The Northman part II

In Tests, MAN, August 202234 MinutesBy Dave McCoidSeptember 26, 2022

Selling the first one’s easy, as they say; selling the second, that’s the art. There’s no question The Milkman held up its end of the deal when it came to replacing MAN for MAN at HTL.

The team at New Zealand Trucking got word from Penske New Zealand early in the year that a MAN like no other was being prepped in Christchurch for a Nelson client, and were we interested? It was a 6×4 26.640 decked out in such a way that it could stand proudly in the line-up at Belgium’s Truckshow Ciney or the Netherlands’ Truckstar Festival in Assen. If we’re being honest, but for one detail, we had more than a fair idea of who it might be. We’d met Leithem and Kirsty a couple of years ago while doing some promo work. At that stage, The Milkman had clocked about 550,000km, and Leithem was singing its praises. Based on what he said then, and knowing his penchant for Euro-cool, our heart of Hartes told us who it would be. It was just that 6×4 thing… really?

“Yeah,” laughs Leithem. “That’s raised a few eyebrows. The truth is, it’s just not needed. If we come out of Christchurch at 40-tonne GCM, that’s a big night. The second steer impacts the ride and bashes the truck up – there’s no question of that, especially having done a couple of months in The Northman. Yes, there’s a small saving in RUC with the 8×4, but there’s one less axle to run and, believe me, if you didn’t keep a close eye on alignment and tyre welfare, it impacted the life of all four steer tyres significantly. It was superfluous, it really was. With the 385/55 fronts, we can go to 7.2 tonne. We had to present a case for the 6×4 to TSI, but they signed it off no trouble.”

The truck’s overarching theme is Nordic, something Leithem has a personal interest in. The god Odin is depicted in the main image.

Taking it all in
Although their first linehaul truck, The Milkman, proved Leithem and Kirsty Harte had an eye for Euro-cool, The Northman removes all doubt. Dunedin’s Alan and Leanne Coombs now have kindred spirits in the north of their island.

The Northman draws on a Viking theme with a striking graphic of Odin, one of Norse mythology’s most revered gods. “It’s called the Northern Milk Run, and so that was easily associated with MAN. It’s a bit personal, also. I like the Norse mythology thing. The Norsemen were the ultimate travellers. They believed in reward for bravery, and that the spirit is always travelling. When you think of our business and life journey, and the fact this machine will work 362 days a year – yeah, it just all ties in.”

The Northman looks spectacular. “He got carried away!” says Kirsty. It’s over budget, and he’s still lucky to have access to the bank account! Her attempted ‘scowly’ face is doing a poor job of hiding her pride in the company’s latest asset.

“You only live once, don’t you? Plus, it’s sometimes easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission?” says Leithem in his own, quiet, understated style. (He’s a lot like his truck; an apparent understatement masks an inner complexity and resolve.) “But, yeah, I did a bit.”

The truck appears to sport clean lines initially, revealing its complexity the more you hang around, just like any good custom job should. Less is more until you realise there’s more.

Summitting the northern side of the Hope Saddle. The only section of the route Leithem will flick the AMT into manual.

Classic case in point is the side skirts. ‘They’re cool’, you think, and then you ponder how many TGX MAN 6x4s you’ve seen with full skirts? At that point, Leithem says, “I had them made by the Design Coach and Body Company in Christchurch. They did a great job. One thing we learned from The Milkman was the need for a compromise between looks and the ease of maintaining those looks. I wanted side skirts and full deck plating. Every morning before knocking off, the tractor gets a full wash. Yep, sometimes after a big night, that seems like a real chore, but we do it. Having full coverage around the chassis makes it so much easier. We also wanted to swap polishing for cleaning. The Milkman had too much polishing; The Northman has more washing and cleaning. That’s why I went for plastic guards also. They’re quick to replace and can hide a couple of marks before they look awful.

