Why I Love Me a Caterpillar Engine

By: Scotty Douglas

While modern machines may boast efficiency gains, Scotty Douglas pines for the old days when a truckie's relationship with a truck grew from the way it made them feel and the life-changing moments that it hosted


I’m not sure how much Patrick Swayze was paid to holler "I love me a Caterpillar engine!" before dropping a cog and shunting another rig off the road in the movie Black Dog. It was probably a lot. But I have to admit it’s a sentiment I shared.

Maybe it’s just familiarity but I’ve ended up with a thing for Cat engines – both big and small. The big yellow engine has played a starring role through much of my time behind the wheel from a C-12 and even a C-10 to C-15.

Topping it off is my favourite, the good ol’ fuel-sucking C16.

I cried tears of blood when Cat announced that it wasn’t going to play ball in the engine game anymore and I haven’t had the chance to drive a current model Cat truck. But they’re all ACERT anyway and I’m not keen on an engine that runs on its own recycled farts.  

As to why I like the old Cats? It’s kinda hard to put my finger on.

Back in the 1960s the BBC recorded a series of interviews with steam locomotive drivers. These old guys were soon to be retrained to drive diesel locos or to be retired.

They are fascinating to listen to because these old guys talked about their engines like they were alive. Maybe I should spend more time driving with the window down but I got where they were coming from.

Before the advent of emissions legislation truck engines were able to breathe and burn like a living thing. A big bore Cat engine lugging up a grade with a load on the back burped and breathed like it was alive.

Most of the time there was no need to split a gear, you could let her lug right down and grab a whole cog and wake up the beast. The big C16 would let out a waste-gate sigh and knuckle back down to work. It was involving and had character.

Modern truck manufacturers will tell us how their products are an efficient and cost-effective business tool. That they are safe, environmentally friendly and will make you a million bucks.

But they forget that someone actually drives the thing. For a long-haul driver especially, the truck is more than just a mobile office.

Anyone who’s spent a long time driving long distances will tell you that a truck cab has often been the setting for the most pivotal moments in their lives. News of deaths, births, marriages, arguments, and reconciliations with home. Even marriage proposals or the end of a relationship.

I found out that my Grandfather had died while south bound over the Gundy bridge. I found out that I was going to be a father while reversing into a glass factory loading bay. All this while at the wheel of a truck.

You can’t quantify those things in a business plan. They just are. I’d like to know how many people haven’t spoken to their truck at some point in time. I’d hazard a guess it wouldn’t be many.

Whether it’s urging it up a climb or rumbling down a long hill. Or maybe when it sounds like there’s something wrong you’ll swear at it in the vain hope that it will keep going like a tired old draught horse.

So yeah, I’m probably over thinking it. But I don’t care. I reckon whether we like it or not we build a relationship with our ride. It’s human nature.

We can’t help but give inanimate objects personality and character, otherwise we wouldn’t give ships or aircraft names. And we wouldn’t use gendered terms like ‘girl’ to describe our rig. And when it gets the job done, we are grateful.

That’s why I struggle in this digital age where every mechanical element needs to be quantified. A distance between man and machine has been imposed that gets in the way of the relationship.

So like it or not, for me the sound of an old Cat hollering at the heavens is like a siren song that takes me back to a different time in trucking. A time when a cold winter’s night produced a sharp exhaust crackle, a jake brake bark and a few extra horses under the bonnet. 



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