Retro test – Time travel

34 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineJune 15, 2020

It‘s a small blue box, and there‘s a dog along for the ride, but this is no Dr Who Tardis – this is a true time machine, one that stirs the blood of its occupants, and everyone within a kilometre who has memories of a world less complicated!

Photo: A truly exhilarating sight on the early morning expressway.

God bless the 80s and early 90s! Trucks were ‘grunty‘, people wanted to drive them, the goal was productivity, kids learned via ‘do as I do‘, most workers had jobs they were proud of, and if you ate bats or other weird mammals, you kept it to yourself. While so much has been gained in the intervening years, maybe more has been lost. Oh, the joy then when one Mark Amer offered up his precious blue 1994 Mack Super Liner MK II for a Retro Test. Readers will remember last August we tested Mark‘s Mack Trident, his frontline work-a-day truck. It was then he offered the Super Liner to us for this excursion. When the microbe shut the world down we thought ‘that‘s different, why not make the May issue different altogether, and put a truck on the cover that will take us back to a less ‘batty‘ time, and allow us all to forget about the now. Why not elevate Retro 3 to the top of the pops. Let‘s do it!‘ Mark, or Magpie as he‘s better known to us all, is one of the most generous souls you could imagine. A hard, uncompromising, principled exterior, never afraid to offer an unbridled opinion, and a willing giver of his time and machinery for the enjoyment of those who get ‘it‘, understand ‘it‘, who lived ‘it‘. Maybe it‘s simply someone who needs their life made better via an exhilarating ride, or a charity event; whatever it is, if you can put a smile on the dial with a truck, Magpie won‘t be far away. You could say he‘s a typical trucker of his era.

What a fetching bonnet
It is and always will be one of the great bonnets. Take an R Model cab and put a huge fibreglass cube in front, one that‘ll accommodate anything you put underneath it. Yet there‘s such a fine line between pleasure and pain. Take the RB Mack, released here in the early 90s as the NZ-made stopgap between two of the world‘s prettiest trucks, the R Model and the CH. It was intended to address some of the R Model‘s shortcomings, particularly in the area of turning circle, and MTD obviously thought applying the proven square bonnet success formula would be a winner. A smaller square bonnet in front of the R Model shed would surely have the same glorious appeal as its big brother… Bah! Wrong! Ugly truckling! But no, not the Super Liner, it is indeed a super, glorious, majestic, and cool thing in every way. Looking at that snout from the outside, or out across it from the inside, is a wondrous experience. The Super Liner is one of those trucks that makes a second glance from even the most diehard opposer of diesel and dust impossible to resist. And of course most Super Liners announced their arrival via the thump thump thump of the 16-litre V8 engine that vied with the snout as the model‘s dominant signature.

Photos: A utilitarian place of work. Highly functional and easy as hell to operate, but in terms of creature amenities the old shed had certainly run its race by the time the CH and CL came along.

The Dog‘s biscuits
Mark Amer Transport, Mack Super Liner MK II. A 1994 model, the second-to-last genuine Super Liner ever sold in Aotearoa, possibly the world, as we understand New Zealand was the last country to sell the Super Liner new. A 16.4-litre EN-525 V8 with power stats of 391kW (525hp) at a lively 1900rpm, and 2270Nm (1657lb/ft) of torque at 1300rpm, a very different rev band from the down-speed engines of today. Behind the 8-pot popper is Mack‘s 18-speed T2180 box of cogs, a lovely mechanism in the bonneted trucks, not always so in the Ultra Liner, especially if you let things get feral in the upkeep department. Out back is a Mack 44,000lb rear end (that‘s how we said it back in the day … pounds) on the company‘s legendary Camelback suspension. Front suspension is multi-leaf springs and shocks. The great thing about this truck is it‘s no ‘look but don‘t touch‘ hermetically sealed jewel. As Mark himself says, it‘s a working restoration. “It‘s tidy, but it‘s not concours by any stretch, it‘s meant to be used and enjoyed.” And use it he has. There was a month gap last year between the old Trident‘s retirement and the new one‘s commissioning. For most single-truck operators that would either be a month of stress and pacing the hall, or a rental account. Not so Magpie. Select ‘up‘ on the switch that opens the roller door the Super Liner lives behind, kick ‘Big Blue‘ in the guts, grab a log B-train, and ‘Hi ho, hi ho…” “I had a ball!” said Magpie. “I did 14,000 trouble-free kilometres in a month. I was deaf at the end of it, but I had a ball. She‘s a 525 on paper, but she‘s closer to 600. It goes every bit as good, if not a little better, than the Trident.”

