In Tests, May 2021, International36 MinutesBy Dave McCoidJune 28, 2021

Long-established and well-respected Dannevirke-based AWE McNicol launched its Napier-based Central Log Transport (CLT) operation in January last year. The goal was to deliver maximum payload with top- end capability, a combination not always easy to achieve. CLT believes that with the ProStar in peak trim, they’re as close as they can get. The company’s third ProStar was recently commissioned and with No.4 in the wings, it’s worth investigating why.

Nothing’s truer than the adage, ‘There’s more than one way to skin the old domestic tiger.’ In March, we looked at Kane Bennett’s new Kenworth T909 log combination in classic 6×4 and 4-axle configuration, built to slot nicely into work the HPMVs turn up their toes at. It was a simple truck in terms of set-up and day-to-day compliance costs.

This month, we head down the other end of the philosophical spectrum and, by that, we mean taking maximum advantage of every opportunity both machine and VDAM afford. To do that, we went back to the friendly log-truck community in the sunny Hawke’s Bay, where toots and waves are as common as a rock in the Gimblett Gravels. We were there to spend a couple of days with three of AWE McNicol’s new International ProStar R8 HDs, running under the company’s CLT (Central Log Transport) banner.

A new day

Log trucking is renowned for its bracing start times, and 1am is about as character-building as it gets. It’s the regular ‘go’ line for drivers Jarrod Jones and Farran Marsh, and on this day, CLT director and operations manager Zac Brausch is also on deck. As we stood on the forecourt of the BP Bayview in Napier, it looked super- cool as the three ProStars glided in, one, two, three, each taking a bay in the empty servo. Out jumped the lads, and in typical Hawke’s Bay fashion, they were all as happy as hell to see us.

Drinks purchased, it was in with Zac and up SH2 toward the small village of Raupunga, situated on the northeastern side of the Mohaka River. There, we turned inland onto Putere Road and headed up a long valley.

The 25km or so trip into the spur road began with the usual deception, a dual carriageway with fog lines. Then the fog lines disappeared, then the bitumen started to narrow and lose its edge-integrity in places, causing the trucks to dip and lurch a little more, then the climbing and descending got more severe. Then, as you’ll have guessed by now, the bitumen disappeared altogether… thankfully. ‘Thankfully?’ Well, yes, because if you’ve done a bit of log trucking in New Zealand hill country, you’ll know it’s the bitumen access roads that go the longest between fix-ups. Regularly getting the council grader and scarifier on the gravel sections isn’t too hard. But getting them to rip up and repatriate slumped bitumen can be like asking Meghan Markle to help paint Buckingham Palace.

While the world sleeps the log industry’s day is well underway.

All in all, it was your classic Kiwi forest-access scenario. And, as log truckers know, the key to ongoing safe access and consistent productivity is communication. In the pitch black of the early morning, the bush radio was alive as trucks called themselves in and out, using established mile markers at the location queue points. It’s all done like a cheery chat room, with the vital information interspersed with levity, which is critical when you consider where they all are, what they’re all doing, and the time they’re doing it.

Zac pulls onto the spur road at the top of a nondescript hill, and the headlights swing into the bush and shine down the road accessing our skid. “This will be one of the winter skids this year,” he says. “It’s one of the closer skids to Putere Road – only about three kilometres in.”

The climbs and descents were certainly ‘winter manageable’. We were third in the line. Farran was immediately in front in the newest of the CLT machines. Jarrod led the charge in the original truck, painted in white rather than the customary AWE McNicol gun-metal grey. It had been spec-built by Intertruck, with a few additional bonnet graphics and the like, so had been left as-is, with just signage added.

Soon, the lumens of the headlights gave way to the impressive log-harvesting operation of Grapple Yarding Services. This is haulier or swing-yarder country. No expansive landings here, as you often find on the Plateau. The East Coast is more like the Coromandel, King Country, and parts of Tasman with their tight reverse-in/ drive-out operations. The trucks had it easy at this site since the next skid site was only a hundred or so metres down the hill, allowing them to turn around there, cruise back up and wait their turn.

Left: Jarrod and Farran work as a team. Right: Jarrod arrives at the weighbridge just before dawn.

