The tale of the ‘Grey Ghost’

For many years, the Grey Ghost has lurked in the shadows; doing its work in the darkness of night, out of sight and out of mind – well that was the whole idea anyway.

Not to be confused with Kenworth’s famous Grey Ghost, which was the first Australian made Kenworth that rolled off the production line in 1971, this Grey Ghost kept a much lower profile. 

Painted in matte grey, so as not to draw any attention to itself, the Grey Ghost was built in the Shell Newport workshop in 1986 and was used as an emergency response vehicle for over 30 years. 

“Its job was to go around and attend accidents and incidents. It came to the rescue if a driver put the fuel in the wrong tank or if there was something wrong with a fuel tank at a service station. The Shell trained operators would pump out the fuel if there was any issue. The idea was to send it out in the middle of the night so no-one would see it,” said Brendan Johnston, a former Shell employee who purchased the truck in June. 

He plans to donate the truck to the National Road Transport Museum and was hoping to have it in Alice Springs in time for the reunion event that took place from August 23 to 29. But due to the uncertainty of lockdowns and border closures, that couldn’t happen. “We were planning on going to Alice Springs for the event but the risks are too great. We aren’t in a red zone as we’re in regional Victoria, but if it gets declared a red zone, we may not be allowed into Alice Springs, and if we are, we may need to isolate for 14 days. We’d have to travel through three states so it’s become too hard to manage,” said Johnston.

“I was only trying to get it up there for the event because it was good timing, but once everything settles, I’ll take a week off when I can and bring it up to the National Road Transport Museum then.”

Throughout its working life, the truck was based in Newport, Victoria. Interestingly, despite being 36 years old, it has just under 69,000 kilometres on the clock. “Because every job was around the corner, it hardly did any kilometres. There aren’t many guys around who can still operate the truck – but there will be a thousand drivers around to tell a story involving it turning up somewhere,” explained Johnston.

“It could’ve gone to the wreckers to be stripped and make money on parts, especially because of its age, low kilometres and the rarity of these sorts of parts, but it was too significant to lose.”

Aged 57, Johnston began his transport career driving grain trucks on the family farm in Victoria’s Geelong region and was driving trucks from a very young age. He started at Shell Company of Australia as a driver in the early 1990s, steering B-doubles, and moved about different depots wherever he was needed. He was also among the drivers to operate the Grey Ghost. He eventually went on to become a driver supervisor before leaving Shell in July 2012 and starting his business VicBunkers Pty Ltd, which contracts to Shell, refuelling ships and doing fuel recovery operations around Victoria.

His fleet consists of a 2012 Western Star 4800, a 1999 Kenworth K104 that he is restoring himself and a Fuso Canter 918 which is used as an emergency response vehicle. 

Johnston plans to eventually bring the Grey Ghost up to Alice Springs on the back of his Kenworth. 

Going by the number on the odometer, it might come as a surprise that the Grey Ghost only completely retired from its work in June this year. “The Grey Ghost did a job just last month. It went out to an earthmoving site where the tanker driver accidently filled all the earthmoving machinery with the wrong fuel,” he said.

The Grey Ghost has quite a fascinating story to tell, but it wasn’t always destined to go down in trucking history. It attended many different truck shows, industry days and emergency response training days and exercises.

Johnston says Shell originally purchased the truck to deliver demountable tanks, so when the company received it new, the truck was painted in Shell’s typical yellow and white with a grey chassis. The original registration papers are still in the glove box. 

“That’s what they bought it for but then they grabbed it and made it an emergency pumping truck instead. 

“With its new yellow and black stripes to make it look like a hazardous sign it was ready to go. The story goes that one of the Shell bosses saw it one night in all of its reflective stripes and ordered it to be painted grey – so it was painted in the chassis grey. You can still see the original colours and stripes underneath the grey. It was a mechanics’ paint job, not a truck painters’ masterpiece. It was painted in matte grey so it could sneak around in the middle of the night and no one would see it,” explained Johnston. 

Terry Gavalakis was one of two fourth year apprentice mechanics who built the tray and body on the truck. 

“Terry and his mate Marco Fiore did all the bodywork and turned it into what it is, fitting the pump, pipework, spears, drum-lifter, stairs and the coat hooks for the Shell fire team’s helmets and clothing,” said Johnston.

Gavalakis now runs Transport Preventative Maintenance in Williamstown in Melbourne’s West which services fuel trucks and tankers from across Melbourne and Victoria. He bought the truck off Shell about six years ago, before selling it to Johnston recently. 

“He wasn’t really using the truck and said no-one knows how to operate it anymore, so he asked, what do I do with it? With its history, it’s too good to lose – so I said, sell it to me and I’ll put it in the museum,” said Johnston. And that’s how he came to be the owner of the Grey Ghost. 

As the truck is still in quite good condition, Johnson says it won’t need a lot of work before it becomes a showpiece at the National Road Transport Museum – although he’s making sure it’s looking its best. 

“I’ll get a few jobs done and get it detailed and polished up. I’ve done a little bit of mechanical work on it too and disabled a few things so they don’t get accidently turned on or anything like that.

“There are also some old stickers that I remember being on there, so I’m hoping to get those made up, including the ‘emergency response’ signage on the side.

“The Grey Ghost is a sentimental old beast. It only does 80km/h and is like riding a horse, but it’s more about the sentiment of the truck than its ability on the road. Onboard it used to carry all sorts of stuff you wouldn’t normally need to use, but if there was an emergency, it was always there for support, doing its thing.”

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