In Tests, Volvo, June 202233 MinutesBy Dave McCoidJuly 24, 2022

If the country is to avoid serious economic rapids, it’ll be thanks in no small way to farmers and transport operators. If you wanted a truck that symbolises the scale of their contribution and capabilities, Volvo’s 16-litre FH in Globetrotter spec would be a likely contender. We went to Nightcaps in the deep South to check out the latest Series 5 incarnation of this captivating machine, in the hands of rural carrier, Transport Services Ltd. A company that believes capability is the key to contribution.

The opening photograph in the leading double test feature of the August 1986 issue of New Zealand Trucking magazine was one of the magazine’s more unforgettable images – a Freight Haulage Foden S108 climbing north away from its home base on the Nightcaps-Opio Road. The seven- axle stock unit, driven at the time by the late Lindsay Keen, represented some pretty capable gear; packing a 261kW (350hp) 3406B Caterpillar motor, nine- speed Roadranger, and Rockwell rears on Foden’s rubber block suspension.

The Finn brothers were wrong – history does repeat. Here’s Rowdy in the Volvo at the same place on the Nightcaps-Opio Road that the photo of the FHL Foden driven by the late Lindsay Keen was taken. The Foden test appeared in the August ’86 issue. The trees have certainly grown, but Nightcaps can still be seen – just.

Little did we know then that one of Southland’s most respected operators was heading for some inclement commercial weather, courtesy of the Transpac saga. Neither did we know that a young bloke who’d started as a casual driver a couple of years before would one day find his name on the shareholder list of the transport spirit-child that would rise from the mayhem about to unfold.

“I’m still only casual!” says Transport Services Ltd (TSL) director and co-owner Wayne Williams. His baritone voice and laugh are as much a company signature as the fleet’s red livery. “I’ve never had a contract – still working towards it, I guess!”

As you’ll read further in, the resemblance in liveries between the FHL machine and TSL today is no coincidence.

With the stunning Southland landscape in the background, the Josephville Hill poses no challenge to modern high-end trucks like the FH700.

Fast Forward

An apt crosshead indeed, both in terms of time and travel. It’s late autumn 2022 and we’re back in Nightcaps, some 397 issues of the magazine later, standing in front of TSL’s latest addition to the asset register. Swedish Stag is fleet No.6, a majestic Series 5 Volvo FH16 700 Globetrotter, and although the base fundamentals haven’t changed – an engine connects to a transmission to a pair of diffs that ride on some form of suspension – the scene tells us just how far things have moved on. The scale of modern highway trucks is mindboggling. Alongside the ‘Globey’, the Foden would have looked like a flea truck. It’s 23m long, 2.50m wide, 4.30m high, and has a cab that barely needs any form of roof-top spoiler to equal the crates in height. As imposing as it is impressive, we would find out in the succeeding days that the FH is in fact a gentle giant.

The driver of the Globetrotter is David Scobie, a.k.a ‘Rowdy’. He’s a 22-year veteran of TSL and, like Aaron Tait on the rural DAF in February, every inch the stock- truck driver having cut his teeth in farming before taking the wheel. This was obvious the instant we arrived at the first pick-up from James Dickson’s farm on Gowan Hill Road just north of Nightcaps, which as it happens is the farm Wayne Williams grew up on. As Rowdy loaded the cattle there was no bellowing or yahooing, it was a quiet orderly affair, the crates giving off their signature ‘clanking’ sounds in response to the hooves of the boarding passengers.

The location of the various freezing works ultimately determines the flow of stock truck movements in the lower South Island, as it does countrywide. The average stock truck driver here often knows the gateways of Lorneville (Invercargill), Mataura, Waitane (Gore), Finegand (Balclutha), Pukeuri (Oamaru), Pareora (Timaru), Seafield (Ashburton), Belfast (Christchurch), and even Kokiri (Greymouth), better than the gate into his own house.

