WE GOT US A MINI CONVOY

In International Truck Stop, Mack, Freightliner, August 202114 MinutesBy Will ShiersSeptember 22, 2021

A collection of three iconic American movie trucks is not what you’d expect to find ‘across the pond’ in England. That two have been recreated down to the finest detail possible, and the third is the actual star, makes them even more special to behold.

Like myself, George Matthews was brought up on a diet of American trucking movies. His VHS player would have chewed up numerous copies of Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit while he dreamed of one day being behind the wheel of Rubber Duck’s Mack or Snowman’s Kenworth. However, unlike me, he’s actually living the dream.

George, who lives on England’s south coast, was born into the fairground industry. His family have been showmen since the mid-18th century – a profession started by distant relative James ‘Chewbacca’ Matthews.

Given his family’s trade, George grew up around commercial vehicles. “There were always trucks and trailers around,” he remembers. “Dad had an Atkinson Borderer, and then a Ford D series and a Cargo.”

While his father (George Snr) quit the fairgrounds in the late 1980s, George carried on the family tradition, making a living from manufacturing and operating various rides. He estimates that he has owned and operated close to 30 different ERFs and Fodens.

The last was a Foden Alpha 6×4 with a Cat 450, which he reluctantly parted company with about six years ago. “That was a lovely truck, and I regretted selling it,” he admits. “So, I decided that I needed to replace it with something good.”

Fitting the “good” bill was a 1976 Kenworth. Although it was never officially imported into Britain, George found a decent example for sale locally and promptly purchased it. “And then one night, Smokey and the Bandit came on TV, and I decided to make a replica,” he tells me. Eight months later, he was the proud owner of one of the world’s most instantly recognisable trucks.

Having finished the work, he now needed an excuse to drive it regularly – after all, he “couldn’t afford just to take them to shows every weekend”. Together with his wife and kids, he came up with the idea of manufacturing mini petrol-powered movie trucks for children to ride on, which together with an inflatable course, could be moved around the country in the Kenworth. The first of four he built was, of course, the Smokey and the Bandit truck, followed by a scaled- down Convoy ‘Rubber Duck’ Mack, and then the Pork Chop Express Freightliner from Big Trouble in Little China.

“And then, when I’d built them all, I decided I needed another big one,” he says. Choosing the right vehicle was a no-brainer – it had to be Rubber Duck’s truck from the 1978 classic movie Convoy. “So, I started searching for a Mack,” he says.

While there are still plenty of Mack RS600s in the States, the RS700, the model used in the film is considerably more elusive. But, after a year of looking, George finally tracked down a decent one in South Carolina. It was a 1978 day- cab model, which had only recently been retired. Although initially built as a tractor unit, it had been used as a five-axle rigid dump truck for most of its working life. But when George found it, two axles had been removed, and the fifth wheel reinstated. “I knew it was the one, so I didn’t even go over to look at it,” he explains. “I just paid the money, shipped it back and started to work on it.”

To transform it into the Duck’s truck, George first needed to locate some hard-to-find parts, including the roof spoiler. Incredibly, despite being slightly rarer than rocking-horse manure, he found someone selling one in the UK. But there was no such luck tracking down a sleeper pod, which would have been incredibly unusual back in the day. So instead of wasting any more time, he set about fabricating one himself. “The time-consuming bit was adding the rivets,” he explains. The bullbar also had to be made from scratch, which meant studying numerous movie stills to get the dimensions as precise as possible.

Convoy movie enthusiasts will know that four different trucks were used throughout the making of the film, all with subtle differences. Mack built two versions of the RS700, one for the East Coast and one for the West Coast, with both types appearing in the film. The most obvious differences between the two trucks are the hood depths, the height of the wheel arches, and the number of breather pipes. The truck that’s seen most in the movie has two pipes, whereas George’s has one. “So, mine isn’t the one that we all know and love, but it is pretty close to one of the others, which is sighted on several occasions in the film,” he says.

