RECORD-SETTING MKII V8 SUPERLINER


This was the rebuild of all rebuilds – not only a challenging truck to bring back to life, but one with a story attached as colourful as it is impressive. Warren Aitken charts the history of a world record-setting MKII V8 Superliner and the men behind this extraordinary machine

 

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Welcome folks, before we begin, I recommend everyone do a quick status check, is your beer cold? Have you got some chips to crunch on? Have you emptied your bladder? Because I’m inviting you to sit down and enjoy a story I’ve been waiting 17 months to write. For those dubious about the level of amusement involved, well when you’ve got a story that involves names like Plugger, Ferret, Tart, Bullbar Bob, Burloo, Popeye and even Festus, I think you can be assured it’s an interesting tale.

By now I’m sure you have already flicked through the photos accompanying this piece and after wiping the drool off your chin have come to the same conclusion as countless other truck fans: "DAMN that’s a fine-looking Superliner" – and you would be right.

Now, however, you have come back to read the story and learn a bit more about it. So welcome, let me take you back to May 2018. That’s when the marvellous world of Facebook connected a very young workshop manager with yours truly.

"Hey Bud. I’m doing up a V8 ‘88 model Superliner in my workshop in Toowoomba atm. The truck’s got a bit of history behind it."

That was the understated opening to the message I got from Mark Holt, the afore-mentioned workshop manager. He finished the introduction with the almost redundant statement: "Let me know if you’re interested in having a look at it." I mean, seriously, does a bear crap in the woods? Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back? He had me at V8 ‘88 Superliner!

KEEP IT IN THE FAMILY

Of course, I acted more like a professional journalist than a giddy schoolboy when I replied, but the end result was that we kept in constant communication as the rebuild took place. Many progress photos were sent by Mark, and to be honest, it kind of felt like finding dad’s Penthouse collection as I hid away from others just to enjoy the view. Not that I ever found dad’s collection – I was way too busy studying and assisting the elderly, I promise.

The Superliner’s progress was stunning. The quality of the workmanship from all involved as she grew alive again was just breathtaking to watch. Finally, 15 months after first chatting with Mark, and only days before its debut at the Casino Truck show, I pulled up to BlingHQ in Hattonvale, Qld, where the truck was getting detailed and laid eyes on one of the most impressive resurrections I’ve seen. A 1988 MKII V8 Superliner, and not just any Superliner, but a world record-setting MKII V8 Superliner.

Whilst all the hard work was getting put into making the truck look good (and I will get to that shortly) I started researching, as Mark underwhelmingly put it, the "bit of history behind it".

Kevin ‘Plugger’ Bowden is the name on the door and the truck is best known for its miraculous feat of strength, back in 1994, when it set the world record for the longest ever road train towed. A total of 29 stock trailers and 28 dollies linked together like one of those childhood-toy snakes, only much, much longer. Even the tale behind that is typically Aussie. However, first I think we need to appreciate just how much influence the entire Bowden family has had over generations of trucking. Even to this day the name is still synonymous with hard work, helping hands and highway legends.

Plugger, about to get the job done!

Kevin never really had a choice about what industry he would end up in, it’s in the family DNA. The diesel veins can be traced back to the end of the horse and cart era and ironically the introduction of the petrol-powered big rigs.

Kevin’s grandfather Albert is ground zero for the family story. Originally an engineer on paddle steamers, Albert moved the family, which included Kevin’s dad Cyril and Cyril’s two brothers, from Wilcannia to Bourke in 1922. In 1926, AL Bowden & Sons picked up the mail contract between Bourke and Wanarring, returning with wool to Sydney to help make extra coin.

It was this service that would serve as the backbone of AL Bowden & Sons for several decades. Through the harsh NSW conditions of the time, that included corrugated roads deep enough to lose one of the Bowden’s old Leyland, dodges or Reos the family used to move mail and wool throughout the year to keep the bills paid.

