17 March 2023

Loads of special mettle: Truckies grew to love a hard life on the road

| John Thistleton
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man with baby and truck

Bryan Webb and his son Matthew in 1974. Now a mechanic, Matthew helped his father restore an old Mack truck. Bryan has also driven Internationals, Diamond Ts, Dodges and numerous Macs in Western Australia, up north to the Pilbara. Photo: Webb family collection.

In the days before the Hume Highway was bypassed, interstate truck drivers travelled by the seat of their pants on a 14-hour-plus journey between Sydney and Melbourne. The old highway included notorious landmarks and welcome stopovers such as Gasoline Alley, a strip of roadhouses at the southern end of Yass.

Lights blazing into the night and early morning, Gasoline Alley sizzled with the smell of hamburgers, steak and chips, the sound of chattering local people hungry after a night out on the town, and yawning truck drivers.

Several Goulburn drivers have polished up restored old prime movers for this year’s Haulin’ the Hume, organised by the Western Sydney Historical Truck Club for 25 March. Peter Caldow will enter his 1987 International Harvester, once called the farmers’ truck, which he rescued before it went to the wreckers.

Peter said unwary drivers on the old highway faced some tricky, sometimes deadly sections, such as Razorback Range, notorious for the terrain and an industry-changing blockade in 1979.

“It was a big climb getting to the top of it, driving along the top was a bit like a razor and you went back the other side,” Peter said.

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“You could get into a lot of trouble real quick in the old days when you were in an old truck, not these new things that have cruise control and lane departure. It took a bit of skill.”

Drivers needed to listen to their revs and feel the vibrations to know when to change gears.

Peter said the narrow Biscuit Bridge in the Cullerin Range earned that name when a truckload of Arnott’s biscuits went over one night. He saw numerous accidents along the Cullerin Range.

“When they opened the Cullerin Range bypass (1994), two young blokes were going crook at how boring that new road was,” he said. “I said, ‘You have never seen the amount of trucks smashed up in the old Cullerin Range like I have. If you had, you wouldn’t be saying the road is boring, you’d be grateful for it’.”

He said even though Tarcutta was halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, there were few facilities for truckies. Travelling out of Sydney, blokes stopped at Yass, having driven for four to six hours. Today they go to Tarcutta in five hours, have half an hour break and continue to Melbourne. (Many of today’s drivers are women.)

man and truck

Bryan Webb’s first Mack truck loaded with briquettes for delivery to Charles Rogers in Goulburn. Rex Delaney, who helped Bryan deliver the load, is near the rig. Photo: Bryan Webb.

Peter said a strong bond meant drivers could rely on one another.

“You would blow a tyre and six blokes would pull up. You knew each other and would change the tyre and you would all get going again,” he said.

Bryan Webb from Goulburn, a legend in trucking circles after 50 years in the industry, will join Haulin’ the Hume in his restored 1967 Mack.

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Mad about trucks since he was 15, Bryan remembers the Hume’s goat-track days when he started interstate driving in 1972 carrying general freight.

“We took a lot of hides and sheepskins to Melbourne and to Brisbane,” he said. “We used to cart a lot of hay, superphosphate, a lot of wool. It was all hand-loaded freight, that’s why my back’s worn out now.

“At the ripe old age of 24, I bought a B-model 1962 Mack and started working for myself. I had no idea how to run a business, all I knew was how to drive trucks and work hard.”

Driving to Melbourne, Bryan regularly stopped at Jan’s cafe in Albury.

“We’d leave here (Goulburn) late in the afternoon for Melbourne and have dinner there on the way through, and that was always beautiful,” he said. ”I would always have my rump steak, chips, eggs and tomato.

truck line-up

Some of the old trucks in the 2019 Haulin’ the Hume convoy, parked at Goulburn Recreation Ground. Photo: Leon Oberg.

“There was a lovely lady, a waitress, her name was Margaret. She had six kids at home and she worked there. She’d look after all us boys, she used to love her ‘truckies’ boys.”

Behind diesel fumes and engines thundering through the night, truckies learned to love their lot in life.

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