Gowan Hill Road was the first of three pick-ups bound for the giant Silverfern Farms Finegand works in Balclutha. Usually, getting a single pick- up load in this part of the country is common, but not so now. Covid-19’s impact on the meat processing industry has been significant and generally speaking, demand for killing space has backed up. To make matters worse, we’re now in the dairy cull, which is larger than usual because farmers are holding onto cows thanks to record farmgate milk prices. It all means killing space is rationed, and that means multiple pick-up loads, a far more costly proposition for the carrier.

“There’s pressure right through the supply chain,” says Wayne.

Rowdy stops for his compulsory Covid testing at the Finegand freezing works.

Once loaded, Rowdy pulled away, heading for the second pick-up near Centre Bush. He dropped the trailer and shot up a gravel road, stopping to make sure the driveway he intended to turn into was to the stockyards and not the house.

Just a few to go on, he was soon off, hooked back up to the trailer and off to Balfour, some 52km away for the rest. That’s a big leg for a pick-up round, but it’s just how things are currently.

The Volvo glided serenely through the Southland countryside, impacting the locals’ Sunday sleep-in not one iota. Presentation wise, the unit is certainly on point, with impeccable lines, roof bars, air horns and the aero kit all setting off the final look. Yes, Southland’s climate means maintaining a Californian level of shine is impossible, especially on a rural truck. Nonetheless, TSL is particular about the look of the fleet, to the extent that the fleet colour gets applied to the underfloor of the cab once the new trucks arrive in New Zealand.

“Lifting the cab and seeing white primer looks bloody awful,” says Wayne. “Why they can’t do it in the factory baffles me.”

The overwhelming theme of this entire test is just how easily these high-end Euros get work done. Take former challenges such as the Josephville Hill on SH6 between Dipton and Lumsden. Admittedly it’s had a rework or two over the years, but even so, it now offers nothing by way of a test for trucks like the ‘Stag’.

“There’s an undeniable gap now between the Americans and the Euros,” says Wayne. “The power, torque, and AMTs make it so effortless. We have both in the fleet, and under big loads, you can hear the US engines working a hell of a lot harder.”

The last farm was up a side road at Balfour. It’s an easy loadout with ample room in which to swing the entire unit around and butt up. It’s been an unusually dry autumn, almost a ‘green-drought’, as one farmer put it, indicating sufficient groundwater and lack of wind to counter the absence of rain.

The relentless search for payload space means modern trucks tend to be lower in the front than their predecessors. As such Rowdy was all eyes when getting the big Viking into place.

Rowdy at the Tinkertown wash between loads. Washing out is part and parcel of a stock truck driving job.

The TSL machine sports Bigfoot CTI, a tool finding a home in livestock cartage on an increasing basis. Wayne says he wouldn’t be without it. “It doesn’t matter how you set it up, as soon as you hook something to the front of a stuck truck and apply pull, that truck will feel pain, somewhere. It’s worse now with HPMV combinations. Half the time, the farm’s tractor can’t pull them. Anyway, we thought ‘This thing works in logging, so it must work for us.’ It’s a no-brainer. With the power trucks have now, it also increases the drive footprint. We run Tyre Pilot inflation management on the trailer too. I’d love that to have the ability to lower and raise pressures just to take the shock out of empty running, but the plumbing’s too fine, and that’s not its job. What it is proving though is the old tyre reps were right when they harped on about pressure checking. The improvement in tyre life is noticeable.”

Topped up with the remaining headage, Rowdy stretched the unit out and glided out of the paddock and up the gravel road. It was now a ‘cruisey’ 100km run from the farm through Riversdale to the junction of SH94 and SH1 at Gore, and then up to Balclutha. It’s a typical Sunday run for Rowdy, and like stock truck drivers the length of the country, Sunday for Monday’s kill is part and parcel of the week’s work.

Tyres, they are a changin’. Bigfoot Central tyre inflation on the truck (below), and Tyre Pilot inflation management (above). The benefits cannot be ignored.

Smaller in silence

Watching the really big trucks launch into their work is always awe-inspiring. At 50 odd tonnes, No.6 turned out of Two Chain Road and headed up SH94. From our perspective, it simply got smaller in silence as its relationship with the horizon became more meaningful than its relationship with us. If we wanted to keep this Stag on side, then we had to go, and go now!

