It has been 40 years since Queenstown businessman John Davies bought his first Mercedes-Benz truck
One of his companies, Northern Southland Transport, is still buying them, making his association with the brand almost certainly longer than anyone else in New Zealand.
Back in 1966, purchasing a Mercedes-Benz truck was a brave decision. Although World War Two had ended 20 years earlier, some stigma remained, and the power of the post-war Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) was barely beginning to be felt outside the continent.
The fact that the truck was a long-nosed 1418 ensured the decision was a good one. The ruggedness and reliability of this model has since become legendary.
"It was a remarkable vehicle in its time," John Davies says. "It had a real lead over everything else around at the time in terms of the life of its engine, gearbox and diff. It was ahead of its time and it made carriers all over the country."
Where the 1418 Mercedes-Benz trucks had proved themselves throughout the 1960s, the bigger 1923 six-wheeler maintained the brand’s reputation through the 1970s.
Undoubtedly the toughest job Northern Southland put its 1923 trucks to work on was supplying cement and other building materials across the Willmott Pass to Deep Cove, at the inland end of Doubtful Sound, for the construction of the West Arm Manapouri power station tailrace tunnel.
The pass was so tough that a set of tyres lasted just 8000 miles (12,800km) and on one climb the truck was in low-low gear for an hour and 20 minutes.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the dominance of Mercedes-Benz trucks in the fleet. One hundred and fifteen of the trucks in the 155-strong fleet are Mercedes-Benz, 43 of them Actros heavy-duty models. Some 16 of these work on livestock during the season. Around 55 per cent of the fleet is 1999 or newer.
"We’ve looked closely at our costs and in the 44 tonne fleet – trucks and trailers and tractor-semis – we believe the Mercedes-Benz are slightly cheaper to run than the Japanese brands in the fleet," John Davies explains. "This is taking into account the resale value at the end of the truck’s life with us."
He says that other factors making Mercedes-Benz the "default brand" include the long-term relationships with both Mercedes-Benz New Zealand and South Island representatives Trucks South and Southstar, plus the experience of the brand within the Northern Southland workshops.
John Davies adds that in the Queenstown workshop, Bert Chandler, who has been with the company for 27 years, is one of the most experienced Mercedes-Benz mechanics in the country. His experience even includes training in Germany.
But John Davies says the main reason that Mercedes-Benz is likely to maintain its standing in the Northern Southland fleet is the product itself.
"They’ve had the odd model that has not been so good – not everything is great," he says. "But on the whole they are a good, reliable truck with good resale value. And parts prices are lower than Japanese ones.
"Besides, the support for the trucks is probably better now than it’s ever been," John Davies adds.
"Particularly the driver training by Graham Woods (Trucks South product support manager).
"Our r&m costs are also well below average as a percentage of revenue," he concludes.