Farewell Mr Kenworth
Edwin (Ed) Cameron is the man who created a cult following and placed an indelible mark on the manuscript of achievements within the Australian road transport industry.
Jim Gibson was lucky enough to have known Ed Cameron and to have spent some time chatting with him about his life and the early Kenworth days in Australia. He was unassuming, knowledgeable and, most of all, one of nature’s gentlemen.
Back in 1961 Australia’s population was just 10 million. And there were 837,984 commercial vehicles registered on our roads. The daily average of interstate trucks passing through Marulan checking station, on the busiest Australian interstate corridor between Sydney and Melbourne, was 272 during May of that year.
Oil and gas had just been discovered 200 miles west of Brisbane at Moonie; the radio telescope was opened at Parkes in NSW; the last tram ran in Sydney after 100 years of service and Frank Sinatra was crooning at the tin-roofed Sydney Stadium. Against that backdrop, transport operator Ed Cameron had started negotiations to import the first Kenworth trucks from the USA. He had no idea then of what he was starting and what was to follow in subsequent decades.
The post-War scene
After being demobbed from the armed services Ed and his brothers formed D&E Cameron in 1946, an interstate transport business situated behind a service station in the Melbourne suburb of Doncaster.
He was keen to find a light tare weight, but durable, prime mover to ‘shorten’ the distances between capital cities – a truck that could legally carry as much weight as possible and maintain a good average road speed along the winding, narrow, rough strips of bitumen we then called highways.
Ed Cameron said that his criteria were: a diesel engine (distillate was considerably cheaper than petrol in those days), chassis and running gear tough enough to stand up to the rigours of our road network; light tare and a multi-speed transmission, to eliminate the cumbersome two-stick gear-shifting operation that Mack and some other brands had adopted.
British and European trucks were too slow and too heavy, so he had to look across the Pacific for a solution, where trucks travelled vast distances between centres, similar to our own.
The ideal truck had to be powerful enough to defeat a headwind and to compress the hills.
USA truck initiative
In 1955 Ed and fellow transport operator George Blomfield headed across the Pacific to North America on a fact-finding mission. Detroit Diesel, formerly General Motors Diesel (‘Jimmy’) division, was their first port of call for discussions.
They then travelled across the ‘States from Detroit to Los Angeles, at the same time delivering a Cadillac for GM. The trip gave them a roll-call of truck brands running on the interstate routes. Most trucks were mass-produced brands, but it was a custom builder they needed; someone who could design a bespoke prime mover to suit the special requirements of the burgeoning Australian long distance road transport industry.
After delivering the Caddie to a dealer in LA, they travelled north to Seattle in Washington State, to meet with custom truck builder, Kenworth. After in-depth discussions with the KW executive team it was clear that there was potential to export an Australianised model. However, Kenworth was busy filling domestic orders and building a factory to assemble trucks in Mexico.
Another stumbling block was the import restrictions placed on truck chassis by the Australian government, so the export plan was left in limbo. These restrictions were in place to encourage local assembly, but, in 1961, the Australian government lifted these restrictions.
Action Down Under
Ed Cameron was quickly on the phone to inform Seattle and KW’s vice-president and chief engineer John Holmstrom arrived in Melbourne, in November that year.
Ed chauffeured John Holmstrom to Sydney along the Hume Highway and the visitor couldn’t believe the steep grades on our main interstate highway. The climbs and descents played havoc with engine temperatures, resulting in cracked cylinder heads on many truck engines.
John Holmstrom thought this situation might favour the KW product, because it had ‘shutter-stats’ – temperature-triggered shutters – fitted in front of a large radiator. The shutters opened fully as the engine temperature increased on a long climb and shut as engine temperature dropped, on downhill runs.
After a meeting with a large audience of interstate hauliers at the Kings Cross Chevron Hotel, John Holmstrom was convinced there was a market here. He and KW’s vice-president signed a deal with Ed, to start shipping suitably spec’d trucks to Australia within 12 months.
Holmstrom knew that the US-market Kenworth was not the truck for Australian conditions and an Australianised model would have to be designed.
The USA’s long-bonnet model had too much BBC (bumper to back of cab) dimension for our road regulations and the COE (cab over engine) truck was purpose-built for left-hand-drive, with offset engine bias giving more driver space on the left-hand side of the cab and very little on the right-hand side.
The best starting point for an Australian Kenworth was the shorter sloping-bonnet S-model. Some ‘surgeon’s scalpel’ work on the bonnet was needed to fit a larger capacity radiator and, of course, major re-engineering for right-hand drive.
These first Australian-market KWs were powered by Detroit Diesel ‘Jimmy’ 6V71 two-stroke diesels, cooled by a larger capacity radiator than their US cousins. The chosen constant-mesh transmission was a single-stick, range-change13-speed Spicer. The tandem-drive rear axles were Rockwell SQHD, rated at 38,000lb (17, 250kg) and mounted on Kenworth’s torsion-bar (conversationally known as ‘crowbar’) suspension.
Kenworth makes its indelible mark
In less than 12 months the seven-truck shipment was on the wharf in Melbourne. Ed planned to operate four of the new S-models in his light green-hued fleet and George Bromfield painted the remaining three red to run in his interstate transport operation.
Ansett Freight Express was the first national fleet to purchase the new state-of-the-art line-haulers. Ansett had observed the Kennies in operation and the company operated the same Detroit Diesel engines in its interstate coach fleet with great success, and therefore placed an order for two prime movers. This initial order was followed by a further 10 units and a third order shortly after.
Ed had to stock a spare cab/chassis as both a demo truck and the source of genuine spare parts. This pleased Ansett as sourcing engine parts weren’t a problem, but genuine KW bits were a concern.
Initially, Ed demonstrated the product to several operators up and down the east coast of New South Wales, but his efforts were aided when 31-year-old Bill Gross, one of KW’s sales engineers, arrived from the US to assist Ed in establishing Australian Kenworth Truck Sales (AKTS). Bill organised parts to be shipped from Seattle to Melbourne as spare parts support, at no cost to AKTS, until they were sold to customers.
The NSW North Coast truck dealer Brown and Hurley was appointed as their first dealer and the association has continued very successfully ever since.
However, at heart, Ed was a road transport operator and the financial burden of setting up a professional national dealer network, with spare parts and technical support, was beyond his original mission. Ed had achieved what he set out to do: find a light tare, durable prime mover to operate efficiently and reliably between our national capitals.
Kenworth’s holding company in the USA – Pacific Car and Foundry (now PACCAR) – bought the Australian distribution rights from Ed in 1967. Around 100 trucks had been sold prior to the takeover and the rest, as they say, is history.
A manufacturing plant was built in 1970, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs at Bayswater, and, in 1971, the first Australian built Kenworth, a K125 for Kwikasair, rolled of the production line.
The Kenworth product has maintained 20 to 21 per cent of the truck market, crowning it the leader of the heavy-duty sector in Australia for many years.
Apart from Ed giving the Australian transport industry a durable and reliable point-to-point, custom built, heavy-duty truck, his actions also initiated emotional ties to Kenworth trucks.
For many truck drivers there’s great prestige in sitting high in the saddle behind that KW badge atop the grille; being in command of the steering wheel, with that same KW insignia embedded in its axis. The enthusiasm for the product is somewhat reminiscent of the Harley-Davidson cult following.
In 2002, Ed was inducted into the National Road Transport Hall of Fame and was named one of the ‘Icons of the Industry’ at the 2015 Hall of Fame Reunion.
Ed, thank you for your enormous mid last century contribution to our industry and the product lives on, stronger than ever after 50+ years. Rest in Peace, Ed Cameron.