The road to Helenbak Part I

In Test May 2022, May 202229 MinutesBy Dave McCoidJune 27, 2022

At first sight

It started with an R-Model Mack and side-loader combination arriving in the yard of GlaxoSmithKline on Botanical Road in Palmerston North in the mid 1980s. It was a 285 Maxidyne owned by ASC Flowers contractor Mark Shields, and driven by one Robin Jago. Watching it was GlaxoSmithKline’s young driver/storeman Matt Sherlock. An ardent hot- rodder and street machine enthusiast, he was instantly smitten. “This shiny-arse truck turned up and a long-haired friend of Jesus climbed out. ‘Shit. That’s a of bit me’, I thought.”

Young Matt had grown up around the Palmerston North’s Weld Motors, a bus hire and commercial vehicle repair business owned and operated by his mother Helen’s family.

“Dad left when I was two, I never knew him. Mum’s family owned Weld Motors so by the time I was 15, I knew all about greasing, jacking up axles and all that stuff. I got a special HT when I was 17 so I could relocate buses as required, and recover the odd breakdown.”

With the young Sherlock showing more than a passing interest in the R-Model, Robin invited him on the night run to Wairakei. He didn’t have to ask twice. Suffice to say Matt was instantly a regular passenger on the swap.

“I’ve never been a sleeper so working all day, going on the night run until 3am, grabbing a few winks, and then heading off to work was easy.”

Realising the talent sitting alongside, it wasn’t long before Robin started wheeling the Mack over at Taihape on the way back, and telling Matt to take it home. Robin would then curl up in the passenger seat and have a ‘zizz’. In time Taihape became Waiouru, and Waiouru became the full homeward leg.

Matt was soon accompanying owner Mark Shields when he was on nights…with the same modus operandi of course.

The 300 four-valve R-Model and 500 MH of Noel Butler’s in Trailways livery. The R-Model was ‘finessed’ so she’d happily sit all night at just under 3000rpm.

Never late in a V8

Eventually Mark Shields sold his ASC Flowers contract to Noel Butler, but the Robin and Matt roadshow rolled on undeterred. The Butler purchase also brought an upgrade in kit, with Noel replacing the 320hp R-Model he owned with a new 450 Super-Liner. Initially he kept the Shields 285hp R-Model for the Palmerston North side-loader work, but that was replaced in time with an ex-Hookers 350hp R-Model, before a brand new 300hp four-valve R-Model arrived on the scene.

“The R-Model would swing boxes around Palmy during the day, and swap at Taupo at night, while the Super-Liner would run Wellington in the day, then head straight to Tokoroa and change trailers. Those were the days when Tokoroa still made board so it was all preloaded and ready to go.

“Noel’s regular opposite on the Super-Liner was Dave Crowley. One year Noel had gone to Bathurst with some mates and Dave couldn’t drive. Needing to keep the show on the road, Robin put me behind the wheel of the Super-Liner. I was shitting myself! I still had no trailer licence, but I was into it boots and all. When Noel got home and asked Robin what he’d done when Dave couldn’t run, Robin simply said ‘I chucked the young fella in. He went great guns!’”

In time, with a trailer licence in hand, Matt was keen to make it all a permanent gig, but as those who lived the era know, there wasn’t the shortage of drivers there is now, and leaving people on a string and a promise was not uncommon. “I had my trailer licence but Noel wasn’t interested in employing me. It was crazy because he was a heavy drinker and he’d use me to do his Friday night runs and Sunday day runs so he didn’t have to do them… but I couldn’t get a full-time spot due to ‘lack of experience’,” Matt says with a laugh. “I was getting plenty of relief work elsewhere too, guys like Phil Flynn who ran the MH Mack in McCain’s livery. The guys of the era were all party animals, and they’d all be trying to get me to cover for them. I wasn’t into their lifestyles, never have been, it just doesn’t do a lot for me, so I was having a ball and banking the money, although sometimes it wasn’t money! I remember on a couple of occasions being paid with Air Jordan shoes!” The lack of the fulltime berth and this need for ‘experience’ saw him seek work elsewhere. He found it with Darrin Dawson at Jarret Sandes, where he ran swaps for two years in Darrin’s ERF. However, in Matt’s words, it wasn’t the “warhorse” a V8 Mack was.

