Freightliner

In 1982 two Freightliner FLC test trucks were bought into Australia by Mercedes Benz Australia (MBA) for trialing in Australian conditions. They were the first two right-hand drive Freightliners ever built and for Mercedes Benz Australia it heralded the introduction of not only an entirely new brand for their operations in Australia, but an unknown marque for Australian operators. Because the FLCs were bought into the country under a special agreement for trial purposes they could not be sold or disposed of on the open market in Australia. And of course, their right hand drive configuration rendered them useless in the United States so they couldn’t be sent back there. MBA appreciated, even back then, that these Freightliners were of historical significance to Australia and should be preserved. The bigger of the two, a shiny red FLC120 was affectionately nicknamed alternatively “the Old Sheila” or “Big Red” by MBA staff.

This 1982 Freightliner FLC120 is now proudly displayed in the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs. Fitted with a NTC400 Cummins, 15 speed Roadranger and a Rockwell SSHDs 4 bag Freightliner suspension the progress of the trial was also carefully monitored by component suppliers such as Eaton and Rockwell. Overall the Freightliners received favourable reports from industry as inquisitive operators took the opportunity to “give them a run”. The FLC120 basic cab design dated back to 1973 but had undergone several improvements over the years. On arrival in Australia the first thing MBA did was retrofit sleeper cabs to both the bonneted FLC 120 and the Freightliner COE. Aimed at the Australian long distance sector for both on and off highway work, a truck without a bunk would most certainly not get a second glance. 

Big Red and its smaller counterpart, a 350hp COE model fitted with a Freightliner four spring rear end were put straight to work on the outback roads of regional New South Wales. The idea was to see which parts coped with the rigors and harsher operating environment in Australia and which bits would “shake rattle or roll” off. The trucks were also accelerated wear tested at the Monegeetta Military Proving Ground near Maribyrnong before being put on long term long distance evaluation with operators being able to try them out. 

By all accounts the FLC120 stood up to the challenge well and proved herself pretty durable in the Outback. Never-the-less, that model was never introduced into Australia. There were no overheating radiator problems, the Cummins engine ticked over well, the suspension coped better than expected and not too much rattled off but Australian operators lacked the same faith in aluminium as Leland James and doubted its ability to remain intact over the long term. It would be another ten years before Freightliner introduced aluminium cabs into Australia through their Argosy and Century Class models. Instead, the steel cabbed FLC112 became the first Freightliner to be released in this country in 1989. Meanwhile Big Red was put through DaimlerChrysler’s workshops in Somerton for an overhaul. By then she’d done some 3.6 million kilometres in some of Australia’s most severe conditions so she was due for it. With bottom end main and big end bearings replaced and standard change-over cylinder heads fitted along with some minor electrical and airline work she was almost “good as new”. 

Big Red found a home at the National Road Transport Hall of Fame where she sits in testament to both the genius of Leland James and Freightliners introduction to Australia. Big Red was presented to the museum in 2008 where she is displayed with her “could have been” stable-mates, Old Red, a 350hp 1980 White Road Boss donated to the museum by Lew Couper from Western Australia and a smart looking 2006 Caterpillar powered Sterling also donated to the museum by Daimler AG. Daimler had acquired Sterling from Ford in 1997 but decided to discontinue the range. 

The FLC 120 is also unique in that it was Freightliners first fully designed conventional (bonneted) prime-mover. Previous to this the company specialised in cab-over engine (COE) manufacture. This was primarily because legislation governing the overall length of semi trailer units in America limited bumper-to-taillight dimensions of a semi-trailer unit to 55 feet on interstate highways. 

Basically, the shorter the truck was the bigger the payload could be. In a competitive industry hungry for every available dollar the COE Freightliner was a winner. 

At the time cab-over engines accounted for well over 50% of the overall heavy vehicle market in the United States. Noting; the Surface Transport Act of 1982 changed legislation allowing trailers (without the prime-mover attached) to be up to 53 feet in length although some states still enforced their own rulings on weights and lengths. 

Freightliner can trace its origins back to the 1930s when American transport company, Consolidated Freightways, decided there must be something better than what they were using. Founded by truck driver Leland James in 1929 Consolidated Freightways was once the 3rd biggest transport company in the USA. His philosophy was to always do it right the first time. Consolidated Freightways was based in Oregan and serviced ten states along the western seaboard in conjunction with five other carriers. This was a time in America when trucks were slow and cumbersome and mass produced without much regard to customer specifications or expectations in varied applications. Most of the trucks available in America at the time had trouble climbing the steep grades in the mountainous regions of the west coast. If they could do that with ease, they were usually aimed at the logging or mining industry and were too heavy to allow profitable loadings. Leland James wanted a truck that was light, efficient, had good speed and could legally haul more freight. 

Another major concern was that with so many different types of trucks throughout the fleet there was no continuity in maintenance and repairs or standardisation in spare parts and componentry. Sourcing spare parts for some of the more obsolete marques during the depression had been costly for Consolidated Freightways in terms of both down time and lack of availability. None of the many truck manufacturers in America or Canada showed any real interest in James’ concept so Consolidated Freightways decided to produce their own truck. They entered into an agreement with the Fageol Motor Company and based their first trucks on reconstructed Fageol bus chassis. 

The Fageol Motor Company was a California based manufacturer of trucks, buses and tractors and had a reputation for well built and reliable vehicles. The Fageol Brothers, Frank and William, had set up their business in Portland in 1916 but had left it in 1927 to set up the Twin Coach Company. The Fageol organisation struggled to survive without its founders and went receivership in the early 1930s leaving their bankers to take control. It was during this time that the Consolidated Freightways partnership was formed and the Freightliner truck marque was born.

