Feature, Profiles

Attention to detail

Bruce Gunter had his eye on Max Keogh’s Kenworth K125 since he was eight years old. But although the truck changed hands over the decades, Bruce’s persistence in locating and then revitalising the old Kenny has resulted in a shining example of Australian trucking in the 1970s.
Attention to detail

Can you name the truck that fired up your love of the transport industry?

Most of us have one or two trucks that we just drooled over as a kid, trucks that inspired us and led us into this line of work.

I had two – number one was a Mainfreight eight-wheeler Mack Ultra-Liner that used to navigate New Zealand in the early ’90s. Number 2 was the old Wilson’s Transport FR Mack my uncle drove. That was the truck that my holidays were spent in and it was the truck that launched my love of trucking.

For Bruce Gunter, his raison d’être was Max Keough’s Kenworth K125. This was the truck that became etched in the mind of an eight-year-old Bruce when it first hit the road in 1978 and stayed camped in his memory bank throughout his career behind the tools, behind the wheel and behind the desk.

This was the truck that never faded from Bruce’s mind. After decades of work, the man whose life has revolved around trucks finally got his dream. He got his hands on Max’s 1978 Kenworth K125.

This is the state Bruce found his childhood dream truck in.

Now there are so many different avenues this story has to cover. From the 87-year-old Max Keough who, as I write this, is only just considering hanging up his passport and not going back over to the United States to drive again.

Yes, he has still been a regular roamer on the US interstates well into his 80s. There is the history of the truck itself, which went from Max’s colours, into Donny Turner’s colours then through several other hands before ending up in Queensland towing a tipper around and coming within weeks of being cut up for scrap metal.

Then there is Bruce himself, an automotive upholsterer, a truck driver, a podcaster, a truck event organiser, a transport safety expert and one of the luckiest drivers in the world. Did I forget anything? Most likely. But we are going to focus on Bruce and the decade long restoration of a legendary Kenworth.

A tight fit in Bruce’s garage behind his ’57 Chev sport sedan – there’s also the old Commer behind the Kenworth cab.

Chances are the name Bruce Gunter is familiar to you. If you haven’t heard his podcast, Copy Southbound, which he uses to immortalise the Australian transport history with interviews of legendary trucking figures, then you may know his name from the annual Clarendon Kenworth Klassic where he is one of the leading figures behind this amazing weekend of trucks, turps and tall tales.

There is also a chance you know his name from his company ProDrive Compliance, where he has become a leading expert in safety and compliance and assists companies with education and training. Whichever way you know the name, you will know this man has a passion for trucks and trucking, rivalled only by his knowledge of trucks and trucking.

In case that resumé didn’t make it abundantly clear, Bruce loves trucks and transport. He was born into it really.

The Kenny was like a can of Pringles – once you start it’s hard to stop and the tear down just kept tearing.

His dad Geoff was a driver for as long as Bruce can remember, starting in an old Commer Knocker and eventually ending up driving the Channel Ten outside broadcast van. Van is a bit of an understatement – it was huge and Geoff drove it everywhere, often with Bruce alongside, up-schooling his vocabulary courtesy of the old CB radio.

But like every good truck-driving dad, Geoff insisted his son gain a trade rather than follow him into the industry. Contrary to many who end up underneath trucks, Bruce opted to learn the interior trade and became an upholsterer.

It was a profession he enjoyed and one he found he was extremely good at. It still wasn’t trucking though. That was where his heart was and it wasn’t long before he found himself behind the wheel, tanning his right arm to earn a dollar.

From there, his natural ability to manage people and wrap his head around the big picture meant that a managerial role was the obvious next step. Admittedly the decision to step out from behind the wheel was more forced on him.

Bruce’s first resto project, the Old Commer halfway through its restoration.

Turns out that breaking your neck in a car accident leads to some pretty uncomfortable days. Especially for a Kenworth fan.

However, it wasn’t just nonstop allocating and long lunches in the management seat. Bruce would still find his way into the driver’s seat whenever possible.

He also started to take a keen interest in the safety and compliance side of the industry. In 2013 he started ProDrive Compliance, a consulting company that allowed Bruce to take his passion for the transport industry, in particular the safety and compliance side, and help companies upskill their procedures and their staff.

In 2019 he joined forces with his Copy Southbound Podcast partner, Brendon Ryan and formed ProDrive Compliance Group, now one of Sydney’s leading specialists in training and compliance within the transport industry.

That’s pretty much the cliff notes on Bruce. We’ve skimmed over a lot and I’ve had to miss out on a bit, but you get the gist of it. The main thing to learn is Bruce has done a lot in the transport arena.

There’s a few generations between Max and Bruce, but there’s one truck that will forever bind them.

Commer connection

Now let us focus on his hobbies. In between his work, getting married, raising a family, starting a business and driving when he could, Bruce also kept his hand in the motor trimming game while restoring old cars. Particularly classic American cars. It was this side hustle that would eventually lead to the project truck before you.

You may be thinking it’s a pretty big jump from a 1969 Ford Ranchero to a 1978 Kenworth K125 – and you would be right. There was a bridge though, an old Commer Knocker like his dad drove.

