Those were the days
Join FRANK BEETON as he takes a nostalgic look at the truck and bus world of yesterday.
This month, I want to tell you about the great “Isuzu Cavalcade”. Back in 1981, I was working at General Motors in Port Elizabeth as government and bus sales manager. That year, we launched the first Atlantis Diesel-powered models onto the local market. They were versions of our best-selling Isuzu-SBR and JCR models, in the five-to-eight ton payload range. Because of their importance to our business, and some general misgivings about lack of commitment by global manufacturers to the local market, in an era of increasingly onerous local content requirements, we wanted to make a bold statement about GM and Isuzu’s continuing presence in South Africa.
The plan that evolved was to take a fully representative fleet of commercial models around the country for a series of regional events. This ended up as a convoy of more than twenty vehicles, ranging from the two-ton TLD24 to our flagship, the VPZ 441 6×4 truck-tractor. The smallest and largest models were scheduled to get their ADE-power units the following year, so we took the opportunity to promote the sale of the remaining OE-powered units, while announcing the specifications of the locally engined units that were to replace them. This ended up being something akin to a military exercise, and the planning included all the required logistical and technical support. The size of the task meant that everyone in GMSA management who held an appropriate driving licence was roped in to drive the trucks. Needless to say, skill levels and experience varied widely, but when the big day dawned, we were all ready for duty, and set off from PE on a trip that was to take in Johannesburg, Nelspruit, Bloemfontein, Durban and Cape Town.
Inevitably, with such a big convoy, there were some “incidents”, which seem much more humorous now than they may have appeared at the time. The first happened just a few kilometres out of PE. Doug Wood, 2-i-C in the national service department, was driving a TLD. Doug had developed quite a reputation as “Doctor No” for rejecting warranty claims on blown TLD engines. The TLD had gearbox ratios that were typical of small Japanese trucks of that era, with some big gaps between individual gear ratios, and others much smaller. This often led to unwary drivers over-revving engines by changing down at inappropriate speeds. The inevitable happened! Doug “popped” the engine of his Cavalcade truck on the first serious hill along the route, something he had to live down for years!
A while later, we were cruising along serenely, I think it was between Cradock and Bloemfontein, when suddenly, trucks shot off in all directions, after a large cloud of blue smoke had erupted from the tyres of the VPZ. Fortunately, the large tandem-axle semi-trailer tipper that was coupled to it stayed well behaved during the violent deceleration, and we all pulled over to find out what had happened. The VPZ was under the control of Steve Fox, our truck field operations manager, and Johann Bouwer, who had taken over the Natal regional truck sales responsibility when I had moved to PE a year earlier. It transpired that Steve and Johann, being creative fellows, had attempted a driver change “on the fly”. This required Johann to effectively sit on Steve’s lap, while the latter slid out from underneath. Somehow, during the operation, Johann’s foot, carrying his entire weight, had got involved with the middle pedal, unleashing the fury of the VPZ’s very efficient full-air brakes. Result: rapid deceleration and two laundry bills! Fortunately, damage only to egos, and not to any of the trucks.
The only bus in the Cavalcade fleet was built on an Isuzu DPR 610 chassis. It carried very basic commuter type bodywork by Busaf of PE, and, because of its colour, was named “The White Giant” after a popular brand of washing powder. Early in the planning, I decided that I wanted to drive that bus on the trip. There were three reasons: one, I was responsible for bus sales; two, I am a frustrated bus driver at heart and will take any opportunity to drive one; and three, I figured that the comparatively heavy unladen mass would give me, my kidneys and haemorrhoids, the most comfortable ride. Early on, all went swimmingly, but on the leg from Johannesburg to Durban, a late start from the Rand Show meant, that much of the trip to our overnight Drakensberg stop was done in the dark. Soon, I discovered that Busaf’s finest was not particularly draught-free in the driver’s cab area. There were times when I even resorted to driving in a standing position, so I could move away from the blast of icy air entering through the engine cover and radiator shroud!
In my clever scheming, this boytjie, fresh out of Natal and with very little experience of inland winters (beyond standing guard in the snow during National Service in Pretoria in 1964) had somehow missed the point that temperatures plummet with the setting of the sun, or the arrival of a winter cold front. This latter occurrence duly raised its head on the last leg of the trip, from PE to Cape Town. The chosen route took us through several mountain passes, and it wasn’t long before I was staring hypothermia in the face, despite the fact that we were travelling in daylight. Fortunately, Tony Barlow, being the solid citizen that he is, insisted that we take turns between the bus and the nice, weatherproof and heated cab of the SPR 361 truck-tractor he was allocated. Thank you, Tony. I owe you!
When I attend truck launches these days, I wonder at the desk jockeys who plan everything in minute detail, then bring in professional operatives to do the work of moving vehicles and setting up events. Back in the 1980s we did just about everything ourselves, and what a fantastic teambuilding exercise it turned out to be. The work involved duties from arranging and cleaning the display vehicles, dressing the venue with bunting and posters, building stages and screens, carrying and unpacking brochures, and finally presenting the information to dealers and customers. In Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, we even drove the whole Cavalcade convoy down Murchison Street to publicise Craig Anderson’s recently opened dealership. Merlyn Koen put it succinctly while we were standing outside on a fresh winter’s morning waiting for our guests to arrive: “Frankie, at GM we are called upon to do many things, but we also have ‘fun in the sun’”. How right he was, and how glad I am that I was part of that era!
Rear-view Focus is a column by FRANK BEETON that takes a nostalgic look at the truck and bus world of yesteryear. Visit www.focusontransport.co.za to comment on the column and share your memories with us.