Highway 31: A journey down the Old Hume

By: Matt Wood, Photography by: Stephen Dwight, Video by: John Beirouty


After weeks of comparing the White and Western Star prime movers, it is time for Matt Wood and Steve Brooks to hit the Old Hume Highway to answer the age-old question; is trucking what it used to be?

 

It’s funny how time can speed up and slow down depending on what you may be doing at any given time.

If you’re waiting for a train or stuck in traffic, time drags, if you’re having fun at a party, time flies. Watching your team lose an important game? It always happens in slow motion.

While our relationship with time may be a little stretchable, four decades is a long time in anyone’s book. Time, trucking, and technology have trundled down the road of progress over the last 40 years. Truck engines have become more powerful and more reliable all the while becoming more fuel efficient and cleaner.

Yet, it seems a part of human nature to mythologise the past, hence that old saying ‘the older I get the better I was.’

And you’d be hard pressed to find another road in Australia that would be shrouded in as much myth and legend as the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney.

So we thought it may be interesting to put two trucks on that famed stretched of now-bypassed highway to see just how much has changed. Were things really that much better in the old days?

The Old Hume Highway out of Camden NSW, seemed a fitting stretch of road to compare just how much trucks, engines and highways have changed. We wanted to pit a survivor from the halcyon Hume Highway days of the 1970s and ’80s against its present day incarnation to see just how much has changed.

 

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Matt Wood standing proudly in front of the White (left) and Western Star contenders.

 

Comparing specs

In one corner we had a current model Western Star 4900FXT and in the other we had a fully-restored 1975 White 4000.

Both are conventional prime movers with classic lines and both are powered by Detroit engines. But that’s where the similarities end.

The ‘Star has a Detroit DD15 under the bonnet that cranks out 560hp and 1850lb/ft. The White uses an 8V71N Detroit with 318hp and 800lb/ft.

The ‘Star uses an 18-speed Eaton UltraShift-Plus automated transmission, while the White has an old 15-speed overdrive ‘box with a shifter shaped like a broom handle.

The newer truck towers over its ancestor. That 15-litre Detroit EGR has a comparatively massive cooling package. The cab sits high off the chassis to allow engine heat to escape.

An electronic engine management system oversees engine operation and fuel delivery, much in the way of the DD’s ground breaking forefather, the Series 60 Detroit. High pressure fuel is delivered in a finely metered spray.   

The White Motor Company used to own the Western Star brand alongside the iconic Autocar brand. But by the late 1970s White was ailing and in 1980 Volvo bought the company and consequently, a foothold in the lucrative North American market.

These days Western Star nestles under the umbrella of Daimler’s North American interests, while Autocar lives on as an independent vocational brand.

Alas, White is no more.

But our beautifully restored White is typical of the trucks that used to ply the old Hume Highway of the 1970s and ’80s.

Finesse isn’t a big part of the White’s repertoire. The 9-litre supercharged V8 is fed diesel by a mechanical fuel system that relies on quantity rather than quality.

As with all old GM Detroits, it leaks oil and a little coolant, and a boot full of revs fills the sky with fuel smoke. And the sound? Pretty much like a horny tyrannosaurus rex gargling wet cement. It is however, very cool.

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Hitting the Old Hume

My colleague Steve Brooks got the job of steering the sensitive new age ‘Star while I wrestled with the barely power assisted steering of the White and the back-to-front gear pattern of the overdrive ‘box.

As Steve idled sedately up the Razorback Range I had to take a more proactive approach. Meaning I had to keep the right foot flat and the gear changes on the money.

The White certainly isn’t lacking any aural drama and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t enjoying the demanding job of piloting the old 4000.

Before the completion of the Hume Freeway the Old Hume Highway through Camden, Picton, and Bargo would have been alive with a nocturnal Detroit, Cummins, and Caterpillar bellow.

These towns are now sedate little tourist villages that do little to hint of an earlier time.

Every stop was a giveaway to just how far things have progressed. Steve sauntered away from the 4900 like he’d just hopped out of the family sedan.

I was however, walking like Buffalo Bill with my ears ringing.

The comparisons between the two are endless. The massive Stratosphere sleeper on the 4900 with its massive king bed is a very pleasant place to be. The dog box sleeper on the White requires feats of anatomic contortion to even get into it.

The tarp load on the old spread triaxle flat top behind the White speaks of a time when ropes and tarps were the norm. The Auto-Hold-Auto Mezzdeck Freighter curtain-sider behind the Western Star points to a future where the driver need only throw a strap or two over a load.

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What it all means

The old road houses are now shut and the old Highway 31 is now a tourist drive. Yet in places, bluestone walls bear the scars of a misjudged corner now over grown with age.

The mists of time gloss over the sheer sweat and determination required to pilot these old trucks down undulating two lane backdrops.

The Western Star 4900 with its blind spot cameras, automated gearbox and lean green powerplant in many ways represents the future of long haul trucking in Australia.

The White? It’s a constant reminder of how far we’ve come.

Our drive down history’s highway certainly showed me that the past is a nice place to visit. But, you really wouldn’t want to live there.           

 

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