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Cover Girl

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werkhorse
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« on: October 28, 2008, 10:53:51 am »

Building a modern car carrier.   1952

 I was looking out of the window of the car while the boss was talking to me. “I haven’t seen the truck but the owner says its in good condition. It’s a petrol motor with a 32’ trailer attached to it. He is sick and can’t drive anymore, so he wants to sell it.”I looked across at him and nodded. “ Do you think you can handle it..you know drive it?”I had never driven a semitrailer. I had experience in all sorts of tray trucks up to that time and wasn’t the lest concerned about a trailer. In my short but hectic career, I had been jumping in and out of all types and makes of trucks. Fords, Internationals,Austin, Morris, etc. Most belonged on the scrapheap, old, no brakes, gauges that didn’t work, radiators that constantly boiled and so on.

 This truck was fairly new. If it was a bit longer than those others and had an extra brake lever under the steering wheel so what.“No problem. How long has it been sitting? Hope it hasn’t got a flat battery.” I replied. We stopped outside a vacant block of land next to a factory, a high wire fence all around and double gates locked at the front. Down the rear of the block there she was sitting in the far corner face into the back fence. I was expecting it to be out on the road. I could see the back of the cabin and a single axle trailer attached to it. The cabin appeared to be painted a dark blue and white.

 OK I said to myself.. if I have to get her out I will have to reverse it a little, then go forward hard right over to the other fence, then reverse back hard left pushing the trailer sideways and backwards, which should give me room to then go forward turning the wheel quickly to the right and drive up to the front gate, . the trailer should swivel on its axle and follow me. If I have to do it that’s what I’ll do, All of this I worked out quickly to myself while I gazed at her in a day dream, anxious to get in her, picturing myself driving back across Sydney, hoping to be recognised by someone that knew me.

This, at long last, was a big truck. I had arrived. The owner came out, unlocked the gates and I had to concentrate in not running madly down to jump in the driving seat like a big kid. Well you know ..I was still a kid but I had to look grown up and as we sauntered down to the truck I sort of was half a step behind, just to prove I was not particularly impressed and did this thing all the time. When we reached the cabin I nearly sighed aloud in ecstasy. She was a Commer R7 forward control slant six petrol motor that was under the seat. Every thing was polished and clean. The whole cabin was spotless and she was painted a gleaming blue and white duco.

She certainly had been looked after and then my eyes widened and hungrily darted at the door and on the front just under the windscreen was her name. “Cover Girl” stylishly written and on both doors an expert artist had drawn a very pretty red haired girl laying down and talking on the telephone with a warm smile .. obviously inviting a man’s company. She certainly had mine from that moment.I was in love. The owner started the motor and while he walked off with the boss, he indicated to me to bring it up to the gate “OK see how good you are Ray..” I thought “ lets do it like you said.” I did, she did and we idled up to the gate.

I’m a natural.. come on boss lets go I said to myself as I looked and touched every thing I could find to touch in the cabin, the sun visor , the two speed diff. button, the brass trailer brake lever, looked in the glove box, lets go lets go. I don’t remember the drive back to the yard but I wish I could remember it as that was probably the highest high I would ever have in my quest for the Impossible dream. I was 21 years old, still a kid and had finally made it. The first trip up to Cessnock was easy and a lot of fun being empty. It was a different story fully loaded on the way back to Sydney. I thought there was something wrong. It was so slow. I was changing down gears all the time, it wouldn’t go. It saw a bit of a hill and died. Little did I know this was all normal for a semi trailer fully loaded, especially this possum powered little petrol engine she had under the seat.

That trip was an eye opener for the kid. It didn’t help any that she had a blocked radiator either. Between Gosford and Hornsby she blew her top so many times I lost count. That old road up and down and around and around was a bloody dreadful piece of road. Down Mooney Mooney Creek then crawling up again it took nearly all night to get to Hornsby. I was probably well overloaded as the boss was allowed only two loads a month in that rationing time after the war and no matter the weight I had to take them. We persevered, my darling and I, and that was when I first started to talk to my trucks driving along. A habit I continued for the next 30 odd years.

