SEPTEMBER TRUCK OF THE MONTH: Memories of a Diamond Reo leaving his 185hp ACCO in its wake came flooding back 50 years later when Norm Bransgrove discovered the 1969 classic was up for sale. Now it's back earning a dollar
“Age is something that doesn’t matter… unless you are a cheese!” – Billie Burke. Yes, that is a somewhat random quote to start this story, but you will soon see that it is extremely fitting. Age is an important ingredient in the following story or to be more precise, the fact that age isn’t important is an important ingredient in this story.
I often cover the newest and fanciest trucks on the road – all the shiny bits, all the mod cons. Every now and then, however, I get to focus on a classic truck. Normally a restored truck, one with an interesting history that is now consigned to truck shows and a dust-free storage shed. Not today though, not this particular golden oldie.
Today I will be focussing on a truck that first hit the road when The Beatles were chart toppers, before Walt Disney World was open and well before you could buy your kids a pet rock (I’m serious, in the mid ’70s a toy company made a fortune by selling pet rocks). Today’s focus will be a 1969 Diamond Reo C-114. A working 1969 Diamond Reo C-114 at that.
But wait, there’s more. The ‘age doesn’t matter quote’ isn’t just tied to the big red Reo that bounces off the pages here. It is also appropriate when we talk about the owners of this remarkable rig – Norm and Nola Bransgrove or, as you may come to know them, the world’s worst retirees.
Norm is an extremely well-preserved 1949 model and has racked up more kilometres on Australian roads than some small transport companies ever do. His lovely wife Nola has been a transport industry advocate for several decades now and while she doesn’t have as many kilometres behind the wheel, she has more acknowledgments and awards than anybody I’ve ever met. These include the first-ever National Australia Trucking Industry Woman of the Year award in 1997, as well as an Order of Australia Medal in 2012. Both of these amazing people have served the transport industry diligently for decades and, like their sparkling Diamond Reo, deserve to have their feet up with a glass of sherry, watching Coronation Street reruns.
Deserved or not, this couple is far from your standard pensioner, that’s why we are here and that’s why I refer to them as the world’s worst retirees. The power couple was scheduled to retire in 2020. It was all planned out, they sold off their trucks, wrapped up their company Branstrans Pty Ltd after nearly five decades of operation, and began contemplating life as grey nomads. It lasted barely 12 months.
Back in the good old days, when you retired you would waste your days offline, watching TV, doing crosswords, or annoying your partner the old-fashioned way. Nowadays, retirement means more time to play online, with social media and marketplace. This in turn normally results in buying something inappropriate and impractical, such as tea cosies and porcelain figurines maybe. In the case of Norm and Nola, it was this stunning Diamond Reo.
However, the ageless truck wasn’t an impulse buy. In fact, the purchase of this truck had massive sentimental reasoning which we will get into shortly.
Most retired truckies would buy a classic like this and either turn it into a motorhome or check the oil every six months before a truck show. Not Norm and Nola though. Once they had put a little bit of time into the 52-year-old truck they promptly put it to work.
Retirement be damned. In order to understand why they are so bad at retiring, you first need to understand where Norm’s work ethic has come from.
Transport has played a part in Norm’s life since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. He has been driving now for 69 years. You read that right – 69 years. Some of you are questioning my maths, especially as you glance back and reaffirm the fact Norm is a 49 model. That would mean he was driving from the age of five? That would be correct.
“I grew up on a dairy farm and I used to steer the old Bedford around while dad threw hay off the back,” Norm recalls.
I questioned his ability to even reach the pedals and Norm explained how his dad would start the Bedford off and it would idle around while Norm steered. “One of the highlights of my career was when Mum came into primary school to tell the teacher it was going to rain and they needed me to drive the truck,” Norm laughs. “I was about eight or nine and walked out of school 10 foot tall.”
In those days it wasn’t unusual for kids to leave school as soon as they could and start working. Norm was no exception.
“I left when I was almost 14,” Norm says. “There were big celebrations at school when I left. I worked on the farm with Dad and my older brother George.”
While a modern-day 14-year-old would struggle to pick a Phillips head screwdriver from a flat head, and hard work is having to make their bed with fitted sheets, Norm grew up in a time when you got up in the morning and worked. When you finished work, the sun was going down and it was time for bed. Rinse, wash and repeat. When Norm did get some downtime, he would often find his way into the passenger seat of one of his uncle’s trucks.
“My grandad was one of the first to cart into the Maryvale paper mill,” Norm explains. “My uncles were also running trucks and I used to go for a ride in their old K5 and K7 Inters.”
