From steel rims to rubber tyres – Johnston’s Transport
Johnston’s Transport turned its first wheel at the start of last century when the present fourth-generation-owner’s great-grandfather hitched up a horse and cart to start a carrying business. More than century on, the business is still in the same family, servicing the transport requirements of Greater Sydney and beyond. Jim Gibson worked there for a time.
Frank Johnston emigrated from County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland in 1884 when he was 17 years old. He worked on dairy farms in the NSW Southern Highlands for a number of years before returning to Sydney to take up a job driving a horse and cart.
In 1900 Frank bought his own horse and cart, following an approach to department store icon, David Jones. Amazingly, the David Jones/Johnston’s business connection lasted for 80+ years.
Details about those very early days are sketchy, but Frank Johnston’s grit and determination to build his carrying business in difficult economic times, saw him offer his services to several pioneer family retail houses in Sydney, as he had done with David Jones.
He also became a contractor providing vehicles and equipment to Beard Watsons’ Removals.
Much of his work involved the cartage of finished products and raw materials from the wharves around Sydney Harbour. He made do with four legged horse power, up until the mid-twenties. His first motor powered truck was a Graham.
The late Frank Johnston – yes, another Frank – told Jim Gibson, back in 2015, there were five Franks in succession throughout the generations.
“Wharf cartage has been a large slice of the business since the start, and still is one of our areas of expertise, representing around 60 per cent of the operation these days,” Frank told Jim Gibson.
In 1908, the founder’s son was born and named Frank, after him. He joined the business in the late 1920s at the time internal combustion powered trucks were burgeoning. These utilitarian vehicles ran on hard rubber tyres, with little weather protection for the driver, in what was basically a horseless wagon.
After the end of hostilities in 1945, Johnston’s picked up the pieces and acquired some ex-military Ford and Chevy Blitz trucks, to expand the transport business, in concert with the Australian Government’s push to revitalise industry and create jobs.
As the company grew and needed more and bigger equipment, the first semi-trailer, behind a Ford prime mover, joined the fleet.
Their work had expanded into several different areas and their trucks became a regular sight, loading at the goods rail yards around town and then delivering fruit and vegetables throughout Sydney and environs.
Enter International Harvester
By the late 1940s the company had grown in fleet numbers, with quite a mix of truck brands, because the supply of trucks was spasmodic after the end of the War, as manufacturers weren’t able to keep pace with demand.
The brands were predominately Fords, but the longer term aim was to standardise the fleet.
Johnston’s operated some International Harvester (IH) trucks and found them to be well suited and competitively priced for the local carrying operation. International also had a well supported parts and service dealer network.
By the late 1940s International Harvester Australia (IHA) was importing trucks in semi-knocked-down (SKD) configuration from the USA and assembling them in Melbourne and Geelong, but IHA knew if it were to keep pace with demand it had to build a production facility that could produce ‘Australianised’ variants to suit our road system and transport task.
The IHA Dandenong (Melbourne) plant was the first IH manufacturing plant to be built outside of North America. International Harvester became the first overseas truck manufacturer to make such a bold investment in Australia and the first truck rolled down the line in 1952.
This initiative proved to be a turning point for Johnston’s, who decided to purchase only Australian-built Internationals and continued to do so for almost 40 years, until IHA’s demise and the eventual takeover by Iveco.
Growth through diversification
As Johnston’s Transport expanded throughout the 1950s and beyond, so did its use of the IH truck product. By this time it had gained a reputation for good old-fashioned service and reliability, which, in turn, expanded the customer base, both large and small.
Johnston’s won major contracts with companies that included ACI Ltd, BP Australia, BHP, Cable Makers Australia, Containers Ltd, David Jones, Email Ltd, Firestone Australia, Jeldi Manufacturing and WD & HO Wills.
The road transport business diversified as the Sydney metropolitan area became more crowded and narrow laneways and winding streets forced many factories and warehouses to relocate.
Because Johnston’s had mobile cranes and forklifts in its fleet, it offered a one-stop-shop factory machinery and equipment ‘transplant’ service.
The team arrived with all the mobile lifting gear and trucks to rehouse plant and equipment from confined inner city premises to Sydney’s outer western suburbs: Johnston’s Handling Division was flourishing.
To assist in this new division of the company Johnston’s employed tradespeople with expertise in the fitting, mechanical and electrical fields. In the course of quoting for these moves they found that some of the machinery they were to move had virtually been in position for so long that walls and doorways had been constructed around them.
So they set to work building specialist low-clearance mobile cranes on truck chassis and created various specialist lifting devices and equipment to make what seemed inaccessible tasks achievable.