A true start
To revisit an old chestnut, if you investigated most OEMs you‘d find the bell curve of expertise comprised engineers, science graduates, and business scholars, yet truck driving itself is pure art. Trucking is a sub culture, the craft itself an art form both in operation and the message sent: it has to be, if it wasn‘t, the demand for services from the likes of Messrs Caulfield, Mannington, Geddes, Stanley, and Malcolm would be nonexistent, we‘d all just drive grey-cabbed drab ‘nothings‘ in a drab grey world. Humans are emotional creatures and for better or worse, you‘ll always get the biggest bang for your buck out of them via emotive stimulus. How ridiculous is it that we tell our kids to follow their passion, and then allow accountants to determine their success … lunacy. Today‘s trucks are bigger and stronger than ever, yet broadly speaking their sterility often invokes all the passion of an uncooked pikelet. Why has Camo in last month‘s top truck spent money preserving the famous Scania V8 note? He‘s done it so he can connect emotionally to his machine. Starting a truck would be a supreme example.

Who remembers the time when the sight of a Mack, shut down and parked on the side of the road, had you loitering around until the driver came back just so you could hear the scream of the air start? Nowadays a Super Liner 685 starts with all the excitement of a librarian‘s siesta. Not this day, hombres! We were back in ‘94 and we knew exactly that one more degree of twist on the ignition key would ignite the unmistakable howl of the big Mack‘s air start, and the commencing of a magnificent day. It also rendered Sunday sleep-in for anyone within a 200m radius, over! Of course what the air start gave in terms of adrenalin and excitement it took away in terms of fear and apprehension. You only got a certain number of goes at getting the show on the road so to speak, and many of us have felt the life drain from both us and the truck on a bitter frosty morning and commenced the trudge to the workshop and the portable compressor waiting patiently in the corner.

Photos: Four on the left, and four on the right. A great way to orientate internal combustion.

Out for ‘strop!‘
First task of the day was to track Magpie on an epic drive up around Evans Pass from Lyttelton and then back through Sumner and Redcliffs. It was all hands on deck for the collection of some epic footage for both his archives and ours. In no time at all though it was our turn to breast the driving compartment. Having had a regroup at the truck‘s shed in Hornby following the morning sojourn, we cut out in a westerly direction. From Christchurch across the plains of Canterbury, via Darfield and some quieter roads prior to arrival in Colgate. From there it was on to the Rakaia Gorge Bridge, Methven, before rejoining SH1 at the Rakaia township and heading back to the Garden City. The Super Liner had a load of cobbles on courtesy of Austin Transport Services Ltd – a huge shout-out to them – and all-up we probably tipped the scales somewhere around 38 tonne. Obviously the first and most impactful impression is the view out through the screen across the expanse of fibreglass. The irony that exists around many trucks of this era is they are incredibly easy to place on the road compared with the slopingnosed successors that followed them, with bonnets you knew were there, but with less well-defined boundaries. What an easy old truck it was to drive through the city. The steering was light, as was the clutch, and she just slipped effortlessly in and out of gear. With gobs of power and torque, changing gear was often a choice rather than a requirement. Even rolling in that evening along the road construction nightmare between Rolleston and Christchurch, trapped in an endless line of traffic, it was easy-peasy driving. Out of town, we stormed along in the super dog with an enthusiasm that comes with this genre of machine. There‘s no down-speeding or overly short-shifting, giving the impression of lethargy that haunts so many modern trucks; the Super Liner is all about ‘give it the berries‘.

Photo: Dropping into the Rakia Gorge, the Dynatard sounding its glorious note across the abyss, a must-do even though the actions don‘t quite live up to the fanfare.

It wants to get whatever‘s on its back delivered, and make the whole experience as entertaining as possible. Imagine your rural mail van, a Japanese 1.8-litre under the floor, then one day you decide to chuck a 350 cubic inch V8 in there instead. Would delivering the mail ever be the same? No, it would not. Well, that‘s this truck! ‘How was work dear?‘ ‘Epic!‘ Economy? Fuel burn? The answer to that is the economy is what trucks like this built, and fuel is what they burned to do it. Of course we paid the usual homage to our dear, late mate, John Murphy. Those who knew him knew he never went on an outing without consuming at least one pepper steak pie, so that was Darfield. Captain K (Carl Kirkbeck) was first at the wheel. He‘s one of those types who longs for the middle-age bald spot, so drives with the seat squab about three inches from the roof, peering under the visor in order to see out, the old bonce rubbing on the ceiling. “I was always amazed when the MH (Ultra Liner) was released,” I said to the Captain. “At last Mack had a truck you could drive from a nice, low, kicked-back position with the steering wheel tilted like a big Scania, yet half the people set them up like the Cruise Liner or FR they‘d had; pumped up seat, flat wheel. Bewildering.” Captain K fully embraced the school of hard rocks demographic, not that the Super Liner comes even close to being able to replicate the Ultra‘s lovely setup options, but the seat can certainly be released, and life can be a lot more ‘floaty‘. The trick in the 8×4 day cab Ultra Liner was finding that fine line between bashing your head and bottoming out, but not so here. This is a bonneted US truck with a ridiculously narrow cab so you‘re sitting almost midships. That equals a great ride. She‘s a lovely old bucket to trundle along in. “This is it,” says the Captain. “This is where the seat has to be.” The cab fills with banter and laughter. “You go big fella, you go. I‘ll tell you what‘s coming just in case you can‘t see under the visor.”

