Chasing Ghosts


h1 This 1962 AB 180 International is an old highway hero and a relic of 1960’s express freight. h1
h3 The UHF radio is the only concession to modernity in this old fire breather. h3
h5 Hans Jensen drove this Inter as an employee of O’Connells in the late 60’s. He then bought the truck when the company closed it’s doors in the early 70’s. h5
h9 O’Connell trucks all featured a swan bonnet emblem. h9
h15 That speedo needle has been seen some work over the years. It’s allegedly been wound right around to high beam light in angel gear! h15
h16 2 spare tyres were standard kit for these highway haulers. h16
h19 A Hume Highway survivor on the old Hume, and the V8 sounds fantastic when on song. h19
h20 This 361 Chrysler engine came from a wrecked O’Connell Dodge. Since the early 70’s it’s only had a set of rings. h20

Express freight has a much different meaning in this day and age. Matt Wood climbs behind the wheel of a relic from a time when express was a whole different ball game.

 

It’s hard not to get excited by the sound of a big old petrol V8 heaving and breathing, and as I stand beside this old 1962 AB International I can’t help but grin as the old 361 cubic inch 8-iron splutters into life. Before diesels became king in road transport, these old Mopar donks had a formidable reputation for holding together as well as a reputation for getting places in a hurry.

The V8 stutter cackles from the twin side pipes, of course if this truck was original it would be powered by a 345 International V8 rather than the Chrysler powerplant. However, that’s just a part of the story of this old highway hero. 

White Line Fever

Talk about the origins of inter-capital express freight and most will recall the days of the famed Kwikasair and Comet Kenworth K125 "Grey Ghosts" that blazed the old Hume highway between Melbourne and Sydney. Or maybe even the IPEC MANs or Ansett S-model Kenworths.

However, before the emergence of the big diesel powered Kenworths, Ansett depended on another kind of truck for their overnight inter-capital "Rocket Service". Footscray based Bill O’Connell started hauling express freight for Ansett in 1957 with Chevrolet Viking trucks.

These express trucks had just 13 hours to make the trip from Melbourne to Sydney. No mean feat back in those times!

Hans Jensen grew up on the family farm near Warrenbayne, Victoria. Just down the road from Benalla. Hans always had a hankering for trucks, by the mid 60’s he had his own tipper supplying super to local crop dusting contractors.  But in the off-season, in 1967 he scored a job driving for O’Connell Transport.

O’Connell Transport

This beautifully restored AB International was originally a part of the O’Connell fleet and Hans drove it as an employee back in the day. However, once the company closed its doors in the early 1970’s Hans bought it and put it to work as a tipper back home in Benalla. It worked full-time until the mid-80’s when it was   retired in favour of a 1418 Benz. The AB’s final resting place was under a tree at the family farm.

The O’Connell transport job was relatively simple, get in the loaded truck, get out of town and then hold her flat. For the most part these trips were changeovers; the O’Connell trucks originally had distinctive blue clearance lights on top of the cab. There were no CB radios of course so once you saw your changeover truck you’d pull up, grab your bag walk across the road and jump behind the wheel of the other truck.

The blue clearance lights soon raised the ire of the walloppers so these were then changed to orange lights mounted on a triangle plate above the cab.

According to Hans, Bill O’Connell Senior however, would watch as the fuel bill steadily rose when the drivers were on changeover work before declaring that everyone then had to go straight through. Sure enough, the fuel bill would then go down.

On straight through work Hans reckons that the Chrysler small block would guzzle through 450 litres of fuel. Compare that to the 580 litres or so of diesel an average B-double would use on the Hume these days!

Halcyon Days

Hans grins at the recollection, "When you were doing changeovers you could spend a bit more time socializing on the way home."

"But because you were dragging the chain you’d drive even faster to make up time."

"If anything was said you’d just blame it on your changeover being late."

This truck was the sole Inter in the fleet, the other seven trucks were 7-Series Dodge AT4s.

"The International V8 only lasted for about 50,000 miles before blowing up, they’d had a bit of trouble with it," Hans recalls, "So the decision was made to repower it with the engine and gearbox out of one of the Dodges that had been rolled."

The Inter retained its original Number 4 Eaton 2-speed diff and 6 spoke spider hubs.

It’s hard to imagine any transport company in this day and age being built on the need for speed. Back then the speed limit for trucks was 40mph, but these trucks were geared to travel at between 70 and 80mph, nearly twice the legal limit.

"They used to give us 13 hours but you could do it in 12 if you drove fast," Hans reckons. "The best time I ever did it in 10 and a half hours."

"But in those days once you were out of town there was nobody else on the road after dark."

InterDodgenal

There are of course plenty of similarities between the AB Inter and the 7-Series Dodge. The Inter cab was pressed locally by a division of Chrysler and conversely International helped out by casting parts for Dodges. 

