In International Truck Stop15 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineAugust 3, 2020

Every once in a while, a truck comes along that is a bit special. One such vehicle is the FH16 that belongs to Flavin Livestock Transport from County Waterford in the south east of Ireland. But FH16 750 Volvos are becoming more and more popular, so that alone doesn‘t make it unique…

Photo: Increased stability is making tridems more popular with livestock hauliers. Running height when empty is just under four metres.

The fact that it‘s a truck and trailer on livestock duties, however, narrows the pool considerably. Also, it‘s a tridem, plunging it well into the spectrum of rarity. But that‘s not all, for what makes it even more unique is the choice of coachwork: Houghton Parkhouse – 100% British designed and built. If all of that wasn‘t enough, it‘s the company‘s first truck and trailer, built to Platinum specification, running a 3-axle turntable drag trailer, giving the whole combination seven axles, while six is generally the most that‘s been seen in Ireland so far. Climbing up the steep hill from Dungarvan on the N25 on a dark and wet morning, I can see the lights of the Flavin family farm more than a kilometre off in the distance. Also, I notice the LED side lights of the rarest of Volvos, beckoning me from afar. Francis and his brother Liam are quietly loading the last of 42 fat cattle – distributed 22/20 between the truck and trailer, as the trailer is a foot shorter. With the roofs down, the combination is under four metres.

However, today we have big cattle on board and leave the farm with the adjustable roofs set to a maximum height of around 4.6 metres. New Zealand livestock hauliers operating fixed decks, which are coming under increasing pressure from the authorities regarding ‘back rub‘ on tall animals, would certainly benefit from an adjustable-height systen to suit the animals on board. Dropping down the hill towards Dungarvan, the Volvo engine brake does an admirable job of keeping the speed in check, before we begin the climb up out of the town. Already I‘m beginning to see the benefit of such a high-powered engine. Sure, in places like Australia, you have lower powered trucks pulling far bigger weights, but those trucks are kept rolling in big open spaces. The maximum permissible GVM here in Ireland is 46 tonnes, but you can make up your own mind as to what weight we are running today.

It‘s only 50km to the Dawn Meats plant in Waterford, but it‘s a hilly journey that requires a steady hand. When unloading, the truck and trailer with its full width ramps needs to line up dead straight so the ramp from the rigid fits into the front of the trailer. The whole process is completed in under 20 minutes. For those who have never seen one in operation, these modern livestock trucks are magnificent to witness in action. Remote control in hand, the operator can release the locking pins holding the top decks in place, lower or raise the decks, operate the roof, and much more. After washing out (which takes the best part of an hour) we‘re on our way northwards for the next job, so I use the opportunity to quiz Francis about the Volvo. “We‘ve had Volvos for the past 30 years. Before that it was Fords, then a yellow Dennison with a body we could lift off. But our first Volvo arrived in 1982, an F7 rigid and drag with wooden bodies built by Kellys of Castledermot. Next, we had two FL10s, a day cab then a sleeper cab, with steel bodies built by Cahills of Graiguenamanagh.”

Photo: Here you can count seven connections; the extras are for the reversing camera and auxiliary batteries on the trailer.

In 2003, the Flavins bought a new Volvo FM 420, this time opting for Houghton Parkhouse bodywork, which was later swapped to an FH 520 that arrived in 2009. Up to this point, the vast majority of livestock hauliers on national work in Ireland were running single-deck cattle/2-deck sheep or pig units. However, as the roads improved, there has been huge growth in the number of 2-deck cattle/3- deck pig or sheep units, once the sole preserve of hauliers running to the continent. While most of these are Italian designs, with the Dutch and Germans also selling a few in Ireland, it was a French company that first proposed the idea of a tridem to the Flavins. Carrosserie Guitton, based in Brittany, had already finished a number of 4-axle rigid livestock trucks for their French clients before extolling to the brothers the benefits of this set-up. “We were keen to give them a try as their work looked good, but the language barrier put us off in the early stages. After making enquiries with a few other manufacturers, we were down to just Houghton Parkhouse and Pezzaioli. In the end, we went with Houghton as they were prepared to custom-build on a 5.1-metre wheelbase, whereas Pezzaioli will only workwith a 5.6-metre chassis.”

Photo: In the unlikely event of the remote control not working, there are backup controls on both bodies.

