Top Gun

In Tests, Volvo, September 201616 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineSeptember 19, 2016

The village of Puriri, just south of Thames, is the base for Graeme Wright Carriers. Graeme, generally known as ‘Gunner‘, has had a wide variety of trucks since he started business in January 1968. The rural carrier‘s fleet now consists of 22 trucks; flat decks, bulk trucks, transporters and spreaders feature, but eight large and two small stock trucks make up almost half of the fleet.

There is still a variety of makes in the fleet – the US is represented by Kenworth, Mack and Western Star; Europeans feature in the form of Iveco, Mercedes-Benz and Scania; and Hino, Fuso and Isuzu ensure Japan plays a part. But it‘s clear that Volvo is a favourite when it comes to heavy-duty stock trucks. Gunner‘s latest unit is a 750hp Volvo FH, with a Globetrotter XL cab and plenty of extravagance, most of which is standard on this top-of-the-line truck.

The new truck joins six other Volvos, including twin 660hp FHs that joined the fleet brand new in 2008.

Grant Wharton is the driver of the Volvo; he stepped into the new truck after spending six years behind the wheel of one of the 660hp trucks. In his 13 years working full time for Gunner, he‘s always been a Volvo driver.

We joined Grant for a trip across SH25A, better known as the Kopu-Hikuai Road. He was running from Puriri up to Kaimarama (near Whitianga) to pick up a load of cattle bound for Silver Fern‘s Pacific Plant in Hastings. The KopuHikuai Road is a great test for a HPMV, it‘s steep, narrow and windy, like all the roads on the Coromandel Peninsula, and it‘s the region that is considered ‘local‘ for the Graeme Wright Carriers‘ fleet.

The first thing that ‘s noticeable is the height of the climb into the cab; the floor is about 140cm high and it takes four healthy steps on the well-lit treads, with a firm grip on the leather bound handrail, to get there. Once inside, the interior height of the Globetrotter is a massive 220cm. The cab may look narrow, but looks are deceiving when the top of the cab is a full four metres from the ground. Inside there‘s still room for a decent 955mm-wide bunk.

The second noticeable thing is the lighting inside the cab; at least eight interior lamps ensure it‘s easy to read paperwork anywhere within the cab and they can be individually selected and dimmed to make watching the TV less straining when the blackout curtains are pulled. Grant spends two or three nights in the cab most weeks, so the TV, 33-litre fridge and microwave (which is yet to be installed) are practical additions and are not out of place in the sumptuous driving compartment, which doubles as an office, complete with work desk and accommodation.

Grant says he‘s impressed with the room inside the cab, and how luxurious it is. He does have a warning though, the driver‘s door is big and when he opened it on a windy day, it just about dragged him out of the cab.

It ‘s dark when we first meet the truck and Grant explains that they ‘ve fitted extra lights, to the point where the entire working environment around the truck can be lit up well during darkness. Both the crates have internal lighting in the top and bottom decks too, and the lights are all controlled from neatly marked extra switches in the wrap-around dash. He says, “Any darkness is difficult to work in, and using torches makes it twice as hard”.

They also fitted powerful LED spot lamps, but Grant says the Volvo headlamps are more than adequate without the extras. The truck is equipped with roof-mounted high beam lamps and HID/Bi Xenon headlamps, complete with Volvo‘s cleaning system. It also has cornering lamps that light up the road to the left or right when the indicators are used and the headlamps are on, a great feature when turning into unlit farm tracks at night. The lighting is part of Volvo‘s ‘ Visibility Package‘, which includes rain-activated wipers.

Unloaded, the combination is a heavy unit; the truck alone tares at 15,080kg. But it rides beautifully and conversation in the cab doesn‘t require raised voices. Grant explains that Volvo made this truck‘s wheelbase 4900mm instead of the standard 5100mm. Shortening the wheelbase on an 8-wheeler with a DEF tank, under-chassis exhaust, and muffler with SCR, means there‘s no empty space along either side of the chassis.

But Grant credits the short wheelbase with the truck‘s great traction capabilities and its on-road stability. He says it feels significantly more stable than the earlier model he drove and the cab doesn‘t rock around as much.

The tow coupling is mounted as far back as is permitted, ensuring the trailer tracks well. Grant says it tracks as well as a 4-axle trailer. He has his own tracking test; he compares trailers when turning into his brother‘s farm gate, which he says is tricky and very difficult with a trailer that doesn‘t follow in the truck‘s tyre prints. The ride over the Kopu-Hikuai Road proves that the trailer tracks nicely and stays within its lane well at speed too, although Grant points out that cars using this road often stray across the centreline.