In his early 20s, Matt was also keen to get into truck ownership himself. He’d been working for Daily Freightways metro contractor Nigel Dustin, so knew the town and around gig well. When Nigel passed away Matt looked for an opportunity, which presented itself as a Ford N Series working for Trailways. Owning the metro truck in no way deterred his passion for the ‘nightlife’, with the swap runs between Auckland, Palmerston North, and Wellington fast becoming real folklore of the era – you could say our own Hume Highway of sorts.

With a driver on his truck, Matt was in his element behind the wheel of Noel Butler’s Mack duo; a new Ultra Liner (MH) – the first 500hp full sleeper – and the four-valve R-Model. He was running hard and honing his craft. The downside was he was often going long periods with little or no pay.

(Top) The ex-Pollard Super-Liner and (below) the CL525 bought new by Robin Jago, that did 1,100,000km and only stopped for fuel and servicing. The roof kit is the one on the Trident.

The amazing Mr Sowerby

Eventually Noel Butler faded from the scene, his local side-loader business taken over by Matt’s mentor and swap mate, Robin Jago. Robin thought he’d been progressively buying a Mitsi and side-loader off Noel, only to find he hadn’t, with the Mitsi repossessed from under him. Enter the scene MTD general manager Murray Sowerby.

“Murray was just amazing in the way he helped Robin stay afloat in those early years. He sourced him an ex Monier Tiles 320hp R-Model to tow the side-loader. It was tired when it arrived, but it kept him going. Eventually Robin won a night run of his own and all he had was the old Mack. I remember driving it up the line, the noise of the thing was deafening. You had to wear earmuffs, if you didn’t your ears would ring. When the Mack got too tired for it all Murray helped him into another truck, this time a sweetie, an ex Cadbury’s R-Model that had been owned by Kevin Healey. Then when Robin bought a 500 Super-Liner, ex Ian Pollard, it was Murray who helped facilitate that deal too. He’s a mighty bloke!”

A well-known previous holder of the Helenbak Haulage truck position in the fleet was this Mack MH, sporting a Colin Hooper twin turbo V8 Mack special.

On the rivet

Matt was never far away from his wingman role with the man who’d given him that first go.

“Jago couldn’t afford a full-time staff member on the night run so we’d hatched a plan to keep things going. He’d drive the side-loader during the day, and I’d drive my truck. Then he’d do the swap and I’d sleep. The next night he’d sleep and I’d do the swap. In other words, every second night you got a break. We pretty much did that for two months non-stop until he was generating the cashflow to take someone on.

“By then Trailways had taken over the ASC Flowers business and the local manager didn’t like contractors not driving their own trucks, so I sold my local truck and went to work full time for Robin. I was there for 17 years. We wore out the Super-Liner, a new CL 525 V8, a CL Signature, and put a million kilometres on a Western Star.

“They were wild times and you drove them hard. Even with the old Bulldog bluffs and Hatepe, Palmerston North to Wairakei in sub-three hours was common.”

Colin Hooper, the renowned Mack engine specialist in Taupo, had knocked around with Matt as a kid growing up in Palmerston North, and he worked his magic on many machines, extracting all they had to give their various owners. “Tweaking governors and removing seals to tweak pumps. Take Butler. He was frustrated the four-valve couldn’t match the bigger gear and so we got that to the stage where she’d happily sit just under 3000rpm all night. She went then!

“I remember drilling the core out of the Donaldson exhaust on the 525 when it was new. It was five inches at either end, with a two-and- a-half-inch restrictor in the centre. Robin bawled me out over it, and then he drove it. ‘F%$& that thing goes!’ he said. ‘I told you your truck was going like shit’, I replied.

“My best ever run was my last night on the 525. With the old roads all realigned and only 17 tonne on, I gave it shit and got in just under two- and-three-quarter hours.

“Yeah, the Wairakei 500 club. We ripped the road a new arse every night. Entry criteria was 500hp, 500 kilometres, 500 dollars a week, and 500 litres of fuel each night. If you were on it just right you could get a V8 Mack to burn a litre a kilometre at 44 tonne. Yet they just never let up. That 525 did 1.1 million and only stopped for fuel and servicing. “We were bloody cowboys alright. No question. But I’d got my start with all that crew. It’s how I learned and all I’d done. Of course, fuel was cheap then and they didn’t care what you burned.”

