Principles in stones

In March 2023, Tests31 MinutesBy Dave McCoidApril 18, 2023

Few companies love doing what they do more than that icon of the south, Road Metals, and few in their line of work could claim to have handled more rubble. However, the latest addition to the Road Metals fleet looks a little different, and doesn’t always head out the gate for the same reason the others do.

We now know the answer to the question is… lots! He bought lots.

The question was put to Road Metals founder Stan Francis well over half a century ago. Tongue-in-cheek, a mate asked, “How much of that brown paint did you buy?”

Brown. Not generally regarded as a colour that ignites the senses, and rarely even the bridesmaid, much less the bride. Unless, of course, you’re a Kiwi truck buff, and then it’s one of the great tinctures, instantly associated with the company Stan built, one his posterity continue to develop today.

What it tells you is livery is merely a reflection of reputation and intent. Imbue an identifiable culture with principles you determine, insist on a level of presentation almost at odds with the core activity, strive for a company people will enjoy doing business with, and humble brown transforms into a rockstar hue.

Which brings us to the Volvo FM540 sleeper cab parked in front of us at Road Metals’ Yaldhurst quarry. One of a bevvy of FMs coming into the business over the next few months, it looks as swanky as any of its siblings or predecessors ever have in the famous brown and cream, yet there’s something not quite the same with this one. While any Road Metals truck will likely induce a second look, No.49 will likely prompt a third, maybe even a prolonged stare, as it disappears up the road.

Firstly, an 8×4 tractor with a standard sleeper, air- management roof kit and cab side skirts, it shouts more linehaul than quarry. Second, although it sports the iconic branding of its owners, it also wears the Kiwi Cement brand, the supply arm of Kiwi Concrete, also a Road Metals subsidiary.

And therein lay the answer. No.49 was bought as both a bulk cement distributor, and aggregate carriage.

“We had a few thoughts about painting and branding on it,” says Dan Francis, Road Metals’ general manager and a third generation in the family business. “We initially intended it to go into Kiwi livery, but then thought the reputational capital of the brown and cream would be a great support for the Kiwi brand. Not everyone realises the connection. There are some big names in the concrete industry, and as Kiwi continues to grow, we want people to know there’s a longstanding, stable history behind it. We’ve put the Kiwi Cement on the air kit just to assist in the linkage. It has actually come up better than we thought it might.

“The truck has taken a while to get here – it’s just the times we live in. We had to adjust the paint lines on the roof pelmet, and the centre stripe. Volvo felt the white should run with the pelmet and window lines, but we wanted our traditional lines kept as they are.”

The Volvo made it to last November’s TMC Trucking Industry Show in Christchurch in the nick of time and certainly attracted a lot of attention, largely centred on the presence of that sleeper cab. For all of Road Metals’ cool truck history, sleeper cabs haven’t featured heavily, and No.49 is only the second Viking to arrive with one, the other a G88 driven by 47-year company veteran Lindsay Forbes, who is today quarry manager at Yaldhurst.

“The reason for the sleeper is largely cosmetic,” says Dan. “Bruce won’t have to sleep in it, but towing the cement tanker with the yawning gap needed between the cab and tank to get the first-to-last axle distances right, meant a day cab would have looked odd. A bit of length in the cab helped bridge that visual void.”

That’s a fair call, and a real bonus. Bunks are great for tucking bags and guff out of the way, and external lockers are a godsend for keeping aggregate and cement from getting inside.

A typical Road Metals and South Island scene, trucks carting off a braided river bed.

The only constant is change

The driver of the latest addition is Bruce Weaver, a 36-year veteran of the road who has been at Road Metals just over two years.

Bruce came out of a Mack Trident truck and trailer for the Volvo, with 60,000km spent on a Mack CH while the Volvo was going through its extended gestation. “She’s here now,” laughs Bruce.

“Bruce will supply cement to the Kiwi Concrete batching plants here in Yaldhurst, as well as our sites at Kaikoura, Twizel, Clyde and Oamaru,” says Road Metals’ Christchurch transport manager Aaron McGrath. “He’ll also cart lime back into the pug plant here [Yaldhurst].”

Although Bruce and the Volvo will be kept increasingly busy on the cement work, there are always times when, for whatever reason, things are quiet. As such, the Volvo was rigged for all manner of tasks and could easily be seen towing a tipulator around land development and infrastructure jobs in the Garden City, or a bottom-dump semi on regional roading.