There are records kept that in 1933 the Bowdens, including Kevin’s Dad Cyril who had started driving the year before with a permit as he was only 17, moved 5,200 bales of wool. That’s not bad when you think about how much should ‘legally’ have been on a truck in that era. I’m no rocket scientist but I’m pretty sure the maths equates to the odd overload.

It wasn’t just their tenacity to hook in that spawned the Bowden legacy, it was their adaptability as well. Case in point, the ‘Mulga Supergrade’. Adaptability at its best. The Mulga Supergrade was a coal powered fuel system that the Bowdens ran on their trucks during World War 2. They ran it because fuel rationing meant they were only allotted enough fuel to complete the delivery of their mail run, not enough to get the trucks back. The system was installed and sure, it pulled like a derated 909, but it did get the boys home again. The Bowdens were a family that battled in the toughest conditions and as a family they thrived.

AL Bowden and Sons trading up until the 1960s, at that stage Kevin’s Dad Cyril took over and began trading as CA Bowden & Sons. Kevin, along with his brothers Ronald (Ferret) and Bruce (Tart) moved the family business into the livestock industry. They continued the mail service as well as general freight though by that time the livestock had them as far afield as Darwin and Townsville. In 1964, the Bowdens joined much of the Bourke shire in placing a Bulldog Mack in the fleet colours. The EH Mack was followed a couple of years later by their first B-model Mack. With the trucks working with, let’s say, more than impressive loads, along with covering some tough landscapes, the Macks proved their worth and remained the staple diet for CA Bowden & Sons.

It’s not quite twenty-nine trailers long but we couldn’t resist hooking the old new girl to a modern day quad road train, if only for a photo.

NEW ERA

The family worked as one for a few more decades before eventually splitting up in the early ‘80s and the sons branched out on their own. Sadly, Cyril passed away in late 1988 almost a decade after he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his services to the transport industry. Cyril’s love of the country and the transport industry was evident in everything he did and thankfully for the next generation they followed in their father’s footsteps.

As the early nineties rolled in, Kevin was running his own truck under the Kevin Bowden banner, a R-model Mack still doing livestock all over the countryside. Plugger’s R-model was then replaced with one MKI Superliner, though this may purely have been because he was sick of sleeping across the seats of the R-model. Plugger’s driver at the time, a young Wayne ‘Pie’ Parry actually informs me that Plugger very nearly ended up with one of the Bi-centennials.

"Yeah, Mack actually rung Plugger to offer him one of the Bi-centennials," says Pie, "but the work was a bit on/off and he couldn’t really justify it." Wayne grins as he then informs me that not long after, the rains came and the work went through the roof.

Plugger rung Mack and ordered the MKII, speccing it out with the bigger bunk and looking a lot like the limited-edition Bi-centennials. Pie also informed me a little of the early history of the truck. I’m not referring to his joy as a 25-year-old to be sharing such a rig with Plugger, nope. I’m referring to the fact it didn’t make it far out of Sydney on its maiden journey.

"Coming out of Sydney, she started pressurizing the radiator. Brand new, she dropped a liner," Pie tells me. He goes on to explain that it was taken back, stripped down and all fixed up. At that point they rung Plugger to inform him it was all good to go; they’d had it on the Dyno and it was putting out 460 something at the wheels. In a typical Plugger response he pointed out he’d paid for a 500, so if it’s not putting 500 out at the wheels then don’t bother bringing it out. The language was a little more colourful but I’ll keep it PG.

Plugger’s effect on the industry was much more far reaching than just the road train records; before he even set the first one in 1993 he was also the first operator in Bourke to bring in a four deck crate. Like any new idea it was scoffed at but Plugger knew what he was doing and they are now a staple of the industry.