The first units were produced in Consolidated Freightways maintenance facility in Salt Lake City. The first successful unit was a 1937 Fageol chassis fitted with a six cylinder Cummins engine with a sheet metal COE cab. While it was about four feet shorter than the average conventional of the day it was still too heavy. Aluminium was a new product on the metals market and weighed much less than steel. Leland James could see no reason why some parts could not be made of aluminium saving weight. He initially experimented with brake shoes and hanger brackets on his refrigerated pans. In 1940 his team of engineers came up with a design and built two prototypes. The outcome was the company’s first COE aluminium truck. It weighed in at 750kg lighter than anything else on the road at the time. They were badged as ‘Freightways’ and were designed to pull a dog trailer maximizing the length laws of the time. In 1941 a conventional bonneted model was also designed and released. These were called the ‘No Names’ because they were not badged. In the middle of that year the COE Model 600 was launched. They were the first trucks to be badged ‘Freightliner’ and went on to become known as the ‘Shovelnose’. 

Production was interrupted during WWII while Freightliner manufactured ship and aeroplane parts crucial for the war effort. Truck manufacturing began again soon after war’s end. In 1948 a Freightliner was sold to a produce haulier who subcontracted to Consolidated Freightways and a year later Hyster Forklift purchased the very first truck sold outside of the Consolidated Freightways organisation. The Model 900 ‘Bubblenose’ was considered state of the art for the day with its integrated sleeper cab. 

That truck is today displayed in the Smithsonian Institute collection in Washington. With transport their core business Consolidated looked for a partner with distribution capability so that production could increase. 

In 1951 they entered into an agreement with the White Motor Company of Cleveland to sell Freightliner trucks through their dealer networks throughout the USA and Canada. This relationship continued for twenty five years with the truck re-named "White Freightliner" for that duration. Its cab-over-engine models became a familiar sight on the highways across the continent. While many other marques of this era were also called COEs most were in reality forward control models where the cabin was actually in front of the engine rather than placed over it as in the case of a genuine COE. 

In order to reduce baseline costs on White Freightliners sold in Canada a manufacturing plant was opened in Burnaby in 1961. At that time Britain encouraged trade between Commonwealth countries by financially penalising non-Commonwealth countries that traded product with Commonwealth Countries. White Freightliner was able to avoided extra import duties by building in Canada. Other assembly plants soon opened in Indianapolis and California to complement the main plant in Portland and in 1969 a parts specific production plant was also opened.

The White Motor Company, looking to diversify its own operations, expanded into white goods and agricultural equipment in the 1970s. This meant financial resources and focus were taken off Freightliner. Consolidated Freightways were less than impressed and in 1974 announced they would be terminating their distribution agreement with White at the end of the current contract. Freightliner became an autonomous manufacturer in its own right although, many of their trucks were still sold through the same dealerships that had sold Freightliners for the White Motor Company. Some dealers even chose to sever their ties with White and sell Freightliner exclusively. Freightliner introduced its first conventional model in 1975. It was basically an adaptation of the high cab-over-engine. By 1979.two new plants were established in North Carolina and truck sales continued to increase. This was the same year that President Carter signed off on the deregulation of air and land transport. This had a profound and lasting impact of which still reverberates through the industry today. With deregulation came a change in the scale of economy for the trucking industry that no longer had protection from competition. The Surface Transport Act of 1982 changed legislation allowing semi-trailers (without the prime-mover) to be up to 53 feet in length opening the door for new markets in bonneted models. This was also a period of industrial unrest between Consolidated Freightways and the Teamster Union and in May 1981 the truck manufacturing side of its business, and rights to the Freightliner brand, were sold to Daimler-Benz. Consolidated Freightways continued as carrier until 2002. 

The 1990s were tumultuous. Freightliner went on to acquire MANs transit bus plant in Cleveland, released its “Business Class” of medium range trucks which displaced Mercedes Benz mid range trucks and the Burnaby plant closed. A new plant opened in Ontario. Freightliner was also being produced in Daimler Benz’s plant just outside Mexico City. Freightliner, then under the command of the eccentric James L. Hebe (a former Kenworth executive), made numerous acquisitions over the next few years. These included Oshkosh Custom Chassis in 1995 (since dissolved) followed by American LaFrance (Hebe’s first employer), the Aeromax division of Ford Motor Company (re-named Sterling), Thomas Built Buses and, by 2000 Western Star Trucks. DaimlerChrysler was founded when Mercedes-Benz manufacturer Daimler-Benz of Stuttgart, Germany merged with the U.S.-based Chrysler Corporation in 1998. DaimlerChrysler then acquired Detroit Diesel Corporation, a subsidiary of General Motors, and this too was integrated into Freightliner.

The end result was Freightliner was left with several poor performers and more trucks than it could sell in a deflated market. Consolidation marked the next decade. The Kelowna Western Star plant, the old Portland spare parts factory and the Thomas Built facility in Ontario were all closed. American LaFrance was consolidated into the former Western Star plant in Ladson until it too was sold off. DaimlerChrysler then sold their Chrysler division and changed its name to Daimler ASG announcing that Freightliner LLC would be renamed Daimler Trucks North America from January 2008. 

In Australia Freightliner is a key unit in Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific’s commercial vehicle activities and Freightliner, the truck, has gone on to gain a significant customer base in all sectors of industry in Australia.