Between those early hay delivery experiences and riding along with his uncles, Norm was heavily infected by the driving bug. He could not wait to get his truck licence and get out on the open road. This desire was exasperated by the fact his brother had picked up a local roading contract and wanted Norm to help out by driving his cab-over Bedford on the job, all of this occurring around Norms 18th birthday.
“I actually went and saw the local copper when I was 18 to ask about getting my truck licence,” Norm smiles, recalling with a smile the response from the cop. “He said to me, ‘didn’t you just get your car licence?’. Then he said, ‘you can’t get your truck licence until you’re 19’.”
Not to be denied, Norm politely asked if there was any way around it. “The cop said, ‘That’s a shitload of paperwork! If you’re only working around the district, go and get some experience and come see me when you’re 19’.”
That was good enough for Norm. He took the wheel of his brother’s Bedford and started work. He later took the day off on his 19th birthday to call in and see the local copper and make it all official.
From that day onwards Norm was laughing. He had his truck licence and he was into it. He helped his brother with the roading contract, then when his brother purchased one of his uncle’s pulp carting trucks, Norm jumped behind the wheel of that as well.
There was a brief interlude from trucking when the newly married Norm and Nola decided to try the transient life and took their HK and caravan on a working holiday around Australia. But the lure of the truck and birth of their second baby eventually dragged them both back to regional Victoria and the back behind the wheel of a truck.
In 1972 Norm moved from being a truck driver to finally being a truck owner, purchasing his very first truck, a 1972 International Transtar. The opportunity came about courtesy of his employer at the time, his big brother George.
“I was working with my brother when this lime contract came up,” Norm recalls. “My brother said I could either buy the pulp trucks off him, or work for whomever bought the pulp trucks, or I could put my name on one of the five brand new lime trucks that were needed.”
Subsequently Norm and Nola decided to take the leap, and more importantly their life savings, and jump in on the brand new truck idea. That first new purchase would be a massive learning curve for Norm and Nola.
“It was very tight. The only people making money were the accountants that set it up,” Norm says. It was an eye-opening leap into the owner-driver world that could easily have broken the young family. Thankfully it didn’t.
Norm and Nola worked their way through the tough times, learning valuable lessons and showing immense resolve. Over the next few decades the family would go from one Transtar carting lime to a fleet of Mercedes-Benz trucks carting pulp timber. Those trucks would be surpassed by everything from ACCOs to MANs and even a yard full of fancy Freightliners.
The diversity wasn’t just limited to truck manufacturers though. It also overflowed into the workload that Norm and Nola undertook, beginning with lime cartage, covering logs, trying their hand at brick cartage, and even specialising in machinery tracts. During Norm’s trucking career there wasn’t much that he didn’t have a go at.
Some of the stories I would love to share are still being evaluated by lawyers. Others, well I know straight up my editor will cull. But trust me, an afternoon with Norm and Nola is packed with laughs. For now, however, we have established the credentials of BransTrans Trucking, we now need to get onto this stunning Diamond Reo and how it fits into the Bransgrove anthology. Let us first have a little history lesson on the Diamond Reo.
Diamond Reo came about when two very old companies, Diamond T and Reo, combined under the White Motor Corporation back in 1967. The two original identities both began back in the early 1900s. Diamond T was started by Charles Arthur Tilt in 1905. A random fact: the Diamond T logo was originally used by Tilt’s father, who was a shoemaker. He used the Diamond to represent quality and durability and enclosed the ‘T’ for the family name, Tilt.
Reo was also started in 1905 by Raymond E Olds, the man behind the creation of Oldsmobile in 1897. Another random fact: Reo were the first to break into the pickup truck market in 1915 with the legendary Reo Speed Wagon. For those wondering, yes it was during a lecture on the history of transport that keyboard player Neil Doughty saw the title on screen and named his rock band REO Speedwagon.
History lesson aside, both companies built some pretty cool trucks, Diamond T being the bigger and more established of the two companies. Reo was the first of the companies absorbed into the White Motor Corporation in the late ’50s. A year later, after the death of C.A. Tilt, Diamond T also became part of the conglomerate.
In 1967 White Motor Company merged the two to form Diamond Reo. In 1971 White sold off Diamond Reo and it became Diamond Reo Trucks Inc. I could go into all the cool trucks that followed after that sale but seeing as all my photos are of a 1969 Diamond Reo, we need to focus on the trucks that were built under the four-year White reign, in particular the C114, because that is the truck that back in 1970 roared past Norm like he was going backwards. That experience left a mark on Norm, a mark that 51 years later would see him purchase the truck himself.