Finding the right mix

It would be fair to say International’s ProStar and 9870 products are finding a happy home in Hawke’s Bay in ever-increasing numbers. CLT’s operation has the three trucks we’re here for, with No.4 due in July and – potentially – a fifth sometime after that. Twist Trucking’s now up to about seven, and there are ProStars in the Weatherell Transport and Austin Clements fleets. Stephenson Transport in Waipawa is also about to take on a couple of 9870s in its stock division. They’re just the obvious ones that spring to mind, so why all the fuss?

It would be fair to say all these apples haven’t fallen far from the Brian Aitchison tree in terms of a potential explanation. Readers will remember that we tested Brian’s ProStar two years ago, and at the time, he couldn’t fathom why you’d buy anything else, citing tare weight and running gear as the mainstays of his decision. The motivation for Zac Brausch, at least, isn’t too far removed.

“They’re a bit cheaper than a Kenworth. But for us, it’s the payload and running gear. You can chase payload in other brands too, but you’ll start to compromise on the power.

“They’re all set up as nine- axle at 50-max, and that gives us a 33-tonne payload. We’re in the process of getting 54-tonne permits; that’ll give us 37 tonnes. All six crews up here [Putere Road] are 54-tonne access, plus there’s two more just south of Wairoa and one in Putorino.

“There’s work we could do closer to Dannevirke, but it’s all woodlot on 44-tonne roads, and that’s no good for us because you’re just not optimising the truck’s potential.”

Payload aside, there’s an awful lot in terms of potential. Intertruck Distributors’ brochure cites the 8×4 ProStar R8 HD with Cummins X-15, Eaton, Meritor, and the company’s IROS rear suspension at a ballerina-like 9200kg, with motion lotion in the tank. The newest of the CLT trucks tips the scales at 10,900kg, with the various customer-centric requirements, and the Patchell Industries 5-axle 2-bay trolley weighs 6100kg.

“The first trailer came with a straight-through chassis, and the second with a drop chassis,” says Zac. “Patchells said there’d be a weight penalty with the drop frame, but it was a little too far from what they told us, so we’ve gone back to straights, and that’s where we’ll stay. When you chase payload, everything comes under scrutiny. Having said that, I have to admit that trailer is like nothing else in the fleet to tow.”

Back to the truck, and it’s the X-15 under that snub wee snout that is one of the real jewels to its ‘Pro’-ness. It means the ProStar keeps both Kenworth’s T610, and Western Star’s 4800 series trucks honest in terms of short bonnet, 15 litre, 8×4 conventional configuration trucks. Wanting big muscle at both Mack and Freightliner means living in a new dimension, literally.

The back wall of the cab in the ProStar is 2895mm from the front of the Ali Arc bumper, with the big red devil snuggly in place beneath the bonnet. For interest’s sake, the T610 has a BBC (Bumper to Back of Cab) of 2850mm (2860mm in SAR trim), and the 4884FXC 2271mm.

The CLT trucks run the high-end Cummins output offering from Intertruck at 459kW (615hp) and 2779Nm (2050lb/ft). Behind the 15-litre Euro-5 engines in the three trucks are one Eaton Roadranger RTLO22918B 18-speed manual and two Eaton UltraShift PLUS 20E318B-MXP 18-speed AMTs.

“Yeah, it’s a hard decision,” says Zac. “The first truck – the white one Jarrod’s in – was a spec-build with a manual. He wouldn’t have anything else. Trucks No.2 and No.3 have been autos, and they’re fine. Not everyone wants them, but everyone can operate them – that’s the problem. With the manuals, you have to find people who can operate them – and that’s getting harder. Getting bums in seats is the biggest problem the industry has, and even with new gear, we’re no exception.

“At least with AMTs, you’re eliminating one potential pitfall. Truck No.4 will be an AMT, but if the fifth one goes ahead, it will be another manual because there’s still a generation who want a gear lever.”

Fascinating times, aren’t they?

Rearward further, and you’ll find Meritor’s RT46-160GP drive bogie at 1.4m axle spacing with inter-axle lock and cross-lock on both axles, independently operated. The Meritors run 4.3:1 on account of the 11R rubber.

The axles are perched on International’s four-bag IROS (International Ride Optimised Suspension), in HD guise for the arduous work. Brakes are disc all around with EBS – and, therefore, ABS – as well as Automatic Traction Control.