 Seeing as how we were not using “Cover Girl” to her full capacity the boss looked around to see what to do with her. The Standard Motor Co. who produced the Vanguard and the Standard 10 small sedan in Melbourne were not happy with the backlog trying to deliver bodies and complete cars to the Sydney plant via the railways in the early 1950’s. The boss decided to fit her out to carry cars from Melbourne to Sydney. To do this we fitted a round scaffolding type pipe to build a frame on the flat deck of the trailer. This way we could fit three cars on the bottom deck and three on the top with the wheels sitting in what we called a wheel bucket…a recessed metal plate shaped to fit the wheels. A crane then lifted the cars on top and lowered them into the buckets. The lower deck cars were driven up a ramp on to the truck. The wheels then were looped with rope and tied to the rail.

 That was ok, the Company caught up the back log, but we were arriving in the Sydney depot with the occasional dent in the roof of the top deck cars.It then occurred to us that the Hume Highway between the capital cities of Melbourne and Sydney 550 miles was really only the link between country towns that had emerged in the 18 and 19 century in this new land. People on horseback were not very tall and stage coaches like Cobb & Co certainly would not have been as tall as the height of our trucks carrying cars way up in the sky.

 So the trees had grown unhindered from the beginning of time till we arrived. At one stage we organised a tree branch cutting operation ..we would drive along till we came to what looked like a low branch ..stop underneath in the middle of the road...climb up on top of the car roof and saw the branch off and throw it onto the side of the road, that helped but we never did get all of them. The boss came in one day and said he had seen a truck in a magazine from the U.S.A which had a cut down look and had cars poking up and down a bit like some that can be seen to-day on our roads. The trailer part had been lowered like a low loader. I was only a kid and wasn’t much help but the boss had been in the R.A.A.F. during the War and was a fitter and turner. He took the pipe frame off and we measured from the front of the trailer to a little way past the prime mover chassis. I lifted the floor boards out a little way from where he decided to cut the trailer through from one side to the other.

 At this time we had the truck in a welding yard and so it was cut through from one side to the other, the trailer axle disconnected and the trailer its self supported by stands. He realised the trailer axle would control the height to which he could lower the rest of the trailer ..it turned out he made the level to just above the height of the rear axle which made the front at the “goose neck” just above the drive axle, a nice flat floor the original height and then about a metre lower the rest of the trailer was a flat floor all the way to the back. Some lengths of R.S.J. welded in the upright position joined the two separate chassis heights and strengthened with braces and lo and behold it looked good. Hang on. How were we to drive cars through from the back of the trailer to the front past the duel wheels. The space between the inside wheel on either side was not wide enough to drive a car through. They took up too much room the cars were too wide. After much thought the boss decided to do away with the inside wheel change the spring set up and have only the outside wheel, a single wheel each side. Not two axles and four wheels just one axle and a single wheel each side. As a safety precaution he ordered a pair of Michelin tyres (supposedly the best on the Market ) and a larger size tyre for safety……safety ? I wish he had driven it, the bloody thing scared the hell out of me at times and I was young with no fear.

There were no all night service stations open back then, in fact nothing was openmuch after 7pm till 8 am next morning any where in the country. With only a small petrol tank fitted to the Commer, the Boss roped two 44 gallon drums upright at the front corner posts of the trailer and handed me 10 feet of garden hose to siphon petrol down to the small tank when needed. The pipe frame was welded on again with four only uprights on each side holding the top deck and two diagonal braces. It was then decided to run the length of the trailer on the top of the frame and overhang the cabin with two monstrously heavy steel runners for the cars to drive along the top deck as he intended that we would not need a crane to load., These were supported by 10 or 12 cross metal bars from side to side the length of the trailer. As I found out later with quite a few heart stopping moments, the bloody thing was top heavy empty never mind having three cars as well up there, and running on single a wheel each side at the rear didn’t help. It swayed that much we were always patching and welding because the swaying kept cracking the welds around the scaffolding tube where it joined the top deck. He had bought the scaffolding cheap from a building contractor gone bust.

