Historic Truck Brands


RFW was an Australian specialist vehicle manufacturer based in Chester Hill, Sydney. The company began in the late 1960s, when Robert Frederick Whitehead (RFW) saw the need for a more supple tandem-axle truck suspension, to handle on- and off-highway undulations.

Bob’s background was as an Australian Air Force fitter, but he was a natural engineer.

His analysis of tandem-axle rear suspension behaviour showed that existing ‘camel back’ and ‘walking beam’ designs were too stiff in action or too limited in travel to allow axle articulation on uneven ground. He designed his own, called Permatrak.

Instead of a single inverted leaf spring pack, as with a camel back spring the Permatrak design employed two inverted leaf packs: one above a central trunnion and the other below. The packs were clamped to the trunnion bearing case by long U-bolts.

His demonstration truck was a tandem-drive Bedford twin-steer truck that could go much further into construction sites than conventionally-suspended trucks. RFW was on its way.

RFW cabs were flat-panelled over RHS-steel welded frames. In the event of damage a section could be cut out and replaced easily, in the field.

When Scandinavian truck makers crowed about their impact-resistant cabs, Bob Whitehead conducted a demonstration in which he stacked fifteen tonnes of concrete blocks on top of an RFW cab and repeatedly opened and shut the doors, showing off the cab’s integrity.

Using the old Bedford/Permatrak workhorse as a ‘sled’ he bolted an RFW cab to the back of this truck and reversed it at 20km/h into a huge blue gum tree in the RFW factory yard. He emerged, grinning, from the truck after the test, albeit with a stiff neck, and yelled: ”Trucks don’t get hit by pendulum weights in laboratories; they run into trees!” 

The demonstration cab was knocked about by the testing, but Bob planned to cut out the damaged bits and have it on a production truck the next day.

Bob Whitehead knew that he couldn’t compete head-on with mass-producers, so he filled the need for specialised vehicles. Some were 4×2, 6×4 and 8×4 configurations, but specified to suit demanding conditions that ‘broke’ run-of-the-mill trucks. He also produced bus chassis, firstly with steel-spring and then later, air suspensions.

For many years, RFW trucks employed laminated chassis: thin U-section rails that were bolted together, with an anti-corrosion coating between them. The more chassis ‘plies’ the stronger the frame.

Although some single- and tandem-drive on-road truck operators were happy to pay the premium for a purpose-built vehicle, RFW’s forte was all-wheel-drive trucks that were often needed to fulfil particular duties. The RFW advantage was custom-building way beyond what European and North American truck makers could manage. 

An example was a water-drilling rig that was required to have the drill operating mid-wheelbase, in the centre of the chassis. Major truck brands said it couldn’t be done, but Bob Whitehead did it: he cut the front and rear axle tubes and offset the differentials to one side, using short half-shafts one one side and longer ones on the other. Bob himself turned and splined the half shafts. With its offset driveline there was ample room on this truck for a centrally-mounted drill rig.

Alcoa needed a specialised vehicle to transport heavy anodes at its aluminium smelter and no-one could build what they wanted…except RFW. The anode carrier Bob Whitehead designed did the trick, but when it was being delivered he wasn’t allowed into the plant, because of the likely effect on his health, caused by the highly charged electrical environment: Bob had a heart pacemaker by then!

Another Bob Whitehead wonder was a high ground clearance 6×6 he made for an Australian mining company. It needed to run on large-diameter earthmoving tyres, but that rolling radius adversely affected available final drive ratios, so Bob designed his own 13:1 hub-reduction axles.

He took the ring gear and planetaries from an Eaton two-speed drive axle and mounted them inside a custom-designed hub that housed a custom-cut spur gear. That gear was on the end of a standard Rockwell half-shaft, creating what Bob called ‘Eatwell’ axles. Eaton and Rockwell had a collective fit, but it worked.

When Australian rail authorities decided to replace the flitch-joined rail lengths and butt-weld all the nation’s railway lines, most sections were done with rail-mounted welders, but that wasn’t economic for some spur lines. RFW came up with an 8×8 mobile welding unit, with rail-adaptive wheels that could travel on-road to wherever it was needed. RFW was already well-versed in producing road-rail vehicles by the 1970s.

Probably his finest effort was a ‘sewer sucker’ articulated 14×14 truck and semi-trailer he built for Brisbane City Council. The requirement was for a mobile unit that could evacuate silt and debris from sewer pipes. The chosen suction equipment was supplied by the Swiss Kaiser Sewerage Cooperative; acknowledged as a world leader in its field. However, the powerful suction and recovery equipment was normally mounted on two or three vehicles that worked in unison: that’s not what the Council wanted.