“TTR [Total Transport Repairs] in Christchurch rigged the tractor, made the deck covers, and fabricated the slick HTL monogrammed plug and light panel behind the cab. “For half the year, we’re in the dark for almost the whole shift, so having plenty of light and making things as easy as possible is vital. There are blank plugs for every lead and additional load lights built into the fabrication. The deck cover is actually in three parts, too. If we need to get into it on the side of the road, we have to be able to move it. Working with Mike at TTR was great. Initially, it was through Penske, but because of the detail, everyone decided us working directly with Mike was better. They built exactly what we wanted.”

Kelsa-Bars on the roof, low in the grille, and skirting the lower spoiler frame the truck’s outer lines. They complement the MAN badge, Bussing Lion chrome flash, and the neat honeycomb mesh also in the lower grille section. Technology today means driving lights are much less garish. Stedi horizontal LED light bars on the top Kelsa-Bar, and traditionally shaped round LED driving lights in the central Kelsa-Bar enhance not just safety but also the staunch ‘through rain and hail’ look.

A cab that’s served its industry well: Leithem’s custom-built cabinets in the top of the sleeper.

Grey tones in the lower-front spoiler and subtle grey striping connect the off-white base colour, black highlights, and polished metal, as do a series of custom-designed scrolls, some of which were designed by Leithem and Kirsty’s daughter, Alanta. The Norse- themed scroll in the central sun visor carries the truck’s overarching theme to the front of the truck.

The side skirts, black guards, and stainless-steel taillight wings keep the balanced look running along the entire length of the tractor.

“The colour, design, and mural were all done by Brent and Avan at Riccarton Signs. They are fantastic to work with and got what we were after with the theme. The Odin graphic is spectacular. We were blown away when they presented one for us to hang on the wall at home. I think they’ve actually done one for their office also?”

Understated by day, certainly not by night. Flick a switch, and in the inky-blackness, The Northman comes to life spectacularly. There are about 72 Hella marker lights, illuminated whip aerials, and strategic green strip lighting.

“All the lighting was done by Ignition Auto Electrical, again in Christchurch. Reuben was the young fella who wired it up. He’s your man for this sort of thing. I could have done some of it myself, I had the strip lights, but I decided to get him to do it all. He was so fastidious, tidy and detail-focused. We’re rapt with his work.

“Seeing the look on people’s faces as we pass through towns is so cool,” says Leithem. “There’s a switch that flashes the markers for the truck-to-truck stuff, but I also say to Nemo, ‘If someone looks and waves or takes a video, always give the lights a flick and wave back’. For me, it’s all part of creating a positive community interaction, and hey, you just might spark an interest in a young… or not so young person.”

This long boat rows!
I climbed aboard with Leithem at the Foodstuffs Christchurch DC in Hornby. At 9pm on a Wednesday, it’s a hive of industry, with trucks arriving from all corners of the South Island. HTL tows the same two Fairfax semi-trailers all the time; great for keeping track of repairs and maintenance and just knowing individual quirks. Through the wash, he rolls up alongside tonight’s trolley, a 15.1m Fairfax quad steerer with full skirts.

Leithem is a fastidious trailer connector. He’s four years in, yet watching you’d think it was his first time and he was being audited to boot. He’s precise, backing under, taking the weight of the semi on the JOST fifth wheel, then winding the legs up just clear of the ground. He eases The Northman back until we hear the signature ‘click’ of the jaws wrapping the Kingpin. There’s no banging or lurching – the semi hardly budged at the point of connection. A tug test is always followed by a thorough visual of the yoke with a torch before he winds the legs home, and connects hoses and leads.

He opens the back doors and looks in. The shoring bars are in place, strapped and secured. Frozens up front, chilled, and then bulk milk.

“There’s so much twisting and racking on the road the bars have to be strapped into their slots. But nah, she looks good, eh?”

The obligatory weighbridge crossing registers us at 35.5 tonnes, which prompts the other big question: 640hp?

“Yes, I’ve copped a bit over that, too,” laughs Leithem. “Well, first of all, I wanted one, so that’s simple; but no, for me, it makes sense and in the first two months of operation, it’s bearing fruit.

“The Milkman had enough grunt for the job, but it still worked hard in places. Both Nemo and I are cruisers, and me and Kirsty being the owners means we pay the bills, so that’s always moderating. Nemo’s an ex-military driver, and we absolutely trust his discipline. He is just fantastic to work with. In fact, it’s his first brand-new truck here in New Zealand in his 40-odd years of driving. I’m a tidy person, but the pride he has in this truck is unbelievable.