Although the outlay was substantially more when compared with the Italian brand, Francis feels it was justified. “The Pezzaioli is a fine product too, but with Houghton, you get a very personal service – they will build it exactly to your specification. I can‘t speak highly enough of them.” In a country where Scania is revered, especially on livestock work, was he tempted to jump the fence and try out a V8? “Sure, we got a quote from Scania, but their tridem setup is vastly different from Volvo. They use an electric motor system for the rear steer, which I‘m not sure about, plus it‘s a lot more expensive. The Volvo tridem is hard to beat, is what we kept hearing.” Francis isn‘t alone in feeling this way, as at the time of writing there are at least five Volvo tridems on livestock in the Republic, three with Pezzaioli bodies, one with a UK-built Plowman, along with Flavin‘s Houghton.

Photo: With the roofs set to the maximum height, even the tallest of cattle have ample standing room.

We make our way along narrow roads (known in Ireland as ‘boreens‘, especially in the west) to our loading destination, where Francis effortlessly manoeuvres the trailer onto the loading ramp. The farm workers waste no time in sending up as many pigs as Francis requests for each pen, and before I know it he‘s closing the back doors. As farms in Europe do not provide loading ramps, these are integrated on the rear of all trucks and trailers. Interestingly, Francis chose spring-mounted in the traditional fashion, whereas most modern designs are hydraulically operated. “I ordered these as they are faster than hydraulic rams, although the downside is they can be heavy if you are parked uphill on some farms!” Moving away, the first thing that strikes me is how responsive the steering is. This is the first time I‘ve ever driven something with three steering axles, so the usual wide swings adopted by an articulated driver are unnecessary. Travelling with 230 sows along narrow roads, in a truck you are not used to, it‘s best to take it steady. If the steering was responsive, so too are the brakes, which feel sharp to the uninitiated.

I comment on how well the trailer follows the truck – everything is dead straight in the mirror, almost as if it was one big trailer. Francis responded: “I was a bit nervous as to how it would pull, as most drag trailers in the UK are of the centre axle design and Houghton are not known for building turntable drags. But they made a great job of it, as you can see.” Having a 3-axle turntable trailer certainly aids stability and goes some way towards eliminating the ‘dancing‘ effect. Axle configuration on the trailer is an area where the Flavins were sure of what they wanted. “I‘m not a big fan of centre axle trailers. Unhitching, which I do quite often, is messy, as you have to crawl underneath the rear of the truck, then wind down landing legs as well.” Personally, I feel a traditional drag looks much better too!

Photo: Note the remote control for operating the decks and roof.

At Dawn Meats, we need to weigh the truck and trailer separately (the weighbridge is only designed for artics, tuttut!), then turn left into the pig unloading area. Francis tells me where to aim for, so I have a straight shunt back onto the ramp, and with minimal turns of the wheel, we‘re ready to unload. Again I‘m struck by the manoeuvrability. Washing out for the second time, Francis points out some of the features of the truck. The biggest distinguishing feature of a Houghton is that the decks are raised and lowered by steel cables, operated by electric motor/ hydraulic rams that are hidden within the bodywork. So there are no chains and cogs like other designs. The sides of the upper decks are virtually flush with the sides of the body, eliminating the chance of animals catching their legs. Similarly, the design of the air vents prevents legs, or snouts in the case of pigs, becoming caught. Also, the dividing gates are hinged from the sides, rather than above, with latches that are selflocking. These three-quarter gates are designed so the operator has a safe area to stand when loading or unloading wild cattle.

The longer you walk around the truck, the neater features you notice; such as the locking pins that are completely hidden within the flush sides. Access, if needed, is through vertical fold-out panels. Although not required by law for trucks operating locally, ventilation fans draw out stale air from the compartments and ensure a more comfortable environment, especially for pigs. With darkness upon us once again, we return to the farm on the side of the mountain where we began our day. By becoming comfortable behind the wheel and appreciating the awesome power, I really begin to enjoy the drive in such an exclusive combination. Having seen a normal day‘s work for the truck, I can understand how the odometer is very low at 83,000km – much of the time is spent either working or washing out. But once finished, what a reward it is to slide into the cockpit of the most powerful production truck in the world, which also showcases the best in British engineering through its impressively engineered livestock bodies.