Truck Features

Jim Cooper and Gulf Transport

 

Kurt Johannsen is recognised as the inventor of the modern Australian road train and Jim Cooper (1941-2022) was certainly the man who perfected the idea. Jim passed away in early 2022.

 

In 1939, Gulf Transport was founded in Darwin by Ben Hingston, just before World War II broke out. Two years later, Jim Cooper was born, across the ditch, in New Zealand. 

Ben Kingston sold Gulf to his nephew, Bob McMillian, in the early 1960s. In the meantime, Jim Cooper had qualified as a diesel mechanic in Tapanui, a small town on the south island of New Zealand. In 1961 Jim started Cooper Transport in West Otago, with wife, Jenny and a Leyland Comet truck.

 

Jim Cooper – Steve Brooks photo

 

As in some states in Australia during this period, road transport in New Zealand was licensed and the government-owned railways were protected from road transport competition. In Australia that was done by taxation on miles traveled in parallel with railway lines, but in New Zealand trucks were allowed to travel only up to 35 miles from home. Needless to say, this was policed, encouraging many operators, including Jim, to breach the boundaries after dark.

This repressive regime encouraged the Coopers and their four young kids to look elsewhere for their road transport future. 

Jim’s personal motto: ‘There’s got to be a better way’, was borrowed from Henry Ford and inspired him to look well outside the New Zealand square: a 1971 move to Darwin, in Australia’s remote Northern Territory.

In February 1972, Jim took over Gulf Transport, which had two depots: one in Alice Springs and one in Darwin.  It had a ‘fleet’ of two AEC Mammoth Majors, a Volvo G88 and a few very worn trailers.

 

Gulf road train – ‘Ratty’ photo

 

Despite well-organised opposition from Co-ord Transport, it was not long until Jim expanded into the bulk tipper haulage business and eventual domination of it. The key to that was working with Bernie Ostermeyer from Tristar, to build flexi-tippers.

Bernie’s innovative trailer design was optimised for the side-tipping required with multiple trailers. Rear tipping is fine for rigids or single trailers, but quick cycle times for road train tippers are greatly improved if side-tipping is employed.

Conventional rigid-bodied side tippers had load limitations imposed by the need to keep the load centre of gravity within the wheel track width when tipping – or risk a massive roll-over. Bernie’s solution was a flexible metal trailer interior that deformed progressively when tipping, to improve stability.

In 1985 Gulf Transport won a seven-year contract carting silver, lead and zinc concentrates from Woodcutters Mine to Fort Hill Wharf with innovative flexi-tipper, triple road train combinations. 

This job was a turning point for the company. Gulf Transport and the flexi-tippers began hauling lead and zinc out of Cadjibut in Western Australia to Wyndham and Derby ports, as well as hauling overburden at the Argyle Diamond mine in Western Australia.

 

Bulkhaul road trains – ‘Ratty’ photo

 

Jim then set up Bulkhaul, to work at the remote Granites site in the middle of the Tanami Desert, for North Flinders Mining. Bulkhaul worked at the Granites mine for almost 20 years and the story goes that one year, Bulkhaul made so much money that the company exceeded its contract and gave $600,000 back to the mine.

The company then told Jim that the job was his for as long as he wanted it and that he would not have to tender for it ever again. Jim’s focus on reliability, safety and on the fair treatment of his workforce kept the company at the Granites gold mine until the sale of the Gulf Group in 2010.

 

Bulkhaul road train – ‘Ratty’ photo

 

Loyalty was one of his greatest qualities and, wherever possible, he stuck with his workers and contractors: those who were there at the beginning, when he had a couple of trucks, to when he had 150 road trains.

Jim was innovative; coming up with solutions and ideas that set him apart from others, including custom-designed and purpose-built powered road train trailers to allow hauling six trailers behind a tri-drive, rigid-truck prime mover.

 

Underground combination – ‘Ratty’ photo

 

Jim Cooper also helped pioneer underground-mine road trains.

The apex of Jim Cooper’s road train initiatives was the year-2000 development of 280-tonnes-payload, six-trailer road trains, with diesel-power amidships. The prime mover’s Cummins 15-litre engine was supplemented by a 400 hp Cummins M11 engine in one of the trailers.

