Mutdog Part II

In Test May 2022, May 202216 MinutesBy Dave McCoidJune 27, 2022

New trucks generally mean more to small companies. The new addition, MUTDOG, is only the second brand new Mack to wear the Helenbak Haulage name, and the first truck Matt Sherlock has had the opportunity to spec from a clean sheet. Although VYLDOG was new, that truck was a cancelled order.

But it’s a special machine for more reasons than that. Firstly, it’s the last-ever 8×4 Trident to be built, and secondly… brace yourself… the last-ever Mack built for New Zealand with a manual Eaton Roadranger transmission (it’s not the last commissioned, but was the last built).

“I got the manual because she’ll end up pensioned off to local side-loader work years down the track and I prefer the manuals for that.”

1) Passing through Dannevirke.

We met MUTDOG and driver Josh Nicholson at Mainfreight’s Onekawa yard in Napier. He was one of a Helenbak trio in town that morning. Matt was up with CAT 4 T on a general freight mission, and Josh was running with Tony Deans in the Mack Granite, DVLDOG. They’d come up with a 20 tonne box each to the yard, and were then heading for the port to grab a couple of fulls for home.

Looking on at a gleaming MUTDOG, the colour-coded King Bars bumper, drop-visor, and roof kit would tell a trained observer – even standing at a distance – that this could be a Helenbak truck. But in typical Matt Sherlock fashion, there’s more to it than merely appearance. The roof kit is the one off the Robin Jago CL he drove; a handshake with history, a friend from the past there to guide the next generation… albeit at a far more sedate pace.

“The truck’s done 6500km, the roof kit 2.2 million,” says Matt. “I’ve squashed some bugs with that! One thing I always respected Robin for immensely was he always would include my contribution when people complimented him on the presentation of the trucks.

“I wanted to do some more to this one but delays around Covid meant it had to go straight to work. It has the Pearl Craft steering wheel and shifter head in red, and I wanted red anodised wheels and black chrome everywhere there’s shiny stuff, just for something different. I like the black chrome look; it’s simply clear with a flick of black in it. When the sun’s not out it’s black, but in the light the chrome tries to shine through, giving a golden look.

“I’m really lucky with all my customising fetishes,” says Matt with a laugh. “Brent Tinetti at Advanced Panel Beaters and Painters here in Palmy did the custom paint and sun visor. He’s a local hot-rod and street man also, and does all my work. He knows exactly what I want. He did the original CL. The ex-cement Vision we bought at the start. That thing was a mess, and after he’d finished it won truck of the show at the local truck show. That’s how good he is.”

Fruit salad and barricades

Being loaded ex-the depot, Matt was able to motor off, while the other two aimed their Bulldogs at the port. Tony was out first leaving us to enjoy a brand new Mack and Fruehauf NZ quad semi in the autumn sun, motoring up SH50, the inland route from Napier through Maraekakaho and Ongaonga, rejoining SH2 west of Takapau.

“It’s almost the same kilometre-wise,” says Josh. “It’s a slower road but there are fewer towns to pass through. We sort of have a rule of thumb that if the box is over 15 tonne we take SH2, otherwise there’s a bit too much chasing the gear lever around the cab.”

Of course the Saddle Road is the new normal for crossing the main divide between the Wairarapa and Manawatu. It’s a longer and more expensive ‘normal’ than the old gorge, adding at best 10 minutes to the Woodville to Palmerston North terminal time, and at worst, 20 minutes.

Awaiting unload at Mainfreight’s Onekawa terminal in Napier.

Although we weren’t up to weight, Josh said that with a 30 tonne box, the Trident climbs the eastern flanks dipping to 28kph, 4th high, and 1800rpm at the most arduous point.

“It’s certainly up on power compared with my old truck DVLDOG,” says Josh. “And she’s got a lot of freeing up to do yet.”

The workflow can be as varied as you can imagine: as Josh called it, “fruit salad”. Although containers make up the bulk, there’s also a healthy smattering of flat-deck work, side-loading, tipping containers, and heavy B-train work on Helenbak’s slick 6-axle TMC skeletal B-train.

That heavy work comes most often via the truck’s regular night shift when drivers Ernest or Dotti spend six or so hours carting two 20 tonne rail containers from the Palmerston North railhead to a local DC for emptying and returning to the rail.

Our second run for the day was somewhat exciting to be frank, our first trot over Transmission Gully, in a brand new Mack to boot!

The 27km behemoth is an engineering marvel and it’s easy to forget its agonising and expensive birth. Those responsible for its agony probably hope the intoxicating scale of the end result will dull our outrage. We hope it doesn’t.

The road utterly alters the perception of the approach to Wellington by road, with zero familiarity regardless of where you look. Even with an empty box the huge climb into the gods from Paekakariki has MUTDOG down to 60kph. And it would be fair to say the road is not winning wholesale accolades from local carriers. With two big climbs and a half-decent third, it’s proving an expensive option.

