Big business

In December 2023 - January 2024, Tests30 MinutesBy Gavin Myers and Dave McCoidJanuary 18, 2024

Tokoroa-based Central Equipment Movers is founded on decades of hard work and opportunity-seeking by James family patriarch, Colin. The company’s latest Scania 770S prime mover is an exquisite tool that will make a heavy job that much lighter for the business’ next generation: Colin’s son Matt.

There are some days when you don’t care if you have to be out of bed at 2am after just three hours sleep. The reason just makes it worth it: buzzing with childhood excitement, wide- eyed alertness and a ‘let’s do this!’ attitude. Okay, so we had to be up at 5am, after what could be considered a full night’s sleep, to meet Matt James and his new Scania 770S at Shaw’s Wire Ropes in Cambridge by 6.30am. But the excitement was all the same…

Now, whether it’s the machine, the company, the operator’s story, or a combination of these, all the trucks that grace the cover of New Zealand Trucking magazine are special. Some, though, rise above what one might otherwise consider ‘run of the mill’ to be that little bit more special. Sure, anything with more than 700hp can be considered a little special – but when leisurely cruising the highways at a ‘mere’ 58 tonne, it’s working well below its designed potential.

No, what we’re getting at is big gear moving plus-size loads in tough country. In this instance, we’re talking 770hp, more than 80 tonnes, and the guts of logging in northern Hawke’s Bay, about 21km off the beaten track up some gnarly dirt road.

Loaded up and ready to leave Shaw’s.

Moving through the spectacular Waioeka gorge.

It’s not often we get the opportunity to pursue an oversize load – pilots and all. The last time we had this opportunity, we’d followed the Prestige Building Removals Peterbilt 389 from Auckland to Kinloch for our October 2020 issue.

It’s fair to say house moving is the pinnacle of shifting oversized goods – when you’re in the cab alongside the driver, the mind boggles witnessing the continuous communication and constant teamwork between driver and pilots to navigate past obstacles ahead, to the sides, above and below.

In house-scale terms, Matt’s load today isn’t quite a Remuera mansion, but it’s certainly more four-bedroom villa than tiny home. With the Sany SY415H Pro tracked excavator positioned on Matt’s MTE three-rows-of-eight widening low loader, we’re measuring 24.5m long including truck and dolly, 3.7m wide and 4.8m high. Weight is about 86 tonnes all up.

“This isn’t the biggest we do,” Matt says. “Those real big log haulers get up around 80 ton alone, and they’re higher and wider. Though we try to stay under 5m height, because anything over that you have to get power board permits.”

Be that as it may, she’s still an impressive load. This one might require a little bit of effort…

The Sany is a shiny new unit fitted with a New Zealand-made Woodsman Pro 850 tree harvester, supplied by Shaw’s and destined for a skid site on Pukeorapa Road, inland from Mōrere in northern Hawke’s Bay.

The quirks of shifting oversized loads being what they are, our route will take us down the Waikato Expressway, over the Kaimais to Tauranga, through Whakatane to Taneatua, on to Opotiki and the Waioeka Gorge, before we overnight in Gisborne. Day two sees us continue south on SH2 into Hawke’s Bay.

From there we’ll turn off the beaten path just past Mōrere, onto Mangaone Road, which leads us to Pukeorapa Road and deep into the hills.

Guiding us along the way are class 1 pilots Nadine Bell and Tom Mitchell of Overdimensional Transport Services. Nadine has been on the job since 2006, and most of 71-year-old Tom’s career was spent behind the wheel, including heavy haulage for Smith and Davies and Hawky Haulage, before piloting. Auckland-based, servicing the North Island, the two have been working together for four years and, from what we saw, make a formidable team.

Constant chatter

It’s a picture-perfect morning when we arrive at Shaw’s. Matt’s already got the Sany positioned on the trailer and is beginning to chain it down. Rarely do we arrive to be greeted by an obsessively spotless machine positioned perfectly in the morning sun, just waiting for the cameras to come out. It’s a perfect opportunity, so while Matt finished up, we oblige the big Scania. It’s gorgeous in pictures but even more so gleaming in the early morning sunlight. Scania’s ivory white provided the canvas for Marty’s of Mt Maunganui to apply the dark silver, orange and grey colour scheme. The truck has 138 Narva lights on it (270 if you include the trailer), but in no way does it look overdone. The more you look, the more you see, the more the little details stand out – like those awesome little V8 lights at the base of the mirror arms. It’s a superb-looking machine, a conversation-starter if ever there were one – as we’d be reminded every time we’d stop for a bit.