We’d seen the FM at Christchurch, so knew what to expect, yet it had the same magnetic effect two months later when we met Bruce at the Yaldhurst yard on a grey summer morning. It’s a truck you walk towards instantly because it’s slightly different from what you expect to see in the Road Metals cloak… its cab, the air-kit branding, the tanker… “Ooooh, it is neat, eh?”

The cement tanker is not new – a 1998 Kockums. Bruce also has another tanker able to cart lime that he uses when servicing the pug mill from Oamaru.

Okay, let’s just call a halt at this point and get rid of the elephant in the room for those of you who, like us, had no idea what the hell ‘pug’ was. Pug is a lime/cement/water composite mix that’s the roading equivalent of bog. If you have a crack or a hole, you pour pug in, and it sets like concrete.

Moving on…

The plan was to hook a brand-new four-axle unit behind the Volvo, but as has been the case for everyone in recent history, bugs and tyrants in this silly old world have got in the way.

Dan explains: “Our cement supplier went out of business. We bought the assets – two semis and a couple of trucks – and decided to import our cement ourselves and take ownership of our supply lines. We had a timeline in place, but supply chain disruptions caused by Covid and everything else that’s going on meant the lead time for the gear started to get pushed out, and the supply chain for the product also became less predictable. In the end, the pieces on the chessboard were moving every day, so we thought, ‘Bugger it! Let’s rule an underline on the page and start again.’ So, we’ve got the truck now, and we’ve spruced up one of the existing trailers, the other’s getting done shortly. Currently, we’re sourcing our cement from Golden Bay and Holcim, and we’ll just let the broader plan come together as things normalise.”

Tipping off in town.

Between a rock and a hard case

Bruce Weaver is one of those blokes who ensure life is never dull in a transport company. You know the sort; the guy who gives the Volvo drivers stick when he drives a Mack, and once he’s assigned a Viking of his own, happily points out the platform nature of the Mack product to those in the pound. He’ll tell Trident driver Matt Frame that he’s going to put Volvo mudflaps on the tipulator they share – just for the wind-up value. He has a yarn with anyone and everyone, and everyone’s an equal through eyes hardened from a life on the road. The cynicism and gravely laugh form a humorous backdrop to an industry he loves deep down, warts and all. A type whose company we’ve always enjoyed immensely. Suffice to say, a great couple of days were in store.

Our first mission was carting rock from the Waimakariri River to a residential development in Burwood in the city’s northeast – about a 12km lead, half you’d call urban-rural and the rest pure urban residential. It’s typical of many Road Metals jobs in the current era, especially in the wake of Christchurch’s recent past.

“It keeps things interesting,” says Bruce. “Both jobs are good because jobs like this can go a long time, so the cement tanker is an escape. This one’s a highway truck first and a gravel truck second, so I’ve got to be careful. The front is quite low. It’s on mechanical suspension, so I can’t lift it up or anything fancy. It’s just a case of being aware. It certainly doesn’t take much for the front flaps to rub.”

With its constantly self-destructing mountainous spine discharging millions of tonnes of rubble into the river catchments every year, harvesting rock from the rivers has been ‘a thing’ in the South Island since forever. Like many of its peers, it is a practice Road Metals has engaged in since its inception.

For a lad from the north, heading out into the guts of a braided river with a digger harvesting material into long berms is too much fun.

“This is just a river-run job,” says Bruce, meaning no further processing or crushing was required. The material was going, as extracted, and used for heightening the base layer at the delivery site.

The loading operation looked deceptively easy and was located at the other end of the berm to the digger. With about 10 trucks in the loop, each was gone within minutes of arriving, courtesy of the Volvo L180H making a max of four passes for the biggest units.

At 403kW (540hp) the FM was under no pressure whatsoever, carting the 21 tonne on its back. With the cement trailer on, the current gross of 44 tonne equates to 9.2kW/tonne (12.3hp), and even if that’s pushed out to 50 tonne with a bigger semi, that’ll still come in at 8.1kW/ tonne (10.8hp). Mechanical stress should not feature heavily in the FM’s life.

On this job, we were operating somewhere in the 11.5kW/tonne (15.4hp).

Crossing the Yaldhurst weighbridge.

Once upon a time, this type of work was hard yakka in the cab, with the clutch pedal and gear lever a blur for much of the day, week and month. Go back to crash- boxes and servicing the urban task list for the heavier end-of-road transport really was the domain of cog-swapping artisans. If that wasn’t you, the days must have been long and disheartening.