“I was driving a brand new C1950 ACCO with a 185hp V8 Cummins in it,” Norm recalls. “I could easily round up the Commers, Leylands and Bedfords but Jack’s Diamond Reo was next level!” The Jack he is referring to is Jack Caldow, the original owner of the Diamond Reo. Jack and his wife Margaret lived in Trafalgar at that stage and the Reo was used to cart veneer logs from around Orbost in Victoria’s East Gippsland to Melbourne.
Having his doors blown off as the Reo roared passed left a mark with Norm. “I think Jack and his Diamond took on a bit of a hero status for me after that day,” he says. “I wouldn’t say we were mates as such, but we were always welcomed in for a cuppa and truck talk when we were passing their place in Trafalgar.” Even after Jack and Margaret moved up to Queensland, Norm would make the effort to call in and talk trucks whenever he could.
The Diamond Reo was part of the Caldow family for nearly 40 years. It was only after the tragic death of Jack in a car accident in 2006 that the truck was sold to Malady Transport in Jack’s home town of Trafalgar. Norm admits it caused some mixed emotions with him.
“It was harsh reminder that Jack was no longer with us, but I was also delighted that Terry Malady had brought it back to Trafalgar,” Norm says. He also admitted that he was disappointed he hadn’t had the forethought or money to be able to do it himself.
Jump forward to 2020 and Norm has driven everywhere, carting everything, behind the wheel of every breed. Nola has spent years advocating for the transport industry and implemented numerous systems in the name of driver safety. The couple have earned their retirement.
The first stop on the retirement road for Norm? “I went on Facebook, like I’d been threatening to do,” he laughs.
The original intention had merely been to keep up with family and maybe the odd motor bike and truck page. The unintended consequence was it also brought him back in contact with Jack’s Diamond Reo. The truck had been sold by Malady’s and had left Gippsland, but in 2021 thanks to the magic of Facebook Marketplace, Norm was the first cab off the rank when the truck came up for sale again. “I got a message from my son Michael about the truck being for sale,” Norm explains. “I showed Nola the post and her immediate response was, ‘You better get on it so you don’t miss out’.”
The couple made a successful offer, packed a lunch and headed towards Melbourne to the small town of Emerald to pick up the long lost Diamond Reo. After a quick check over it, they were behind the wheel and driving the big unit home. The truck then went straight to the workshop for a bit of TLC.
“The main jobs were re-bushing the back end, doing valves and airlines. A couple of brake boosters, inner chassis rails … stuff like that,” Norm says. “Most of it was for a roadworthy and my own peace of mind.”
Having already experienced 12 months of so-called retirement, Norm knew straight away he was going to work the old girl and as such fitted the low line sleeper, tidied up the interior and added two extra fuel tanks.
“A truck like this you can’t just leave it to sit and take it to shows. The engine would glaze over, it’s not good for it,” he states, adding that his intent was to help out his sons Michael and Steve. Both had followed in their father’s footsteps with successful transport companies. Michael and his wife Karen started Bransgrove Truckin, while Steve and his wife Tamara had taken over BransTrans Pty Ltd. Norm was happy to subbie to them, doing loads whenever he could.
Norm eased his way out of retirement, doing an easy little run from Traralgon to Melbourne to check for teething issues in the Diamond Reo. Thankfully there was none. This meant it was time to load it up more and do a decent run, this time a decent 2500km trip all the way to Mackay in Queensland.
What made the Mackay run more important was Norm’s plan to call in and visit Margaret Caldow, Jack’s widow. He wanted to show her that Jack’s old truck was still going strong, working as hard as Jack had worked it for nearly 40 years.
“It was a big surprise for Margaret, we’d let her daughter know we were bringing it by, but it was a surprise,” Norm says. “It was very emotional, she greeted me with the loveliest hug and wanted to climb in. She did well for a 91-year-old.”
Since that first big run, Norm and Nola have had the truck covering all areas of Australia. It is not a full-time gig for either the Diamond Reo or Norm and Nola. It is just a way of ensuring the world’s worst retirees get their fix of an industry they have both flourished in, as well as illustrating that the Diamond Reo means getting old doesn’t mean slowing down. That speaks for both the power couple and their truck when you think about it.
I wish I could rabbit on with all the tales I’ve enjoyed from my time with Norm and Nola but unlike this lovely couple and their Diamond Reo, I had to pull up stumps. So go enjoy the photos and keep a close eye in your mirrors, you never know when the Bransgrove Diamond Reo will come flashing by.
For more on Norm Bransgrove and his Truck of the Month, sponsored by Eiffel Lubricants, see OwnerDriver‘s September 2023 edition.