As he does his final checks, Matt takes the opportunity to talk us around the trailer. It’s a refurbished MTE three-rows-of- eight Linkwing widening low loader coupled to a MTE two- rows-of-eight dolly.

“MTE builds a good low loader,” comments Matt. “We spec our trailers differently to, say, run-of-the-mill builds. We use bigger Linkwing pins to cope with the off-highway bits at big weights. Our ramps are 300 to 400mm longer and have cut-outs in them so when we do a hauler with a pole, we put a bar through the ramps and we can just sit the machinery on there and away we go.

“The trailers have remote- controlled, double-acting ram (powered up and down) hydraulic suspension, so if I need to level the trailer as I’m moving along, I can do it from the cab. And our existing four-rows clip- on goes straight onto it, which makes it more versatile.”

Before we know it, the V8 is eagerly purring. Nadine and Tom file into position, and the big Sany begins its journey to its new home. Immediately, the radio lights up with Nadine and Tom calling the way forward. The chatter is constant and awesome to listen to, and it’s obvious Matt, Nadine and Tom have a good working relationship.

“We’ve got our own pilots, but there’s so much going on at the moment. Nadine is our first port of call when we need a subbie. She’s very good, very thorough … normally pilots don’t tell you enough, Nadine almost tells you too much,” Matt says with a laugh.

Likewise, Nadine has the utmost respect for her client. “We’ve worked with CEM for a while. The Jameses are a lovely family. Genuine, down-to-earth, hard-working people,” she says. As we’d witness over the two days, it’s a model example of customer and contractor working with utmost trust, in perfect congruity, as efficiently as possible.

The Waikato Expressway poses no challenge to the big Scania, while the Kaimais are dispatched at nothing less than 30km/h. Before long, we’ve passed Tauranga and are headed for the Matata Straights bound for Whakatane.

This would be our first real obstacle, as bridge restrictions between Awakeri and Taneatua mean Matt has to detour through the town. He crosses the Whakatane River Bridge, turns onto Landing Road, negotiates the roundabout at King Street, and makes for Taneatua Road. It’s tight at some points, and lunchtime traffic through the town doesn’t make it easier.

But the Scania makes easy work of the leg from Taneatua to Opotiki, and before long we’re barrelling into the Waioeka Gorge. By the time Trafford’s Hill has been pummelled into submission, the beautiful blue- sky morning has given way to thick grey cloud and sheets of rain. That wasn’t the most depressing part of the trip, though, as through the gorge Nadine had been drawn into a little spat with an indignant road worker who would not shift road cones in the way of the truck for it to get through.

For pilot and operator alike, the ignorance among other road users (including some road workers with a mightier-than- thou attitude) is not only the biggest frustration of the job, but also the greatest hazard too.

“Road users and other traffic are what we have to watch out for most. You have to be vigilant. If I move into that grass, it’ll throw me over. So if I have to sit on the centre line, then I’ve just gotta do it,” says Matt. “You get the odd person who bitches and swears, but it’s just one of those things. They get plenty of warning, especially if the pilots are far ahead like they should be.

“This job is not for everyone. In heavy haul, you either have it or you don’t, there’s no in between,” he continues. “It looks easy just burning along like this, but I’ve been doing this for 16-odd years now, that’s why I’ve written that…” he says pointing to the sun visor.

Caption: 1) Wise words. 2 & 3) RVE does it again. 4) Matt is very much at home in the big Scania. 5) Not much we haven’t said about a Scani NTG cockpit … except, in this instance, there’s a third pedal! Matt spec’d a clutch for those extra-precise manoeuvres. 6) Comfort, convenience, home away from home.

Complacency ruins efficiency…

…is inscribed on the back of the sun visor. Matt reads the phrase each time he gets into the cab. Watching Matt load and operate his unit, it’s obvious that’s his approach to the job.

“It’s one of those jobs you could do 100 times and it would be different each time. The machine’s position on the trailer makes a huge difference; you could go around corners 10km/h slower because it’s too far forward. Stuff like that. There are so many variants in heavy haulage, there’s so much more involved. You’ve absolutely gotta cross your Ts and dot your Is.”

Those who know CEM will know the company is synonymous with big Kenworths. For Matt, the Scania represents “a massive change from American gear”.

“There were a few reasons for ordering a Scania,” he explains. “First, I wanted to give something else a try. Plus there’s a history with the name in the family – dad’s nickname being ‘Scania’ [an amusing story for later]. Add to that the insurance policy and worry-free operation that is ScanPlan, plus what you get for the purchase price … you just couldn’t not.”

