Building material delivery specialist, Clifford Brick and Tile Transport runs intrastate with single trailer semis and quad-dog combinations for new estates and housing developments. Since it first introduced a Detroit diesel engine into its truck fleet the family-owned company has continued to flourish.
A pair of single tray Hinos, purchased six months apart in 1976, sowed the seeds of a family-owned intrastate building supply freight business run by three brothers out of the Central Highlands in Victoria. That business now located in Mt Rowan on the fringes of Ballarat became Clifford Brick and Tile Transport and delivers to building sites across the state. It has since grown with time and much hard work, steadily, to add depots in Sydney and Adelaide for more localised operations.
A growing housing market in Victoria, somewhat driven by the Ministry of Housing in which residences commissioned by the government for low income earners led to further investments by the late 1970s, saw satellite towns emerging in places like Sunbury, Melton and Pakenham.
At the time John Clifford, who serves as the company Managing Director of Clifford Brick and Tile Transport, along with his brother Neil were running 7 tonne tray trucks to keep up with growing demand. Up until then, all bricks, pavers and tiles were unloaded by hand on-site. Physical work doesn’t get much harder. When building supplier, Monier, opened a factory in Craigieburn in 1980, John purchased a Mercedes-Benz 2226 with a drop deck trailer with provision to carry a forklift on it to unload the materials. A driver was soon hired for the job of driving the tray truck, but after only a few days, according to Fleet Manager Peter Clifford, the factory had called up awaiting a long overdue delivery. The truck and driver had vanished overnight. John, having tried to reach the driver, eventually found the truck parked up on a service road off the Hume Highway. The keys were in it with a handprinted note. It said ‘sorry, this job is too hard.’ The vehicle was still loaded from the day before.
“The bloke never came back to be paid for the two days he’d worked,” Peter says. “That’s how hard it was for some people. You couldn’t pay anyone enough to do it.”
Because it was all manual labour the majority of the sector was conducted by owner-drivers.
At first the Mercedes-Benz 2226 was deployed to retrieve old sleepers off the railway lines and delivered the materials to sand and soil yards. John soon added a forklift, which they carted on the drop deck with the building materials.
South Australia was the first state, according to Peter, to take up this way of carting and unloading materials on building sites. Other states soon followed. Sydney, as a region was the last. As late as the mid-‘90s they were still unloading materials by hand when Neil went up there at the urging of Monier to show off the efficiency of the new truck and forklift system. By then Monier had closed its factories in Ballarat, Wangaratta and Campbellfield, with all of its product coming out of a factory in Springvale. Trucks were getting bigger in size to increase their payload. The single drive, smaller vehicle that had been backed into a building site for nearly 30 years was fast falling out of favour.
“With the introduction of the forklift you needed a bigger truck that could also load up with all the materials,” Peter recalls. “At the time it was one house of bricks and tiles at a time per truck.”
At present the company has 40 Kubota forklifts all fitted with hydraulic widening prongs in front. It allows them to cart bricks one way to Albury and load bricks the other way for another customer. That way the forklifts, which are all operated by the truck drivers, don’t require the operator to get off the seat to shift the fork tynes for the differing holes in the bricks.
In 1996, Neil was running his truck out of Ballarat and John was running his out of Melbourne, The business, Clifford Brick and Tile Transport, was officially born, having established operations carting freight in both directions. That same year the company added its first Freightliner, a business class FL112. But their firsthand experience operating a vehicle powered by a Detroit engine would have to wait until they acquired an IVECO PowerStar.
“It was the 12.7 litre Detroit Series 60,” Peter recalls. “The engine was, in contrast to some of the other gear we had under the hood of our trucks, really, quite a standout.”
Peter, who had previously been working in earthmoving, joined his brothers that same year in 2000. The fleet had increased to six trucks at the time. It wasn’t until they purchased a Columbia CL 112 seven years later that they finally paired a Detroit engine with a Freightliner. At the time business was busy and growing. That same Detroit MBE 4000 has recently achieved the rare feat of reaching 2 million kilometres. At 1.5 million kilometres it received a set of changeover heads. According to Peter it remains as reliable as ever.
“It’s an incredible truck really. It’s had a front end chassis rebuild and the cam followers have been replaced,” he says. “We’ve put two turbos on it but that’s all we’ve ever done to it.”
Clifford Truck and Tile Transport now has 12 Freightliners, powered by either Detroit DD15 or DD13 engines running in a fleet of 40 commercial vehicles. Some previous Freightliners were equipped with pre EGR Cummins engines. The first of the DD13 engines, one of seven in operation, is set to hit the 900 kilometre mark. There is, currently, another six 15-litre versions also running in the fleet.
