Truck Restoration Projects
Rotinoff Viscount lives on
While walking around the National Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs some years ago Jim Gibson noticed a wiry, elderly guy in a brimmed hat with the sides turned up slightly and a kangaroo pin on the front of the band. He was gazing at a large old truck that was in a very sad state of deterioration.
The truck appeared to have been originally green, but the Northern Territory’s red sands and hot sun had dulled and faded the paintwork.
The exposed bare metal had turned brown with the onset of corrosion; the metal white ants had had many a good meal, eating away the top of the cab and the lower sections of the body, under where the doors once closed.
The chassis was badly bent at the rear, where a crane had been fitted at some stage of its hard-working life.
Since ‘Gibbo’ spoke to this bloke, Richie Whitehead, the two derelict Rotinoffs have been combined to make one restored vehicle. The work was done by the Alice Springs National Road Transport Museum, where the vehicle now resides and Richie was inducted into the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in August 2005.
“I used to drive one of these trucks when it was new and we christened it ‘Jackie’,” said Richie, with a tinge of sadness in his voice. He had seen 68 summers back then, in 2004, but he looked very fit.
He told Jim he had come from England when he was 16-years-old, to work on a dairy farm and had then gone droving around Cunnamulla in Queensland.
By age 20 he had gained a taste for trucks, because as he said: “The dough on a farm mustering cattle was £9/10/- a week and I could earn £15 a week driving a truck.”
After leaving the droving job he went in search of a truck-driving job in the NT, firstly serving his ‘apprenticeship’ unloading bagged copper ore from road-trains, to be transhipped by rail in Darwin.
He became a co-driver on an AEC Matador, carting general freight and then progressed to juggling two gear sticks in a legendary B-Model Mack for Outback Transport.
His routes were around the Territory, as well as in WA and Qld.
After that job he met ‘Jackie’: a British Rotinoff Viscount. An Englishman, Lord Vestey – head of his family’s beef empire that owned large cattle holdings in the Northern Territory – needed trucks to cart his stock to various locations.
Having the Union Jack on his and on this country’s flags, he couldn’t stand the thought of a truck that was produced under the Star Spangled Banner by Uncle Sam putting a wheel-track on his properties. So he commissioned two of these ‘British Bulldogs’.
‘Julie’ and sibling ‘Jackie’ duly arrived in Australia in 1957. Powered by Rolls Royce, 250hp, supercharged diesel engines with six-speed main and three-speed auxiliary transmissions that originated in Sherman tanks. The differentials were Kirkstall with hub reduction and the ratios 10.18:1. Being tank transporters they were intended for use in the deserts of North Africa.
According to Richie these English ‘roses’ hauled two or three self-tracking A-trailers at times, but only in flat country.
Any sign of a rise and they’d have to drop off one of the trailers then mount the rise as a rigid stock-crate with one trailer attached; then unhook it and return in rigid form to collect the remaining trailers one at a time, before assembling again in two or three trailer road-train format.
“The main tail-shaft was one piece and not really up to the task,“ quipped Richie. “So, when you finally got into overdrive and gained some momentum, the tail-shaft would break!
“We used to carry two spare shafts on top of the stock-crates and replaced them, lying on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.”
“Also, the Rolls Royce engines were grossly underpowered and therefore very unreliable, so they spent a lot of time travelling to and from England for repairs, as did the tail-shafts.”
Richie said the trucks were based at the Maryville road-train compound at Helen Springs Station, some 16-kilometres south of Renner Springs. The compound covered one square mile and there was a cook and two fitters with an assistant. Spare parts were also stored there.
“If we stopped at a pub where the drovers were drinking they’d give us a hard time, as they reckoned we were taking work from them, but we carried only cattle that were too weak to travel by foot.” Richie said.
The interior cab space in these trucks was huge for the time and they had a full-sized sleeper, as well as two toolboxes underneath.
However, it must have been unbearably hot on a mid-summer’s day in the Northern Territory, inside one of these monsters.
These drivers were road transport pioneers and bloody tough men, able to tolerate extreme climatic conditions and hardships – all in a day’s work.
Richie told Jim Gibson that day he was still driving trucks: B-doubles on the interstate shuttle service for Bunker Freightlines.
That must have been quite a paradox, some 45-years on, cruising along the black top with more than twice the horsepower, air conditioning, cruise control and a radio/CD player – the truck driving comforts of the 21st century.
The video below shows the Rotinoff ‘Julie’ loading cattle at Maryville: https://youtube/Zk-yDVbqP6M
The other cattle kings
Brothers William and Edmund Vestey founded the British company Vestey Group in 1897. In the early 1900s the Vestey family company began purchasing agricultural land in South American countries and also in Australia.
In Australia over the decades the company developed cattle stations and meat works at Wyndham in WA, Bullocky Point at Darwin in NT and Lakes Creek at Rockhampton in Qld, as well as canneries, butcher shops and a shipping company, the Blue Star Line.
Vesteys owned a huge amount of pastoral land in northern Australia, particularly in the NT and eastern Kimberley region of WA. Vestey cattle stations included Flora Valley, Sturt Creek, Gordon Downs, Ruby Plains, Nicholson, Louisa Downs, Spring Creek, Mistake Creek and Ord River in WA. They also owned Qld stations, including Oban and Morestone, and valuable NT cattle properties, including Kirkimbie, Waterloo, Willeroo, Glencoe (now part of Ban Ban Springs), Helen Springs, and Wave Hill Station – where the Gurindji aboriginal stockmen famously walked off in 1966.
The Vestey Group had sold all their Australian cattle stations by the early 1990s.