“I’d kind of always wanted to restore a truck but never really thought I’d be in a position too,” Bruce admits. “I never thought I’d have the shed space or anything like that. I loved cars but I really loved trucks.

“Then one weekend I was at a mate’s place and he was showing me photos from a show in Queensland and I saw a picture of a green and silver Commer. That was my seed and I just watered and fertilised it.”

Bruce Gunter (far right) and Max Keogh with Max’s nephew Gavin and daughter Kayla, who has been introduced to the Kenworth addiction.

That idea kept growing until Bruce found a running Commer for sale down in Victoria in 2007.

“I wanted a Commer because of Dad and, because it’s small, I can fit it in the shed. I looked at a few, even bought one but it was petrol. Then I found this runner in Victoria and it had a Knocker engine in it,” Bruce recalls. “I stripped it, did a basic rebuild and put it back together.

“Then, after a couple of years of driving with earplugs, I decided to pull the cab off and do it properly including reupholstering as well as soundproofing it.

“I also had a dear recently departed friend and mechanical genius, David Kent, expertly rebuild the intricate TS3 ‘Knocker’ engine for me. I loved the process and I had a lot of great people doing it with me.”

Another of Bruce’s mates, and a legendary figure in the world of Kenworth restorations, Paul Cox in the US helped Bruce get original factory woodgrain panels for the dash.

Around the same time that he was finishing off the Commer, Bruce started to think about Max Keough’s K125.

As mentioned earlier, Max’s K125 was the truck that ignited Bruce’s love of trucks. He was a mere eight years old when he first saw the behemoth.

“I remember Max used to take it to the local cricket ground when he was playing and I’d ride my bike down and wave at him from the gate when he left,” Bruce recalls. It didn’t stop there though. That first encounter stayed with him as he grew older.

“When I had my licence I’d drive all the boys home ’cause I didn’t drink, then I’d tear around Thornleigh because I knew it lived on one of the side streets. I drove around hoping it was home.”

The original rims took a fair bit of bringing back to showroom shine but Bruce got it done.

That bond with Max’s truck never diminished. Hence when the Commer was wrapping up Bruce had this idealist fantasy in his head: “I’ll try and find Max, imagine if he had it in his backyard, covered in shit and I could restore it.” Step One was to track down Max.

“I looked up Max in the phone book and found his number, gave the number a ring and he answered. It was very lucky. As Max said, he lives in the States now and was just home for a couple of weeks,” Bruce tells me.

“He came down to work and showed me a heap of old photos and we became really good friends. Unfortunately, all he knew of the truck was he’d sold it to Donny Turner.”

Max headed back to the US and Bruce was left to go hunting by himself. But the two of them were in regular contact and Bruce kept Max abreast of his pursuit.

The boys from Northwest Trucks helped Glenn align the cab as the project started to get to the exciting end of things in 2021.

Tracked down

Six months after Bruce started chasing down the truck and the truck’s history, one of the other sleuths he had on the case had a breakthrough.

Cameron McFayden, another good mate, was up in Brisbane and happened to be talking to another friend, Dave Collard. Dave, who used to have a heap of subcontracting tippers, was telling Cameron about another project he was involved with:

“I’ve got an old Kenworth I’m playing around with, it’s got an aluminium chassis, aluminium wheels and it’s got an 892 in it.”

After further questioning Dave confirmed it was in Don Turner’s old colours and he had only bought it about five weeks earlier after the owner was looking to scrap it.

Cameron couldn’t believe it and informed Dave that Bruce had been on the hunt for that truck for the last six months. At the time Dave wasn’t looking to sell, he was happy to play around with it, but Bruce would be his first port of call when he was ready to sell it.

The interior was showing signs of 40-plus years of hard living.

Roll on 2011 and Bruce gets the call he has been waiting on since he was eight years old. Now this is the part where I get to quote the US country rock group Little Big Town and their song ‘Good People’ and its lyrics, “good people know good people”.

While Bruce had arranged somewhere to store and work on the truck, and also planned out a feasible restoration plan, he still had to find a way to buy the old girl. Then in steps Max.

The two mates had been in constant contact since Bruce’s first call and Bruce had made his intentions clear.

“Max asked what I was planning to do with it, and I said I wanted to do it back up. He asked what colours I was going to paint it, I said, ‘How it should be, back in your old colours’. He asked what name I would put on the door, and I said, Your name, it was your truck’,” Bruce relates.

At this point in our chat I was introduced to the term ‘conehead restorers’, of which Bruce is one. Coneheads put everything back to how they were, as close to original as they can.

Attention to detail, even down to original plates and stickers.

When Max heard all this, he offered to assist Bruce in purchasing the truck when he found it, such was the bond the old K125 had built between the two mates.

Bruce flew to Queensland to pick the truck up in early 2011. Dave Collard had given the old Kenny a bit of a service so Bruce could drive it back down. “He was great,” Bruce says, “though he forgot to clean the ant’s nest out of the back ‘cause they bit me all the way home.”