I learnt very quickly that unless I could control the swaying so that it leant into the curve I was trying to take I would be swept sideways the wrong way, either into oncoming traffic or into the bush depending which way the road curved. Both instantly enveloped me in sheer terror when this occurred as I fought to bring it under control. For instance ..coming to a left hand bend in the road ..I mean a fairly sharp one ..I had\to move up the camber to the centre of the road before the bend and then get her to sway to the left and give it to her round the bend at the same time and she would perform like a lady. If she wouldn’t immediately sway to the left I had to stamp on the brakes and lower the speed for her to grudgingly take the curve.

When we arrived in Melbourne at the Standard Motor Co. yard on the first trip as a low loader car carrier they were happy no more dented roofs on cars. We had dropped the height by over a Metre. We believed we were the first but we learnt that The Ferguson Brothers I think was their name in Melbourne had also built a similar trailer about the same time.Who was first ? There was only days difference but I know we were the first to load and complete a trip to Sydney and unload. Everybody then had to build similar trailers or the Standard Motor Co. wouldn’t load them. With the materials available in those far off days it was felt that weight was the best and some of the car carriers that came later were monstrously heavy with full steel panel sided like half a pantech. Some with full top floors which loaded Hoover washing machines and such to Melbourne and loaded cars back to Sydney.

 I remember well the early trips trying to control my “Cover Girl” as she was called …a definite female with a mind of its own. I always hoped that the name would imply she was fast and loose, well not loose but at least fast. To my everlasting sorrow she was slow as trucks went. But I loved my ‘Cover Girl,” Now and then she would rattle me as females could do and sometimes I could kill her as she tried to do to me once or twice.

Like one night very late, stone cold sober and freezing from the wind blowing up through holes in the floor in a winter fog. Chugging along about 35 MPH, coming into Barnewartha just south of Albury on the old road through the town from Melbourne. The road bent slightly to the left entering the town, the road had a very high camber ..I misjudged for a second and was too far up on the centre of the road a little bit off and a little bit of a lean the wrong way to the right much too close to the row of old fashion shop fronts like a wild west town stretching ahead of me. I froze for a split second, my right foot hovered over the brake pedal and my right hand clutched the trailer brake lever not game to use either. As she bounced along slowly leaning over further and further to my right, I’m anxiously waiting for something to give and go BANG, slowly leaning more and more with every bounce. It was then I slid across the seat as far left as I could to get to the passenger side of the cabin steering with my right hand on the left hand side of the steering wheel my other hand on the passenger side door handle getting ready to abandon ship, the top deck of new Standard Vanguard sedans leaning over so far and just missing the roofs of the shops and the old uprights holding the verandahs up along the kerb going woosh wooosh past the windows nearly close enough to touch.

If I had applied the brakes, balanced as I was she would have toppled over, all the time I’m absolutely terrified yelling "come up you bastard come up" not daring to touch anything but grip the steering wheel, half frozen with cold and fear, remembering the two drums of petrol tied with rope just behind me waiting to engulf me, and at the same time I could see me wiping out the whole right hand side of the main street of Barnewartha….my darling falling over sideways like a covered wagon trying to escape from the Indians in a western movie, but somehow she bounced back upright , how I don’t know and I slithered back across the seat and grabbed the wheel with both hands and a little way up the road out of town I stopped and had a well earned ’comfort stop’ .wetting the base of a gum tree.

Another time she didn’t want to go left and I ended, luckily it was flat ground, into the farmers fence on the other side of the road coming to skidding halt in a cloud of dust. Thank goodness no one was coming the other way.