There‘s no question that by the time the last R Model, RB, and Super Liner rolled out of the showrooms here in the 80s and 90s, that cab had well and truly done its dash, in fact well beyond its dash. Actually, truth be known, even then the world had forgotten its dash ever existed. It‘s a tiny, noisy, storage-less, space and it‘s amazing to think how many drivers lived away from home for days on end in a cab that offered very little beyond controlling the machine. On that front however, it was one of the coolest cabs ever. The shed on the Super Liner is the last iteration with the 2-gauge binnacle, the 3-gauge set to the right, and the gargantuan, glorious wrap that means even weeman could reach the farthest switch with no effort. In fact, sitting at the helm, wee-man could probably even reach the handle and lock the passenger door. Major things like cigarette lighter, brake valves, engine stop, ignition switch, and throttle follow a horizontal line that runs right across the bottom of the wrap, and along under the binnacle. The pyrometer is the size of the tachometer; they always were, because this truck is from an era where many people understood what the gauges were telling them, and drove accordingly. Nowadays, gauges are often an album for your bezel collection. The ‘la la‘ – as we called the wireless in the day – is in the overhead, and superfluous crap like the heater is tucked away down under the dash. Front and centre in the roof is a manually operated climate controller.

Photo: The place Magpie goes to forget about stuff.

It works via an ingenious system that rewarded drivers for improved productivity by increasing their comfort … if you want more air in the cab, go faster. See, it was all about productivity back then. Visibility is surprisingly good, as long as you remember there might be a Hillman Imp between the road you can see and the bumper. Because safety was based on not hitting anything in the first place, the roof‘s design brief back then was all about keeping the weather out, not supporting the weight of the chassis beneath it. As such the A pillars are absurdly thin and even with jungle-gym mirror brackets and high-rise cleaner intakes, left and right clearance is actually not at all bad. Window winders are manual, and as we alluded to above, both right and left are easily reached from the driving compartment. The cab is not a quiet place, but it has to be said the V8 makes such a beautiful noise. If you‘re from the era, you‘d happily spend a working week aboard far more easily than an old 6-cylinder, say a Maxidyne with a turbo whistle on spoolup that repelled every dog within a kilometre aside from the one on the bonnet. Maybe that‘s why old Macks pulled so well on a weight to power basis – the dog was trying to run from the shrill whistle! It‘s a low truck, access is superbly easy, again, as long as you remember the old Mackism of the mirror brackets fouling the air cleaners, 40° is it pretty much the opening. Imagine being thrust back to 1989 and asking for a hazard awareness form, or corrective action request, so you could bring the door‘s operational shortcomings to your boss‘ attention. It‘s safe to say you‘d probably have been ‘marginalised‘.

Don‘t you ever let a chance go by, oh Lord!
A highly appropriate song lyric given you‘re in temporary possession of a blue Mack Super Liner on the Canterbury Plains. What‘s the first thing that springs to mind? On the day it was the golden opportunity to have an amateur‘s crack at John Kelly‘s famous YouTube clip where he lifts off from a standing start in the Mini- Me Mack Super Liner V8. “We have a big blue Mack and a long straight road, Carl. There‘s one thing we absolutely have to do!” Ours was a far more docile affair, probably because we didn‘t have a ‘squillion‘ tonne crane on the back, but man, talk about live the dream, LOL. So, there we were, glorious sun, on the plains, a gleaming Mack that just wanted the doors driven off it. Throw it a bone, and off it went, just like a true Bulldog, excited, snorting, burping, frothing, farting. It would have been a chiropractor‘s dream – not us, no no – to have followed us around offering to realign the necks of those who spun too quickly as the Mack passed. Kids of all ages wave at this thing. Take the old geezer on the Rakaia Gorge Bridge who took a moment from videoing the river and instead followed the Mack up the hill with his iPad fixed on the big blue dog. We just know he‘d have killed for a strop back to Christchurch. We love trucks like this. It steers superbly well even along the herringgutted rural lanes, it brakes so surefootedly, and throttle response … oh my goodness. There‘s no ‘You want me to go? Hang on, I‘ll just see if that‘s allowed‘. No, it‘s ‘You want me to go? Buckle up sister and hang on!‘ “Having this and the Trident is like having a brand new Mustang and a ‘68 or something,” said Magpie.

