A MAN out of the Cold War

By: Matt Wood

Birdsville is famous for its annual racing carnival, and it’s also famous for being in the middle of bloody nowhere. Matt Wood catches up with a truck that has built up its own fair share of fame


The Australian Outback has a way of absorbing man and machine into it’s vast interior. The skeletons of mechanical relics littler the landscape like the desiccated carcasses of dead livestock sinking slowly back into the parched earth. The cast offs of man’s industrial flirtations in an ancient landscape.

But there’s one Outback relic that won’t be reclaimed by the shifting sands anytime soon. And that’s the MAN KAT tilt tray owned by Birdsville-based Peter Barnes.

It’s a relic of the Cold War from a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation cast a long shadow over the globe. Television news stories from the ’70s and ’80s of military parades often showed these trucks laboring under a deadly explosive payload; The sinister silhouette of the war machine waiting for an excuse to pounce.

So it seems quite appropriate to find this nuclear age survivor coated in mud and dust on the edge of the Simpson Desert. A battered old warrior in an almost post-apocalyptic landscape.


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The MAN KAT was a popular beast of burden for NATO forces during the Cold War.



I’ve driven plenty of trucks with the engine under the cab, often the muted purr of a European 6 or an 8. I’ve even driven plenty with the engine under a bonnet out front, a 15 litre burble that thrums through the floor. But until recently I’d never driven a truck with the engine behind the cab.

‘Barnsey’ as he likes to be called is a well-known fella out Birdsville way. Together with his wife Judy, Barnsey owns and runs the Birdsville Roadhouse which keeps outback travellers stocked with groceries, fuel, permits and other knick knacks as they pass through south west Queensland.

Barnesy also runs a workshop attached to the business, tacking things back together the bush may have broken. And on top of that the Roadhouse would have to be one of the most remote RACQ agents in the state.

Sitting in the ruddy dust out front of the servo is perhaps the Roadhouse’s most famous staff member; the aforementioned giant ex-German Army MAN KAT truck.

The towering dark green (no it’s not black!) 4x4 attracts admirers on a daily basis as they trail into town. But with a tilt tray on its back, the people who admire it the most are usually the ones stranded in the middle of the Simpson Desert with a major mechanical issue.

Because it’s this old V8 brute that will be barging through the dunes to drag them back to civilisation.


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Barnsey inspects the driveline under the Bozmac tilt tray.


Cross-Country Express

Back in the 1970s the original design brief for the KAT was for it to be amphibious which explains the weird shape and engine placement on the MAN.

But this proved to be a bit pricey for the powers-that-be at the time. So the amphibious bit was dropped but the fixed cab and the cab mounted engine was kept.

Another element of the design was to make sure it could be squeezed into a military cargo plane; which explains the relatively low cab profile.

These MANs were a mainstay of the West German army and European NATO forces during the height of the Cold War. They’re a constant 4x4 with coil springs all-round and have a wading depth of 1,200mm.

6x6 and 8x8 models sported turbo-chargers and intercoolers for more grunt. The idea was that these trucks should be able to match the pace of battle tanks over the same terrain.

Payload for the 4x4 model is about 5 tonne, but Barnsey starts looking at the dirt kicking stones around in the gravel with a lop-sided grin on his face as he mutters this, so I’m guessing its seen some big loads in its time.

In fact one of the bigger jobs this old truck has had was standing a triple stock-crate road train back up on its wheels after a rollover. With the help of a CAT grader the KAT eventually winched the triple back onto its feet.



Make/model: 1979 MAN KAT 4x4

Engine: Air-Cooled Deutz V8

Power: 265hp

Transmission: 6-speed synchromesh manual with lock up torque converter

Drive: Constant 4x4 with centre and rear diff locks

Tare Weight: 9 tonne

Payload: 5 tonne





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