TSL is not backward in coming forward when it comes to setting the stage for optimal productivity. Its owners are not proponents of adequate power; they like to give drivers all the budget allows when it comes to kit. That philosophy has its roots in the captains’ offices. Dean’s dispatched enough trucks to know power helps, and Wayne’s certainly driven enough to know the same.

“I think we’re home to the world’s southern-most FH16s. That’s our claim anyway,” laughs Wayne. “No, but seriously, back in the day, I’m talking 1970s here, John ‘Shad’ Curtin had a 1418 Benz and took four hours from Nightcaps to Milton [193km] with 300 lambs. I took three in the Foden to the Anderson Bay lights in Dunedin [248km] with 580 lambs, and doing 100kph,” again he chuckles. “Rowdy takes three to the same place with 620 on but he’s doing 90kph remember. It’s his average speed that is right up there.

Passing through Gore.

“The 16-litre Volvo engine is a real good big motor. We have two 13-litre trucks coming later in the year, and after that, it’ll be 16s for the heavier work. We’ve settled on the 700 because the gearing available with that engine suits us better. It’s still over 3000Nm of torque, and with the gearing there’s nothing really in it between that and the 750.”

Although the Series 5 is available in Euro-6 guise, Southern Stag sports the 16.1-litre DC16 Euro-5 big banger at 522kW (700hp) and 3150Nm (2323lb/ft) of torque. Behind that is the single- plate clutch and an I-Shift ATO3112F 12-speed AMT. The RTS2370B hypoid rears at 23-tonne sit on RADD-GR 8-bag air suspension with shocks and stabiliser bar. Up front, FLA20 front axles ride on parabolic leaf springs with shocks and a stabiliser bar.

Under any circumstances they’re impressive output numbers – 10.4kW (14hp) per tonne, and 63Nm (46.46lb/ft) per tonne – but understand that the torque curve is flat from 1000rpm to 1550rpm, and peak power kicks in from about 1520 through to 1850. The point here is that it has buckets of go at any point, with 1500 to 1550rpm the real bullseye.

One of the Volvo’s awesome party tricks is the ‘open-wide’ cab tilt. There’s more access room than a lot of conventionals.

But numbers are numbers, and like it or not, technology makes the package what it is. The seamless shifts of even the single-clutch I-Shift, the intuitive nature of adaptive cruise control, and productivity tools such as hill- hold and descending control turn statistics into actual tools that save time, money, and wear and tear on both machine and man.

“At weight, it’ll climb the steepest section of the Kilmog Northbound in eighth at 40kph,” says Rowdy, “and then holds over 60kph on the flatter bit toward the summit. On Porters [Pass], it’ll hold seventh at 50-tonne. You set the descend control, and the engine brake does the rest, even on the Viaduct [Otria].”

The Stag has Volvo’s VEB+ compression exhaust- brake combination in five stages, producing up to 425kW (570hp) of hold-back. Volvo’s descending control is a full blending system that implicates foundation brakes when in A (auto) mode. The B button on the stalk hastens downshifts when operating the auxiliary outside of auto.

“A real good big motor,” to quote Wayne Williams.

Critters off at Finegand, Rowdy motored back to his Winton home on a rainy afternoon in preparation for Monday’s list. The morning rendezvous was Canterbury Grasslands Fawna Farm near Orawia, for a full load of stock to an NZSF Southland Farms property in Mossburn. By now, we weren’t actually sure what the term ‘full load’ meant in the context of this truck.

“Yeah, 50-tonne is very workable,” says Wayne later.

“At 14,500kg for the truck and 10,500kg for the trailer, we get 25-tonne on. It’s a full four- decker (four decks of sheep on both units), so that bumps the weight up a bit.” As slick as the Volvo might be, it can’t earn a quid without crates and a trailer. Invercargill’s TES (Transport Engineering Southland) built the five-axle step-deck trailer, and Delta Stockcrates in Timaru the crates.

