Building the bandit

In February 2024, Custom Corner17 MinutesBy Carl KirkbeckMarch 17, 2024

The dreams and aspirations we have as children drive us as adults to strive for our goals. The character behind the recent Snowman truck build from the movie Smokey and the Bandit is the epitome of that philosophy.

As far as W-model Kenworth’s go, none would be more instantly recognisable than the Snowman truck. Written and directed by Hal Needham, the late 1970s hit film Smokey and the Bandit left a lasting impression on anyone who saw it, as it does to those who watch it today.

Full of antics and hijinks, the storyline is based on illegally running 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana, Texas, to Atlanta, Georgia. For many, the hero vehicle was the Pontiac Trans-Am driven by the Bandit (Burt Reynolds). However, for us in the transport industry, the real hero was the W-model Kenworth, driven by the Snowman (Jerry Reed) and Fred, the Bassett Hound.

As a young fella watching the movie, the black and gold Kenworth captivated Charlie Bailey, today an Auckland-based construction company owner and builder. This interest wasn’t unexpected, considering that his father, Rob Bailey, is heavily involved in the trucking industry as a driver.

“Yeah, the passion for trucks definitely started right back then, riding around with Dad; his influence on me was huge. Dad’s driving career is colossal. He has driven all over the place for many companies. It was his time back in the day with Combined Haulage that really got me hooked.

“He was driving one of the company’s famous Kenworth ‘Little Brown Jug’ Aerodynes when I was about seven or eight years old. I would spend as much time as possible with him cruising around in the passenger seat. But that truck had a real impact on me. I can really remember the deep buttoned interior in ox-blood red and the Aerodyne sleeper cab with its bunks. I would climb up the top and peel off the domes of the top window covers and then lie down and look down the road across the roof, airhorns and the marker lights as Dad drove.

“I loved the sound of the engine as well … going through the gears, as well as the sound of the Jake brake. He would let me flick it on and off … he’d be like, ‘Yeah son, flick it on now.’ So you’d click the switch, and you would hear the Jakes kick in, and you would be like, ‘Wow, I just controlled the engine!’ And for a young fella, that was next-level cool. So, yeah, that’s what really got me hooked and ignited the passion for trucking in me.”

Charlie’s childhood fascination and passion extended beyond trucks to include hotrods and custom motorbikes. Over the years, he has owned a multitude of cars and bikes and has an eye for a bargain; he would often purchase a project, do it up and then sell it to move on to the next project.

“It was going to various car and bike shows like Beach Hop that was awkward for me. I would want to take more than one car or bike, but you can only drive or ride one at a time. So, I figured I needed a transporter of some kind. I had seen the trucks overseas that some guys had modified to get their vehicles to shows, and I thought that’s the way to go. I had always wanted to build a truck, so I started looking around for a rig to purchase that would give me what I needed.”

Charlie first looked locally, talking to the likes of Colin Walters with his Movin-On Kenworth, but he soon realised that he would not be able to find what he really wanted in New Zealand. It was Rob who suggested looking for something out of Australia, as there were plenty of options over there that were reasonably easy to import.

So the hunt was on, and not long after, a W-model for sale owned by Mark Driver of Driver Bus Lines in Mt Waverley, Victoria, caught Charlie’s eye. The 1986 W925AR was originally new to Blue Circle Cement and actually has a colourful history as it was apparently used at some stage in its life for a cigarette heist. [Definitely, the perfect truck to run illegal Coors then, aye?]

The unit was built at the factory with a 400hp Silver 8V92 Detroit and 13-speed Roadranger. The 8V92 was later replaced with a 12.7L Series-60. The original torsion-bar suspension was also later swapped out for airbags to help improve ride and handling. It was obvious that this was the perfect candidate for Charlie’s project. All he had to do now was convince Mark Driver to sell it to an overseas buyer.

Like father like son: Charlie Bailey and dad Rob sharing the passion.

“Yeah, that sure was a challenge. Mark was adamant that he wasn’t interested in selling it to me, so I thought there is always more than one way to skin a cat. I got in touch with a good mate of mine who lives over there, and I got him to call Mark and pretend to be a buyer and start negotiating with him. It started getting serious, so I stepped back in and levelled with Mark about what was going on. He could see then how serious I was. So he, thank goodness, agreed to sell it to me.

“But, he was adamant that I had to come and see it for myself first. So next thing my partner Michelle is online booking me tickets to race over to Melbourne. I caught the 5am flight on the 8th of June. My mate collected me from the airport and we drove out to Mt Waverley and visited Mark, test-drive the truck, did the deal and shook hands, and my mate took me back to the airport. All the while, I was flat-out on Google trying to arrange shipping. I got back into Auckland at 3am on the 9th, and after a couple of hours of sleep I was back on the building site at 7am. I was absolutely fizzing – just running on pure adrenalin,” Charlie says with a laugh. “Yeah, it was hard out. But I just had to have that truck; it was everything I was after.”