Moving out of ‘straightforward’ American gear into the techfest 770S meant learning to drive it as efficiently as possible was important, and Scania driver trainer Radu Radulescu was just the man for the job. “Radu’s given me a whole different outlook on how to drive it. I can’t talk about him enough; the product knowledge he has is incredible. His tuition is so important with these vehicles. You can try drive it like an idiot and no matter what you try and do to it, it looks after itself – but it’s capable of so much,” says Matt.

Making life behind the wheel that little bit more comfortable doesn’t hurt efficiency either. By now we’re well acquainted with S-cab Scanias. We last sampled one as recently as September with Fenco’s 660S, and before that in April when we hopped aboard Martinborough Transport’s S770 stock unit. We went into a full description of the big Swede’s interior environs in that article and there’s not much more we can say about it that hasn’t already been said – save for the fact that Matt’s is a flat-floor unit (770S as opposed to S770), doesn’t have the upper bunk, and is short the coffee machine.

But the norm isn’t Matt’s style, and he’s gone all out to truly make his truck his own. To begin with, he ordered the cab with full black upper trim, with only the lower dash and door panels left in the standard grey. Upon landing on our shores, the customisation wizards at RVE were enlisted to work their magic, re-profiling the seats into deeply bolstered buckets and covering them, the back wall, ceiling, upper walls and door centres in black leather with red stitching.

Combine that with the full air suspension and fully air-suspended cab, and the big Swede offers up one of the cushiest rides in the business. And just as well … it’s day two and we’re heading out of Gisborne south on SH2, and it doesn’t take long to begin to question your powers of perception. It’s honestly amazing the road we’re on is SH2. “Well, look at SH1, it’s a joke. The roads are rooted,” Matt quips.

If the first leg of our journey was relatively easy-going, this leg certainly highlights the 770’s strengths. The road surface is rougher, its width is narrower, the inclines and descents are steeper, and Nadine’s call ahead of almost every bridge is, “Crawl central, 10km/h”. It’s only a two-hour drive out to Pukeorapa Road in the Scania, but there’s a lot going on. The radio is alive between the pilots, Matt, and other truckies. “One light vehicle coming over the brow … braking.”

“Oncoming three-seven wide, driver, if you wouldn’t mind easing up and moving hard left through the bends.”

“Third bridge is just around the bend – keep central.”

“Vehicle keeping oncoming. God, they’re ignorant eh!”

Through it all, communication is critical. Complacency is not an option.


Jaw, meet floor

The Whareratas stretch for about 30km from some way south of Muriwai to just about Nuhaka, crossing the boundary between Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay somewhere near the summit. Each side would be considered steep under normal circumstances; moving 86 tonnes up and over the hill is a whole other challenge.

At the foot of the climb, Matt finds a spot to pull over and allows the traffic build-up to pass. Then we’re off. First gear, second, third, fourth … The 770 moves off like a big, hefty car. Not a hint of strain, no bucking or protest. It’s like 80-plus tonne is nothing. Into its stride and we’re climbing at a steady 30km/h at 1600rpm in seventh.

“This truck just sets the standard on the highway,” Matt says. “Sure, a lot of heavy hauling is in the gearing; the gear ratios must be suitable for the job. We’ve gone for a 4.38:1 axle and 4.21:1 hub reduction. That’s also part of why this thing goes so well.”

On the point of axle spec, the front axle is another important piece of the heavy-haul puzzle, and Matt’s 770 is thought to be the first in the world – certainly the country – with an eight-tonne front axle on air.

He continues: “We’re up and down hills, so I’m running the power divider in as well. Some wouldn’t, but for me, it’s peace of mind. If we can eliminate wheelspin then why not? The way I see it, it’s better to have two diffs working for you than one. It’s got to be better on the gear.”

We’re still climbing and the 12+2 OptiCruise ushers in another gear. It’s almost imperceptible, with hardly any interruption to the flow of the V8’s 3700Nm. It just shifts gear and carries on. Superb!

It’s not long before we’re into the steepest section. The 770 drops to sixth and holds 23km/h at just under 1500rpm … 20km/h … 18km/h … 17km/h … It drops two gears and recovers to 19km/h at 2000rpm in fourth – before grabbing the next gear and building the momentum again riding a wave of torque.

