When Cat began to crumble

By: Steve Brooks


Thinking of buying a new Cat Truck? Only a handful remain on Australian dealership stands and once they're gone it's all over.

When Cat began to crumble
Cat Trucks were launched in Australlia with much fanfaire during 2010.

 

It would take an incredibly optimistic mind to believe that Cat Trucks are not on the edge of extinction, bringing to a close one of the most tumultuous, disjointed and ultimately disappointing brand histories to ever impact the Australian trucking industry.

As things stand right now, there is little more than a handful of new Cat-branded trucks remaining on dealers’ lots and the likelihood, according to many sources within the Cat network in this country, is that once current stocks run out, there will be no more.

From all appearances, typified to some extent by their complete absence from the recent Brisbane Truck Show, Cat-branded trucks will simply slink into oblivion.

In effect, it is following in the path of the yellow engines which were once such a proud and prominent player in the big end of the truck business before Caterpillar’s 2008 desertion from the on-highway truck engine business. Once again, it’s leaving Cat’s somewhat maligned dealer group to wrestle with the wrath of truck operators who took the Cat trucks plunge.

Still, any capitulation of the Cat brand from the truck business should not come as a complete surprise.

After all, sales numbers over the past few years tell the simple, sombre truth that Cat trucks have not done well, failing dismally on the back of a brazen belief that a Cat badge and yellow engine would be enough to ensure success and in the process, dissolve the disappointment of its 2008 exit from the engine business.

In all of 2016, just 63 Cat-branded trucks were sold across the country, representing a miniscule 0.6 percent of the total Australian market for heavy-duty trucks. This year is shaping to be no better with a paltry 31 trucks delivered in the first six months.

Obviously enough, these are not figures to build faith in the future, nor a fiscal foundation commensurate with the requirements of a hugely competitive industry where truck operators are spoilt for choice.

So given the numbers, Cat’s dawdling demise from the trucking fraternity has over the past few years at least become increasingly predictable.

The first Cat-branded highway truck sold anywhere in the world went to Tasmania’s SRT Logistics. The truck did a better job than the brand.

It is, of course, a far cry from the hype and hope of 2010 when the first Cat-branded highway trucks were launched in a spectacular, big budget event at Uluru in Central Australia to around 300 guests and their partners flown in to be part of this ‘world first’ event.

The Cat Trucks venture grew from an entity called NC2, or ‘NC squared’ as some would call it, bringing together the resources of Cat and US truck maker Navistar and using the sleekly styled International ProStar as the platform for the Cat CT610 and CT630 models.

Obviously, the trucks were powered by Cat engines – the C15 ACERT in the CT630 and C13 in the CT610. However, following the failure of the C13 to meet emissions requirements, a Navistar engine branded the Cat CT13 would provide the power for the CT610 model.

There were big plans for NC2, including talk of a Cat-badged cab-over, and an early press statement proclaimed, ‘The joint venture leverages the potent combination of Navistar’s truck manufacturing expertise and Caterpillar’s powerful global network (and) a 2010 business plan has been formalised embracing high potential markets, with initial focus on Australia, Brazil and South Africa.’

Australia was defined as a ‘high priority’ market and as events would soon reveal, it certainly rated higher than Brazil and South Africa where Cat trucks simply failed to launch.

However, the announcement also had considerable impacts in other areas. For starters, it came less than two years after Cat’s much maligned decision to leave the on-highway truck engine business which left a particularly sour taste in the mouths of many Australian truck operators.

The joint venture also meant the end of Navistar’s relationship with Iveco Trucks Australia which for several years had enjoyed reasonable success with local production of the International 7600, 9200 and 9900 models.

Today, of course, International and Iveco are once again involved in an arrangement which will see Iveco distributing the International ProStar on the Australian market. However, back in 2010 there was definitely no love lost between Iveco and International.

What’s more, not everyone within Navistar’s executive sanctum was in love with the idea of a close coupling with Cat. During a visit to Navistar’s Chicago headquarters in late 2014, a senior executive who would eventually be one of several Navistar veterans sent to Australia to sort out the aftermath of the NC2 kerfuffle, openly conceded that the deal with Cat was flawed from the start.

Like it or not though, the deal went ahead with around 540 Cat trucks hastily built to meet an upcoming emissions deadline on a reconfigured assembly line at Cat’s Tullamarine (Vic) plant. After those trucks were built though, it became a fully imported operation.

Consequently, with early reliability issues accompanying an inflated price tag for a largely untried truck, plus a glut of stock with aging compliance plates and operator backlash from Cat’s exit from the engine business, high hopes soon turned to a hard sell.

In surprisingly short time, NC2 started to unravel, leaving Navistar to pick up the pieces with a new company called Navistar Auspac while Cat progressively withdrew from the deal except for a licensing agreement which allowed Navistar to continue using the brand and the engine.

However, Navistar Auspac at least attempted to deliver something more than simply a continuation of a Cat trucks business struggling for existence in a crowded market. In fact, local development continued to produce models well suited to the Australian market, spearheaded by the flagship CT630LS, the highly impressive CT630SC for B-doubles work and last, the roadtrain triples rated CT630HD.

But again as the numbers testify, it has all been to little avail.

Significantly, farcical management structures have also played a major role in curtailing confidence in Cat Trucks. What’s left today is a jumbled Navistar Auspac Cat Trucks operation run by a skeleton staff guided by veteran International executives including one based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Go figure!

Navistar’s end game, it appears, is to see the Cat venture to its inevitable end while securing the platform for the re-introduction of the International brand through a new deal with Iveco.

On a positive note though, ProStar in Cat clothing has at least shown its ability to be a durable and versatile performer under Australian conditions.

In Cat guise, the truck has shown itself to be far more resilient than the brand.

And therein resides the great disappointment and even sadness of the Cat Trucks adventure. The product and its customers deserved better, as did the people at both company and dealer level who gave the exercise their best shot and managed to stay remarkably loyal despite market adversity and astonishing corporate ineptitude.

International ProStar. Cat Trucks were founded on the ProStar platform and in more cases than not, demonstrated the model’s durability in Australian conditions.

Read the full story in the August 2017 edition of Owner//Driver, on sale August 7.

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