Retriever ready for duty

Kelvin Baxter, who is best known for his fleet of red and white Kenworths, is excited about putting the latest addition to his military collection to work. 

The red and white Kenworths of Kelvin Baxter Transport are a familiar sight across eastern Australia as the 50 strong fleet hauls bulk commodities from paddock to port and all places in between. 

However, back at the Baxter home base at Berrigan there is also a splash of khaki green with several big bulldogs all having a new lease on life after serving the nation as part of the Australian Defence Force fleet.

At the Berrigan Show and Shine in February, Kelvin Baxter had on display his recently acquired Mack R-600 6×6 tow truck, which in military terms is defined as a HRV (Heavy Recovery Vehicle). Its sheer size and tough stance made it stand out against the other trucks on display, and Kelvin reckoned the Mack would complement the other vehicles in his collection nicely. 

“I have had an interest in military vehicles right from in the army cadets in school when we would drive a Jeep up to Puckapunyal. My grandfather and father were in the First and Second World War also and I am a member of the Khaki Vehicle Enthusiasts Club, where we have a get-together in Corowa each year and put amphibious vehicles in the Murray River.”

Kelvin purchased the 1986-model Mack out of Bandiana through the army surplus auctions in May last year, with the unit complete with all the wrecker/recovery gear and a four-axle dog trailer with ramps. 

Given its intended use, the specifications on the Mack are a bit different as to what would be found on a highway truck from the same era. 

“It has been heavily modified. It weighs 18 tonnes sitting there. It has a Maxidyne engine at 320 horsepower and has a 10-speed Roadranger gearbox which is unusual for a Mack. It is constant drive with hi/low range, a lot of the Army spec Macks were only a 5-speed gearbox but this is built for off-road work” he explained.

Bolted to the front of the Mack are two stiff-bars whilst behind the cab is a full slew of recovery gear with the under-lift recovery unit manufactured by Miller Industries in Tennessee, along with two 13-tonne recovery winches each with around 100 metres of cable. 

Completing the outfit is a Hiab crane with an operating arc of 210 degrees allowing for just about anything to be recovered from a tricky spot. 

“It has been modified through the years so it can recover everything from a Land Rover through to a Unimog, S-Line Internationals and the later model Bushmasters so there’s all the bracketry and bits and pieces to hook on to all these types of vehicles….it came with a 300-page instruction manual, I haven’t had much time to read that, but that time is coming!” Kelvin said with a smile.

With the MAN cab-overs becoming a regular part of the Australian Defence Force fleet over the last few years, the Macks are being phased out and as a result Kelvin has two other R-600 units along with the tow truck. 

“I believe the Army had around 800 Macks in lots of different configurations over the years. I also have one as a tip truck and one with a tanker which we use for refuelling, so we use both of them on the farm. We will leave this pretty much stock. It’s not something to bling up, this one will get used in some form of recovery work in our trucking or farming operations” he said. 

Given the wet year experienced in 2022 and the amount of off-road and farm work the Baxter trucks do, it is a given that the R-600 will be put to good use at some stage. 

“Winching is the best way to recover a bogged b-double or road train out in a paddock- going with a snatch strap is not a bad way but with a direct pull from a winch it just does it slowly and it’s more controlled.” he said.

The Macks are the only representatives in the Baxter fleet which is dominated by Kenworth with a variety of T659/T909/C509 and K200 models used on B-double, A-double and road train work. 

The trucks are scattered across a wide part of the country especially during the harvest season as Kelvin explained: “We have just finished a big harvest run with a C509 up in Emerald for a good while which worked its way down to St George and Mungindi, Goondiwindi, Walgett and it has just finished up around Hillston. 

“We had record floods, then a few good dry weeks and it’s surprising how quickly the wheat paddocks dried out. There’s still some challenging times with things getting stuck. In hindsight I could have had the Mack up there.”

The Kelvin Baxter fleet numbers around 50 trucks on bulk haulage.

The Kenworth product is held in high regard by Kelvin with a Legend SAR soon joining the ranks, and like some of the older trucks in the fleet it will be put to effective use for a number of years. 

“I have an old K100 at home I have had since the mid-1980s which is still in use but it could do with a good makeover but then I would have to stop using it. It originally had a VT903 then another Cummins but jeez it’s been a reliable old thing; we just use it as a farm truck carting seed out at sowing time and so forth. 

“I also have a couple of T650s which were the first new trucks I bought. They still go to work.  One has a Cat 3406 and one has a Detroit Series 60, both motors have never been out of the chassis. Kenworths are a highly rebuildable truck and they suit what I do.”

Back at the Baxter yard, Kelvin’s ‘toyshed’ is due for an upgrade to house his growing collection of vehicles and while the Macks have somewhat of a toehold in the Kenworth-dominated fleet they will all be put to good use in the next phase of their working lives. 

With the Mack tow-truck having the versatility and the ability to recover vehicles from a variety of predicaments, it will no doubt prove itself to be a handy addition to the fleet. 

“You never know, you might see a red truck up on the back of that one day, but that’s trucking,” Kelvin concluded with a grin.

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