Freighter trailers have made an indelible mark on our highways and byways, carrying Australia’s needs on their backs for the last 70+ years. Jim Gibson takes us on its journey in Australia since 1946.
It was the year after the hostilities of the Second World War and Australia’s population of 7.5 million was getting back to some normality. Our economy was burgeoning and there was a worldwide shortage of wool, which was good for our sheep farmers and our exports. Woollen socks were in high demand as were all consumables.
In September 1946, Trans Australian Airlines (now Qantas) made its first commercial daily flight from Melbourne to Sydney. The commercial air links to England, North America and the rest of the world were re-opened. Australia was on the move and needed road transport to move both primary and secondary industry products.
It was an ideal time for a semi-trailer manufacturer to set up production, so in September of that year, Noel Peel & Associates formed a new company, Freighter Limited and acquired the trailer manufacturing division of McGrath Industries.
Moorabbin Freighter factory
The company was located in a factory that McGrath had built on Keys Road, in the outer Melbourne suburb of Moorabbin. These days it is a hive of industrial activity, but back then it was nothing more than market gardens and sand quarries. Freighter was the only manufacturing company on the road.
In later years, the long-gone Vaughan Transport had its depot in Keys Road. Vaughans was a volume user of Freighter trailing equipment, operating chiller pantechs as well as high gated flattops on adjustable spread bogie trailers that opened to 10ft 1in, pulled by a combination of company-owned and subcontractor, single-drive prime movers.
Freighter refrigerated drop-deck behind a White WC22
In those early days, Freighter manufactured as many components as possible in-house. Axles were machined from solid billets and hubs were machined from locally made castings. Disc wheel blanks were machined and drilled.
Freighter also had a woodwork shop, which machined floorboards from sawn timber. Likewise, the company built its own design of fifth wheels and wind-down landing legs under the factory roof in Keys Road.
A couple of years after the acquisition by Noel Peel, two of Freighter’s senior executives took an overseas fact-finding trip. During that trip they recruited Eric Shilton, who was the chief technical engineer at Ferodo Brake Linings in England and regarded as one of the leading British brake engineers. He emigrated to work for Freighter, arriving in Melbourne in July 1949.
Another Freighter fridge trailer and another White
He immediately designed and put into production a 161⁄2 x 5 inch mechanical trailer braking system. The linings from James Hardie were secured to the shoes with brass nuts and bolts. As demand for better braking became necessary, he then developed a hydraulic system with seven-inch drums.
Freighter found it was hard to have raw material delivered on time, as very few suppliers delivered to Moorabbin, which was classed as being ‘way out in the sticks’ in those days. To combat this, Freighter used four of its own trailers, pulled by three ex-Army K6 Internationals and a Mack.
The continuity of supply of tapered roller wheel bearings of exactly the same diameter was difficult, so the purchasing office grabbed whatever it could in order to keep pace with production. The machine shop foreman would check the store each morning and machine the appropriate number of axles and hubs to suit.
Freighter body on a Brockhoff Biscuits International van
Road wheel stud variations were also a smorgasbord, with eight- and 10-stud British, US and German PCDs and five-stud configured Chev Maple Leaf, five- and six-stud Ford, with inner sleeve nuts and outer nut combinations.
The eight- and 10-stud British hubs caused much confusion for the spares department, as the early models used a 3⁄4-inch SAE thread ‘McGrath type’, with left and right hand threads and cone washers. To add to the confusion, later models used a one-inch thread with left and right hand taper cone nuts!
When a trailer was finished, it went to another section of the factory and was married to its particular prime mover, where the fifth wheel, electrics and trailer brake controls were fitted. The truck and trailer combinations were then road tested along Keys Road.
Freighter body and two-trailer road train – possibly with steerable axles – behind ‘Bertha’, now in the National Road Transport Museum ,Alice Springs.
The trailer sales business boomed until 1951, when the first post-War so-called ‘credit squeeze’ was felt. The Menzies’ government applied the economic brakes too hard and too late, so business was killed off almost overnight.
During the boom times, Freighter had great success selling small farm trailers called ‘Baby Quin’. They could be used in five ways: as flat tops, with front and rear racks, with drop sides, and with three-foot and five-foot stake sides.
So, Freighter expanded diversification of products during the credit squeeze, to keep the company going and staff employed.
It built even smaller, two-wheeled tractor trailers that could be used in conjunction with a Ferguson three-point linkage. Freighter also made a two-wheeled tipping trailer called a ‘Titan Tipper’ from which you could hand-tip manure or stock feed.
Another diversion from its core business also saw Freighter build 100 bus bodies on Leyland chassis for export to Indonesia during the 1950s.
The company had also successfully sold a premium camping trailer during the boom times for £97 ($194), but found there wasn’t a lucrative market once the tougher times hit – £47 ($90) was all it could be sold for.
Towards the end of the credit squeeze Freighter won a tender for a very large and specialised low-loader from the State Electricity Commission (SEC) valued at £150,000 ($300,000).
Freighter low-loader at Yallourn in 1953
The design staff was re-hired, and progressively the company was able to re-hire more of its staff to fulfil the order. At the same time, the general trailer market picked up and orders came flowing in, thanks to Leigh Lethlean and his sales team who’d been out drumming up business. Freighter was on the move once more.
The following years saw several economic slowdowns, with Paul Keating’s “the recession we had to have” being one of them.
Noel Peel was always looking for new ventures and Freighter’s successful refrigerated pantech range meant that the company was poised to cool Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their Australian visit, planned for 1952.
