The ultimate transformer

In Freightliner, Tests, May 201717 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineMay 29, 2017

To a North Islander visiting the South Island, the number of dropside tippers on SH 1 is striking; equally striking is the number of Freightliner Argosys used by those operating the rigs.

Dropside (or lift-out-side) tippers seem to be ubiquitous in the South Island; the versatile design‘s resurgence, if indeed it ever did fall from grace, is obvious for everyone to see. It‘s a very practical design, improved by modern materials that mean a relatively long deck doesn‘t bend or twist too much, the sides and posts are easily removed and refitted, and the joints seal well, preventing the loss of fine bulk product.

Laurie ‘Ferg’ Ferguson owns Ferguson Trucking Ltd, based in Milton, between Invercargill and Dunedin. The business was formed 14 years ago – before that Ferg was an owner driver with an International T line. He remembers ordering his first truck while still an owner-driver. It was a day cab Argosy with a 520hp Cummins engine and he placed the order with Prestige salesman Trevor McCallum the same day Ferg’s first child was born.

In the early days after going out on his own, Ferg was well supported by a few businesses; the dropsider truck towed a 4-axle trailer and mostly hauled coal and did rural cartage.

From day one the staunch Otago supporter’s trucks have been in Highlander colours. In 2007, he bought his second truck, a Detroit Series 60 powered Argosy. A secondhand Argosy and Kenworth followed, and the Kenworth remained in the fleet for a short time, but apart from a Western Star and Coronado, the now eight-strong fleet is all Argosy.

Mick operates the tipper using a remote control unit.

They’re all 8-wheelers towing 5-axle trailers and meeting 50MAX requirements. Three are bathtubs, with blower units, but the majority are dropsiders and the bulk of the work is still coal and rural cartage. Most of Ferguson Trucking’s work is between Bluff and Christchurch, but they do go further afield, although nowadays they stick to the mainland. All the trucks are fitted with EROAD, which Ferg says is well worth it.

Ferg’s latest Argosy is DD15 powered, with a manual 18-speed Eaton and 101-inch sleeper. The 101-inch cab is a departure from the usual 90-inch model and is significantly roomier inside. The shorter cab has been more popular because it allows more deck space, but even with the extra length in the cab, a full 7.3-metre deck fits comfortably. There is also a massive 110-inch cab available. Ferg reckons the large bunk is a benefit for drivers. He aims to always treat his drivers well and believes sleeping in the same bed is better than being given a random bed in a motel.

From left: The leather seat covers are comfortable and good looking. The sleeper compartment is
nicely trimmed and features plenty of storage. 

The Argosy‘s driving position is excellent.

That said, he tries to get drivers home as much as possible and focuses on them having weekends off. But they don’t have set runs and times are rarely predictable. With the current onslaught of tourism in the South Island, a guaranteed bed for the night is especially valuable.

We got our first glimpse of the truck at Balclutha on a bright late summer morning. The Highlanders colours were strong and the livery nicely designed, with a Highlander and a Dark Knight graphic on each side of the sleeper.

The DD15 doesn’t need DEF to meet ADR80/03, so the chassis is relatively uncluttered compared with what we‘re used to seeing lately, even though it has an under-chassis exhaust, which of course means the front of the deck can be a little closer to the back of the cab.

Ferg’s Freightliners don’t have the fold-out step option, mainly because they spend a lot of time in situations where there isn’t room for them to be used, such as weighbridges.

This means using the handrails and clambering up the side of the cab. It’s an access process that is often discussed negatively nowadays, but drivers quickly get used to it and it rarely creates issues.

Once inside the Argosy is familiar. The Freightliner interior is reasonably consistent across the models and it‘s pleasant and practical. The dash-mounted gear lever means that although it‘s a manual, the gear lever has little impact on cab room. The big two-piece windscreen provides excellent forward vision and the mirrors are relatively small and aerodynamic while still providing excellent views to the rear. Neat leather seats and stainless steel around the steps by Prestige are extras. Ferg ordered the optional LED lamps too; he says the better a driver can see, the safer the roads are.

Mick Wardell is the driver, and he shows us around his new apartment on wheels. The cab has a mid roof height and a flat floor, although there‘s a step of about 150mm from in front of the seats to the platform over the engine. Headroom is good and there are blackout curtains and a curtain across the front of the bunk too. The extra bunk width appears wider than we thought a 225mm increase in cab depth would provide, and the bunk would be more than acceptable in most double bedrooms around the country.

There are plenty of storage bins and room for a large slide-out fridge unit under the bunk, which Mick expects to arrive soon. Ferg’s aim to provide his driver with a better option than a motel room has been well and truly achieved.There’s a Goodnight Kiwi picture, the cartoon image they used to show when the state-owned TV channels closed down for the night, on the back of the sleeper. Ferg says the reason behind the picture is because Mick loves bed and often slept through starting time. Although he‘s always on time now, Ferg thought the gentle reminder was appropriate.

The 101” sleeper does look slightly longer than the more common 90” variety,
but inside the sleeper appears much roomier.

