Jet-powered truck Waltzing Matilda breaks records

Anyone using the words truck and jet engine in the same sentence is sure to snare some attention as the builders of Waltzing Matilda found out

Whoever coined the term, ‘competition breeds success’ probably never expected the builders of the infamous Waltzing Matilda truck to personify the phrase.

Back in the 70’s, where Stephen O’Hare says, “it was at a time when Australians still believed anything was possible,” innovation was led by competition and curiosity. 

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At that time, Stephen’s father Terry O’Hare was dabbling with jet powered cars, having built three and even attempted to beat the Australian land speed record with one.

When the father son duo caught wind that ‘the world’s fastest truck’ was being brought to Australia from America for a truck refrigeration promotion, they decided the best course of action would be to show them up.

“My father heard about this and said, well, we can’t have this guy coming here and just blowing everybody’s doors off,” Stephen says.

“And this guy at the time held the world speed record for trucks at 144 miles an hour in a diesel-powered truck. 

Fingertips tingling with inspiration, Terry saw an opportunity to face off with greatness in the Super Boss challenge.

“So he said well, we’ll build a jet truck. So that was what we did.”

The team were confident they could beat Super Boss (Image: The O’Hare Family)

Terry, Stephen and a dedicated team at Centurion Transport pulled of an incredible feat, engineering the world’s first jet-powered truck within just six weeks. 

“It took us two weeks to get all the parts together, get the chassis from Ford, and the jet engine,” he says.

“And then that left us six weeks to build. We were working just ridiculous hours,” he chuckled. 

Working off a Ford Louisville LN7000 cab complete chassis, the engine, gearbox and all the original running gear came with it.

Eager to make an impression, the chosen engine was an ex-RAAF Rolls-Royce Avon MK1 jet engine taken from a Canberra Bomber.

The engine had been completely rebuilt by the apprentices at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) at Fisherman’s Bend and was bolted to a special frame and attached to the chassis.

Needing a signature look, automotive design legend Herb Grasse designed the truck’s body to be fitted around the jet engine, in a drawing which was the only one of any kind that was ever done.

Hung in the workshop, the Centurion staff used that as a guide to build the body work.

In terms of stats, the infamous truck is a celebration of triumph over adversity when it comes to the mechanical challenges the designers had to overcome.

Waltzing Matilda had two 200 litre aluminium fuel tanks fitted, pressurised at 15 psi to feed the Jet A1 fuel into the engine. The truck burnt 170lt of fuel to do 3 x 1/4 mile runs plus taxi time.

It ran on Bandag Cold Process Retreads, fitted to new tyre casings that had the original tread buffed off.

After a gruelling six weeks, four days before the challenge, the team were eager to put her on the road and see how she held up.

Image: The O’Hare Family

“The first test run was about five hours because we actually blew a motor up during the first run at the factory. It sucked a stray rivet through the intake,” Stephen says.

A new engine was thankfully located, tested and fitted in 4 days, with the first successful test run taking place mere hours before the main event. 

“I had no idea what it was going to do. We didn’t know if it was going to do 5 miles an hour or 500 miles an hour,” Stephen says.

Larry “The Big O” Ormsby, an Australian Championship drag racer, took at the controls for the race.

Unfortunately, Waltzing Matilda lost to Super Boss in both the Melbourne and Brisbane events. 

“A diesel truck drives through the rear wheels so he could get off the mark much quicker than us. More testing would have been helpful too.”

Stephen says the 35-degree day also played against them, with the thinner air meaning they couldn’t get sufficient air through the intake for the jet to perform at its best.

However, unswayed and still determined, the team knew they had built something capable of greatness.

The team decided to attempt the World Truck Speed record that at the time was held by Super Boss at 144 mph.

On January 16, 1979, Matilda and Larry set off on the first official run in Wycheproof, Victoria on the Wycheproof Birch Road.

They crossed the start line of their first run at around 110 mph and then the finish line at 160 mph.

On the second and final run, Matilda crossed the start line at 160 mph and went across the finish line at 276 mph, covering the measured mile in 20.92 seconds.

It was a new world record, one that Matilda would hold for the next 10 years.

Matilda went across the finish line at 276 mph, covering the measured mile in 20.92 seconds, a new world record (Image: The O’Hare Family)

“Matilda captured people’s imagination and was in great demand after that,” Stephen says. 

“We got inundated with people that wanted to have the truck appear at their functions, festivals and drag meetings.

For the next two years, Stephen travelled around Australia with Matilda doing demonstrations and appearances. 

They did a tour of New Zealand for Bandag in 1979 where she was flown in a Qantas 747 Combi where it was the biggest single load item carried in this type of aircraft.

It was during this trip that Ray Kernaghan, famed country music artist, first toured with the truck to promote his new album ‘Jet Set Country’.

The truck was powered from an ex-RAAF Rolls-Royce Avon MK1 jet engine taken from a Canberra Bomber (Image: The O’Hare Family)

Matilda was featured on the album cover, with her own song, ‘Matilda Queen of the Tar’.

“After all of the travelling, dad wanted me back in the family company. He said that I needed to come back and do real work,” he laughed. 

“We decided that it was just going to sit around with nobody to run it, so selling it was the best option.”

They sold the truck to the Kernaghan’s in 1981, where it toured Australia for a number of years as part of his “Cavalcade of Stars” tours before eventually being sold off. 

The history after this sale is where things become blurry. 

The team have begun tracking down parts from Waltzing Matilda (Image: Adam Lovell)

Passing hands throughout New South Wales and Victoria for a while, Matilda eventually ended up in Tasmania. 

Following a suite of disjointed transactions, Matilda was soon broken up and sold for parts. 

Unbeknownst to him, Mole Creek honey farmer Ewan Stephens purchased the remaining cabin and some of the running gear as a restoration project to cart bee hives. 

It wasn’t until Ewan saw a TV appearance of Stephen on the “Can We Help” programme, that he realised just what he had in his possession. 

Competition was alive and well between Matilda and Super Boss at Calder (Image: Adam Lovell)

The men soon connected and were able to locate the original jet engine at the Bernie Flying Club. 

Now fascinated, Ewan continued searching for original parts around the area, and recently located the mounting frame. 

The search and aim to rebuild Matilda continue to this day.

Fascination with the record-breaking truck hasn’t slowed down, with Facebook groups amassing over 2,000 followers popping up in support of trading memories and support for Stephen and his family. 

Scott O’Hare, Adam Lovell and Stephen O’Hare at the anniversary dinner (Image: Adam Lovell)

In 2023, Stephen and his brother Scott, driver Larry Ormsby and advertiser Alan Pearce decided to collaborate on a graphic novel detailing Matilda’s life. 

The book was released on the 45th anniversary of Matilda’s historic run and is “a deep dive into the mechanics, the dreamers, and the bold vision that propelled a humble truck into a speed icon.”

Over 100 people gathered at an anniversary dinner to celebrate the achievement and officially open a display case of Matilda memorabilia for the Wycheproof Gallery Museum.

The graphic novel depicts the whole life of Waltzing Matilda (Image: The O’Hare Family)

To purchase the book, visit www.waltzingmatildajettruck.com.au

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