Warren Caves visits the Cleary Bros equipment museum. Images by Torque it Up)
A familiar sight on the roads of the Illawarra region, about an hour south of Sydney, is the distinctive “highway yellow” trucks of Cleary Bros. Highway yellow was the colour adopted by Caterpillar in the 1950s to replace the original grey for any equipment working near roads in a bid to improve visibility (and here was I, thinking Hi-Vis was a recent development!).
Initially established in 1916 by John (Jack) Cleary and his two brothers as a timber-getting business, Cleary Bros (Bombo) Pty Ltd in its current south coast form eventuated when the original three brothers split the business up in 1947, with Jack focusing on business in the Illawarra at the original company site in Bombo.
Jack Cleary had four children − John, Jill, Brian and Denis. After Jack’s passing in 1958, the running of the company fell to his children; in particular, John, who was eight years older than his younger twin brothers.
The Bombo site is still operated by the company as a concrete plant and maintenance workshops, with further workshops and administration located at Port Kembla, along with quarry operations at the company’s Albion Park site. The latter extracts around 900,000 tonnes of material per year, much of which is transported to Sydney by road.
Cleary Bros now employs in the vicinity of 400 staff and operates a large mixed fleet of trucks, trailers and equipment associated with the quarry, concrete and earthmoving industry. Mack trucks have been, and still are, a dominant brand within the fleet.
Cleary Bros is very much a family-run company, with Denis Cleary still overseeing operations as chairman, and several third-generation family members working within operations.
On my visit to the company’s Port Kembla site, the home of the Cleary Bros Museum, I was met by Denis, Brett Cleary (Brian’s son) and Louise Sullivan, Director and Company Secretary/Executive General Manager. Collectively, they provided me with an insight into the company and the inspiration behind the museum, one of the most comprehensive displays of plant and earthmoving equipment in Australia.
Caterpillar equipment played a crucial role in the early days of the Cleary Bros story, and these beasts of burden hold fond memories, particularly for Denis as he sits at a table within the museum. Casting his mind back to the early days as a young lad of 14, he vividly remembers the day the D7 Caterpillar bulldozer resting behind him was delivered.
“It was brought down on a rail car and it ran out of fuel while we were unloading it. They were too miserable to put much fuel in it. Enough to get it on, but not enough to get it off,” he recalls. (Truck and equipment dealers take heed: such small details remain in customers’ minds for a lifetime.)
“That was 1954. I remember we traded one of our old ‘dozers in on it and we were supposed to send the trade-in back to Sydney on the Friday afternoon. My older brother John went down to the stationmaster and paid him two pounds to keep the rail car from leaving until Monday morning, and we worked on that old ‘dozer all weekend before sending it back.”
The museum display is home to around 25 pieces of varied trucks and equipment, representative of the kind that carved out Cleary Bros’ success. Caterpillar equipment encompassing traxcavators (an early precursor to the modern excavator), and bulldozers of varying size dominate the display, accompanied by pieces from International Harvester and two immaculately restored NR Mack Trucks of 1942-43 vintage.
As I’m guided around the display, Brett Cleary explains the operation of some of the vintage equipment and points out the hazards experienced while trying to start some of these old workhorses. This involved a bar lodged into a hole in the flywheel to spin them over, and a prayer that it wouldn’t kick back and knock your head off with the cranking bar. Later models became a little safer with small petrol-powered pilot engines taking on the risky starting task.
Brett explains that the exhibits housed in the display are not all original Cleary Bros equipment. A lot of the trucks and machinery were saved from a rusty purgatory in bush graveyards and lovingly restored, almost out of obligation to honour their lengthy devoted service.
As Denis says: “We bought and restored models that we used in our business. Models that served us well and we liked operating.”
One machine that is a Cleary Bros original is the previously mentioned D7, which was tracked down via its serial number and located in the Atherton Tablelands in QLD. The owner still had the original toolkit that was supplied with the machine.
“This D7 was purchased back 30 years ago and became one of the first pieces of equipment restored,” Denis explains. “It all just started from there and didn’t seem to stop; the shed is not really big enough anymore.”
Denis points out that most of the visitors to the museum express how gratifying it is to see someone taking such an active role as custodian of these historical pieces of equipment. I believe that for Denis, it’s hearing comments such as this that make it all worthwhile.
As pointed out by a placard in the museum: “All the machines on display have been restored to fully operational standard by Cleary Bros workshops.”
To this day, Cleary Bros employs highly skilled teams of panel beaters, spray painters, fabricators and mechanics in their workshops. When they are not manufacturing truck bodies and equipment for the company’s trucks or carrying out repairs and maintenance, they are entrusted with the task, when it arises, of completing the restoration projects housed in the museum.
The level of workmanship and skill apparent in the museum display is testament to skills and passion invested into these restorations by the Cleary Bros workshops. It also might go some way to explain the colour scheme of the fleet, all of which still wear the same Caterpillar “highway yellow”. After all, why buy two colours when one does the job so well? The exception comes in the form of some Army Jeeps and a few motorbikes that call the museum home, plus a 1939 Oldsmobile which belonged to Jack Cleary.
The historical equipment restoration bug has also bitten Brett Cleary, although, like his father (Brian), his interest lies with trucks.
Especially for my visit, Brett organised for two of his own trucks, both having been restored by the Cleary Bros workshops, to grace the entry of the museum.
Sitting either side of a CH Mack in Cleary Bros livery was a Centennial Mack, of which only 25 were made to herald in the new millennium. All of these Macks, with the exception of two white ones, were given the names of national highways.
Brett located the “Cunningham Highway” truck through a Facebook post and contacted the owner in Perth, to find that he had three of the models. The truck was subsequently bought and transported back to NSW for restoration.
On the other side sits a Caterpillar-powered Kenworth SAR, also purchased from Perth with a seized engine, but now fully restored to its former glory.
Louise Sullivan adds: “As a family and as a business in general we are still really passionate about what we do, and this is reflected in the museum. We have a lot of long-term employees and don’t have a high turnover of staff. I believe this is because while we are a large company, we are still very much a family business.”
Cleary Bros is a regular participant in the hugely successful Illawarra charity convoy held each year when a long yellow caterpillar of Cleary Bros trucks line the roads of the Illawarra while contributing to raising funds for a great cause.