Retro Return: Jon Kelly Q&A

Photography by: Ben Dillon


Jon Kelly went from having his own television program and a fleet of flashy trucks to being forced to start over. The former Heavy Haulage Australia boss chats with Ben Dillon on his current resto projects and a new TV show

Retro Return: Jon Kelly Q&A
Jon Kelly set to return with a new TV show

 

Owner//Driver: Let’s rewind nearly 10 years. You had your own TV show, a fleet of flash trucks in your business Heavy Haulage Australia (HHA), and from the outside it looked like it was good to be Jon Kelly, what happened?

Jon Kelly: At the end of the day a lot of people forget that I did sell the business (HHA). Unfortunately when McAleese bought in they didn’t have enough firepower to get through the downturn in the economy and it took out a lot of players in heavy haulage. We needed additional equipment and they had surplus capacity to assist us so it was good fit in theory but I don’t think anyone really saw the downturn in the market coming in 2014-15. We were the biggest privately owned heavy haul company in the country, 80 per cent of our revenue was contracted so we were different to a normal transport company, we were the up and coming new blood and I think they wanted to reinvent their established product. I thought that selling to a publically listed company would be a safe bet and I didn’t expect them to go down in the process.

The Cruiser and Mack share the company colours, leaving Jon a choice of big or bigger

OD: The economic downturn didn’t help but was it only that, or were there other factors?

JK: The business got too big for me, like I wasn’t a 120 truck operation, I wasn’t a 200-300 staff kind of person, I’m a 20-30 truck kind of person where I can run it all myself, it was just wearing me out. I look back on it and what I did was superhuman, I can’t imagine putting myself through that again. I loved every minute of it, but ‘been there and done that’ definitely applies. I’ve learnt a lot about work/life balance since and the truck sales yard helps with that, but I’ve still got a couple of heavy haulage trucks getting spoilt.

OD: So with heavy haulage in your rear view now, does that mean no MegaTruckers season 2?

JK: Oh listen, with the new show, Mega Truck Rehab, there’s a little bit of MT in every episode we do. It’s a new show with a few familiar faces from the original series; it’s going to be like a Gas Monkey Garage crossed with American Pickers. We’ll go around and find these cool trucks and we’ll restore them and relive the history. Ideally we’re looking at 1980s-onward trucks and I like my North American trucks so Kenworth, Western Star, Mack, I don’t mind an old White as well. I’d love to do a Kenworth ‘anteater’ but you’ll have to watch the show to find out.

This Kenworth C509 may be one truck that makes it onto the new show

OD: The new show is just about truck restorations?

Everybody knows my trucks around the world, it’s not just Australia, so if you ask people about ‘Try Me’ or ‘Bandit One’, everyone knows these trucks, so as part of the show I do what I call a ‘statement truck’ and we’ve got five of those lined up to do, and this is where I go and get a ‘barn find’ classic or a very noteworthy truck and we do a full resto or a full change and it gets a name, it gets a personality and it becomes a member of the family, so that’s a lot to do five of those this year.

But we will also do trucks that might come into the yard and I get a love of metallic brown with gold stripes and then name that truck and put it on the yard to sell. Then we get trucks that come here and we do a quick turnaround and sell them, so we’re covering all bases with something like a two or three hundred thousand dollar refurb right through to something which gets a quick detail, a pat on the bum and go.

There’s been a massive following from the original MegaTruckers so there’s been a lot interest from overseas in the US, UK, Ireland and believe it or not India, they have a big trucking culture over there.

One of the trucks Jon is restoring in the 'before' catagory...

OD: You said yourself you did well in heavy haulage; will trucks sales alone pay for the show?

I would say 80 per cent of our revenue stream is from sales and only 20 per cent from haulage, we’re at a point now where we’re just transporting our own equipment, I’m getting too cranky and too old to deal with jaded customers and we haven’t got 100 trucks anymore so we can’t cater for major projects.

Unfortunately since my exit from the heavy haulage market there’s been a lot of people replace HHA and those people haven’t replaced the batteries in their calculators and they need an education on how to charge for specialised equipment. They’re running around for shit. They’re running around for rates that are less than my grandfather was getting 30 years ago.

I recognise that since 30 years ago economies of scale have improved but I used to get spoilt with money I used to get paid, but we offered a good service, we had the best men and the best gear but now customers are ringing up and they just want the best price.

...And how it looks finished

OD: The format of a lot of car shows include selling the vehicle. Are you going to do this with the trucks you restore or will they just sell off the yard?

JK: With the high class trucks it will be interesting to see what we get for those commercially, some of those trucks are ones you can’t really go and advertise, it’s more a guy comes into the yard and says ‘is that for sale’ and everything is for sale at a price, so I think we’ll see some big numbers filter through. Even some of my personal trucks, ones I thought I’d never sell, I’ve had some offers on some of those which are getting close.

I love doing up trucks, I love buying trucks and putting my flair on them and being creative in that way, a lot of people have got Jon Kelly stories from far and wide but y’know one thing is I haven’t done a shit truck yet, so I enjoy exploiting that and I’ve sold a lot people a lot of gear.

Jon loved the movie so much he commissioned this painting which hangs in his office

OD: We’ve seen plenty of used vehicles, cars and trucks, go up in price for a number of reasons. What are you seeing in the market?

I would say there’s definitely an upward shift in prices and it doesn’t help that if you ordered a new Kenworth today you’d be lucky to get it this year, and that’s filtering through to our used truck yard here where trucks are lasting on the lot between five days and two weeks. We’ve done 35 trucks in the first 60 days of 2021. It’s ridiculous and if we keep that up it’ll be 200 units for the year.

OD: Your trucks are immaculately presented and detailed, are you worried about them getting scratched when using them on the road?

JK: Of course! My trucks are so flash I should charge the bugs to ride on them.

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