The two autos sport a bit more in driver aids: intelligent gear selection, auto skip shifting, low-speed creep, hill start, electronic clutch actuator, stall prevention, and auto neutral. Jarrod’s has all of that, too, but it’s programmed into him rather than the truck.

Being Ultrashift PLUS units, the AMT machines are also equipped with Cummins ADEPT; the problem is that the roads north and west of Napier aren’t that adept at providing a terrain sympathetic to the capabilities of the system. South, however, could well be a different story. If the trucks find themselves on regular jaunts in and out of the Wairarapa, there may be some serious diesel to be saved, exploiting what the engine and transmission ‘smarts’ have to offer.

The CLT trucks are all equipped with New Zealand’s own Bigfoot central tyre inflation (CTI) systems, a system Zac says was recommended to him when they started the log truck operation 18 months ago.

“Bigfoot, Patchell log gear, and Hendrickson axles was the advice we got,” he says. “Patchell is strong down here, and the gear obviously lasts.”

A hive of industry by day.

Breaking out

The Grapple Yarding team’s Josh Styles had the three loads on in double-quick time and with a smoothness that defies logic.

Going bush has never been that difficult, and getting back out not always so simple. It’s the extraction that separates the Scouts from the Cubs and the Guides from Brownies, speaking to both driver and machine; more so in a country such as this, where there’s no wheeled loader able to come and assist if you’re ‘dagged’ on a hill a kilometre from the load-out.

If you think you’re going to be in real tiger country, one of the ProStar’s other handy-to-haves on the spec sheet is the ECAS second steer. Dumping the air in the second-steer when the going gets especially challenging throws a huge chunk of weight back to the drives, and with all available locks engaged plus CTI, it would take the Hillary Step to stop it. The CLT trucks have the standard Soft-Ride parabolic springs under the front, but it’s an option for Zac in future deployments.

The departure from the skid was a dip into a long climb, the initial part of which was docile and afforded the trucks somewhere to double check the chains for the trip out. The three trucks with twin 5-inch stacks, Ali Arc bumpers and stainless bug-guards looked as pretty as a picture.

The logs secured in their bunks, Zac engaged the necessary power-sharing apparatus on the Meritors and lifted off.

“We drive them in manual – it’s the only way to get out,” he says, selecting third gear and feeding the X-15 some diesel with his right foot. Our minds were instantly back with Craig Kelly in the Uhlenberg T610 two years ago when he turned her out onto the main road at Waitara with 54 tonnes in tow and fed it the berries. When an X-15 is given something substantial to gnaw on – like 33 tonnes of wood – it emits a wonderful sound. Zac showed the ProStar the first hill. The truck scrambled up with little fuss, and there was no indication on the way out of issues underfoot.

“They’re bloody good on traction,” he says. “We’re trialling different drive-tyre combinations with our supplier Bay Tyres – a mix of retreads and virgins. The newer truck came shod with Kiwi Tyres, and they’re working well. They’re maybe a bit aggressive in the dry, but doing really good off-road in the wet.”

In the unlikely event the incline does beat the ProStar, the Ali Arc bumper does have a more than chunky centrally mounted tow pin.

Down into the dips, the Jacobs delivered its usual satisfying note and 448kW (600hp) of retardation.

You could easily see the advantages of the AMT for a fleet owner, where you can never be 100% sure who might be driving it next. Every time Zac selected a button, it changed gear effortlessly, allowing him to be constantly vigilant of position, communications, and general surroundings. It’s worth noting, though, that experience and plain old empathy for machines still plays a huge role, and AMTs aren’t an elixir for idiots. Zac was making shifts pretty much where you make them in a manual and not doing anything that may cause the truck undue stress.

Soon we were back out on Putere Road.

“The main road up the valley gets a lot of traffic. Generally speaking, it holds up not too bad, although it only takes one or two to get a bit excited, and all of a sudden, the ruts and corrugations will be away,” he says.

Jarrod exiting Putere Road.

Midway along the Putere Road, there is a primary school, and it sits in a gully, so there’s a 7am curfew on engine braking in the area.

“The previous teacher commuted in, but the new one lives close by. It’s fair enough.”

It’s amazing the tools we come to rely on that we can’t do without. There was a lot of freight shifted in New Zealand before Mr Jacobs arrived with his engine brake. Yes, the weights might be far greater, but nine axles with modern disc brakes and assistance systems have no trouble in the right hands.