No truck maker except RFW could supply what they wanted: a single, off-road-capable vehicle that could accommodate this kit. Bob Whitehead’s design was unique: an 8×8 prime mover, hauling an off-road, tri-axle semi-trailer. Because trailer-axle drive wouldn’t be required except in off-road, low-speed conditions he solved the drive problem by using off-the-shelf, mechanical-drive tri-axles with a hydraulic motor on the first differential ‘nose’. 

All 14 differentials had No-Spin, self-locking centres.

The prime mover had two Series 60 engines: one to drive the truck, through an Allison auto and the other, in a soundproof box behind the cab, to power the suction machinery.

The naked prime mover and trailer were shipped to Liechtenstein, where Kaiser did its bit. The company was so proud of the finished product that it was exhibited in a major European truck show, before being sent back to Australia.

All RFW’s transfer cases were designed in house and used locally-cast aluminium housings. Frequently, Bob would be machining gears in his tool shop for a new transfer case design while his frustrated in-house engineer was measuring the finished products to create some drawings!

RFW had torque-proportioning transfer cases back in the 1970s. Similarly, all diff centres were fitted with Eaton No Spin centres, to provide automatic lock-up in the event of wheelspin, without the need for driver intervention.

Also, from the early days the standard transmission in every RFW all-wheel-drive truck was an Allison torque converter automatic. Bob knew the value of a self-shifter in difficult conditions, just as earthmover makers did.

There is no official record of every variation that RFW produced and some RFW users had to send photographs  of parts that needed replacing, because no two RFWs were exactly the same.

An example was a Queensland-based mining company that had received two RFW 6×6 service trucks, ordered to be identical, but delivered some months apart. One of the trucks suffered a bent prop-shaft and the company ordered a replacement from RFW. Their purchasing officer was surprised to be asked: “Which truck?”

It turned out that when the steel chassis rails for the second truck were delivered to RFW’s factory they were a little longer than the first truck’s rails. “It was such beautiful ‘Q’ steel,” Bob Whitehead said. “I couldn’t bear to cut it.”

Despite the excellence of his products, Bob Whitehead struggled to get consistent lucrative fleet and government business. Also, the increasing dominance of major brands led to cut-throat competition and some of the deals they did were obviously heavily subsidised by their home-country parents or governments.

One notable government purchase was flame-resistant bushfire-fighting vehicles for South Australia’s Woods & Forests Department. These 1980s-technology trucks are still a blueprint for how a crew-safe fire appliance should be built. One W&F crew was trapped by an inferno that blasted all the paint and burnt the tyres off one of the trucks, but the ‘firies’ walked away unharmed.

In the 1990s Qantas bought some special RFW 4x2s, specifically dimensioned to suit ‘scissor lift’ aircraft victualling and cleaning, at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport. They’re still in service.

However, a possible business-limiting factor that endeared Bob Whitehead to the engineering-minded, but alienated many prospective buyers, was his almost total lack of tact: what Bob thought; he said. He would ‘dress-up’ for some occasions, but never quite looked right in a suit and tie. He was much more comfortable in a starched, crisp-white boiler suit, with the monogram ‘Bob’ on the front and ‘RFW’ on the back.

A classic example of Bob’s directness was his letter to the the then-Premier of NSW, Neville Wran, who had recently been hospitalised for an unspecified medical procedure. Bob was anxious to draw the Premier’s attention to a NSW Government contact that had been granted to an overseas company, rather than home-grown RFW. Bob’s letter began as follows:

“Dear Premier, I’m very sorry to hear of your recent hospital visit, but now to my problem…”

Bob Whitehead had no time for pretence, as a Rolls Royce Diesel executive discovered one day. Not the best engine ever to come out of Britain, the ‘Roller’ caused Bob’s customers much pain. When this chap went to sit in Bob’s office he was curtly told: “Get out!” A union representative suffered a worse fate: being loudly ejected and ‘helped’ down the factory stairway.

By the early 2000s, Bob Whitehead’s health was failing and he accepted the inevitable, linking his beloved RFW brand with the only other truck chassis in the world he admired: the Tatra tubular-frame from the Czech Republic.

The Tatra family of light and heavy trucks features a central, tubular chassis, with swing-axle, independent suspension front and rear. Torsion bars carry the front axle weight and air bellows suspend the back end. Standard equipment includes front and rear diff locks, and air-pressurised axles and hubs that exclude water and dust, while permitting tyre inflation and deflation on the run.

The concept for RFW-Tatra trucks was ‘Australianising’ by the fitment of Caterpillar engines and Allison automatic transmissions. Unfortunately, only one prototype truck was completed before Bob Whitehead became terminally ill and then died in 2010. Czech-factory-built Tatras are distributed in Western Australia, with no RFW involvement.

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