“We take it trip by trip,” said Matt. “The street lights have been on for about a year and I remember looking up into the sky at them early on thinking, ‘surely that’s not the road?’ But yep, it was. Obviously, they’ll alter the permits at some point and make you use it, but the reality is the time saving’s only there at certain times of the day due to the huge drags, and with any weight on you’ll burn more fuel. One local operator who runs loaded in and out of Wellington daily is burning between 14 and 17 litres more a trip, for a four- minute saving. That’s well over 3000 litres extra a year. It’s the same on the Saddle Road. We’re supposed to be thinking ahead, and about the environment, and we go and replace dead-flat roads with enormous hills. It makes you wonder.”

Thankfully, even with all that, MUTDOG is running at 2.12kpl out of the box. Two- plus is always impressive for a truck so young, and yes, it does have its share of light work, but it also spends at least every night in an urban environment loaded to just shy of 60 tonne. Cities and big weights never sit comfortably with miserly fuel consumption.

Rail container are a night job, transporting heavy boxes from the Palmerston North KiwiRail freight terminal to a local DC.

‘…and watermelon wine’

Another Flash Gordon turnaround and we were heading into the Gully from ‘Adernsville’.

As MUTDOG loafed up the climb we thought about its bulletproof underpinnings. The Euro 5 MP8 at 13 litre pumps out a respectable 399kW (535hp) from 1450 to 1900rpm and 2603Nm (1920lb/ft) from 1050 to 1450rpm. That makes 1450 the sweetest of spots amidst a healthy workbench of revs. Behind MUTDOG’s power plant, for the last time ladies and gentlemen, is the Eaton Roadranger RTLO22918B 18-speed manual transmission feeding Meritor RT46-160GP 20,900kg rated diffs at 4.10:1 ratio, with dual diff locks. They perch on Mack AL460 air suspension, also rated at 20,900kg. Ducking forward momentarily, the front Mack FXL axles at 13,200kg rating ride on parabolic springs with stabiliser and shock absorbers. Brakes are drum with ABS.

Obviously the Anthem’s arrival has heralded a significant change in the landscape for Mack in Australasia, with the Granite and Trident 8×4 being ushered toward the exit as the new kid takes their responsibilities. Thankfully, one of the sexiest trucks ever built, the set- forward front axle Trident holds its ground, thanks of course to that front axle possie. With a history of building gorgeous machines, the likes of the R-Model, MH, and CH, we hope and pray this mechanical canine incarnation survives as long as possible.

Josh pulls onto Tremaine Avenue, Palmerston North, bound for Wellington.

In terms of ambience, the Anthem will be a very different beast also, bringing its influence to bear across the range. But for now, let us bask in the glory of looking out through the Trident’s windscreen as we descend the nation’s newest superhighway with the PowerLeash engine brake doing its thing at a robust 79dB. It’s just as well Mack’s engine brake is an effective slower of progress with this monster and the Saddle Road set to feature so heavily in MUTDOG’s future. As Matt alluded to earlier, 10 years ago there were few fuel- burning, energy-sapping hills to dampen a Helenbak truck’s day, now they’re everywhere.

In-cab room and storage is limited – thank goodness for the box between the seats – but the burgundy Ultra Leather interior and full woodgrain dash are glorious things. The gauges in the binnacle, the wrap with everything right there; there’s no doubt today’s cab design purists, intoxicated with ergonomic perfection and ‘swipey’ tablets, would dismember its shortcomings one by one. And, no, it doesn’t have all the modern infotainment bells and whistles. But as my old boss said, work should be fun too, and on that count, this place is utopia. As I said when I drove the Super-Liner in Aussie in 2016, this interior is like your favourite pair of Red Bands. In terms of look and feel, you’re Matt Sherlock circa 1993, albeit at a sedate 90kph, complete with Mr Seeing Machine camera keeping your ‘awful’ human fallibilities in check.

In the ever more sterile years ahead, it’s still a workplace you’ll “create memories in”, to use a Sherlock’ism. ‘Yeah man! I drove a brand-new, manual, gauge-festooned, Ultra-Leather-cabbed Mack in 2022!”

We caught up with Josh and MUTDOG in Mount Maunganui a couple of days later when he was up to grab a box.

Spring and autumn

We rolled into Palmerston North like a rocket sled on rails (Matt started it, right at the top of the story, and RIP CW McCall from all of us). The last of the Mohicans at the start of its life. It’s so fitting the last manual stirrer has found the hands of a new generation driver. Josh was as capable and relaxed with the cog-stick as you’ll find, a worthy custodian of the transition.

MUTDOG has big boots to fill though. The newest Bulldog in a legacy of standout Macks, both among its business stablemates and in the life of its owner. The aero kit has another three billion bugs to splat and as far as Matt Sherlock is concerned, he wants another 1,100,000km, only stopping for fuel and servicing. That’s why he keeps coming back to the Bulldog brand.

Yes, there’s a lot to get through for this last Mack Trident 8×4 before it turns a wheel for the last time… starting with some heavy rail containers in about three hours.