The old Mack may have been resurrected...but it's still the same special truck

RECORD BREAKER

So, I think I’ve brought us up to the moment that made Plugger and his truck famous. Now, however the details of the pull are told best by another icon, Bob Hayward. Bob was the man behind the hugely successful Bourke radio show, ‘Trucks and Tracks’. It was an idea dreamed up by Bob at 3am one morning and laughed at by his director. Like Plugger’s four deck crate it went on to become a huge hit; interviewing all manner of people affiliated with the transport industry and getting a lot of people talking.

It also introduced Bob to a lot of the local operators, including Plugger. This introduction came in handy when Bob and his mate Andrew Aitchison heard that a road train record of 14 trailers had been set in Winton in 1993. Bob and Andrew were adamant: "We can do it better in Bourke."

Even Mack were on board. Lending a heavy duty CLR Mack with hub reduction, they hooked 16 trailers up to set a new record, and who else could drive it but Plugger? Within a year that record had been surpassed up in Darwin. Though Bob points out that it "shouldn’t have counted – they had empty flattops, an empty tanker, but we did it all with stock crates".

So, come 1994, Bourke wanted their title back and the bush telegraph had trailers rolling in from every operator and company within miles of Bourke. The end result was 29 trailers – a total of just over 439 metres of tyres and crates, weighing around 500 tonnes. Now, what I didn’t know was that it wasn’t meant to be Plugger’s truck at the front. Mack were building a huge heavy spec rig for the task, which sadly wasn’t ready in time.

Bob informs me that the news was broken to him a couple weeks out from D-day.

"I rung Plugger, as he was going to drive it again, and told him ‘you’re not gunna believe it old son, we don’t have a truck’," Bob recalls. "Plugger said straight away ‘we’ll use mine’." Bob laughs as he recalls the impracticality of the offer, pointing out to Plugger its highway rated diffs, the fact it didn’t have hub reductions and it was only 110t rated. Bob also vividly recalls Plugger’s matter-of fact-response to Bob’s scepticism: "I reckon we can do it easy!"

Doing it easy wasn’t really the way it rolled out to be honest. The whole town assisted in getting the unit together and eventually Plugger had the big Superliner in place. It was at this point that Bob, who along with his son was sitting in the truck beside Plugger, learnt a little bit about the Bowden appreciation of history.

"Plugger remembers the old blokes talking about horses and how before they stepped the horses off, they pushed them back in the traces so everything was slack and as they took their first step the weight would come on after they were mobile," Bob informs me. He then explains how Plugger took that notion and pushed back himself. All be it, when he pushed back on 29 trailers there may have been a good metre of clicking back.

An old clipping from the paper - what a headline!

When he threw it forward, the big bonnet went up, the black smoke rolled and, as Bob admits, "We now know all that weight went straight into that rear diff," and that rear diff shattered. Bob admits to a moment of panic from inside the cabin, hearing that noise, but when he asked Plugger what the hell had happened, his response was: "I don’t know Bobby, but she’s still going."

Bob insisted Plugger pull it up. Instead, Plugger’s grin and the fact that he threw another gear into her at full noise showed that he wasn’t giving up. The Big Mack didn’t either, getting up to almost 28km/h before the other organiser Andrew, screamed out over the two-way to pull her up as the rear trailer had clipped in on a power pole.

Like most things back in that era you learnt by experience. Looking back now, Plugger and Bob admit they should have realised that the Big Mack had air enough for only six trailers, so one through six braked beautifully when required. Seven through 29 went in their own direction. There was a bit of pressure on a couple of dollies, a couple of broken drawbars and a very startled police officer who had his back to the truck when the drawback snapped, subsequently scaring 10 years off of his life.

By the time the whole lot had all been dismantled and a couple of blokes had run the hat around the appreciative crowd, they had raised enough money to cover all the repairs. The boys all enjoyed a great laugh at the bowls club and the record was returned to Bourke, where it belonged.

