Petrol Louisvilles rule, OK
VB-green, V8 petrol-powered Ford Louisvilles are still busy bees in this sweet Tasmanian operation.
We’re accustomed to hearing about truck fleets employing the latest technology to improve their businesses, so it’s very unusual to come across a fleet that’s still operating trucks that rolled out of the Ford Australia factory door back in the 1970s. But then, R Stephens Tasmanian Honey is no ordinary business and its people are also far from ordinary.
The Mole Creek based company was started by Robert and Edith Stephens, back in 1920, following years of amateur bee keeping. It’s now a four-generation-lineage family company that produces around 35-percent of Tasmania’s honey output.
We’re not getting into the complex business of honey production, but suffice to say that honey bees produce more honey than they normally need and that surplus is harvested, refined and sold for human consumption.
To harvest that surplus requires hives to be positioned in appropriate locations, visited for honey collection and stocked with fresh hive ‘plates’ for the bees to fill. It’s also necessary to ‘feed’ the hives during scant nectar periods, to keep the bees alive.
In Tasmania, some of those hive locations are in remote areas and even the less remote ones are in mountainous country. Anyone who’s driven around this island knows how steep and winding its rural roads are.
To access the wilderness catchment of the Franklin and Bird Rivers the Stephens trucks transport their hives and honey on the renowned ABT Wilderness Railway to Teepookana via Strahan. The prime movers and trailers ‘piggy-back’ on purpose-designed rail cars.
Fords on the honey trail
Robert Stephens was a Ford truck man from the beginning. The early days of the company are memorialised by a restored 1929 Model AA that’s a replica of Robert’s truck that was used to haul bee hives to the prized leatherwood honey areas on the wild and rugged west coast. The journey took three days back then and the truck later served as grandson Ewan’s truck driving initiation.
Ewan Stephens and friends restored this truck in 2011.
Another significant ‘resto’ is this venerable, 272 cubic inch, 42hp petrol-V8 Ford F-600 that was bought in 1956 by Robert, to haul hives and honey all over Tasmania. His son Ian drove the truck for 22 years and it has now been beautifully restored.
By the 1970s, Ian’s son Ewan had become de facto truck fleet manager, having done his first engine refit at a very early age and subsequently shown great mechanical sympathy and problem solving ability. Changed road transport laws had allowed longer, heavier truck combinations and Ewan eyed the brand new 1975 Louisvilles eagerly.
The 1970s Louisville range
At launch, the new Australian-made, right hand drive Fords were sold in petrol as well as diesel variants, because their North American heritage was strongly petrol V8 power and the V8 diesel offerings at the time were few. The Louisville engine bay was designed primarily around V8 blocks of varying sizes, not for in-line sixes, including the 1970s Cummins N14 and Caterpillar 3306.
The first Australian Louisvilles were: LN700 4×2, with 361 cubic inch, 188hp petrol V8; LN7000 4×2, with 175hp Caterpillar 3208 diesel V8; LN8000 4×2 and LNT8000 6×4, with the Cat 3208 at 210hp; LN900 4×2 and LNT900 6×4, with 477 cubic inch, 209hp petrol V8 and LN9000 4×2 and LNT9000 6×4, with Cummins 903 cubic inch, 295hp V8 diesel power.
Right out of the blocks the Louisville was a market success for Ford, but the petrol models were quickly outsold by the diesel models. Over the production life of the Australian Louisville the petrol variants accounted for a tally of only 1206, compared with a diesel total of nearly 14,000 trucks.
By 1977 the writing was on the wall for the petrol 700 and 900 models and they were dropped from the Ford range by 1979. However, Ewan Stephens reckons they suited the Tasmanian honey production business very well, which is why the company still operates an L700, an L900 and an LNT900.
Ewan reluctantly had to opt for diesel power in his most recent prime mover, a 2006 6×4 HN80 truck. The relative newness of this truck suggests it should be wearing the ‘Sterling’ nameplate, but it’s proudly badged ‘Ford’.
Ewan keeps the petrol trucks running efficiently, because he loves them. Both V8 engine sizes have been modified over the years, based the experience gained from the demanding transport task.
Ewan even designed and built a belt-driven supercharger for the 477 engine, to give it more urge!
The Louisvilles are also fitted with four-stage Telma eddy-current driveline retarders, because as Ewan knows first-hand, going downhill safely is as important as getting uphill reliably.
Telma retarders were very popular in steep country operations in Australia – particularly in logging – before the event of OEM-produced driveline retarders.
Ending on a green note
It’s hard to miss the bright metallic-green R Stephens trucks, with their Golden Bee and Golden Nectar sign-writing, but if the colour looks familiar, it should be.
Ewan Stephens asked a paint company to come up with as close a match as possible to the iconic ‘VB’ beer can colour and the company did just that. Since then, all the fleet trucks and the restored older ones are finished in this distinctive bright green.