It was a trip Bruce admits was packed with sweat and emotion. Sweat because it was over 40 degrees with no aircon, and emotional because he was in the truck of his dreams, albeit half naked and covered in ant bites.

Once he arrived home, the next steps began. It was always a long-term project but for the first couple of years Bruce just patched the truck up and took pleasure in owning it.

The interior was Bruce’s domain and he put his years of expertise to the test and absolutely nailed it.

“I did take a jigsaw to the plastic guards to make them look like quarter guards, and I removed the hub covers.” But it wasn’t until 2013 when the real work began.

“I didn’t really know how far I was going to pull it down,” Bruce says. “I took the cab off, we built a frame so we could get it in my garage and I could pull it all apart and work on that side of it. It was a very tight fit. In fact the air horns tore down my facia off the carport on the way in.

“I couldn’t afford to send it to a shop and spend 300 grand doing it up, so it was done over a long period, very slowly. I had a lot of good people helping me with so much of it.”

Those people included mates like Glenn Dawson who spent countless hours on the engineering and mechanical side, plumbing it all back together.

The 8V92 was sent over to the mechanical genius Dave Kent in South Australia, the man behind the old TS3 Knocker engine rebuild who took control of breathing life back into the old Detroit workhorse.

Darren Freer had the unenviable job of painting the cab back in original colours with original stripes, while another mate Matt Stephenson took care of painting the chassis.

Darren Freer, another lifelong friend of Bruce’s, starts working on the original lines as the 125 returns to its past.

There are also countless mates that need mentioning for appeasing Bruce’s conehead desires, like Nathan Smith who supplied an original 13-speed box to replace the 18-speed double overdrive that the truck now had.

There was also Pat Vassallo who donated a set of original quarter guards to replace Bruce’s makeshift jig-sawed versions, Mick Cefai who arranged and carefully fitted tyres to the original Budd rims Bruce had tracked down, as well as guys like Rob Woolley and Gerard Kovic who supplied countless little parts that Bruce never even envisioned needing. All those little things that count when you are doing a conehead project.

Bruce concentrated on the interior that was to be his masterpiece.

“I was really keen on doing it right. I found the original driver’s seat which Max had taken it out because it hurt his back. Seeing as mine was worse I never looked at putting it back in, but I measured it up and used the same vinyl for a new seat.

“It was originally ordered in a Splendour Kit, in blue and yellow, and wanting to replicate that I ended up sending one of the original curtains to the States to get 10 yards of vinyl made over there. Then I had enough to do the whole interior.”

By June 2021 everything was slowly coming together, slowly being the operative word. The chassis was being worked on and stored at another mate’s place, Ray from Parklea Sand & Soil.

The interior was complete and the cab was ready to go back on. Dave Chapman and the team from Northwest Trucks along with Glenn and Bruce took on the task of getting the cab back on and ready for the final stretch.

Glenn Dawson helps by getting the cab off and ready for pulling down.

Head-on accident

Like any good Hollywood story, there has to be a curveball thrown in when the end is in sight. This time it was another car accident for Bruce.

Do you remember at the start of the story when I mentioned Bruce was a lucky driver? Well, he broke his neck back in 1995 when he was rear-ended. That put paid to the likelihood of a career in truck driving.

Then just days before New Year’s 2021, Bruce was hit head-on and broke his neck again. More operations and more rehabilitation, mixed with choruses of ‘how are you still alive’ followed. This accident would put a question mark over Bruce ever driving again and due to his injuries put a major handbrake on the finishing of the K125.

Full credit to Nev Greentree who did all the lines and scroll work, a perfect replication of the truck’s original look.

It was a bleak time, physically and mentally for Bruce but once again I refer back to those US country singers, Little Big Town and “Good people know good people”.

Bruce’s passion for the old Keough K125 had spread to all those around him and his good mates Chappo and Glenn made the call that they would all pitch in to see Bruce’s dream fulfilled before the 2022 Kenworth Klassic. There was still a fair bit to do, courtesy of Bruce’s conehead restoration standards.

“I had the build sheet and wanted it as close to that as possible. It had the wrong wheels on it. When I got it it had eight and a quarter inch wide Budd rims but originally it had seven and a half inch, and I wanted it to run 11Rs to have the skinny look like it did.”

The end result of a lifelong obsession and a decade long restoration project.

While Bruce was limited with how much and how long he could work on it, he had a team that all pitched in to help and by September 2022 the truck was ready for its official unveiling at the Clarendon Kenworth Klassic.

I was actually there when Bruce drove into the showgrounds on that day and it was a sight to be seen. Along with all the other Kenworth truck nuts, Max Keough had returned from the US for the unveiling and the atmosphere was extremely emotional with his entire family there.

There are countless people Bruce would like to thank for all their assistance and countless people happy to hassle Bruce for his purism. But it paid off.

Attention to detail, even down to original plates and stickers.

The end result is a 45-year-old truck that looks as good today as it ever did and a slightly older truck nut that has managed to find and restore his childhood objet petit a.

I am curious though, what’s next?

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