B is for B-Train

In Short Story July 20237 MinutesBy Dave McCoidAugust 21, 2023

If you’re ever passing though the seaside hamlet of Maraetai on the Waitemata Harbour, east of Auckland, and see a sign saying ‘John Ramsey is giving a talk this Saturday on business, bravery, hilarious adventures, and some truck stuff also … tickets at the dairy’. Don’t, whatever you do, miss it! Even if they’re $1000 a ticket, rest assured, it’s a bargain!

Sadly, I can’t impart here what he spoke about for two and half hours, there’s a best- selling book in that. This sidebar is only about the origins of New Zealand’s first road-going B-train.

I myself remember vividly the arrival of the Ramsey Roundwood’s four-axle B-train in 1981. It appeared in David Lowe and Brian Trim’s Kenworths and Macks Cavalcade of Trucks No.2 book, and getting to Rotorua any way you could to see it became akin to a pilgrimage. We’d all seen B-trains in print, but here was a set in little ol’ New Zealand.

New Zealand’s first on-highway B-train. A great idea to overcome the issues of getting two units of posts or poles into the back of high-country stations. Photo: Mike Beesley.

John’s son Mike Ramsey remembers them too, and when I asked, ‘Were you the first kid in New Zealand to learn to back a B-train?’ he laughed, and replied, ‘I don’t know about that, but on occasions I certainly backed the front half under the back, or drove out from under the back when the drivers were putting them together, or breaking them up.’

Through the 1970s to the mid-1980s, John and Bernice Ramsey owned and ran the business they founded, Ramsey Roundwood. Pole and post millers and merchants, their plant was at Rainbow Mountain near Rotorua. Ramseys owned and ran its own trucks, painted in an easily identifiable and striking two-tone green and white livery. At its peak, the fleet totalled 11, and from its ranks were to come many of the modern industry’s instantly recognisable names – Paul Gordon, Robby Caulfield, Ken Angus, Doug Honeycombe, Steve Sutton and the late Johnny Douglas, to name a few. Some of the Ramsey drivers would go on to become owner-drivers.

Anyway, one of the problems faced when delivering poles and posts to remote backcountry stations is, of course, access. “Getting trailer loads in particular up to hard locations was a nightmare, and sometimes took hours and hours,” said John.

It was while on a business trip to Canada with wife Bernice to investigate feller bunchers and forest operations that John saw this local trailer concept rolling by behind the trucks. Bernice snapped a couple of handy reference pics.

As an aside, with the exception of the B-train idea coming home in his back pocket, John says they discovered New Zealand was more advanced in forest operations generally speaking. Back to the trailers…

“‘That’s a bloody good idea’, I thought. You could drop the back half, tow the front up to the unload site, bring it back, hook on the back half and repeat. Once you’re done, hook it all up and Bob’s your uncle!”

Re-branded Ramsey Roundwood, Mike Ramsey is sure that’s Steve Sutton parking up for the day. By this stage he was owner driver.

On arriving home, he approached trailer building extraordinaire of the era, Neil Peterken at Roadrunner, and asked him to build a set for him. He did, and the rest is history.

“Oh, yeah, they worked all right. They were bloody good,” said John. “We ended up with three sets; the others made in-house. Neil and I had a bit of disagreement over whose idea the B-train was. I had a bloody great engineer working for me, an ex-Manu Tuanui man, ‘Darky’ Phillips. He built the other two sets.

“Anyway, that’s all ancient history now and doesn’t matter. We’re all good. The fact is though, we had the first set of road-going B-trains in the country.”

For anyone wondering how they unloaded the trailers, that was equally ingenious. The tractor units had winches mounted on them and a wire rope was run out under the load, around a pulley at the rear and then to a little dolly setup situated at the head of the load. The winch pulled the dolly along the chassis, the posts rolling off the back. The driver would inch the truck forward as the posts rolled off.

As an interesting aside, it was actually deregulation that ended the Ramsey in-house fleet. “All of a sudden everyone had backloads and went everywhere,” said John. “I could get the product delivered for half of what it cost us.” As was the case in many businesses where transport was not the core activity, proprietary carriage became an expensive exercise post deregulation.

“The reason we have the trucks today is the time-critical nature of the product. The trucks pay for themselves and make a small contribution, but they’re only there because of the product’s sensitivity.”

John Ramsey. This man’s book needs to be written… then a movie… then a Broadway show. Adventure, courage, determination, work. In amongst it all was New Zealand’s first on-highway B-Train.


What a fantastic cover feature. Our first New Generation MAN in the hands of the Ramsey family with the history they bring to trucking’s story here. A huge thanks to Mike for his help and enthusiasm, and Colin Edwards for clearly demonstrating the value of humility and pedigree.

To Dean and Mitch at Penske NZ, for your unfailing support in our efforts to record history. And John Ramsey. What a character! His is a book that needs writing.