Historic Truck Brands
Cleary Bros has a history dating back to 1916, when company founders John (Jack) Cleary and his two brothers established a timber-getting transport business with a significant presence along the New South Wales South Coast. Jim Gibson spent some time checking out the company’s Mack heritage with Denis Cleary.
Under Jack’s leadership, Cleary Bros (Bombo) Pty Ltd evolved to offer project management and services to the civil construction industry. When Jack passed away in 1958 his four children, John, Jill, Denis and Brian took over the reins and continued to drive Cleary’s growth.
As at mid-2020 Cleary Bros was overseen by Denis as chairman. Many third- and fourth-generation family members remain involved in the business at various levels. Despite being a major player in the construction industry, Cleary Bros maintains its family values approach, delivering quality service with first-class equipment to every client.
Sadly, Denis’ brothers and sister Jill have passed away: Jill in 1985; John died in 2003, aged 71 and Brian (Denis’ twin), seven years later in 2010, aged 70.
Brian’s son Brett was a director and executive manager, responsible for overseeing the company’s day-to-day operations, and for the development and improvement of the systems Cleary’s had in place to deliver its products and services. He worked closely with the divisional management team to ensure clients’ needs are achieved.
Jill’s daughter Denise was also a director and executive manager, with responsibilities as chief information officer.
Denis Cleary said Mack has been an integral part of the Cleary operation since 1947, when his father Jack purchased new an ex-Army spec NR with a canvas roof. It was restored in-house and these days rests in its company CB Yellow colours, with pride of place at Cleary’s private museum.
Cleary Bros (CB) has traditionally been a user of Mack trucks, from the early days, operating utilitarian NR models, through the B-model, R-model, MCR, CH, Vision, Trident, Value-Liners and Metro-Liners in various roles and with Titans for heavy haulage work.
In 2020 Cleary Bros had around 120 trucks in its fleet, with the Bulldog motif riding on about 40 percent of them and with the balance a mix of Western Star, International, KW, Sterling and Volvo.
Workin’ the dog
A young Bill Simpson went to work for Jack Cleary in December 1950, when the company had just five employees and the truck fleet consisted of a couple of Internationals and NR Macks. He then worked for Cleary’s for a collective 22 years, having a couple of breaks at other jobs in between. He initially drove an NR, which had a 6-71 GM and a five by two transmission, and said, “It thrived on heavy work.”
We were able to track down the ‘young’ Bill Simpson, who had just celebrated his 93rd birthday and he came along with his wife Jean for the photo shoot, and to tell us first-hand about ‘his’ B61 Mack.
In 1964 Cleary’s had purchased a brand-new B61 Mack and Denis told us it was the only B61 they ever owned:
“We bought it for heavy float work – in particular moving ’dozers to different work sites.
“It did a lot of work in a lot of places and back then it was the only decent truck to buy for our type of heavy-duty operation.”
At 93, Bill Simpson was as sharp as a tack, with a sense of humour to boot. He brought along the glasses’ case containing the very sunglasses he wore on that day in mid-1964 when picking up the B61. He asked Denis Cleary if it would be okay to leave them in the glovebox of the truck and Denis smiled, saying: “ Of course”.
Bill said he was delighted when in mid-1964 he got the job of picking up ‘his’ brand-new bogie-drive, naturally aspirated 711cu.in. (11.6-litre) 210hp prime mover, with a five-by-four two-stick Quadraplex transmission, from Sydney’s Mack dealer, Truck Sales and Service in the southern suburb of Taren Point.
He then had to master the B model’s two gearsticks. The NR had two levers also, but it was much simpler with only (five-by-two) 10 forward ratios.
Bill then had to shuffle more ratios – five by four – but using only 18 of the 20 slots in precise progression, but not necessarily in the exact numerical order.
He was a natural and enjoyed the mastery of the challenge, but recalled it as a great way to give up cigarettes if you rolled your own!
“To make gear selections cleanly the engine revs had to be precisely at 1700rpm, so, at the base of Mount Ousley, out of Wollongong, fully loaded, with the engine spinning at 2300rpm, I’d be rubbing tobacco between my palms and have a cigarette paper stuck on my bottom lip,” said Bill Simpson.
“Then the bloody revs would start dropping and the tacho-needle headed towards 1700rpm, so I knew if I didn’t make the shift at that point, I’d be in trouble.
“The only course of action was to drop the tobacco on the floor and grab a quick gear change, so I soon opted for tailor-made ‘ciggies’.”
Doin’ the two-stick shuffle
For those who’ve never stirred a twin-stick truck, a little explanation may be necessary. While Jim Gibson never drove a B-model Mack he did have a deal of experience driving an International F1800D, when he wore a young man’s clothes. This model Inter had a two-stroke GM diesel and the transmission was a five-speed main box backed up by a three-speed auxiliary (joey) box – both non-synchro, as with the Mack.