That day in 1994 was Plugger’s most public feat but it was far from his crowning glory. The generosity and spirit of the Bowden family has carried on to this day. Plugger and his lovely wife Dot carried on running the Superliner, moving into tipper work when the weather conditions saw dramatic falls in stock numbers. Eventually, due to ill health, Plugger sold the Mack to his nephew Mark (Popeye) Bowden. In August 2007, two years after selling the MKII, Kevin ‘Plugger’ Bowden passed away and was laid to rest in Bourke.

Half a kilometre of truck and trailer! No mercy for diffs...

NEW PASTURES

Now we jump ahead six years, I’m sure in movie language there’s a technical phrase for skipping ahead but I’m just going to call it lazy writing. 2013 was a very special year in the life of Plugger Bowden’s Mack. That was the year that new owners got their hands on the 1988 Superliner. Mark ‘Popeye’ Bowden, who had bought the truck from Plugger, wasn’t in a hurry to sell the old girl but when an offer came from a family steeped in trucking history and with a respect for the Superliners past, it wasn’t a tough call to make.

The truck was put on the back of a float and sent up to a workshop in Toowoomba. Funnily enough, when the truck was rolled off the float, one of the first people there to see it was Wayne ‘Pie’ Parry, Plugger’s driver when he had bought the truck. Like excited schoolboys, Pie and the new owner jumped in and took her for a quick spin.

"She definitely needs a bit of work," was the comment made when the brake-pedal struggled to do the one thing required of it: brake.

After its action-packed test drive the truck was handed off to Vanfit Diesel owner, Mark Van Dongen, who was tasked with stripping her back to bare bones.

Mark, Nic and the team definitely stepped up, bringing the truck from well worked to OH WOW. This shot shows the efforts to remake the exhaust system.

"It was well used" and "it was buggered" were two of the initial comments from Mark when he laid eyes on it for the first time. Plenty of hours were spent on the rails, cross members and running gear. After the tear down, Mark set about needle gunning the rails and getting the running gear back to working. From there, he moved onto other work and the resurrection process was shelved.

Once again, we will jump ahead – this time to November 2017 when another Mark – Mark Holt, the man I met on Facebook – started as workshop foreman and with a lot of help from Nicolas Ball, the Bowden Superliner was a topic of conversation again.

Mark Holt’s history in rebuilds, as far as I can tell, is limited to throwing his Lego around the room when he couldn’t get the wheels on the race car he was building at primary school. His history with tools and machinery though is much more expansive. Starting as an agricultural apprentice back in Albury, before working on trucks, he took those skills to the thriving metropolis of Kalgoorlie, and after some more youthful adventure he ended up in Toowoomba.

His first run in with Nicolas (who coincidentally before the Bowden’s truck had a very similar level of rebuild experience) was there in Toowoomba. The two hit it off and by the time Mark found himself as a workshop manager he once again had Nic working alongside him. When Mark was handed the keys to the shed with pallets of parts and a couple of chassis rails, he made sure Nic was beside him.

Dean Conway’s freshly resurrected and repainted E9 motor in all it’s glory.

BACK TO LIFE

It may have seemed a fairly incomprehensible mountain to climb for two guys that have never undertaken such a huge project, especially as Nic describes himself as "a trailer mechanic trying to make it to the front end", but Nic also points out that it was Mark’s managerial skills that broke the project down into accomplishable linear problems.

There were definitely a few of those: working out an airline system without any cheat sheet; an exhaust setup that confused the pros and resulted in Mark and Nic building it themselves; different sized fuel tanks, different sized J brackets – oh, this truck threw everything at them. The boys dug in though and whilst also running the workshop and fleet maintenance, they tackled each problem and worked out a solution.

Engineering issues took up the majority of the first few months, getting everything checked and specked. The team at Darling Downs Engineering were instrumental in so much of the engineering rebuild; repairing old parts and fabricating replacements. Mark and Nic are good, but they were happy to let the big boys do that stuff. Mark is also very quick to express his gratitude to Greg Burling from Toowoomba Truck Spares for plenty of advice and assistance getting the work done. "He’s the man to talk to about old Superliners," Mark states.