On the road the truck performs well. Detroit‘s DD15 is a smooth and quiet engine and although its 560hp and 1850lb/ft of torque is less than what a Cummins 15-litre can produce, it‘s a nice package. Mick isn‘t sure exactly what his load of seeds weighs because the on-board weighing system still has to be calibrated. Coming up Saddle Hill between Mosgiel and Dunedin the truck hangs on comfortably in 8th gear and the revs don‘t drop as far as Mick expects; he says the load is probably a bit light. Coming down the hill from Lookout Point into Dunedin, the Jacobs Engine Brake does an excellent job.

Mick‘s young but well accomplished when it comes to driving and operates the manual Eaton superbly. He‘s particularly impressed with the cable-operated gear change and points out that the short gear lever is effective and precise.He has driven the company‘s Coronado and reckons the long gear lever coming up from the floor makes for quite a different driving experience. His previous Argosy was Cummins powered and he‘s a big fan of Cummins. He points out that the power is noticeably less, but he has altered his driving style to get the best out of the Detroit. He says he could let the Cummins lug down further without losing speed, but he changes the Detroit down at about 1300rpm, which means he‘s often half a gear lower on hills.

The Argosy is often on weighbridges, which is one reason Ferg doesn‘t specify the swing-out steps.

The trip through Dunedin‘s one-way system includes relatively heavy traffic, cyclists and stops at traffic lights, but the Argosy is especially capable of making safe smooth progress amongst the city traffic. Inconsiderate drivers result in a standing start at the bottom of Pine Hill on the way out of the city, but the engine digs in and Freightliner continually accelerates up the steep climb.The Freightliner‘s next challenge is the Kilmog Hill, but the notorious climb is anticlimactic, the truck handles it comfortably. The engine never really sounds like it‘s working hard, although the fan cuts in often to indicate that it is working hard – it‘s just not complaining about the level of work.

There are some squeaks in the cab; in fairness to Freightliner it‘s a normal product of the cab design, probably made more noticeable by the extraordinarily quiet engine. Some of the noise is due to movement between the interior panels; the mix of plastic, metal and upholstered interior fittings follows modern American styling, but in the US the components may not be subjected to the ever-changing road surfaces they are faced with here. It‘s clearly not a big deal to guys like Ferg and a multitude of other loyal Freightliner buyers.

The MTT trailer is a tidy piece of design and engineering.

The final 250 kilometres from the top of the Kilmog Hill to Ashburton gives us a chance to observe the way the truck steers and brakes, and the performance of the trailer. On the mainly flat run north the fan doesn‘t cut in except for the odd hill.

It‘s a hot day, in the high 20s, but it appears that the cooling package is well designed. Precise steering has been a hallmark of Argosys and the 8-wheeler is steady as it glides effortlessly through the corners.

Left to right: LED lights improve safety. Mick likes the small gear lever.

Likewise, the drum brakes perform smoothly and effectively. Large South Island towns such as Oamaru, Timaru and Ashburton still break SH 1 and mean drivers must switch from uncongested highway to congested city driving constantly. Add the inevitable inconsistencies of light traffic, especially tourist traffic, and it‘s clear that even the South Island thoroughfares that are not earthquake affected are not simple to drive. But Mick and the Argosy take it all in their stride, even the 15-minute hold up at poorly controlled road works in Temuka.

The Modern Transport Trailers (MTT) trailer tracks nicely. As mentioned, it‘s a 5-axle unit with lift-out sides, and the deck is a full 9.8 metres long. It runs SAF Intradisc axles and disc brakes. Really it‘s an ideal set up for the type of work Ferguson Trucking does.Although we didn‘t see it with the sides off, Mick says it‘s a quick 10-minute operation to take them out and he does it often, although he notes that it‘s a seasonal thing depending on what they‘re carting. We reach the drop-off point at a seed company in Ashburton and Mick pilots the combination onto the weighbridge. He gets a surprise to find that we‘re well up on our weight limits, with only a couple of hundred kilograms to spare. It seems the engine is freeing up, and when combined with his developing skills in getting the best out of the Detroit, the trip times are comparable with his old Cummins. He also checks the fuel burn and says the truck is using 58.65 litres every 100km, a significant improvement over the Cummins EGR, which used around 65 litres over the same distance.Mick removes the covers and the dried seeds are discharged through grain doors into a hopper feeding an auger.

Left to right: The grain doors get a lot of use. There‘s a story behind the Good Night Kiwi that
is airbrushed between the air 
intake tubes.

Dark Knight graphics.

It‘s a slow process and although Mick uses a remote to operate the hoist, it‘s not a wireless remote and he can‘t get in a position where he can see the discharge flow while operating the hoist. Most of the truck‘s load has to be dropped into bins. Mick drops the trailer and reverses the truck up a steel ramp and the bins are forklifted under the raised deck. It‘s a slow, hot process that reminds us that rural cartage is a lot more than just driving, and drivers are expected to pull their weight loading and unloading at each end of the trip.Eventually Mick leaves the yard, he‘s got another load to pick up for the journey south, but he‘ll just make it back into Highlander country before his hours are up. The Argosy and DD15 package is ideal for Ferguson Trucking Ltd. Although the Argosy has been through a few facelifts and changes over the years, it‘s a truck that has improved significantly and become more effective and efficient while still retaining its grassroots appeal.