The trailer in its own right is a specy’ bit of kit, and a clear indication that not all the evolution has occurred north of the coupling. It runs a Kiwi staple in SAF disc-brake axles and air-suspension, and even on 19.5” Alcoa wheels it achieves a 920mm floor height.

The Volvo’s nimbleness belies its size.

Neither does it end there. WABCO add a plethora of smarts, like the TailGUARD system that engages the brakes free of driver input should something be detected behind the unit while reversing; and Manoeuvre Assist, a system where air is released remotely from in the cab to aid movement when inches are everythng. Of course there’s also air- operated effluent valves. How good are they? We wanted a photo of Rowdy discharging at an effluent dump on the way home from Finegand. To late! He was gone in mere minutes.

“We’ve had other trailer brands but the return to a platform step-deck model means it makes sense to get ‘Keasty’ [Stephen Keast, MD and owner at TES] to make them. It’s a bloody good product, and he’s right there on the back doorstep for aftersales. There’s an element of supporting local in these times, too. And yep, Delta Stockcrates. Blair Cochrane and the team in Timaru make a great product that lasts for years. We’ve had 20-year-old crates that have only required new steel floor mesh. And of course, again, the back-up is right there on a regularly travelled path.

“The big thing for us is suppliers listening to what we want and delivering it. The vehicles – be it the truck, trailer or crate – are so specialised now, and we’re all trying to extract the maximum out of them. If there’s poor communication, we can easily end up with a vehicle that’s of no use to us, especially with the pin and saddle decks a lot of our gear now runs. We can buy trucks that will need to take seven or eight bodies.

“We’re pretty settled on Volvo and Kenworth. We deal with Ben Gray for Volvo, a great down-to-earth bloke who knows what we want. People don’t realise it, but there’s almost no end to what you can customise on a Volvo in terms of cross-members and packaging. A TSL stock and ‘bulky’ chassis are not the same, each has specific specs at Volvo. They deliver exactly what we want, ready to receive whatever deck.

“People might think we’re being pedantic when we want some little thing like a handle moved during a body or trailer build; but an engineer sees a trailer for two months, the driver lives with it for 15 years or more. If it’s taking the skin off your knuckle every time you turn the handle you’ll get pretty pissed off. Again, that’s where Keasty is bloody good.

“Size-wise it’s a 7.6m truck and 10.98m trailer. The increase in dimensions in the past decade or so has been vital. Genetics mean we’re dealing with bigger and bigger animals. In my day, you got about 15 to 17 milk-draft lambs in a pen, and by the time they were third draft, it was 13 to 14. Now those figures are 12, and 10 to 11 respectively.

“If I had one wish before my time is out, it’s height. If we could get 4.5m on sheep and cattle crates, all issues around welfare would go overnight. We’ve scratched out all we can at our end in terms of trailer and crate technology. With 200mm more help at the regulator’s end, all the headaches would be gone.”


Wayne Williams chuckles as he says, “You wouldn’t get Rowdy out of a Volvo,” and he’s right. Rowdy glances across the cab at us and shrugs, smiles and says, “It’s not hard, is it?” Swedish Stag is his third F series Volvo. He began in 2008 with an FH12 520 day cab, then went onto an FH16 600 flat roof sleeper (called ‘The Silent One’, LOL, that’s funny – read on), before the Stag, and he’s loved every one of them. It’s quite a neat transition because he’s gone up in power and cab size each time. Goodness knows what’s next.

“I just don’t know why you’d bother swinging off a gear lever. It’s just effortless. I get out at the end of the day and feel nothing much has happened.”

And this is your textbook Southern man; hospitable, generous, and friendly with dead-straight gun barrels. If it’s no good, he’ll tell you, and he’s unimpressed with superfluous ‘piffle’.

Loaded and ready to leave, there’s no question that back in 1986 when Lindsay let the clutch out on the Foden, with diff locks engaged and gooey autumn stodge underfoot, as good as she was, he would have felt her take the strain and the engine change note. In the same conditions with 6-tonne more on, Rowdy leapt in, completed the paperwork, chatted to the customer, flicked the I-Shift into A, touched the throttle – which released the park brake – and Southern Stag just drove away like some enormous Ford Ranger or Toyota Hilux. If it needed traction aids, it made that decision, and in terms of engine note… impartial. “I just leave it in A most of the time,” says Rowdy. “There’s no point mucking around with it unless you need to.”