This ingenuity and forethought lifted Johnston’s to a level that set them apart from their competitors. Johnston’s specialist handling equipment and diligent work ethic is legendary within this segment of the transport industry.
The third generation
The previous managing director, Frank Johnston (we know it gets confusing – as Abbott and Costello said: ‘Who’s on first base – no ‘what’s on first base!’) joined the company in late 1964.
Frank told Jim Gibson: “I had just finished college in Bathurst and my father came to pick me up.
“He said: ‘We’ve had a bit of trouble on the waterfront between the TWU and the waterside workers and I’ll need an extra hand, so you’d better start work on Monday’.”
Frank started as a casual employee and became a permanent employee the following January.
“I can only say that my 50-year climb through various positions within the company has been a rewarding journey in both knowledge and camaraderie,” said Frank Johnston.
“The expansion of Johnston’s Transport since I started has been through hard work and never deviating from our credo of, ‘Service First’.
“There have also been several acquisitions – Alert Transport, Brian Reilly Freighters, Patterson Carriers – and diversification with bonded and free stores, container cartage and storage and our machinery handling and specialist haulage have all played a part in developing our business, which today operates over 100 trucks and associated equipment.”
In reference to the IH truck product, Frank said he remembered buying 50 new Inters during the 1980 calendar year:
“There was a new ACCO or S-Line delivered to us almost every week during that year and the International sales rep’ was almost part of the furniture at our depot back then,” said Frank Johnston.
“However, it wasn’t all plain sailing, because we had our problems with some of the models over the years.
“The ACCO B series ‘wide cab’, was bulky, which wasn’t conducive to deliveries in narrow streets or some loading docks, but it had rear vision mirrors that shook so much the drivers couldn’t see clearly.
“We had to replace them with west-coast units and ended up with a stack of IH mirrors that were no good to anyone.”
Frank also remembered that the tilt-cab was too heavy for one man to lift and then there was the Neuss engine experience, with its ill-designed, hang-on components that cracked and fell off.
“However, over those many years and so many International trucks, you’d have to say we really did have a good run,” said Frank Johnston.
First hand experience
Jim Gibson worked for Johnston’s Transport back in the mid-1960s, firstly as a semi-trailer driver and later as a mobile crane driver/loader. Loader/foreman was the job description, in charge of clearing a wharf or rail consignment by loading company trucks and despatching them in full or split loads to various consignees.
Jim also became involved in factory machinery moves, which were always interesting challenges: manoeuvring cranes in tight spots in order to rig and lift expensive pieces of machinery, weaving through labyrinths of other equipment and confronting door openings, to eventually place them on trucks.
Jim Gibson really enjoyed that job, as there was always something different to test his mettle every day.
Jim was also lucky enough to drive the best R190 International in the fleet. This truck was originally powered buy a 406 cubic-inch petrol-guzzling engine – not that petrol was expensive back then – but Johnston’s mechanics repowered it with a 4.71 two-stroke Detroit Diesel, changing the rear axle ratio to align road speed with the lower maximum 2100rpm of the diesel.
The truck pulled a closed bogie trailer or a low-loader float the majority of the time.
Jim Gibson reckoned the cadence emitted from a large-diameter exhaust pipe that exited just in front of the drive wheels on the driver’s side was a symphony of internal combustion orchestration that would make an angel weep.
“How I loved that sound – especially when pulling a load of copper from Metal Manufacturers in Port Kembla to Cable Makers in Liverpool,” Jim remembered.
“That 450-metre climb up Mount Ousley with the engine at fever pitch, was music to my ears!”
After more than 50 years in the workforce, Jim reckoned those days were some of the best – ‘the good old days’ – and Jim was proud of the fact that he was once a part of this more than century-old transport company and retained his friendship with Frank P Johnston.
Vale Frank P Johnston
Jim Gibson was both shocked and deeply saddened when he heard of Frank’s passing on April 23rd 2020. Frank was only 72, but had battled an illness for some time.
Jim had known Frank since the mid-60s, at FW Johnston, as the company was known as back then. Frank was three years younger than Jim and learning about the business as just one of the employees. Both men hit it off and remained in contact since that time.
Frank Johnston obviously travelled a different road from Jim’s, but both men had a passion for the road transport industry and, because of that, their paths crossed many times in the past 50+ years.
Jim Gibson had great respect for Frank’s integrity and knowledge, and always enjoyed his company.
Frank was the third generation Johnston (and Frank) to control the business, now known as Johnston’s Transport Industries.