The D38. One of the sweetest sounding big bangers.

“I wanted this truck to return the same trip times, whether we were light and early, or heavy and late. If we’re late out of the DC, we are late out. It’s going to take ‘x’ time to get home with breaks regardless of load, so the truck is out of the equation. The situation will be no worse on arriving at Hope, and we’ve driven no different to every other night.”

If you remember the Waiotahi Contractors test of May 2019, you’ll remember our love of the sound coming from MAN’s biggest banger. That hasn’t changed, and I’ll stand by my belief that the way MAN plumbs up the outlet makes it the nicest sounding of the big bores. “It sounds like a train, eh?” says Leithem.

“Yep! That’s it exactly.”

The 15.2-litre D38 in Euro- 6c trim produces 478kW (640hp) at 1800rpm. It’s not a flat power curve, rising gradually from 1400rpm and 440kW (590hp). Torque hits the magical 3000Nm (2213lb/ ft), and it’s a dead flat line from 900rpm through to 1400rpm, so work out for yourself where on the tach the lion’s den is. It’s mind-boggling to us grey-haired folk that it matches the peak power of a Cummins Big-Cam 400 while still under 1000rpm. Putting tonight’s load under the power-to-weight microscope, you come up with 13.5kW (18.0hp) per tonne and 84.5Nm (62.3lb/ft) per tonne.

Like all big Euros, there’s an ultra-slick AMT behind the D38, MANs TipMatic 12 30 OD with retarder 35. Underneath the MAN ‘genetic code’ that brings the transmission to life is ZF TraXon hardware, so it’s smoothness is not surprising.

“With the power they have on tap, along with the way they manage and deliver it in applications like this one, the Europeans are rapidly becoming the only option,” says Leithem as The Northman easily keeps in stride with the Christchurch traffic. “They’re safe, smart, and perform at a different level.”

Crossing the Owen River.

Rounding out the specs are MAN hypoid HYD-1370/ HY-1350 axles with differential lock on the rear axle, rated at 23 tonnes for the pair, on MAN 8-bag ECAS with shock absorbers and stabiliser bars. The eight-tonne rated MAN VOK-09 dropped front axle rides on parabolic springs with shock absorbers and stabiliser bars. Brakes are disc with ABS and EBS.

MAN – pass Lewis – fail
We rolled north through Amberley, making the left turn at Waipara onto SH7, the main artery linking the upper West Coast, Buller and Tasman regions with North Canterbury and Christchurch. It’s a road that’s seen an awful lot of traffic over the past decade, and it shows. It would be fair to say the stretch from the eastern side of the Lewis Pass onto SH65 at Springs Junction, SH6 at Sullivan’s Bridge south of Murchison, through to the SH63 junction at Kawatiri is buggered, and a long way from fit for purpose.

The initial 100km or so was like having a chat in a library while the scenery passed by. The D38 is not among the uber quiet, sitting in the high 60s decibel-wise, but you wouldn’t want it to be. “There are some nights when I drive all the way home and just listen to the motor doing its thing.”

Leithem lets another linehaul unit pass, obviously someone with somewhere to be.

We head out of North Canterbury’s easy rolling country and come alongside the Waiau River at the Hamner turn-off. From here, the road starts to run with the contour of the land and track of the river until veering away towards the Lewis Pass at Glenhope, 30km-odd further on. The stretch is all up, down, and around sort of stuff and, of course, each section has a name only known to the trucking fraternity; ‘Handyside’, ‘Boundary Creek’, ‘Hay Paddock Hill’, ‘Glen Wye’ all sap the hard-earned ground speed of under-powered trucks. The Northman climbed Glen Wye, a steep pinch almost like a mini version of the Crib-Wall on the Arthurs Pass, at 50kph in 10th gear and 1300rpm.

Nothing makes a linehaul operation tick like teamwork and trust. Nemo (left) and Leithem exemplify both.