These units were at the upper train mass limit of the Kenworth C500 that was basically a road-legal prime mover, so Jim Cooper and his Brisbane-based Powertrans engineering team developed a purpose-built prime mover and powered-trailer road train combination.

 

Powertrans-designed and built road train – Murray Clifford photo

 

The custom-designed and built prime mover had a central driving position and the engine out front, with tilting bonnet access. The cab also tilted, for easy access to the transmission. 

Two hundred litres of additional engine oil capacity was incorporated, as was automated chassis greasing.

The truck had a fabricated I-beam chassis; front air suspension; walking beam at the rear and rode on 14.00 R25 tyres. The 50-tonnes capacity Axletech SPRC drive axles had final drive ratios of 12.69:1. 

This road train was powered by two Cummins QSK19 engines: one in the custom-designed prime mover and the other in one of the trailers. After successful operation at the Fortescue iron ore mine in the Pilbara region in Western Australia these units were replicated at several sites.

 

Murray Clifford photo

 

Each 1520hp quad-trailer road train was capable of hauling 350 tonnes of payload, with an all-up mass of 500 tonnes. Engine cooling was aided by massive radiators and 300-litre coolant capacity. Transmissions were Allison six-speed autos, synchronised by electronic control units.

At its peak, Jim Cooper’s twin-powered road train fleet numbered 100 combinations.

Besides haulage in mines, Jim ventured into cattle carting when he purchased Dick David and Ken Warriner’s Road Trains of Australia (RTA) in 1993, in partnership with Mike Flynn, after which the company was known as the Gulf/RTA Group. Mike sold his share to Jim’s son, Jamie, in 1994. 

RTA invested heavily in trucks and cattle crates, but after 13 years of transporting livestock across the length and breadth of northern Australia, with depots in Darwin, Katherine, Mount Isa, Winton and Longreach, Jim and Jamie, along with Dave Jones from Hamptons, saw the economic sense of amalgamation. 

Hamptons from WA also had a big cattle hauling business and both parties negotiated the sale of RTA to Hamptons, to create Road Trains of Australia Pty Ltd. 

In late 2010, Gulf Transport and its subsidiary, Bulkhaul, were sold to BIS, Brambles Industrial Services.

 

Jim Cooper at work – Steve Brooks photo

 

As well as running his businesses, Jim put back plenty into the trucking industry in the NorthernTerritory, because he recognised the importance of a united voice for the entire road transport industry.

In 1978, Jim was one of the founding members and the inaugural chair of the NT Road Transport Association. He was also the founding director of the Road Transport Forum, which later became the Australian Trucking Association. 

By holding that voluntary position for 10 years, Jim ensured that remote area transportation had a voice in Canberra on Commonwealth policy affecting transport companies in remote Australia.

Jim was serious about fatigue management in the trucking industry. He showed considerable leadership on the subject of safety and the development of the NT Fatigue Management Road Transport Code of Practice that was implemented in 2002. 

Jim’s other numerous achievements included the establishment of an on-highway safety plan and national safety management system for livestock operators.

We’ll let highly respected road transport journalist, Steve Brooks, pen some final words about this pivotal man:

“Jim was a man you had to know, to appreciate who and what he was,” said Steve Brooks. 

“The wiry build, the laconic persona, the blunt talk and the distaste for public notoriety, despite an Order of Australia medal, all belied the titan within. 

“True, the frank demeanour, high expectations and absolute intolerance for bullshit may not have always won the support of some but, in Jim’s view, it usually won with those who mattered.

“No question; he built a fabulous legacy full of wonderful innovations, great company accomplishments and invaluable industry advocacy, and his range of associates and contacts were as vast and varied as his adopted country.

“A Kiwi by birth and Territorian by choice for much of his life, he jammed more into one existence than some of us could even think possible, let alone achievable.

“His book Pushing the Boundaries – The Gulf Group in Remote Australia defines both the possibilities and the achievements, and any attempt to summarise or extrapolate something more meaningful in the wake of his passing would, I believe, be less than respectful. 

“It’s his story and his book tells it best,” said Steve Brooks.

 

 

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