“They’re going really well and have not given us any trouble,” Peter says. “To be honest, their warranty sets them apart. They stand behind their product unlike some companies where there’s all these incidentals that aren’t included. Really, they are way in front. If you are in two minds the way they have backed their warranty up it would make you go that way for sure. And there’s no arguments over the servicing. They’ve been terrific.”
With the exception of a couple of minor oil leaks covered under the Detroit warranty, Peter says there is no hidden costs. Detroit might call up and suggest, given the kilometres covered, some care or maintenance.
“If you agree then it’s all good but if you say ‘no’ that’s fine, too,” Peter says. “There’s no ‘do you want fries with it on the way out?”
Customarily with engines, regardless of the brand, Peter has a preference to change out the turbos at around 600,000 kilometres. He says they don’t generally see a million kilometres and that he’d rather do it when it suits him rather than after he’s marooned on the side of the road.
“Out of all of the Detroit engines we’ve only ever had one of the turbos fail but it was inside warranty and everything was paid for from one end to the other including the tow,” he says. “Compared to something like the C-13, which I made the mistake of purchasing three back in the day, the valve actuators on them would play up in the cold weather.”
A problem, of course, in Ballarat where you will hear there are only two seasons, both a variation on winter.
“Every year in the wintertime you’d start the truck and it would be running on three cylinders. Any new driver you put in the truck would call you up at four in the morning and tell you there was something wrong with the engine. You’d have to tell them, invariably, that’s just the way it warms up. Even in the yard until the engine had reached temperature there would be a huge cloud of white smoke of unburnt fuel and all of a sudden the truck would drive through the middle of it.”
That imagery, at least in Peter’s experience, is a thing of the past merely by virtue of the Detroit-powered trucks. Drivers, for a case in point, no longer need to amble for two kilometres before the motor begins firing on all cylinders. The high power and great fuel economy of the DD13 befits the task at hand for Clifford Brick and Tile Transport. Given the work is largely single trailer, it doesn’t buy B-double rated trucks. The Detroit DD15 engines are mostly powering quad-dog combinations running up to 50.5 tonne all access. Under PBS they can run to higher gross concessional mass but with the site access they require, it’s not often the company can get the extra weight on them. Anything more than 50.5 tonne would prohibit the trucks from entering suburban streets, a non-negotiable given the requirements of the business.
“The quad-dogs are better suited to bricks as you can get around four tonne more than a semi, but if you load them with tiles, they get around three tonnes less as you run out of room to fit them on it,” Peter says. The later Detroit engines, with the engine management features, have been a major addition to the equipment according to Peter, who acknowledges the engine brake is very good.
Getting ready made drivers onto the semi-trailers is a challenge. The driver shortage Peter says affects all parts of the transport industry and it’s increasingly difficult for young people to get a start driving trucks as the insurance costs are very significant and new or younger drivers need to be able to work their way up the graded licencing system.
“Part of my role is to manage how we deal with that,” he says. “A lot of people want to get a heavy vehicle combination licence but these days in our industry there’s not a lot of room for a tray truck operation. Because you need to carry the weight.”
As wages can be around 50 per cent of a freight operators’ total costs, carting half the load compared to a larger vehicle doesn’t make sense, financially. Running smaller trucks makes it harder to recoup on the outlay. Back when the business purchased its first semi-trailer in 1980 most building supply transporters, Peter recalls, were operating a Ford Louisville or a Kenworth powered by a Cummins 903 engine rated at 280 horsepower. That engine was soon turbocharged and became the VT903 as a result of the demands of industry.
“If you tried to get someone to drive a 300 horsepower truck now they would all laugh at you,” he says.
The Freightliner Cascadia is something Peter is looking forward to testing, not in the least for the new Detroit DD16 it has been paired with. Among its features are the three state integrated Jacobs engine brake for enhanced braking power and reduced noise, and a proprietary asymmetric turbocharger matched to the updated Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) system.
For now, the Detroit warranty of five years and a million kilometres is the best going. In addition to it, Evan Rawlinson in the Product Support team at Penske Power Systems, continues to be a great source of support and knowledge.
“We had a minor thing on a throttle body where it was only registering as a fault on the dash and I called him up and it was solved no problems,” he says. “His knowledge of the Detroit product and what the likely issue is and at what point it is in terms of mileage is exceptional. He’s really good. So many of the warranties when you read them unspool like the terms and conditions on an insurance policy. With a lot of the others it’s not worth the effort. Detroit make it worth it.”