Now, in the era of the I-Shift et al., those days are long gone. What an irony that in an age where technology has made the industry far more accessible to more people, the shortage of drivers is its greatest problem.

Even without a dual clutch, the 12-speed Road Metals machine glided through the city; all the gear selection decisions taken out of the driver’s hands, and the cog- swapping itself, sublime. The biggest issue on Bruce’s mind is deciding whether 18° is more comfortable than 20° and with in-cab noise recorded at about the 67dB, you can almost hear that decision-making process happening. There certainly wasn’t much else making a racket.

The FM’s a nimble critter even in 8×4 configuration. Yes, it is a tractor unit, which is an advantage, but in 2023, the price for twin rudders should not be a compromised steering lock.

The short tipulator was about the same length as the tractor, and even though a unique look, it meant the whole unit had about the same wheel track as the Chevy Z71 Silverado we were driving around Christchurch in November. We imagined how cool this combo would look with a simple trailer in tow also… just what truck buffs do, eh?

From a narrow urban street lined with cars, the tip site was accessed down a tight wee track between shops – nothing to see here for the Road Metals crew. A steady procession of the fleet filed in before turning, backing up, and tipping over the edge of the new base level. Being new ground, the pad was ‘green’ and succumbed slightly to the weight of the trucks, like a really light person on a super firm inner-sprung mattress. Again, Bruce was cautious of the Volvo’s front end.

As a rule, he’s reluctant to open the windows on site if he can help it. Being the fastidious type, he’s not a fan of grubbiness inside, and because it’s built so well, he says the Volvo has a real penchant for allowing just that. “I think the seal on the cab is so good there’s a real pressure difference between the inside and outside. When you open the window, the air rushes in. You can feel it.”

Speaking of windows, it’s the one area Bruce finds mildly annoying. “They don’t come down far enough. The one on the previous model came down further. It’s the low cab and steeply raked sill line not allowing room in the door to accommodate all that glass.”

A couple of loads done, and we were sent to grab a transfer load from Yaldhurst to the company’s site on Diversion Road, off the south Eyre Road on the northern side of the Waimakariri. Yes, folks, in the same vein as logs, not all stones are equal, and transfers between sites to allow the manufacture of specific blends are not uncommon. It makes you wonder what archaeology actually tells us. If the world has indeed been through more advanced states than we give it credit for, time spent deducing the flow of history from the patterns of stone placement might be better spent at the pub.

Indoor/outdoor flow

As with several OEM launches, the new FM, FH, FH16, and FMX range that arrived in March 2020 came with a fanfare more subdued than deserved.

The FM was the big beneficiary, with a whole new cab to bring it in line with the FH. The FH got the new dash, and there were tricked-up adaptive headlights on the FH16.

Volvo has found the driver an extra 1m3 of interior space in the FM, and it shows, especially forward and overhead. There’s now even more in a truck that wasn’t shy on interior room to start with. It feels like a big cab down low, and even though the Road Metals machine isn’t a ‘Globey’, it has an open and airy feel enhanced by the offside sleeper window. Visibility is panoramic, with a big, deep screen and big door glass. The near-straight A-pillars make left/right clearance past Volvo’s excellent mirror set-up easier than previously.

Both the big Scandinavians have had a proper go at sorting clearance visibility in their current models. It’s been the bane of the modern ultra-safe truck generally, and they’ve got it about as good as you could expect without deploying a camera and screen.

There’s plenty of storage space overhead and around the central console, as well as a cup, bottle and document tray between the seats. In fact, we counted six specific spaces for cups or bottles, so maintaining hydration shouldn’t be an issue.

Bruce doesn’t have a fridge but has one of his own that sits on the passenger footwell when the pesky New Zealand Trucking crew aren’t annoying him.

As we said last June in the TSL FH16, the new dash is a place we feel far more at home with – a true binnacle and wrap set-up, although that horizontal ribbon tachometer still tests your capacity to take a deep breath and give your anxieties to the universe.

The Viking breaks with the current convention on the expansive 12in digital binnacle, placing the analytics and warning lights on the outside of the single large digital gauge that’s home to speed, fuel, and DEF levels. It’s a refreshing layout and allows an easy demarcation of information.

The wrap is gorgeously put together, with modular configurable switch-banks as well as traction, climate, infotainment controls, and the world’s most innocuous park brake.

