A quick ring around to some other Argosy stalwarts for this piece yielded the following. Bill Hammond, owner of Bill Hammond Transport in Carterton said, “Great numbers truck, power to weight they were a great truck, and if you required the driver to sleep in them, they had a roomy cab.

It‘s a sad day to see the end of the Argosy.” Laurie ‘Ferg‘ Ferguson, Ferguson Trucking Ltd in Milton, has two of the last Argosys, one at the body builders and one cab and chassis in the yard. They bring the current tally to 10. “They‘ve just always been a good reliable truck for us,” he said. Waipukurau in the Hawke‘s Bay is home to Stephenson Transport Ltd, and CEO Todd Stephenson rates the Argosy: “The best truck ever in terms of stability, traction, and steering. Nothing comes close to the Argosy for steering.” An interesting point considering Don‘s comments on the Argosy‘s 8×4 setup. So it is that the sun is now well and truly setting, with Trucks and Trailers recently having a reserve placed on what is understood to be the last new 8×4 machine available, with barely a handful of 6x4s remaining. Freightliner Argosy, a truck whose true glory days existed in one of the world‘s remotest corners. No one will miss the Argosy like us, we were its best fit, but maybe that‘s because we know merchant vessels work best when they‘re loaded!

Mark Wright, dealer principal at Trucks and Trailers Ltd.

Founder and director of Trucks and Trailers Ltd, Don Wright, believed in their product 100%.

Formerly in sales at Prestige Commercial Vehicles in Christchurch, and now with Cable Price Ltd, Trevor McCallum is known far and wide for his association with the Argosy, and has been there the whole way. “There‘s certainly a tear in the eye.”