This particular truck has had it’s share of exploits over the years, "One bloke put it upside at the hole in the wall at Picton," Hans says, "He reckons he ran out of brakes."

Which could well be true, while these old bangers could get up and go at highway speeds those old braking systems were never awesome.

As the Vietnam War ramped up dramatically, the O’Connell trucks were sometimes called upon to grab military supplies at the Bandiana Army base near Wodonga, "I even carted some machine guns one night!"

Once the load was delivered to Mascot, O’Connell drivers would then find a place to park and stretch out for a kip across the front seats.

Han’s wife Peta also came along on a few trips, "I loved it," she enthuses, "It was bit scary sometimes though." Even today Peta loves going for a run in the old banger. In fact it was Peta who encouraged Hans to restore the truck to its former glory.

As we chat the stories from back in the day start to flow.

Story Time

"One night up near Goulburn the rear diff neautralised!" Hans says of some of his more colourful memories behind the wheel, "Because I had no gears I had no handbrake either, I had to roll to a stop, grab the jack from under the seat and hand out the door to throw it under the back of the front wheel as a chock!"

"That was the only way to hold it while I hit the diff with a hammer to get it back into gear."

O’Connell trucks were fitted with 3 fuel tanks, 2 side tanks and one centre tank located under the driver’s seat. "When the engine started to splutter you’d just switch the fuel tank tap to another tank.

Having a fuel tank under your butt while driving at high speed must’ve been a pretty good incentive to keep it shiny side up.

One night a highway patrol car pulled Hans up, "I hadn’t filled out my log book." So Hans let the truck roll back away from the police car a bit to stall for time as he madly scribbled in the dark. Luckily the officer saw the funny side of things as only the carbon copy of the logbook page had registered any info, "I’d been writing with the wrong end of the pen!"

Close Shave

Han’s closest shave happened when climbing Sylvia’s Gap one night, "A Leyland semi was crawling up the grade so I pulled out to overtake, just as another truck crested the hill coming my way." The lop sided grin returns as Hans continues, "I hit the brakes to pull back in behind the Leyland, trouble is so did the driver of the Leyland!"

"We ended up almost at a standstill side by side looking at each other with another truck barreling towards me." "It was a close thing but I got it going again."

Hans drives the Inter out of town, that V8 exhaust note is a glorious thing, especially as it needs a boot full of revs to make the truck move.

Drive Time

Then it’s my turn to take the wheel. I roll out onto the Hume Freeway working my way up through the gearbox, this thing hammers along for an old truck! That exhaust note climbs to a crescendo but I decide to be a good boy and stick to the highway limit.

We turn off the freeway at Winton to get a glimpse of what it would’ve been like to fang this truck on a skinny single lane road.

With the Inter wound up I can’t get over how tight this truck is to drive, Hans reckons there’s a bit of free play in the steering box however I didn’t think it was that noticeable.

Hans completely restored this truck in his back yard, doing everything himself, "Except for paint, I’m no good at painting."

As I drive I find it hard to believe that this is a 55 year old truck. I try and picture what it must’ve been like back then, flames spitting from the dual exhausts in the darkness, the Lucas demister keeping a little patch of windscreen clear of frost and ice, a tiny aftermarket heater providing a small amount of heat. Swinging that massive steering wheel as the white lines flick past at a manic pace.

Howling V8

The howling note of 361 angry cubic inches reverberating off roadside cuttings in the dead of night. At odds with the calm idle, wind noise and driveline whine as the speedo cranks off the clock in angel gear on a descent.

The 5-speed synchro ‘box is an easy shift and the 2-speed diff shifts reasonably quickly. Both Hans and I are grinning like idiots as we roll into Glenrowan.

Hans points out the old Glenrowan Post Office, "Betty Poepple was the Post Mistress here back then, she was Bill O’Connell’s daughter," Hans says, "If we were held up on the road we used to pull up and bang on the back door in the middle of the night to give her the message, she’d then call the depot and let them know we were running late."    

Driving this truck is a blast, the sight sound and feel of moving at speed. These trucks were still plying the Hume as the Grey Ghosts became the mainstay of overnight freight. "The Kenworths were about 10mph faster on the flats, but we were always chasing them, and we could stick with them on the corners and hills."

Trucking soon moved into the age of diesel, O’Connell Transport closed in 1972 and by this time Detroit and Cummins were becoming the dominant midnight soundtrack on the Hume. Small block V8s continued to have their place for a little while longer in smaller Dodge AT4s and Ford F100s hauling newspapers. However, the writing was on the wall for petrol power as it gradually faded from the highway.

For Hans and Peta Jensen however, those days have never really ended.

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