Above photo: Grant reverses the truck up to the back of the trailer to trans-ship cattle

Gunner has had some innovative trailers over the years and built a 5-axle unit before they were necessary, because of the extra stability, which is a big asset on the Coromandel Peninsula. He chose not to go to 50MAX; although his units operate at 49 tonne, the overall length is shorter than that required for 50MAX and means they handle the narrow torturous road up to Port Jackson better and more safely.

The farm we‘re picking up cattle from is on the main highway to Whitianga, but Grant has observed the state of the farms we have driven by and already decided not to take the trailer in because it‘s likely to be wet and slippery around the loading ramp. He knows the farms in the area well – he‘s got one here himself. A couple of kilometres further on we drop the trailer at a friendly contractor‘s yard and head back to the farm.

The track in to the loading ramp is soft and muddy, but Grant and the Volvo reverse down to the ramp and load the cattle without incident. It‘s a slippery and steepish climb out of the ramp, but the truck has diff locks and cross locks and there‘s little wheelspin. While another Wright truck picks up more stock, we head back to the trailer and trans-ship the stock, before going back to get the truck refilled.

Above left photo: A typical stock ramp accesspoint; Grant credits the short wheelbase with increasing traction.
Above right photo: The first new truck Gunner brough; a 1983 FR Mack.

Grant says one of the big advantages of longer HPMVs is that the stock pens are a full eight feet long and it ‘s much better for the stock. He says there‘s a fine balance between stock being jammed in too tightly and being so loose that it‘s difficult for them to maintain their footing. Now they can reach maximum weights, while allowing the stock enough room to sit down and still get up if they want to. He reckons it has reduced the number of stock lost when on the road.
We fill the lower deck on the truck for the trip back. There will be a few more beasts to pick up at the base where Gunner has a decent set of stockyards and some grassed holding areas.

Smaller trucks have been picking animals up from farms that only have a few to go through to the works, and dropping them off at the yard for the two big units to take through to Hastings.

On the road back to Puriri we‘re up over 45 tonne and the 16-litre Volvo engine is purring along. There‘s an incredible 3550Nm (2618lb/ft) of torque available from 1050rpm through to 1400rpm, and although the hills are steep, the truck handles them effortlessly. Occasionally, the truck beeps a warning when the rear drivers break traction on the wet and slippery road.

Grant says the warning often comes before he has time to hear or notice anything amiss. He touches the power divider button to increase traction.

Above: The new FH

Grant could drive the truck faster, but the sharp, lowspeed bends mean he has to reduce speed in order to protect his sensitive load. Having driven hundreds of thousands of kilometres in I-Shift equipped trucks, he knows how to get the best out of Volvo‘s AMT, taking his load into consideration.

He‘s a great advocate for leaving it in auto and letting it do its own thing, especially going uphill loaded, although often he will change up manually a little earlier than the computer would, just to ensure he maintains momentum. He doesn‘t use power mode when going uphill; he says the engine doesn‘t need to rev any higher and it just wastes fuel.

Grant says a livestock driver must be aware of cattle condition and drive accordingly at all times. It‘s on the downhill runs that he is more careful, especially when using the engine brake, VEB+. The intelligent VEB+ works with the AMT and service brake to ensure smooth deceleration, but if left in auto mode, it can come on strongly and catch cattle out, so Grant keeps his hand close to the neat seat-mounted gear lever and works the engine brake when descending hills, to ensure a smooth ride for his load. He says the engine brake is noticeably more powerful than the one in his 660hp Volvo, especially when the revs get up.

He does use Volvo‘s technology though and says the cruise control and speed control system in the FH is “unreal”. Pulling up hills he will often just set cruise control and leave it in automatic. He points out that cruise control has the advantage of preventing the truck from speeding, and notes that it‘s easy for speed to creep up when there is so much power available.

Grant uses the foot brake more than most drivers, not aggressively, but enough to ensure the brakes are getting a workout. He blames many brake problems on lack of use, and says that although the Volvo callipers have been trouble free, they have had issues with the units on trailers. He is a disc brake fan and says, “After having disc brakes, I don‘t think you‘d ever go back to drums again”.

How well does the 750hp unit perform? At 45 tonne on steep hills it drops to 8th or 9th gear, but some of the corners are posted 35kph. A good example is the climb up Titiokura on the Napier-Taupo Road; it‘s a regular climb for most large North Island livestock combinations. Grant reckons, at 43kph the new truck is 10 to 15kph faster on the steepest section of the climb than his previous 660hp model.

The Volvo is big, but on the road it performs like a much lighter truck and is unexpectedly lively, with stable and predictable handling. Obviously the significant tare (including the deck and crate) limits the payload, a factor that won‘t suit some operators. But the safety, strength, ability to maintain good average speeds, comfort and reliability that clearly define the Volvo‘s top-of-the-line truck suit Gunner‘s well-proven business model.

Above: Powerful lighting, both from the headlamps and the scene lamps, facilitate work after dark