Speaking to the 9in infotainment screen… it looks much more at home in the FM than the FH, more a part of the wrap rather than the spare-bridesmaid look they went for in the FH. Remember, it has that stellar double function, showing the front left offside when either the left indicator is going, or when activated by you.

Switchgear continues along the underside of the binnacle section, with headlight control at the extreme right by the door.

Attached to the seat on the driver’s left is the now iconic I-Shift controller. Surely, you have to agree that its general appearance is locked into Volvo’s 21st-century DNA? Interestingly, we’re yet to see one with a 12in extension and Pearl Craft head.

The steering wheel is smart, with menu navigation, and speed/descending controls.

Put together as you would expect in a Volvo, it’s all very subdued and calm in neutral tones. Those who know me know I long for colour in the cabs of modern trucks, and someone in Volvo’s mattress department has dared to dabble in a lavender and terracotta fleck, albeit a barely detectable one.

The low-line FM has three steps and enough lineal grab-handle to satisfy an octopus. If your quarryman’s crack is rising above the waistband of the good Canterbury shorts when entering, it has nothing to do with access points and a challenging entry on the truck, but rather the access point for the cheese rolls on the driver.

Crossing the Ashley River Bridge on SH1.

Mixing it up

Sadly, on this occasion we weren’t able to stretch our legs in the Volvo and get right out of town on a good long run, either up or down the coast, or into the South Island’s Mackenzie and Central Otago interior.

The Volvo’s averaged 44.3 litres per 100km in its short life to date which is 2.26kpl (6.37mpg), a stark reality check on just how far the modern diesel has come, but the truth is, you could expect better from the Euro-6 such is their penchant for keeping diesel in the tank. Bear in mind also that this is a garden-fresh truck doing a lot of local work. That said, as we often preach, the driver is still the biggest variable in truck performance, for the time being a least. Bruce is what you might say, productively at ease, letting the FM glide around in the tachometer’s green sector, and letting the I-Shift decide which of the 12 cogs it might like to deploy. “It’s a long way from a D-Series Ford lift-out-side general freight truck,” he says, Bruce’s first foray as a young fellow into truck driving proper.

Lead times on the cement run put no stress on either truck or driver, with Kaikoura return easily accomplished in a day, likewise Twizel, and Oamaru. More often than not, Bruce will run down from Twizel to the company’s coastal capital for a load back into the high country, and may even return back to Oamaru for a load of pug back up to Christchurch again. On those occasions he stays away for a night or two depending on what’s on the schedule.

Climbing wise, the Hundalee hills on SH1 South of Kaikoura, SH83 from Oamaru up the Waitaki and over the Otematata Saddle, and of course the grind into the high country on SH79 and SH8 via Geraldine, Mt Michael, and Burkes Pass pose the biggest regular obstacles.

Bruce said the truck doesn’t get below eighth on the pull up the Burkes Pass.

Life in the tranquil environs of the FM’s cab is aided immeasurably by the way the engine goes about its business, and is another reason why it’s such a joy in and around the city also. Peak torque of 2600Nm (1920lb/ft) stretches all the way from 1000 to 1400rpm, the precise point where power peaks and heads off to 1900rpm. There’s no prizes for guessing where abouts cruising speed sits.

A day in the FM and you certainly realise there’s not a long way left to go in terms of evolving momentum from combustion.

Rock and roll – the two lives of fleet No.49.

Rolling through Amberley.

Speaks to so much

It’s an enduring reality that truly successful businesses will always be built on the same principles they’ve always been built on; quality, integrity, and consistency. Set those three pillars as sacred, and culture will inevitably begin to form as the cement that binds them. It also sets you on path to being an organisation people will ‘enjoy doing business with’.

Enduring firms tend to operate in the way they do on either side of the ledger. Like their customers, they seek out suppliers with similar values. It speaks volumes when you consider that today, Road Metals has a relationship with the Volvo product that spans over 50 years.

To fleet No.49 now, the FM540 continues to demonstrate with aplomb, the qualities its famous insignia implies – quality build, performance well aligned to modern expectation, exceptional comfort, and of course safety. It’s cool that Volvo’s ‘truck for all bases’ has been used for just that here.

Both companies face significant uncertainty ahead for the same reason. The brown and cream truck featured on the cover of New Zealand Trucking magazine in 2055, the year of Road Metals’ centenary, will not be powered by diesel if global accords signed currently are upheld.

While the machines as we know them may not endure, sticking to the philosophical pillars on which both Road Metals and Volvo have been built, will ensure both of them, do.

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