To the west from the west

In September 2023, Features11 MinutesBy Craig McCauleyOctober 18, 2023

In 1990, a new contender appeared on the New Zealand heavy-truck scene — the Freightliner brand manufactured in North Carolina in the United States. While holidaying in the States, a New Zealand contractor set his eyes on a Freightliner FLD120 on the lot at a truck dealership in Portland, Oregon. This truck embarked on a trip halfway across the world, and after undergoing the required modifications to meet New Zealand regulations, it went to work and has completed over three decades of service hauling aggregate, coal and machinery on the South Island’s West Coast.

Westport is the second largest town on the ‘Coast’ as locals call it. Like many regional centres, industry is derived from agriculture, fisheries and mining.

Local firm Avery Bros has been in existence since the 1950s, beginning when brothers Pat and Jack Avery started out with bulldozers doing roading and agricultural work around the Buller area.

During the mid-1960s, Jack moved to Canterbury and became the branch manager of machinery dealership Cable Price, while Pat continued contracting.

Pat’s son, Paul, joined the business during the mid-1970s. At the time, Avery’s had secured an overburden stripping contract for the State Coal Mines at Stockton, 35km north of Westport.

Work associated with the coal industry became integral to Avery’s activities. The company went on to perform overburden stripping at the Cascade Mine located at Burnetts Face, near the former mining town of Denniston, and eventually purchased the operation.

Coal production and distribution went on to occupy the company’s staff and plant during the winter, while roading and aggregate production became core activities for the rest of the year.

Trucks were vital to both types of work, with Internationals being the prime movers in the early years.

Avery’s truck fleet in the 1980s included a V8 petrol International 1910 Acco, a pair of International T-Lines and a 6-71 Detroit- powered Hino ZM.

Christchurch Detroit Diesel aficionados Transmissions and Diesels imported several high-spec Bedford TM 4400 trucks from Britain in 1987, one of which joined the Avery fleet.

It was a regular sight on the Lewis Pass during the winter months, hauling coal to markets in Canterbury, and returning to the Coast with its cleverly designed three-axle trailer inside the truck body.

A new 320hp International S-Line followed in 1989, set up as a truck and trailer tipper. It took on the front-line role, relegating the TM to a quieter life.

Trucking in the United States has always appealed to the Averys. During a family holiday there in 1991, Paul’s son Jared, aged 13 at the time, recalls spending half a day wandering around the premises of Roebuck Truck and Equipment, a Freightliner truck dealership in the Californian seaside town of Eureka.

A pair of brand-new Freightliner FLD120s were for sale on the lot, one coloured gold and fitted with a Cummins NTC-444 and a maroon-coloured truck fitted with a Caterpillar 3406B engine.

As the Averys’ trip continued south down the US West Coast, Paul and wife Leone had some discussion and a couple of days later, at Fort Bragg, the hire car made a U-turn and headed back to Eureka.

A deal was done on the maroon-coloured FLD with Bob Roebuck, principal of Roebuck Truck & Equipment, and Paul set to work dissembling the truck onto a 20ft flat rack for its journey across the Pacific.

While the family’s new addition was being prepared for travel, Jared recalls hanging out with his two brothers and mum at a nearby shopping mall.

Upon arrival on Kiwi soil, the flat rack was transported back to Avery’s Westport workshop where work began to re-assemble the Freightliner and get it compliant with Kiwi regulations.

Conversion from left- to right-hand drive was outsourced to Christchurch firm Geo. M Thackwell (Engineers). Thackwell’s had gained experience in the conversion process, having imported the original Freightliner trucks into New Zealand in 1989.

With Paul or brother Neil behind the wheel, the FLD worked around the West Coast in front of either a two-axle tipulator or three-axle low-loader moving the company’s machinery around.

A rise in coal production on the Coast and the increased workload associated with this in 1993 saw the FLD converted to a bulk tipper with the addition of an Adams & Currie aluminium bin and a four- axle trailer.

Peter Shirley took the wheel around this time, and coal cartage work was centred around either the Solid Energy Ngakawau load-out, 30km north of Westport, or from Cascade.

Coal was hauled to Milburn New Zealand’s cement works at Cape Foulwind as well to the Westport wharf, where it was loaded onto Sea Tow barges for shipping north.

Aggregate cartage associated with roading contracts was still a seasonal activity when Jared became the FLD’s driver, and in any downtime, the truck worked with TNL Freighting hauling either coal, clinker or fertiliser between the West Coast, Canterbury and Nelson.

Trucking work continued to increase through the turn of the millenium, resulting in several additional trucks joining the fleet to keep pace with demand.

Following the arrival of a new Western Star 5964SS in 2003, Jared handed the Freightliner’s keys to his brother Kyle, who took it onto the next chapter in its life on the Coast.

After the thick end of a decade’s toil on bulk work and with a tractor unit being required to tow the company’s low-loader, the Avery team removed the aluminium bin fitted to the Freightliner, and it re-emerged in the guise of a tractor unit.

Liners were replaced in the Caterpillar engine at this time, and a cosmetic overhaul took place, including fabricating a new bumper from stainless steel to match the original, re-chroming the grille and a repaint from the original maroon to Avery’s signature silver and blue striped livery.

Kyle continued to pilot the FLD for the next couple of years, shifting machinery and doing some tipulator work, until the truck was superseded by the arrival of a larger tractor unit and MTE 3×8 transporter.

Use during the period following was intermittent. Coal cartage had slowed, but several aggregate production contracts and associated work kept the operation very busy.

As its quarter century in family ownership loomed up, Paul decided to give New Zealand’s first Freightliner FLD120 a ‘birthday’, with stripping down getting underway during 2017.

Work progressed as resources allowed, as maintaining the operational fleet was the workshop’s priority.

After lifting the cab from the chassis, its interior was cleaned up and several replacement interior fixtures, including heater vents, lights and a replacement steering wheel shroud, were sourced and fitted.

With the engine and transmission clear of the rails, Scott Martini stripped the engine, and it was rebuilt with genuine Caterpillar parts.

As a true testament to the Caterpillar product, both the original fuel pump and turbocharger were in good enough condition to be refitted despite 22,000 hours of use.

Both the transmission and rear axles were opened for inspection and no major work was required. However, seeing they were apart, a new clutch was fitted. Much of the brake componentry, including slack adjusters and s-cams, were replaced, and both the air and electrical systems were renewed.

Mechanic Graham Currie performed much of the reassembly work – quite a mean feat as no photographs or diagrams existed of the wiring or piping previously, as those who had disassembled the truck no longer worked for the company.

A new exhaust system was fabricated, and new stacks were added, along with stainless- steel rear mudguards.

Buller Panel and Paint looked after the refinishing, putting the Freightliner back in its original colour scheme of a maroon cab and bonnet with a black chassis.

After the metal work had been polished, the Freightliner emerged from the Westport workshop looking as good as it did first time around.

The FLD is fully work-ready, and since the ‘tidy-up’, time has been spent towing both a tipulator and a transporter.

General contracting, roading and the production of aggregate and ready-mix concrete are core activities for the Avery Bros operation today – still in family ownership and serving the Buller region, just as Jack and Pat started out almost six decades ago.

1991 Freightliner FLD120-64SD
Caterpillar 3406B ATAAC engine, 425hp (317kW)
Eaton Fuller RLTO18718A transmission, 18-speed
Rockwell RT 46-160GP rear axles, 4.3:1 ratio
Chalmers 46K walking-beam suspension