We summit at 22km/h in fifth at 1800rpm to the soulful tune of a large-capacity V8 earning its crust. And boy, does it ever. No doubt either that with just less than 20,000km under its wheels, there’s still more in it.

Over the top and Matt explains he’s got the Scania’s downhill speed control set to 43km/h with a 3km/h overspeed, but it’s not an option right now. “The problem with that here is I need to control it. I need to slow it right down and do what I need to do to control the momentum,” he says.

With that he sets the retarder to the third of its five stages, with the revs sitting in the 2000 to 2200rpm blue sector of the tach, which indicates the optimum engine speed range for the retarder.

“The retardation is incredible,” he comments. “You often find yourself backing it off, even at this weight.” We progress down the hill at a smooth and consistent 25km/h. With the rain having now drenched the road, Matt comments he can feel the wheels begin to lock up and applies a bit of balance with the trailer brake. However, all feels smooth and in control from the passenger seat.

Before we know it, we’ve arrived at Mangaone Road, the start of our dirt-road climb into the hills and our destination almost 600m above sea level. As it is, the route up is challenging – tight, twisty and steep in places.

Current rainfall has only added to the task, and in places has turned the dirt beneath our feet – as our good Captain K put it – to porridge. Matt’s plan is to off-load the Sany, disconnect the dolly and leave it behind, narrow up the trailer as much as he can without risking the merchandise, drop the CTI, and go for it. The narrower trailer means reduced stability, but it’s the only way to make the tighter bends.

It’s just on 9am by the time we get moving again, but today slow and steady wins the race – thankfully the rain has stopped but we still won’t get to the offload site for another 90 minutes at least.

The drive up is spectacular, a real challenge for the driver, sure, but there’s more than enough time to take in the scenery. Climbing higher we enter the clouds, and from the point of view of Nadine’s car ahead, the Scania’s lights cut through the fog as the beast emerges. Epic.

Behind the wheel, Matt’s attentive, vigilant, feeling his way through the constant changes in the surface below. The Scania’s doing remarkably well maintaining traction, though Matt’s got some nifty tricks up his sleeve when it starts to scrabble.

To aid progress, he uses the load transfer to shuffle the load between the drive axles by adjusting the pressure in the airbags. This allows him to load up the rear of the truck and, with the power divider engaged, the Scania digs in its heels and keeps climbing. And if needed, Matt can also lock out a drive axle to make it single drive.

The biggest feather in the Scania’s cap probably came from the grader driver who gives real heavy stuff a helpful tow up a particularly difficult section: “That was the easiest tow I’ve ever done – and I’ve done hundreds!”

Indeed, riding in the Scania, Carl noticed the wire rope was slack most of the way up except for a few tight turns.

We reach the drop-off site and the chains come off the big Sany. It still has to go another kilometre into the hills to reach its skid, but it can do that on its own. Heavy haul being what it is means there’s no return load for us to follow Matt home with, and so arriving back in Gisborne our time tagging along comes to an end. Not that we felt short changed – not one little bit.

Indeed, while this wasn’t our first taste of a Scania 770, it was certainly a special way to end 2023. Special doesn’t quite sum it up though … no, each time one of us climbed from the cab, we summed up Matt’s machine with one word: Effortless.

All in a day’s work… Matt removes the Sany, loses the dolly, narrows the trailer, reloads the Sany with some guidance from Tom, chains up once more, and gets ready to head up the hill

Another Sany/Woodsman Pro 850 combo, supplied by Shaw’s Wire Ropes, arrives to start work.

…and Matt heads home.


Matt would like to give special thanks to all those who helped get the Scania on the road and support CEM’s business. So, in no official order:

Andrew Lane and Emma Okeefe (Scania Finance) – “They were so good to deal with. Nothing was a problem and I can’t thank them enough.”

Radu Radulescu – “An unsung hero of the Scania team.”

Robin, Lloyd, Grant, Harry and the boys at MTE – “They’re all awesome to deal with. Nothing was ever a problem getting the low loader refurbished.”

John, Hayden, Josie and Josh at Lilley HT Trailers, Rotorua – “They did a phenomenal job on the deck plates, guards and rear-end set-up on the tractor.”

Tim Patterson and the team at Narva – “They came to the party hugely with all the lighting. We went to them with some way-out ideas and they looked after us.”

Shaw’s Wire Ropes – “We have a real good working relationship. They’re a good bunch, honest hard-case straightshooters.”

Nadine Bell and Tom Mitchell of Overdimensional Transport Services – “Honest, hard-working, valuable partners. A top team.”

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