Even here, this far in, if you wanted a justification for 640hp pulling 35 tonnes in a time-scheduled FMCG environment, you had it. The MAN simply rolled along like a giant Toyota Corolla, unimpressed by the challenges as they popped up. Like many of its European cohorts, the truck is all about brute strength and intelligence. It bristles with things such as adaptive cruise control, emergency brake assist 2, electronic stability, anti-slip regulation, lane guard, easy start (hill hold), launch control, and anti-jackknife.

Leithem speaks highly of MANs BrakeMatic, the company’s blending suite, implicating both auxiliary, retarder, and service brakes.

“It’s just great in our going. It’s effortless driving. You set the speed and it does the rest. I will, on occasions, flick it into manual on descents if it wants to try and do too much to help. At our weights, it’s not necessary.

“We drove the old truck in manual at quite a few points, but the only place I’ll regularly take this out of auto are the switchbacks on the Nelson side of the Hope Saddle.

“The Milkman was such a good training ground for knowing straight away how to get the best out of The Northman.”

MAN’s EVBec (Exhaust Valve Braking – electronically controlled) produces a max holdback of 630kW (844hp) at 2400rpm (Sheez! That’s spinnin’). The exhaust flap is upstream of the turbos and can build up more back pressure when braking. The targeted airflow increases the exhaust turbine speed and therefore intake turbine speed, which raises pressure levels in the system, increasing brake output. The heat is dissipated through the exhaust system, making it ideal for highway work in challenging topography… like the Lewis Pass, which is where we now were.


1) Once into Foodstuffs Hornby, it’s through the wash.

2 & 3) Leithem is a fastidious connector of the towed unit.

The surface of the pass is a disgrace, and the truck’s ability to climb is at times thwarted by Leithem’s status as bill payer. Here we were again in a European cab that is behaving impeccably. MAN’s biggest offering is not the towering bulk of Rowdy’s Globetrotter, but there’s a lot of truck all the same. Originally, the cab was on spring suspension only, and Leithem had that changed to full air. Like the Volvo in June, a massive stabiliser bar works wonders to keep the ship in trim. You wouldn’t blame any truck for giving the odd lurch in here, but it never really came. A caveat on that is Leithem’s driving style. If you had a ‘fizzer’ on the tiller, I’m sure the coffee might empty on the floor as you tried to sip away.

“It’s like night and day compared to the old girl,” he says. “That second axle constantly reminded you it was there. This steers slightly differently, and there was an adjustment period for sure. But you get out of this after four shifts and feel better than you did after one in The Milkman. I love it.”

We won’t dwell on The Northman’s inner world; we’ve seen and driven the new model in Europe in 2020, and with it now in the wings locally, there’s no real point. It’s best to save the words for the new kid, because it really is a pearler. Briefly, then, a cab we know well that has served many in the industry with aplomb. Spacious, well-appointed, with oodles of storage including the custom motorhome cabinets Leithem’s had made. The build quality is what you’d expect from a truck that toughs it out in Europe’s super-seven slugfest. Like DAF, MAN are – or maybe were – their own thing, significantly different to even their Griffin cousin. The slightly disorganised design language of the infotainment and switch-gear complex to the left of the binnacle has been well and truly addressed in the new machine. And when I said ‘were’ above, it’s because I detected a definite family ’air’ to aspects of the new shed’s control department in 2020. I’m sure I’ll be shot down for that.

Back to The Northman. The binnacle is big and clear and set out in the almost industry standard format of gauges split by a central telemetry screen. Wipers’ dip and indication are on the left steering column wand, and gear selection and auxiliary braking are on the right. I don’t think there’s any doubt the outgoing MAN has the biggest, chunkiest steering wheel in the Euro league – something that’s actually an asset on roads like these. Getting in is easy; getting out something you do reluctantly. Farewell, old friend.


4) The end-of-night Nerta experience.

Deer, deer, dear!
The Northman had two starts to its working life, and as we approached Springs Junction on the long straight past the weighbridge, Leithem recollected why on 2 March the big fella was put back under starters orders.

“Yeah, we were right here on the way home, and a bloody deer ran across in front of us. I thought we were okay because nothing was coming so I slowed and moved over to the right, but when he got to the left edge, the bugger turned and came straight back into the front left corner. I was gutted!