As a fleet operator, Zac is aware of the social licence the business is allowed in terms of operating in these rural areas, ensuring such rules are adhered to.

As we passed the school later in the day on the second round, all the kids were lined up on the fence and waved frantically to the passing ProStars, who in turn tooted back with equal enthusiasm.

Testing each others mettle on the Devil’s Elbow section.

Through drivers’ eyes

About a third of the way out, we all pull over for the chain check, and I swap Stars for the one with a gear lever.

Jarrod Jones is not old by any means, but he’s an old- school trucker to the core. The son of a career truck driver, Gary, Jarrod also chose the life for himself, and at age 38, he has 15 years of driving under his belt, having first started in the Kaingaroa in his dad’s Atkinson when on the off-highway network.

“I’ve driven lots of gear – ‘K-dubs’ and that – and I thought I’d take a while to mould into these ProStars. But, mate, they’re the bees’ knees,” he says as he slips the clutch and ‘gets into it’… and I mean ‘gets into it’. Jarrod starts picking gears off like shooting drunk turkeys three metres downrange with a shotgun, all in a sequence he decides, and all the more impressive considering the topography – gullies, dips, and short, vicious twisting climbs.

“I get them on the hills coming out, eh?” says Jarrod referring to the AMT machines. “There’s a fraction of a delay in the AMTs on what would be the splits that I don’t have, and I just inch away.”

Spending time in the two trucks provides the stark realisation of what 200,000 years of programming in the human computer has achieved in terms of finesse and intuition. When those qualities aren’t as honed through the driving artform, the influence will be felt well beyond the cab.

New Zealand Trucking’s Gavin Myers is back in with Farran, and he’s getting much the same story. Farran’s a recent arrival to the log-truck industry. He also has spent most of his working life behind the wheel having cut his teeth with his father and uncles. He has worked as a fleet and owner- driver so far. Now 42, one of Farran’s dreams was to be able to take his dad for a ride in a truck that he [Farran] owned, something he was able to fulfil before his dad’s death.

He agrees with Jarrod’s summation of the ProStars.

“Yep, they’re cool trucks and go bloody well. Given the choice, I’d certainly go for a manual in this work, but it’s pretty hard to fault. I’ll drive it in manual in the hard stuff – sometimes the auto gets caught out.”

Jarrod and Farran came off linehaul jobs to work in the CLT business. They’re both Hawke’s Bay boys, each looking for more of a home life.

“I’ve done eight years on logs in total, in both islands,” says Jarrod. “But at the time we came back up early last year, I was working linehaul based out of Amberley. Dad got crook, so we came home. I wanted a job where I could spend more time with him and family, and Zac was on the lookout. He’s been a bloody great boss to work for. You know what’s required, and he leaves you to it. The trucks get fixed when something goes wrong; Motorworks in Napier is fantastic. And look – when he needs to – he’s there at 1am and gets in himself. You can’t ask for more than that. It’s a family business, and it has that feel. There’s a great culture.

“Oh, and the money’s better than down south too,” he laughs.

By now, we’re out on the appalling excuse for a national highway that is SH2 between Gisborne and Napier. Nasty gullies and narrow, largely shoulderless roads at the likes of Putorino and Tutira, and narrow, tight climbing in and around Taihoa and Tangoio, make this a sad excuse for a workplace in one of the country’s forestry hotspots.

On the second round later that day, we stop at the Tangoio Roadhouse for the necessary break. Farran reflects on his short time in logging.

“I was the same. I wanted a bit more life – not driving all over the country and having breaks away from home. Jarrod and I have been mates for years, and he kept saying to me to come work with Zac. I’ve never done logs and didn’t know a thing, so I was a bit wary. Zac caught up with me, though, and we had a talk, and yeah, it all looked good.

“I can’t believe how welcoming this industry has been to a newbie. I’ve had complete strangers stop and ask how I’m going and not to hesitate to yell out if I need to know something. The loader drivers are patient and take their time. This industry has been so welcoming. I’m loving it.”

Break over, and the ProStars are off. As always, there’s a healthy rivalry between the mates in terms of whose truck has the edge, and as we head for the Devil’s Elbow, just south of Taihoa, we’re keen to see. In the steepest pinch, the AMT truck was in 11th at 1900rpm and 39kph, and the manual truck 10th at 1800rpm and 37kph, nothing in it at 50 tonnes.

