Q&A with Aussie Truck Rehab star Jon Kelly

Aussie Truck Rehab's Jon Kelly speaks to Deals on Wheels about his career, his favourite restorations, and his plans for Season 2 of the show

A decade ago, Jon Kelly was on top of the world. His multi-million-dollar busines, Heavy Haulage Australia was thriving – and had spawned a popular TV show, MegaTruckers.

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But in 2015, it all came crashing down. The economic downturn and what he now admits was a “bad decision” to sell half the shares of his business to the now-defunct McAleese led to the collapse of HHA. 

Kelly went from running the biggest privately-owned heavy haul business in Australia, with a fleet worth $100 million, to having to start over. 

Now, he’s slowly building himself back up from the ashes with a new operation, Heavy Haulage Assets. 

This business is a little different. He still runs six heavy haulage trucks, but spends a lot of his time indulging his true passion: restoring old trucks to their former glory, and pulling off some pretty flashy makeovers. 

Given the number of truck restoration enthusiasts out there, it’s not too surprising that his new line of work has spawned another TV show – Aussie Truck Rehab. 

Here, Kelly speaks to Deals on Wheels about his career, his favourite restorations, and his plans to bring back Aussie Truck Rehab for Season 2. 

Tell us a bit about your background Jon – did you always know you wanted to work with trucks? 

Yeah, I grew up in trucks and transport. As a kid, I never had any doubts about what I wanted to do. It was always trucks. I started my own trucking business at 19 – in competition against my family – so I’ve always been a very headstrong person. Then I sold that business in 2014 and got back into transport again shortly after that. 

You’ve gone in a bit of a different direction from your previous company with Heavy Haulage Assets, why is that? 

I always enjoyed the truck sales and refurbing. Throughout my career, I always had the nicest trucks – or tried to. And with my truck sales business and my refurb business, it’s about building cool trucks and promoting the industry in a positive light. 

The truck dealership we run these days is buying and selling high-end Kenworth, Mack, Western Star and Peterbilt products. We do second-hand trucks only. In the refurb business, I tend to do iconic trucks or trucks that I, or someone else, has a personal attachment to. 

Are you self-taught on the mechanical side of things? 

Well, my father had a truck sales business and he was similar to me in that he would get a standard truck and turn it into a stand-out truck. People want to buy something that’s cool and unique. It’s easy to sell a unique truck in a sea of plain white trucks. 

Definitely! So how did the show Aussie Truck Rehab come about? 

The same people that did the original MegaTruckers TV show followed up and wanted to do another series of MegaTruckers. But my business and what I’m doing now has evolved into something different. Then it got pitched that we do a show based on the truck sales business and the refurb business, because there are such good stories in the trucks we do and who we do them for. So then the series was launched around that. 

Amazing. And word on the street is, you’re planning a second season? 

Yes, I can confirm there will be a second season. We’re just working out timings and start dates. We have started filming snippets of certain trucks that we’re doing in the next series now. But we won’t be filming full-time until the middle of next year.

What can fans expect from Season 2? 

They can expect more cool stories and more cool trucks. Our team has expanded, and there are some familiar faces from the old HHA crew from years ago.  We’re building a really good team of both guys and girls to put out the best trucks in the country.

Do you already have some projects in mind? 

Yeah, we’ve got projects for customers in line. And I’m my own worst enemy – I’ve got plenty of my own trucks here that need to be done as well.

Do you have any favourite refurbs or makeovers that you’ve done? 

We did a massive refurb for the Casino Truck Show last year, a truck called Mad Cow. It’s a 1997 Western Star 6900 that had previously won Rig of the Year and it was for my youngest son, Joshua. Seeing how that truck started its life, and how I bought it, to how it’s refurbed now and part of our main heavy haulage fleet is pretty inspiring. We were up against a massive deadline when we did it as well, we did it in a really tight timeframe. It’s been to five or six truck shows and won awards at all of them so far. 

The refurbed 1997 Western Star 6900 dubbed “Mad Cow” rolled out for the Casino Truck Show last year

How tight was the timeframe? 

Oh, we did it in just under four months. And it was ready for the wrecking yard when we got it. There was no stone left unturned with the refurb – literally bare chassis, cab off, bonnet off, sleeper off. 

You had to get 12 refurbs done in time for the Casino Truck Show – do you get stressed out by deadlines like that?

Well, normally it’s fine because I don’t have to work to such strict timelines. But if it’s something for the TV show or the Casino Truck Show I just have to get on with it. 

Budget is another big source of stress. Is it getting harder and harder to afford to do restorations in the current climate? 

Definitely. There are also fewer and fewer skilled people in the workforce that can do this style of work. I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a team of ridiculous people who really enjoy what they do. 

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to give a resto a shot? 

You need to understand that restorations never run on time or on budget, especially with old trucks. It’s commercial suicide doing a truck up unless it’s going to be treasured and nurtured. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars doing an old truck up is not a smart business move. But everyone likes to scratch the itch of nostalgia. I’ve got 14 show trucks, and each of those show trucks means something different to me, in different parts of my life. And my kids’ lives too. 

What about where people spend their money during a resto – where should they splash out, and are there ways they can save? 

It’s about how good of a job you want. You can have a 6/10 truck on a budget, but if you want a 10/10 show truck, you need to make sure you don’t have to stick to a budget or a timeline. A lot of the time, you have to manufacture parts for these old trucks so it is more economical to buy a new truck. But you won’t have the style or the nostalgia. I can definitely see the value in restoring a truck that you have a personal attachment to. 

Any updates on your infamous Western Star 4900 – otherwise known as “The Money Pit”? 

It’s getting painted as we speak. It’s on a very slow timeline, because I’ve expelled all the money on that project. I’m trying to hide the cost from Dave [Patullo], who looks after the financial side of the business. 

Have you ever made any mistakes, or choices you’ve regretted, when doing a refurb? 

I wouldn’t call them “mistakes” because I always start out with a very clear vision. The biggest mistake is when a customer doesn’t know what they want, and they come in with clouded judgement. 

You’re known for being a pretty no-nonsense bloke. Do you get any customers who can’t handle that? 

Nope. They know what they are getting in for. I’m honest, transparent and to-the-point. 

In the first episode of Aussie Truck Rehab, you transformed a truck belonging to Robert Land from Land Transport. He’s an old friend of yours – how did you find working with such a close mate? 

Yeah, Rob and I have been mates for well over 20 years. We were on the highway together when we first started. I’ve watched him and his family go from success to success. He bought the last of these big Western Star 6900s, he bought five of them. It was cool to be part of that and pick the colours from colour charts. 

And it was even nicer to showcase that truck on the TV show for him and his family. It was great working with Rob, we didn’t have any issues. I think people who have known me for a long time understand the Jon Kelly style, they know my likes and dislikes. We have very similar taste in trucks and we had a very similar vision for this truck. 

Is there any type of project you’ve got on your list, that you would love to do in the future?

I’d love to do more restorations of old trucks that have been with some of the standout transport companies that have been around 40, 50 years. It would be cool to track down their first trucks and restore them. But I’m also happy just ticking along. 

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