Prior to the Royal visit, the Department of Transport was given the job of preparing a fleet of vehicles for the Royal entourage and, of course, cooling the British occupants during a hot Australian summer had to be considered.
Automotive air-conditioning was unheard of at the time, but because Freighter was the leading builder of refrigerated transport back then, it was given the job.
Freighter’s engineers replaced the car generators in the Daimler and Humber cars with higher capacity bus generators, which powered refrigeration units in the boots of the cars. Refrigerant was pumped to evaporators in the passenger compartments.
Unfortunately the tour was cancelled, following the untimely death of King George VI, forcing Princess Elizabeth to return to Britain, to be crowned Queen.
By the mid-1950s Freighter had become a public company. Then, in July 1956 came the shock announcement that its shares had been suspended on the stock exchange. This news shared the front page of the Melbourne Herald Sun, along with tennis players Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall who had made it an all-Australian final in the men’s singles at Wimbledon.
Later that year managing director Noel Peel and other directors resigned, and a new board was elected in 1957.
By this time Freighter Ltd had built a large organisation, with a 1000-strong workforce and factories and sales outlets in every state. They signed a licensing agreement with US trailer manufacturer, Trailmobile Inc, offering Freighter the opportunity of using a J-rail type main member, various suspensions and wind-down landing legs.
In 1972, the Keys Road site was sold and the manufacturing plant moved to Ballarat, where it is today. There were seven acres under the factory roof, allowing considerable expansion to take place, including building shipping containers. The company had built a national manufacturing, sales and service organisation, and also opened offices in Papua New Guinea and Singapore.
Later in the 1970s, the company’s ownership passed to Enstein Securities, then later to Bowater-Tutt.
With the start of the next decade came a worldwide decline in the sale of heavy-duty trucks. In the US, International Harvester was in Chapter 11 (bankruptcy) and the White Motor Corporation was drowning in red ink. By the end of 1982, Bowater-Tutt had unsold stock all over the country, so a decision was made to sell up and close the business. Christopher Webb reported this news in the Financial Review on 9th December 1982.
The future was looking bleak and the company’s 36-year existence looked as though it was coming to an end. However, as shockwaves reverberated across the industry of Freighters imminent demise, the White brothers stepped into the breach. Peter and Gary White, who were joint managing directors of White Transport Industries, the makers of high tensile steel tipping bodies, rode to the rescue by purchasing the entire Freighter operation.
Gary continued in the MD’s chair at White Industries and Peter took the hot seat at Freighter Industries Ltd. Peter immediately re-hired some 30 to 40 of the 189 employees who had been dismissed by Bowater-Tutt, prior to the sale.
As managing director, Peter White masterminded changes – some major, some minor – but all were designed to make the company mean, lean and profitable.
Under the new regime, 70 assembly line workers were soon producing what 130 had done before. The factory layout and storage of materials were re-organised and production lines streamlined. Offices were consolidated and centralised.
Computer aided design (CAD) equipment was installed and a product research and development team established. It was White magic and it only took five short months for the balance sheet to turn black.
By August of 1987, the company had hit a milestone by delivering its 50,000th trailer to Bedggood Transport from Maffra in Victoria.
As White worked his magic, much of the company’s success came from the Tautliner, the curtain-sided trailer made under an exclusive licensing agreement with investors Boalloy Ltd in England. Freighter was the first manufacturer to offer the Tautliner in Australia, saving operators countless hours of tarping flat top trailers and, in the process, revolutionising the semi-trailer industry.
Freighter at 70
In 1998, Maxi-CUBE Ltd purchased the Freighter Trailer business from Peter White and changed its name to MaxiTRANS Ltd, the corporate company, which owned all the organisation’s trading brand names.
MaxiTRANS continued to build Freighter trailers at the factory in Ballarat. It has obviously been modernised during the intervening years, most recently with a complete re-organisation in the late-1990s, creating a streamlined assembly line process with the latest assembly and paint facilities. While not exclusively employed on Freighter products, the workforce numbered more than 900, across several MaxiTRANS factories.
Since the ownership transfer, MaxiTRANS has been aggressive in its marketing of Freighter and, most importantly, innovative, with the design of new equipment to enhance operator use of its products, in order to keep ahead of the competition.
Freighter won an Australia Design Award in 2008 for its EziLiner model – a Tautliner, which operated without buckles and could be fastened and unfastened with the touch of a button. That design made its way to Europe under licence to German trailer manufacturer Krone.
More recently, Freighter launched its AutoHold and Auto Mezz Deck trailers, adding further automation and, therefore, operator time saving to its designs. MaxiTRANS became one of the foremost trailer manufacturers in New Zealand, with its Freighter and Maxi-CUBE brands.
Of the many road transport trailer brands available, it is evident from a road user and casual observer’s perspective, from the rear mudflap identification on the semi-trailers one follows along our highways, that Freighter is the dominant brand used by transport operators across Australia.
Well-respected and passionate truck and transport equipment restorer, Neville Storey, owns this Freighter trailer.
Although this 1973 pantech has been refurbished, Neville has left the ghosting of the DECA (Driver Education Centre of Australia) decals on the rear doors to preserve some of its provenance.
While there is no way of checking just how far it has travelled or how many tonnes of freight this nearly 50-year-old trailer has carried, we do know from the faded decals that one task it achieved in its lifetime was to help hone the skills of drivers, including the fine art of backing a semi-trailer.