The first Helenbak Haualge truck was the CL575 that Matt bought off Bryan Menefy and ran as an owner-driver in the Menefy Trucking business.

Own man

After 17 years, Matt was keen to do his own thing again. Robin had started suffering adult epilepsy and although he’d made noises about Matt taking over the business, Mainfreight had purchased Owens and weren’t as worried about Robin not working the trucks as owner.

One day while out riding motorbikes with his old friend Bryan Menefy, Matt was discussing the situation and Bryan offered the opportunity to go owner-driver for him.

“Bryan was in a growth phase and needed to put on new gear. He had the ex-Uhlenberg’s CL575 that he offered to me, and off I went as a floating owner-driver on flat-deck work. That was the first Helenbak truck.”

Interestingly, the name honours both his late mother who died of cancer, and his family today. The message encompassed within is that he’d give it all away in a heartbeat to have Helen back, and ‘bak’ is spelt like it is, recognising Matt’s wife Anita, and daughters Bailey and Kandus either side. Of course, there’s also an overall symbolic tip-of-the-hat to the trials and tribulations of a career behind the wheel. Oh, and the thinking doesn’t end there. For those who don’t know, the trident fork in the logo. When facing back it’s a peaceful symbolisation.

“It was great working for Brian, with plenty of variety and destinations. Being a custom car man I have never owned a standard vehicle in my life, so I put a deep visor, A9X bonnet scoop, chromed the rockers and all that. I don’t think Bryan always approved of the custom stuff, but that’s cool. We’re all different.

“He was an amazing mentor and we’re still the best of mates today. After the 500 days we were all pretty wild, but he said, ‘Right, it’s all in your court now. You’re going to make shit happen.’ He taught me so much.” Matt took the CL from 1.7 to 2.2 million before a drop-off in work and an injury sustained falling off a load saw him sell the truck to Brett Marsh.

“I had two shoulder reconstructions and I was still five months from the wheel. I had a relief driver on it who was great, but it wasn’t working out. Bryan was in a slow patch workwise also, so it was time to shake hands and move on.”


VYLDOG was Matt’s first brand-new Mack, and has held up its end of the bargain in the tradition of its forebearers…both owned and driven.


Back to the future

The untimely death of Robyn Jago in 2013 left Mainfreight’s regional container and freight operations in the Manawatu and surrounding districts in a momentary state of flux. With time having moved on, Matt’s history in and around the business wasn’t well known at ‘Big Blue’s’ Palmerston North operation. When the firm discussed the future with the Jago family, they said ‘Matt should run it, no one knows it better than him’, which was met with … ‘who’s Matt?’

“They asked if I would come and run it for six months while things were worked through. So, I said, ‘Yep, cool’. Four months in, Mainfreight approached me again to see if I was interested in buying it. The rest is history I guess. That was nine years ago. I put my freehold house on the line, borrowed an eye- watering amount of money, and Helenbak Haulage was rolling again. I dived in boots and all, and worked my arse off… again. Went to Hell and back.

“Apart from Anita of course, I have to mention two other people. First is the bloke we all know as No. 1, Mike Eden. Mike had started working for Robin, and stayed on after his death. He then stayed on with us. He’s still here today. I honestly can’t say enough about Mike, it’s that simple. He’s just the absolute best of the best.

“And once again, Murray Sowerby. I bought the Western Star, a CH Mack, and four sets of trailers off the estate – the local container business in other words. I didn’t need the Western Star, and it was still worth a good amount, so I went to Murray and said ‘What kind of two Macks can you turn this into?’ He found me an ex-Golden Bay Vision (EVLDOG), and an ex-fuel tanker Granite.”

At this point Matt laughs. “Here’s a funny one. The Granite had the plate OWENSI. It was Robin’s plate, and when he bought it he thought he’d bought OWENS1. ‘That’s an ‘I’, I said. ‘No, it’s a one’. ‘No… I’m telling you, it’s an ‘I’. If you go to buy RUC for OWENS1, it won’t exist. ‘Oh well’, said Robin, ‘It looks better anyway’. I’ve still got the plate and it might come out for the Trident that’s in the wings for next year.

Today’s Helenbak truck wearing legacy Cat 4 T number plates is this 685 Mack Super- Liner ex-Eades Transport in South Australia.