Interior work was another major issue. The whole bonnet cab and bunk had been taken off and stored during the original tear down and the interior needed to be ripped out and replaced. Personally, I think the reo bar welded in to hold up the dash may have been an artistic addition but instead, the bonnet bunk and cab were sent to Peter Mac Truck repairs for extensive work, whilst the interior repairs were left in the hands of Toowoomba Trimming, who did a fantastic job restoring it. Even down to hand-sewn pieces in the bunk and custom leather seats. Mark firmly believes the interior is the best part of the rebuild. Along with changing the dash colour to a stunning metallic grey, Mark took it upon himself to add in a PearlCraft steering wheel and gearstick head, which finished it off beautifully.

Now, if Mark and Nic had mountains to overcome, I’m pretty sure motor wizard Dean Conway had to skydive from 30,000ft to see his issues. One of the few things the new owner was insistent on was finding the big 500’s original motor to go back in.

Finding the motor, no worries, it was becoming part of the landscape in a Bourke paddock. Getting it back to Toowoomba, easy as; on pallet, on truck. Getting it going, well that was tougher than a BBQ bush turkey. Who would do it was never in question though; Dean Conway from Toowoomba was the man for the job.

Dean grew up with Plugger’s grandsons and had strong ties to the family. In fact, his father-in-law was none other than Wayne ‘Pie’ Parry himself. So how much work was needed?

1. This years Casino truck show saw the debut of the rebuilt Mack Superliner. The bonnet may have dwarfed the trucks around it, but it was the impressive interior that the crowds admired. Even the original St Christopher’s medal that Dot had given Plugger was mounted in the restored dash.

"It had been laying in the paddock in the dirt, everything had been robbed off it over the years and I thought ‘here we go’," Dean recalls. He goes on to explain a few minor issues he had to deal with.

"I drained the sump and there was about 20 litres of water in the sump [and] five of the eight pistons were rusted in. I thought ‘Jeeze we’re in the shit here!’" It ended up taking Dean about nine hours to get the pistons out and more than once he thought it wasn’t possible. But it got machined, four new heads, new pistons liners, the crankshaft machined, everything that could have been replaced was. Dean admits though that he did get a bit more out of the fuel pump, so if it ever does get on the dino, Plugger can be sure it’s giving more than he paid for. All up, Dean had the engine for two years before he fired it up on the back of the trailer.

"First start of an engine you’ve built is always a special one, but this was a bit more," Dean tells me, and like everyone else involved you could really tell the importance of this build.

With the motor running, the wheels turning, the replicated paint work done perfectly by Peter Mac Truck Repairs and Sam Keddie coming in to do the standout signwriting, the truck was looking flasher than a rat with a gold tooth and a wrist full of Rolexes.

Last, but not least, was the added bling. From the stainless wrapped tanks to the polished bullbar, the drop visor to the chrome air intakes - the truck just pops. A lot was done inhouse by Mark, Nic and the team and what wasn’t was made and fitted by Ryan at BlingHQ. There was the temptation to keep the truck all original, but the truck was bought by a truck-loving family with a fleet of stunning rigs themselves. They have done a fantastic job of bringing back to life an iconic truck, paying tribute to a legendary man and a great family. They’ve done this whilst adding their own high-class standards and they have nailed it.

So, after wearing my fingers to the bone on the keyboard and filling my hard drive chock-full of Superliner photos, it’s time to wrap up. If I’ve worked this out correctly, you should have been able to read this whilst walking about 878.338m, or up and down a Mack road train with 28 dollies and 29 trailers.

Couldn’t rebuild such a workhorse without making sure it still did the job. Crowds were out around the Toowoomba -Pittsworth way in September to see Pluggers rig, with a 90t road train in tow, work the Big 500hp E9 motor in. The greenies may not have been impressed, but the Mack fans were delighted.

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