“A 1am call to Kirsty informing her of my latest incident didn’t go as I expected. Kirsty asked if I had killed it and tied it to the truck? When I answered ‘No!’, she hung up on me! She waited for me to arrive in with the paperwork and camera ready, another job for her to complete, and the only words she said was, ‘Go to bed because in 10 hours exactly, you’re taking this thing back to Christchurch’. It wasn’t my fault that two years earlier, just about to the day, I hit a boar and did damage to The Milkman.”

But it did mean a few weeks back in the dry dock for the Northman. Thankfully, The Milkman hadn’t been traded; she is now a spare and handles the local bulk deliveries off the back of the semi.

“Yes, thank goodness for that. We thought it would be a good backup, saving anywhere between 40km and 100kms a day on the new one, and allow the linehaul truck to make servicing appointments that much earlier. We were not expecting to call it back into the front line so quickly.”

But that’s all history and The Northman is now 40,000km into its 1,000,000km tour of duty, having launched again in mid-April.

We rolled on north over the Shenandoah Saddle and followed the Maruia River out to O’Sullivans Bridge and into Murchison. It’s another horrible stretch of stressed highway with narrow lanes and corners. There’s absolutely no margin for error.

Except for the Kawitiri (meaning deep and swift) section, where the foothills of Mt Owen plunge into the Buller River, the SH6 passage north from Murchison to Nelson is a significant improvement.

To date, the MAN is returning 2.39kpl (6.74mpg). Make no mistake, that result is purely down to the approach taken by its drivers. On the trip down earlier, we were on the Balmoral Straights between Culverden and Hurunui in North Canterbury. In the distance behind appeared a set of lights. In the time it took us to travel the 30km from Hurunui to Waipara and the junction with SH1, what turned out to be a 13-litre Mercedes- Benz Actros and B-train was right behind the MAN. Having and using The Northman’s assets in the mountains means Leithem and Nemo never have to play catch-up.

A graphic representation of the inadequacy of our main roading arteries.


Into the light
We rolled into Hope at about 3.30am. Standard procedure is to swap out the two MANs and a full wash for the linehaul unit. In typical Harte style, Leithem changes into full overalls and gummies… you’ll rarely find a hair out of place on these two. Kirsty even had her hair and makeup done for the early morning shoot.

Another perfect example of their grow-with-the-business- not-ahead-of-it style is Leithem’s little yellow Karcher home-sized water blaster. “She’s been a little ripper. I’ll get myself a proper one when the budget allows. The key is this stuff,” and he points to a truck-wash product called Nerta. “It’s bloody amazing and halved the time it takes to clean the truck. The way we’ve set it up helps, but this really is the icing on the cake. When The Milkman was 40,000km old, we’d already lost the ability to make it look like new. This one still comes up mint.”

Leithem washes his pride and joy, and Kirsty and the troops unload, reload, and vanish into the night. It’s a surreal scene. You forget it’s 3.45am; you’re just hanging with the Hartes and their team in the middle of a working day.

In their little depot, they’re flanked by Tasman’s biggest metropolis, the citizens of which are still out the monk. Some will wake and stagger to the fridge, and find there’s no milk. They’ll then drag themselves down to the shop, and there it will be, sitting on the shelf. They neither know nor care that 10 hours ago it was in Christchurch, but the Hartes and their team do. It’s their job to ensure ignorance is bliss, and once again, it looks like they have just the right MAN for the job.


Through rain, through hail, through wind, and snow, the groceries must get through. The Harte’s are an inspiration to anyone wanting to chance their arm at business, and a lesson in what it takes to do it well. Thanks to Leithem, Kirsty, and crew for letting us be part of a tight knit, cool wee group of happy hard workers.

Thanks to Blair Fraser at Penske NZ for the initial heads-up on a slick piece of kit, and Dean Hoverd for always helping with whatever we need to get a story done.

And a huge thanks to everyone in the food supply chains of New Zealand, for allowing us the privilege of easily accessible essentials. What you do is truly a miracle of the night.

Read for Part I