“Some guys are real clever, they know every minute detail about their business, down to millilitres of fuel, and millimetres of tread depth. I’m not like that. I put a load on and go, service the customer, and if the rate’s not right, sort it out until it is. I remember my grandfather telling me back in the Weld Motors days about the importance of keeping costs in check. ‘If you can fix it yourself, do it!’ he’d say. We worked our butts off to get the house off the hook, and I have a debt- to-equity formula that I follow to the T. I won’t deviate from it. Although I hate stock-standard vehicles and I customise everything, it’s not to excess. It’s all simple stuff. This [MUTDOG] is only our second new truck. Our first new truck was VYLDOG, the Granite on the triple- shift grocery run. It’s done 850,000km without a major hitch and needs replacing early next year. That truck’s in the pipeline now, a 6×4 Trident. VYLDOG is a handy wheelbase so I might pension it down to some local 40’/20’ work but that’ll be it. That’ll make eight trucks and 12 trailers if the plan works out. That’s enough. No bigger.

“I’ll tell you now, I’m here today because of the reliability of Mack trucks. I’m coming up to my 5,000,000km anniversary next year and I’ve had to get a ride home three times. It’s that simple. Those old Visions, they just won’t stop, and cost peanuts to run. The new era ones aren’t as cheap, but they’re a lot more complex, and they are a little heavier, sadly. Mack still does a good warranty, so that’s good, not that I’d consider a change now; I’m too old and stuck in my ways. It’d be like telling an old Harley rider to jump on something else. Never going to happen,” he says, laughing.

“Business is more complex today with far greater compliance requirements. It’s certainly more professional. Mainfreight are hard but fair. They’re businesspeople, and you have to know what you’re taking to the table, and exactly what the job entails at negotiation time. We do a mix of container, curtain, flat-deck, and tipping work throughout the lower North Island mainly. I’ve also had a truck on contract to Higgins this summer, pulling a bitumen tanker.”

Now at 56 years old Matt’s philosophical about change. “Business is just different now. It’s not better or worse; there are parts that are both. The 500 days were then, this is now. The great memories and stories will always be there, but we’ve all moved on. There are new memories to make.”

Matt Sherlock’s story is the stuff of movies, from the maverick days of old, to a lesson in acknowledging the past, embracing change, and moving on. The common theme through it all has been the Mack Bulldog.

The Helenbak truck

Then there’s the Helenbak truck. There’s been a Helenbak Haulage truck all along. A machine outside the contract. The spot’s been taken by some pretty cool kit at times, like the ex-Brian Lawrence MH with a worked Colin Hooper twin-turbo V8 for instance.

“That thing was mean, and that motor was basically a race truck engine. If you took it in for servicing the guys at MTD didn’t know what to make of it, so you had to take it to Colin. It was his Frankenstein.”

Today the Helenbak Haulage spot is occupied by ‘Cat 4 T’, a 2015 685 Mack Super-Liner ex Eades Transport in Adelaide, South Australia. “It was a calendar truck when it was new. She had everything, blinged out completely, something Eades are not generally known for, but it was a company anniversary special evidently.

“It’s a cool truck. It was on the Sydney–Brisbane return run and their depots must be right by the freeways because it had done 1.7m kilometres at an average of 95kph. It zeroed the fuel usage out at a million litres. At 15,000 hours it’s my second newest truck,” says Matt, laughing. “The turbo I put on not long after it arrived was its first, and all I’ve done. Because the Trident was held up, it’s been doing a bit more work than usual, but that’s all good. It’s called on semi-regularly for overflow etc.”

Although a passionate hot rod and street machine enthusiast, a measure of the man within the man is best exemplified by Matt selling his hot rods in order to help wife and companion of 37 years Anita through her cancer journey.

“Yep, she’s been through a lot over the years and the business is at the stage where if it’s quiet, I can take a long weekend and leave the crew to it. It’s time to stop thinking about me and turn weekends into our time. We’ve bought a house bus and we just go to our favourite spots and spend time together.”

When you think about it, it’s entirely appropriate that Matt Sherlock and Mack trucks should enjoy each other’s company. Rugged dependability and honesty. The reputation that led to Mack adopting the Bulldog as the flag bearer of all it stood for nigh on a century ago appear one and same with those at the roots of Palmerston North’s Helenbak Haulage.