Warren Caves enjoys some local history and a large dose of nostalgia
Childhood memories can hold a special place in the heart − a trusty family dog, a favourite push-bike or matchbox car, or special experiences long held dear.
For those with truck-driving fathers, sometimes those experiences come from school holiday adventures riding shotgun with Dad to far-off places.
For Bowral, NSW-based Rod Preston, this is exactly how he remembers his childhood holidays and, in particular, his father Roger’s R-700 Mack prime mover.
From around 10 years of age, a young Rod recalls school holiday adventures with his father on trips from Sydney to Darwin − firstly in an R-600 Mack, followed by an R-700.
“In the aftermath of Cyclone Tracey (1974), Dad did a lot of work carting building materials for the rebuilding of Darwin,” Rod recalled. “He would load Oregon timber, Cypress pine flooring or fibro from James Hardie in Sydney, and he was also a prime contractor for Tubemakers, carting pipes to NT uranium mines.
“In those days, road trains had to be coupled at Barringun in Queensland for the run up to Darwin, although it was common practice for double road trains to be hitched in Dubbo at midnight and set off from there under cover of darkness.
“Originally Dad bought an R-600 Mack, but it wasn’t long before he realised that it was not going to be ideal up the arduous Sydney-to-Darwin freight run, which was in those days 1000 miles (1600 km) of gravel roads. Ultimately, this led to him buying his R-700, which he had custom-built for the job and purchased from Mack Trucks at Rocklea.”
The R-700 is recognisable by its long bonnet, being 12 inches longer than an R-600 to accommodate larger-sized engines. Roger’s R-700 featured a Thermodyne V8 engine rated at 375 hp (280 kW) and 1040 ft/lb (1410 Nm) of torque. Cog swapping was done via the 12-speed Maxitorque twin-stick splitter transmission and it rode on 44,000 lb diffs and Camel-back springs. If anyone doubted it was a true Mack, the sounds of the trademark air start announcing it was time to head up the highway soon dispelled any ideas others might have had about sleeping in a little longer.
Rod says his Dad was always on top of maintenance, and used the best equipment he could find. Fruehauf provided his choice of trailer and in true pioneering fashion in 1978, he requested Fruehauf build him a quad-axle trailer to carry the sometimes 50-tonne payloads on each trailer.
Rod explained: “The R-700 was the truck I learned to drive in. I actually reached the point where I was driving so frequently that when Dad returned from a Darwin trip once he told me that the policeman from Avon Downs Station in the NT had told him it was about time I got my truck licence. I said ‘OK, then, I’ll have to drop in and see him on the next trip’, to which Dad quipped back ‘there’s no need for that, he’s seen you driving enough, he sent your licence back with me’. I was 18 years old.”
Unbeknown to Rod at the time, those carefree days of trucking with his Dad would light a fire deep inside that would smoulder for years. Those long-haul trips created an itch for Rod that would one day need to be scratched, whatever it took.
Rod had always wondered what had happened to his Dad’s truck after he sold it in 1979. For a while they kept track of it, as it was initially sold to one of Roger’s mates, Barry Handorf. Unfortunately, contact with the truck was eventually lost when Barry traded it in for an early-model Mack SuperLiner. After that it was believed to have had numerous owners throughout the NT and Queensland, although its location was by then unknown.
Utilising the bush telegraph, Rod had been trying to locate the R-700 since 2009, eventually getting a tip-off that the truck was at a property in Alpha, Queensland.
Rod managed to contact the owner who had been using the truck to cart tractors and machinery on a low-loader trailer. Rod’s plans were to try and buy the truck back and restore it.
Life doesn’t always go as planned and ill health required Rod to refocus on something more important, so the R-700 project was placed on the backburner for a time.
By 2014, Rod was again ready to focus on that insatiable desire to see the R-700 return to its original owner. He made a call to the property owner in Alpha, only to be told the truck had been sold to a collector/restorer in Toowoomba, Glen Buetel. Rod was heartbroken and thought his quest was at an end.
However, Glen had heard of Rod’s efforts to track down this particular truck, and his connection to it. Glen wanted to restore the truck to its totally original condition and who better to help with photos and memories of all the small details about the truck than Rod and Roger?
Throughout the re-build project, Glen and Rod regularly collaborated on various stages to achieve Glen’s vision for the truck, although a surprise was in store for Rod. Glen asked Rod if, at the end of the rebuild, would he like to buy the truck? Rod didn’t hesitate to answer that he certainly would.
Rod had one condition, though – he would only buy it if the retro-fitted Caterpillar engine was removed and replaced by an original V8 Thermodyne. Rod felt that the heart and soul of that truck was its engine, and he would accept nothing less than that unmistakeable Mack V8 rumble.
This stipulation posed yet another challenge to the project, as these engines are getting harder to come by. However, an engine was finally located just outside Sydney, and a subsequent inspection from a mechanic deemed it sound.
During the restoration it was found that the cab had too much rust, so a replacement was sourced and fitted. The bunk was also replaced after finding an identical unit that exactly matched the original. Rod said a lot of parts were either missing or not original, and enormous effort has been put in to replicate the original truck. “Most of the interior trimming has had to be manufactured from scratch, as you just can’t get this stuff anymore,” he said.
The R-700 project really gained momentum in the last few years, with the finishing touches winding up in 2018. There was just one thing left to do. Rod had not told his father he was buying the truck. Although Roger knew of the restoration and had even dropped in for a visit to see and drive it, until that stage he looked on his involvement as simply being grateful for that experience.
When the truck was ready, Rod rang his father and told him that he had some business in Brisbane and was planning to head out to Toowoomba to catch up with Glen Buetel and John Grossman, the sales manager at Mack Trucks Brisbane, and suggested Roger might like to tag along. Roger thought it would be a nice day out and a good opportunity to spend some time with his grandson Warwick (Rod’s son) who also came along.
Upon arrival at the Mack dealership, the R-700 was parked up in the delivery bay in all its 1970s glory. Rod conveyed to Roger that, sadly, the truck had been sold to a private collector, to which Roger seemed disappointed after all the hard work that had been put into the project. Rod then went on to explain that the good news was that the private collector lives in Bowral NSW, and that Rod had come to pick up his new truck. “It was Dad’s 79th birthday.”
It was at this point, Rod said, that “Dad was quite a bit overcome and emotional”. After some time to take in and talk over the situation, it was time to drive the R-700 home to Bowral via Brisbane, to drop Roger at his current home. Rod asked if Roger would like to drive the truck home − to which he replied, “no, I drove it out from the Rocklea dealership when it was new, it’s now your turn”. And with that, three generations of Preston men drove out of Toowoomba’s Mack dealership in a fully restored 1976 R-700 and into their family history album.
Roger Preston is still driving trucks, working in the truck relocation field delivering trucks which, while unladen, would still give a much more comfortable ride than the old R-700.
In 2018, Roger was inducted into the Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs.