The demise of the International ProStar

By: Steve Brooks


The imminent demise of International ProStar from the Australian market puts the final nail in the coffin of a disjointed and altogether dismal attempt to build a new future for an iconic brand. Despite the faith and effort of capable individuals who saw the potential of ProStar and its Cat predecessor, corporate commitment was never equal to the task. Not even close

 

ProStar in Cat clothing. Ultimately, Cat would discard the trucking venture just as it had discarded the truck engine business

It is a brutally long way from Uluru to Dandenong, especially via Chicago and the big Cat-house in Peoria.

That, however, is the decade-long mental excursion that needs to be made to gain any sense of the circumstances leading to the recent announcement that International ProStar will soon join Cat trucks on the scrapheap of arguably the most poorly conceived and overtly cynical corporate attempt to become part of the Australian trucking landscape.

It all starts at Uluru in the ageless expanse of Central Australia with the big budget debut of Cat Trucks in late 2010. As far as new truck introductions go in our part of the world, they don’t come much grander than this.

And the blunt reality is that it needed to be something special. Very special! After all, the event took place just two years after the decision by Cat to quit the truck engine business, effectively abandoning the loyal legions of truck operators with yellow blood coursing through their veins.

With the birth of the truck, however, the ambitious and somewhat arrogant hope from Cat’s perspective was that all would be forgiven and lovers of yellow iron would literally flock to a truck bearing the famous moniker, punched by C13 and C15 Acert engines.

Consequently, around 300 guests and their partners were flown to Uluru to be part of what was billed as the ‘world launch’ of Cat-branded trucks. Apart from first view of the hardware, the obvious aim of the exercise was to let the world know that the vast Cat organisation, with all its strength, resources and wealth, had formed a 50/50 partnership with US truck manufacturing giant Navistar. The new entity was called NC2, ostensibly reflecting the combined strength of the two brands, with the sole aim of tackling the on-highway truck business.

What’s more, it was made plain that the US market, with its significantly tougher emissions regulations, was not part of the plan. Sure, the platform for the assault was a Cat-branded version of Navistar’s supremely popular International ProStar – back then battling Freightliner’s Cascadia for domination of the US heavy-duty market – but it was obvious that the engines powering the Cat trucks were somewhat ‘old world’ in an emissions sense. Simply stated, engines that were no longer compliant with US standards.

Emerging in the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, NC2 was formed in September 2009, soon after Caterpillar’s announcement that it would not develop engines to meet US 2010 emissions regulations. The plan, Cat stated, was to pursue markets outside North America with Cat-branded trucks developed in association with Navistar.

To this day, the logic behind Navistar’s involvement in such a bold and altogether risky scheme remains as surreal as it is secret. For Cat, of course, the attractions of finding markets for engines no longer able to meet US requirements were as simple as they were self-serving.

Unsurprisingly, there were sceptics aplenty at Uluru, still scarred by what they saw as Cat’s callous abandonment of the truck engine business. As one fleet owner confided at the event: "It came as a shock [when Cat left the truck engine business] and fair dinkum gutted us. We’d been loyal to Cat for years and I’d hate to think they’d do it again if the trucks didn’t live up to their sales targets over the next few years."

Little did he, or we, realise!

Yet, in hindsight, there were worrying signs from the start. For instance, while the Uluru launch was exceptional in scale and scope, there were no Cat executives in attendance. Not one, which caused a few of the cynics among us to even then wonder about Cat’s motives and strategy.

On the other hand, Navistar had plenty of executive players in attendance, including the president of NC2 and high-level Navistar operative Al Saltiel.

In Melbourne, mid-way through 2010, Saltiel had not only announced NC2’s plan to hit the Australian market later that year with a Cat-branded truck based on a ProStar cab, chassis and running gear, but had also indicated in a press statement that NC2’s product line would eventually feature cab-over and conventional models sold under both Cat and International nameplates.   

In principle, it was a grand plan. In reality, it was a ploy with all the stability of desert dust driven by hot wind.  

Cats waiting for buyers. Optimistically, or naively, around 540 trucks were hurriedly assembled at the Tullamarine premises. Sales were very slow

QUESTION TIME

Like so many corporate executives, Saltiel was uncomfortable with hard questions from trade media and in a subsequent press conference at Uluru appeared to become increasingly vexed and frustrated with constant questions about the Cat truck’s premium price tag in a market where it was largely untested. In Saltiel’s somewhat blinkered and perhaps ignorant view, the Cat truck was a premium product and therefore justified a premium price akin to the likes of Kenworth and Western Star. Yes, really!

His greatest angst and displeasure, however, bubbled to the surface when repeatedly asked why Navistar had torn up its seemingly successful relationship with Iveco Trucks Australia in favour of a Cat-configured exercise seemingly fraught with more risk than reward.

Meantime, at Iveco headquarters in Dandenong (Vic), insiders certainly weren’t shy about expressing a deep disdain for what they saw as Navistar’s ill-considered, even treacherous, abandonment of a positive and mutually beneficial arrangement.

There certainly appeared to be no love lost between Iveco and Navistar. Yet, despite a barrage of questions, Saltiel was in no way willing to explain reasons for the decision to break from Iveco in favour of Cat. "That went well Brooksy," a colleague whispered as a seething Saltiel left the room.

It’s hard to believe he could not have expected such questions. After all, before the creation of NC2 the two companies had for several years enjoyed a reasonably successful association, with Iveco assembling International 7600, 9200 and 9900 models at its Dandenong factory. Still, today, there are people who bemoan the departure of those trucks from the Australian market.

Moreover, and as time would soon show, there were those within Navistar’s executive sanctum in the US far from enthralled with the idea of a close coupling with Cat. Indeed, a senior executive, who would later be one of several Navistar veterans sent to Australia to sort out the aftermath of the NC2 kerfuffle, openly conceded during a visit to Navistar’s Chicago headquarters in late 2014, that the deal with Cat was flawed from the start.

His blunt and fiercely expressed opinion, like several others during and after that trip, was that rather than climb into the commercial cot with Cat, Navistar would have been better served by either continuing its established relationship with Iveco, or entering the Australian market with a direct factory-backed operation. Anything, he quipped, would’ve been better than heading Down Under hand-in-hand with Cat, particularly when Navistar Inc. already had plenty of difficult issues to contend with on its home turf.  

Whatever, it was slow going for NC2 in our hugely competitive and crowded market. Whether it was gross optimism or blind naivety, around 540 Cat-badged ProStars had been built by temporary assemblers on a reconfigured line at Cat’s Tullamarine (Vic) plant, all hastily put together to beat the deadline for a new Australian emissions standard (ADR 80/03). Once they were built, the assemblers were simply paid off.

Yet, despite the hype of the launch event, sales were fearfully slow and it took several years to clear the backlog of trucks clogging the Tullamarine facility. As stocks eventually diminished though, completely built-up trucks were then imported from Navistar’s production plant in Escobedo, Mexico.

In a surprisingly short time, however, cracks started to appear in NC2’s plans amid an undercurrent of concern that Cat’s commitment was waning.

On a positive note, though, the trucks were actually showing reasonable reliability and typically strong performance from the C15 in particular. As for the C13 Acert, emissions legislation soon ended its days. In its place came a Navistar engine of similar displacement, painted yellow with a Cat badge tacked on. Called the CT13, it did not fare well.

However, as the cracks became chasms, it was increasingly apparent that NC2 was heading for an abyss.

While reams have been already written on what can only be described as the ill-conceived Cat trucks exercise, it bears reiterating that the US executive belatedly appointed to run the NC2 show in Australia was none other than Bill Fulton, the same bloke at the helm of Cat’s truck engine business in Australia when Peoria’s powerbrokers announced in 2008 the decision to end truck engine development. So, when executives in the US decided they’d also had enough of NC2, Fulton once again avoided questions from customers or anyone else by staying true to form and quickly boarding a plane back to Cat HQ in Peoria.

‘Bye Bill!

Al Saltiel at the Uluru launch of Cat trucks. The Navistar executive was appointed president of the NC2 venture but did not cope well with questions at a subsequent press conference

A NEW TACK

But rather than join Cat in washing its hands of the entire exercise, there remained forces within Navistar keen to stay in Australian and New Zealand markets, not least because Navistar found itself in possession of a big heap of yellow engines. Obviously, those engines had to be sold somewhere, somehow. They were no good for America and markets for Cat trucks in other parts of the world had failed to materialise, so Australia, and to a much lesser extent, New Zealand, carried the can. Literally.

Thus, as NC2 unravelled and Navistar hurriedly took control, a deal was done whereby a new entity called Navistar Auspac would import CT610 and CT630 models built and marketed under a licensing agreement with Cat.

Appointed to run the new outfit after serving a short stint as Fulton’s lieutenant was former Detroit Diesel and Freightliner executive Kevin Dennis. Unfortunately, his tenure was brief, opting to accept a managing director’s role with Penske Commercial Vehicles.

After that, Navistar Auspac sailed under a couple of aging masters retrieved from International’s executive archives – the taciturn Dave Allen and the likeable Tim Quinlan – each, ultimately, following the other into retirement. Australia, it appeared, was way down Navistar’s priority list and younger, dynamic corporate achievers were apparently busy elsewhere.

Left to steady the ship, at least in an operational sense, were a number of local managers and engineers who had remained loyal to the Cat cause from day one, led by marketing manager Glen Sharman and engineers Adrian Wright and John Drakopolous. Still, the executive structure at Navistar Auspac remained peculiar to say the least, perhaps best typified by the involvement of a corporate veteran operating from Johannesburg, South Africa. Go figure!

In a positive spin, however, the Navistar Auspac title was said "to more accurately reflect the parent company’s stake in Australian and New Zealand markets", creating some speculation that the new entity was actually a pre-cursor to a full-blown, factory-backed return of the International brand to Australian and New Zealand markets.

As following events would reveal, it was speculation without substance. At a 2014 meeting with Australian road transport reporters at Navistar’s sprawling world headquarters on the outskirts of Chicago, senior executives seemed surprised by the suggestion and were casually non-committal about a full-scale return to Antipodean markets.

Higher up the executive ladder, then president of Navistar’s global division, Eric Tech, was a tad more forthright and at least conceded that NC2 had not quite gone to plan.

"We misjudged the animosity surrounding Cat’s pull out of the engine business," he said candidly, adding that the dismantling of NC2 and Navistar’s subsequent adoption of the Cat on-highway truck operation was mutually agreed by both companies.

"If we had our time over, would we do it [NC2] again?" he queried. "We’d certainly change some things, for sure."

Like his subordinates, however, Tech would not be cornered on the possibility of a full factory-backed return of the International brand to the Australian market. In what appeared an extremely cautious each-way bet, he at least emphasised Navistar’s intention to remain part of the Down Under truck market, in one form or another.

"There is plenty of upside for us in Australia," he said before concluding with what seemed genuine sincerity, "Navistar is in Australia to stay."

It certainly looked that way at the Brisbane Truck Show in 2015 when Navistar Auspac not only showcased its latest creations in the Cat trucks stable but also launched the Cummins-powered International ProStar in its own right on the Australian market. Centrepiece of the International stand was the awesome LoneStar ‘Blade’, a spectacular show truck flown in especially for the Brisbane show and achieving what it was intended to do: create renewed interest in International.  

Confidence was high that the Cummins-powered ProStar, which in Cat guise had at least shown its ability to be a durable and versatile truck under Australian conditions, would be just the thing to pave the way for a broader effort to re-establish the International brand in Australia, and in the process replace the fast-fading Cat.

International 9200, 9900 and 7600 models were assembled by Iveco at Dandenong. Strangely, Navistar ended its agreement with Iveco in favour of the NC2 venture with Cat

THE FINAL FLING

The last new Cats were sold in 2018. All up, just 1,100 units or thereabouts were delivered in Australia and New Zealand, the great majority obviously into the Australian market. For the mathematically inclined, the annual average was little more than 150 units a year, which by any measure was far from the heights envisaged during the hype of the Uluru ‘world launch’.

So why was the Cat trucks’ exercise such a dismal failure? Almost assuredly, as Tech had intimated several years earlier, the whole rationale of NC2 was based on the brazen belief that a Cat badge and yellow engine would be enough to ensure success and, in the process, dissolve the disappointment of Cat’s ’08 abandonment of the engine business. Truck operators, however, have long memories.