Another bad habit I remember was the main fuses for everything hinged on a large metal cover attached under the dashboard and down to the metal floor. The screws for the plate would sometimes come loose. It always seemed to happen at night and at the most awkward spots, and I would loose all electricity everything motor, lights, everything. You can imagine late at night the cold sweat popping out as you come down off a mountain ..the plate falls off every thing goes black , the motor stops and all you have is a mental picture of the road in your head while trying to put the brakes on and at the same time grabbing for the plate with the left hand trying to earth it again, head bobbing up and down trying to see with the right eye through the bottom of the windscreen with flashes of headlights now and then and sparks shooting everywhere trusting you are keeping on the road as you last saw it.

I must own up one night it was about just after midnight and the fuse plate had fallen again and nearly gave me a heart attack. For some reason I couldn’t keep the lights working properly, they kept going on and off, the motor was running ok I couldn’t wait till dawn. Suddenly I remembered the top car at the front over the cabin was facing forward. Most times it was the rear boot to the front and I knew if I could make Yass I could fix the electrical problem. I pulled over climbed up top and connected the battery and put the front car’s headlights on low beam. I took off, turned my lights out and presto I could see ok not much to drive by but see… yes… if I lost the lights again. So as I said to her "Cop that you ****" This was one time she had me rattled. I changed up and away. Well I bet I got some funny looks from the few boys on the road that night. Four headlights, one set way up in the sky coming to-wards them.

Looking ahead I could see the reflection of a pair of headlights making hard work of it coming up the "Seven Sisters" just around the corner ahead, so I doused my truck headlights and swept around the corner and roared down past a 180 International truck grinding up to the top. I bet his hair stood on end, wondering what this huge thing was with headlights 20feet of the ground barrelling down on him from up around the corner. We weren’t into space ships much in those days. But I would have loved to see the look on his face. I didn’t do it again ..he was only doing 5 miles an hour in low gear up hill so I didn’t put him in any danger but it was a laugh thinking about it later…I fixed the plate in Yass and turned the Vanguard’s headlights off.

I learnt very quickly all her moods and ‘Cover Girl’ and I had a successful partnership for a long while .

Sometime after all this the Boss had another bright idea a second single axle was fitted like today’s car carriers ..we were learning …much better stability with the second axle. The Standard Motor Co. stopped shutting their eyes every time I left with a load of cars and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Cover Girl" in her cut down version never damaged a car…close ..but never.

I had an amusing but at the time a bit of a worrying incident once.

It was a very early winters morning, just after daybreak, cold and foggy. I was trundling through the town of Benalla very quietly minding my own business, no one stirred.

"hullo "I said to myself something’s going on. All across the main street was rows and rows of pretty colored bunting. Red, white, and blue.

"Must be show day or something" I thought." Bet that cost them a penny"

I had five Vanguard sedans on board, two on the lower deck and three on the top deck. Because of dented tops we had fashioned some wide thick pads with ties that we tucked in the door jams to keep tight and maybe fend off a branch or two from the low trees still a few around.

I was quite relaxed and wasn’t paying much attention, fiddling with the radio seeing if there was an early station open. Back and forth back and forth went the station selector.. nothing as usual.

Subconsciously I thought I heard a popping sound now and then but paid no attention. As I came to the end of the main part of town I readied myself to start changing gear and pick up speed for the run to the café a half hour up the road I knew would be open for a coffee and could I do with a coffee.

I wriggled my toes in their fur lined flying boots feeling the pins and needles and telling them they can get out and have a walk around soon.

I changed up a gear and wiped the condensation from my window to look in the tiny rear vision mirror. Something didn’t look right back there.

I wound down the window and leant out too look at the trailer, something seemed to be dangling from the top deck.

"Bloody Hell Ray .. What have you done"

What I had done was pull down half the bunting hanging across the main street.

Casting my eyes further back I could see ragged bit of bunting lying on the road and hanging forlornly down shop front verandas. One length some how was looped over a light pole and all in all it looked a bloody disaster.

Obviously it was put up yesterday and during the night had dropped down with the wet and cold.

That didn’t help me .. what to do?

DO ?... Get out of here real quick dopey before anybody sees you. The town council will present you with a nice fat bill.