Rowdy packs up having just unloaded at Mossburn.

The room in the cab is immense, and the atmosphere sublime. There’s no question if you’re staying away, you’d sleep in here; few motels would match it. Rowdy doesn’t have to stay away too often but appreciates he has all this when he does.

The shock – in the best possible way – of the in-cab experience is the ride. “I hear people say they’d wallow, and I chuckle because they don’t know a bloody thing they’re on about.”

In all honesty, we too assumed there’d be even a small pay-off for that enormous house. Not on your Nelly! The Globetrotter sat absolutely flat through the corners, even the camber- less ones. No hint of a lurch, bounce, or wallow. There are airbags at rear, and massive coils connected to a hefty stabiliser upfront. This cab went nowhere it shouldn’t.

This Stag is sitting on 1.78kpl, a figure that’s been steadily improving in its 25,000km to date. “Yep, that’s about right,” says Wayne. “It’ll get to two eventually. If I took the crates off and put it into other work now, it’d be over two straight away.”

We arrive at the unload farm in Mossburn about 14km up Chewings Road, a typical gravel rural access. The Volvo easily turned into the farm gate in one swing, and there was a bit of a windy trip up to the yard that itself was a wriggle in sloppy ground. Being more of a forward- control truck, the Volvo gets the wheelbase advantage over the Kenworths at 5.8, helping give it an impressive turning circle for a truck of its size. Rowdy needed only one backup and go again to get the unit around. “Do that in your Kenworth,” he said.

“Yep, it’s one of the key reasons the Volvos are preferred for the rural work,” says Wayne.

The Volvo has a cool down- camera, focusing on the left-front cab side and corner. It’s activated via several mechanisms, including the left indicator. Handy for cyclists and pedestrians, but also ideal for hidden fence posts or back blades for sure. Be gone insurance claim!

Butted up again, the passengers are released and Rowdy is on his way. The next mission was a full wash at the fantastic facility in Tinkertown operated by Nightcaps Contracting, and following that a load of hoggets from Lyall Terry’s farm at Ohai to the Alliance Freezing works in Lorneville near Invercargill.

Where to from here?

Everyone has their way of skinning cats, and Wayne Williams and Dean Carleton are no different. Theirs is a philosophy born at the coalface of the industry in which they work, serving the community they both grew up in. They believe productivity, safety, and fatigue are best addressed by supplying drivers the most capable gear the business can afford. “Why make a hard job harder?”

Of course, the quid pro quo in that is the ‘who’, meaning who takes the wheel. We joked in the story about Rowdy being the perfect Volvo man, and at a level that’s pretty much bang on. He’s as humble as hell and immensely capable. As a fellow driver said the other day, “I’ve never seen Rowdy in any other way than he just is. Quiet, and gets on with shit. No hoop-la and noting. Just does it.”

Rowdy at the wheel of the latest of three Volvos he has driven in his time at TSL. He’s gone up in power and cab size with every one, now in a Globetrotter.

No matter how often you do it, revisiting the big bangers is always a thrill, and to think a Volvo FH16 700 is now 70hp off the front end of the power race, is exasperating. And one thing is for sure. Any alternatively powered future won’t stem the relentless increase in performance. In fact, its potential for being even more thrilling is very real. Maybe the mediator in the power race will actually be the humble tyre.

Southern Stag is an impressive machine. There’s a hell of a lot of truck here. The Globetrotter’s cab is an industry icon, and the undercarriage beneath has also made its mark on history. No one would argue that I-Shift is an AMT cornerstone. Whether it’s a fine example of the zenith of internal combustion’s reign is yet to be seen. One thing’s for sure, though. Regardless of the tech you throw at them, trucks and agriculture will most certainly form the backbone of whatever’s next.

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