From a different time.

It’s more than ‘pretty close’ if you ask me, as the attention to detail is phenomenal. An example of this is the collection of licence plates on the front bumper. The central one is its UK plate, whereas the two flanking it are exact replicas of the ones on the movie truck. Then there’s the livery. It’s a common misconception that the ‘RD Trucking’ written on the doors was originally in white, but if you study the film closely, you’ll see that it’s in silver – as it is on George’s truck.

The same attention to detail continues inside the cab, where custom-built door cards have been fitted. The seats have been reupholstered too, complete with embroidered bulldogs. In the movie, you’ll notice a faded green box located on the dashboard, which really puzzled George. “It took me ages to figure out what it was, and finally I discovered that it was a Johnson and Johnson first aid kit,” he says. “I managed to find a 1970s one on eBay, which cost me £50 ($100). You wouldn’t want to use it, though, as everything inside has gone yellow.”

One thing he didn’t need to touch was the engine. The truck had only covered 400,000 miles (640,000km), and the 350hp (261kW) Mack 300-series was in good working order. Although this is the same engine that all four of the movie trucks would have had under their hoods, curiously you only hear it in a few scenes (such as when they’re all lined up and ready to smash up the town and rescue Spider Mike). The rest of the time, what you’re listening to is the soundtrack of a Detroit Diesel.

“Personally, I prefer to have the engine that was actually in the duck, and not the sound-over,” reckons George. “Besides, I’ve got the Detroit in the Kenworth.”

One of the biggest challenges George faced was getting his hands on a replica trailer. In the movie, they used an elderly asphalt tanker, but he couldn’t afford to buy and ship one of those from the States. So instead, he did the next best thing, opting to Americanise a British tanker. Extensive work included cutting off the side underrun bars and replacing the old tri-axle super-singles with a twin-wheel tandem-axle set- up. The axles were moved further down the chassis to complete the American look.

Another example of just how detailed this replica is are the cables leading to the top trailer lights. These are twisted and kinked in the same way as they are in the movie. “It’s not the perfect shape of tank, but other than that, it’s pretty damn accurate,” he says.

George finally finished working on the Mack in 2019, but he wasn’t about to put his feet up. “My kids reckoned I should build a replica of the Pork Chop Express next, as they thought it was the best- looking of the mini movie trucks, but I said ‘no’ initially,” he explains.

“And then I came across the original truck from the movie in Maine. I contacted the owner via Facebook and asked whether it was for sale, and it was!” It belonged to an 82-year-old who had just stopped driving. A deal was done, and the 1985 Freightliner was on its way to England.

“Big Trouble in Little China is a crazy [movie] really, with lots of kung fu and Chinese magic. It was a bit of a flop in its day, but it has since become a 1980s cult classic,” he says. Something that sets it apart from Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit is that – unlike Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Reed – Big Trouble in Little China star Kurt Russell learned how to drive the truck, rather than relying on a stunt double to do the gear- jamming for him. “I like this, as it adds a bit of authenticity to the truck,” reckons George.

So, what’s next? According to George, he won’t be buying and building anything else. Instead, he intends to show his current fleet, the two most recent of which have barely had any public outings, thanks to Covid-19 decimating the truck show calendar for more than a year.

And on the subject of mini movie trucks, I never did tell you what the fourth one is – it’s Optimus Prime. And with that in mind, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a Peterbilt were to undergo a transformation in George’s hands in the not-too-distant future.

FAVOURITE TRUCK

Does George have a favourite movie truck? “Well, that depends on what you mean by a favourite,” he says. “If you’re talking about a favourite to drive, then without a doubt, it’s the Pork Chop Express. It’s so comfortable, and thanks to the 450 Cat, it’s really powerful too. “But the Smokey and the Bandit truck has taken the longest to build and cost me the most money. It’s also my wife’s favourite. “But my favourite film is Convoy.”

                         
                         
     
George’s dog, Bandit.