“I can’t fault it, really,” says Jarrod. “They’re such an easy truck to use. They run cool; they’re not too big and clunky. Up the Putere beyond marker 9, there are a couple of corners that others need a couple of goes at, and these will simply go around as long as you hug the outside. In terms of traction, they’ll just come out of anywhere so far. Check out the pusher pad on the trailer. It’s untouched. They’re attracting interest, that’s for sure.”

The ride in the 8×4 ProStar was one of the more impressive aspects for us, bearing in mind the ugliness of the surface. The drive axles have a 1.4m spacing and the steer’s R8-spec gives them 2.0m. The front springs are Soft-Ride, as the literature says, and they really are right up there for the class. Other 8x4s on these roads would have you out of the seat in places but, aside from the very occasional tap from the second steer, the ProStar trundled along with an A+ report for co-operation under challenging circumstances. Noise-wise, it’s a US conventional, and sound levels pretty much mirrored that of Kane Bennett’s T909, at about 70 to 72dB.

The ProStar is always an interesting truck in which to ride, almost like a cab-over with a bonnet. The rake is so steep, the snout is almost lost to the eye but for the apex of the curve, and the first piece of road you see is well under a car length from the front bumper at just under 4m.

If there’s one area in the ProStar’s armoury that is vulnerable at the time of writing, it’s the lack of modern safety systems. The same truck in the home market [USA] sports the Bendix Wingman Fusion system as an option.

However, 8×4 ProStars are unique to New Zealand and are about to be validated to New Zealand specs. Intertruck has commissioned Knorr Bremse in Melbourne to test and validate the ProStar 8×4 models with the full Wingman Fusion suite, which includes its Collision Mitigation System. Intertruck confirms Wingman Fusion is now offered on all ProStar 6×4 and 8×4 models. ECAS on the second steer is incluided as part of the validation process.

Great news, but there’s no arguing there’s still huge demand for uncomplicated high-productivity trucks. And sales speak, Intertruck’s Kiwi assembly plant is currently running at capacity.

If you’re going to drive it…

Given the terrain, extracting maximum fuel efficiency is going to be challenging… well, I guess we’re saying that if the bar of expectation is set too high, it might be an anxiety-inducing path. A standard roster is an export ex-Putere Valley to Napier, then back for one into a local mill at Wairoa, and then a home load of export from one of the gangs south of Wairoa.

All three drivers over the two days had similar styles. The ProStars were kept humming along in the higher end of the tachometer at about 1600rpm to 1950rpm – in other words leaning on power. The nature of the country means lost impetus is never regained, or at least not until the next dip. It’s a battle of physics – mass and gravity – and an operator must decide where the lines of productivity and efficiency cross. There may only be seconds between one style and the next, but by the end of the day, a lot of seconds have added up.

To date, the ProStars are sitting about 1.41kpl (4.00mpg). If you were a linehaul operator, that’s probably not where you’d want it; in these conditions, that’s probably where it’s at for a truck with this make-up and work profile.

When your heart is in it

We left Napier with a thousand thoughts, the dominant one being there is not only many ways to skin a cat, but many different cats to skin. Forest plantations and woodlots come in endless shapes, sizes, and locations, and manufacture all types of logs. One truck configuration could never optimally serve all masters. Zac and Kane are both right; if the machines fit the purpose, just drive the doors off them. In fact, the key to ultimate efficiency is in the variation in trucks. With good despatching, both trucks will likely arrive portside with loads optimal for the lead they’ve been on.

As for the ProStar, I love great trucks that honour their past. Intertruck’s Hugh Green laughs when he says how he’s often jibed about S-Lines. “I’ll take that every day. They were great machines that made people a lot of money.”

There’s no denying there’s a love for old Inters as far back as the modern truck era goes. The regard exists because each product incarnation has served its owners well. Sound machines with competitive tare weights and front-line running gear have been the International niche for generations. The ProStar is roomy, quiet by comparison with its forebears, definitely cooler, and rides superbly, so there’s no question it’s an evolution. But it’s very much a driver’s machine; not over- complicated, fun to operate, there to get a job done, make its owner some dosh, and packing a mechanical armoury that keeps the other big fellas more than honest. And in that respect, it holds to everything the brand has ever been.