Truck makers fabulous flops

By: Steve Brooks

This pandemic has done many things, not least given some people too much time to wonder about things they mightn’t ordinarily think about. Dud trucks, for example. We often hear stories of old classics but what about the makes and models that didn’t quite light the fires of fame and fanfare?

Truck makers fabulous flops
Kenworth K300 is on the hit list

In time, some trucks become classics. Others don’t, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were duds.

No, the real duds are those shockers that take on a heritage all their own. Remembered, you might say, for all the wrong reasons.

So now, with the pandemic providing a little too much time to think about the past rather than the present, and enough experience to recount the makes and models that have maintained a deservedly dark and critical crevice in this commentator’s cranium, here are a few carefully considered lesser lights from the commercial vehicle vault.

I must stress, however, these opinions are my own and I accept there may be those with an opposite view of these maligned machines. But somehow, I doubt it. On the other hand, there may be those who have their own tortured memories of trucks they consider even worse than those mentioned here.

Funny thing though, it’s probably much easier to define a dud truck than a good truck.

Like, after more than 40 years writing about trucks and road transport I’m sometimes asked: "What’s the best truck you reckon you’ve ever driven?"

Quite seriously, there’s no easy answer to that because so much depends on the job and even the era. For instance, how could you rate a big banger pulling three or four trailers through the heat and heavy sand of Western Australia’s pindan country to the demands of a slick interstater notching big distances up and down the east coast or across the trans-continental paddock? Or a comparison between a modern medium-duty truck with its swathe of safety systems and creature comforts, and a machine like Isuzu’s remarkable SBR: a very basic model by today’s standards but one that did more to put Japanese trucks on the map in this country than any other?

No, ‘the best truck’ question has no easy answer at all. A question with much easier answers would be: "What are the worst trucks you’ve come across?"

Vastly easier. Indeed, they can even be split into respective weight divisions – light-duty, medium-duty and heavy-duty, with a few ‘honourable mentions’ thrown in. In fact, there’s even an outright winner. The worst truck by far, hands-down, is an absolute shocker, but we’ll get to that.

Not-so heavy hitter

Starting at the big end, there’s just one stand-out winner. Leyland Marathon!

Back in the late ’70s when Leyland believed it still had a future in Australian road transport, the Marathon was brought here for a benign attempt to rekindle the dying Pommie powerhouse’s past glories.

Leyland's Marathon couldn't last the distance in the Aussie market

As something of a young buck with the once esteemed Truck & Bus Transportation magazine, I often rode shotgun with our regular test driver back then, Don McGlinchie. Over a number of years I would come to learn so much from this man about the finesse and pride of driving a big truck well, but when it came to the single-drive Marathon test truck there was nothing but derision on both sides of the cab.

So poor was the ride, so weak was the performance, so awful was the whole package that we gave Leyland the benefit of the doubt and held our report for a few weeks until a 6x4 version was provided to tow the same trailer over the same test route. Surely, we thought, it couldn’t be as bad as the first truck.

Well, it was a whisker better, but not enough to depose Marathon from the memory bank as the worst heavy-duty unit ever tested. Even so, our report went relatively easy on the truck but it made no difference because most of the nails had already been driven into Leyland’s coffin anyway.

However, in the lighter end of the heavy-duty class, there’s a six-wheeler rigid worthy of a few lines, not so much because it was a dud of any great note but because its reason for being was so way out-of-step with the standards of its creator – Kenworth!

The truck was the K300 and it remains a riddle to this day why Kenworth Australia in 1995 chose to introduce an anachronistic model with a Brazilian-built Volkswagen cab to tackle local delivery work. A truly dud choice that achieved the absolute minimum of success it so richly deserved.

Out of step

So, now to the medium-duty contenders, starting with a not-so-honourable mention of Hino’s horrible KL model. While Isuzu was changing the way Australian operators thought about Japanese trucks, the KL seemed to be doing its darnedest to keep the British in business.

And speaking of British, the hands-down winner of the worst medium-duty model goes to the original Ford Cargo. Actually, it’s hard to decide whether it was the worst or simply the most disappointing. Probably a big slice of both.

Ford Cargo failed to deliver on its European 'Truck of the Year' creds

Either way, Cargo came here in the early 1980s with high expectations as Europe’s newly crowned ‘Truck of the Year’ but almost immediately revealed severe shortcomings in most areas, most notably build quality. It leaked like a bottomless bucket. Woops, nearly forgot, it also had woefully bad wedge brakes.

Ford was a big player in the Australian truck business back then and this young scribe’s test report in Truck & Bus did not go down well. ‘Great Expectations … But Not Quite!’ wasn’t quite the heading Ford was hoping for, leading to a delegation of senior executives baying for blood and resorting to their greatest weapon, the advertising budget. Fortunately, Truck & Bus founder and publisher Frank Shennen stood firmly by his somewhat cocky young staff writer, though a verbal reminder of who pays the bills wasn’t lost in translation.

Made in China

Whatever, a long and wonderful career could’ve ended right there, and that would’ve been a great shame because I would not have had the chance to experience the worst truck to ever hit the Australian market. Bar none!

So folks, here it is, recipient of not only the worst light-duty workhorse but also the most woeful truck to ever grace our shores – China’s JAC.

The JAC never had any spring in its step

Launched in mid-2012, JAC’s entry to the Australian market was the brainchild of an entrepreneurial group who, with some justification, saw a highly lucrative future for a Chinese truck with a good spec and an incredibly attractive price tag.

What they seemed to forget though, was that the Australian market expects trucks to be of a particular standard. To be blunt, JAC was a true shocker with the worst and potentially dangerous on-road manners of anything before or since its arrival.

A true shocker and it still beggars belief that someone in the group actually gave the truck the go-ahead to tackle our market in the form it was presented.

Gratefully, there are no bad trucks anymore. Sure, some are better than others, some last longer than others, and even today some are still sold into the wrong applications. But as for a genuinely dud, horribly designed truck, they don’t really exist anymore.

And for this we should all be immensely grateful. Personally, I’m not sure I could survive another bout with some of them.

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