SON OF A GUN!

In April 2021, Short Test April 202112 MinutesBy Dave McCoidMay 28, 2021

Just before Christmas, we passed Brian Aitchison blasting along in his International Pro-Star that we tested in the June 2019 issue. We gave him the customary headlight flash and Christmas wave, and within seconds the phone rang.

“G’day, Dave. Merry Christmas, mate.”

He was as energised and enthused about life, work, and trucks as ever, and he’s going to be 69 this year. If you weren’t into trucks, you might be forgiven for thinking there’s only one Brian Aitchison in the world. But, no, the industry is full of them; people with many leap-years under their belt still enjoying the journey of life in machines they love to drive. Richard Seeley at The Moving Company, David Taylor at CR Taylor in Gisborne, we could name many. This month, we struck another. Thirty-three years after he and the magazine last crossed paths, here’s Rod Gunson.

If it’s true plants pick up positive vibes, then the plants in the back of Rod’s good Dutch wagon must arrive a foot taller than when they left. If laughing does them good, it’s a wonder they’re not poking out the pelmet of the truck’s body and dangling down the windscreen.

Born in 1946, Rod’s parents dairy-farmed in Rotorua. His dad died when he was only four, and in time, his mum re-married, and they relocated to a farm at Ngakuru for a short time before moving north to Flat Bush in Karaka, south Auckland. Rod attended school in Papakura and having finished with that  caper at age 15, gained employment on a dairy farm back in the Rotorua area.

“Dairy farming is one of those occupations where you either are or you aren’t. It’s like trucks, and I wasn’t really cut out for it,” he laughed.

He returned to Auckland and got a job at Carter Merchants in Papakura, where his stepdad worked. “I was only there until I was old enough to get my licence.” As a tragic aside, he lost his stepdad also, in a work accident at the Carter Merchants site. There’s no tougher mentor than life itself.

His first driving job was for King Brothers in Papakura, a firm that propagated many a driver over the years. “It was a great place to work. Lyndon King was a great boss, and Joe Vickers ran the trucks. You were ingrained with pre-start checks — oil, water, tyres — and great all-round discipline. I started on a 140hp Thames Trader doing the produce run into town [Auckland] and back.”

It was at this time that a measure of who this energetic young fellow really was presented itself. A broken femur put him off work for five months, but two months in, boredom was driving him mad. He couldn’t drive trucks on the road, so into the fields he went, driving them under harvesters using two good hands, one and a half legs, and a set of crutches to control proceedings.

But Rod wanted to work for himself, so he left after five years. Following a stint in the rural delivery game servicing the Ardmore and Clevedon area, he took the big plunge in 1974 at age 28 and bought Allport Transport in Waerenga, east of Te Kauwhata.

“The firm consisted of a Mercedes-Benz 1418, a BMC diesel, and a stinking bloody V8 Perkins-powered ‘butter box’ Acco. What a bloody thing that was.”

Photos taken early on at the renamed Gunson Transport Ltd demonstrate the Rod Gunson traits of tidy and immaculate presentation, something his fleet would be recognised for in the succeeding 22 years of operation.

Growth came quick, and so did the need for replacement gear. His decision was to buy a brand new Hino, setting in place a longstanding supplier relationship. “It was a KR. The power was modest — it was probably too small when I bought it — but it was new and the chassis was built like the proverbial.

“When I bought it, somebody told me to chuck the Hino gearbox and put a Roadranger in. In time, they went the Roadranger way, but when that first truck had done a million kilometres, the transmission had never been touched.”

Many makes and models passed though the fleet, culminating in the two 270kW (360hp) FY 50.36 twin turbos; the one on horse cartage featured in New Zealand Trucking magazine, and another, bought second- hand as a going concern sporting a full set of Fairfax fibreglass crates.

“That was the Hino story all the way, really. They weren’t blessed with power, but you just couldn’t break them. I remember one of my drivers putting a hoist up on one truck, and one side of the culvert he was on gave way. He got the hoist down and told me there was no damage. I didn’t think much of it until I saw the photos. How it stayed upright, I have no idea. It was leaning over and bent as buggery. I thought, ‘Shit, there has to be something wrecked on that thing?’ I went over it with a bloody magnifying glass. Nope, she was all good and just carried on. They were never fast but the reliability was unbelievable.”

The Gunson Transport era ended in 1995. Rod moved back to Papakura, and before long, opportunity knocked. He’d always been heavily involved in rugby, in the school first XV, then in weight-grade grass-roots rugby, and now he was also refereeing. The idea was a touring bus that was fully licenced and kitted out with seats, TV, a bar — the works. Based on an ex-Ritchies composite bus, the idea became a reality and was an instant hit.

“Our first trip was to the world Golden Oldies tournament in Christchurch in 1995. It wasn’t quite finished, but man, it was great.”

Further ventures servicing school-bus contracts transpired before a friend, Butch Glover, called. Glover Food Processing made product for McDonald’s, and Butch was looking to improve the transport supply to his business. Gunson Trucking emerged with reefers for temperature-controlled work and skeletals for container cartage, all with Hinos up front, of course.

Butch sold up about the turn of the century, and Rod’s focus went back on the ‘people trucks’ aka buses. ‘The Sports Connection’ ferried kids back and forth from Auckland to the Lakeview Lodge at Rangiriri, among other charter work. It was another busy period in Rod’s life, as he took on the Thoroughbred Tavern in Takanini at the same time.

“I’ve always loved hospitality, so thought I’d give that a go. It was all good really, although getting drivers was always a problem. That’s when Andrew [Tayler – Rainbow Park Nurseries] used to drive for me at the weekend as a young fella. ”

In total, the Papakura era lasted 22 years before Rod decided enough was enough, and he needed to back off a little. A small lifestyle block was purchased in Te Kauwhata, and thoughts of retirement were germinating. And then the phone rang.

“Andrew phoned me and asked what I was doing. ‘I’m retired,’ I said. But, no, I wasn’t,” Rod laughs. “No, it’s worked out well for both of us. It’s a great job. I keep in touch with mates and friends in other parts of the country, and I get left alone to get the job done. Andrew knows I’ve been in business all my life, and he respects that.

“I really enjoy the people I meet; ninety-seven percent are great. I enjoy having a bit of yarn. As long as there’s a beer at the end of the day, we’re all good.” A wink and a cheeky grin follow.

“We have a new driver Karen Philips (‘KP’), and she’s a bloody good operator and learning the line-haul run. KP will be able to give me regular weekends off — in fact, she already is. I can stay home and have a beer,” Rod says with a laugh.

Rod Gunson has lived an incredibly full life. We’ve touched on the highlights, but it’s not been any bed of roses. There have been scoundrels and vagabonds and he’s the first to say: “Focus on the positive and what’s ahead. You can’t dwell on the losses, only the wins.”

He has two children — Scott is a diesel mechanic in Motueka and Kelly works at Cal Isuzu.

Why is it that the people who work the hardest and weather the storms of life seem time and time again to be the happiest? “Don’t dwell on the losses; focus on the wins.” If you take nothing else from this issue of New Zealand Trucking, take that piece of Gunson gold. You might just get to 75 with a big grin on your face, too.

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