Owner rekindles ties with heyday for famous fleet

Over the decades of road transport in Australia, many haulage operators who are no longer turning the wheels become known throughout the country by their choice of paint schemes and colours adorning their trucks as much as their name.

Think Buntine Roadways with its green and white hues, the brown and orange of Kitco, or the red and black of Roccisano. Back in its heyday during the 1960s to the 1980s the peaches and cream colours of Thomas Nationwide Transport (TNT) were a common sight across the country, and today these colours live on in Lebo Blekic’s immaculately restored Mercedes-Benz 1924.

The 1975-model Mercedes has been under Blekic’s ownership for the last decade and having undergone a full overhaul is now a familiar sight at historic truck shows and road runs throughout southern Australia. 

Blekic and the Mercedes had made the trip up into the southern Riverina town of Urana in late 2022 from his home at Benalla to attend the annual Vintage Machinery Rally, which last year featured Mercedes-Benz as the headline brand, and he gave a background to the truck and the restoration of it.

“I bought it about 12 years ago off a friend of mine and started the restoration about nine years ago,” Blekic explained.

“It has been completed for about eight years. Mechanically it was pretty good and it had a good cabin with no rust. I pulled it apart and put it back together and a good mechanic friend of mine in Benalla did most of the work.”

New items such as windscreen rubbers, door locks and glass were acquired to help complete the project and compared to other restorers who have had trouble sourcing componentry, Blekic’s was quite straightforward. 

“Mercedes-Benz made that cabin for overseas production right up until the early 1980s so that certainly made it easier to source bits. We got it back together and Chris Bourke from Complete Body Craft at Rutherglen sandblasted and painted it, put all the glass in and did all the hard stuff,” he explained with a smile.

When it came to painting the ‘Benz it was an historical personal connection that resulted in Blekic going with the distinctive TNT peaches and cream colours to complete the restoration. 

“I worked for TNT as a subbie in the early 80s with my own truck when I was a young fella.  Back in the ‘old’ days it was all about the ‘peaches and cream’ colours so because I worked for them I went with the old TNT colours again – and it stands out.”

The Mercedes-Benz is pretty much all original, save for the 15-speed Overdrive Roadranger gearbox and a few modern touches such as improved mudguards and LED lights. 

Blekic ran the ‘Benz up to Urana bobtail, but when going on a longer trip he usually hooks on a drop-deck trailer loaded up with one of his restored Ford Falcon cars to make the outfit period correct.

Currently Blekic runs Australia-wide on heavy haulage for Rob Stribley Transport of Wangaratta as a sub-contractor, with his current weapon of choice a Kenworth SAR Legend. However, his links to the famous ‘three-pointed star’ goes back a number of years.  

“I have been Mercedes-Benz mad since I was about 12 – I grew up with them, my uncle had one and all my dad’s friends had them in my old hometown of Mildura,” he explained. 

Needless to say, he holds the brand and the model range from that era, including the 1924s ‘little brother’ the 1418, in high regard. 

“I restored a 1418 back in 1993 and subbied for Glenrowan quarries for two years, that was the only time I drove one for myself. But back in the 70s everyone had a 1418 – they were easy to maintain and good on fuel.

“I wouldn’t say they were cheap, a brand new one back around 1975 would have been about $20,000-$22, 000, or so, whereas an International or a Dodge would have been a lot less, but they have proved their worth. They are a long-laster; there’s a lot still going.”

And still going they are, as evidenced by the three other Mercedes Benzes he has at his shed in Benalla, having built up somewhat of a collection over the years. “They all go but you can only drive one of them at once!” he said with a grin. “People buy Kenworths and Macks to do up which I grew up with and drove – but this sort of stuff means more to me.”

Over the years Blekic has taken the Mercedes to the Alice Springs Reunion in 2015 and done a couple of ‘Crawlin’ the Hume’ runs as well as being a regular at the Show ‘n Shine when the Super Trucks are on track at the nearby Winton Motor Raceway. 

He was in his element at the Urana event, meeting and chatting with a number of like-minded enthusiasts. 

“There’s never been a dedicated Mercedes-Benz show and I just could not miss this one.” 

It was indeed a worthwhile trip with the 1924 taking out ‘Best Overall’ honours on the day. With his work schedule Australia-wide keeping him on the go he was not sure when he would be wheeling the ‘Benz out in 2023 but it would be fair to say the old 1924, with its distinctive TNT colours, will draw a crowd wherever it goes.

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