Mark kindly drove the W-model through to Adelaide for Charlie, arriving there on 14 June, where shipping had been arranged with Willship International. Two days later, the W-model was loaded and it departed Adelaide. On 1 July it arrived in Auckland, and on 4 July, it was delivered to Charlie’s yard by ACE Towing.

“We were straight into it,” says Charlie. “Literally, that first weekend, we had the bullbar off and the flat Texan bumper on. I could not wait; just had to get stuck into it. The bottom line is it took only six months to build, from finding it for sale and doing the deal, right through to a completed COF here in New Zealand. You gotta be pretty stoked with that, aye?

“I was in amongst it the whole way through, trying to do as much as I could, running around, doing the research, sourcing stuff, templating for stainless-steel fabrication, going down to the painter and getting stuck into sanding and prepping the chassis for paint … all that good stuff. Having a builder’s eye I found definitely helped. As chippies, we have the ability to visualise stuff. We look at plans, and we can see 3D and imagine exactly what the end result is going to look like. With this, I found it easy to map out the process needed to get the result I was looking for.”

Like any hot-rod build, the hard engineering had to be addressed before the paint and shiny stuff could be applied.

“The ride was okay, but with what I was planning for the truck, I knew we needed to swap out the old spring packs for new parabolics to smooth things out as much as possible and also get the stance that I was looking for. I then sent it to Southpac to have the rear artillery hubs removed and replaced with 10-stud hubs so we could fit up alloys to it. A good mate of mine at BNN Customs, Braden, came on board and was a massive help with fabricating all sorts of brackets and bits, like the brackets for the straight stacks. He really went the extra mile for me on the project. He could see what I was trying to achieve and wanted to be a part of it.

“For all the painting, I went to Jason at Convoy Truck Refinishers in Hamilton. Jason was brilliant; things like repairs to the fibreglass hood, he just got on and got it sorted; nothing was too much trouble for him. The end result is just outstanding, exactly the look I was after. Being a chippie came into play with the stainless fabrication as well. I deal with Darryl Smith Stainless Fabrications in Takanini, and they are a great bunch to deal with on our building projects, so I took my patterns to them, and they hand-crafted exactly what I was looking for, no hassle at all.”

Everything was progressing well with the project, including the ideal trailer being located and purchased out of Tirau.

“I literally bought that sight unseen, and they kindly dropped it off directly to Jason for me so he could get straight into prepping and painting it. In the meantime, I was running around trying to get an LT400 certificate for the fifth wheel, and this is where things started getting frustrating for me. You know, up until now, I had been in control of the project, and everyone had been awesome, and just got on with it for me. I was getting excited because it is all coming together and you know you can see the finish line, but suddenly here is a bunch of bureaucrats taking control, and you feel helpless.

“For example, I got told by the engineer that the base rails for the turntable had to be some 350 grade of steel, and it had to be a 12mm right angle. I spent a whole day looking for this stuff and was getting nowhere – no one had it. It was while out at Southpac that I just happened to look at the set-ups out there and I quickly realised that the engineer was leading me up the garden path. So I went back to him and bailed him up and told him what I saw on the new set-ups, and he replied, ‘Oh yeah, that is okay, you can do the same as them. The measurements I gave you are a guideline.’ I couldn’t believe it. Here I was trying to find something that did not exist because of his lack of information and detail. You know, you pay these guys to know their stuff and they don’t. I was starting to think, ‘Man, am I ever going to get this thing legal and on the road?’

“Ah well, I can laugh at all of that now. It is finished and I have got the result that I was looking for. I suppose I am used to these sorts of bureaucrats from working all these years in the building game”, Charlie says with a laugh.

“But, straight up, I am absolutely stoked overall with the way the entire project has come together. It really is exactly how I envisioned it at the very start. But, yeah, I suppose that’s those good old builders’ skills coming through again.”

Special thanks from Charlie:

“I just wanted to say a special thanks to my good lady for all the support she has given me throughout the entire project. She has been right there with me from the very start of this, and you cannot do a project like this without that kind of help and support. Also, my kids for all their understanding and support and coming along for the ride as well. Dad, for all your guidance and advice through the whole project … It has been a blast being able to share this with you, and I’m looking forward to enjoying many miles together on the road again. To all the team that have played a part in this build … thank you for all you have done. No matter how big or small, it has all added up to seeing this amazing bit of kit come off the planning table into a reality that is now plying the highways.”