Photo: Magpie opens the Super Liner‘s lungs on Evan‘s Pass.

“It rattles and bangs and is noisy but gives back so much more.” He‘s so right. Of course, the thing that probably dates the driving experience most is the angle and position of the steering wheel. “When I‘m driving trucks like this I always think ‘this was made by the same nation who put a man on the moon‘,” I laughed. “And they built this steering setup? A quarter of the century after the moon landing even? There was obviously no drugtesting in the design suites and manufacturing divisions back then.” It‘s a giant wheel, orientated pretty much in a horizontal disc. Unless you are 6‘7” you‘re never going to have the arm length to drive it at 10 past 10 without the seat positioned so far forward that the steering wheel is rubbing on your stomach. It‘s far more lefthand on a spoke, and the right at about four or five o‘clock, with the elbow on the door sill. That is the blissful state. The 18-speed is a delight and is really the conductor‘s wand, determining which symphony you want the 8-piece orchestra under the bonnet to play. Will it be the rumble of timpani drums at lower revs, or the upper tones, whistles and a bit more snare at around 1850 – 1900rpm? Although it makes a cool as hell sound in the V8, the Achilles heel of the Mack was always the poor old Dynatard engine brake. The standard joke back in the day was you got more holdback holding your cap out the driver‘s window. It was never invited to the same parties as the Jacobs, or Cat‘s brake saver. Obviously, Mack offered the Voith retarder as an option, but it was an addon that came with its own compromises. The Jacobs was the undisputed king of affordable descending and retardation back then as the PTSD signs on the approaches to most towns today will remind you. At least the V8 got you to the top ahead of the field, as evidenced by the pull up from the Rakaia Gorge Bridge, the Super Liner easily holding the high range and not dropping below 1500rpm. We wished the hill had just gone on and on and on.

Damn that was good!
All too soon we were back on SH1 at Rakaia. A brief pause to collect some thoughts and discuss the day‘s high points; essentially every minute since about 7am. We discuss the size difference between the trucks of today and yesteryear. The Super Liner‘s not dwarfed by the Trident, but it‘s a shock when you seem them sideby- side. Try parking a K124 alongside a K200, a G88 beside an FH16. Just like granddad and the difference between him now and the beast of a man in hay paddock photos of half a century ago, our giants of the highways appear to have shrunk. Likewise, the power. A 525hp truck wouldn‘t even raise the eyebrow of anyone in today‘s trucking fraternity. Mark‘s Trident is 535hp, and develops 245lb/ft more torque than the Super Liner, yet mention a V8 Super Liner amidst a gathering of today‘s groupies and their eyes will likely light up, and words like ‘awesome‘, ‘beast‘, and ‘what a sound‘ instantly spout forth. Like many things in life, it‘s not the product, it‘s the delivery. And how ironic is it that at a time when trucks are more powerful and capable than they‘ve ever been, the Beehive is crying about low productivity. What‘s happened? We‘ve cocked something up. With the sun at our backs we climb aboard one more time, dip the clutch.

A feathery enquiry on the gear lever and we detect the ‘clink, clink, clink‘ as the clutch brake brings the troops below the floor back to attention, then a gentle … ‘clunk!‘, he‘s in gear, he‘s ready. “Langley, we are clear for lift-off.” Gently you raise the left leg, and wait … the engine note drops ‘thud thud … thud‘ as the cobbles on the trailer do their best to intimidate the dog on the bonnet. But then, all of a sudden, the Bulldog sees his stick in the distance and all hell breaks loose. Like the engine startup this morning, the Sunday afternoon naps of these lovely Cantabrian people are over! The stacks bark at the empty sky, and the bonnet lifts every time a gear is changed as the tach hits max power at 1900rpm. The temperature gauges were all motionless. He was not working, he was having as much fun as we were, and it was well and truly us who determined when the pull was reined in. He‘d just keep going forever … and here‘s hoping he does!

A huge thanks to Mark ‘Magpie‘ Amer for the use of the Mack for Retro Test 3. An unforgettable day and unforgettable generosity. Thanks to Austin Transport Services Ltd for the load on the day. Note to readers: The article and video were compiled prior to level 4 lockdown.