In theory, the Inter’s ratios totalled 15, but there were only 10 usable, progressive selections that would allow smooth acceleration and deceleration. The Inter’s two gear sticks were not close together, so you used the left hand to shift the main box and the right for the joey, during a ‘compound’ shift, while steading the steering wheel with you right arm near the elbow.
‘Compound’ shifts were necessary when either box ‘ran out’ of available ratios, necessitating a shift of both levers, at the same time.
The Mack Quadraplex had its two gear levers sitting side by side, allowing a good operator to make some compound shifts using one hand to palm both levers at the same time. However, many compound shifts required the use of both hands, with an arm inside the steering wheel rim.
Both the Inter and the Mack didn’t have synchromesh boxes, so the revs had to be spot-on in order to make a clean shift: a double de-clutch when going up in ratio in either main or joey and a blip of the throttle to harmonise the input and output shafts in either box when choosing a lower ratio.
For the uninitiated, neutralising both boxes was a complete no-no, as there was no way you could then engage a gear unless you stopped the truck.
OK, back to Bill’s B61. He reckoned the B-model, with its shrill air-starter, was a real ‘hit’ in his street, in the Wollongong suburb of Coniston, when he’d start work in the early hours of the morning. To appease the neighbours and keep the peace he fitted a silencer to it, which must have helped somewhat, as the neighbours then waved and gave him a smile.
Being the driver of a B61 Mack back in the 1960s you were ‘King of the Road’. It was high truckie status to be sitting in this light-green-hued cab interior, with two gear-levers sticking up out of the floor and looking along the bonnet at the backside of a chrome-plated bulldog, in a burly North American built thoroughbred from Allentown in Pennsylvania.
“The top speed was 53mph (85km/h) flat-out,” said Bill. “And, if travelling to Brisbane from the Illawarra, I would stop overnight at Willow Tree and get as far as Tenterfield for an overnighter on the second day, then into Brisbane on day three.”
Bill Simpson said he treated the B61 like it was his own truck, driving it for six years, until the company moved him to a position in the office.
The B-model you see in our photos is that very same truck. It was decommissioned in its final days, working as a water cart until 1990 and then stood idle for some 26 years, before finally being restored.
Cleary’s talented paint and panel workshop team at Bombo was a critical part of what became a three-year, part-time restoration, under the leadership of foreman John Caruana, a long-term Cleary employee.
The mechanical side of the restoration was carried out by another crack Cleary team, at its Albion Park workshop. A reconditioned replacement engine was fitted, along with repair or replacement of brakes and running gear.
Having written about and photographed other Cleary rebuilds over the years, we must say that the care taken and the quality of the workmanship by both of Cleary Bros’ workshops is nothing short of first-class: these guys are true craftsmen and a credit to the company.
The B-model is red, because that was the fleet colour back in those days. Cleary’s progressively changed to yellow during the late 1960s, when the company became involved in the concrete business and wanted a colour for its agitators that would give them greater profile in the industry. Eventually, the entire fleet was rebranded in CB Yellow, which is its own colour, not Caterpillar’s Highway Yellow.
Interestingly, in 1931, the Caterpillar company decided to change the colour of its machinery from bland grey to the distinctive Highway Yellow it remains today.
Cats on the prowl
Denis and his twin Brian cut their teeth in the field, learning the business from the ground up, by operating heavy earthmoving equipment. In ‘Cleary Speak’ that translates to Highway Yellow Caterpillars.
The D7 Cat sitting on the float behind Cleary’s B61 was operated by a 17-year-old Denis when it was brand-new in 1957. It was the first model with hydraulically-controlled track tensioning, Denis remembered:
“I’d been behind the controls of earlier model Cats, but this was something else and I really enjoyed its ease of operation and response.
“The hydraulic track tensioning system was a boon, as it was much easier to adjust than the earlier type, which required the operator to swing off the end of a long bar in order to manually adjust the track tension.
“You’d loosen the tension when operating in sand, for instance and it would give the tracks greater adhesion, just as as you’d lower the pressure in rubber tyres when operating on soft, loose ground.
“To re-tension the tracks for better traction on hard and rocky surfaces, you used to have to swing off the bar again, but with the new system you’d pump grease into a nipple that actuated the hydraulics to increase track tension and, when decreasing the tension, you just had to loosen off a bolt.”
Caterpillar earthmoving equipment has been an integral part of the company’s ‘gettin’ down and dirty’ work since the 1930s. In an article in Track magazine, dated August 1965, John Cleary told the interviewer the company had built its business on Caterpillar equipment.
Apart from a small amount of other equipment, in 2020 CB operated three Cat D8 ’dozers, four 977 Traxcavators, five Cat D7s, two Cat 966 wheel-loaders, two No 12 motor graders and one Cat D4. Brett Cleary said that 99 percent of its off-road equipment was Caterpillar.