Without a seconds hesitation I was "into it" changing gear as fast as I could and getting up speed as quickly as possible.

As well as being cold thank goodness it was foggy as well and so I quickly became invisible disappearing from any prying eyes. All except mine.. I couldn’t stop looking in the little round rear vision mirror and seeing to my horror great lengths of Red, White, and Blue bunting fluttering out behind me like battle ensigns on a warship about to engage the enemy.

I pushed the ‘old girl’ as hard as I could up to the café and swung around the back parking area. No one around…good.

Jumping out I grabbed a big piece hanging down wrapping it around my arms in a ball and stuffed it under a car.

I looked at the others but I would have to climb up to the top deck to get them down.

"Bugger em, I’ll get a coffee first."

I walked around the front and into the café.. no one around.

"Are you open yet" I called.

A voice from the kitchen called back "Not today, we are going to town"

"Oh what’s special to-day" I called back to the voice in the kitchen.

"Didn’t you know. The Queen and Prince Phillip are visiting Benalla to-day."

"Oh " I said as my wide eyes remained fixed on a spot on the wall and a cold shiver ran down my spine.

The next rapid thought was "the bunting the bloody bunting, its for HER."

All sorts of thoughts were flashing through my mind. The most important one was hide the bunting quickly now.

‘Ok ‘ I yelled ‘See you next trip" and ran around the side of the café at a hundred miles an hour. A fast leap up to the trailer, a swift climb up to the top deck.

Snatch, grab, pull, throw. Down to the ground it all went, a couple of windscreen wipers pulled out of shape. who cares.. hide the bunting. A quick slide to the ground scooping them up one at a time till I couldn’t see over the top of them.

What will I do with them .. where to put them? Cant leave them here. I know .. in the boot of one of the cars.

Quick the keys for the cars are in the cabin .. get them. Hope no one comes out into the backyard. Keys bloody hell where’s the one for this one. Got it.

All stashed away you beaut. I walked back up to the cabin tossing the keys in the air trying to whistle as the lady from the café came out the back door and met me at the cabin.

" Sorry about being shut to day, can I make you a takeaway coffee."

As she was saying this I glanced back over her shoulder and my heart skipped a beat.

There for all to see was the first bundle of bright colored bunting peeking out from under the centre bottom car.

"EH no no I’ll get one up the road. thanks all the same" as I edged her away from looking backwards.

"Yes .. it’s the biggest day Benalla has ever had you know. Everyone has been looking forward to this for so long and everybody has done so much to spruce the town up. Shops have been painted and flags and bunting everywhere, well I must be off’" she said.

"Yeah .. me too". I replied.

She went inside and I lunged for the bunting ripping it out from under the car looked left and right, made a decision, quickly opened my large tool box next to me under the trailer and stuffed it in. Slammed the door shut, ran for the cabin and took off as quickly and as quietly as possible back into the fog. After about 20 minutes the heart came back to normal and the mind started to wander,

What could they do anyway?

Wasn’t my fault.

Then… no one knows it was me anyway.

Less than 100 years earlier her family had transported people for doing less than that to Botany Bay.

But I live at Botany Bay .. I’m already there. I was born there.

Where could she transport me to?

I half smiled… the Caribbean would do. Ha ha.

Next thought .. I’ll be happier when I’m over the border into N.S.W. only about an hour away.

Traffic was quiet and instead of stopping for a break at Wodonga the Victorian side of the border I went through to Nth Albury.

As I came out after my coffee and was kicking the tires I looked down and saw some Red, White and Blue bunting hanging out of the tool box. In my hurry back there I had not been too efficient at stuffing it all in the box. A quick shuffle and it was hidden.

Delivering the cars next day imagine my stuttering when the checker wanted to know what all the flags were in one of the car boots.

\’Dunno, might be the Queens coming." I remarked innocently.

They say you always remember your "First" and "Cover Girl" was one of mine.

From my book "My way on the Highway"

The life and times of the Nullarbor Kid

By Ray Gilleland copyright 2005
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