Back at the Brisbane show, early confidence in ProStar was further boosted by the resolute encouragement of high-ranking Navistar executive Tom Clevenger. He, like those in the small but loyal Navistar Auspac group, justifiably believed there was a distinct opportunity for ProStar and, in time, sibling models such as the versatile WorkStar.

The missing link, however, was a dealer group to sell and service the trucks. It was obviously beyond Navistar’s fiscal interests to establish a network of its own and as early discussions indicated, it was entirely unlikely that even those Cat dealers keen to remain in the trucking business would be willing, or were even allowed, to sell and service a Cummins-powered product.

And it’s at this point that the whole saga starts decaying to a disappointing end. In effect, events were turning full circle as Navistar and Iveco holding company Case New Holland Industrial (CNHI) entered into a protracted negotiation process whereby Iveco Trucks Australia would eventually become the importer and distributor of International trucks.

Unfortunately, almost two years lapsed from the time of the Brisbane show to finalisation of the deal and arrival of the first ProStars.

Thus, the confidence, excitement and, indeed, passion for the ProStar project simply slipped into space, lost in layers of corporate complexity, mangled by executive disinterest and, worse, confirming a complete lack of long-term commitment to the Australian market right from ProStar’s first days under the cover of a Cat badge.

The final nail was slammed home in a recent press release: "Iveco Trucks Australia has been advised by Navistar Inc. that it will cease global production of the ProStar range, effective December this year."

There is, the press release continued, a ProStar replacement under development in the US but it will be built in left-hand drive form only.

From an economic perspective, it’s easy to understand Navistar’s decision. Up to the first half of 2020, a woefully disappointing 150 ProStars or thereabouts had been delivered in Australia since the first unit was sold in 2017. Given the meagre numbers, there is absolutely no economic viability in developing a right-hand drive version of the new model that will almost certainly appear in the US next year.

Even so, it’s believed dedicated loyalists within Iveco proffered the idea of importing left-hook versions of ProStar’s successor and converting them to right-hand drive in Dandenong. Apparently, the idea was quickly quashed.

Whether the greatest fault for ProStar’s abject failure sits with Navistar or Iveco is now a moot point. Neither brand has bathed itself in professional performance worthy of even mild applause, but when it’s all boiled down, ProStar is a Navistar product and, surely, ultimate responsibility sits with the suits in Chicago. 

The truck and the people who bought it, few as they are, deserved a better outcome.

Perhaps the final word should go to the man who bought Australia’s first ProStar. His name is John Treloar, a self-confessed International ‘tragic’ and managing director of Treloar Transport, a busy trucking, civil construction and quarrying company based at Sheffield in northern Tasmania.

In a 2018 article titled ‘Across the Ages’, Treloar was quick to praise ProStar’s potential, resolutely stating his belief that there is "… no structural or mechanical reason why the model shouldn’t succeed in Australia."

He did, however, also share a few concerns issuing from the fact that while he’d placed the order for the truck soon after the 2015 Brisbane Truck Show, his ProStar wasn’t delivered until a few weeks before Christmas 2017.

"The long wait definitely became a worry," Treloar conceded. "It started to make me wonder if the whole International exercise would happen or not. Anyway, it’s here now and doing a really good job," he added with a satisfied smile.

But then again, Treloar admitted to continuing bouts of nervousness. A slight concern, he explained, was that somewhere down the track there may come a corporate hiccup driven by some unforeseen agenda, or a change of executive resolve, each with the potential to damage or even completely dismantle the current relationship between International and its Australian distributor, Iveco.  

"I’m just hoping history doesn’t repeat itself," he said after a few thoughtful moments, "because as much as I like International, I don’t think I could tolerate it if they pulled out of Australia again."

You’re not on your own. Not at all!

The International ProStar was launched at the 2015 Brisbane Truck Show, with the awesome LoneStar ‘Blade’ imported purely for people pulling power. Soon after, ProStar opportunities were lost in protracted negotiations between Navistar and Iveco’s master Case New Holland

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